Seattle's MHA-R program would match upzones with inclusionary requirement. (CIty of Seattle)

When I criticized Sightline’s framing of Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, a few people suggested I was providing “fodder to NIMBYs.” I’m not sure my argument for bigger upzones to get a larger inclusionary requirement is the kind of cover the John Fox crowd is seeking.

We at The Urbanist support Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program because we believe it will boost the number of affordable units without hindering market-rate production. Inclusionary zoning puts affordable units in booming neighborhoods, furthering the mixing of economic classes and often school integration, too.

Some commenters said “well if you support inclusionary zoning with its 5 to 11 percent requirement, why not 25 percent like San Francisco?” Just to clarify my opinion: there is a tipping point, and we shouldn’t be going the way of San Francisco on almost any housing issue. A city can’t set the mandate beyond the financial solvency of projects if it actually means to build housing. I get that some anti-growth cities have used high inclusionary requirements with no offsets to strangle development. Clearly that’s not Seattle’s intent. It could very well be San Francisco’s.

My goal is to get the most out of the framework we have before us. Starting over at square one would be unwise and time consuming when the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee process has already taken more than two years without yet delivering upzones or inclusionary zoning neighborhood-wide. Only a few contract rezones have qualified so far, but the U District Rezone should be finalized this winter, which would kickstart the program.

Former Tenants Union Executive Director Jon Grant made headlines when he announced he’d run against Councilmember Tim Burgess again and said he supports increasing the inclusionary requirement to at least 25%. That would likely be a policy mistake. A reasonable person can expect a 10% affordability requirement to come out of a combination of land values and developer overhead without driving up market-rate rents or negatively impacting supply, and the in-depth study the City commissioned supported that. No North American city has had a success story with a 25% affordability requirement to my knowledge, and the study didn’t provide support for such a high requirement. It’d be a risky move, and it’d jeopardize the Grand Bargain (i.e., lawsuits from some of the bigger players).

Jon Grant will again challenge Councilmember Tim Burgess.
Jon Grant is launching another council bid.

“We’re not getting a good enough deal,” Grant told Heidi Groover. “Right now, we’re essentially giving away those height increases.”

That’s the wrong framing since generating more housing on choice sites will generally improve the housing market. Height increases are good for the city, particularly where zoning is the most suburban and preventing even fledgling urban mixed-use districts from developing on key corridors. We advocated zoning for additional urban villages not as a developer giveaway but because we think they’d foster better, higher-amenity neighborhoods with more opportunities for the city’s ever-growing number of residents.

I asked Grant about that last night at the Building Housing Affordability Through Community Ownership event at the Central Library. He reiterated that he supports upzones and understands new market-rate units are needed to moderate the prices of existing housing stock. He said he wants the MHA program to go into effect before he attempts to negotiate higher affordability requirements.

His doing so would certainly rock the boat. I wouldn’t support a 25% requirement, but Grant is certainly positioning himself as someone who would fight for housing affordability at city hall. If he would succeed winning over four other councilmembers is another story.

Grant won 45% of the vote last year and would again square off with Councilmember Burgess for his Position 8 at-large seat should they each survive the primary. Normally councilmembers sit for four-year terms, but at-large Councilmembers Burgess and Lorena González only received two-year terms under the rules of the first election under the district system in 2015. The winners of the 2017 Council races will get four-year terms.

Another way Grant has made waves is with his promise to use public funding and forego corporate cash. This will be the first election that the city’s “democracy vouchers” are rolled out and Grant is seeking to use them. To qualify he must collect 400 donations of at least $10. Each registered Seattle voter should receive $100 in democracy vouchers next month so make sure you’re registered to your current address. How the democracy vouchers play out this election will be interesting.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.