Seattle's goals for housing production and preservation over the next decade. (City of Seattle)
Seattle’s goals for housing production and preservation over the next decade. (City of Seattle)

On Wednesday the Seattle City Council will hold a public hearing on recommendations to increase the city’s amount and variety of affordable housing options. Over the past year, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Advisory Committee (HALA) has been working to develop land use and housing program policies that will fulfill Mayor Ed Murray’s goal for 50,000 new housing units – 40 percent of those “affordable” – over the next 10 years.

This will address the type of housing shortage Seattle hasn’t seen since World War II; at best, the city produces 800 units per year that can be considered affordable for lower-income people. The mayor directed HALA to find solutions for people earning various fractions of the area median income (AMI). AMI is adjusted based on family size and established by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Typically, a housing unit is considered “affordable” if its costs (rent/mortgage and utilities) are no more than 30 to 35 percent of the occupants’ combined incomes. Housing units could be anything from apartments to backyard cottages, duplexes, and townhouses.

The Seattle Office of Housing has summarized what local AMI and affordable rents are for its various programs, with one set of requirements in the graphic below. Consider the example of a couple making $43,020 per year – 60 percent AMI. Including utilities, an affordable 1-bedroom unit for this couple would cost $1,008 per month. They’d be hard pressed to find a privately-owned apartment for that low of a cost anywhere near the downtown jobs center or within easy walking distance of commercial services and transit. HALA aims to provide both public and private options so this couple and others like them can live closer to where they work and shop.

Income limits for Seattle's Multifamily Rental Housing Program. (Seattle Office of Housing)
Income limits for Seattle’s Multifamily Rental Housing Program. (Seattle Office of Housing)

In the interests of community and equity, HALA organized its work around four key principles: generating more public funding for affordable units; increasing the quantity of available housing; support for vulnerable buildings, homeowners and tenants; and streamlining development and permitting processes. The final 65 recommendations, compiled in a 76 page document (PDF), are meant to be implemented as a package rather than individually. The 19 most progressive  recommendations are summarized here, headed by their numbers.

Mandatory inclusionary upzones and linkage fees

R.1 HALA recognizes that the private development market is no longer producing affordable units on its own. It proposes raising building height limits in multifamily and commercial zones – enabling greater rental incomes for developers and property owners – in exchange for one of two options: designate 5 to 7 percent of their building’s units as affordable at or below 60 percent AMI for 50 years; or pay into a public fund that will be used to build affordable units elsewhere.

In commercial zones, developers could either add affordable housing to their project or pay into that public fund based on the size of their commercial building. The public fund contribution requirements, if chosen, would vary based on the value of the upzones and the type of construction. This policy alone would lead to an estimated increase of 6,000 new affordable units over ten years.

Where upzoning would change height and density limits. (City of Seattle)
Where upzoning would change height and density limits. (City of Seattle)

Land use and zoning changes

SF.1 Increase the supply of accessory dwelling units (ADUs, such as basement apartments) and backyard cottages (detached ADUs, or DADUs) by removing code barriers like parking requirements, allowing both the primary and accessory units to be rented, and allowing a single lot to have both types of accessory units. Only 159 DADUs have been built since they were legalized in 2010. HALA also suggests developing pre-approved plans for backyard cottages and a clemency program for undocumented accessory units.

SF.2 Allow a broader mix of low-density housing in single-family areas. HALA suggests allowing small lot dwellings, cottages, courtyard housing, rowhouses, duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats within the same building envelope required of single-family homes.

L.1 Prioritize the use of underutilized and surplus public land for affordable housing. Where land is not suitable for residential development, HALA suggests using the revenue from surplus sales to fund affordable housing. Mandate that housing be built in conjunction with new public amenities like libraries, community centers, and schools.

MF.1 Expand multifamily zoning in areas with amenities like transit service and schools, and to tie those expansions to mandatory requirements like those described in R.1.

