I think it’s a good thing that within hours of Danny Westneat leaking the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee draft recommendations, it was essentially plastered all over city media. But, I also agree with Owen that the title of Westneat’s column was incredibly inflammatory, especially as the HALA didn’t recommend repealing the single-family zones for perimeter block housing (as I think they should). Rather, it’s very true that building typologies on the very bottom of the missing middle housing pyramid generally already exist in some form in the city.

Missing Middle Housing
Missing Middle Housing

The 38-page draft recommendations on housing policies is brief, and there are a number of errors and omissions. But it is also surprisingly optimistic–or at least it was until this morning when HALA members, Mayor Ed Murray, and Councilmembers partially walked it back.

Despite this setback, there are a few key preliminary takeaways from the direction that the HALA is going. The Report is broken out into four approaches:

  1. More Housing: Strategies to increase and diversify the supply of housing
  2. More Resources for Affordable Housing: Strategies to increase funding and subsidy sources to produce housing
  3. More Supports: Strategies to protect vulnerable tenants and increase access to housing
  4. Innovation: Strategies to increase efficiencies in housing production

More Housing

The More Housing segment is much more progressive than I thought it would be. It calls for the City to increase the amount of land zoned for multi-family–specifically near green belts, schools and community centers–and for this recommendation to be viewed as more of a long-term mitigation displacement strategy. It also calls for expanding the Urban Villages boundaries. Personally, I have a big issue with the entire Urban Village Strategy–it’s been a massive, failed policy that was wholly designed around protecting single-family zoning. HALA rightly calls this protectionism the source of our present affordability issue, so increasing the amount of land dedicated to actual urbanity is a positive.

More importantly, the report also recommends increasing height limits and codes to maximize economical wood frame construction. In some instances, the changes are minimal–65′ limits to 75′ or 85′–thus making projects viable for “5-over-2” projects. Perhaps as a nod to Alon Bassok, it also also pegs those increase to affordable housing requirements. Impressively, the committee also calls out increasing 30′ and 40′ zones to 75′. Oddly, there isn’t a recommendation to increased floor are ration (FAR) or setback requirements–but most of walkable Vienna and Berlin has height limits around 75′ and FAR of 2.0 to 2.5. Maybe we’re finally getting somewhere!

The report also suggests modifying building and fire code requirements to allow 6-story wood construction. It even references demonstration projects made of cross laminated timber (CLT).  However, it should be noted in much more progressive jurisdictions, wood towers are shooting for over 20 stories.

The multitude of constraining issues surrounding DADUs and ADUs are also called out to be liberalized. Reducing the parking minimums, removing restrictions on owner-occupancy requirements, allowing both a DADU + ADU (a la Vancouver), as well as easing the overly strict regulations that would make them more viable/liveable, are all suggested. All of these are no-brainers and should have been adopted the first time around.

As Owen mentioned, HALA recommends dropping the term “single-family zone” and adopting something along the lines of low density residential zones. After reading through the report, it seems like it would likely be an LR0 with less intensity than even the very limited LR1 zones. I don’t think it goes far enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Parking Reforms

Parking reform also plays a relatively large role in the report, and justifiably so. The report calls for reducing parking requirements outside of Urban Villages or Centers, as well as reducing or even eliminating parking requirements in single-family areas. All extremely positive steps and long overdue.

Increased Resources for Affordable Housing

This segment calls for a number of means to increase resources to fund affordable housing in the City, both directly and indirectly, by enacting a real estate excise tax for affordable housing, renewing and increasing the housing levy, expanding the MFTE program, and taxing short-term rentals like Airbnb. There is also a recommendation to get local companies to explore social impact investing. The report recommends working with local public agencies to identify public lands that can be utilized for affordable housing, as was utilizing resources to procure land for affordable housing in prime neighborhoods.

There doesn’t seem to be a recommendation for a large public bonding scheme for public housing as called for by Sawant. Also noticeably absent are suggestions for a Land Value Tax or Value Capture.

Support Program

The last section includes recommendations to minimize displacement and look for ways to avoid the city losing its valuable, and diminishing, affordable housing stock. Paramount among these are the City itself aquiring existing buildings to preserve affordable housing in perpetuity. Increased tenant support is also critical at this time, and the report recommends finding and expanding operating subsidies for low income tenants, tenant counseling, allowing portable tenant screening reports and increasing tenant relocation assistance.

Noticeably absent from the recommendations is rent control/stabilization. I realize rent control is a contentious topic, but in terms of achieving security of tenure protections for tenants, it should be on the table, at least as a bargaining chip.

Supporting homeownership is also suggested, with specific recommendations to remove barriers to condo development, increasing the impact of down payment assistance programs, and supporting permanently affordable means of ownership (e.g. community land trusts, land leases, etc.).

