Wednesday, 30 September, 2020

Seattle City Council Votes for Microhousing MFTE Changes


In a 8-0 vote in favor yesterday, the Seattle City Council approved a change to the Multifamily Housing Property Tax Exemption Program (MFTE) on small efficiency dwelling unit developments (more commonly known as microhousing). The MFTE is a voluntary program for housing developers to provide income-restricted units below certain Area Median Income rates over a 12-year period. During this timeframe, property owners are exempt from paying property taxes to the City of Seattle.

Councilmember Sally Clark introduced the legislation by saying why it was necessary: “With the small efficiency dwelling units, we need to adjust the income downward to ensure that we are not giving a public benefit, the forgiveness on property tax, without getting enough of a public benefit in terms of the rent level.” Essentially, the prevailing thought on the issue is that developers could end up with a windfall under current MFTE rules for small efficiency dwelling unit (SEDUs) developments. Under the MFTE rules, developers could charge a maximum income-restricted rent very close to or more than most market rate SEDUs. This of course would create situations where the “affordable units” aren’t actually more affordable than other units, and grant the underlying property owner significant property tax savings.

Prior to yesterday’s vote, SEDUs were treated as studios for the purposes of the MFTE. Eligible projects under the code were required to provide 20% of all studios as income-restricted units at or below 65% of the Area Median Income in order to qualify for the MFTE. This translated to a monthly maximum housing cost of $1,004 and maximum annual income of $40,170 as a single individual.

Two versions of the Council bill were floated. The first was presented in committee before being referred to the full Council. That bill explored a lower requirement for the number of income-restricted units in SEDUs. The committee identified a target of 20% of units as income-restricted. However, Councilmember Nick Licata felt that there needed to be a greater public benefit, which led him to propose his own amendment to the bill. Language in Licata’s amendment sought to increase the number of income-restricted units by another 5% for a total of 25%. Clark summarized the changes in detail during the Council legislative session by saying that:

This legislation would actually move the rent level, the affordability down to 40% of the Area Median Income for the set-aside units. In Committee, it was changed from a 20% set aside to 25% set aside. I’ll be very clear, the Office of Housing’s calculations indicate that a 25% set-aside is a stretch beyond what developers will likely use. Having said that, since we adjusted the rules for the small efficiency dwelling units, we don’t have any projects to base the projections on, and a bit of this is guesstimating, and trying to figure out what we think the market will do.

Essentially, the new MFTE SEDU rules set a maximum rental rate for income-restricted units at $618 per month and a maximum annual income of $24,720 for a single person. This number would certainly be below most market-rate units in SEDU developments. Although, there could be cause to revise the numbers upward or downward for SEDUs in the future. Clark hinted that this would likely happen anyway as the City would explore program-wide changes to the MFTE code later in the year. Additional revisions to the SEDU MFTE rules could happen at that time if necessary.

Before the final vote, Councilmember Kshama Sawant both praised and critiqued the MFTE program.

For every single building that takes advantage of this program, the City is giving a greater tax break than we are getting back in term of affordability. In every example, mathematically, we could make more affordable housing dollars available simply by collecting the taxes from developers and using that money to offset rents. And while I think we should try to make this program better for housing affordability, in reality, we have to be clear that this in many way just more of a corporate tax loophole than a real affordability program.

UPDATE (2/24/15 @ 3:03 PM):  It should be noted that Sawant’s comments could be misleading to some. The way property taxes work, the City should collect the same amount of total revenue to fund programs regardless of whether individual properties get tax breaks for programs such as the MFTE or senior housing. The taxes uncollected from individual properties should be spread across the remaining taxpayers.

In 2011, there was a controversy about whether or not taxes were lost or shifted. The final report by the City indicated that in 2013 the City failed to collect $354,000 of the $2.2 million that was exempted by the city through the MFTE, or 16%. With that said, there was an additional $726,000 collected from construction due to the impact on the City’s tax base. To put that number in perspective, it’s less than the $500,000 that the City is forgoing for the South Lake Union green street, which the Council approved in a 6-2 vote, Sawant and O’Brien casting the nay votes.

South Lake Union Green Street Gets the Green Light


On Monday, the full Seattle City Council approved a woonerf in South Lake Union along 8th Ave between Harrison and Thomas Street. The plan sparked a tense debate between Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and Mike O’Brien on the Transportation Committee two weeks ago. Ultimately Rasmussen won out with a vote of six to two (breakdown below).

