The multiparty appeal of the adequacy of the MHA Environmental Impact Statement revealed several disturbing city decisions.

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The quality and diversity of most of Seattle’s neighborhoods will be reduced if no improvements are made to the proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan.
The plan passed a key hurdle Nov. 21 when Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil ruled on the multiparty appeal of the adequacy of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the MHA. Vancil ordered the city to redo its EIS analysis to include to-be-determined historic properties, which it excluded. And he criticized the city’s EIS for “the absence of information or detail about their neighborhoods.” But he nevertheless found it to be “adequate” under the State Environmental Policy Act.

The appeal was brought by nine appellants, led by Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), a group of 29 neighborhood organizations. It challenged the adequacy and the wisdom of the EIS and MHA strategies to finance and build affordable, livable and equitable housing, and to mitigate for adverse impacts. The appeal revealed several disturbing city decisions.

Dr. David Levitus, a national expert on affordable housing, concluded the MHA will accelerate re-segregation and displacement. The city decided to exclude from the EIS its own race and social justice analyses that found either the racial equity analysis was not applied, was incomplete and/or inadequate. The hearing examiner described the matter as “lamentable,” but determined that SEPA does not require consideration of re-segregation, displacement or racial impacts.

Compared with other cities with similar inclusionary zoning programs, the MHA has much lower on-site housing requirements and alternative fees to effectively build affordable housing in the same neighborhood. The city’s stated MHA goal of about 6,000 units of additional affordable housing over 20 years is well below the city’s actual needs.

The MHA upzoning of Seattle’s neighborhoods is largely silent on neighborhood plans, active park-acquisition projects, open space, aesthetics, and height bulk and scale impacts. The city decided to exclude from the EIS the detailed review and comments on livability by its own consultant, urban planning expert and former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck. Neither does the hearing examiner reference Steinbrueck’s report or testimony in his ruling.

In effect, MHA abolishes neighborhood planning. This poor planning will erode precisely what has made Seattle highly ranked as a “most livable city” — its unique neighborhoods.

The hearing examiner ruled that public services were adequate despite uncontested city-generated evidence to the contrary. The city’s own Berkshire Report stated that police coverage was not adequate. The city’s own report of noncompliance with stormwater and sewer-code requirements documents the city releasing 100 million gallons of rainwater mixed with raw sewages annually, polluting surrounding fresh and marine waters.

The city also decided to exclude from the EIS its own study documenting the serious inadequacy of the current tree ordinance, a mitigation problem the city admits requires action. The hearing examiner ignored all of these facts that were presented at the hearing.

The EIS appeal ruling is a wake-up call for Seattle communities to advocate for our city and for their neighborhoods. SCALE and its eight co-appellants made a valiant effort, challenging the adequacy and wisdom of the EIS and MHA. The appeal leaves a cache of 100,000 city documents and 19 days of hearing transcripts for others to use, including the City Council. Should the city pass an MHA ordinance that does not live up to its stated values, the next step could be yet another appeal and judicial review.

For now, all neighborhood residents, small businesses, environmentalists, and race and social-justice advocates must engage with the City Council to answer the question together: “How can we provide more affordable housing and maintain neighborhood livability and equity, without displacing lower-income families?”