The committee assembled by Mayor Ed Murray to tackle the city's affordable-housing "emergency"—that's the mayor's word, not mine—has two weeks left to meet an end-of-June deadline that's already been extended by one month.
The Housing Affordability and Livability Committee (HALA, pronounced holla!) has agreed on about 60 policy recommendations, according to cochair David Wertheimer, but is deadlocked in a debate over how to fund those policies.
Wertheimer's day job is to work on homelessness for the Gates Foundation. We spoke over the phone on Friday.
How is the committee doing?
I think it's actually going well. We are in the last 18 days now of our work. And we have a very significant consensus on more than 60 recommendations that are across a variety of different domains that relate to issues of affordability and livability. We are hammering out some final agreements, I hope, on some of the key questions of how to best generate the revenues that are required for the development and preservation of affordable housing. That's turned into a very complicated discussion... especially as you move into the deeper subsidies that have to go with the development of affordable housing.
What are the revenue generators under debate?
[The use of] linkage fees is one of a variety of mechanisms that could be deployed. Mandatory inclusionary zoning is another. The HALA is asking the city to look at issues like bonding authority and social impact financing.
One way to think about it is that there are a number of different dials that the city could use to dial up or down the revenues and the capacities of neighborhoods for density. And the HALA is right now trying to figure out the configuration of those dials in order to maximize the development of affordable housing without breaking the system... The simple, elegant solution will almost invariably fall short in execution.
Are you talking about rent control? You'd said last fall that all options are on the table, including rent control.
We have looked at the impacts of rent control over multiple different communities that have experimented with it. And that solution in cities, for example, like San Francisco, has not yielded the results that were hoped for. [Asked to clarify over e-mail, Wertheimer added:] Although our recommendations are not yet finalized, we are working under a decision-making model where a strong majority of support must be in place for our final set of recommendations. At this point in our process, rent control does not have that strong majority of support among HALA members.
How would you characterize the tenor of the discussions you're having now?
As our deadline has approached, conversations have become more animated. And there is a lot of energy across all of the HALA constituencies that is about getting to a result... Hopefully a result that we can all agree to. We've had people go late into the night... They are intense conversations that have remained civil and friendly. Everyone is acting in good faith.
Has Mayor Ed Murray strode into the room and screamed at anyone lately?
I suspect that if the HALA is not, in the next eighteen days, on track to get to that outcome [of agreement], the mayor will become actively involved.
What is the process like from this point forward?
With the 60 recommendations or so that everyone agrees to, they're being prioritized and ranked through a voting process. There are placeholders in the process for the most significant revenue-generating options.
Will there be a massive upzone of neighborhoods currently zoned for single family homes?
I think it's fair to say that sustainable ways of increasing density are a natural by-product of the kind of urban growth that Seattle is experiencing. In the Seattle of the 21st century, I'm not sure the best use of 5,000 square feet of urban land is to house two adults. We are seeking to ensure that the neighborhoods near amenities, including transit, are accessible to people at a variety of different incomes.
Could the linkage fees proposal approved by the city council get watered down through HALA process—for example, only applying linkage fees to commercial development?
If you were to do commercial linkage fees alone, yes, that would probably be a setback. There are many ways to package the different options that are out there.
What happens if you don't reach an agreement?
If we cannot get to an agreement, it will be a great disappointment to the HALA, to the mayor, and to the city. There's really no alternative option. It's not a threat. We're just saying we really need this to succeed. We're certainly more than two-thirds of the way there, but I would also say the revenue-generating options are the linchpin.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.