Innovation

The final blast of recommendations is on innovation, specifically reducing the overly redundant, time consuming bureaucracy. Reforming design review, increasing exemptions under SEPA, improving coordination between city agencies (which sounds like is already underway), adequately staffing DPD are all recommended and all seriously overdue–permit intake appointments are months out right now, so staffing-up is definitely a no-brainer.

Overall, I’m impressed with the suggestions, they’re looking much more progressive than I thought they’d be. I was also impressed with the diversity of participants in the work groups (Appendix E). However, I’m disappointed at how quickly diversifying the single-family zones was walked back, but hopefully the City (and more importantly, homeowners) come to their senses and zone for a city that can flourish for all, and not just the privileged.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider supporting our work. The Urbanist is a nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I need more time to consider and study this, but since when did all who own homes get lumped into one category (single-family zones) and potentially face discrimination? I live in a small home and like many, I’ve been in it for 20 plus years. It’s on a modest piece of land–is not a McMansion by any stretch, and I chose the neighborhood because I do not want density. (If I did, I would have lived elsewhere.) Also, I’ve voted for all sorts of taxes (education, park) that have caused my taxes to go up, sometimes making me feel as if many of King County’s projects are funded through property taxes.

    So, my question is this: are single-family homes being targeted? Aren’t they part of the mix too?

    • HALA’s really just recommending small changes like adding duplexes. Actually, duplexes are common in Seattle SF neighborhoods, and predate our SF zoning rules. This is just a return to the things you are probably used to right now.

      Also, they’re just focusing on areas in and near Urban Villages – places with good transit and generally what you think of as a neighborhood’s main strip. There will still be plenty of SF home land that isn’t changed by this.

  2. The potential conflicts of interest here are mind boggling. To allay the appearance of such conflicts (or to disclose them) commenters should announce themselves: developer, builder, planner, architect, engineer, banker, sports team owner, indebted student, indigent immigrant, etc. I cannot discount any of this properly without some idea of where the comments are coming from.

  3. The draft HALA report speaks for developers when it recommends doubling the Housing Levy in 2016 as the main tool for funding affordable units. The double-or-nothing gamble will follow the gargantuan Move Seattle levy and the King County Children’s levy in November and be paired with a $15 billion Sound Transit levy.

    They are resisting either a linkage fee or inclusionary housing, two methods that tax developers and growth, rather than the rest of us. Of eight funding recommendations, five depend on actions by the legislature, which is resistant to anything Seattle wants. The report recommends expanding the Multi-family Tax Exemption (MFTE) (a tax break developers love) that takes changing state law. Other recommendations that mostly rely on the state legislature to act include expanding the State Housing Trust Fund (done), establishing a state/federal Medicaid supportive housing benefit (being done), increasing the size of the State Housing Trust Fund (done), adding to the size of the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET), creating a preservation tax exemption (a favor to developers) and a hotel tax on short-term rentals. Two other funding recommendations complete the HALA’s tax-anybody-but-us-developers toolkit: creating a Social Impact Investment Fund (asking for charity), and reinstating the City Growth Fund (another property tax, tied to new construction downtown and redirected from the General Fund).

    Recommendations that rely on the state legislature to act are not realistic. The legislature doesn’t like to give us authority to tax ourselves. Recommendations should be limited to actions that can be taken by the city. The two major tools are the linkage fee and inclusionary housing, which may or may not be included in the final draft on Monday. We also need the $500M general fund bonds that Kshama Sawant is backing to provide a land bank, bridge loans for nonprofit developers and low-interest maintenance loan fund for small building owners. In other words, the revenue part of the HALA report is whack.

  4. According to the 2010 Census, 20% of Seattle SF homes are rentals. Since none (zero) of the 15,000 market-rate multifamily units are 3+BR, if you need three bedrooms, you must rent a house. This is the only option for many large immigrant families. Seattle has never had white-only zoning. In face, the redlining and exclusionary agreements were done by the banks and by the developers, respectively. Let’s stop calling single-family zoning racist.

  5. The Innovation section of the report is 100% a gift to developers, all designed to speed development by reducing or eliminating public involvement. In fact, the city’s Design Review Board recommendations will be forwarded to the city council later this year, so we can disregard this wish list.

    • sarajane,

      that’s bogus, it’s not. non-profits, coops, co-housing, baugruppen, CLTs and other forms of developer-free housing would benefit from these recommendations as well. a more liberalized zoning code would also reduce the competition for land that they now face – making their limited funds go even further.

      it’s worth noting that germany has strong property rights, a variant on form-based code, as of right planning (no permits up to certain size), no public input on buildings, and ends up with a better economic mix of development – as well as buildings that are of a better design and quality than almost anything that has to go through DR here in seattle.

Comments are closed.