For months, advocates for a denser, more affordable city have been waiting with gritted teeth to see how Mayor Jenny Durkan would put her imprint on the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which was developed under her predecessor, Ed Murray. The plan, which has already been implemented in a handful of neighborhoods, allows more types of housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings—in more parts of the city, including 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Given Durkan’s somewhat spotty record on key urbanist issues—stalling bike lanes downtown and in North Seattle, siding with housing opponents on the Showbox, and delaying the First Avenue streetcar—density advocates worried that any changes Durkan made would only water down the proposal.
Last week, it looked like the advocates were about to get the bad news they were expecting: Durkan, under pressure from the city attorney’s office, was reportedly poised to call for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to examine the plan’s potential impacts on historic resources (like the Admiral Theatre, above)—an additional layer of process that would have added months of delay and created new avenues for MHA opponents to appeal the plan, perhaps into oblivion. Instead, MHA advocates wanted the city to limit its additional historical-resources analysis—required by an otherwise favorable ruling by the city’s hearing examiner last November—to an addendum to the final environmental impact statement, which would require only a 14-day public comment period and could not be challenged. The ruling marked the conclusion of a yearlong appeal by single-family neighborhood activists, who argued that MHA should not go forward because of its supposed negative environmental impacts.
The city attorney, whose spokesman said he could not comment on any legal advice the office provides to the mayor, reportedly expressed concern that doing an addendum, rather than a full SEIS, could open the city up to legal liability.
Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about whether she initially leaned toward recommending the more arduous, time-consuming EIS process. But representatives from the Housing Development Consortium, Vulcan, the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority, and several city council members were apparently concerned enough about the potential for more delay that they planned a press conference this past Friday morning at Sound Transit’s Union Station to encourage the mayor to move forward quickly with the plan.
According to a planning email obtained by The C Is for Crank, pro-MHA city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office billed the event—officially a kickoff to Affordable Housing Month— as an opportunity for participating organizations “to speak directly with members of the press about the importance of moving MHA forward by March… and why you and/or your organization is excited to support this legislation that has been years in the making!” In addition to Mosqueda, council members Rob Johnson and Lorena Gonzalez were scheduled to speak.
And then, without notice, the press conference was called off. One participant says they showed up to find no one there. Mosqueda would not comment on why the event was canceled; nor would Johnson, the chairman of the council’s land use committee and a longtime vocal MHA proponent.
However, sources inside and outside city hall who spoke on background say that Durkan met last week with a coalition of MHA advocates, including developers whose plans would be impacted by more delay, who strongly urged her to go with the less onerous addendum option. As, indeed, she ultimately did: The city’s Office of Planning and Development will publish the addendum on Thursday, eliminating one of the last potential roadblocks to MHA’s approval. At some point between now and March, the council will approve the plan (with amendments) and a companion resolution, which could call for mitigation plans to protect historical resources inside the MHA boundaries.
The mayor’s office provided a statement about the decision to move MHA forward:
Mayor Durkan believes the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements are critical to building more affordable housing while ensuring that our fastest-growing neighborhoods can be vibrant, livable places for the next generation. In November 2018, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled that the environmental analysis of MHA conducted by the City adequately addressed the impacts of the proposal with the exception of the analysis of historic resources. As required by the Hearing Examiner’s remand, the City has been working diligently to conduct a thorough environmental review of historic resources, and this week OPCD will publish the addendum in order to move forward on a path for the City Council to pass MHA this Spring. Understanding appellants have challenged MHA every step of the way, the City will continue to successfully work to increase development capacity and support affordable housing requirements.
If MHA does move forward in March, it will mark the end of delay tactics that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing, worth an estimated $87 million, over the year that MHA has been locked up in appeals. It will also represent a significant moment in the Durkan administration—a decision to move forward, rather than delay, a program that will create a significant amount of new housing despite the fact that it’s controversial with the single-family homeowners who helped the mayor get elected.
It’s not clear exactly why Durkan made this decision when she did—whether, for example, she was swayed by the specter of a big press conference starring three council members, Vulcan, and the county’s largest affordable housing coalition, or by direct appeals from developers themselves. But tensions were reportedly high at City Hall right up until Friday, after Durkan decided to support the fast-track option— if you can say that a process that has taken nearly two years is on a fast track.