An Introduction to Impact Fees in Washington State

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The Puget Sound region is booming with new development, more residents and jobs, and demand for increasingly stretched public services, whether they be roads, transit, schools, or parks. Many jurisdictions require new development to pay impact fees to partially supplement capital funding to construct new facilities for these services. Seattle, however, is one of the few cities that does not impose impact fees for transportation or schools. Seattle does have Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and will expand that today, which is essentially an impact fee for affordable housing. Seattle also has a fee for sewer and electrical hookups, which are technically a form of impact fee but not in name. Under state law, impact fees can be used to pay for road improvements, school expansions, park and open space acquisition, and new firehouses.

Opinions on impact fees vary widely. Some boosters suggest that “new growth should pay for growth”–or put another way: that growth should pay for the new impacts to services that growth can create. Some hope that impact fees will curb new development. Detractors think they are designed to punish developers and that the costs are passed on in the form of higher housing prices. And some simply think that general taxation (e.g., property tax) is a fairer way to pay for growth.

However, the professional planning opinion locally, nationally, and globally sit squarely in favor of impact fees. Additionally, the economic research suggests that impact fees are a form of land value capture, causing lower land prices rather than higher housing costs. While there is evidence that impact fees can increase housing prices, research suggests that may actually be due to the additional services they provide. After all, well-funded schools often correlate to higher housing prices. Overall, planners and community members often see the policy is a fair way to fund the additional services needed due to growth.

Washington Statute on Impact Fees

In Washington state, impact fees are authorized under Chapter 82.02 RCW. The purpose of impact fees is to provide a financing tool for developing system improvements that will serve new development. The statute, however, is clear that impact fees must not be solely relied upon for financing new improvements. Instead, there must be a “balance between impact fees and other sources of public funds.” The statute is also clear that impact fees cannot be imposed arbitrarily or in a duplicative manner for existing impacts. They must be designed so that the impact fee cost is proportionate to the benefit that new growth and development will receive from improved and expanded public services.

How We Got Here: A (Brief) History of Mandatory Housing Affordability in Seattle

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Vulcan's development under construction at 23rd and South Jackson is subject to MHA requirements. Photo by author.

Today Seattle City Council is voting on “citywide” implementation of Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), a form of inclusionary zoning from which single family zones outside of designated Urban Villages are exempt. Looking back at the events that have led to this moment one thing is certain: nothing about the process leading to today’s vote has been easy.

And, unfortunately, if recent remarks by made by some of the the MHA louder critics are taken seriously, the City may find itself entangled in yet another legal battle in the near future. (More on that later)

I will admit that my first reaction to writing a post on the lead up to the big MHA vote was less than enthusiastic. After all, I did sit through five hours of the last public hearing, which even for a housing policy nerd like myself was a really long time and left me feeling like I had hit an MHA saturation point.

But, MHA actually has a very interesting history. These past five years have been full of contentious battles over a policy that was initially declared the “Grand Bargain” because of the note of compromise it was supposed to have struck between developers and affordable housing advocates.

Because of the wonder of the Internet, I can keep this post (somewhat) brief by including lots of links to many excellent articles that have been written on MHA, including many published by The Urbanist.

To begin with MHA’s history, we have to go way, way back–96 years to be precise–to when one of the main ingredients of Seattle’s affordable housing shortage was being baked into City code.

1923 – The Bartholomew Plan brings single-family zoning to Seattle

An excellent two-part series by Mike Eliason describes how a zoning ordinance created by Harland Bartholomew resulted in “sweeping downzones and initiated a slow strangulation of Seattle’s housing options.” While Bartholomew did not use the phrase “single-family zoning,” his work, which was predicated on keeping people of color out of affluent white communities, introduced Seattle to the concept of “first residence district zoning,” which functioned as a direct precursor to single-family zoning. Learn more about how the Bartholomew Plan by reading Eliason’s articles, This Is How You Slow Walk into a Housing Shortage and The Narrowing of a Neighborhood: Wallingford on Sightline Institute.

Sunday Video: City of the Future–Singapore

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In this longish video, National Geographic explores Singapore and highlights what policymakers are doing to plan for the city as it grows into the future.

