Tag: affordable housing

Maybe Metropolis: Pro-Housing Democrats Poised for Action in 2023 After Ousting Obstructionist Seattle Rep. Pollet

Finetooth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons

By Josh Feit

Before I get to last week’s quiet yet encouraging news out of Olympia—House Democrats removed single family zoning preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle) from his position overseeing housing policy—I’d like to review a couple of other recent, below-the-radar news items that provide context for why such a seemingly picayune parliamentary move in the state legislature matters for Seattle.

First, in October, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to okay a request from Wallingford homeowners to put hundreds of houses in Wallingford on the National Register of Historic Places; this week, the National Parks Service made it official.

Expect to see more and more attempts by “In this House” Seattleites to weaponize “historic” districts as a tool against reforming local land use policy that could otherwise increase affordable housing and density in Seattle.

Meanwhile, another quiet zoning decision reflected the opposite path: Last month, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the “unremarkable” (as Erica hilariously put it) two-story wood-framed Jai Thai building on Capitol Hill. The decision cleared the way for a new seven-story affordable housing development.

You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Unfortunately, these two decisions taken together ultimately reaffirm the prevalence of Seattle’s off-kilter city planning philosophy: Seattle confines multi-story density to the same neighborhoods over and over, while foregoing opportunities for new housing in the hefty majority of the city—75 percent— that’s currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Sadly, Capitol Hill’s density is a Catch-22 for urbanists: Enthusiastically adding units to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods provides fodder for the city’s redundant single-family zones to ward off reforms that could create new housing. This preserves the status quo: Skyrocketing housing prices. The Seattle area has some of the most expensive housing prices in the country, with median rents above $1,700 (over $2,200 in the Seattle region) and a median sale price of $810,000.

It’s no wonder King County says we need to build around 240,000 new affordable units in the next 20 years, or 12,000 new units a year. Currently, we’re nowhere close to that pace; over the last two years, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, the city averaged about 1,300 affordable units a year.

Thankfully, pro-housing folks are fighting to reverse this trend. Witness the long overdue progressive coup in Olympia. Earlier this month, under youthful, new leadership, the state house Democrats finally removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N Seattle) as chair of the pivotal House local government committee. As we have been reporting for years, Rep. Pollet has repeatedly used his position to kill pro-housing bills. (No surprise, The Urbanist has also called out Pollet for undermining housing legislation.) You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Initially, frustrated with Pollet’s history of watering down pro-housing legislation, the House Democratic Caucus voted in late November to shrink the scope of Pollet’s committee by moving all housing issues into the housing committee, whose chair, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Everett) supports urbanist legislation. Last year, for example, Peterson co-sponsored Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill, HB 1782, that would have authorized duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in residential areas within a half-mile of a major transit stops. It was one of several pro-density bills Pollet helped kill last year. 

The move to take housing policy out of Pollet’s committee was orchestrated by a new generation of Democrats who want to send a message that affordable housing (tied to density) will be a top priority in 2023.

Two weeks later—evidently not done sending their message—the caucus voted to remove Pollet as chair of the local government committee altogether, handing the reins to Rep. Devina Duerr (D-1, Bothell), another co-sponsor of last year’s failed density bill.

With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

The Seattle Times, whose editorial board shares Pollet’s preservationist POV, ran an editorial last week lamenting the leadership sea change by parroting Pollet’s go-to  “local control” mantra, claiming that pro-housing bills would prohibit local governments from enacting affordable housing requirements. That’s untrue. The bills that urbanists like Rep. Bateman support simply give local jurisdictions the option to allow multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods, leaving affordable housing requirements in the hands of local jurisdictions.

“If we’re really concerned with affordable housing,” Rep. Bateman told PubliCola, “let’s first acknowledge some basic facts: Single-family zoning is 100 percent displacing people and causing gentrification.”

This status quo—not the bogeyman of future development—constitutes a current threat to housing affordability. For example, existing policy not only squeezes supply by making most of the available land in Seattle off-limits to multifamily housing, it also encourages teardowns and McMansions. Rep. Bateman’s pending, more ambitious 2023 proposal will challenge that status quo by authorizing fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state—anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed.

