The Seattle Times sat down with Sara Maxana to ask some basic questions about legislation that would upzone 27 urban villages and some other areas while imposing new requirements on developers to help create affordable housing.
The Seattle City Council is considering legislation that would upzone 27 urban villages across Seattle and some other areas while imposing new requirements on developers to help create affordable housing.
The council plans to vote on the legislation as soon as September and has been hosting public hearings in different parts of the city. The last hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 5 at Chief Sealth International High School in West Seattle.
The Seattle Times sat down with Sara Maxana, a policy adviser for Mayor Jenny Durkan, to ask some basic questions about the proposal.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What does it mean to upzone an area?
Every parcel of land in the city has a zoning classification that defines what you can build there. A rezone changes what you’re allowed to build.
An upzone is a type of rezone that allows more — more housing choices, more development capacity, more square footage, taller buildings.
What’s an urban village?
Urban villages (established in 1994) are focus points for future job and housing growth — places envisioned to be served by transit and other amenities and to have neighborhood commercial activity.
In addition to upzoning 27 urban villages, the legislation would expand nine of them. Why?
We’re making huge investments in transit and we want more people to be able to live and work near the trains and buses that we’re putting in place.
What other areas would the legislation upzone?
All other areas with multifamily and commercial zoning, throughout the city, with the exception of neighborhoods rezoned last year (downtown, South Lake Union, University District, Chinatown International District and Uptown), historic districts and environmentally critical areas.
How would the legislation affect areas zoned exclusively for single-family houses?
The proposal includes rezoning about 6 percent of our current single-family stock — single-family areas that are inside urban villages or urban-village expansions.
What would the legislation do to those areas?
Of the 6 percent, about two-thirds would be bumped up to a zoning called “residential small lot,” where we might see some cottages or duplexes. About one-third would change to low-rise zones, which allow town houses and small-scale apartment buildings.
The proposed upzones differ in scale from one block to another. What would be the most dramatic changes?
We have some areas with single-family homes today that we’re rezoning to allow two structures. That’s twice the density.
In other areas, where we allow a six-story building now, there could be a seven-story building. That could mean 100 more people.
The most dramatic changes would be in already dense areas, like First Hill, and near transit centers. In Northgate, for example, the height restrictions on some blocks would change from 85 feet to 145 feet and from 125 feet to 240 feet.
The upzones would trigger something called Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). What’s that?
That is a program ensuring that, moving forward, all commercial and multifamily development in the city contributes to affordable housing.
It follows a state-approved mechanism to enforce affordability requirements, so developers have to either build new affordable units on-site or contribute to affordable housing through the city.
How much affordable housing do you expect the program to generate?
The program would create more than 5,600 new rent- and income-restricted homes by 2035. Combined with last year’s upzones, the program would produce nearly 11,000.
What do you mean when you say “affordable housing?”
Housing that’s affordable to a household at 60 percent of the area median income, which for a family of four is about $57,000 per year.
Under the Mandatory Housing Affordability, how much affordable housing do developers build?
The requirements would vary from 5 to 11 percent (of a housing project’s units or a commercial project’s square footage), depending on certain criteria.
In areas commanding higher rents — hot areas, we’re expecting a greater contribution. Where we’re conveying a greater amount of value through the rezone (increasing what a developer can build by multiple stories), we’re also expecting a greater contribution.
What’s the relationship between the value of a property’s upzone and the value of the affordable-housing requirement there? Roughly equal?
Yes. The state law says there should be some offset, some values exchanged that match up. The other issue is that we don’t want these housing requirements to stop development. We don’t expect this program to speed up or slow down development.
Developers can choose to make payments to the city rather than building affordable housing — $5 to $32.75 per square foot. Why give them that option?
For every dollar the housing-affordability program brings in, we can leverage that with two to three dollars from other programs and build more housing as a result.
Also, we’re able to produce the types of housing that the market won’t produce, like family-sized units and units with wraparound services like child care and health care.
The city uses MHA payments to help nonprofit developers build affordable housing at other sites. What about the administrative costs involved in that?
We get two to three times more housing from payments, and that outweighs the administrative costs. And again, we want to provide family-sized housing.
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What costs a developer more — the on-site option or the payment option?
We’ve tried to calibrate it so we have about 50 percent of projects building on site and 50 percent paying. If we start seeing a bias toward payment, we can change the fees.
When a developer makes a payment, the resulting affordable-housing units won’t necessarily go in the same neighborhood. Why not?
We’re trying to prevent having separate pools of money in each neighborhood that just sit there because we don’t have enough to build yet.
That would be a nightmare because in an affordability crisis like this, we don’t want to waste time. We want to get those dollars out the door.
If there’s ever an area that’s generating more dollars than it’s receiving, the Office of Housing will prioritize that community in the next round of investments.
Will all the affordable housing end up in poor neighborhoods, where building is cheaper?
We hear that concern, but the Office of Housing has a 37-year track record of investing in affordable housing throughout the city.
Development can lead to gentrification. How has the city taken that into account?
We heard a tremendous amount of concern about existing community members being priced out of the city.
For communities at high-risk of displacement (such as Rainier Beach and Lake City), we made smaller-scale zoning changes.
But when there’s pressure in a city for new housing, we do have to give that pressure somewhere to go. So with these rezones, we’re directing more of that pressure to communities at low risk for displacement (such as Wallingford and West Seattle Junction) with larger-scale zoning changes.
But could smaller-scale zoning changes in neighborhoods at high risk of displacement put more pressure ?
Yes. For that reason, we’re still upzoning those communities to some extent, particularly around transit, to make sure we’re giving that development pressure somewhere to go.
Are the upzones good for the city in their own right?
We have a housing shortage in the city, so we do need to produce more housing, period. With the Mandatory Housing Affordability, we’re going to make sure some of our new housing choices are affordable.
Why not upzone all the city’s single-family areas? Wouldn’t that result in more housing and distribution of growth?
The mandatory housing program is being implemented consistent with how we’ve been planning for growth for 25 years. We have these urban villages that are meant to be where we focus more housing and jobs.
We’re looking at other tools to provide more flexibility in our single-family areas, particularly with accessory-dwelling units (granny flats and backyard cottages).
An upzone brings more people to an area. Does the legislation fund or require more parks, buses, sidewalks and sewer pipes?
No. We heard a lot about the things you mention and the city has been making improvements to transit and parks. The legislation capitalizes on where we’ve made investments.
Some people think many of the city’s new buildings are ugly. Does the legislation address that concern?
We are proposing a number of changes to the development standards in our low-rise and mid-rise zones to take into consideration some of the concerns we heard about the scale and bulk of buildings. We’re proposing upper-level setbacks, for example.
What outreach have you done for the proposal?
We had over 200 community meetings. We had a nine-month focus-group process with 160 community members. We had canvassers go door-to-door to over 10,000 neighbors. We’ve had events in seven languages. We’ve had online forums.
We’ve done a mailer to almost 90,000 addresses in the rezone areas. We used that input to shape the proposal.
The city had to review the legislation’s environmental impact and some neighborhood groups are challenging that in court. They say each of the 27 urban villages should have been looked at separately. Why didn’t you do that?
This is a citywide program making changes to zoning codes that are the same in Ballard as in Othello.
And this environmental-impact statement is one of the most robust the city has ever done in terms of engagement and analysis, particularly around displacement risk.
The Seattle Hearing Examiner plans to take up the legal challenge this summer.