Mayor Ed Murray’s task force on housing affordability has recommended that developers be made to build affordable homes or pay fees in exchange for officials relaxing zoning restrictions across the city. But at least two City Council members are backing an alternative.
The headline strategy recommended Monday by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and his task force on housing affordability would require developers to build affordable homes or pay fees in exchange for relaxed zoning restrictions across the city.
Murray is proposing that the city pair mandatory affordable housing in residential development with linkage fees for commercial development.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s land-use committee, has agreed to support the plan. But Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata are backing an alternative drawn up by council candidate Jon Grant, a member of the task force and the former director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.
Seattle mayor’s housing-affordability plan
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Monday unveiled 65 recommendations by his task force on housing affordability. The suggested strategies include:
• Require developers to build affordable homes or pay fees in exchange for relaxed zoning
• Double the city’s housing levy
• Allow more housing types with multiple units in single-family zones
• Offer tax breaks to landlords who restrict rents in existing buildings
• Make it easier for people with criminal histories to access housing
• Reduce parking requirements for development
Source: Seattle Office of the Mayor
The mayor’s double-barreled proposal was one of 65 different strategies recommended by his 28-member Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee of developers, low-income-housing advocates and others. Murray created the panel last September to address rising rents and home prices.
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“My vision is a vision where the people who work in Seattle can afford to live in Seattle,” he said. “Without this plan, people will continue to be forced to live outside this city. We will continue to have a city of economic apartheid.”
Many of the recommendations, including the strategy for making developers build or pay for affordable housing, must be approved by the council.
Five of the council’s nine members — a majority — stood with the mayor at a news conference Monday, including O’Brien.
Additional strategies recommended by the task force include doubling the size of Seattle’s current housing levy in 2016, allowing more types of housing and denser housing in the city’s single-family zones, tax breaks for landlords who agree to restrict rents at existing properties, easier housing access for people with criminal records and reduced parking quotas for residential development.
The proposed changes to single-family zones riled up some homeowners concerned about preserving the character of their neighborhoods last week when they were revealed in a leaked draft of the HALA Committe’s report.
The final report, unlike the draft, doesn’t explicity recommend eliminating the term “single-family zone.” But it suggests the same kind of on-the-ground changes.
The proposed inclusionary-housing program would require 5 to 7 percent of the units in new residential projects — in Seattle’s multifamily, commercial and mixed-used zones — to be affordable for households making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income, which is about $54,000 per year for a family of four.
The linkage-fees program would require the developers of commercial projects in those same zones to pay fees, which the city would use to fund affordable housing.
Residential developers would have the option, subject to city approval, of satisfying their requirement by building affordable housing off-site or by paying fees.
Commercial developers would have the option, also subject to city approval, of building affordable housing rather than paying fees.
The programs would apply pending the enactment of legislation increasing allowable building heights and sizes in multifamily, commercial and mixed-use zones.
The HALA Committee estimates the programs together would ensure the production of at least 6,000 affordable-housing units over 10 years.
How to make developers produce affordable housing was the most contentious question that the panel dealt with and negotiations continued through last week.
Shortly after the mayor convened the task force last fall, the council passed an O’Brien-sponsored resolution to create legislation establishing linkage fees on both commercial and residential projects. Developers reacted by threatening to sue the city.
The strategy unveiled Monday is a twist on O’Brien’s initial proposal that ties affordable-housing production to something developers want: widespread “up-zones,” or allowing taller buildings.
Murray described the last-minute deal as the HALA Committee’s “grand bargain.” The developers who were readying a lawsuit have now put it on hold, he said.
“What we got in exchange for this is more legal certainty,” O’Brien said in an interview. “I’m extremely pleased with where we are today. Seattle has struggled for decades without any type of inclusionary housing. What we have today is agreement … to finally implement a bold policy.”
Murray took pains Monday to distinguish the up-zones recommended for multifamily, commercial and mixed-use zones from the changes proposed for single-family zones.
All single-family zones would be adjusted to allow denser housing types with multiple units — such as duplexes, triplexes, row houses and small-lot dwellings. But fears about those neighborhoods losing their character are unfounded, he argued.
That’s because the height and bulk restrictions for structures in single-family zones would remain the same, Murray said. Seattle’s single-family zoning has historical links to racial and economic segregation, he said.
Seattle has an existing policy that links zoning with affordable housing. In certain neighborhoods, such as South Lake Union, the city’s incentive-zoning program gives project-specific “up-zones” to developers who pay fees or build affordable housing.
That program would go away with the implementation of the HALA Committee’s strategy.
Grant held his own news conference Monday to tout his plan. It includes several strategies that the task force considered but ultimately decided against, such as pushing the state Legislature to give Seattle the authority to enact rent stabilization.
Grant’s plan calls for residential linkage fees instead of inclusionary housing contingent on “up-zones.” He says the council could implement linkage fees overnight, whereas zoning changes, which require environmental review, will take several years.
The timeline for the HALA Committee’s recommendations shows the inclusionary housing program not taking effect across the city until September 2017.
Under Grant’s plan, residential linkage fees would be pegged at the equivalent of a developer making five to 10 percent of the units in a project affordable.
That’s higher than the five- to seven-percent range for inclusionary housing in the mayor’s strategy.
Sawant stood with Grant and said the task force should have had more members representing renters and fewer representing the interests of developers.
Grant acknowledged his plan would provoke a lawsuit, but he says winning a legal battle would put Seattle on solid ground. He called the mayor’s plan “a great step in the right direction,” but added, “We can do more.”