The Escala, where the owners of million-dollar condos briefly threatened to derail the citys housing affordability plans.
The Escala, where the owners of million-dollar condos briefly threatened to derail the city's housing affordability plans. HG

In response to a proposed upzone in downtown Seattle, luxury condo owners from the Escala building successfully organized a mass protest and won sympathy on the city council for their concerns about "livability" downtown.

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha. Just kidding.

The condo owners who live in the building featured in 50 Shades of Gray and who briefly attempted to hold the city's housing affordability plans hostage last year were a small minority of those who showed up Monday night for a public hearing on the proposed upzone. Instead, most of the people who spoke at the hearing urged the Seattle City Council to move ahead with the upzone and related affordable housing requirements.

The council is currently considering a proposal to allow developers to build taller buildings downtown and in South Lake Union. In exchange, they would have to set aside a small portion of those buildings for affordable housing or pay into a fund to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city. The specifics depend on exactly where and what developers are building, but the set-aside requirements range from 2 to 11 percent and the fees range from $5.50 to $17.50 per square foot.

This is the second in a series of upzones the city will pursue as part of the "grand bargain" in Mayor Ed Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The upzones are designed to encourage more residential and commercial buildings in certain parts of the city and to deliver some affordable housing in return. "Affordable" here is defined based on the size of the unit and its resident's income. Very small units will be affordable for someone making 40 percent of area median income (AMI) and standard rental units will be affordable for someone making 60 percent of AMI. That translates to incomes between $25,320 and $37,980 for a single person and rents of between $678 and $1,017 for a one-bedroom. Units for sale will have to be affordable to people making 80 percent AMI or $48,550. According to the mayor's office, the downtown upzone will create 2,100 new units of affordable housing, about a third of the city's 10-year goal.

Last year, Escala residents threatened to appeal this proposal unless the city agreed to crack down on developers who build towers close to each other in downtown. They later dropped their threat. At the hearing Monday, at least two residents of the building urged the city council to focus on "livability" and allow more height instead of more "girth" for new buildings downtown.

But most commenters, including representatives from environmental, transportation, business, and public housing groups, supported the city's upzoning plans. Service Employees International Union 775 President David Rolf, who lives in Belltown, told the council he looks forward to more density and diversity in his neighborhood and supported the legislation on behalf of low-wage workers.

"This legislation envisions a city where working people don’t have to move to Kent," he said.

Several speakers said they supported increasing the heights allowed in downtown and SLU but wondered why the city wasn't trying to get more out of developers. While some have argued the city must keep the affordability requirements low in order to not discourage development, others say the city could be requiring more because the market is so hot. Developers in downtown and SLU, one speaker said, are "the ones with the most money, the ones who can most afford to provide affordable housing."

That's a concern some on the city council have raised, too. During discussions about upzoning the University District, which passed last month, Council Members Lisa Herbold and Mike O'Brien proposed increasing the number of affordable units developers would have to set aside. Council Member Kshama Sawant joined them in supporting that proposal, but the rest of the council rejected it. I've asked Herbold and O'Brien whether they plan to pitch similar increases this time around and will update this post if I hear back.

Regarding the University District upzone, city officials faced vocal backlash from people in the neighborhood. This upzone, affecting fewer single-family homeowners and happening in an area where people are already accustomed to tall buildings, looks likely to sail through with far less opposition.

"Please, knock down my house," said one speaker, who identified himself as one of the few single-family homeowners affected by the upzone. "I feel like the house from Up."

The council will hold its next meeting on the proposal Tuesday, March 21 at 9:30 am.