Nonprofit affordable housing providers and other developers were alarmed when a proposal from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that would make it possible for their projects to move forward during the COVID crisis was abruptly removed from this week’s city council agenda. The legislation would allow projects to go through the shorter “administrative” design review process, in which projects are reviewed and approved by trained city staff, instead of the usual “full” design review, which involves public meetings and sometimes-lengthy deliberations. Similarly, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer would be empowered to approve or deny changes to landmarked buildings for six months.
The changes would last for six months, or until the city has developed a system for design-review and landmarks board meetings to take place online. Without a process for projects to move forward, land-use attorney Jack McCullough says, a lot of planned developments could be “dead in the water.”
“If we have to tell everyone who’s in the pipeline or ready to get in, ‘We can’t tell you when you’ll ever be able to move forward,’ people will mothball their projects. They may not kill them, but they’re going to say, ‘If there’s not a path, why am I spending money money on this?”
The council was prepared to adopt the proposal on Monday, but after an executive session at which the city’s law department reportedly expressed concerns that it could open up the city to appeals to the state Growth Management Board, the legislation was yanked from the agenda. (City council president Lorena Gonzalez was unable for comment Thursday, and a city council spokeswoman did not return a call.) On Thursday, after both for-profit developers and low-income housing builders raised a ruckus, it’s back on next week’s agenda.
The city’s eight design review boards are supposed to ensure that their designs are high-quality, comply with regulations, and are appropriate for the neighborhoods where they’re being built. (This process, of course, can be quite contentious and subjective.) Twenty-nine projects, totaling 3,500 new housing units, were supposed to get hearings between March 11 and May 4, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and another 30 were starting the community outreach process that precedes design review. SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens says many of these projects will provide affordable housing funds through the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Program or include affordable units through the Multifamily Tax Exemption program. The 30 projects that were just starting out include four affordable-housing buildings.
Chris Persons, the head of Capitol Hill Housing, says he has two projects in the development pipeline, including one that requires approval by the landmarks board. “It’s stuck, but it could be resolved by this legislation,” Persons says.
Persons points out that when Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide state of emergency and shut down nonessential businesses, he specifically designated affordable housing construction as essential. In a letter to city council members, Persons wrote that delaying affordable housing projects like the ones Capitol Hill Housing is trying to build could “render them infeasible or at best delay them for months, thereby eliminating or delaying vital affordable housing for those people most impacted by the COVID crisis, and particularly the homeless.”
Seattle for Everyone, a housing advocacy group that includes both nonprofit and for-profit developers, argued in its own letter to council members that allowing projects to start moving again will provide job opportunities at a time when an unprecedented number of people are out of work. “By keeping the housing pipeline moving, we can preserve more jobs in the near-term while providing a foundation for future economic recovery and relief to communities in desperate need of housing,” the group wrote. “This relief is especially important for communities of color disproportionately impacted by decades of exclusionary housing policy and discriminatory housing practices.”
McCullough, the land-use attorney, says it won’t be the end of the world if the city allows development to grind to a halt during the economic shutdown—”the world never comes to an end”—but there will be significant consequences for market-rate and affordable housing (especially through MHA, which is funded through payments from for-profit developers) if the city fails to act. “We’ve got tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars in MHA fees that are sitting in limbo,” he says. “I’m not sure that people who are making the decisions appreciate the level of emergency this part of the market is in and how fragile it is.”
The council will vote on the proposal, which will likely be amended, on Monday. The legislation requires 7 votes for approval.