As City Moves Forward With Modest Upzones, Single-Family Housing Advocates Lawyer Up

Mayor Tim Burgess released the final environmental impact statement for what will likely be the most controversial set of upzones required to implement HALA yesterday.  The proposal, known as the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, will increase allowable building heights in urban villages, multifamily zones, and commercial areas across the city, including modest upzones to just six percent of the city’s single-family land. The remaining 94 percent, which represents more than 60 percent of the city’s residentially zoned land, will still be preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses). In exchange for increased building heights, developers will have to make between 5 and 11 percent of their units affordable to people of modest means, or pay the equivalent (between $5 and $32.75 per square foot) into a fund that will finance housing construction elsewhere. City staffers say they expect about half of developers will decide to build on site and half will pay into the fund; however, this estimate is based not on empirical data (there isn’t any) but on the fact that the city tried to make the cost of building and the cost of paying the fee roughly equivalent. [*See wonky footnote for more on how this 50-50 split came to pass.]

 

To single-family preservationists, the new rules represent an unprecedented incursion on their right to own property without having to live in close proximity to (and share scarce on-street parking space with) renters who may be younger and lower-income.

 

The MHA proposal splits the baby between two earlier alternatives—one that would spread new density evenly between all parts of the city and one that would limit housing production in areas the city considers at “high risk of displacement” with “low access to economic opportunity,” like Rainier Beach and South Park. To housing advocates, this is maddening—by artificially restricting housing development in the places where demand and the risk of economic displacement is highest, the rules practically ensure that more low-income people will be forced out of those areas. To single-family preservationists, the new rules represent an unprecedented incursion on their right to own property without having to live in close proximity to (and share scarce on-street parking space with) renters who may be younger and lower-income.

 

The city has built some cushion into its timeline for the inevitable lawsuits. Residents and groups that oppose the upzones have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to appeal the FEIS, and neighborhood groups are already lawyering up; last month, the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO), the Seattle Displacement Coalition, and Seattle Fair Growth distributed a call for neighborhood groups to sign on to their planned lawsuit against the proposal, and neighborhood groups in Wallingford and Miller/Madison Park have also expressed strong opposition to the proposal. Any appeal would go to the city’s hearing examiner (who has already ruled in favor of single-family preservationists in another case involving backyard cottages); that process generally takes about six months, although a successful appeal could require the city to make changes to the plan and prepare a supplemental EIS, which would take longer. After the city council actually passes the legislation, opponents will have another opportunity to challenge the law, by taking the city to King County Superior Court.

City staffers and officials stuck by their timeline yesterday. Council member Rob Johnson, chair of the council’s land use committee, said the council “can do all the work that is necessary to get the bill ready for a vote while litigation is occurring—we just can’t take action. If we’re still under litigation this time next year, we just won’t be able to vote.”

The plan also includes new tree planting requirements, mandatory setbacks for buildings over a certain size, rules designed to discourage development near freeways, and new standards designed to encourage food-production businesses near the Rainier Beach light rail station, where development has been slow to follow light rail.

Read the EIS for yourself here, or check out the interactive map to see what the city has planned for your neighborhood.

* Wonky footnote, as promised: This is a change, though a subtle one, from the preliminary discussions that led to HALA; originally, during discussions of the voluntary “incentive zoning”  proposal in South Lake Union, council members proposed making the so-called “fee in lieu” more costly than actual construction, to encourage developers to build on site. By abandoning this plan to make the fee roughly equivalent to the cost of building, the city has eliminated the incentive for developers to build, which could push affordable housing away from the most desirable parts of the city. The MHA plan has provisions to mitigate this effect—by “distribut[ing] affordable housing units generated by in lieu MHA payments, and which will be developed by or for the City’s Office of Housing (OH), in locations proportionate to the area’s share of anticipated citywide residential growth”—but acknowledges that the city rejected the notion of encouraging affordable housing development generated by the fees in any particular area as “extremely speculative,” given that the city can’t predict where land will actually become available. The bottom line is that under the proposal, developers can pay fees to build housing in other neighborhoods, and the city has no real ability to require affordable housing in high-end neighborhoods like Wallingford or South Lake Union. A higher fee-in-lieu might have accomplished this.

Here’s how the city expects the distribution of housing generated by the fees to shake out:

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One thought on “As City Moves Forward With Modest Upzones, Single-Family Housing Advocates Lawyer Up

  1. Erica, come on? This is a gross mischaracterization and generalization. I live in a SFZ and we already have many young renters on our block. We enjoy having them be a part of a demographically diverse neighborhood andd they don’t displace our parking.

    To single-family preservationists, the new rules represent an unprecedented incursion on their right to own property without having to live in close proximity to (and share scarce on-street parking space with) renters who may be younger and lower-income.

    Also, this isn’t about preserving SFZs. Some of us welcome density but we want it to be done right and we want to be true partners with the city in helping that happen in a way that preserves the livability of neighborhoods (schools, parks, transit) and minimizes displacement. We want real solutions to affordable housing, not solutions that line the pockets of special interests at the expense of our communities.

    I agree with you that by abandoning a disincentive to pay in lieu fees is a fatal flaw of MHA. I feel sorry for the young people desperate for affordable housing solutions who assume these units will be built in their neighborhoods if only they get upzoned.

    Like

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