Sneak Peek At HALA Rezones


A handful of draft rezones associated with the Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) were unveiled last night by the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) as part of a Joint HALA Focus Group meeting at City Hall. The rezones would implement Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements for residential and commercial development in the city’s urban villages and urban villages, and in some areas beyond. So far, five sets of urban village/urban centee draft rezone proposals have been shared with the public. These include:

  • Aurora-Licton Springs Residential Urban Village;
  • First Hill-Capitol Hill Urban Center;
  • Crown Hill Residential Urban Village;
  • Othello Residential Urban Village; and
  • South Park Residential Urban Village

OPCD plans reveal all draft urban village/urban center MHA rezones next month on October 17th. So for now, consider this a sneak peek.

The City is using a targeted approach to each set of rezone proposals based upon framework principles which fall into two broad categories: “Principles that form the foundation of MHA” and “Community-generated principles that will guide MHA implementation.” These touch on a variety of important issues that embody what HALA is all about and respecting community values. The first batch of principles include some of the following:

2. Require multifamily and commercial developments to contribute to affordable housing.

6. Allow a variety of housing types in existing single-family zones within urban villages.

7. Expand the boundaries of some urban villages to allow for more housing near high-frequency transit hubs.

9. Evaluate MHA implementation using a social and racial equity/justice lens.

The second batch of community-generated principles are more specific:

1. Housing Options

a. Encourage or incentivize a wide variety of housing sizes, including family- sized units and not just one-bedroom and studio units.

b. Encourage more small-scale multi-unit housing that is family friendly, such as cottages, duplexes or triplexes, rowhouses, and townhouses.

4. Historic Areas

a. In Seattle’s historic districts, do not increase development capacity, even if it means these areas do not contribute to housing affordability through MHA.

6. Urban Village Expansion Areas

a. Implement the urban village expansions using 10-minute walksheds similar to those shown in the draft Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan update.

b. Implement urban village expansions recommended in Seattle 2035 but with modifications to the 10-minute walkshed informed by local community members. Consider topography, “natural” boundaries, such as parks, major roads, and other large-scale neighborhood elements, and people with varying ranges of mobility

c. In general, any development capacity increases in urban village expansion areas should ensure that new development is compatible in scale to the existing neighborhood context.

To give you a taste of what the draft rezone maps look like and how they work, we’ve provided a few excerpts below. The first two show the Aurora-Licton Spring Residential Urban Village:

Draft MHA rezones in the Aurora-Licton Springs Residential Urban Village. (City of Seattle)
Draft MHA rezones in the Aurora-Licton Springs Residential Urban Village. (City of Seattle)
Focused view of the draft MHA rezones in the Aurora-Licton Springs Residential Urban Village. (City of Seattle)
Focused view of the draft MHA rezones in the Aurora-Licton Springs Residential Urban Village. (City of Seattle)

As you can see, current zoning is indicated in each draft rezone block using the abbreviated zoning codes (e.g., RSL, LR3, and C1). The zoning blocks also include the possible rezone designation and the intensity of MHA requirements that would apply. For ease of use, OPCD has also shaded in the generalized zoning type proposed by color.

Using the intersection of N 90th St and Aurora Avenue N as an example, the zoning goes one lot deep from the street. The existing zoning is Commercial 1 with a 40-foot height limit (C1-40) on the west side of Aurora while zoning east of Aurora is Commercial 1 with a 65-foot height limit (C1-65). OPCD’s draft proposal would rezone both sides of the street to Neighborhood Commercial 3 with a 75-foot height limit (NC3-75). The applicable MHA requirements, however, would be different between the two sides of the street. That’s because the west side of the street would effectively get three extra floors of height while the east would only be getting one extra floor.

The increased amount of allowable floor area ratio (FAR) remains undermined at this point. But OPCD offers a few hints on how much added capacity there might be with the added designation of three “M” (MHA requirements) ranges. These are noted as “M,” “M1,” and “M2” where applicable. Increasing heights alone isn’t the whole story since FAR is a large piece in what ultimately is allowed to get built. The higher the “M”-designation, the more increased development capacity is likely to be allowed and coupled with it higher MHA requirements.

