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Seattle Council questions housing ideas

Town houses in lower Wallingford Credit: Kelley Knickerbocker

Five council members stood next to Mayor Ed Murray as he proudly introduced the 65 recommendations from his housing task group, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. But, while the mayor had a majority within arm’s reach, it will be many months before we know which recommendations actually make it through the council.

To expedite the process, Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess created the council’s Select Committee on Housing Affordability, chaired by Councilmember Mike O’Brien. All nine councilmembers sit on this committee.

At Monday’s first committee meeting, O’Brien said the initial goals for the council members are threefold.

The first is to adopt a timeline for working, piece by piece, through the HALA recommendations.

Second is to approve commercial linkage fees, which would charge developers of commercial space in Seattle a per square foot fee, with the money to go back toward funding affordable housing. The motivation for fast tracking this particular piece is, simply, the earlier the council puts it to use, the more money for the city and housing. Councilmember O’Brien initially wanted to levy the fee on residential developments as well, but was satisfied when HALA instead pitched mandatory inclusion of affordable units within many developments in the hottest areas for multi-family housing.

That leads us to goal number three, which is to set up a timeline for developing, related to HALA and Murray’s suggestion, an inclusionary housing fund. The inclusionary housing approach from HALA would require that developers make 5 to 7 percent of their housing units affordable. Developers, however, could opt out of doing so by paying an equivalent amount to build off-site affordable housing.

The council chambers in City Hall was packed Monday, a result of the fierce (by Seattle standards) debate around whether the HALA recommendations would spell the end of single-family homes in Seattle. Although only 16 percent of the city would see a zoning change to allow for larger developments, the current recommendations would open up the city code to allow for multi-family housing on property zoned for single-family homes. While the size and setback of the buildings would not change, a large number of public commenters were clearly worried that Seattle’s bungalows would fall victim to new townhouses.

During public comment, one woman called the recommendations a “cancer to the single-family home.” She was greeted with applause, a clue that the anti-density crowd was more represented than the increased-supply gang.

Speaking in support of the recommendations given to Murray were several members of the HALA group, including former Washington State Ferries Director David Mosely, as well as representatives from FutureWise, the Sierra Club and the Downtown Seattle Association.

No actions were scheduled for Monday’s meetings. But as Robert Feldstein of the mayor’s office, Director of the Department of Planning and Development Diane Sugimura and several others briefed the council on Murray’s recommendations, the questions and doubts of the council floated to the surface.

To begin, Councilmember Nick Licata expressed serious concerns about how these recommendations would actually fund more affordable housing, something echoed by Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. The funding source relies heavily on renewing – and doubling – Seattle’s soon-to-expire housing levy. Licata, who has been hesitant to send the full $930 million Move Seattle transportation levy to voters, worried that the public was being too burdened with property taxes.

Licata was skeptical of two other sources of funding envisioned by HALA as well. The real estate excise tax — a tax on the sale of real estate — needs the green light from the Washington state Legislature. “I don’t think Republicans are going to be tripping over themselves to pass that,” said Licata.

And while Licata liked a Murray-HALA idea of setting up a voluntary employers’ fund to help workers with affordable housing, he also expressed doubt that was a realistic option.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant wondered how Seattle could preserve existing affordable housing while the city tried to build new units. The rents for aome of the city’s current stock of affordable housing are not restricted by any formal agreements or rules but simply affordable by virtue of the market. Sawant, always suspicious of the motives of developers, was rather convinced that much of that market-rate affordable housing would either be redeveloped or made more expensive.

Office of Housing Communications Director Todd Burly said it is difficult for the city to know exactly how much free-market affordable housing actually exists in Seattle.

The third notable, eyebrow raising interaction was when Councilmember Tom Rasmussen asked about Seattle’s current development capacity — how many units could be built under the current system. Geoff Wentlandt of the Department of Planning and Development said it was three times the 50,000 goal set by the mayor. In fact, DPD’s 2035 report looking at planning for the next 20 years contains a graph that says Seattle could add over 200,000 units. It is labeled, “Seattle Has Adequate Capacity to Grow.” When Rasmussen asked what was stopping developers from building, then, the answer from Wentlandt was that more research needed to be done. O’Brien said it would be one of the items the council would examine.

At the end of the meeting, Burgess, Rasmussen and Councilmember Jean Godden all thanked the presenters and praised the document (Sawant had already left to attend her rent control debate in Town Hall, but she may not have been so grateful). But the questions raised — of funding and supply — relate to the heart of what the HALA recommendations aim to accomplish.

If the first meeting of the Special Committee on Affordable Housing is a clue, the council majority that Murray had with him two weeks ago could be farther than an arm’s reach away when the members actually have to cast votes.

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