Don’t Renegotiate The Grand Bargain, Pass M2 Upzones To Unlock 11% Requirement

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 The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Doug I agree 100%: A developer will be more “phobic” to redevelop a parcel knowing they are on the precipice of not making a profit if 25% is required. We live in “rich” times in Seattle today; we have to assume that will not always be the case.
Additionally, requirements from redevelopments should only be one prong of the solution: city council needs to allow less regulations on ADU’s and DADU’s: eliminate the parking requirement and eliminate the requirement property owners are required to live on said rental property.


I agree with your points Pablo with the exception of the promotion of absentee land-lording of ADU’s and DADU’s as an incentive for housing development. SDOT currently relies solely on volunteer compliance from property owners to maintain sidewalks and street trees. When property owners live elsewhere, in another city or state, what happens then? Many times, nothing. It is my opinion that absentee landlords make poor neighbors. They rarely make investments or volunteer in the neighborhoods where they own property, they don’t listen and participate at community meetings. Absentee landlords are a burden to the community’s that they profit from as their relationship to the street address they own becomes one of dollar figures and paper documents. In effect it becomes the responsibility of the resident population to ‘look’ after their properties. I’d like to see a policy of mandatory compliance for maintenance of the ROW for absentee landlords. I would also be in favor of an absentee landlord fee that goes toward funding community led improvement projects. I am for ADU’s and DADU’s, just not for encouraging land owners to move away from the neighborhoods they built them in, taking their profit and attentions elsewhere.

Get a grip

‘It is my opinion that absentee landlords make poor neighbors.’

NIMBYs love to toss around the fact that 25% of single family homes are rentals.

Meaning a quarter of single family homes have ‘absentee landlords’. BTW, our neighbors have an absentee landlord and they’re neither a burden to the community or poor neighbors.

This is strictly an absurdity. Absentee landlord concerns are a red herring and a rallying cry for anti-housing NIMBYs


I support our neighborhood’s sanctioned city homeless camp and any other affordable housing projects that want to come to Georgetown, including Dadu’s. I have lost a number of my great neighbors to rising rents. I count many renting neighbors as close friends and allies. I welcome population density and housing increases here in Georgetown and hope that with it might come some improvements like sidewalks, bikeways, better public transit and more neighbors (whether they rent or own their home) who love this neighborhood and want to see it’s community become more inclusive and connected and are invested in being included in all the benefits of the growth occurring in this city. Organizing people to make a difference in their community requires them to be present in their community. Absentee landlords are not present. You can’t knock on the door and have a conversation. You won’t run into them at the block party. They don’t participate conversationally in the community. In my book that makes them poor neighbors. I guess I’d prefer it if someone who owns an apartment building also lived there. That’s my opinion.
Please make comments that might lead to respectful conversation rather than quickly discounting someones opinion by profiling them as a NIMBY.

Mike Carr

What’s a NIMBY look like?