#MHA - The Amendments
Back in 2015, when I was lollygagging along as a candidate for Seattle City Council, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda was released. Initially leaked, one of the recommendations was to pilot a low-density housing option in an area outside of an urban village that currently allowed only detached single-family zoning. The Seattle Times, in the primary, asked all of the candidates in District 4 if we would support such a move. However, prior to their running answers to that question, then Mayor-Murray, kowtowing to the loudest (whitest) voices in the city, made clear the City would ignore that recommendation.
Throughout the rest of the campaign, I continued to advocate for more housing types in more parts of the city, pushing back on the idea that detached-single-family zoning is sacrosanct. Discussing with audiences what we could make such a concept look like - allowing duplexes and triplexes in existing detached SF areas, within the envelope of the existing structure (essentially advocating for an FAR limit), our city could ensure more seniors have the opportunity to downsize to a smaller square-footage home while remaining in their community; that more young families could buy homes that shared a wall, within walking distance to great schools and parks. And we already have this type of housing: take a walk through Wallingford’s SF areas south of 45th, and you’ll see example after example of duplexes and triplexes mixed-in with detached single-family houses.
What does this have to do with the MHA amendments? Both nothing and everything. As anyone watching housing policy in Seattle knows, the Seattle City Council is considering amendments to the MHA legislation (our version of Inclusionary Zoning). But these amendments are severely limited by what is in the Environmental Impact Study. So areas that are next to light rail, and have communities wanting even more density: too bad. It wasn’t studied. The flip-side: “do nothing” is always studied, so people who are opposed to any change are able to advocate for a “do nothing” approach. Following the Council’s work on MHA this time around, there should definitely be additional environmental analysis for MHA part 2. And the City Council should definitely take jurisdiction over the process, to ensure that a broader set of options is studied.
So here we are with a series of amendments, most of which would limit the ability of MHA specifically, and affordable home development broadly, to be successful, but in different ways. I’ve broken these out into the District 1 amendments, the District 6 amendments, the Historic District carve-outs, and some miscellaneous amendments. Of note: District 3 managed to get away with no amendments for limiting growth, and District 7 no amendments at all. Essentially these two areas are taking growth (and happen to be the most expensive areas to build). So, diving in:
The District 1 Amendments
Seattle City Council District 1 has the most amendments that not only would limit zoning changes, but do so without on- or near-site capacity offsets. By that I mean that these amendments simply say “NOPE, no additional capacity here, or anywhere nearby!”
Most are proposals to limit zoning changes to the new Residential Small Lot (RS) (not “new” so much as “redefined”) rather than changing detached-single family zoning (SF) to Lowrise 1 (LR1). Have your eyes glazed over, yet? One last part: many others are simply to now change SF zoning, or remove MHA from existing Lowrise areas, which would leave height limits and FAR limits (and density limits) where they are currently set.
So what does any of this mean in practice? I think that SF zoning is clear enough, but what gets built in lowrise zones and RSL - not so much. The expectation for RSL would be a couple-or-a-few row-houses, maybe a small, four-unit apartment. For LR1, with density limits, essentially three townhouses on a 6,000 square-foot lot. Put another way: where right now the limit is one household on a 5,000 square foot lot, these proposed zoning changes would allow a couple more on a slightly-larger lot. So…modest change would be possible.
And therein lies the most important part: the proposed zoning changes would not change neighborhoods overnight. If folks own a single-family house now, and don’t want it to change, then they don’t have to sell it. But the combined capacity changes, city-wide, are the “give back” to developers that effectively authorize the MHA program.
Which gives us two issues with the D1 proposed amendments: (1) they impact the citywide capacity without offering additional capacity in District 1, and (2) contrary to arguments otherwise, without these amendments, the actual change in neighborhoods that would allow more families will be de minimus. Existing SF areas can already be rebuilt much larger, and much more expensive, under existing land use regulations. But RSL, LR1, and other components of the MHA legislation, provide additional efforts to keep new development within the scale of neighborhoods, with tapering with denser commercial districts, and ensure that the entire city is sharing in growth (well…most of the city).
