The city council is currently considering changes to the affordable-housing provisions in the big rezone of South Lake Union—and the differences between the council members' proposals are vast. Nick Licata popped up last week with a plan to massively raise the fees developers would be required to pay into a city housing fund if they don't build affordable housing in their new buildings. Currently set at around $15 a square foot, Licata wants to up it to $96, along with some other changes.
Licata agrees with the housing advocates who have repeatedly testified at council meetings on South Lake Union that this fee—called an "in-lieu" fee because it's paid in lieu of actually building the housing—is way too low, letting developers off the hook. He points to San Francisco's more aggressive affordable housing plan, with far higher fees that encourage developers to actually build workforce housing in dense neighborhoods instead of paying not to. Everyone acknowledges we need more affordable housing, so how do we get there? Stricter regulation, says Licata. "Take the 'Licata Leap'!" he's been crowing on the radio, and on his blog, and probably to pigeons in the park. (The "Licata Leap" is perhaps a poor metaphor when we're talking about high-rise buildings, but whatever.)
But others are shaking their heads. Richard "Richard Dreyfuss" Conlin, who chairs the South Lake Union committee, says there's "only two ways you can create affordable housing" in the city: "raise people's incomes... or have enough supply that's cheap enough that the market will take care of it. I don’t think we'll ever be able to regulate our way toward the affordable housing we need." He also says of Licata's plan, "Basically, I think it plays into the hands of those opposed to development," since he thinks the fee is high enough to actually inhibit growth. The fee only goes into effect when developers build higher than what's currently allowed. If they decide not to go that high to avoid the fee, says Dreyfuss, "we lose all the housing and all the fees."
Maybe that's bullshit. South Lake Union is "the hottest of the hot" real-estate markets, says Licata. Or maybe Vulcan's right—their real-estate VP, Ada Healey, told me high fees could "create a disincentive to supply" more housing and have future impacts on investment, since "investors like predictability" and Licata's grand re-do of the zoning is seen as sudden.
It also doesn't matter: It's not going to pass. Sally Clark, Tim Burgess, and Mike O'Brien all have their own more modest proposals, there's a mayor's race on—you can look at the numbers and see Licata's not going to get the council votes he needs to raise a developer fee sixfold. But it offers some political cover to push the fees a bit higher as they negotiate toward a solution in the next couple weeks.
Ultimately, Dreyfuss says, "Sally [Clark] and Tim [Burgess]'s approach of 'do some now and more later'"—they want to raise fees slightly and then look at a rework of affordable housing citywide later this year—seems most likely to get through the charged political climate at city hall.