The Seattle City Council is considering legislation that Mayor Ed Murray says would help make the city’s housing more affordable. We’ve tried to answer some questions about the policy.
The Seattle City Council is considering legislation that would require developers of multifamily housing to include some affordable units in their projects or pay the city to help build the units elsewhere.
The legislation would take effect in conjunction with the council approving zoning changes across the city — mostly in multifamily areas.
Those changes would allow developers to build larger and taller buildings, offsetting the cost of the requirements.
Mayor Ed Murray unveiled the broad strokes of the policy almost a year ago, saying it would help make Seattle more affordable.
But there are a lot of important details for the council to investigate, including some that still need to be hammered out.
We took a close look at the “Mandatory Housing Affordability — Residential” policy to answer some basic questions about what it would mean for the city.
Q: What would it do?
A: Mandatory Housing Affordability would require all developers of multifamily housing to make a certain percentage of the units in their projects rent-restricted. The developers could alternatively pay the city to help build rent-restricted units elsewhere.
Q: Who would be eligible for the rent-restricted units?
A: Households earning no more than 60 percent of the area’s annual median income — $54,180 for a family of four.
Q: How long would units remain rent-restricted?
A: They’d need to remain rent-restricted for at least 50 years.
Q: Where did the policy come from?
A: In 2014, the mayor told a 28-member citizen task force to come up with ideas for making the city more affordable.
Last summer, the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee delivered 65 recommendations, including this one, and Murray adopted them as his new agenda.
Q: How did the HALA Committee agree on the policy?
A: The question of how developers would help create low-income housing was the most contentious issue confronting the committee, which missed multiple deadlines.
Working in a smaller group, the committee’s co-chairs and six people from the for-profit and nonprofit development sectors negotiated the policy’s guiding principles with the mayor and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
Q: What about developers of single-family housing?
A: The policy wouldn’t apply.
Q: What about developers of commercial projects?
A: Last year, the council passed legislation requiring developers of commercial projects to include rent-restricted housing in their projects or pay the city to help build rent-restricted units elsewhere.
That policy is called Mandatory Housing Affordability — Commercial. It also won’t take effect unless the council approves zoning changes to allow larger and taller buildings.
Q: What’s the “grand bargain?”
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A: Murray refers to the two Mandatory Housing Affordability policies as the “grand bargain” and says they’ll together create 6,000 units of rent-restricted housing in ten years. Those units are part of his vow to create 20,000 rent-restricted units.
Q: What would the legislation now under consideration do?
A: It would enshrine the structure of the policy as law, giving the authority to implement Mandatory Housing Affordability — Residential, pending zoning changes.
Q: What wouldn’t the legislation do?
A: The legislation wouldn’t set exact requirements for developers — what percentage of units in the projects would need to be rent-restricted or how many dollars per square foot would need to be paid to the city.
Those specifics would be added later, in the course of approving the zoning changes.
Q: What might the requirements look like?
A: The grand-bargain agreement that Murray and O’Brien signed last summer said 5 to 8 percent of units in the projects would be rent-restricted, with different requirements for different parts of the city.
Now the mayor says the range could be less than 3 percent to 7 percent, with lower percentages in South Lake Union and downtown and higher percentages in expensive neighborhoods beyond South Lake Union and downtown.
Murray says the payments to the city could range from $5 per square foot to $22 per square foot. The payments are supposed to be slightly more costly for developers than including affordable units as part of a project.
The percentages and payments would be lower in South Lake Union and downtown because developers there wouldn’t benefit as much from the zoning changes and because high-rise construction is more expensive, officials say.
Again, those percentages and dollar amounts aren’t part of the legislation the council is now considering. They are estimates that could change.
Q: Where do those numbers come from?
A: Officials say their aim in setting the percentages and payments is to balance the cost of the requirements to developers with the value of the zoning changes so the policy generally has a minimal effect on decisions to build or not build.
Q: How would Seattle’s requirements compare to requirements in other cities?
A: Seattle’s percentages, which could still change, would be lower than those in some other major U.S. cities and some smaller Puget Sound cities.
Officials say that’s because policies in other cities have important differences. For example, the rents on affordable units in some cities are set for families earning 80 percent of the area’s annual median income, rather than 60 percent.