Housing report leak: too tempting not to look

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A committee may be about to recommend raising height limits for most multi-family properties in Seattle

If you walked by City Hall this afternoon, you might have heard alarm bells coming from the mayor’s office on the seventh floor. That would have been the sound that followed Seattle Times reporter Danny Westneat's publication of a leaked draft of the recommendations from Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force.

The final recommendations from HALA for adding new affordable and market-rate housing aren't expected to go to Murray until next Monday, at which point he will decide what he likes and what he doesn’t before submitting a bill to the Seattle City Council. These recommendations have been in the making since the end of last summer when Murray assembled the group, a combination of developers, community organizers and housing advocates.

The process has been very tightly guarded, progress reports surfacing only occasionally via public disclosure requests or comments from co-chairs David Wertheimer and Faith Pettis. The rest of the group’s members have been “embargoed,” i.e. forbidden to update the media on internal progress.

It was, according to Westneat, because of this secrecy that he decided to publish a story on the draft, despite pleadings from Pettis to refrain. Today’s leaked report is the eighth draft of the HALA recommendations. Notes and typos remind the reader that, yes, this is most definitely a draft. That said, after eight drafts and nearly a year of conversations, the recommendations surely will bear some, if not full, resemblance to what we will see next Monday.

At first glance, a number of things pop out of the initial recommendations, the most inflammatory of which is the rezoning of Seattle. In this draft, HALA recommends allowing buildings of up to 85 feet in some multi-family areas, up from the more common 65 feet.

But what would really fire people up – and what made the HALA co-chairs so angry at Westneat for releasing the document – is the language around single-family zones. “Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city's goals for equity and affordability,” reads the draft. It continues:

In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of Single Family zoning is no longer either realistic or sustainable. HALA recommends allowing more flexibility and variety of housing in Single Family zones to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods. In fact, HALA recommends we abandon the term “single family zone” and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones.

That made it into the Times' headline, which says the committee wants to “Drop single-family zoning.”

In a statement, Pettis and Wertheimer said that the leaked document was “outdated and inaccurate,” and that “HALA has no intention of recommending the elimination of all single family zones in the city.” They continued by saying they take “strong exception to the Times’ characterization of the draft.”

What is in the draft deals largely with adding supply. In addition to the rezoning proposals, the report also recommends easing off on the regulations on parking, namely the requirement that for every new unit there be one new parking space. The draft would have the city loosen restriction on mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages. And land previously used for schools or other large developments, says the report, should be zoned to allow for multi-family housing units.

As Seattle watches its housing costs go up, many have been on edge waiting for proposals to increase the affordable housing supply. That question, according to notes in the draft of the cover letter on HALA’s recommendation, appears to still be bouncing around its small group discussions. In a number of places, the letter comes to where a solution would be and then reads: “To be inserted here pursuant to results of small group discussion.”

The draft may not go as far on affordability as some housing advocates would like. But the report recommends expanding the multi-family tax exemption program, a tax break for developers who build affordable housing. It also recommends taxing tourist stays set up through such services Air BnB and VRBO and using that money to build affordable housing. Most intriguing, at least to Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute, is the recommendation to re-establish the City Growth Fund, a pool of affordable-housing money fed by tax revenue earned through construction projects in Seattle. The city used to have a similar fund, but disbanded it in 2002.

As for preserving existing supply, the draft urges the Office of Housing to become involved in acquiring and/or maintaing affordable housing stock. It also suggests property tax breaks for property owners who maintain affordable units.

Lacking from the draft are linkage fees, a much-discussed proposal that would fine developers for not providing affordable housing. Also lacking is any recommendation relating to rent control.

Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute had just come from a meeting with the mayor when she spoke to Crosscut. She is a member of the Community Housing Caucus, an activist-driven answer to HALA. She liked some of what she saw in the HALA recommendations, especially the changes to parking requirements and the upzoning of apartment buildings. She said there is inefficiency in developing low-income apartment buildings under current height restrictions.

But she wished she saw more of what the Community Housing Caucus recommends: linkage fees, using city bonding to build more affordable housing and freezing rent increases on any apartment building that is in violation of city code. “I think there’s so much in the report about developers' perspective,” she said, “but it doesn’t speak to 20,000 affordable units or the 5,000 who need to get out of homelessness.” Lee said she pushed the mayor in their meeting to adopt more of the Community Housing Caucus' recommendations.

Lee said, as far as she knew, HALA just needs to work out a few more things before its proposal is ready to be sent to the mayor. But to judge by the reaction from Pettis and Wertheimer, HALA was clearly not yet prepared to have its recommendations scrutinized.

That said, if the leaders contend that Westneat's conclusions are off-base, maybe the leak has just served as a very public opportunity to get feedback that will shape the final report.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.