By Erica C. Barnett
On Monday, the city council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would have required churches to build more deeply affordable housing in exchange for density bonuses (upzones) that could double the value of property they own. The legislation the council adopted will provide a financial incentive for religious institutions to build apartments for people and households earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle area median income—for a one-person household, about $65,000 a year.
The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. Back in 2019, the state legislature adopted legislation requiring cities to give religious institutions density bonuses—essentially, the right to build more housing—on property they own, if they agree to use it for affordable housing. Three months ago, the city council adopted, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, legislation stipulating that starting in July 2022, the housing that churches build on upzoned land must be, on average, affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income—about $49,000 for one person, or $70,000 for a family of four.
After the legislation passed, several local churches asked Durkan and council members to change the law to increase the affordable threshold to 80 percent. At that affordability level, apartments are essentially market-rate—around $1,620 for a studio apartment, or $1,850 for a one-bedroom unit, no matter where they are located in the city. In contrast, the legislation the council and mayor approved in June required average rents of around $1,200 for a studio and $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Herbold’s amendment would have continued to allow religious institutions in neighborhoods the city has identified as having a high displacement risk, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill, and Lake City, to build housing affordable at the higher-income threshold, while retaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.
Nearly seven in ten Black households make less than half of the Seattle median income, and only 10 percent fall between the 50 percent and 80 percent income levels. In other words, fewer than 10 percent of all Black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new church-based housing at the higher income levels the council adopted.
Representatives from local churches argued that requiring deeper affordability anywhere in the city would make it difficult for them to build housing, resulting in the displacement of churches and their congregants, because housing affordable to people making lower incomes simply doesn’t “pencil out” on church property.
“The [new] legislation, as originally developed, created a win-win scenario where these institutions—almost all of whom make significant contributions to service and justice in the city—can continue to thrive where they are in our neighborhoods and contribute to the crying lack of affordable housing,” Michael Ramos, head of the Greater Seattle Church Council, wrote in an email to Herbold’s office opposing her amendment.
“The ideal is that we have affordable housing at 60 percent area median income across the city, and we have so many policy mechanisms and funding mechanisms to do so,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored both bills. “Churches need the flexibility to be able to have people [earning] up to 80 percent AMI in their buildings, so that they can either choose to have people move back into the community that have been displaced or to use that revenue to create the services that other residents are receiving to meet the needs of their community.”
But Herbold pointed out that according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, around 69 percent of Black households make less than half of the Seattle median income, and only 10 percent fall between the 50 percent and 80 percent income levels. In other words, fewer than 10 percent of all Black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new church-based housing under the new legislation—that’s fewer than 1,500 families in the entire city. (The numbers are approximate because the ACS uses as 50 percent cutoff, which includes more households than the higher 60 percent threshold).
“We are basically doubling the development capacity of these parcels, so as policy makers, we have the right and obligation to get a public benefit in exchange for increasing the profitability” of church-owned land, Herbold said. She also argued that the higher income levels would actually provide a disincentive for churches throughout the city to partner with nonprofits—like the Low-Income Housing Institute, which is currently building hundreds of housing units on church-owned land in the Central District, rather than for-profit developers.
Herbold, Alex Pedersen, and Kshama Sawant were the only council members to vote against the bill. ln his closing remarks, Strauss said he appreciated Herbold’s intent to support low-income housing, but that “I don’t think the city needs to micromanage how these organizations best serve their congregations.”