This month, advocates for affordable housing permit reform accused the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) of improperly influencing the work of a stakeholder group that the city council convened to recommend fixes to an arguably unnecessary permitting process called design review, which the agency oversees. As conflicts and delays mount, at least four members of the group threatened to resign if the City didn't address the issues.

With design review delaying affordable housing projects by months and even years, the advocates said the City must act quickly to fix these reviews with or without the stakeholder group, as every delay to fix the very process that delays housing projects costs the City valuable time in addressing its affordability crisis. 

Seattle at a Crossroads

Back in May, University of Washington real estate professor Gregg Colburn, who co-wrote Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, told The Stranger that Seattle stands at a crossroads when it comes to homelessness. The City must decide how much it wants to invest in permanent solutions such as affordable housing, and how much it wants to blow on temporary solutions such as congregate shelters and tiny shelter villages. As the title of his book implies, there is a correct answer in the long term: We need to build more housing, and fast. 

To create enough housing units to meet demand, a 2020 McKinsey report estimated that King County needs to spend $450 million to $1.1 billion more every year for the next ten years. 

Seattle hasn’t done that yet, but affordable housing developer Ben Maritz, who co-authored the report, said the City has been far from useless toward that end, making quick progress over the years to boost investments.

The City can credit some of that progress to the JumpStart tax, which generated funding to create more than 1,300 new affordable units and to preserve more than 420 existing affordable units across four buildings in 2021. On top of that, money from the Mandatory Housing Affordability program will fund 900 units of affordable housing this year, as The Urbanist reported.

The region will need more money to ensure that no one falls into homelessness due to a lack of cheap places to live, but even if we figure out just the right tax to generate that money, we wouldn’t really be opening the floodgates for new affordable housing developments. We’d be opening the floodgates for developers to wait several years for local governments to approve those projects in the permitting process. Don’t believe it? Go ask LA

Maritz says reforming the City’s design review process, which regulates the aesthetics of proposed buildings, presents one “very easy fix” that could save time and money.

Reviewing Design Review

If you are ever looking to cry out of boredom on a weekday evening, then I cannot recommend a City of Seattle design review meeting enough. 

As Councilmember Dan Strauss said, the obvious function of design review is to make sure we don’t end up with a bunch of ugly buildings. 

Given the sheer amount of attention the board gives to a building’s aesthetics, you’d think we would have fewer apartments plastered with the infamous gentrification font and more that satisfy the particular nostalgic tastes of Artists and nth-generation Seattleites. But that’s clearly not the case.

Nevertheless, since 1994, the City has required architects to present their multifamily, mixed-use, and retail projects to a not-so-inclusive volunteer board that picks apart often mundane design elements over the course of several rounds of revisions guided by one-hundred-and-some-odd guidelines with neighborhood-specific rules. 

According to ECONorthwest, it took an average of two years and three months to get buildings through the permitting process with full design review. In other jurisdictions, that process takes six months to a year. Streamlining the process or exempting certain projects could get Seattle closer to that timeline, and in turn stand up more housing more quickly. 

Then What’s the Hold Up??? 

The Mayor and the Council generally support the idea of cutting red tape to build housing, and they’ve even taken steps to do so in the past with virtually no coordinated pushback from the public. But so far, recent efforts to speed up the design review process have been slow-going. 

In November of 2021, Councilmember Strauss decided to apply the Seattle Process to the Seattle Process by asking SDCI, the city’s construction permitting agency, to form a stakeholder group to figure out how to fix the design review process. 

He gave the SDCI and its stakeholder group a list of elements to analyze, including racial equity on the board, outcomes after changes to design review in 2017, instances where the design review board allowed developers to stray from the land use code, the program’s impact on housing costs, and national best practices. 

Initially, Strauss asked the work group to report back by June so that he could put its feedback into law before budget season this fall. But, according to a recent letter from the SDCI to the stakeholders, the group now expects to report its findings to council in early 2023.

In the face of these delays, Strauss wouldn’t commit to moving forward with reform before hearing the group’s input, even though he already supports exempting affordable housing from design review.

But some of the group’s own members argue its input may not be worth the wait due to tight management from SDCI, which runs the design review process itself. 

Brady Nordstrom, an organizer with Seattle for Everyone (S4E), a coalition of affordable housing developers and advocates, said S4E fears the SDCI will ignore the stakeholder group’s input when it makes its recommendations to the council. 

“They don’t really care what these [stakeholders] are saying,” he said. 

Earlier this month, Seattle for Everyone sent a letter to the Office of the Mayor and the City Council detailing its concerns with the stakeholder group and suggesting changes. Six of 19 stakeholders as well as three stakeholder-associated organizations signed on to endorse the letter. 

In sum, the letter argued that “the outcomes—as directed by City Council—are in jeopardy” and that the validity of the report is likely to be called into question in large part by those who have participated in the process.

To rectify the situation, the coalition suggested that the City hurry up and get the report done by the end of 2022, allow the entire group to create the process of deciding final recommendations together, and hire “a neutral consultant” to take over SDCI’s role to make sure that the department does not deter reform of its own program.

If the City does not make S4E’s changes to the stakeholder process, Nordstrom said that at least four of the current stakeholders have said they will resign.

