The long-awaited July 13 report from a committee tasked with solving Seattle's housing-affordability crisis is another big win for Mayor Ed Murray. Like it or not, his trap-people-who-hate-each-other-in-a-secret-room-and-make-them-work-things-out approach to governing gets results, and keeps Seattle moving along at a steady liberal clip.
The question, as always, is whether moving along at a steady liberal clip is sufficient to tackle "a housing affordability crisis unlike any Seattle has experienced since the Second World War," in the words of the report from the committee, officially known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee.
"I think there will be anxiety," said Murray when he announced the deal. "This is change."
It's estimated that Seattle will welcome 120,000 new residents over the next decade, increasing its population by nearly one fifth. This growth comes with "unimaginable new wealth" flowing into Seattle, according to HALA, wealth that is already changing the city in all kinds of ways—among them, hiked-up rents and the construction of lots of new and expensive housing.
"Without vigilance," the mayor's committee warns, "we risk becoming a city accessible only to the affluent and privileged."
The Grand Bargain
After 10 months of meetings, HALA finally released a 76-page report that was not (thank god!) middling and vague and merely Seattle nice. It tackles racism and classism head-on, makes sweeping calls for different kinds of zoning and new regulations on developers, and strengthens protections for tenants. The report calls for the creation of 50,000 new housing units over the next 10 years, including 20,000 that are affordable at 80 percent of the area's median income level and below. (Eighty percent of area median income is $57,000 for a family of two; affordable rent at that income level is $1,434 a month for a one-bedroom.)
At the heart of the deal is what the mayor calls a "grand bargain" between grassroots housing activists and big developers, which, for the first time, forces developers to build affordable housing into certain kinds of new units—an agreement the parties reached at the very last minute.
In the end, it was Council Member Mike O'Brien's council-supported linkage-fee legislation—essentially a per-square-foot tax on new development used to fund affordable housing—that forced developers into the compromise, much the same way that Kshama Sawant, last year, used the threat of a ballot initiative to push the minimum-wage committee to raise wages to $15 an hour.
"If everyone stays arm in arm," O'Brien told me the night before HALA announced the deal, "then the linkage-fee bill stays in the drawer." But, he warned, "What could happen is, six months from now, we have a disagreement on the numbers... And at that point, I'll run the linkage fee."
Throughout the negotiations, O'Brien insisted on a grand bargain that over the next 10 years would, at minimum, produce 6,000 new housing units that are affordable for a family of two making about $43,000 annually (that's about $1,075 in monthly rent for a one-bedroom). The agreement involves what's called "mandatory inclusionary housing/zoning" on all new multi-family units and mixed-use developments—a requirement that developers restrict rents to affordable levels in 5 to 7 percent of all new units in those buildings—as well as a linkage fee that only applies to commercial zones. O'Brien said he believes the deal creates more affordable units in the long run than a linkage fee applied across commercial and residential areas would.
So developers get to build more, and there are modest affordability requirements and taxes on that development. In exchange, developers agreed to drop two lawsuits challenging O'Brien's linkage-fee plans. One of those developers, Greg Smith, said he liked the deal "because we're all working together... It's the right way to approach the problem."
More Housing, More Density
Beyond the grand bargain, HALA came out swinging on density (that is, how densely together and how high housing should be constructed). Six percent of city land, in areas clustered around so-called urban villages in Ballard, Fremont, the U-District, West Seattle, and throughout Rainier Valley, would be up-zoned under the committee's proposals. Currently, 65 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes, but HALA proposes changing rules in those areas, too, in order to allow for more duplexes, triplexes, backyard cottages, and so-called "mother-in-law" apartments—what the committee calls "low-density residential housing."
"To hold onto our values," said HALA committee member Alan Durning in an op-ed for Sightline, "we must let Seattle's housing stock change: physically. It'll become more like Amsterdam or Paris, less like Sammamish or 1978." These proposals have provoked plenty of angst, and the Seattle Times is busily stoking it.
Tear Down This Parking!
HALA also opted to fight the good fight on parking, by recommending the elimination of all sorts of requirements to build parking spaces. Those rules make housing far more costly and difficult to build than it should be, and they don't contribute to livable, walkable neighborhoods. The committee said that the city should consider removing parking quotas for single-family homes and apartment complexes—and reducing or eliminating the 1:1 parking requirement for low-density residential housing types. "No one person's curb parking should be a reason to deny someone housing," Durning told me.
Naming Racism and Classism
"The city is actually incredibly segregated by race," said Mayor Murray when he announced the HALA report. "If you're a poor person of color, you're most likely being pushed out of the city." The report and the mayor argue that the majority of the city is zoned for single-family homes in part because of the history of racial covenants that precluded non-whites from living in certain neighborhoods.
This has led to accusations that HALA "played the race card" or is calling all single-family homeowners racist. That's pure idiocy, of course. Seattle was and is highly segregated, with poorer people of color concentrated in the South End. Zoning, along with plenty of other factors, plays a role in that segregation.
"What we are saying is that the history of where and how people live in this city tells an important story," said David Wertheimer, one of the HALA cochairs. "That's a history that we need to continue to address, because it left us with a challenge that we need to do something about."
Stop Housing Discrimination
HALA wants to close loopholes that allow developers to displace residents without providing tenant relocation assistance (a sum that helps tenants transition from one apartment to another), create ways for Muslims who abide by sharia law to obtain home loans (they currently have few options), and stop rental applications from asking about a tenant's criminal history (a practice that disproportionately penalizes people of color and makes it difficult for ex-cons to find housing). All helpful stuff.
For Now, Though, Renters Are Still Screwed
But HALA does virtually nothing on a systemic level to address the 52 percent of Seattleites who are tenants right now, many of whom are struggling with skyrocketing rents. The committee did not recommend rent stabilization (also known as rent control), even though a majority of the committee favored exploring the concept. An appendix of the report, under the heading of "rent stabilization," reveals that the HALA members voted 13 to 11 in favor of the proposition that "there are valuable options in regulating rents."
A note in the report said that because the vote didn't amount to a "consensus," it wasn't recommended. (It's not clear how the committee defined consensus, but clearly a slim majority was not a consensus to HALA.) Developers wouldn't budge on the question of rent stabilization, said Jonathan Grant, the former director of the Tenants Union of Washington State and a HALA member, and so the consensus process amounted to a de facto rejection of whatever big things developers didn't like.
That's a damn shame, because there's a 400-page 2009 study by Los Angeles of its own rent-stabilization ordinance, and what did it find? Rent stabilization isn't perfect, but it plays a critical role in protecting low-income tenants and it should be kept in place. Getting HALA to throw its institutional weight behind at least some form of rent stabilization would have strengthened the movement to overturn the state ban on regulating rents. Murray and the city missed an enormous opportunity to move the body politic on that front.
Where We Go from Here
The city council intends to act fast and pass a commercial linkage fee by September, before budget season, in order to begin capturing revenue from new development. But enacting mandatory inclusionary housing, along with zoning changes—all of that could take up to two years.