The Seattle City Council was too hasty in approving sweeping changes to its land-use policy on Monday, initiating the controversial HALA plan.
YOU rarely want Seattle to slow its process, but that’s what it should have done with sweeping land-use policy changes the lame-duck City Council approved on Monday.
Seattle will be forever changed by Mayor Ed Murray’s controversial Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee, a wish-list of policy changes requested by developer and housing advocates.
When HALA leaked last summer, it ignited debate about the character of Seattle and what would be gained or lost in the quest for housing affordability.
Murray, responding to the backlash, in July called for “renewed public dialogue” on the issue.
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But on Monday — while the city was still distracted by the ongoing election counting — the council went ahead and unanimously passed an ordinance approving HALA’s “grand bargain” with developers.
This seems contrary to a public-process timeline the city released last summer, saying HALA would be subject to citywide “community conversations” in 2016 plus an environmental review that wouldn’t begin until spring.
Outgoing Councilmember John Okamoto, whose housing committee shepherded HALA through, denied it’s being rushed. Much of the plan “has been in the works for some time” and there will be more process as sections are implemented, he said.
Yet Monday’s vote codified HALA’s linchpin — linkage fees that will be collected from developers of commercial buildings and used to subsidize affordable housing projects. That’s the heart of the “grand bargain” Murray cut with developers in crafting HALA.
The council staked out the rest of its HALA work with a companion resolution Monday, preparing for upzones that would expand the sort of dense development seen in Ballard and South Lake Union. It also calls for an “inclusive public engagement plan” by Jan. 31.
Linkage fees won’t take effect until upzones are done — that’s the sugar developers were given to help the medicine go down — but the city signaled that it’s a done deal.
Murray reinforced this Monday by congratulating the council “on passage of the grand bargain.”
This is not a time for kudos. The council was too hasty and Monday’s action undermines the public input process scheduled for 2016.
How much say will the public have now that the council has approved the essence of the plan, inked the “bargain” and started the ball rolling?
Hearings will at least let residents question upzones. They might also ask why the city insists on ever-taller buildings and doubling or tripling density in single-family zones with “accessory dwelling units,” even though planners say current zoning has plenty of capacity.
Residents might also use hearings to protest loopholes in Monday’s ordinance.
Some passages are so generous to developers, they’re destined to be the punchline of jokes their lawyers will tell over $60 steaks at the Metropolitan Grill.
One loophole perversely cuts linkage fees if developers show that poor people won’t get jobs in their new buildings. By the city’s logic, better-paid workers don’t need “affordable” housing and won’t have the same impact on the housing market as lower-paid workers.
So, if a building would be filled with workers earning more than 60 to 80 percent of the median income ($37,680 to $46,100), the developer gets a break on fees, according to the ordinance.
That undercuts the basic premise of linkage fees — that new buildings bring people, increasing housing demand and affecting affordability. It also encourages developers to build upscale offices instead of manufacturing space for working-class jobs.
Such loopholes would likely benefit most new buildings in Seattle — mitigating the impact on developers and clarifying who gets the “bargain.”
Don’t worry — the council says kinks will be worked out by “a robust stakeholder engagement process” involving the same people who crafted HALA.
Plus, there’s that belated “inclusive public engagement plan.”