The owners of a low-income housing property adjacent to the Northgate Mall are attempting to exploit a loophole in city development laws to raze over 200 units of affordable housing and build new high-rise apartments, without replacing the lost affordable units lost—and without letting neighbors a chance to weigh in on the process.
And nearby residents aren't pleased.
"Normally, when we're talking about zoning changes, there’s a bunch of comment periods where neighbors have a chance to connect and voice their concerns," explains David Miller, director of the Maple Leaf Community Council, the small neighborhood that abuts the Northgate Mall at its northern boundaries. "This loophole allows them to bypass all that. We can’t even talk to council—we’re prohibited."
Aside from potentially losing a sizable amount of affordable housing in the area, if the owners succeed, it could set the stage for future developers to sidestep the city's so-called "incentive zoning" provisions, which give developers the option to raise their building heights in certain residential areas if they commit to keeping a percentage of low-rent units on site.
Which has affordable housing advocates simmering: "This case highlights the city's inconsistent approach to incentivized zoning," says Sarah Lewontin, Executive Director of Bellwether Housing, which provides low-income housing for working families and seniors. "People should be able to work close to transit and their jobs. Any development plans should accommodate the working families who are currently living there—it's that simple."
In other words, hold on to your girdles, development nerds, it's a zoning drama worthy of your favorite daytime soap!
But first, a little background. The property in question—the Mullally property, as it's commonly called—was constructed in 1951. Its 200-odd apartment units are bundled in small one- and two-store apartment buildings and the apartments have been used continuously since that time, making the well-kept but shabby units de-facto affordable housing, which is incredibly important given their location: 11200 1st Ave NE, next to large employers like the Northgate Mall and Kindred Hospital, and within a 10-minute walk of the Northgate Transit Station, the major metro hub for the area (as well as the future site of Northgate's Light Rail station).
In other words, the property sits in the heart of Northgate's urban center, which has put the neighborhood in an unusual position: Residents who have lobbied for density are now opposing this project because they're desperate to retain affordable housing in the neighborhood.
"We strongly believe in higher density in our urban center," Miller says, "and we always knew that property would be redeveloped—that's why we lobbied for light rail. But those 200 units are some of the most affordable housing in the north end. There are families there, a lot of families. Losing that much low-income housing to redevelopment is a huge concern for us."
The property is currently zoned for 60-foot development, or up to 75 feet with incentive zoning provisions. But the Mullally family wants to go bigger—up to 85 feet by changing the zoning from multi-residential to commercial (which is a wonky but important detail—I'll explain why in a minute). And they're doing it by asking the city to rewrite the official property map for the site, like so:
The process is called a map change because it bypasses the rigmarole of a standard zoning change—including notifying the public hand hosting a passel of public meetings. Meanwhile, the zone change means the Mullallys wouldn't be required to honor the city's incentive provisions, even though the city specifically encourages mixed-income housing development in areas near transit stations.
"We still have the ability to look at the impacts of low income housing zoning," argues Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD).
Indeed. Here's how the loophole process works: DPD makes a recommendation to the city's Hearing Examiner, who makes a recommendation to the city council, which makes a decision on the map change. And in the interim, the city council is prohibited from hearing or reading anything about the project—other than the recommendations issued by DPD and the Hearing examiner (the argument being that they're acting like judges and shouldn't be swayed by anything outside of the city's official records). For example, city council members are prohibited from listening to neighbor's concerns or even reading this post, which means that I can point out that council member Tim Burgess looks exactly like a baby vulture with relative impunity.
So where are we in this exhaustively boring-yet-nuanced process? Well! Yesterday, DPD issued it's 33-page recommendation (.pdf), which found, among other things, that the rezone would "have a positive impact on the supply of housing on the site and its surroundings by providing capacity for additional new dwelling units"—i.e., allowing the Mullallys to increase their potential rentable floor area by 41 percent—but that "the proposed rezone would result in an impact to affordable housing by allowing substantially more development potential without advancing the City’s policy to provide some housing affordability in an urban center."
Basically, neighbors' worst fears. Despite this finding, DPD is all for "conditionally approving" the change. (If you enjoy being confused, see pages 16/17 of the report for their wonky reasoning).
Meanwhile, Miller breaks down the DPD's numbers, found on pages 16/17, in human speak:
"Housing 'affordability' is rated by Average Median Income," he explains, which for King County, is $67,806. "Under the current zoning, the developer would be able to build 2,216 units, including 262 units at 50 percent of [the Area Median Income] (10 percent of units) or 303 units at 50-80 percent AMI (17.5 percent of units).
"If DPD's recommended conditions hold, under the upzone the developer would be able to build 3,128 units. However, they would only be required to build 94 units at 50 percent AMI or 156 units at 80 percent AMI."
In other words, the DPD is recommending that the developers be allowed to build an additional 1002 residential units on their property through the zoning change, while acknowledging that their recommendation means the neighborhood would lose out on between 147 to 168 units of affordable housing. Which neighbors do not want.
A little fucked up for a city that's been beating the drum about adding more affordable housing to urban centers, no?
"We all must demand our city officials take actions to stem the continuing loss of low-income housing in our communities," co-wrote John Fox, head of the affordable housing advocacy group Seattle Displacement Coalition, in a recent editorial of Seattle City Living. "That means implementing policies that stop developers from destroying what’s left of our low income housing stock and/or ensuring that when it does occur, they pay 100 percent of the cost of replacing those units and at comparable price. It's time developers paid their fair share. Instead our city leaders are rewarding bad behavior by granting them upzones and tens of millions in 'multi- family tax exemptions.'"
Miller and other leaders of the Maple Leaf neighborhood agree. "If we screw this up by allowing this development to go through without, at the very least, replacing on a unit-by-unit basis the affordable housing on that lot, we’re messing up," he says. "If we can’t increasing the amount of housing that’s affordable to people who work in the area, we’re doing it wrong."