Impact fees are a populist anthem that is being ignored by the city of Seattle. Why?
Ask a few friends and neighbors who should pay for the consequences of growth in boom time Seattle? I bet most will answer as mine do: Charge developers impact fees. Make growth pay for growth.
Unlike other big cities in the region, Seattle has ignored this populist anthem for a generation as it grew denser, more congested and less green.
Former Councilmember Nick Licata, before he retired, told me that city staff pushed back when he talked about impact fees after he first joined the council in the late 1990s. Yet when the City Council massively upzoned the University District in February, the populist anthem was still being sung by community groups. Why not charge developers impact fees to ease burdens on roads, parks and schools?
Now, the city’s own land-use consultants joined the chorus, acknowledging that impact fees could be a strategy. The preliminary review of Mayor Ed Murray’s growth-on-steroids plan — the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) — notes that mitigation for citywide upzones, especially for transportation and parks, “would be a citywide development impact fee program.”
Funny thing is, a review in 2015 by the city said the same thing: Impact fees could help pay for crosswalks, light signals and new parkland. Back then, the City Council and city staff were talking about a deadline of 2016 for a fee schedule.
In February, the City Council requested an analysis of an impact fee for schools, although not for transportation or parks. The timeline for that request, according to the city website, is now 2018.
What’s going on? Why are impact fees anathema?
Maybe because city voters keep passing the endless buffet of special levies — for parks, roads, fire stations, school construction — which fund the very services that impact fees pay for in 60 other municipalities in Washington, including all the big Eastside cities.
There is no free money with impact fees. They’d get added into the cost of development. But Seattle’s strategy instead puts the burden on existing residents — property-tax payers and renters — for the consequences of development. Growth doesn’t pay for growth. We pay for growth. And do we.
The most consistent argument I’ve heard against impact fees in Seattle is that infrastructure is already “built out.” Impact fees, after all, were authorized under the state Growth Management Act, which was intended partly to stop endless suburban sprawl. Seattle isn’t sprawling out, but up.
Murray raised that point when we talked late last year about impact fees. “You don’t get a lot of money out of impact fees in a built environment,” he said.
But the “built-out” argument is undercut by the skyscrapers shooting up in downtown Bellevue. Transportation impact fees there are being collected by the dump truck. A 260-unit project of luxury flats off Main Street was charged almost $500,000. The massive expansion of Lincoln Square across from the Bellevue Mall owes impact fees of $3.7 million.
The mayor’s argument is also undercut by Seattle’s own analysis of HALA’s so-called “Grand Bargain.” That deal, cut behind closed doors with developers, charges them fees to pay for affordable housing. In exchange for those fees, HALA allows developers to jack up white-hot Seattle growth with taller buildings. In the most aggressive scenario, the Grand Bargain potentially creates 17,500 more housing units through 2035 than would happen anyway — a 39 percent increase above expected growth.
The HALA analysis notes that the neighborhoods most ripe for the growth, including First Hill, Fremont and Ballard, suffer from a lack of parks. To meet the city’s own targets for parkland, the city would need to add a whopping 434 acres of parks citywide.
Schools in most of those ripe neighborhoods already are packed. Seattle Schools estimates it needs 28 new classrooms just to keep up with projected growth, and 37 more to meet new class-size reduction laws. Meanwhile, classroom portables are eating up playgrounds across North Seattle, and the district booted after-school child care programs because of a capacity crunch.
The real reason that impact fees are being slow-walked at City Hall is that the idea of growth-paying-for-growth is just not a priority. Affordable housing is. Instead of squeezing developers for parks, schools and sidewalks, Murray and the City Council are saving all that juice for HALA.
Development-fatigued city residents see that for what it is — a bad trade-off. And they have a chance to say so as the next mayor emerges from a crowded field of candidates.
Impact fees are a populist anthem waiting for a champion. Make growth pay for growth.