What We’re Reading: Sustainable Transportation, Climate Action Delayers, and Don’t Mess With Our Future

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Bike and walk LWB: Car-free Sundays on Lake Washington Boulevard will return this summer.

No highway expansions: In Portland, opponents of I-5 expansion came out in droves to a public meeting.

Bauhaus 100 years on: Why does the Bauhaus movement still matter?

Sustainable transportation: Urban transportation must change to avoid a climatic disaster.

New flexible post design: Is the Arlington, Virginia testing out the bike lane flexible posts of the future?

Gas taxes should: Who will pay to fix Washington’s culvert problem?

Stalled out: Is appears the campaign to expand the use of traffic safety cameras has died in Olympia due to specious objection by American Civil Liberties Union ($), which wants to protect the rights of cars instead of people.

Access to opportunity: According to a study, transit service improves property values and lowers poverty.

Decongestion charging: Sightline says that commuters would come out ahead if Seattle implemented tolling.

ORCA on monorail: ORCA cards will be accepted on the Seattle Monorail beginning in September.

Rising temperatures: The United Nations says that sharp rises in the Arctic are now inevitable.

Affordability crisis: The affordable housing crisis continues to persist across America, but big plans could help alleviate some of it.

Desperation: New rail tunnels need to be built across the Hudson River in New York and New Jersey, and Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has pitched the idea of naming them the “Trump Tunnel” to garner support.

Change the talk: We need to change how we talk about pedestrian deaths, says Streetsblog.

Climate action delayers: The Move All Seattle Sustainably coalition says that the Washington Senate Democrats’ transportation funding is the opposite of the green transportation future we need.

Voting politics: Atlanta’s vote on transit may boil down to a referendum on race.

Transit delayers: West Vancouver, British Columbia has opposed bus-only lanes for bus rapid transit.

Elder YIMBYs: AARP has come out in support of smaller and shared housing options.

Greener ferries: Kitsap Transit will soon launch hybrid-electric passenger ferries.

Skyscraper city: Have you heard about Manhattan’s new, massive Hudson Yards development?

Don’t mess with our future: Youth across the globe are protesting and demanding real action on climate change by legislators.

Map of the Week: Restrooms for All

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The Seattle City Auditor’s report on the Navigation Team, recently presented to the city council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee, included information on obstacles that are preventing the team, which conducts outreach for people living unsheltered on Seattle’s streets, from making progress toward its goals.

The report outlined a “dual mission” for the Navigation Team: to assist those living unsheltered, and “to mitigate the negative impacts that unauthorized encampments can have in public spaces and adjacent neighborhoods.” The audit noted a lack of restrooms available to someone on the street 24/7 was preventing progress in the latter category. (Restrooms would also assist those sleeping outside, but that was not noted in the report).

At the city council briefing, the city auditor’s team broke down how the city’s six 24/7 restrooms across the entire city compares to an international standard for restroom access: the United Nations’ (UN) standard for refugee camps. If Seattle wanted to use the UN standard to determine how many restrooms would be available for its unsheltered population, it would need to construct 224 restrooms. Again, there are six.

Let’s Build a Dense, Climate-Resilient EcoDistrict in Seattle’s Interbay

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The Sonnwendviertel is a new district with 5,000 homes, 40% of which are social housing next to Vienna's central train station. (Photo by Daniel-tbs, Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, My Ballard published that the state was looking for input on a nearly 25 acre parcel of land that it owns, adjacent to the BNSF railyard in Interbay. The site is presently utilized by the Washington National Guard, who will likely be relocating their armory out of the city due to traffic and other issues. This is an opportunity to seriously address the intersection of our housing and climate crises.

This parcel is going to be redeveloped. It is presently zoned IG2 U/45, which is an industrial general zoning that allows 45-foot tall buildings. IG zoning allows heavy manufacturing — but also commercial (retail/office/entertainment/R&D). As I noted for The Urbanist a few weeks ago —industrial lands were exempt from contributing to MHA. This, despite contributing to the jobs/housing imbalance, exacerbating our housing crunch.

As we should have done with Fort Lawton, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a dense, car-free/car-light ecodistrict for thousands of residents with a wide range of incomes. We should do everything possible to prevent this from just becoming another corporate campus. The Interbay EcoDistrict could be a massive shift in the way we approach housing: an affordable, mass-timber, car-free, family-friendly, passivhaus district.