Both Rasmussen and O’Brien started out the discussion by recounting their positions, summarized in our previous post. Rasmussen argued that the project was a steal for the City, with the private company Vulcan bearing the bulk of the cost to build a premium public amenity for the neighborhood. O’Brien countered that the project wasn’t enough of a public benefit to justify the $500,000 cost.

Councilmember Nick Licata offered a successful amendment to designate the corridor as a festival street. As such, Vulcan would be able to apply for an annual permit to conduct street activities such as dance and art festivals and celebrations. The stretch of 8th Ave will join just two other festival streets across the city—S Roberto Maestas Street on Beacon Hill next to the light rail station, and Nord Alley in Pioneer Square.

Nord Alley, courtesy of


In full debate, Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the project a corporate “infomercial” for Vulcan. She said the company wasn’t motivated by good will for the neighborhood, but by profit from the increased property value the premium amenity would bring—though it is unclear why an alignment of public and private profit is disagreeable. Ultimately the City would be giving up over $500,000 in street use fees to support the project—money that could be spent on affordable housing or sidewalk upgrades (excluding a woonerf, apparently).

Quick to rebut her point, Councilmember Jean Godden accused Sawant and O’Brien of being disingenuous for supporting Licata’s festival street amendment while voting against the full legislation. The project is good for the environment and good for the neighborhood, allowing them to shape their own community.

Finally, Councilmember Nick Licata, usually a dependable ally for O’Brien as one of the most liberal members of the Council, spoke in support of the project. While sympathetic to Sawant’s point that Vulcan was ultimately motivated by profit, not people, he knocked down O’Brien’s central message that the money would be better spent elsewhere. If this project were rejected, the $500,000 in revenue would go to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) general budget; it wouldn’t be earmarked for another woonerf. And even if it were, design costs alone would eat through funds. The question before the Council is not whether to support this woonerf or another; it’s whether to support this woonerf or none.

Denny Park, courtesy of Carl Paulaner Hefe-weizen via Flickr

Licata also tested O’Brien’s claim that the corporate project would taint the welcoming residential feel of the neighborhood. The new zoning allows for residential buildings up to 240 feet, allowing for what he called a “residential canyon street” with tall buildings lining both sides. This claustrophobic image is usually conjured by anti-density NIMBYs, making it a surprise to hear from Licata, who used it to draw contrast with the open and inviting woonerf.

The Council agreed with Licata and approved the woonerf plan. South Lake Union can now look forward to what may become the most engaging street in the city, with wide landscaped sidewalks dotted with street furniture, pedestrians, and cyclists, just a block from Denny Park.

Councilmember Vote District Running for Reelection?
Bagshaw Excused 7 Yes
Burgess Aye 7 Yes
Clark Aye 2 No
Godden Aye 4 Yes
Harell Aye 2 Yes
Licata Aye 6 No
O’Brien Nay 6 Yes
Rasmussen Aye 1 No
Sawant Nay 3 Yes


Mayor Leads Scripted U District Community Walk

Mayor Ed Murray out with members of the community.
Mayor Ed Murray out with members of the community.

On Saturday, Seattle mayor Ed Murray continued his series of “Find It, Fix It” walks with residents of the University District. The event drew a large crowd and media presence, and wound through the neighborhood’s core with a police escort. Though named after a smartphone application that lets citizens quickly report problems like potholes, graffiti, and broken streetlights, the event focused more on projects and important figures in the neighborhood rather than infrastructure. This left little opportunity for citizens to directly engage with the mayor.

At the event’s starting point, NE 45th St and Brooklyn Ave NE, the mayor pointed to the University District light rail station construction site behind him and emphasized that it is the catalyst for drastic neighborhood change. He expressed hope for preserving the area’s eclectic character while ensuring new development has positive impacts. Numerous other local leaders gave brief introductions, including City Council members Jean Godden and Sally Clark. A few words were spoken by Dave LaClergue, the city planner overseeing upzoning, green streets, and open space efforts here, and Sound Transit’s project manager for the station construction.

From there, the crowd moved north to a grocery store parking lot at NE 50th St, an infamous location for drug dealing, assaults, and other criminal activity. A couple of local activists took the microphone to celebrate a community mural on the wall of neighboring building and suggested it had helped lower nuisance activity in the area. The crowd then moved down University Way, where a neighborhood patrol officer discussed other efforts to reduce crime. A representative from the U District Partnership (UDP) detailed the plan to expand a business improvement district to increase funding for street cleaning and community events.

