Weve got a loooong way to go on creating affordable neighborhoods.
We've got a loooong way to go on creating affordable neighborhoods. James Yamasaki

The fate of affordable housing in Seattle may depend on a consensus among developers—but that consensus may be unraveling.

This week, a high-profile developer lobbyist began to voice his opposition to the "grand bargain" between developers and social justice activists that was proposed by the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee earlier this summer. In an email to all nine city council members on September 7, Smart Growth Seattle's Roger Valdez asked, "Is the Grand Bargain really a bargain?"

To jog your memory: The “grand bargain” involved City Council Member Mike O'Brien agreeing to shelve his linkage fee bill—a policy that would have imposed a per-square-foot fee on developers for all new developments.

The city council had supported the citywide linkage fee, and it was on track to become law, but two developers sued the city to block it. Under the grand bargain, the developers agreed to drop their lawsuit. In return, the linkage fee was scaled back to apply to commercial areas only (and not residential zones). The bargain also included adding a program called mandatory inclusionary housing, which allows developers to build an additional floor in multifamily developments but requires them to make between 5 and 8 percent of the units affordable. (Affordable is defined as a single person making about $1,000 a month. More on how all that works here.)

The developers on the HALA committee decided they could live with that. "But if the coalition falls apart," O'Brien warned, "then that [citywide] linkage fee bill is there and ready."

Valdez said the HALA coalition didn’t include smaller developers who construct townhomes and buildings in low-rise zones. One of those developers, Scott Shapiro, explained to KUOW that he doesn’t support the grand bargain because he can’t turn a profit if he’s only able to build one additional floor.

"It's a grand bargain, but not everyone was involved in the bargain," Valdez said.

Curiously, one of the developers listed as a "sponsor and supporter" of Valdez's organization spoke in favor of the HALA deal just last week, standing alongside O'Brien and Murray. A.P. Heard, the head of the developer Touchstone, praised the bargain and said it represented greater predictability in the market for developers. She even claimed to be speaking "on behalf of the development community." (She didn't respond to a message seeking comment.)

Valdez said he and Heard may disagree about the grand bargain. "I can't speak for the mid-rise and high-rise people," he added, "because I think they're largely represented by [Tim] Ceis and company and the DSA [Downtown Seattle Association]... Developers are not a monolithic entity."

In his e-mail to the council, Valdez said the folks he represents couldn't support the bargain until "some of these issues were addressed."

Support The Stranger

Unsurprisingly, the DSA was out in force commending the bargain this week at a city council hearing on the HALA proposals. The group's Don Blakeney urged the council not to change the parameters of the deal. "Significant alterations would lead the coalition [behind the grand bargain] to fall apart," he said.

It only takes one dark horse developer who isn't on board to throw a wrench in the HALA process. Look at what happened with cycletracks in South Lake Union: There was broad agreement on the need for a safe, dedicated two-lane cycletrack along Westlake Avenue to replace the dangerous parking lot gauntlet in place now. But waterfront businesses sued to block the project. Murray convinced them to drop the suit by creating a months-long stakeholder process that gave them input on a compromise cycletrack design. After months of progress, in June, a lone superyacht marina decided to fuck all of that anyway, filing its own new lawsuit to hold up the project.

O'Brien has said that if developers don't stick to the grand bargain, "I'll run the [citywide] linkage fee. It'll be a different council at that point... We each have something we could do that the other side doesn't like. If we stay together, we're better off. The hope is the majority of folks will stay together.”