Mayor Jenny Durkan says nonprofits using city money should be able to account for neighborhood ties when selecting occupants for low-income housing projects.
When Uncle Bob’s Place opens in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, Leslie Morishita would like to see the low-income housing project fill up with immigrant seniors struggling to stay in the increasingly expensive neighborhood along with shopkeepers already priced out.
Though the project named after the late activist Bob Santos likely will attract applicants from across the region, prioritizing longtime Chinatown ID residents and workers would be “the just thing to do,” said Morishita, real-estate director at the nonprofit that’s building Uncle Bob’s Place. “This neighborhood is experiencing extreme displacement pressure.”
That’s the problem Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold hope to address with a new “community preference” policy, they said Wednesday, as Durkan signed an executive order promising a number of actions meant to combat gentrification.
The community-preference policy, versions of which exist in New York, San Francisco and Portland, would encourage nonprofits using city money to take into account neighborhood ties when selecting occupants rather than holding a standard lottery or accept the first applicants to apply. The council began discussing the idea last summer.
“Our region’s skyrocketing costs and rents have displaced far too many individuals and families,” Durkan said at a news conference in the Chinatown ID, also mentioning the Central District, Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach as neighborhoods affected. “Our communities of color have particularly been impacted by these challenges … We must take immediate and urgent steps now.”
New York City’s policies says 50 percent of initial leases must be prioritized for neighborhood residents, according to a Durkan administration memo. San Francisco has multiple preference policies, while Portland’s policy seeks people with connections to North and Northeast Portland for projects in those neighborhoods, which have undergone gentrification.
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Seattle would evaluate such plans on a project-by-project basis to ensure compliance with fair-housing laws rather than dictate a particular approach, according to Durkan, who said the city intends to fund 3,600 low-income apartments by 2022. The mayor will send the policy to the council for approval in the coming months, she said.
“We want to make sure those people … have a way to stay,” Durkan said, adding, “We also want to have some way to bring community back.”
Trying to prioritize neighborhood residents and workers is currently seen as risky for Seattle nonprofits because fair-housing laws prohibit practices that could contribute to segregation or disadvantage protected groups. Other cities have been sued over their preference policies. Instead, nonprofits here tend to target people with neighborhood ties by advertising their projects in particular locations.
By adopting a community-preference policy and clearing plans submitted by the nonprofits, the city would provide the organizations with guidance and protection, said Morishita, who works at InterIm Community Development Association. “They would be standing behind us,” she said.
Done correctly, with the aim of keeping Seattle neighborhoods diverse, such a policy would advance fair housing, said Steve Walker, Durkan’s housing director.
In addition to a community-preference policy and some other changes in how the city spends money on housing, Durkan’s executive order calls for strengthening a law that protects renters from arbitrary evictions.
The order also says Seattle will work to leverage “opportunity zone” tax incentives to help build housing and community projects in poorer neighborhoods, including the Chinatown ID. The incentives were boosted by President Trump’s 2017 tax package, Durkan said.
Also Wednesday, Herbold proposed separate legislation that would require developers who raze relatively inexpensive apartments in certain neighborhoods to engage in mitigation. The pitch is likely to generate heat at City Hall, where the council is in the middle of debating zoning changes that would impose affordable-housing requirements on developers.
Under Herbold’s legislation, developers demolishing inexpensive apartments would need to replace those units by including the same number of rent-restricted apartments in their new projects or by paying into the city’s affordable-housing fund.
The legislation would apply to developers tearing down older apartments with rents that are still affordable to households earning up to 80 percent of the area’s median income, which is about $64,000 for a couple.
The council already is considering a plan that would upzone the hearts of 27 neighborhoods while requiring developers to create some low-income apartments or pay into the housing fund.
The council member’s requirements would be tacked on in neighborhoods far from downtown and at risk for displacement, such as Bitter Lake and South Park, she said.