After some waffling, Council Member Dan Strauss collaborated with the Mayor and Council Member Teresa Mosqueda to temporarily extend his pandemic-era policy that exempts many affordable housing projects from the long process of design review. The extension had unanimous support from the Seattle City Council and Mayor Bruce Harrell, so it would seem there was no need to wait until days before the policy would lapse after all. But Seattle’s urbanists, developers, and other proponents of market-rate density want the City to make these exemptions for all housing projects. 

Aforementioned waffling

Back in August, Strauss would not commit to reforming design review before he heard recommendations from the design review task force the council established in November 2021. Strauss’s unwillingness to act boldly became increasingly frustrating as the task force faced massive delays, and at least four members threatened to quit because they suspected that the Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) was trying to influence the group to preserve design review, which operates within its department.

But when the governor announced he would end his state-wide COVID-19 emergency order on October 31, the city council anticipated that the Mayor would end the emergency for Seattle as well, triggering a countdown for a whole slew of legislation that the council wrote to expire weeks or months after the Mayor stops caring about the pandemic. That lit a fire under Strauss’s ass and he told The Stranger he would extend design review reforms before their expiration date, no problem!

Last month, the promise got even more real. Harrell announced that he, Mosqueda, and Strauss would introduce a bill to extend the exemption for a year while the council works on a permanent policy. According to the press release, the temporary extension allows all developments to opt out of design review if 40% or more of the units are affordable for households earning 60% Area Median Income or less. Additionally, SDCI can waive or change development standards for those projects opting out. Oftentimes, developers go through design review specifically to get the green light to break the rules a bit. 

According to the Mayor’s blog, the coming permanent policy will include permanent exemptions for affordable housing, a two-year pilot program to exempt projects that use the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, and a two-year pilot program to allow all other housing projects to opt for administrative design, which is typically much quicker than full design review. 

“With the ongoing housing crisis and the declared state of emergency on homelessness, I think this legislation is prudent,” said co-sponsor Mosqueda ahead of the vote. “We need to remove every barrier possible to bring affordable housing online as quickly as possible—especially when those barriers exist within our own city code.” 

It’s a win for the advocates…

Advocates agree with Mosqueda. The legislation is prudent. 

Seattle for Everyone (S4E), an urbanist organization that advocates for both affordable and market-rate housing, has long bemoaned the arduous process of design review. In an email to The Stranger, S4E coordinator Brady Nordstrom said that the coalition supports the exemption extensions. 

However, S4E argued the bill fails to address “deeper, program-wide issues with efficiency, consistency, and inclusion.” The task force is supposed to recommend solutions to those issues by March 2023. 

S4E urged the City to “consider broader and more impactful reforms” when the council reconvenes at the beginning of next year to “permanently and systematically fix design review for all housing types, not just affordable housing.” 

Nordstrom said that S4A does not say “fix” to mean exempting more projects, per se. However, the coalition thinks it would be “wise to reconsider some of the thresholds for projects that are required to go through the process.”

…Well, it's a start

Share the Cities founder Laura Loe argued similar points more explicitly in Tuesday’s public comment period. She said, “Market rate—which is the majority of the housing that gets built because we haven’t taxed the rich yet—doesn’t deserve the punishment of the capricious design review processes either.”

Strauss doesn’t know about all that just yet. In a phone call with The Stranger, Strauss said he needs to see a little more study on the impact of exempting market-rate housing from design review before he champions policy to do so. (“You’re gonna hate this answer because you hate studies,” he told me over the phone.)

If some urbanists really want to push it, Strauss did not outright reject the idea.

“What is most important to me is getting market-rate and below housing online quickly,” Strauss said. “What's really important is that we relieve the downward pressure on our housing market.”