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Seattle Office of Housing works toward a community preference policy

The years-long effort to fight displacement is being put on paper

Illustration by Janna Morton

On Thursday, the Seattle Office of Housing (SOH) presented some draft changes to its funding policies—which governs how Seattle spends its affordable housing dollars. Among those changes: working in a “community preference” policy, which generally means prioritizing members of a surrounding neighborhood for spots in affordable housing developments. The idea is communities actually benefit from affordable housing sprouting up in their neighborhoods.

“The policy included here is one that would enable developers who use affordable housing subsidy, use city subsidy, to propose community preference policies in high risk of displacement communities,” explained SOH’s Emily Alvarado in the city council’s Housing, Health, Energy, and Workers Rights committee.

It’s something that SOH has been planning since the passage of Council Resolution 31754 back in 2017, included as a companion resolution to rezones in Chinatown International District (CID), one of the first of the city’s first MHA bills. The resolution was in response to outcry from CID community groups that rezones would put the neighborhood at a higher displacement risk.

In February, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an executive order concerning gentrification, proposing a suite of reforms aimed at preventing displacement, including community preference, kicking the effort into high gear.

Alvarado used the hypothetical example of InterIm CDA—a community-focused affordable housing developer focused on building resiliency Asian, Pacific Islander, immigrant, and refugee communities—since the group has been “an advocate for this policy.”

“If they say we’d like to propose a preference for people who live in or formerly resided in the Chinatown International District to be able to participate in this building and have access to these units, we would work closely with them, providing technical assistance and guidance to helping them achieve that goal and outcome, ensuring that the way in which they implement it is consistent with fair housing law,” said Alvarado.

That federal piece is tricky. It can be difficult to implement community preference policies that achieve their intended outcome without violating the Fair Housing Act or HUD funding guidelines.

On paper, the policy is part of a strengthening of SOH’s affirmative marketing guidelines—that is, making sure affordable housing developers are sufficiently reaching out to people in need of housing. It more clearly defines the elements and objectives of an affirmative marketing plan (the section grew from one paragraph to more than two pages), and opens the door for community preference to be part of it.

In practice, it means working with developers on a project-by-project level to make sure the policy’s workable.

“What we intend to do over the coming months is create guidelines that would help create an analytical framework about what the best parameters are about implementing these policies,” said Alvarado. While nothing’s set in stone yet, SOH would have a general rubric for achieving policy goals in a way that is fair, equitable, and legal based at least in part on its study of other cities.

SOH released a memo in March 2018 that includes studies of similar programs in New York, Portland, and the San Francisco policy above. They all work differently: Portland’s for example, is designed to offset a city urban renewal project that was actively displacing residents in a historically black neighborhood. 40 percent of units in new, city-funded projects are set aside to prioritize families with historic roots in North and Northeast Portland, especially those who lost property through eminent domain.

San Francisco, meanwhile, has kind of a hybrid policy, depending on whether the project uses federal Housing and Urban Development funds: With some projects, 40 percent of units prioritize those who live in any of the city’s high-displacement-risk neighborhoods, and with others, priority goes to the immediate area of the project. In New York, which has had a policy in place since 1980 but has gone through various changes, half of city units are set aside for a lottery of those from the neighborhood—but it’s been in court for years after a challenge alleged it resulted in more segregation, something the Office of Housing said in the memo that it’s watching closely.

“This is a complex body of work because it is really related to federal fair housing law,” said Alvarado. “There is a way in which we can design these policies to affirmatively further fair housing and foster and sustain integrated communities, and there is also a way to design these policies in which we can have the unintended consequences of disparately impacting protected classes. We want to be in the former camp, not in the latter, so the policy you see proposed is a one in which we can have an onramp to achieving the outcomes while mitigating any risk that we’re violating fair housing law.”

Other changes to the funding policies include allowing different guidelines around pricing what developers call “open one-bedrooms” (basically a studio with a private sleeping space), charging zero interest on low-income home repair loans, and encouraging more culturally competent partnerships.

The committee will consider legislation to enact the new policy—and add amendments—on June 6, then discuss and possibly vote on June 10. The full City Council could vote on the legislation June 10 or 17.