Data show that even this modest increase in density improves affordability. Portland made fourplexes legal citywide two years ago and the first set of numbers indicates that they are more affordable to rent or purchase than duplexes, triplexes, or single-family homes. Additionally, Bateman said her legislation will create an affordability incentive with a “density bonus” that allows scaling up to sixplexes if two of the units are affordable to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.

On the state senate side, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) is cueing up legislation that would target upzones (more dramatic ones) specifically near transit hubs.

This is all to say, for more news that could end up having big implications in the coming year: Pay attention to the state legislature’s prefiled bills page and watch for new pro-housing legislation. With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further

Image via Phinneyflats.com
This four-story building, the Phinney Flats on busy Greenwood Avenue North, was delayed for years by design review meetings in which critics called it “Soviet-style” architecture and said renters would disrupt their peace and quiet with loud rooftop parties.

By Laura Loe

Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.

I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.

The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.

On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.

Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.

There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.

The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.

ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.

The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.

While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.

Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.

One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.

Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.

According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.

Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.

The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.

Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.

Seattle’s Housing Levy, On the Ballot Next Year, Could Rise to $840 Million or More

By Erica C. Barnett

Next year, Seattle voters will be asked to approve a renewal of the city’s seven-year housing levy—a property tax that, since 1981, has constituted the city’s main source of funds for affordable housing. Although the Office of Housing is still hammering out the details, the proposal is certain to dwarf the current levy, more than doubling the size of the tax and almost tripling amount it will raise, from $290 million to $840 million a year. Under the latest draft, the owner of a median Seattle house would pay about $342 a year if the most recent version of the levy passed, compared to $114 today, an increase in real terms from 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value to 34 cents per $1,000.

What will Seattle voters get for all that money? The biggest-ticket item, at $640 million: About 2,600 new apartments, or about 200 more than the 2016 levy. Most of those units will be studios and one-bedrooms, although the final number, and mix of apartment sizes, could still change; an earlier version of the plan would have built fewer than 2,200 new homes.

Seattle’s Office of Housing is aware that number seems underwhelming, but says they have little choice but to ask voters to do less with more.

“Seattle’s affordable housing developers are contending with the same increased development costs as market-rate developers,” said OH spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco. “Simply put… it’s expensive to do any new development right now, due to inflation, high cost of land, and high cost of materials.”

Merely “meeting today’s need,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, would “mean we wouldn’t be planning for and building the housing needed for our growing population and the projected influx of residents in the near future.”

The revised levy proposal—an expansion of OH’s original, $758 million plan—would also maintain or expand funding for housing acquisition (buying up existing buildings, which both the city and King County did a lot more of during the pandemic), homeownership assistance, eviction prevention, and operations and maintenance (maintaining new buildings and providing supportive services and rent assistance to residents who need them).

“The Operating, Maintenance, and Services (OMS) program keeps the water running, the lights on, addresses regular repairs, provides maintenance and janitorial work, and supports operating and services personnel in Housing Levy-funded buildings,” Velasco said. “We have heard many times from affordable housing providers over the past year, particularly those providing permanent supportive housing, that these funds are critical to keeping their buildings running.”

One thing that has changed since the last levy renewal is that Seattle now has the JumpStart payroll tax, a tax on the wages of the highest earners at Seattle’s largest companies that passed in 2020. According to projections from OH, JumpStart is likely to produce between 1,600 and 2,200 new apartments over the life of the levy—a fact that could end up being a liability or an asset.

For those who reflexively oppose higher taxes—like, say, the Seattle Times editorial board—the existence of JumpStart could provide an argument against expanding the levy. “Say no to huge tax increase for housing,” the headline might read. “Time to go back to drawing board on bloated housing levy.”

City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart tax in 2020 and has defended it during two lean budget cycles, said the city “cannot look to JumpStart to supplant what the levy should pay for. [The tax] is intended to be additive to the housing levy base, which must still grow. [Merely] meeting today’s need,” Mosqueda added, would “mean we wouldn’t be planning for and building the housing needed for our growing population and the projected influx of residents in the near future.” Seattle continued to grow during the pandemic, and city planners anticipate our population will swell to 1 million in the next 20 years.

