As the mayor's housing affordability committee (HALA) reached a complicated final agreement over the weekend on how to finance the construction of 6,000 new units of very affordable housing over the next decade, Council Member Mike O'Brien's linkage fee proposal played the role that Kshama Sawant and her supporters did during the $15 minimum wage negotiating process last year—a popular bludgeon that forced moneyed interests to make a deal. That deal is now being hailed by the mayor's office as a "grand bargain" that will benefit those feeling squeezed out of this city by the affordable housing crisis. In the process, the mayor's office says, the deal will create not just those 6,000 very affordable new housing units, but also 14,000 moderately affordable units and 30,000 "new homes."
Linkage fees, a per-square-foot fee levied on all new construction, have already been approved unanimously in principle by the city council through a resolution. They would have raised millions in revenue for affordable housing from developers. O'Brien, who sits on HALA's steering committee, had planned to advance his linkage fee bill later this year or next.
But in an interview with The Stranger on Sunday evening, O'Brien said he is taking his linkage fee proposal off the table so long as developers don't undermine the HALA accord. "If everyone stays arm in arm, then the linkage fee bill stays in the drawer," he said. "But if the coalition falls apart, then that linkage fee bill is there and ready." (Developers had already filed two separate legal challenges to his linkage fee proposal. O'Brien said the agreement is that they will drop those challenges and not file any further lawsuits.)
At 6:35 p.m. last night, in an e-mail message to HALA members (developers, architects, affordable housing advocates, and a few renters), committee co-chair Faith Li Pettis called the accord a "historic agreement" and said it "charts a new course for our city. It will enable us build a large amount of new affordable housing across the city, and it will foster collaboration between private and non-profit developers in meeting that goal."
The agreement, according to a document (PDF) that Pettis attached to the e-mail, includes mandatory inclusionary zoning on all new multi-family unit and mixed-use developments and a moderate linkage fee levied only on new commercial development—not commercial and residential development, as O'Brien had planned. The deal also includes upzones of between one and two floors across multi-family, mixed-use, and commercial zones throughout the city, covering 16 percent of citywide land.
Under the mandatory inclusionary zoning policy, which will have to be approved by the council, "between five to seven percent of total units in new multifamily residential developments will be affordable to households with incomes at or below 60 percent of area median income," according to the document. Sixty percent area median income (AMI) is a $37,680 annual salary for a household of one.
This strategy "welcomes developers as a partner in the production of over 6,000 homes affordable to households with incomes up to 60 percent of area median income over the next 10 years," the document says.
O'Brien said his sticking point in the negotiations was securing at least 6,000 units affordable to 60 percent AMI and below. He characterized his negotiating strategy as, "If I can't get to 6000, then I'm going to run my 5 percent linkage fee bill... I will work with you guys in good faith, but I gotta get the six thousand units."
The agreement is to pass all of these policies by September 2017, according to O'Brien.
O'Brien acknowledged that developers were likely to file additional lawsuits to block his original linkage fee proposal and that, even now, anyone who wasn't a part of the HALA process could still sue against the deal reached over the weekend. (Last month, a superyacht marina on South Lake Union sued to block the construction of a bicycle track, defying a similar stakeholder process set up on that issue by Mayor Murray.)
"I do think it's a good deal," O'Brien said. But, he warned, "what could happen is, six months from now, we have a disagreement on the numbers... and they say, 'Screw it, I'm pissed.' And at that point, I'll run the 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."
This post has been updated.