Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) is about welcoming more neighbors like these. (City of Seattle)

On Friday, the Seattle City Council had a marathon meeting on amendments to the proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) rezones and land use regulations. The meeting started with discussion on text amendments to the Land Use Code and then moved into a district-by-district discussion on proposed amendments to zoning changes.

The latter portion of the discussion generally focused on reducing the scale of MHA zoning changes, which also would reduce affordable housing that program was designed to deliver in the first place. Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, M. Lorena González, and Debora Juarez pointed this out and highlighted the need to undo the legacy of racist housing policy and discrimination in the marketplace.

[T]he city was deliberately redlined and constructed to keep particular people out of neighborhoods in particular areas. I’m hoping we can right a historical wrong.

Councilmember Debora Juarez

Most of the amendment proposals were considered to be consensus items by councilmembers. This means that at meeting on February 25th, the city council will introduce revised bills incorporating the amendments unless they were objected to by councilmembers at Friday’s meeting. There were several instances where amendments did get an objection, particularly where there were zoning reductions sponsored by councilmembers for specific areas. It is possible that those amendments could still find their way into the final bills.

Unless an objection is noted or the text indicates otherwise, the following amendment proposals were adopted at the meeting.

Map Amendments

District 1 Map Amendments

In Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s district, a large number of the proposals would reduce MHA rezones. She went on to suggest that she generally supports the proposals to reduce MHA rezones in her district, providing various justifications for this such as future station area planning around Alaska Junction that may bring greater density in the future and their small area. Councilmember Rob Johnson said that he opposed the lower rezone proposals, but that he would later have an inconsistent argument for his own district.

District 1 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 1 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)

Councilmember Mosqueda said that she was concerned with blanket proposals to not adopt the proposed MHA rezones. “I’m going to be concerned with the amendments that do indicate that we’re going to downzone or not fully upzone under the existing EIS [Environmental Impact Statement],” she said. “I think that in every opportunity that we have to expand housing to opportunity-rich, thriving neighborhoods, I would like to see us take advantage of that. And I do have reservations about reducing the capacity to increase our ability to serve folks in exactly the types of places that we are looking at that are in Urban Villages, in transit-rich areas that could offer more affordable housing to various areas of the city.”

Councilmember Herbold’s argument for reducing MHA rezones included the idea that light rail is coming to Alaska Junction soon so we might have to tear it down. (Seattle Channel)

Councilmember Juarez followed to say that she understands the difficult challenges of displacement and unique issues of neighborhoods. But she also said that she thinks the Housing Affordability and Livablility Agenda, of which MHA is a portion of, is important. “I’m hoping in these discussions that we don’t just find ourselves carving out places where people politically think it’s not viable to make change,” she said. “And that’s what I’m concerned about for this city because I think we understand how the city was deliberately redlined and constructed to keep particular people out of neighborhoods in particular areas. I’m hoping we can right a historical wrong.”

Councilmember González, who lives in District 1 but does not exclusively represent it as an at-large councilmember, expressed her concern over proposed MHA rezone reductions. She said she didn’t think she could “support many and if any” of them.

There was city council consensus on proposals to remove the Pedestrian designation as part of two rezone proposal since it could have the effect of allowing more housing on the properties. Ordinarily, Pedestrian zones require non-residential ground floor uses.

District 2 Map Amendments

District 2 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 2 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)

Councilmember Bruce Harrell’s district has several rezone amendment proposals. He supports no rezones for properties located within the Mount Baker Park Historic District. Councilmember Mosqueda expressed her concerns with this given their proximity to light rail and the Franklin High School. In response, Councilmember Harrell suggested that district-based governance means that elected representatives of those districts understand the local issues better and should listen to their constituents.

There was consensus on map changes for the Pedestrian designation proposed in Beacon Hill. Councilmember Harrell indicated that he wanted to hold the rezone proposal for the North Rainier neighborhood that would adjust MHA rezoning from SM-NR-95 (M1) to NC3-55 (M) since it might reduce housing opportunities from development. He also indicated support to increase zoning to LR1 (M1) near Othello Park.

