At Long Last, Council Takes Up Mandatory Housing Affordability Upzones

As the city council prepares to finally take up former mayor Ed Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan—which alters zoning and land use across the city, and would allow duplexes and small apartment buildings on 6 percent of the land currently reserved exclusively for detached single-family houses—today, the council’s seven district members are also proposing dozens of amendments to the plan.

Many of the amendments involve undoing or reducing the proposed density increases, although some proposals do call for higher densities in certain areas. It’s highly improbable that every one of the downzoning amendments will pass, but if they did, it would be tantamount to rejecting the very premise of MHA, which allows developers to build more densely in a small swath of the city in exchange for funding new affordable housing. If all the amendments, including both downzones and upzones, passed, the overall result would still be lower density overall than MHA proposes). And even if MHA were passed unamended, the vast majority of Seattle would still be preserved for suburban-style single-family houses.

The implications of not adopting MHA as drafted (or of downzoning the proposal, block by contested block) go beyond just density. Exempting some commercial and multifamily areas from the plan will mean that developers who build in those areas will not have to build affordable housing (either on-site or by contributing money to a city fund), which have two effects: First, it will make MHA-exempt areas more attractive to developers, not less, because they won’t have to contribute to affordable housing, making development cheaper; second, because developers who build in exempted areas won’t have to contribute to affordable housing, less affordable housing will get built, making it harder for the city to reach its goal of 6,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years. Council members who act to exempt certain multifamily areas from upzones in order to prevent displacement may, in other words, actually be encouraging development in those areas.

Here are some of the amendments the council will consider this week, starting at today’s special MHA committee meeting in council chambers at 2:30, listed by district. All the amendments are available in in this 100-page document, which lists the amendments in district order; amendments that are tagged “Additional Environmental review needed” are outside the scope of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal (which the city’s hearing examiner recently upheld after a lengthy appeal process), and are less likely to move forward than those within the scope of the FEIS. Many of the amendments in each district are proposed by the council member for that district; however, because this isn’t true of every amendment (many of the amendments came from council central staff or from constituents in that district), I’ll refer to the amendments by district rather than author, with one exception. Also, when I refer to “downzones” and “upzones,” I am generally referring to those changes relative to what is proposed in the MHA plan, not to the current zoning.

 District 1 (Lisa Herbold)

The amendments proposed for Herbold’s West Seattle District would reduce the proposed upzones in areas that are currently zoned single-family from low-rise (a catchall term for zones that allow multifamily development) to lower-density designations. Seven of the 11 District 1 amendments call for scaling back the MHA density increases to Residential Small Lot zoning, which allows no more than one unit per 2,000 square feet of land area and limits the size of new houses to 2,200 square feet. Other amendments would undo every proposed upzone in the areas of the West Seattle Junction that are currently single-family, while upzoning a swath of land known as the Triangle, along Fauntleroy Way SW, from 65 feet to 95 feet.

In practice, Residential Small Lot, a new zoning designation, imposes a density limit of about two units on a typical 5,000-square-foot Seattle lot—far less than, say, Low-Rise 3, which is supposed to encourage “infill housing at medium to high densities,” according to the city.

District 2 (Bruce Harrell)

Areas around the Mount Baker light rail station would not be upzoned, or would receive more modest upzones, under two District 2 amendments, and a proposed expansion of the North Beacon Hill Urban Village (along with an upzone within the existing urban village, which is served by the Beacon Hill light rail station) would be eliminated. Getting rid of upzones on Beacon Hill has been a priority of the anti-density SCALE coalition, whose environmental appeals have stalled the implementation of MHA, and Harrell’s amendments would largely accomplish this goal.

The District 2 amendments also include small, specific upzones and downzones in far southeast Seattle (including lower heights and densities around the Rainier Beach light rail station).

District 3 (Kshama Sawant)

Most of the proposed MHA amendments in District 3 consist of downzones on North Capitol Hill east of 15th Ave. and north of Thomas St.—generally speaking, one of the wealthier parts of Sawant’s district, which includes the rest of Capitol Hill as well as the Central District small parts of Mount Baker and Beacon Hill. Geographically, the majority of the proposed District 3 downzones are in the Madison-Miller Urban Village, along 19th Ave. E between East Aloha and East Thomas Streets, and between 20th and 24rd Aves. E on Capitol Hill.