It is because of these reasons that, generally, the D1 amendments should not be adopted. (I would also add: my experience, through affirmative outreach to communities that otherwise don’t have time to come to Council meetings - a lot of folks in D1 want more housing, and want more small business protections, and I’ll cover that issue - commercial center zoning, specifically relating to U-District, but more broadly - probably tomorrow).
The District 6 Amendments
Northwest Seattle also has a package of proposed amendments that would limit capacity in parts of Crown Hill, and do so with a proposed density swap. I recall being at the MHA public hearings where we heard folks advocate for more RSL throughout their neighborhood, and I remember thinking to myself: this is the type of density swap that makes sense. Unfortunately, the ability to do a swap within the scope of the EIS is very limited and, as a result, the proposed “swap” limits changes, and then pushes all capacity into one area in Amendment 6-17, increasing the proposed zoning designation from 55 feet height limits to 75 feet height limits.
Here, however, we run into the issue that not all capacity increases are the same. Where RSL and LR1 (and, to a similar extent, LR2 and LR3) allow for lower-cost construction types, adding 20 feet in this area also adds construction costs through material types. Further, because of ongoing issues that limit condo construction, this not only means more higher-cost (and therefore higher-rent) apartments would have the potential to be built, but also decrease the opportunity for homeownership opportunities. So, on the one hand, these amendments make a thoughtful effort to do a density swap. However, on the other, it’s a swap that means higher-cost, higher-rent construction, and fewer opportunities for moderate-income households to enter homeownership.
Does this mean this suite of amendments should be rejected outright? Not necessarily. But it would be good to see additional analysis of what the impacts are on capacity, particularly for homeownership opportunities, and what efforts could be made to meet folks in the middle without setting up a situation that increases capacity on paper, but with additional side-effects that run counter to many goals of the city with respect to affordability and sustainability.
The Historic District Carve-Outs
These are bullshit. 100%. For folks not paying super-close attention, two neighborhoods that are primarily populated with detached-single-family homeowners, managed to apply for, and receive, National Historic District designation following the publishing of the Final EIS. This designation doesn’t actually mean much, except that federal projects (ie: highways) cannot be built through them. If you want to tear down a house and build something else? Perfectly legal.
And herein lies a flaw (one of many) in our State Environmental Protection Act - it apparently allows for moving of the goalposts, so to speak, during an EIS process. Here, the addendum to the EIS essentially led to the carve-out amendments, relying on the historic designations that were not in place when the EIS was completed. Were the process to use existing resources and existing designations from start to finish, rather than letting higher-income areas manipulate the process midway through these types of designations, I do not believe we would see these carve-outs. Ideally, in MHA Part 2, there will be additional analysis done, and the Mount Baker and Ravenna-Cowen Historic Districts will be brought back into the fold of sharing in Seattle’s growth. Especially given their proximity to amazing parks, schools, and light rail stations, disallowing attached-family units to be built means fewer households will have access to these amazing public investments. These amendments should be rejected, but will be adopted to address the addendum, and preserve the overall changes in this round of MHA.
Broadly, most of the remaining amendments are either minor tweaks that are more than offset by other, comparable offsets (think 5-4) in district, or allow for more homes to be built over the coming decade+. The one district amendment I’m most concerned with is 5-1, which would now allow a Commercial zone (C) to go from 40 feet height limit to a 55 foot height limit. For those following at home, the two parcels involved have mobile home parks on site.
As an initial matter, I’m not convinced that mobile home parks in urban areas, especially urban villages, makes sense, whether from an environmental protection standpoint, an access to transit and parks standpoint, or a highest-and-best use standpoint. There are two left in Seattle, however, and there must be affirmative efforts to provide affordable homes for existing residents.