District 3 Maps Amendments

District 3 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 3 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who was out sick, recommended MHA zoning changes that were higher than the baseline proposal, according to Councilmember Johnson. She is sponsoring four such amendments to Lowrise and Midrise zoning.

District 4 Map Amendments

District 4 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 4 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)

In Councilmember Rob Johnson’s district, he supported several zoning reductions under MHA around Roosevelt High School to RSL zoning. He characterized these as a means to allow for transitions to single-family areas that would be outside the Roosevelt Urban Village. He also supported removal of areas that fall entirely within the newly-designated Ravenna-Cowen Historic District, which he said described as an “intellectual inconsistency” since he generally supports increased zoned development capacity within Urban Villages and Urban Centers. However, in this case, the exclusion of the area would be consistent with Councilmember Harrell’s district where a similar proposal is pending to direct development outside of the Mount Baker Park Historic District by excluding it from rezones.

In response to these amendments, Councilmember Mosqueda requested that separate votes be taken at a future MHA meeting on these reduced MHA zoning proposals.

Similar to the transition issue he raised near Roosevelt High School, Councilmember Johnson said that he supported RSL zoning on blocks around Hamilton International Middle School, several blocks south of the Good Shepherd Center, and several block south of N 50th St in Wallingford. In a rare case, he also said that he supported removal of a block of properties between 16th Ave NE and 17th Ave NE planned to be included as part of the Roosevelt Urban Village expansion to keep them as single-family areas since he felt they were a right at the edge of the transit walkshed. He add that there are properties along 15th Ave NE currently vacant and dilapidated that should be a higher priority for redevelopment than the blocks east of those properties.

Again, Councilmember Mosqueda requested that all of these amendment proposals get a separate vote at a future MHA meeting.

Councilmember Johnson did support several amendments to increase MHA zoning, including a block along NE 62nd St to LR2, two blocks along NE 49th St to NC2-75, and a large swatch of properties in Eastlake abutting I-5 to Midrise. In the latter case, he said there was significant community support for the idea.

District 5 Map Amendments

District 5 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 5 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)

Councilmember Debora Juarez was highly supportive of increasing MHA zoning through her amendment proposals and even expanding the Northgate Urban Center. She proposed one amendment that would increase a proposed Lowrise 3 site to Midrise to resolve a split zoning situation and expansion of the Northgate Urban Center along one block for Lowrise 2 zoning. In the Aurora-Licton Urban Village, she also proposed modifying MHA zoning to include a Pedestrian designation along Aurora Ave N to encourage active ground floor spaces in new construction and minimum development density.

The were only two exceptions to her increase-zoning ethos. First was the Halcyon Mobile Home Park, since the city council recently adopted a temporary moratorium on non-mobile home uses. The site will not be rezoned under MHA while the city works on how to address how to adjust zoning and maintain housing for the residents. Second were several properties near the edge of the Northgate Urban Center since they are located near a critical area and tributary that feeds into Thornton Creek. The objective in the latter case is to keep intense development away from the critical area and preserve habitat.

District 6 Map Amendments

District 6 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 6 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)
Detail of District 6 map amendment proposals. (City of Seattle)

A lot discussion centered on Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s district, where he was proposing amendments to reduce MHA zoning toward the edges of the Crown Hill Urban Village. That area is proposed to get significant Urban Village boundary expansions and rezones on properties designated for single-family. He proposed a variety of amendments that would take sites planned for Lowrise 2 to Lowrise 1 and Lorwise 1 to RSL in order to provide broad transitions to areas planned to remain single-family.

Councilmember Mosqueda expressed concern over this concept and requested a separate vote on the amendments at a future MHA meeting–a meeting that Councilmember O’Brien will not be able to attend due to other commitments.