Focused view of the draft MHA rezones in the First Hill-Capitol Hill Urban Center. (City of Seattle)
Focused view of the draft MHA rezones in the First Hill-Capitol Hill Urban Center. (City of Seattle)
Focused view of the draft MHA rezones in the Othello Residential Urban Village. (City of Seattle)
Focused view of the draft MHA rezones in the Othello Residential Urban Village. (City of Seattle)

What you’ll also note in these maps are references to framework principles. In the case of Othello’s urban village, principles like 6b and 6c apply as well as special guidance on draft rezones outside of the urban village on the eastern side. Principle 6b applies to the swath of land proposed outside of the urban village to be rezoned from SF 5000 (Single-Family 5000) to LR1 (Lowrise 1) and RSL (Residential Small Lot). That principle states that urban village expansions should reflect a 10-minute walkshed for high quality transit like Othello Station. At the same time, the area is at high risk of displacement according to the City’s analysis, which is why the expansion area has lower capacity zoning designations proposed. Closer to S Morgan St and MLK Jr Way S, properties are proposed to be rezoned from SF 5000 to RSL using the Principle 6c. That principle essentially required expansion of urban-like zoning in urban villages to scale under the context of the existing neighborhood–in this case, detached single-family.

Many of the proposed rezones at the edges of urban villages and areas to be expanded into the urban villages would go to RSL. That zoning typology is a denser version of SF 5000 allowing lots to go to a minimum size of 2,500 square feet and permitting typically one residential unit per lot. Perhaps also notable in the maps are the zoning changes proposed in the First Hill-Capitol Hill Urban Center. Most of the draft rezones would add about one floor over existing zoning in the urban center–an area that already has fairly generous development capacity across most of it as it is. It’s also worth noting that historic districts, special designated areas like Yesler Terrace, and Major Institutional Overlay districts won’t be subject to the MHA rezones.

What RSL zoning typically allows. (City of Seattle)
What RSL zoning typically allows. (City of Seattle)

To get a better pulse on the draft rezones, take a gander at the PDF below and share your feedback on the draft rezones here on the blog:

Draft MHA Rezone Maps by The Urbanist on Scribd

UPDATE 9/28/16: OPCD has pointed out that there is a companion RSL proposal to increase density in allowed in the zone, which could allow for bungalow courts and cottage developments, attached townhomes, and stacked housing. A graphic of the proposal has been added below. Also, the draft MHA rezone map PDF has been updated to include additional neighborhood profiles specific to each urban village and urban center.

Excerpt of the draft development regulation changes for Residential Small Lot development. (City of Seattle)
Excerpt of the draft development regulation changes for Residential Small Lot development. (City of Seattle)

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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Lots of good stuff here. I do think they’re using some backwards logic by imposing lower density limits on places with higher risk of displacement though.

Suppose you live in a lower-income neighborhood. For whatever reason, a bunch of yuppies have decided to gentrify the place. Guess what: there are exactly as many of them as there are existing homes in the neighborhood. They each have more money than you or your neighbors.

Which do you prefer?
Option 1) Restrict development. One by one, the yuppies buy out the existing homes. You and all of your old neighbors have to move to a different neighborhood because the yuppies bought your whole block and it’s illegal to build more.
Option 2) Increase zoning by a lot. A few of your neighbors sell to developers, who replace each existing home with a dozen fancy condos that the yuppies like much more than the older homes. But because all the yuppies are housed in a fraction of the space, you and most of your neighbors get to stick around.

The city seems to think Option 1 will somehow lead to fewer people being displaced. Explain that to me?

Triplexes everywhere

Exactly. Restricting density in low income areas does not restrict displacement. If anything, it will eventually amplify it, as we have seen over and over.

It’s frustrating. And shortsighted. Especially given the historic effects of downzoning in this city.


Just to extend (and complicate) the scenario a bit: Imagine a small apartment that has old, cheap units. Assume that there is no overall change in demand (housing in this city is popular). If no one adds any new units in the city, then rent will go up on those units. If they are torn down, and replaced by an office building, then rent will go up even higher. If luxury apartments replace those and it is one to one replacement, then rents go up. If you replace that apartment with a lot more units, then rent goes down. Those that live in the apartment may be out of luck, but overall, renters are in better shape.