Mosqueda’s colleague, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, argues that the JumpStart tax could  actually help the levy pass, by showing voters that the city has a plan to build enough housing to alleviate Seattle’s affordability crisis.

“For the first time ever, when you look at all these [housing] resources”—including the city’s Multifamily Housing Affordability (MHA) program and the state Housing Trust Fund, among others—“I think we’re pretty well positioned to be the jurisdiction on the West Coast that makes a real systematic impact on homelessness,” Lewis said. “What I would want to really look at is what role does the housing levy fill in the context of all of our funding streams that are going into housing, and how can we use the levy as tool to close gaps?”

“I take the rapid public shift to a stronger levy proposal as a hopeful sign the [Harrell] administration understands this is a legacy issue, and a great issue to embrace and champion.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

Velasco, from OH, notes that while proceeds from the housing levy are basically steady—unless home values decline sharply, it will keep bringing in reliable revenues year after year—the JumpStart tax is more variable: Payroll tax revenues fluctuate based on the number of high-paying jobs in Seattle, and that number will ebb and flow over time as big employers like Amazon shed and gain staff.  “Because of this, we consider the Housing Levy to be foundational to Seattle’s entire affordable housing ecosystem,” Velasco said. OH’s model shows the impact of JumpStart revenues ranging from $1.1 billion (the current 2023 projection) to $557 million (a 50 percent dropoff).

Some advocates have argued that the levy should be even larger, to build in long-term wage stability for housing provider staff, fund ongoing maintenance at buildings that already exist, and create more housing, especially larger, family-sized size units, which make up just 15 percent of the latest levy proposal.

Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said the success of the levy will depend on whether it will “stand the 2030 test. Will we look back in seven years and say: ‘Damned right! This city made the biggest housing difference possible’? … I take the rapid public shift to a stronger levy proposal as a hopeful sign the [Harrell] administration understands this is a legacy issue, and a great issue to embrace and champion.”

Source: Technical Advisory Committee presentation on Seattle Housing Levy

Housing Development Consortium director Patience Malaba—who, like Eisinger, testified in favor of a larger levy at a recent TAC meeting—said the levy still has “room to grow” before OH recommends a final proposal to Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Number one, we should invest in the buildings once we have created them. And number two, we do need to support the people who are working in those buildings” with fair wages, Malaba said. She sees $840 million as “a starting place”—one that should provide the basis for a larger levy that will build more housing and “really push the bounds of what’s possible.”

Historically, Seattle voters have approved the housing levy by increasingly wide margins—56 percent in 2022, 63 percent in 2009, and 70 percent in 2016. But the success of any tax increase depends on whether taxpayers believe the city is investing its tax dollars wisely, and the future campaign against the levy could capitalize on the widespread perception that the region continues to spend more money on homelessness and housing but the crisis isn’t getting better.

Polls, Lewis points out, have consistently showed that voters rank housing insecurity and homelessness among their top concerns—a sign, he said, that “it’s important that we have a plan to actually solve the problem. We have a tendency to get 80 percent there and then hold back a little because we’re worried about overreach. What I would like to do is create a plan and go to the people and say this is the comprehensive plan that the levy [is] a puzzle piece [in] attempting to solve.”

Velasco, from the city’s housing, declined to provide details about the latest iteration of the levy proposal, which the TAC will meet to discuss on December 16. Once OH has finalized its levy plan, it will go to Harrell’s office, and on to the city council, for approval or amendment before it heads to the ballot next year.

Board Declines to Landmark Unremarkable Capitol Hill Building, Allowing Affordable Housing to Move Ahead

Current photo of 229 Broadway on Capitol Hill

By Erica C. Barnett

In an unusual move for a group that has tended to prioritize preserving old buildings over new housing, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the two-story wood-framed Wilshire Building on Capitol Hill, commonly known as the Jai Thai building for its most recent anchor tenant. A city staff report also recommended against landmarking the building, saying it failed or probably failed to meet the two most likely criteria for landmarking.