Also in Crown Hill, Councilmember O’Brien proposed a zoning swap for properties in the heart of the neighborhood planned for NC3P-55 and NC3-75 respectively. In a unique case, a handful of properties are proposed to be zoned NC3P-75 a half-block from 15th Ave NW while more than a dozen properties fronting 15th Ave NW are proposed to go to NC3P-55 zoning, which Councilmember O’Brien found to be odd. He proposed flipping this, which means on balance more of the geographic area would have NC3P-75 zoning and therefore more zoned development capacity. Other councilmembers were supportive of this swap.

Councilmember González questioned the push to scale back MHA rezones. (Seattle Channel)

The final amendment proposal of the meeting was one in Fremont and Wallingford near the famed Troll sculpture. Councilmember O’Brien proposed reducing rezones of the blocks along N 36th St near the Troll from Lowrise 3 to Lowrise 1 (still an MHA rezone but currently zoned as Lowrise 1). He said that community members felt that several of the remaining single-family Victorian homes are historic in quality and character even though they are not formally designated or recognized as such by any jurisdiction. Councilmember Johnson said that he would support the change. However, Councilmembers González and Mosqueda expressed concern about the precedent that this could set if community members felt that properties were historic but not formally recognized as such for future rezones. Ultimately, the proposal was pulled and will get a separate vote at a future MHA meeting.

Land Use Code Amendments

The following suite of amendments would affect development in the Residential Small Lot (RSL) zone:

  • Amendment A1 (Johnson): The amendment would allow additions to existing homes in the RSL zone greater than the proposed 2,200 square foot size limitation. Expansion could be up to 20% of the existing structure or expanded outward above the footprint of the first story of the structure. Councilmembers González and Mosqueda are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment A2 (Johnson and O’Brien): The general concept of the amendment is to change the limit on the number of units that can be incorporated into an apartment structure (proposed as three in the base MHA legislation) in the RSL zone. Option 1 (Johnson) would remove the absolute limit on the number of units in an apartment. Option 2 (O’Brien) would increase the absolute limit on the number of units in an apartment structure to four units. All other development regulations would otherwise apply under either option, such as absolute density limits, floor area ratio, and height. Both amendment proposals will likely be brought forward at a future MHA meeting.
  • Amendment A3 (Johnson): In the RSL zone, there are several standards that apply to accessory dwelling unit (ADUs) but the MHA legislation would apply requirements specific to the Lowrise zones to the RSL zone. The amendment would remove requirements that all ADUs be located in the same structure or behind the structure in which the principle dwelling unit is located, and remove a requirement that exterior stairs for access to the ADU may not be more than four feet in height.
  • Amendment 4A (Johnson): The amendment would claw back proposed changes for garage appearances in RSL by deleting text for the design of garages in multifamily zones. The concern with the proposal in the base legislation is that new development on streets in RSL zones could end up with a row of garage doors. The amendment therefore requires development in RSL zones to comply with garage appearance requirements for other single-family zones. Councilmembers González and O’Brien are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment A5 (Johnson): Under proposed legislation, the density limit in the RSL zone is one dwelling unit per 2,000 square feet of site area. If a calculation results in a fraction of 0.85 or less, zero additional units are possible. Approximately 16% of proposed RSL lots would therefore be ineligible for additional units. The amendment would allow all existing lots zoned or rezoned to RSL to be eligible for at least one additional unit. Councilmembers Mosqueda, González, and Sally Bagshaw are co-sponsors of the proposal.