Given all that, it would make sense to tie displacement compensation to density. If you build a new building, and don’t increase density, then you pay a fine. You could easily have a sliding scale. Build out to the maximum allowable, and you don’t pay a fee. Put up an office building, and you have to pay a lot. Put up big, luxury apartments, and you pay somewhere in between.


Re your “If you replace that apartment with a lot more units, then rent goes down.” Please provide one concrete example of a for-profit developer tearing down a small apartment with old, cheap units and replacing it with “a lot more units” that rent for less than the original units.


Sorry, sloppy writing (although more concise). To be more accurate, it should read “If you replace that apartment with a lot more units, then rent goes down for renters as a whole, even if those particular renters lose out (all other things being equal).”. Of course, the “all other things being” equal means that rent might actually increase (but not as much as it would if the construction never happened).


OK, the more new market-rate units built, the less the upward pressure on rents for such new units. But the more older affordable units (“filtered” from earlier generations) the more of those that get torn down, the greater the upward pressure on rents for such units.


For the most part, units = units. Downward pressure on middle class units puts downward pressure on older, cheaper units. If you build 1000 Apodment units in the UW, suddenly the cost of that old apartment goes way down. It isn’t special anymore. How can you get away with charging $750 for a dumpy apartment, when you can get a nice clean Apodment for $800. Of course you can’t build Apodments anymore (even though people obviously wanted them) because the city banned them. In other words, the city encourages the production of luxury apartments, severely discourages the construction of cheap apartments, and then cries crocodile tears when people are displaced (but doesn’t seem to mind as rents go up, up, up).

Mike Carr

You are just creating more units at a higher avg price than the existing average price of rental units. Overall avg. rental rate goes up. Newer units cost more, rent for more than existing, older, lower rent units. The increase in supply will just put downward pressure on the pace of increasing rental rates of new units. No impact to affordable housing at the low end. Current market is motivating developers to re-develop existing land/complexes to create higher priced rentals and generate more revenue. The current economy is fueling this demand for more housing at above avg rates, there are many who can and will afford this.


“No impact to affordable housing at the low end.” Except there will be fewer of them as they get torn down and replaced with more high-end units. The high end is where the $$$ are for developers; they are profit maximizers by definition.

Bryan Kirschner

RSL is progress but you can easily put a three flat on a 2,500 SF lot. That’s what our house is. We occupy all 3,000 SF of living space because we can, but lots of people can’t. Family friendly 2 BR homes.
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I’m a big fan of duplexes – I lived in one in the midwest that was a pre-war construction years ago and loved it.

What about row houses, combining multiple adjacent RSL lot? The only change to further change to RSL would be to eliminate the side setbacks, correct? If there in a functioning alley behind the lots, is there any reason to maintain the side setbacks?

Bryan Kirschner

Yes – in theory I think Hala Committee reco SF2 would allow row houses, but I haven’t seen an articulation of the details on how it would work.


K. The visualization you attached above was super helpful, thanks.


But current reality is a little different. Most of your “large, expensive” SF houses are actually not so large. If we upzoned the whole city, many of those SF houses would get torn down and replaced by even more expensive MF housing, mostly townhomes — ask any for-profit developer. We can’t upzone our way to affordable housing in Seattle.

Bryan Kirschner

Si, si se puede

(for the same reason that every SFH is not a 5,000 SF behemoth: there are only so many very rich people, and there is good money to be made in catering to a fatter middler class part of the market – if zoning allows it)
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City-wide upzoning of all SF neighborhoods will result in affordable housing for the “missing middle”, the folks too “rich” for subsidized housing and too poor for today’s new market rate housing? Your example above puts those folks in a 1000SF unit or a 900SF dadu. Most people with kids want larger (+/-1500SF) and they’ll be moving to the ‘burbs. In my family, they already did.


Most people want a mansion with a view, but they compromise. 1,000 square feet is fine — lots of people would love that. But hey, we can speculate all we want, but how about we actually let people choose? Build smaller houses and see if people want to live there.


No zoning trickery is going to convince developers to build affordable housing when the profits are in the high end of the market. The missing middle is the problem, and middle-income families who want a bedroom for each child are moving to the suburbs because few would downscale to the extent you suggest.


>> the profits are in the high end of the market.

Says who?

