Morales wears a yellow blazer and glasses.
Chair Tammy Morales appeared flabbergasted as she initially failed to get a second to her motion to introduce her bill providing incentives for affordable housing. (Seattle Channel)

On Wednesday, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales again tried to get her “Connected Communities” bill through the council’s land use committee, which she chairs, but again was denied. Instead the bill will head to a vote of the full council an extra week later on April 30 without a committee recommendation, under council rules.

Morales needs to sway a majority of the councilmembers not on land use committee in order to save her bill, but most of her colleagues seem opposed to the idea of moving forward with an equitable development pilot program. Morales was the only councilmember on the land use committee to support her bill.

The program is intended to spur larger affordable housing projects in high displacement neighborhoods with a legacy of racist housing practices, and it would apply to up to 35 properties before phasing out in 2029. The way applicants would qualify is by setting aside at least 30% of homes as affordable. Morales had proposed setting the affordability threshold at 80% of area median income (AMI), but in response to feedback from her colleagues, she introduced a substitute bill that lowered the AMI to 60% for one-bedroom homes.

That change was not enough to earn support from her colleagues. Morales complained that the goalposts seemed to be moving after she thought she had addressed concerns raised in a previous committee hearing in February. She struggled to see a route forward for her bill given the three councilmembers in firm opposition in committee, plus a wishy washy Dan Strauss (see the speeches an hour into the meeting for more).

“There are four council members who are not on the committee,” Morales said after the committee vote. “So, it’s possible that I can get their support, but given the outcome for today, that seems unlikely.”

Talking to the media outside Council Chambers, Morales lamented that her colleagues’ had dropped the ball on passing not just her bill, but any significant legislation whatsoever.

“We’ve been here [in committee] for two months now, and we’ve not passed any substantial legislation,” Morales said. “And I get that my colleagues are new, but it’s time to learn the job and do the thing. And, it’s disappointing that what I keep hearing is, I need more time. I don’t understand it. Yeah, so that’s frustrating.”

Morales also continued to voice frustration with Mayor Bruce Harrell’s growth strategy shared in his “One Seattle Comprehensive Plan” proposal in March. “What we saw today was basically just contributing to the Mayor’s 20-year plan to make housing even more expensive,” Morales said. She also raised those concerns in a March land use committee meeting.

Even Dan Strauss, who had seemed to hint at support in February, was very hesitant to get behind the bill, saying he wanted more time to work on his amendments. One amendment Strauss did introduce would have added setback requirements, reduced the size of allowed buildings, and limited the height of buildings more than even current restrictions in Neighborhood Residential (NR) zones, all moves that would have ultimately undermined the program.

Strauss, who has much more experience in City Hall than his new council colleagues, expressed reluctance to even second the motion to advance the bill. Morales was clearly chagrined to not get a second to her motion, but after a few minutes of awkward ‘what do we do now?’ discussion, Councilmember Cathy Moore seconded the bill with the intent to vote down the bill and amendments.

With Moore joined Councilmembers Maritza Rivera and Tanya Woo, that’s exactly what happened.

Rivera’s concerns included the bill not doing enough to build generational wealth in Black families. She also repeated concerns that the City had too many affordable housing programs and that she didn’t have a grasp on how they all worked.

“I am not clear on what, where, when how all that housing will be built,” Rivera said. “Given that the housing levy just passed, and we’re not clear as to what housing that will create or what the strategies for that will be, given that we’re in the middle of the comp plan that we will have to do, legally, by the end of the year, we have to complete this comp plan. I don’t think that this is a bill that I would support moving forward as is.”

Even before the hiccup this week, the bill’s path has not been the smoothest, with Morales first rolling out legislation last fall but failing to gain traction in an election year. Council experienced high turnover and a centrist shift in the November election and Morales’s proposal did not receive the warmest reception from the new council, either, as most committee meetings focused on the basics of city government. In February, as Morales sought to advance the bill, her new colleagues on the land use committee raised a number of concerns and existential questions.

Moore’s objections to the pilot program were focused on technical governance concerns and a desire to make the zoning incentives available to all comers rather than only 35 community organizations.

“We now have the chance to rethink zoning under the Comprehensive Plan,” Moore said.

Morales said after the vote that she hadn’t heard the complaint the 35 properties was too small-scale and limiting ahead of the vote, but that she was open to a larger program. “This was intended to offer an array of incentives, kind of a menu of options. And part of the goal was to see which mix of things really facilitates these projects faster and allows us to get these partnerships going,” Morales said, adding that information could help inform a larger citywide version of the program.

Citywide Councilmember Tanya Woo seemed to share Moore’s desire to tackle zoning changes in the big comprehensive plan update. But she also wanted the affordable units to be geared toward extremely low income households, which would not happen under a market-rate scenario. Plus, she has voiced concerns that unsavory developers who take advantage of the program to gain the zoning incentive, suggesting stricter qualifications. This suggests a hesitancy toward market-rate development in general.

“I don’t know who’s supposed to build our housing, if it’s not developers,” Morales told reporters. “And I feel like there’s a real disconnect between the outcome people say they want, which is to build more housing everywhere in the city so that we address the housing and homelessness crisis that we have, and at the same time, not wanting to make it easier for the people who build that housing to do that job.”

Morales worried that if the council couldn’t come together to pass a modest pilot program, weightier legislation would be even more doomed.

“This bill is not controversial,” Morales said. “We’ve been here for four months and we have not passed any legislation of consequence.”

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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.