The District 3 amendments also include a few small upzones on individual properties and blocks—all of them, with one exception, in the Central District or further south.

District 4 (Rob Johnson)

Johnson is a vocal proponent of MHA and of increasing density in his own Northeast Seattle district. Many of the amendments in District 4, not surprisingly, would upzone parts of Johnson’s district even more than MHA calls for, particularly around the two light rail stations that are being built near the University of Washington and in the Ravenna-Roosevelt neighborhood. The amendments would also increase potential building heights near the Roosevelt station, on 12th Ave. NE between NE 65th and 67th Streets, from 65 feet to 125 feet, and would add 20 feet to the potential height of new apartments around University Village.

The District 4 amendments also include a few proposed downzones—one for the block just north of Roosevelt High School, two for a site just north of Ravenna Park, and one on the northern boundary of his district, where he has proposed reducing part of the Wallingford Urban Village from low-rise to residential small lot.

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District 5 (Debora Juarez)

The amendments proposed for District 5, which stretches from the northern boundary of Johnson’s district to the border between Seattle and Shoreline, also include a number of upzones centering on three dense (and densifying) areas of North Seattle—Northgate, where a light-rail station is under construction, Lake City, and Aurora Avenue North, in the Aurora-Licton Urban Village.

District 3 council member Sawant has also proposed an amendment in Juarez’s district that would cancel an upzone planned for commercially zoned two mobile home parks located just south of N 125th Street, which are slated for an upzone from 40 to 55 feet. It’s unclear whether Sawant consulted with Juarez on her amendment about the mobile home park, which is also the subject of a special committee meeting Sawant is holding in her renters’ rights committee on Friday afternoon.

District 6 (Mike O’Brien)The 15 proposed amendments in District 6, which includes all of Northwest Seattle, largely sidestep Ballard’s historical center and the area around a potential light rail station, along NW Market Street. Instead, the proposed changes center on the Crown Hill Urban Village, where nine amendments would reduce MHA’s proposed upzones, mostly by lowering proposed densities in areas that are currently single-family from low-rise to residential small lot.

A handful of other District 6 amendments would modestly increase density on a few specific parcels—including one block just south of Holman Rd. NW, currently the site of a Dick’s Drive-In location—but most of the proposals involve lowering development capacity in the northern half of O’Brien’s district.

District 7 (Sally Bagshaw) 

There are just three proposed amendments in Bagshaw’s district, which includes parts of the city (downtown and South Lake Union) that have already gone through their own upzone process and are not part of the current MHA debate. They include two downzones from the MHA proposal, in Upper Queen Anne, and a reversal of a proposed upzone in Magnolia, near the Kiwanis Memorial Preserve Park, just south of the Ballard Locks.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is likely to want to leave her own stamp on the previous mayor’s upzone proposal; during the campaign, she said she supported Murray’s decision to take single-family housing (mostly) off the table, and commented that in considering changes to the plan, it was important to make sure “that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.”

The plan has already been drastically watered down once, during the Murray administration—from a proposal that would have allowed duplexes and townhomes in the 65 percent of Seattle that is preserved exclusively for single-family houses, to the current version, which upzones just a sliver of that land and keeps the city’s single-family mandate intact. Any further backsliding on MHA will only hinder the city’s ability to create affordable housing for low-income residents, and ensure that more middle-income people are pushed out of the city simply

6 thoughts on “At Long Last, Council Takes Up Mandatory Housing Affordability Upzones

  1. I’m curious who has made each suggested amendment to the original MHA proposal and the reasons for each in each case. For example the amendments range from the very specific—such as zoning a single parcel as commercial instead of residential in South Park—to the completely vague—such as the amazingly non-specific amendment to lower the height limits proposed in the draft MHA that would allow heights from 65 to 125 feet in a special mixed use zone in Rainier Beach. The latter even begs the question why the Rainier Beach housing standard ought to be different there than in other areas of the Rainier Valley’s light rail stations, much less the rest of city.

  2. I wish I didn’t have such mixed feelings about your journalism. This is the most thorough article on the currently proposed amendments to the Citywide MHA ordinance, which has a new number this week.