MF.2 Expand the boundaries of urban villages, which are the areas where Seattle has been directing population and employment growth for the past 20 years while preserving outlying single-family residential areas. These areas are prioritized for infrastructure investment. It proposes expanding boundaries to areas within a 10 minute walk of transit service, and also around areas with schools, parks, and community centers.

MF.3 Upzone single-family lots within urban villages to Residential Small Lot or Lowrise, allowing for greater flexibility in housing types. There are 6,500 single-family parcels (totaling 800 acres) within urban villages that could better utilize high capacity infrastructure.

An illustration of how some of the HALA recommendations would shape neighborhoods. (City of Seattle)
An illustration of how some of the HALA recommendations would shape neighborhoods. (City of Seattle)

Proactive preservation strategies

P.1 Publicly acquire existing multifamily properties that are affordable for the the neighborhood but are at risk of redevelopment.

P.2 Make strategic public infrastructure investments in neighborhoods and cultural communities that are vulnerable to displacement. HALA says these areas should be targeted for economic development, parks, and transit funding.

P.3 Lobby the state legislature for a property tax exemption for private landlords who agree to income restrictions and rent limits, particularly where marginalized populations would most benefit. This would be targeted to properties most at risk for rent increases that will price out tenants.

Financial resources

R.2 Lobby the state legislature to allow for an additional 0.25 percent Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) that would become a relatively stable source of funding for affordable housing programs. Currently King County collects a REET on property sales at the maximum rate allowed under state law: 1.78 percent.

R.3 Renew and double the Seattle Housing Levy that helps build and preserve housing, along with providing rental subsidies, for people at risk for homelessness, first-time home buyers, and extremely low-income households. Historically Seattle voters have approved this property tax levy five times, the last time being in 2009 for a $145 million levy that expires in 2016.

R.4 Renew and and expand the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MTFE) program. This program provides a property tax exemption to market-rate and nonprofit properties where at least 20 percent of units are affordable to renters at 65 to 85 percent AMI. HALA also suggests expanding the applicability of the MTFE to all multifamily zones, expanding the amount of qualifying unit types and promoting family-sized units, and pushing state legislation to permit the exemption to last more than 12 years

R.6 Lobby the state legislature to expand the State Housing Trust Fund. This fund is dedicated to people with special needs, seniors, and people with disabilities at or below 30 percent AMI.

R.7 Reinstate the City Growth Fund, which was originally established in 1985 to address the loss of low-income housing in downtown. It was created from new property tax revenues tied to new construction but was discontinued in 2002.

Tenant support

T.1 Pursue local legislation, education, and technical assistance to ensure fair access for people with criminal records. HALA cites data showing that 25 to 33 percent of U.S. adults have a criminal record, and they are disproportionately people of color with low incomes.

T.2 Explore City funding to expand rental and operating subsidies for extremely low income tenants. The report says that traditional federal funding (Section 8 vouchers) addresses less than 25 percent of local needs for public housing operations.

Streamline development processes

RP.1 Reform the Design Review and Historic Review processes. Builders and designers report that discretionary review by boards made up local residents adds significant costs and complexity to multifamily projects, with an average project taking 14 months from permit application to permit issuance. HALA suggests better two-way dialogue, training for review board members, and limiting the number of meetings.

RP.2 Raise the threshold for review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). HALA found that Seattle’s codes regarding environmental critical areas, shorelines, grading and drainage, stormwater regulations, and other codes address most of the issues in a SEPA review. HALA also finds SEPA has little effect on the outcome of construction projects and that it is used more to obstruct than promote sustainable development.

Public hearing on Wednesday

The Urbanist has published a call to action to support these and the other recommendations at a public hearing on Wednesday, September 9th . The Seattle City Council will hold spoken testimony Wednesday at 5:30 P.M. at City Hall (600 4th Ave, Floor 2, Seattle, WA 98104) and can be e-mailed any time at council@seattle.gov. Future updates will cover the public feedback and the movement of these policies through the political pipeline.