To me, an ideal situation would be for the City to work with the existing property owners, and identify a way to take ownership of the properties, either through direct purchase or other land-swap, or some reasonable combination. Step two: begin cobbling together the funding to build permanently affordable homes for seniors and families, and prioritize existing households for such a new development. Limiting height to 40 feet limits how high we could be expected to develop permanently affordable housing on these sites, absent a contract re-zone, leading to more cost and time further down the road. There is already a moratorium on redevelopment of these parcels, and this amendment otherwise does not appear to do anything but limit the amount of permanently affordable homes that could be developed in the future.
The remaining amendments that I’m closely following are the so-called “text amendments” - covering the development standards and MHA across the board. Some quick hits:
A8 - this amendment from Councilmember Bagshaw would allow for the existing “Incentive Zoning” to remain an option in “high rise” zones. The importance here: places like First Hill and Downtown already have taken in the overwhelming majority of development of buildings over the years, and allowing for “transfer of development rights,” and/or other community benefit options for new development, ensures that livability can be addressed as these areas continue to grow. Because of how MHA on-site performance and/or pay-in-lieu is structured (and limited due to constitutional “takings” considerations), the impacts on affordable home development are incredibly minor, while the impacts on more walkable, livable neighborhoods for folks to live and work will be, generally, positive.
A10 - Broadly, the amendments from Councilmember Johnson and Councilmember O’Brien are similar - requiring mixed-use development have small commercial spaces where first-floor commercial is required. This addresses an issue with financing of development, wherein a bank will require larger commercial spaces in order to appease income concerns by attracting larger “anchor” tenants. Of course, a new business is unlikely to need, or be able to afford, 20,000 square feet. By having more smaller storefronts, more small businesses will have an opportunity to succeed. Whether the requirement is permanent, or expires after 5 years from date of construction, is a good conversation to be had, and both sides have a lot of good points. BUT, having this requirement in basically all Neighborhood Commercial zones not only is good for future small businesses, but provides some level of displacement mitigation with existing small businesses.
A15 - Currently, new buildings get a Floor-Area-Ratio (FAR) exemption if they have on-site preschool facilities. This amendment from Councilmember Mosqueda and Councilmember Gonzalez would change that to “childcare facilities”, which includes preschools. We need more childcare options in Seattle, and providing an incentive for new development to include childcare is common sense.
B6 - the so-called “clawback amendment” from Councilmember Herbold would add language signaling the intent of Council to essentially undo the zoning changes if the MHA on-site/pay-in-lieu scheme is ruled illegal. I don’t love this amendment (because I think that these modest zoning changes should happen anyway). I especially find it ridiculous to compare this to the Boeing tax breaks, like some anti-growthers have done. At the same time, I don’t think it is necessary. Based on existing case law, and the statutory framework giving rise to MHA, I don’t see a world wherein it is found illegal or unconstitutional. The neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis, the concerted effort to limit the “taking” based on zoning changes and displacement risk, going block-by-block (this is far from a “one-size-fits-all” program) suggests that the City will have met its burden if/when it is sued. (especially considering the outcome in California Building Industry Association v. San Jose). So while I think this amendment is unnecessary, I also believe that it will ultimately be moot.
There are additional things that the city can and should do to bring more housing diversity to our city: removing the density limit in LR1 zones (allowing four townhouses, or cottage housing, to be built); providing incentives for stacked flats in RSL and LR zones (more senior-friendly housing), and doing more work to bring forward MHA part 2.
BUT - we are in the home stretch. After four years of process, our city is on the verge of implementing an Inclusionary Zoning program, and doing so in an intentional way, focusing on methods to mitigate displacement. We should be doing more, especially from Ship-Canal to 85th. But that is not enough to kill the overall program.
And what can you do? Email your District Councilmember, and let them know why you support MHA, and why you oppose amendments that will limit future opportunity for affordable homes. Do the same for the at-large members. And, if you have time on Thursday, February 21, at about 5:30 p.m., head to City Hall, and voice your opinion during the final Public Hearing on the legislation and amendments. We’re so close to the finish line, and finishing strong is incredibly important to building a future for all residents.