In answer to the letter’s heavily implied suspicion that SDCI is operating in its own interest, SDCI Director Nathan Torgelson said the agency’s management of the process is “not an effort by SDCI to maintain the status quo for design review.” Ultimately, Torgelson said that the choice about what to do with design review resides with the city council and the Mayor. 

SDCI’s Thumb on the Scale: Part I 

As part of its case that SDCI has been trying to control the outcome of the stakeholdering process, Seattle for Everyone argues that SDCI has narrowed the scope of what the city council asked the stakeholders to find. 

In a July 19 letter to stakeholders, SDCI and the Office for Planning and Community Development (OPCD) “clarified” the role of the stakeholders. The departments acknowledged that “some Councilmembers have specifically voiced their desire for the Stakeholder group to come up with ideas for how the Design Review process can be more predictable and straightforward,” which could involve exempting certain projects from the process. However, the SDCI and OPCD wrote in the clarification letter that any recommendation to the Council should be related to equitable participation.

The departments sent stakeholders a new agreement to sign to affirm they understood the “clarification.”

S4E agreed that design review boards should be racially diverse and equitable, but the departments’ clarification letter made coalition members feel as if the agency would exclude the idea of getting rid of design review for affordable housing projects altogether, a solution that would serve the interests of equity, according to Nordstrom. “If there's equitable participation in a process that drives up housing costs, is that really equitable?” He said. 

When asked if he thought SDCI had changed the goals of the stakeholder group, Strauss, who said he read the clarification agreement, said he couldn’t comment “one way or the other,” but he still wants analysis of all five points. 

In an email to The Stranger, SDCI director Nathan Torgelson said that the stakeholder group will look into all five points in the fall. He added that the departments have not “ruled out” any suggestions about design review’s impact on the construction of affordable housing.

SDCI’s Thumb on the Scale: Part II

S4E also noted “growing concerns” that SDCI and OPCD would not consider the expert feedback. 

Stakeholder Maria Barrientos, a developer and supporter of major design review reforms, said the City paid consultants to interview the stakeholders one-on-one about which reforms they would suggest to the council. According to Barrientos, the stakeholders did not discuss as a group any issues besides the racial equity component, which she found to be “very unfortunate” because the members couldn’t bounce ideas off of each other and form consensus on other matters. 

She said the individual interviews also limited transparency. Since the members didn’t speak as a group, she worried that the private interviews gave SDCI and OPCD the opportunity to “stick their fingers in” and write recommendations regardless of whether or not they represented the interviews.

“I think there's a lot of [SDCI] staff people that believe design is everything and are kinda anti-developer. They think that we're all irresponsible and that they have to control us,” Barrientos said. 

In an email, Torgelson said SDCI and OPCD are committed to listening to the experts. But the departments expect “a variety of opinions” that they will have to synthesize. As far as in-house recommendations, Torgelson said “in some instances” SDCI or OPCD staff may add their own recommendations drawing from public or City staff feedback. 

Further, Torgelson said “if the Stakeholder group is not happy with the final staff report, they are welcome to submit their own correspondence with our elected officials.”  

S4E expressed concern that the report’s delays waste valuable time and push design review reform lower on the City’s list of priorities.

Nordstrom said advocates will likely call for the city council to “stop wasting time” and “sponsor legislation” to reform design review in the next month, especially since many stakeholders do not feel their input will make SDCI’s final cut. 

What the City Can Do

As Torgelson said, the choice to speed up design review ultimately rests with the council and the Mayor. They don’t have to wait for the recommendations, and if they do, they don’t even have to listen. And it would seem that the City’s collective mind is already made up about making changes or exemptions to design review. In fact, it’s already done it. 

Last spring, Councilmember Andrew Lewis proposed (and passed) legislation that exempted permanent supportive housing (PSH) from the process. Third Door Coalition, a group of businesses and homelessness service providers, estimated that this measure would cut costs by almost $50,000 per unit of PSH. The City passed similar exemptions for “deeply affordable housing” until the end of the state’s civil emergency order. 

The Mayor’s on board, too. In his first month in office, Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to tackle permit reform. According to his spokesperson, Jamie Housen, the Mayor aims to approve all affordable housing project permits within 12 months of submission. 

Maritz said that 12 months would be an “amazing” timeline. He said 10 years ago, a builder could get a permit in about a year. Harrell’s goal would return Seattle to that level and better-align the City’s process with other jurisdictions such as Tacoma and Spokane. 

While Housen did not specify which aspects of the permitting process the Mayor seems most likely to support cutting, Maritz said the City wouldn’t have to exempt affordable housing projects from all of the design review to get the permitting process done in 12 months. The City could very feasibly still mandate a “streamlined” version of design review, along with the building permit and street permit process in a year, he said. 

But, as indicated by Lewis’s earlier legislation, the City could go further and exempt affordable housing from design review altogether. 

The Mayor’s Office did not respond when asked if Harrell wanted to fully exempt affordable housing from design review. Strauss said he still wants to wait and see what the stakeholdering group finds, but he supports exempting all affordable housing from design review like the council did with PSH and other deeply affordable housing projects. 

Since the City has made exemptions in the recent past, affordable housing developers and urbanists alike seem in-line with Strauss.

“They could just get rid of the design view completely. It basically adds nothing. I say this as a [design review] board member. We're not making these problems any better. It's just a performative act to allow the NIMBYs to feel like they are getting their voice in,” Maritz said.