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Scott Bonjukian is a car-free urban designer with a passion for sustainable and efficient cities. With degrees in architecture and urban planning, his many interests include neighborhood design, public space and street design, transit systems, pedestrian and bicycle planning, local politics, and natural resource protection. He primarily cross-posts from his blog at The Northwest Urbanist and advocates for a variety of progressive land use and transportation solutions.

12 COMMENTS

  1. ‘Only 159 DADUs have been built since they were legalized in 2010’

    hmmm.

    i wonder why NIMBYs back them as a compromise to duplexes, triplexes, etc.

    • I honestly don’t know what you are talking about. Advocates for affordable housing are strongly in favor of liberalizing the rules with regards to ADUs and DADUs. If you read Alan Durning’s series on affordable housing — http://daily.sightline.org/blog_series/legalizing-inexpensive-housing/ — the ADU/DADU pieces are really the heart of the piece. Changing occupancy limits would have a very minor effect on housing prices. Our occupancy limits are pretty high compared to other cities and people skirt the law all the time. But if a landlord can’t add a unit to a house or add a backyard cottage, then he can’t do anything. If a home owner can’t build a mother in law apartment because she doesn’t have room for parking, then it won’t be built. The greatest potential for affordable housing lies with the ADU/DADU laws. Most of our land (an overwhelming amount) is within the area that could have an additional ADU. These are relatively cheap to build, too. Unlike most new apartment construction (which involves destroying the old house) you get to keep the existing house. So if a landlord rents out a big house, he can convert one of the rooms into a basement apartment or add a little bungalow out back. That is dirt cheap compared to building an apartment. In other words, rent does not have to be very high to pay for that construction (which means that it could lead to rent being low).

      There is no reason why we can’t modify the ADU/DADU laws so that pathetically low number goes way up, which would lead to a lot of downward pressure on rent.

      • advocates for affordable housing, yes. NIMBYs floating DADU/ADU ‘liberalization’ as a compromise to liberalized DADU/ADU + abolishing exclusionary zoning, not so much.

        i’m all for liberalizing DADU and ADUs. HALA was dead on with their recs.

        however, i find it really difficult to believe that the folks that tried to outright kill the DADU ordinance in the first place, are going to support liberalizing it for more affordable units.

        even after PDX removed their fees – ADU permits only went up to about 100 per year (256 permits in 2.5 years). in 2013 it was 200. vancouver is only doing about 320/year.

        at those rates, it would take 20-30 years just to hit 6000 additional DUs.

        • I have no idea what will happen from a political standpoint. The whole point of HALA was to hammer out a compromise between different advocacy groups. They did, and before the ink was dry, politicians were rejecting key proposals. All in response to a handful of letters.

          Meanwhile, conservatives who want to completely reject HALA have been hammered at the polls. This may get the politicians to realize that the “silent majority” (oh, how I hate to take Nixon’s phrase, but it really is apt) are supportive of these changes. Hell, I would like to see an initiative with this on the ballot. I think HALA would pass.

          As far as ADU/DADU making a dent, keep in mind that Vancouver added a huge number of units a long time ago. Eventually an area does get saturated. Our urban villages will get saturated as well (and rent will at sky high levels, as the low hanging — meaning affordable — fruit has been picked). But in the meantime, in the single family neighborhoods, you add lots and lots of new units, at very low prices. These can be added — they will be added — even if we have a downturn in the market. You can’t say that about most projects, because they only make sense when rent is high (tearing down a million dollar house to put up an apartment doesn’t make sense if rent is low but adding a basement apartment does). There is just a huge amount of land that has potential when it comes to ADUs and DADUs. Even very small growth — 1 out of 200 houses a year adding a unit — would be huge compared to what we have now. Even with all the cranes and the ridiculous amount of construction in this city, we are growing only at about 1% or 2% a year, because only a tiny sliver of our land is available for growth. This would be the opposite. A huge amount of land could grow, so that if it grows even at a small rate, the effect would be huge.