Down at 43rd Street, Cory Crocker from U District Square handed Murray a flyer and briefly discussed the neighborhood effort to built a parklet on that corner, next to a Pronto! bikeshare station. The project is funded and will likely be built later this year. Crocker told me, “[Murray] said that the city is all for the parklet and mentioned that the city would be making an announcement soon about allowing adjacent businesses to serve in the parklets in order to engage the public more and manage the spaces. He also volunteered that he’d like to see that particular intersection much more pedestrian-friendly.”

Media crowding the Mayor.
Media crowding the Mayor.


In the alley between 43rd and 42nd Streets, Murray introduced Kristine Cunningham, executive director of the ROOTS organization that provides temporary shelter to young adults who have been rejected by the foster care system. She noted that ROOTS is just one of many similar social services in the neighborhood, and the challenges are increasing. The alley has also become more of a social space in recent years, with a neighboring university building providing a voluntary setback for bicycle parking and pizza shop entrance in the alley. It complements a cafe that also has its entrance on the alley there.

As the tour wound down, the mayor led led everyone across 15th Avenue to a lawn on the University of Washington campus. There, provost and interim university president Ana Mari Cauce described her view of the school’s role in the neighborhood. The university is a large landowner, but she didn’t speak to rising student housing prices or the physical separation of the campus from the rest of the neighborhood.

King 5’s Dan Cassuto critically reported the event as highly orchestrated, with little opportunity for the mayor to speak to various business owners about crime or to see the large number of people living on the streets here. While it was my first Find It, Fix It walk, I’d argue that’s a fair assessment. The event was as much a mobile photo op for the mayor as it was community outreach, if not more so. But along with briefly meeting the mayor, I did get the chance to talk to three of the city and Sound Transit staff who tagged along, including transportation director Scott Kubly. They were fairly receptive to conversation, though weren’t too enthusiastic about being there on a Saturday morning. In the future, I’d suggest the mayor’s office reach out to specific community groups for focused and meaningful conversations.

We’re Moving! Our New Home is Vivace

Vivace at Alley 24.

We’re happy to announce that we’re making South Lake Union’s Vivace our new home. We hope that the very central location will better serve our membership by giving us more room to grow. There’s a lot to like about the coffeehouse: good WIFI, great coffee, beer on tap, and a wide selection of food. We’ve also scouted out the space situation: a fishbowl/study room, ample couches and coffee tables, and some bar tables could suit our needs on any given night. Whether you’re walking, biking, taking transit, or driving, most of our regulars should see this as a more accessible.

Of course, we want to express our deep appreciation to Roy Street Coffee & Tea for having us over the past year. Not only has the staff always been incredibly kind to us, the coffeehouse provided a great working atmosphere and topnotch beverages. We leave with plenty of fond memories, good conversations, and successful efforts that couldn’t have happened otherwise. And, it’s where we hatched this whole organization and publication. For that, we thank them.

Next Tuesday (March 3rd), we will hold our first meeting at the Vivace South Lake Union location beginning at 6pm. As is typical, the first half hour will be free discussion followed by our agenda and collaborative projects. Vivace is located in the Alley 24 complex at 227 Yale Ave N, right across from REI. See you there!

Painting the Town Red

The new 4230 11th Ave NE building, courtesy of DPD.
The new 4230 11th Ave NE building, courtesy of DPD.

A new 101-unit, 7-story apartment building is coming to the University District. The Arion Apartments will deliver a lot of color and whimsy to a block in serious need of it. The project is entering the Recommendation phase of Design Review tonight in order to respond to the concerns and issues presented at the Early Design Guidance stage. Back in July, neighbors expressed their views on privacy and noise, density, parking, and access of the site.  Meanwhile, the Northeast Design Review Board members applauded the extravagant design proposal and requested that the applicant consider issues like privacy of adjacent properties. Board members will have one more bite at the apple tonight to give their final comments and blessing on the development.

There’s no doubt that neighbors will either love or hate this gem by Johnston Architects, but the project is situated in an ideal location for this kind of density. The project is already flanked by apartment and condo buildings on all sides with hundreds of other dwelling units on the block. Two blighting residences will be removed to make way for the new apartment. However, future residents could benefit from excellent amenities like local retail services and entertainment, frequent transit service, employment and educational opportunities, and much more.