Challenges and Opportunities with the Armory Site

Proposed location for the Interbay EcoDistrict. (Google Earth)

The site poses several issues. It is built on fill. It is at risk for flooding with storms and sea level rise. These could all be mitigated — mass timber buildings have passed shake tests. But it also offers immense opportunities. It sits a block off the RapidRide D line. With light rail headed to Ballard, the potential for an infill station at Interbay is highly possible. It’s a flat, 20-minute ride on the beautiful Elliott Bay Trail to Pioneer Square. Most importantly, not a single resident would be displaced for housing here.

I know what you’re thinking… Can trains and housing even co-exist? Naturlich. They coexist all over the world, quite densely, even. Yes, there are pollution issues. This could be partially mitigated by requiring all projects to meet passivhaus so there is little air leakage, and all air is filtered. That passivhaus is a buoy against energy poverty only adds to the resilience here. There are other things that can be done, like putting circulation on the train-side, as a buffer against the noise. This was the approach for a large passivhaus social housing development adjacent a railyard in Vienna.

Meet Michael George, Council Candidate in District 7

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District 7 candidate Michael George with his wife Emily and their two young children. Credit: Michael George campaign

It is apparent early on in conversation with District 7 City Council candidate Michael George that he loves cities, but the dedicated urbanite and co-founder of Parents for a Better Downtown Seattle (PBDS), also professes to be fond of wild spaces too.

“I’m an ‘up not out’ environmentalist,” George said. “Living in cities is one of the best ways we can save nature.”

George and his wife Emily, who co-founded PBDS, have not only dedicated themselves to being downtown parents in a city that ranks second in the nation for households without children, they have also taken on the challenge of making downtown Seattle more welcoming to families with children.

For George the stakes are high. More people living outside of cities means greater sprawl and higher carbon emissions. Thus, in his perspective we need more people to live in cities, and in order to do so, we need to make cities comfortable and affordable to people from many walks of life.

As a Seattle City Councilmember, representing not only Downtown, but also quainter residential neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Magnolia, George wants to take an intersectional approach to making a Seattle a city that can offer a high quality of life to people from different backgrounds and income levels.

“I’m a systems thinker. We have the opportunity to bring complex issues together to define important city priorities like increasing equity,” said George. “Equity is something that should be defined across different topics.”

In George’s perspective, the current council has not succeeded in convincing the Seattleites that they understand how the holistic nature of the challenges that face the City. “We need to create a holistic vision and then we need to communicate that vision,” George said.

New Photography Exhibit Shares Stories of Homesteading in Pioneer Square

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A visitor gets up close to view a photo and reads the personal story that accompanies it. Photo by author.

Home Now is a compelling mix of art and activism that invites viewers to make a human-to-human connection with their unhoused neighbors.

It was time for the outdoor viewing for Home Now, an innovative photography exhibit on display at the Impact Hub in Pioneer Square. Rachelle Mee-Chapman had prepared a tent with coffee and donuts to share, and volunteers were already deep into serving the long line of people that wound around the corner of Second Avenue and South Washington Street.

Despite the late winter chill and quickly melting snow, a festive spirit pervaded the street. People gathered around steamy cups of coffee, chatting and admiring the photographs mounted on Impact Hub’s glass walls. A few of the people profiled in the exhibit posed near their photographs and stories–the proud celebrities of the hour. It was a rare moment of celebration on a street more commonly known for struggle.

Neha Hora, staff member the Presidio Graduate School, and Rachelle Mee-Chapman serve coffee and Mighty-O donuts during the outside viewing of Home Now. Presidio is one of the tenants of the Impact Hub building and is involved with homeless outreach on both its Seattle and San Francisco campuses. (Photo by author)

However, the person who should have been at the center of attention, Home Now photographer Timothy Aguero, was nowhere to be found.

That’s because Aguero was off at a doctor’s appointment. Fred, one of the Pioneer Square homesteaders, had needed extra help and Aguero had stepped in to provide it.

“The photography is secondary,” Aguero said while handing coffee and warm clothes alongside Mee-Chapman the previous week.