          But the devil is in the details. The rules for all three cities (Vancouver, Portland and Seattle) are complicated. So even though we have by far the most restrictive rules, there are rules that other cities have that greatly discourage growth. For example, according to that chart, Vancouver has the most liberal laws of the three (by far). But a detached dwelling must be less than 12.5% of the lot. That has to impact development. We are actually more liberal in that one area (allowing up to 40% of the back yard top be used). There is no reason we can’t be leaders on this issue, instead of trailing everyone. But it does take leadership — something the mayor has shown little of on this issue.

          • Vancouver’s total numbers are not convincing either re: scaling up to make a dent in housing affordability nor access.

  2. Actually, lots of people you label NIMBYs favor loosening the rules for ADUs and DADUs in SF zones, particularly removing the off-street parking requirement in neighborhoods where on-street parking is not a problem. Let’s boost that low DADU number. Let’s develop stock plans for DADUs to simplify the permitting process. ADUs and DADUs are useful tools to provide an additional income stream to pay the rising expenses of homeownership, as well as provide additional housing capacity.

    • I agree. Changing the ADU/DADU laws can go along way towards building affordable housing. Along with removing the parking requirement, we should remove the ownership requirement and occupancy quota (or at least allow each unit to have one). We could also get rid of the 40% back yard rule. There are a number of ways in which we can encourage density right next to single family houses (on the same lot). Doing so preserves the existing house, which is the stated goal of many who oppose the HALA changes. Right now our rules are extremely restrictive (way more restrictive than Portland or Vancouver — http://daily.sightline.org/files/downloads/2013/03/The-ADU-Gauntlet-Scores-for-Cascadian-Cities-March-2013.pdf). If we are serious about building affordable housing as well as preserving existing single family houses, we should be on the other end of the spectrum.

      • The original objective of ADUs and DADUs was to allow an additional income stream for homeowners, to give them a better chance of staying on their property in the face of rising costs, especially property taxes. But the City appears to be moving away from supporting and encouraging homeownership in favor of a landlord-based housing supply. But as long as the federal government allows a substantial tax reduction for mortgage interest, that’s a policy we ought not to pursue. ADUs and DADUs ought to keep their focus on helping homeowners. There are lots of LR areas for developers to build rental housing.

        If the 40% rule is too restrictive for backyard coverage, what should it be? Or should we allow lot-line-to-lot-line coverage smack up to the back door of the original house? Personally, I like the idea that firefighters have access to that backyard dwelling in case of emergencies.

        • OK, first of all, I made my point that the 40% rule is actually more liberal than the other cities, which overall have more liberal rules. But anyway, I fail to see why we should have a second set of rules when it comes to monster houses, as opposes to backyard cottages. If someone next to me builds right up to the line, what difference does it make how many people live there.

          As for your worries about firefighters being able to fight fires that occur in urban areas, I think you can rest your weary head on that one. Cites like Brooklyn and San Fransisco (known for row houses) really don’t have a problem. Really.

          As far as the city moving away from encouraging home ownership, you make a very good point. The best way — arguably the only way — that they could do that is to encourage small houses on small lots. One example is a row house. But giving home owners the ability to subdivide is basically the answer.

          If you sincerely are interested in the ability of those who don’t own a house in this city to acquire one, then that is the policy you should pursue. Nothing else will come close. I await your public campaign for small houses on small lots. I would sincerely support that.

          • The problem with moving to smaller houses on smaller lots is that Seattle is already a developed city. We are not going to change neighborhoods into row housing. I support modernizing the RSL zone. Allow builders access to all the options on RSL-zoned parcels, and add a provision for family-friendly row housing.

            I’m happy to participate in conversations about these matters, but they need to be face-to-face, not in the blogosphere. But I don’t see the City taking such initiatives. The City should be seeking dialog, not just two-minute “testimony” at choreographed public hearings.

    • Actual ADU/DADU numbers since the last time we clarified/loosened the requirements are anaemic at best. In the very low 100s citywide. Not even close to addressing the need. I’m not at all against expanding their use. I am not convinced this is a solution at the scale we even need.

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