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More growth coming to Seattle. Will it mean cheaper housing?

A construction site at 23rd Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle. Photo by Matt Mills McKnight/Crosscut

The so-called affordable housing “Grand Bargain” — a deal with developers to add extra density in exchange for affordable housing investments — is about to enter its most dramatic phase. Where the City Council has been chipping away over the last year, adding building height in six neighborhoods such as the University District and the Chinatown/International District, Mayor Tim Burgess unveiled a plan Thursday for adding more density in multi-family neighborhoods and 27 pockets across Seattle. It would be part of the city’s goal of adding 6,000 new affordable units through the Grand Bargain.

The program, the cornerstone of the city’s 2015 Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, requires developers to either set aside a certain portion of new units as affordable or pay into a city fund to build affordable housing elsewhere. In Thursday’s proposal, the amounts range from 5 to 11 percent of units or the equivalent in cash contributions. 

This Mandatory Housing Affordability plan — the Grand Bargain — is the city’s response to an insane housing market and widespread displacement, an attempt to harness the voracious appetite for development as a means to add rent suppressed housing. It’s also the subject of enormous controversy, from housing activists who feel the approach is too tepid, neighborhood voices who feel it goes too far and development advocates who worry the city’s good intentions of requiring affordable housing could deter development and actually increase housing prices.

For city officials, the city’s most recent plan attempts to strike a balance.

“There is a housing affordability crisis in our city,” said Burgess at a rainy press conference on Capitol Hill. “This is the flip side of the amazing growth we’ve experienced that has brought thousands of good, family-wage jobs to our city and cutting edge, innovative companies. But for too many, it’s becoming too difficult to live in our city thanks to the cost of housing. Today we are going to take a major step toward doing even more to address this crisis.”

The unveiling of this new plan has long been expected; the only question had been how the city would implement the density increases. In June, officials released a study laying out two different scenarios, one that spreads the density increases evenly across the city and the other that puts less density in neighborhoods at the most risk of displacement, like the Central District, Rainier Valley or South Park.

City officials are calling Thursday’s proposal a combination of the two.

Proposed zoning requirements are complicated, with many different classifications: from single-family zones that only allow for one home per lot, for example, to high-rises built to 440 feet and every housing size in between. 

Most controversial is how these proposed zoning changes will impact Seattle’s vast single-family neighborhoods, which, by some estimates, make up 65 percent of all land in Seattle. Under the new density increases, six percent of that single-family land will be rezoned to add more density, through expanding the boundaries of the city’s so-called “urban villages” — pockets of neighborhoods across Seattle reserved in 1994 to absorb growth.

It’s this added density in urban villages that prompts a buzzsaw of pushback. Speaking after the press conference, Councilmember Rob Johnson said he expects to hear from the Wallingford, West Seattle and Madison/Miller neighborhoods, many of whose residents have been vocally opposed to proposed increase density. In Wallingford, especially, posters of bulldozers tearing down homes dot the front yards of bungalows, warning of the Grand Bargain.

Officials have struggled to convey to residents that more development will, in fact, slow displacement and gentrification, both by capturing affordable units through the Grand Bargain and by easing pressure on demand.

But in an effort to take a more direct approach, the proposed legislation will not add as much density in neighborhoods deemed vulnerable to displacement — Columbia City, North Rainier, Lake City, Othello and others. In those neighborhoods, if the housing is within a 10-minute walk of transit hubs, it will be allowed to go higher and more dense; outside of that, the increases will be much more modest than in neighborhoods such as Ballard, Fremont and Greenlake. While city officials have said that every neighborhood should and will grow, they say the tailored approach is an acknowledgment that new development tends to be more expensive.

Not everyone is convinced specific plans for low-income neighborhoods will make a difference. “Zoning may simply be the wrong tool for tackling displacement in high-risk communities,” wrote Dan Bertolet with the pro-development thinktank Sightline. “In neighborhoods such as the Central Area that are increasingly desirable because they are close to one of the hottest downtown job markets in North America, displacement will happen with or without upzones.”

Meanwhile, in an effort to transition slowly into some of the changes to single-family zones, some single-family lots will be turned into “residential small lots,” which will accommodate townhouses or stacked housing, but not apartment buildings.

About half of the city’s goal of adding 6,000 affordable units through the mandatory housing affordability requirement will come from this latest proposal, said Councilmember Johnson.

This plan has been under construction for two years now and will go through another almost year of consideration — the council is expecting to take action in September 2018.

Seattle’s Mayor-Elect Jenny Durkan will take office in less than three weeks. But even though Burgess will not see the plan through — his term as mayor expires Nov. 28 — he said he felt good about taking this step now. “The new mayor who’s been elected, Jenny Durkan, supports the HALA process,” he said. “And we want to stay on course; we want to keep moving. It takes time to do this and to do it correctly, but there’s no reason not to keep moving.”

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