Come on, just look at some examples. This is one in my neighborhood:
Three huge houses on a huge piece of property. They will likely go for around a million a piece (despite the fact that they are asking more). Now imagine them building a dozen houses. You could easily fit them there, and still give each one a backyard. These would not be tiny houses, either. They would be considered a normal size house in a different era. So now each house sells for $350,000. That means more money for the developer — even more than the ridiculously optimistic asking price. Even at $300K the developer would make more money. Are you saying you can’t sell a brand new house for 300, because it isn’t “big enough”? Come on.

Which begs the question — why doesn’t the developer do that? That would make them more money. The simple answer is, it is illegal. Building monster houses, or otherwise catering to the rich is legal, but building smaller, cheaper housing (of all sorts) is not. From Apodments to small houses on small lots, it isn’t legal.

Developers are begging to serve the middle and lower class. Folks would love to put up Apodments, small units throughout the city, backyard cottages, house-to-apartment conversions without the amenities (e. g. parking) and yes, small houses on small lots. But they can’t. The main reason they serve the luxury market is because it is the only thing they are allowed to do.


Make you a deal. Let’s try your rezones in a limited area, say the urban village expansion areas, where they expand into SF zones. Then let’s see what the developers build and sell. I expect the reality is the profits per square foot are in the high-end housing, not your example.

Since you have a problem with “monster houses,” then we should ask the City to restore the more modest building profiles that existed previously, before the developer-driven demand for McMansion scale.


>> I expect the reality is the profits per square foot are in the high-end housing, not your example.

Why do you expect that, when every regulatory code encourages the high end, yet we still see lower end housing?

Again, I point to Apodments. These are illegal. If there is no demand for them, then why are they banned? Why do the regulations even mention the number of units, or size of the units? If there is no market for this — if developers are more interested in building luxury apartments than why do the regulations even exist? Why require units to be big, limit the number you can build, require a review if they exceed a certain number, require parking for every unit, if no one is interested in building cheaper units? Why ban the construction of the houses I mentioned (small on small lots) if developers are only interested in the luxury market?

But hey, let’s assume you are right. Let’s assume that if they changed the laws, no one would build cheaper housing, and developer would continue to build luxury apartments and houses. Then what is the harm in changing the law? Let’s go ahead and change it, and see what happens. Don’t change it in one tiny place, but everywhere.

As far as monster houses are concerned, I don’t really care. My point is that if you think you are going to preserve small cottages by continuing to ban density, you are mistaken. When the cost of a small cottage on a medium sized lot costs half a million, folks figure they will go a little further and tear the thing down. But again, that isn’t my biggest concern. What bothers me is not the loss of the cottages, but the loss of affordable housing at every level. If you ban monster houses, than eventually that cottage goes for $750,000. The only way to get more affordable housing is to build more units. That should be obvious. The best way to do that is to change the regulations so that developers can actually do that.

Bryan Kirschner

Here’s a real life real time example of the effects of zoning…
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Bryan Kirschner

The “eventually” is basically now!

1,180 SF house, 3,250 SF lot
Sold 11/15 for $668k
Current Zestimate: $780,748

Bryan Kirschner

Some of us grew up family of 4 in 1,000SF (mine, and at least 1/3 of the kids I grew up with) or even 5 (my mom) because being near jobs or work was worth more than more space or whatever.


Small houses are getting torn down anyway. As the value of houses everywhere increases really quickly (lots of demand, very little new supply) it pushes up the value of tiny houses and especially the lot they sit on. Eventually you get more and more tear downs. I’ve seen at least a dozen in my neighborhood. The area is between Lake City and Northgate, and used to be a very working class part of Seattle (it was common to see cars on blocks in front of the house). We don’t have sidewalks, nor are we near any major parks, or close to the lively amenities of the city that people typically pay big bucks for (Ballard, Wallingford, Fremont, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, etc.). Yet home prices have gone up very fast.

Typically a tear down involves putting up a couple very large houses that cost close to a million dollars. Obviously there is a market for that, but there is also a market for smaller houses. Unfortunately, the former is allowed (even encouraged) by the zoning, whereas the latter isn’t. The monster house doesn’t have to compete with three smaller houses, because you can’t build them. All of this pushes up the cost of all housing, but especially smaller houses. They are being torn down, and the city is largely preventing developers from building new small houses.