Seattle Councilmember pushes housing, community development pilot

Tammy Morales is proposing the Connected Communities program to incentivize construction of affordable housing and amenities through looser zoning rules.

a man sits on a bench outside a building

The Ethiopian Community Center in Rainier Valley, where Seattle received funding from the Equitable Development Initiative to build senior housing and additional amenities. Councilmember Tammy Morales’ proposed Connected Communities pilot would incentivize more such community projects. (Matt M. McKnight/Cascade PBS)

For the past seven years, Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative has helped community organizations build much-needed lower-income housing that’s coupled with resources such as child care facilities, health clinics and community centers.

The program helped fund, for example, El Centro de la Raza’s new Columbia City development, which will have 87 units of affordable housing, a ground-floor bilingual child care center and preschool as well as a church. Chief Seattle Club received money for its ?ál?al (pronounced “allall”) housing project in Pioneer Square for very low-income residents so that it could also include a health clinic run by the Seattle Indian Health Board.

Councilmember Tammy Morales wants to build on the Equitable Development Initiative with her Connected Communities pilot legislation.

The Equitable Development Initiative is a funding program. Connected Communities would provide development incentives. If passed, the legislation would loosen zoning rules for qualifying projects to allow taller or wider buildings, cut red tape to speed construction and exempt projects from certain fees.

The City Council Land Use Committee, which Morales chairs, discussed the Connected Communities legislation at its March 20 meeting. During their discussion, several of Morales’ colleagues made clear that they have reservations about the bill that could be a hurdle to its passage.

Morales said that though her office is working through some revisions to the legislation to address concerns she’s heard, she’s still hoping to get the final bill passed by the end of April and implemented later this year. 

By giving housing developers the option to build more valuable projects in exchange for working with community organizations, the hope is that the legislation will incentivize the construction of more housing and community amenities. The result would likely be an apartment building with some income-restricted units for middle-income residents, some market-rate units and a community asset on the first floor.

“Fundamentally this is about trying to create more housing in more places in the city,” Morales said. “We can create these opportunities for more intentional buildings where people have access to not just mixed-income neighbors but also ground-floor cultural space or art space or a child care center — things that community members would like to have better access to.”

Morales explained that these sorts of projects and partnerships have happened under the Equitable Development Initiative, but described them as “relatively ad-hoc.” She said, “What we’re trying to do here is support more development like that but systematize the incentives.”

Qualifying community organizations would mostly be nonprofit entities that work with refugees, immigrants, communities of color, LGBTQ+ communities and people experiencing homelessness or at risk of economic displacement. Those organizations could partner with for-profit developers, nonprofit developers or the new Seattle social housing developer to build a project.

The legislation envisions two scenarios: one in which the community organization owns the land where the project will be built, and one in which the developer provides the land. In the former, the community organization would need to retain at least 51% ownership of the project to qualify for the incentives. In the latter, the organization would retain a minimum of 10% of the ownership to qualify.

Projects built through the Connected Communities program would be required to cap the rents for at least 30% of the units at rates affordable to middle-income tenants. For rental units, middle-income is defined as 80% of area median income. If the units were for sale, middle-income would be defined as 100% of area median income. As of 2023, 80% of the Seattle-area median income for a single person in Seattle is $70,650. For a family of four, 80% is $100,900.

Developers building projects through the Connected Communities program would get height and width bonuses, meaning they could build more units than otherwise allowed by existing zoning. They would also be exempt from the city’s design review process, not have to provide a minimum number of parking spaces to tenants and not pay the Mandatory Housing Affordability program fees required of all for-profit development, all of which add time and cost to a project.

The idea is that by offering developers savings and additional profit through bigger projects, they can provide below-market-rate units without requiring additional subsidy from the city. That’s in contrast to affordable housing for low-income residents and people exiting homelessness, which requires ongoing subsidy from the city and state to pay for operations and maintenance.

As a pilot, the program would run for five years or allow 35 projects, whichever happens first. Morales said ideally it would result in about five projects in each of the seven council districts. The legislation targets neighborhoods that had racially restrictive covenants barring people of color and Jewish people from buying homes. It would also target neighborhoods where residents of color and low-income residents are at high risk of economic displacement.

The final piece of the legislation proved to be its most controversial among Land Use Committee members. The proposed bill includes a provision that would allow a middle-income homeowner adjacent to a proposed Connected Communities project to sell their land to the developer in exchange for a guaranteed unit in the project that they own in perpetuity at no cost. The unit owner would be barred from selling or subleasing their unit for 10 years.

The intent is to provide existing homeowners with protection from the economic displacement of rising property taxes and maintenance costs. But the city is extremely limited in its ability to set the terms of such a land sale, and couldn’t get involved in the negotiations between the homeowner and developer.

During the March 20 committee meeting, Councilmember Cathy Moore called the provision “a critical flaw of this legislation. It seeks to advance intergenerational wealth and we are not sure if intergenerational wealth is maintained or developed. I think there isn’t any way we can guarantee in any sort of scenario that that exchange does what it purports to do.”

Councilmember Maritza Rivera voiced similar concerns about the potential gap between intent and implementation of the idea.

Morales told Cascade PBS that this piece of the legislation is “muddying the waters so we’re trying to rework it.” She said she remains hopeful they can find a solution through legislative rulemaking. “It really is intended to address displacement by allowing somebody to stay on their land and benefit from not getting pushed out.”

In addition, Rivera and Councilmember Tanya Woo criticized the bill for targeting residents earning 80% of area median income instead of the lowest-income residents.

Morales said that while there’s no question the city needs more subsidized housing for very low-income people, that’s not her intent with Connected Communities.

“If you’re a teacher or grocery clerk or a barista you might be approaching $50,000 or $60,000 a year and that doesn’t pay for much in Seattle anymore,” Morales told Cascade PBS. (Starting pay for Seattle Public School teachers with zero years of experience is nearly $68,000). “I understand where that point is coming from and agree we need to do more and that’s not the particular problem I’m trying to solve.”

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