Kenmore could be on the cusp of passing a package of amendments that streamline the permitting process for affordable housing projects and provide a process for a special affordable housing density bonus. The amendments are derived from recommendations made in November by the city’s planning commission, which hopes to encourage more affordable housing for lower-income households. In fact, the amendments would specifically target two household income brackets: very low-income, which is at or below 35% of the area median income level, and low-income, which is at or below 50% of the area median income level.

City staff and planning commissioners briefed the Kenmore City Council on the package of amendments on January 19th, and the package could be adopted later this month at the February 22nd council meeting.

Expedited permitting processes

A new expedited permitting process could become available to projects that provide very low-income or low-income affordable housing when locating in multifamily and commercial zones. Traditionally these projects could require approval using the Type 2 review process (i.e., site plan review applications for uses allowed by zone), but proposed amendments would allow these projects to use the Type 1 review process instead.

Functionally, a Type 1 land use decision is made administratively by the city manager (or staff) with no public notice (except when State Environmental Policy Act environmental review is required, typically above 20 dwelling units), little or no discretion, and no option for administrative appeal to the city hearing examiner. A Type 2 land use decision differs in that it is discretionary in nature, requires public notice, and is administratively appealable to the city hearing examiner, but the decision is still made by the city manager (or staff).

Orange, red, and dark brown areas multifamily zones and light blue, purple, pink, grey, and light brown areas are commercial zones. (City of Kenmore)

Type 2 review processes can add significant time and cost to a project and introduce a much higher level of uncertainty. Often opponents of a project will use the administrative appeals embodied in a Type 2 review process to project to stop or alter a project, for instance. The Type 1 process does not allow for that, but separate appeals could still be made to superior court using the Land Use Petition Act provisions in state statute once a permit has been issued, though at a much higher cost to the appellant.

As proposed, the expedited permitting process would not be available if a project requires approval of short subdivision, land use code variance, conditional use permit, shoreline permit, or any critical area exceptions, variances, or modifications. The process also would not be available for any application and permit that requires a Type 3 through Type 5 review process.

Related amendments would clarify that residential density incentives and transfer of density provisions do not require a Type 2 review process for eligible very low-income or low-income affordable housing projects, instead allowing benefit of these bonus provisions through the Type 1 review process, too.

Outside of the aforementioned expedited review process and its limitations, an applicant for any very low-income or low-income affordable housing project could still request expedited review under a separate option. An applicant could file an expedited review request as part of an application to which the city manager would determine if staffing resources and other permitting priorities allow for expedited review accommodation. If the city manager determines that in-house expedited review is not possible, an applicant could request to use a consultant contracting with the city for development review to do the project review on behalf of the city. The applicant would, however, be on the hook for all consultant review expenses.

Density bonus development agreement process

Another option could be specifically available to very low-income or low-income affordable housing projects on property owned or controlled by a religious organization in any zone. Applicants for these project could use the development agreement process, which allows for development that does not necessarily comport with the underlying development standards that otherwise apply to a lot or site, and obtain an increased density bonus under state statute. A development agreement must still be consistent with the city’s adopted comprehensive plan goals and policies, and where not in alignment with underlying development standards, the applicant must show that these departures are “offset” by benefits “equal to or greater in value relative to the departure requested.”

While the city can choose and is not obliged to enter into a development agreement with an applicant, the aforementioned type of affordable housing projects would be given substantial weight. These project would be entitled to skip the “threshold decision” process by the city council after an application is made. This process is used by normal development agreements to determine if they should be further reviewed.

Support for the proposals

The areas where the transit-oriented development overlay applies. (City of Kenmore)

Councilmember Nigel Herbig told The Urbanist that he supports the proposal. “The proposal from our Planning Commission will make the development of affordable housing in Kenmore cheaper and easier–something we need right now to address our affordable housing crisis,” he said. “Coupled with our Transit-Oriented Development Overlay and our recently expanded Multifamily Tax Exemption, I am hopeful that we will see more investments in affordable housing in Kenmore soon.”

The city has a transit-oriented development overlay that applies on parcels zoned multifamily and commercial along 73rd Ave NE and NE Bothell Way. The overlay provides for special development standards, including incentives for higher residential densities and building heights as well as reduced parking requirements. In 2019, the city adopted changes to the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) program that expanded it to include transit-oriented development overlays in order to incentivize development of more multifamily housing, including affordable multifamily housing at or below 60% of the area median income level. The changes specifically increase affordability requirements for MFTE projects seeking 12-year exemptions.

Several other councilmembers seem supportive of the proposals, with Mayor David Baker and Councilmember Melanie O’Cain commending the work that went into developing them. In contrast, Councilmember Corina Pfeil has said that she is not comfortable with removing public notice for the expedited review process and thinks community members would not want that either. Staff is unlikely to further amend the proposals despite Pfeil’s concern.

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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.