Another suite of amendments would affect multifamily zones:

  • Amendment A6 (Johnson): In Lowrise zones, the legislation would limit density to one dwelling unit per 1,350 square feet of site area on lots smaller than 3,000 square feet. Apartment development in the Lowrise 3 zone would be limited to one dwelling unit for every 800 square feet of site area. The amendment would further modify the general density limit in Lowrise zones to one dwelling per 1,250 square of site area on lots smaller than 3,000 square feet. Councilmembers Mosqueda and González are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment A7 (Johnson): The amendment would reduce the required pitch of roofs from 6:12 to 3:12 so that townhouse development is more feasible.
  • Amendment A8 (Bagshaw): This amendment would keep an option for development in Highrise zones to buy additional residential floor area through incentives like open space, Green Street improvements, and Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) from historic structures in addition to providing affordable housing. Councilmember Johnson and Bruce Harrell are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment A9 (Johnson): This amendment would increase the threshold for floor area ratio at which a development would have to meet green building standards to achieve additional floor area. Councilmember Mosqueda is a co-sponsor of the proposal.

Another suite of amendments would affect commercial zones:

  • Amendment A10 (O’Brien and Johnson): This amendment concept would require that all new development in designated Pedestrian zones that have more than 5,000 square feet of commercial space provide small commercial space. The small commercial spaces would need to be 300 to 1,500 square feet and have a direct entrance or counter service area on the street or street-oriented courtyard. When 600 square feet or smaller, they would need to extend at least 10 feet deep with an average depth of 20 feet. Option 1 (O’Brien) would require that such spaces be made permanent while Option 2 (Johnson) would only require the small commercial spaces for five years from occupancy.
  • Amendment A11 (O’Brien): This amendment concept would retain a floor ratio ratio exception in the Pike/Pine overlay district, which would allow a 15% increase in floor area for developments that provide at least 50% of total floor area as affordable to income-eligible households. Councilmember Herbold is a co-sponsor of the proposal.
  • Amendment A12 (Johnson): The proposed legislation would rezone University Way NE from NC3P-65 to NC3P-75 (M). Originally, zoning was supposed to go to SM-U-85, but zoning changes were held off along the street as part of the University District rezone process. The
    SM-U-85 zoning would have required an upper-level setback for buildings with heights above 45 feet. This amendment would still apply an upper-level setback with an average upper-level setback of 10 feet from the street or lot line, within the NC3P-75 (M) zoning along University Way NE. Councilmembers Herbold, Bagshaw, O’Brien, and González are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment A13 (Johnson): This amendment would amend development standards that apply to live-work units by requiring a minimum size of 300 square feet for the “work” portion of the unit and a physical divider between the the “live” and “work” portions. Councilmembers Herbold, Harrell, González, and Bagshaw are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment A14 (O’Brien): This amendment would limit non-pedestrian-oriented parking and loading standards proposed in the base legislation for the new Seattle Mixed zone in Rainier Beach. The provisions would therefore only apply to light manufacturing, colleges, vocational or fine arts schools, food processing and craft work, child care centers, or subsidized housing uses.

Another suite of amendments are not specific to zoning per se, but are associated with the MHA:

  • Amendment A15 (Mosqueda and González): This amendment proposes changing the term “preschool” to the broader “child care center,” in the context of amenities that can be added to project to benefit from additional floor area. Councilmember Bagshaw, Harrell, and Herbold are co-sponsors of the amendment.
  • Amendment A16 (Johnson and O’Brien): This amendment would incorporate some concepts of the tree protection regulations that the city council was briefed on last year. It would generally increase the tree planting requirements in RSL zones to a minimum of 33% tree canopy coverage, establish a fee-in-lieu payment option, and add tree protections for trees planted under the requirements. Councilmembers Herbold, Mosqueda, and Bagshaw are co-sponsors of the amendment.
  • Amendment A17 (O’Brien): This amendment would add several Pedestrian zone designations along Mary Ave NW and NW 90th St. Councilmember Juarez is a co-sponsor of the amendment.
  • Amendment A18 (Harrell): This amendment would add several Pedestrian zone designations to commercial zones along Beacon Ave S and 15th Ave S.