11th Ave NE before and after, courtesy of DPD.
11th Ave NE before and after, courtesy of DPD.

The architects have chosen to create a very modular, checkered, and semi-industrial looking building. The exterior will largely consist of red corrugated metal and nearly resemble cargo containers. The almost haphazard nature of the recessed unit facades makes for a very interesting and mesmerising honeycomb building from the public realm perspective. Residents get a big benefit from this design as large windows will fill the boxed frontages of the building while longer side facades will give a more measured and private appearance.

The applicant is not a proposing any vehicular parking for the project, but there will be a huge emphasis on secured bicycle parking on the ground floor. All of the units will be geared toward studios, but they will vary somewhat in size. Residents will have access to a rooftop amenity that will likely play host to social events and provide some measure of onsite open space. A small departure from code is requested for the size of the bay windows, but given the design, this shouldn’t pose an obstacle to the request of the applicant. However, not to be outdone, the applicant wants to flex their environmental credentials by building the structure to Built Green 4-star standards.

Ground floor plan view of the project, courtesy of DPD.
Ground floor plan view of the project, courtesy of DPD.

The property itself is zoned as Midrise (MR) which permits 6-story residential structures. However, the applicant has chosen to take advantage of incentive zoning, which grants one additional floor for development under current zoning. This has two great benefits: additional space for units onsite and more low-income housing provided through contribution to the City’s Housing Incentive Bonus Program.

How To Get Involved

If you’re interested in attending the community design review meeting for this project, you can do so tonight. The Northeast Design Review Board will meet at the University Heights Community Center in Room 209, located at 5031 University Way NE. The design review meeting begins at 6.30pm. Alternatively, if you wish submit comments in written form, you can do so by e-mailing Michael Dorcy, Project Planner, at and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) at

For more design review materials and upcoming meetings, see DPD’s design review page.

Sunday Video: Do our cities still work?


Do our cities still work? by The National on YouTube.

Brent Toderian, Charles Montgomery, and other Canadian urbanists talk about how sprawl is a problem for our health and financial stability. Juxtaposed, they speak about how real cities are a solution.

What We’re Reading: An Alternative Seattle Subway

The newly proposed Westside Seattle Transit Tunnel, courtesy of Seattle Subway.
The newly proposed Westside Seattle Transit Tunnel, courtesy of Seattle Subway.

Stopping displacement: How expensive new housing reduces displacement of low-income housing.

A protected class: Hartford, Connecticut wants to kick out a non-traditional family because of neighbor concerns.

Super green: Brooklyn, NY gets its first truly sustainable housing development that passes Passive House standards.

Capping rents: Seattle may pass regulations to restrict rent prices ($) on new microhousing units.

Calling it quits: Sally Clark is the latest sitting city councilmember to declare retirement from City Hall.

Map of the week: Oran plays with new frequent transit maps for Seattle based upon Prop 1.

Russian bomb: The Winter Olympics weren’t all the were cracked up to be, Russia has two transportation white elephants.

Too much parking: Despite the sensationalist stories on parking in Seattle media this week, the city has way too much parking, and that’s a problem.

Supporting the linkage fee: One major developer is completely behind the imposition of a linkage fee on new development.

Bad signage: Freeway-style signage makes streets less safe for all.

Fairer tolling: NYC could institute tolls across all bridges in the city to right a wrong, and boost funding for transit.

Low blow: How Bertha managed to beat out the surface option as a replacement to the Viaduct.

Incremental Seattle Subway: A new option is being floated to create a rail-convertible tunnel for buses in Downtown Seattle running somewhat parallel to the current transit tunnel. It’s called the “Westside Seattle Transit Tunnel”.

Getting nerdy: Transitmix becomes even more useful for those nerdy transit service planners with a pro version.

The Central Greenway: Work is starting on the Central Greenway, which should create some really safe pathways for bicyclists.

Vertical farming: A story about a Wyoming farm that could really trailblaze the whole greenhouse, urban farming movement.

Ballard Bridge problem: Peddler Brewing took some very clever footage to show the challenges that the Ballard Bridge poses to people biking and walking.

Doing something right: Minneapolis has managed to really balance affordability, opportunity, and wealth, but what’s the secret to this success?

