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Murray group puts Seattle on road to much more housing

Condos along Leary Avenue NW in the urban village of Ballard. Credit: Alex Aboud

On Monday, after nearly a year of anticipation, Mayor Ed Murray’s housing task force unveiled its beefed-up recommendations for adding 50,000 new units in Seattle over the next 10 years.

Although the public got a peek at the task force’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan last week, that first draft lacked two major additions to the final set of recommendations: fees on commercial developments and mandatory inclusion of affordable units in new residential buildings.

Last week’s frenzy over whether Seattle was doing away with single-family homes clearly informed Monday’s unveiling. Representatives of HALA and the mayor’s office repeated — many times — that they had no intention of doing so. Still, the final draft does include significant rezoning and changes of code. With an eye on the inevitable backlash from homeowners who could see their neighborhoods change, the mayor emphasized sharing the burden of Seattle’s housing issues, a sort of “we’re in this together” reminder aimed at those opposed to a denser and taller Seattle.

The end game of these recommendations, which still have a long road through the mayor’s office and the Seattle City Council before their approval, is to house a swelling population, including those who can afford it and those who can’t. The goal is to create 30,000 new units of market rate housing and 20,000 of affordable housing in 10 years – a lofty goal that Murray has called a “stretch.” But, said Murray on Monday, with 120,000 new Seattleites expected by 2035, “We have to act now if we want Seattle to be the city it has been and the city we want it to be.”

Wading through the recommendations can get a little wonky and semantic, which may explain the general confusion as to whether the mayor would, in fact, consider eliminating zoning for single-family homes. The short answer is no, but the current recommendations do call for citywide code changes (different from rezoning) that could make for a significant uptick in density across Seattle.

What is happening with single-family homes?

  • Sixty-five percent of Seattle is currently zoned for single-family homes.
  • Under HALA recommendations, 6 percent of single-family zones — or 4 percent of the entire city — would be rezoned upward for low-density development.
  • Urban Villages, such as Ballard, Fremont and Capitol Hill, would be expanded. All of the space within the boundaries of those villages would be rezoned to allow for multi-family developments.
  • Areas near major transit corridors and within a 10-minute walk of public transportation will also be more likely to be rezoned away from single-family homes, although that would need to be worked out along the way.

What are the other zoning changes?

  • Sixteen percent of citywide land is eligible for rezoning.
  • In most of the city, rezoning would allow for taller buildings. For example, a zone with a 40-foot height limit would be “upzoned” to a 55-foot max.
  • In downtown, buildings would be allowed to develop outward, essentially taking up more of the block.

What about the rest of the city?

  • 83 percent of the city will see no outward changes in what is allowed.
  • But, and this is where some confusion comes in, the entire city will see a code change allowing for more density within what may have formerly been singly family homes. Restrictions on number of families within a home or apartment will be eliminated, paving the way, most likely, for more duplexes.
  • Restrictions will also be eased on backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, called in bureaucracy-speak “detached accessory dwelling units” and “accessory dwelling units” (DADUs and ADUs). 

The theory is that by allowing for more density and height, the city can increase its housing stock and make it more manageable for all those future Mariners fans to find somewhere to live without encouraging suburban sprawl.

(The city created a map of where, exactly, these changes might take place.)


Affordable Housing

While an increased supply could reduce cost, density is not, in and of itself, the solution for making Seattle more affordable. Goal number two for the HALA group was to figure out how to create more rent restricted units, a question that tends to be a balancing act between encouraging private developers to build low-income units and funding the units with public money.

The existing Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program falls under the former, exempting taxes on developers who set aside just under a quarter of their units as affordable. Under the HALA recommendations, that program would be expanded.

But the newest proposals go much further than what Seattle’s currently got on the books. The first is the commercial linkage fee proposal, which is actually pretty straightforward. This recommendation would charge a fee on all new commercial development construction. That money would then be reinvested in affordable housing.

Missing from the proposal is a residential linkage fee, the same idea but, as the name suggests, on residential development as well as commercial.

Both kinds of linkage fees have been the baby of Councilmember Mike O’Brien. But, despite the missing residential fee, he stood alongside Murray throughout the announcement. Why? Because of what is called the “mandatory inclusionary housing” proposal.

Rather than charge fees, the proposal would require developers to include affordable housing in all new residential developments. If they don’t want to, they can buy their way out. As compensation HALA tossed in an extra floor of height that developers may or may not use. Either way, they’re still required to reserve units or pay the difference.

For O’Brien, the projected results were strong enough to convince him not to fight for the residential linkage fees. “We found that with mandatory inclusionary housing we could create 6,000 units 60 percent median income,” he said. “Linkage fees would have created 5,900 at 80 percent median income.”

What’s more, a number of developers have threatened lawsuits if residential linkage fees were adopted and O’Brien is concerned about delays on collecting fees while the suits move through the court system. “I’m constantly weighing what works in principle and what gets more units built now.”

O’Brien joined Councilmembers John Okamoto, Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess next to Mayor Murray.

But immediately following the official reveal, HALA member, city council candidate and housing activist Jonathan Grant released his

A chart showing where housing is needed most.
A chart showing where housing is needed most.

own proposal in addition to the final HALA recommendations. The largest differences include pushing for residential linkage fees, lobbying Olympia to repeal the ban on rent control and using the city’s bonding capacity to fund affordable housing. “This [HALA] plan is a great step,” said Grant. “But we can do more.” He, with Councilmember Kshama Sawant, advocated for focusing the creation of affordable housing “where it’s most needed.” While the HALA proposal would create the most housing for people earning 30-60 percent median income, Grant would like to see that energy directed toward those earning the least, 0-30 percent median income.

Councilmembers Sawant and Nick Licata threw their support behind Grant, although only Sawant attended Grant’s press conference in the lobby of City Hall.

Councilmembers Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen weren’t present at either conference. Rasmussen said he supports density in general but with a measured approach that includes increasing a neighborhood’s capacity for absorbing development. Godden, on the other hand, called the shuffling of single-family zones a “non-starter.” She continued: “The character of our distinctive neighborhoods brought many of us to Seattle — and to radically change this would threaten the unique look of our city.”

Many of the other recommendations in the HALA report remain unchanged from the draft leaked last week to Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. The latest draft can be found online.

From here, the mayor will send the recommendations to the city council. They will likely spend many months combing through the proposals, although Council President Burgess announced he would create a special committee to “expedite the process.” The policies that survive would begin to be implemented over the course of two years, although, of course, getting to 50,000 units will take much longer than that.

The favorite line in big news announcements like this is one heard repeatedly on Monday, “This is just the beginning of the conversation.” There are indeed many details still to be worked out: funding, preservation of existing affordable housing, minimizing displacement, streamlining bureaucracy, matching infrastructure to density and more.

HALA co-chair David Wertheimer said, for all the challenges of forming these recommendations, “Now the real work begins. This part, making the recommendations, was actually pretty easy.”

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