House Bill 1490, the Transit Oriented Development proposal under heated review in Olympia, has attracted a firestorm of controversy in Seattle neighborhoods along Sound Transit's light rail line. The bill would, among other things, mandate that cities zone and plan for density around transit stations.
The resulting furor has seen a strange assortment of characters with sharply divergent interests lining up against the measure: the Seattle Displacement Coalition, an advocacy group for low-income residents; neighborhood activists like Pat Murakami, the president of the Southeast Neighborhood District Council; and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Paradoxically, if they are successful in defeating the bill they may wind up with a badly aimed bullet right through their own feet.
The debate around the bill has centered on its density provisions, but the bill also includes a wide array of changes to the state's Growth Management Act that would require local governments to include growth management and carbon reduction goals in their transportation planning as well as strong measures to ensure the continued existence of affordable housing around light rail stations.
Supporters of the bill describe it as an attempt to manage the expected growth and rise in property values around stations while maintaining as much workforce housing as possible. Rail lines have led to soaring housing prices in other cities, so supporters of the bill are hoping that it will prevent station areas from becoming the province of the affluent at the expense of low-income residents. Says Sara Nikolic, Urban Strategies Director at the environmental group and bill backer Futurewise, "This bill has so many provisions that will protect these neighborhoods."
The affordability aspect of the bill has led the vast majority of the state's nonprofit housing agencies and advocacy groups to line up behind it. Rachael Myers, the executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA), is supporting the bill as the best way to maintain a stock of affordable housing. HB 1490 has an inclusionary zoning mechanism that would require developers of housing in station areas to make 25% of their units affordable to people earning 80% of the county median income, with 10% of those affordable to those earning 60% of the median. In comparison, the City of Seattle’s current mechanism for encouraging market developers to build affordable housing is a considerably weaker incentive zoning tool that offers higher building heights in urban villages in return for either making up to 17% of units affordable to those earning 80% of median income or paying a commensurate amount of money to the city’s housing trust fund.
UPDATE: A City Hall source writes with this correction: "Actually, the City's mechanism requires developers to make 17.5% of the bonus square footage allowed under upzones to be affordable housing. This would result in significantly less than 17.5% of the housing in these projects to be affordable."
The bill in the House includes numerous other stipulations for maintaining affordability, many of which housing advocates have tried and failed to extract from the City of Seattle in the past. Among them are the requirement of a rigid 1:1 replacement ratio for affordable stock destroyed by development; a provision that gives public or non-profit low-income housing developers the right to make a first offer on surplus Sound Transit property near stations; and a measure to minimize the impacts of displacement on current residents by requiring landlords to give low-income renters a 90-day warning before eviction in addition to relocation assistance. A previous version included an allowance for waiving minimum parking requirements, which can drive up construction costs by as much as 30%, but that provision was removed to ensure it would make it out of committee.
Even so, critics such as the Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox say that the bill would drive up prices and rents in Southeast Seattle by encouraging increased density. Fox has been the loudest voice in opposition to the bill since writing an editorial that ran in three community newspapers in January in which he predicted that the bill's density mandates, since modified, would have disastrous effects on communities and low-income residents around light rail stations.
At a meeting of the Seattle City Council's Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee held at Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center on Wednesday night, Jan. 18, Fox tangled with bill advocates as he sharply attacked the possibility of rising densities in the Rainier Valley and on Beacon Hill, saying it would threaten single-family housing stock and make homes unaffordable for low-income residents. He also told me that he considered the bill's earlier provision for waiving parking requirements a "subsidy" to developers, even though WLIHA and other groups say that it could have significantly lowered housing prices. At the same time, Fox described the bill's protections for low- and moderate-income renters as inadequate, arguing that it needed to include provisions for creating units affordable to renters earning around 40% of area median income and that the language in the section requiring replacement of units needed to be improved to avoid the possibility of landlords gaming the system.
Fox is aligned in opposition to the bill with Mayor Greg Nickels and Southeast neighborhood politicians, both of whom have sharply divergent interests. The Mayor's office sent a letter to bill co-sponsor Sharon Nelson (D-34), criticizing the bill's density requirements but also taking issue with its affordability requirements. In stark contrast to Fox, the letter describes the bill's inclusionary zoning mechanism as too strong, saying that the market will not support anything more than making 20% of units affordable at 80% of median income. Under Nickels, the city has consistently refused to consider raising affordability provisions higher than that number, and has rebuffed attempts by some council members to do so.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Southeast Neighborhood District Council president Pat Murakami as saying that there should be a cap on affordable housing units and a provision for maximizing home ownership, neither of which would be friendly to low-income residents. Similarly, the public comment portion of Wednesday’s council meeting featured a number of Southeast Seattle residents who equated low-income housing with increased crime. These positions from Fox's putative allies have led other housing advocates to consider some of his demands unrealistic.
Lost in all the furor over the bill, moreover, is the fact that the City is proceeding with neighborhood plan updates for three neighborhoods near light rail stations: North Beacon Hill, North Rainier, and the area surrounding the New Holly housing complex. While this process is nowhere near completion, it is likely to involve significant upzones, just as previous plans around light rail stations have (an official at the city’s Department of Planning and Development did not respond to my request for comment). Publicola's Josh Feit has speculated that Nickel’s criticism of the bill is an elaborate ploy to curry favor with neighborhood groups before ramming through his own density increases, though this ignores his office's repeated opposition to stronger affordability measures. Thus, under a scenario in which HB 1490 does not pass, Southeast Seattle neighborhoods may well see significant density increases — but under the city’s direction, affordable housing provisions would be much weaker.
While the difference between incentive and inclusionary zoning is arcane, it boils down to this: incentive zoning, like Seattle’s mechanism, rewards developers with extra height in return for building or supporting affordable units. Inclusionary zoning is a hard-and-fast requirement for developers to build affordable units. Anna Markee of the Housing Development Consortium told me that, while Seattle's incentive zoning tool is too recent to fully evaluate, HB 1490's provisions are much stronger and would result in the construction of more affordable units. With the Mayor's office openly declaring its opposition to the bill's affordable-housing mandates, there is no chance that local action would lead to anything nearly as strong as HB 1490's requirements.
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