With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process

The Standard towers in the University District, one of dozens of projects caught in limbo when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of all public meetings.

Nonprofit affordable housing providers and other developers were alarmed when a proposal from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that would make it possible for their projects to move forward during the COVID crisis was abruptly removed from this week’s city council agenda. The legislation would allow projects to go through the shorter “administrative” design review process, in which projects are reviewed and approved by trained city staff, instead of the usual “full” design review, which involves public meetings and sometimes-lengthy deliberations. Similarly, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer would be empowered to approve or deny changes to landmarked buildings for six months.

The changes would last for six months, or until the city has developed a system for design-review and landmarks board meetings to take place online. Without a process for projects to move forward, land-use attorney Jack McCullough says, a lot of planned developments could be “dead in the water.”

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“If we have to tell everyone who’s in the pipeline or ready to get in, ‘We can’t tell you when you’ll ever be able to move forward,’ people will mothball their projects. They may not kill them, but they’re going to say, ‘If there’s not a path, why am I spending money money on this?”

The council was prepared to adopt the proposal on Monday, but after an executive session at which the city’s law department reportedly expressed concerns that it could open up the city to appeals to the state Growth Management Board, the legislation was yanked from the agenda. (City council president Lorena Gonzalez was unable for comment Thursday, and a city council spokeswoman did not return a call.) On Thursday, after both for-profit developers and low-income housing builders raised a ruckus, it’s back on next week’s agenda.

The city’s eight design review boards are supposed to ensure that their designs are high-quality, comply with regulations, and are appropriate for the neighborhoods where they’re being built. (This process, of course, can be quite contentious and subjective.) Twenty-nine projects, totaling 3,500 new housing units, were supposed to get hearings between March 11 and May 4, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and another 30 were starting the community outreach process that precedes design review.  SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens says many of these projects will provide affordable housing funds through the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Program or include affordable units through the Multifamily Tax Exemption program. The 30 projects that were just starting out include four affordable-housing buildings.

Chris Persons, the head of Capitol Hill Housing, says he has two projects in the development pipeline, including one that requires approval by the landmarks board. “It’s stuck, but it could be resolved by this legislation,” Persons says.

Persons points out that when Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide state of emergency and shut down nonessential businesses, he specifically designated affordable housing construction as essential. In a letter to city council members, Persons wrote that delaying affordable housing projects like the ones Capitol Hill Housing is trying to build could “render them infeasible or at best delay them for months, thereby eliminating or delaying vital affordable housing for those people most impacted by the COVID crisis, and particularly the homeless.”

Seattle for Everyone, a housing advocacy group that includes both nonprofit and for-profit developers, argued in its own letter to council members that allowing projects to start moving again will provide job opportunities at a time when an unprecedented number of people are out of work. “By keeping the housing pipeline moving, we can preserve more jobs in the near-term while providing a foundation for future economic recovery and relief to communities in desperate need of housing,” the group wrote. “This relief is especially important for communities of color disproportionately impacted by decades of exclusionary housing policy and discriminatory housing practices.”

McCullough, the land-use attorney, says it won’t be the end of the world if the city allows development to grind to a halt during the economic shutdown—”the world never comes to an end”—but there will be significant consequences for market-rate and affordable housing (especially through MHA, which is funded through payments from for-profit developers) if the city fails to act. “We’ve got tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars in MHA fees that are sitting in limbo,” he says. “I’m not sure that people who are making the decisions appreciate the level of emergency this part of the market is in and how fragile it is.”

The council will vote on the proposal, which will likely be amended, on Monday. The legislation requires 7 votes for approval.

3 thoughts on “With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process”

  1. Before I moved back to Seattle seven years ago, I lived and worked in Juneau, Alaska’s state capital. Alaska is the largest state in the Union, with probably less miles of road that exist in King County alone. Alaskans have been physically distancing since forever but they do not use that as an excuse to rob their citizens of the right to public participation guaranteed to them under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

    For over 30 years, the entire State of Alaska has been able to conduct public meetings which accommodate remote public testimony before any and all legislative and board meetings where the OPMA applies, live from everywhere, even the smallest arctic villages. It makes no sense that Seattle, at the heart of the online technological revolution of our times, cannot match that standard.

    If remote participation is not only possible, but common place in a state where distances are so then its absence, in Seattle, is due to the lack of will, which will only become more deeply engrained under this Bill for those with the means and motives to forestall it.

    Legislation like this lowers the expectation that we can or should have to continue to observe the OPMA. This Bill is akin to rolling back deadlines for meeting new carbon emission standards. If profits are higher, then tax revenues are higher, but the slope is slippery and the way back becomes more and more difficult to navigate over time.

    I am deeply concerned about Seattle’s future. For a decade, developers have held each successive City Council with a tighter and tighter grip. I understand the need for revenue to support affordable housing and address homelessness, especially. But development-lead legislation like CB 119769 is a blatant effort to increase profits for an exclusive group of private and sometimes non-US corporations. Claiming affordable housing as the motive does not make it true. Rubber-stamping of back-room deals, removed from the public eye increase profits which increase pressure from investors to continue with more of the same. Unbridled development leads to speculation which leads to inflation of real estate prices which leads to more unbridled development. This leads naturally to increasing rents and mortgages, an explosion of homelessness, and retailers leaving our downtown core. Doubling down on development now while developers rush to push a few more projects through the pipeline will only make matters worse, leaving Seattle with a bigger mess to clean up when the City collapses under its own weight, like a bridge that was forced to carry more and more vehicles without providing the maintenance and support to make it sustainable for the long run.

    CB 119769 is just the latest in a long line of efforts to separate our democracy from the people’s right to participation in the name of affordable housing while actual housing costs continue to be inflated beyond affordability for 80% of our households. In putting forward this bill, now, the development community is taking advantage of the same time-tested political / pseudo-financial wisdom that one should ”never let a good crisis go to waste.”

    The new City Council is being tested by this bill. There is no reason that the Market Historical Board and other boards cannot conduct their business electronically, while quickly moving to build in methods to accommodate public participation. The 6 month timeline for negotiating Landmark incentives and conditions is particularly troubling as it includes staff and the owner, but not the public.

    The loss of public participation that is allowed, even as a temporary measure, will be easier to extend and harder to claw back.

    This legislation is an over-reach, and thus detrimental both to the Market and the public’s right to participate in decisions effecting the future of Seattle.

    I have written to our City Council asking them to have the courage to oppose this legislation outright, and if it cannot be defeated, modify it with shorter duration and establish expectations and benchmarks to measure regular progress toward virtual public participation.

    Respectfully,

    Ruth Danner | President
    SaveTheMarketEntrance.org

    89,000 strong and growing in concern for Seattle’s future; dedicated to preserving affordability, sustainability, quality of life, and sense of place in the downtown core at the entrance to Pike Place Market, “The Soul of Seattle.”

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