    On the other hand, you write slanted articles based on your New Urbanist beliefs. Twice in this piece you state that “the majority” and “65% of Seattle” is zoned single-family. According to the Comprehensive Plan Land Use Appendix A, the correct figure is 35%, with 28% public rights-of-way (mostly streets) and 12% multifamily. Even then, you can’t meaningfully compare the 35% zoned single-family with the 12% zoned multifamily, because the meaningful comparison would be building capacity. Multifamily has 5x, 10,x, even 100x the capacity of single-family, depending on height limits. We currently have 400% of the zoned capacity needed to meet planned growth.

    You are simply repeating developers’ propaganda. The upzones aren’t needed. We have 5,000 vacant high-end units and thousands more in the pipeline. These developer-driven upzones needlessly gentrify neighborhoods and displace poor families and fixed-income seniors. By displacing affordable housing, they increase average rents.

    Would you please publicly correct these two errors? Restating them as “of residential zones” just repackages the developers view that they need more land to develop, instead of looking at capacity for growth.

    I would love to be able to support your reporting, if it weren’t one-sided. Can’t you adopt a neutral objective and fact-based position?

    • Anyone can slant the statistics, and your reply is no exception. In fact, according to the numbers you provides 74% of the land zoned for dwelling in Seattle is zoned single-family. So your statistics actually paint an even more disparate picture of single family zoned area than those in the article.

      Nor does your argument provide any context for calculating true future housing need in the community. We see much concern and condemnation of the current issue of homelessness in the city. I’ve seen some “solutions” proposed that simply seek to make homelessness someone else’s problem, such as giving the homeless a one-way bus ticket to somewhere else, but I suppose fairness would also dictate that any other city could also choose to make the destination of their solution for homelessness Seattle, right?.

      The only long term solution for homelessness, and for the other needs of this community is clearly more housing than we have now. Until both sides truly acknowledge this fact it seems we’re in for a wide gulf between them.

  3. Is there any data thus far demonstrating an increase in “affordable” housing as a result of the city’s increased density plan? The average rent is $1906 a 0% decrease from the previous year. This despite the increased number of units on the market. My friend said her rent went up only $65/mo instead of $100/mo the year before. Her building has never had parking.
    Please note that the increased density housing going up near light rail stops are a far cry from affordable. Using the federal definition of affordable as 30% of one’s income for housing most units are renting at 50-60% of worker’s income. For example, if I were lucky enough to have a job that pays $15/hr and also work 40 hr/week my affordable housing costs would be $720/mo. I am not seeing any new units in my neighborhood or around light rail stations remotely close to that amount. The new micro-housing units going up in my neighborhood will rent for $1000+.
    We’ve already seen what speculation can do. Developers buying up $450K houses and putting 3-6 town homes that sold for $650K. How is that considered affordable? Even the pundits say that they only thing that will decrease rental costs is a down turn in the market.
    This from an article in the Seattle Times last October; “The downtown Seattle core, which had an eye-popping 25.7 percent of all apartments empty in the spring, has since recovered a bit as the newer buildings start to fill up, but it still leads the region with 17.4 percent of units vacant.
    More than 10 percent of units are empty in East Bellevue, Bothell, the Shoreline area, Ballard, South Seattle, First Hill, Sammamish-Issaquah, South Lake Union, Queen Anne/Magnolia and Tukwila.
    Landlords have responded by giving out a free month’s rent, parking on the house, and electronics or gift cards to lure tenants. Those concessions are now worth $300 on average over the course of a 12-month lease, up from just $24 a year ago, according to Apartment Insights/RealData.BUT NO SIGNIFICANT REDUCTION IN RENTS.
    It appears that the only bargain in the GRAND BARGAIN is for developers.

    • Are you asking for evidence that supply and demand set prices? Come on.

      The population went up, and rents went up. Then construction increased, and rents flattened. Is your complaint that rents haven’t immediately dropped to 2010 levels? No one ever said that would happen.

      How about you stop being disingenuous. I doubt you actually disbelieve in capitalism and the market. Like everyone else in Seattle, you make your money somehow…

      Similarly, it’s pretty ridiculous to attack developers as the bad guy. What do you do for a living that’s so much more noble than building houses during a housing shortage? Are farmers evil too? What kind of job is “good”?

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