The following amendments would affect the MHA framework itself:

  • Amendment B1 (O’Brien): This amendment would modify the methodology for the payment and performance amounts under MHA as well as a process to modify dimensional development standards. The city currently uses a subset of the Consumer Price Index (All Urban Consumers, Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton, WA, All Items (1982-1984 = 100)) that only tracks a portion of market cost for housing. This has not tracked well with the rise of rents in the housing market. The Seattle Office of Housing has found that alternative version of the Consumer Price Index (All Urban Consumers, Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA, Shelter (1982-1984 = 100)) may be a better fit. Because that version is a better fit, payment amounts under MHA would likely increase the most during a strong housing market and less or not at all when the housing market falls.
  • Amendment B2 (Johnson and O’Brien): This amendment would extend the time that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections has to report on the performance the MHA framework for residential development, which is slated to be delivered under current law by July 1, 2019. Option 1 (Johnson) would extend this to July 1, 2021. Option 2 (O’Brien) would extend this to July 1, 2020. The report could be used to modify the program further. Councilmember Juarez is a co-sponsor to Councilmember Johnson’s version. Councilmember Herbold is a co-sponsor to Councilmember O’Brien’s version.
  • Amendment B3 (O’Brien): This amendment would adjust the intent language of Ordinance 125108, which established the purpose of the MHA framework. The amendment would lay out an intent to modify payment amounts and boundaries of high, medium, and low MHA areas by July 1, 2019 to better reflect current market conditions. Councilmembers Juarez and Herbold are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment B4 (Herbold): This amendment would allow off-site performance under the residential chapter of the MHA program. Under current law, it is not possible for a residential developer to partner with a non-profit developer to construct off-site affordable housing. The off-site affordable housing would have to be “equal or better mitigation” than on-site and located within the same Urban Center or Urban Village or within one mile the development. The developer would also be on the hook to ensure the off-site development gets built. Councilmembers Johnson, Mosqueda, and González are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment B5 (Johnson): This amendment would waive MHA requirements for identified unreinforced masonry buildings if they are retrofitted and meet certain requirements of the 2030 Challenge Pilot, a green building program. Only new building square footage added to such a building would be subject to MHA requirements. Councilmembers Bagshaw, González, Harrell, and Mosqueda are co-sponsors of the proposal.
  • Amendment B6 (Herbold): This amendment would establish an intent of steps to be taken by the city if the MHA is found to be unconstitutional or unlawful. This includes steps to prevent property developers from using added development capacity or new development regulations and using an emergency moratorium on development until an alternative approach is enacted. Councilmember Harrell is a co-sponsor of the proposal.

Lastly, the following amendments would revised rezoning criteria and comprehensive plan policies:

  • Amendment C1 (Johnson): Under proposed legislation, rezoning criteria would be updated. Specifically, some of the criteria language refers to transit service. In 2018, the city council adopted new transit service language as parking reform legislation. The proposed amendment would refine the language further to be consistent with the parking reform legislation where the rezoning criteria refers to transit service.
  • Amendment D1 (O’Brien): This amendment would fully delete policy F-P13 for the Fremont neighborhood since it is arguably redundant to other policies.
  • Amendment D2 (Herbold): This amendment would further refine a proposal to adjust a policy for the Morgan Junction neighborhood and add a new one entirely. The amendment would further refine policy MJ-P14 to specify that the city should provide for entry-level and owner-occupied units. The amendment would also create a new policy MJ-P23.1 with the following: “Use community engagement and neighborhood planning tools to identify solutions for land use and housing affordability issues when more than 25 percent of the urban village could be affected by proposed changes.”

Next Steps

On February 21st, the city council will hold a public hearing on the MHA legislation, which will kick off at 5:30pm. The following week on February 25th, the city council will hold another meeting to take votes on MHA rezones and land use regulations. A new version of the MHA land use bill and rezones will be introduced at that meeting and could be further amended, depending upon what the city council decides. A final vote on the MHA legislation is planned for March 18th.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound 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. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.