A Seattle City Council committee is hearing from many parties before an expected vote on housing legislation, including from real-estate-industry players who’ve been bankrolling political campaigns.

Share story

Real-estate-industry players who struck a so-called “grand bargain” on affordable housing with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray last year are now warning the City Council against making changes they say would break the agreement.

And as they oppose the changes that would require more from developers, they’re reminding the council they’ve been bankrolling efforts to sell the public on the mayor’s affordable-housing agenda — including the campaign for the $290 million new housing levy on Tuesday’s ballot.

In a letter last week, the prominent lawyer who helped negotiate the grand bargain on behalf of the industry players sent a message about who holds the purse strings when it comes to getting the political results Murray and the council want.

Jack McCullough addressed the letter to Councilmember Rob Johnson, who chairs the land-use committee, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday on legislation related to the bargain.

“The Coalition for Housing Solutions has maintained its commitments through the grand bargain,” McCullough wrote. “We have provided financial support measured in six figures to the Seattle Housing Levy campaign and to the operations of Seattle for Everyone.”

The coalition represents developers such as Paul Allen’s Vulcan, along with architects, land-use attorneys, business groups such as the Downtown Seattle Association and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and trade groups such as the Rental Housing Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association.

The coalition has made no direct contributions to Yes for Homes, the campaign pushing for voter approval of the housing levy, according to campaign-finance records. But Vulcan alone has contributed $25,000 of the campaign’s more than $300,000.

Seattle for Everyone is an organization launched last year to rally Seattle residents around the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), the centerpiece of which is the grand bargain.

Backers include companies, such as Vulcan, along with low-income-housing developers, labor unions and advocacy nonprofits. McCullough is co-chair.

Contributions to the organization aren’t listed on its website and aren’t tracked by the Seattle Ethics and Elections committee, like contributions to ballot-measure campaigns.

In addition to Seattle for Everyone, the organization is promoting neighborhood-specific spinoffs: Columbia City for Everyone, Queen Anne for Everyone, etc.

Murray’s goal for HALA is to ensure that Seattle adds at least 50,000 homes in 10 years, with 20,000 of them having capped rents reserved for low-income households.

HALA and the grand bargain emerged from the work of a citizens committee the mayor tasked last year with figuring out how to make Seattle affordable.

The committee spent months wrestling over how the real-estate industry would help the effort to create low-income housing, considering how to balance the threat of legal challenges by developers with the need to help poor people in a city with rising rents.

Then a subset of the committee’s members hammered out a grand-bargain document with Murray officials and McCullough. They agreed the city would rezone certain neighborhoods across Seattle to allow larger, taller buildings.

In return, commercial developers would pay fees on office and retail buildings to help the city create affordable units, while residential developers would include affordable units in their projects or pay fees.

Together, the commercial and residential parts of the bargain, now referred to as the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, would create 6,000 affordable units.

The council passed framework legislation for the commercial part in 2015, and Johnson’s committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on framework legislation for the residential part.

The city won’t begin collecting fees and requiring affordable units to be included in projects until the council signs off on the rezones and sets the fees and inclusion requirements.

Those are actions the council isn’t yet considering and that will stir debate in their own right.

The coalition is now opposing amendments sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would ratchet up the fees and inclusion requirements in neighborhoods where poorer people are at risk of being edged out and where older buildings with cheap rents are at risk of being demolished.

A number of housing and homeless advocates, such as Liz Etta, the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, and Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, are for the changes.

The coalition — and in a separate letter, the nonprofit Sightline Institute — argue that Herbold’s amendments aren’t needed.

The coalition’s letter additionally warns, “Some of the amendments under consideration … would constitute a material change in the ‘grand bargain,’ if implemented.”

The grand-bargain document has always stood on shaky ground. Its terms are vague and none of its 10 signatories is a market-rate developer. McCullough is a signatory, but he hardly represents every builder in Seattle.

Roger Valdez, a lobbyist for some developers not involved in negotiating the bargain, and Toby Thaler, a Fremont neighborhood activist, have written to Johnson questioning the bargain document and urging the council to wait on passing the residential framework legislation until more specifics are provided and an environmental-impact statement is completed.

Last week, the city determined that the Mandatory Housing Affordability program likely would have a significant adverse impact on the environment. Under state law, that means a statement must be done.

If voters pass the new housing levy Tuesday, it’ll be the first big win for HALA and a win for Murray. And approval is expected. There’s been no official opposition campaign.