Bike lanes in B’vue: Look out, new bike lanes are coming to Bellevue on 116th Ave NE.

Hitting all of Seattle’s Protected Bike Lanes in one ride

PBLs of Seattle
A day in the saddle.

On the beautiful day of January 25th, I set out on an interesting bike trip: hitting all of Seattle’s protected bike lanes in one ride, in one morning. My route would take me 60 miles from the Eastside to Seattle and back to the Eastside, climbing many hills and biking on many great trails, streets, and of course, protected bike lanes in the process (see my route on Strava).

Here’s a rundown of all the protected bike lanes that I rode on:

Yesler Way (Eastern Segment)

IMG_0869 (4928x3264) (2048x1152)

Distance: 1 Block

Opened: Winter 2014

Connection: On the popular Yesler Way bike route from the Central District to Downtown.


IMG_0872 (4928x3264) (2048x1152)

Distance: 16 blocks

Opened: Fall 2013 (Northern segment), Spring 2014 (Southern segment)

Connection: Connects First Hill and Capitol Hill, built as part of the First Hill Streetcar project.

Roosevelt Way

IMG_0890 (4928x3264) (2048x1153)

Distance: 5 blocks for now, to be 25 when fully opened

Opened: Demonstration 5 blocks: Winter 2015. Full opening: Fall 2015/Winter 2016

Connection: Connection for Northeast Seattle to the Burke Gilman at NE 40th St and the University Bridge, eventually to Downtown.

NE 40th St (Western Segment)

IMG_0904 (3264x4928) (1356x2048)

Distance: 2 Blocks

Opened: A while ago! Before Summer 2002

Connection: Connection from the Northbound University bridge to the Westbound Burke Gilman, and from the Burke Gilman to UW.

NE 40th St (Eastern Segment)

IMG_0909 (3264x4928) (1356x2048)

Distance: 2 Blocks

Opened: Spring 2014

Connection: Built as part of the Burke-Gilman detour through UW, also connects the “regular” Burke-Gilman to UW.

Sand Point Way

IMG_0914 (3264x4928) (1356x2048)

Distance: 2 Blocks

Opened: Spring 2014

Connection: Connects Seattle Children’s Hospital with the Burke Gilman Trail.

NE 65th St

IMG_0925 (3264x4928) (1356x2048)

Distance: 3 Blocks

Opened: Spring 2013

Connection: Connects Magnuson Park with the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Linden Ave

IMG_0937 (4928x3264) (2048x1152)

Distance: 17 Blocks

Opened: Summer 2013

Connection: Part of the Interurban route, which goes from Seattle to Everett. Missing link between two sections of the Interurban trail.

NW 45th St

IMG_0963 (4928x3264) (2048x1151)

Distance: 3 Blocks

Opened: Spring 2014

Connection: Part of the Burke Gilman Missing Link, the major East-West bike route through Ballard

Dexter Ave

IMG_0973 (4928x3264) (2048x1356)

Distance: 5 blocks when complete (still partially under construction)

Opened: Winter 2015

Connection: Part of the popular Dexter Ave bike route from the Fremont bridge to Downtown Seattle, which connects Northwest Seattle to Downtown Seattle and beyond.

Pike St

IMG_0981 (4928x3264) (2048x1152)

Distance: 1 Block

Opened: Summer 2014

Connection: Connects Pike Place Market to the 2nd Ave Bike Lane.

2nd Ave

IMG_0991 (4928x3264) (2048x1152)

Distance: 10 Blocks

Opened: Summer 2014

Connection: Only north-south protected bike lane through Downtown Seattle, major commute route and important piece for Pronto! bikeshare.

Yesler Way (Western Segment)

IMG_0995 (4928x3264) (2048x1150)

Distance: 1 Block

Opened: Summer 2014

Connection: Connects the 2nd Ave Cycle Track with Pioneer Square.

Cherry St

IMG_1000 (3264x4928) (1356x2048)

Distance: 1 Block

Opened: Summer 2013

Connection: Connects Downtown Seattle with First Hill and beyond.

7th Ave

IMG_1003 (3264x4928) (1356x2048)

Distance: 1 Block

Opened: Summer 2013

Connection: Also part of the route that connects Downtown Seattle with First Hill.

Did I miss any? Let me know what I should ride next in the Comments! And have fun riding your bike around those Protected Bike Lanes!