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Seattle mayor signs denser zoning with housing affordability requirements into law

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The long-planned MHA measure exchanges building capacity for affordable housing requirements

Plume Photography/Shutterstock

In a culmination of a years-long process, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan signed a measure implementing affordable housing requirements in 27 seattle neighborhoods into law Wednesday.

“This legislation is one way we can build a more affordable future for all,” said Durkan in a statement.”

The Seattle City Council rubber-stamped the legislation Monday. It increases development capacity in the affected neighborhoods while hard-wiring requirements for affordable housing. Developers and builders can choose to build on-site or support by paying into a city fund that helps pay for new, affordable projects—either building between 5 and 11 percent of homes on-site or paying between $5.00 and $32.75 per square foot. (Exact requirements depend on the zoning.)

In total, mandatory housing affordability (MHA) is expected to generate 6,000 homes over the next decade. That’s 3,000 from the legislation implemented today in addition to 3,000 from smaller, neighborhood-specific zoning changes passed over the last two years.

It’s a smaller piece of a map laid out in 2015 by a committee called Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which also included expanding existing programs, promoting family-sized units, taxing short-term vacation rentals, renewing the housing levy, and increasing the city’s ADU supply, among others. All together, the committee’s recommendations come with a goal of 20,000 new homes in 10 years.

“Even as we celebrate this step, we have a lot of work to do to make Seattle more affordable and build more affordable housing options,” said Durkan. For example, the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE), which incentivizes developers to set aside between 20 and 25 percent of units as affordable housing, expires at the end of 2019 unless it’s renewed.

“Working with community members, business, labor, and City Council, in 2019 we must double down on our commitment to building more affordable housing as quickly as possible,” said Durkan.

The mayor’s office said the city will provide regular reports starting in September, which may be used to inform suggested changes to the program.

The legislation was spread across four bills, all passed by City Council in a unanimous vote: one implementing zoning changes, another amending the city’s comprehensive plan to accommodate those changes, a third preparing the Northgate neighborhood for transit-oriented development, and a companion resolution setting out program goals and intentions.

“For three years running, my days have been filled with discussing how to reach our goal of creating more units of housing in the next decade,” said Rob Johnson, who has championed the rezones as the chair of the council’s land use committee, in a statement. “As such, I view MHA as one of the primary strategies to create more affordable housing.”

Some community members remain skeptical as to the efficacy of the MHA strategy.

“MHA is full of false promises,” read a statement by Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity, better-known as SCALE, released Monday. The group delayed implementation for a year with a challenge to the city’s hearing examiner. “It will increase, not reduce the cost of housing. It will replace diverse communities with gentrified communities. It will not build family-size housing and removes all single-family zoning in urban villages. It will displace long-time residents and leave them with no place to live. It will produce only a very tiny amount of affordable housing.”

While Seattle’s luxury vacancy rates have experienced some highs, that hasn’t been the case for affordable units. Lower-rent apartments, meanwhile, continued to experience high demand, leaving renters without a break in the rising cost of living.

Back in November, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development released analysis that showed around 700 units were lost as a result of the delay from the appeal. Still, in the neighborhoods where MHA was first implemented—Chinatown International District, the U District, downtown, Uptown, the U District, the Central Area, and South Lake Union—the city has raised about $13 million for affordable housing, according to estimates released by the mayor’s office.

For the most part, those that provide affordable housing, like Capitol Hill Housing and Bellwether Housing, have supported the legislation.

“We want to house more of [people],” said Bellwether Housing spokesperson Allison Bolgiano addressing City Council Monday. “We currently have plans and the land to build new projects, [but] it requires city funding to build those projects.”

Although the zoning changes are set to take place throughout the city, only 6 percent of the city’s single-family neighborhoods. Most of those single-family zones are going to residential small lot (RSL) zoning, which allows smaller, denser housing, but encourages keeping existing structures and turning them into multifamily housing for the same neighborhood look and feel. In some cases, though, those single-family neighborhoods were set to go to low rise 1, which has the same height limits as RSL (which aren’t too different from single family), but can result in fatter buildings.

“We’ve zoned our city backwards,” added Mosqueda, distributing a historic zoning map first published by Sightline. “We’ve actually expanded the amount of land reserved for single-family use.”

At City Hall on Monday before the bill’s passage, councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González connected the city’s zoning to the concrete history of redlining in Seattle.

“We live in a city that has a history of implementing and preserving housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city,” said González. “The vestiges of segregation-era Seattle surround us. The question is: What are we going to do about it?”

While the mayor’s signature sends the legislation on the road to becoming law, there’s a potential hiccup if the legislation heads to court. In response, during committee process, council attached a relatively controversial amendment known as the “claw-back clause”—demanded by some neighborhood groups and disliked by many urbanists—which would explicitly allow the city council to revert zoning back in case the affordable housing requirements were thrown out.

Seattle laws become effective 30 days after being signed by the mayor—so barring any injunctions, the new zoning will be in effect April 19.