Low-income housing developer TAP Collaborative bought the building at the corner of Thomas St. and Broadway Ave. E in 2018 with the intention of tearing down the old building and replacing it with a seven-story building that would be 100 percent affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle area median income, currently around $54,000. In 2022, that works out to rents between $1,350 and $1,450 a month for a studio, and one-bedroom, respectively. Earlier this year, City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda announced that the project would be among the first recipients of affordable housing funds from the JumpStart payroll tax.

The current building plan includes 26 studios, 69 one-bedrooms, five larger live/work units, plus retail space on the ground floor and parking spaces for 90 bikes (and zero cars). Landmark status would have almost certainly scuttled those plans.

“[Broadway] is becoming a canyon of modern buildings. So here’s a chance to preserve the exterior of one of the old ones.”—Landmarks board member Harriett Wasserman, one of two members who voted to preserve the Jai Thai building

The developer nominated the building for landmark status, a common move to get the process underway and to preempt landmark applications by preservationists, whose aim is to preserve old buildings. Historic Seattle, for example, weighed in earlier this year to suggest that the developer could both save the building and build affordable housing on site, although they did not offer any suggestions for building new apartments in or around the existing building, which is not up to seismic standards and does not have a separate façade that might be preserved as part of a new development.

“The building has long surpassed its economic useful life, given the decision at the time of construction to use inexpensive materials,” TAP Collaborative principal Rebecca Ralston told PubliCola. “When we acquired the building, we knew we were not dealing with a heavy timber or masonry structure so we had not anticipated the landmarking process. However, I cannot say it took us entirely by surprise, given its age.”

To be eligible for landmark status in Seattle, a building has to be at least 25 years old (in current terms, built before 1998) and meet one of six criteria. Three of the criteria have to do with the historical significance of the site (for example, if it was the site of a major historical event); the other three are about the building itself—whether it “embodies” an architectural style or is a distinctive work by a major architect, for example.

The building on Broadway Ave. East, designed by Seattle architect Henry Dozier and completed in 1903, has housed a number of typical neighborhood businesses over the years, including drug stores, groceries, restaurants, and a maternity home for young women where young women with unwanted pregnancies were “sent away.”

Historical photo of the Wilshire Building from 1937
The Wilshire Building in 1937, when the speed limit on Broadway was 20 mph!

Visually, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the Jai Thai building, which looks like what it is— an old, slightly run-down brick-clad wooden structure with small businesses, including the Mud Bay pet supply store and a hair salon, on both floors. But Seattle is a young city, with few buildings more than 100 years old, and local preservationists have a habit of clinging to old buildings based entirely or primarily on their age.

The lack of a specific architectural style, the lack of a notable patron, the lack of a celebrated architect, the lack of a documented historic event—these are the criteria by which a historic building should be evaluated, not whether or not one thinks it is charming and adds character to the neighborhood.”—Affordable housing developer Rebecca Ralston

At Wednesday’s landmarks board meeting, two advocates for landmarking the building—architectural historian Ian MacLeod and retired college IT director Harriett Wasserman—called out some of its distinctive features, like the arched windows on the second floor. They also made the case that Seattle’s history is “disappearing” as the city permits new buildings to replace old ones; Wasserman said the overall feel of Broadway has changed, and that preserving a low-rise commercial building, “even if it’s not as pretty as it once was,” would help stem the tide of modernity.

“The street is becoming a canyon of modern buildings,” Wasserman said. “So here’s a chance to preserve the exterior of one of the old ones.” Buildings on Broadway, like most “urban villages” around the city, can’t be taller than seven stories.

Dozier, the building’s architect, had a checkered history. Consultant Ellen Mirro, who prepared the landmark nomination, described Dozier on Wednesday as a “terrible” person who abandoned his mentally ill wife and nine children in Colorado in 1896—a story the local press covered breathlessly at the time. Dozier was also a virulent racist and early proponent of eugenics who wrote poems and letters to the editor of the Seattle Times denouncing Japanese Americans living in Seattle.

Although landmarks board members didn’t dwell on Dozier’s personal history, several were very interested in the building’s use as a maternity home, history Mirro’s firm, Studio TJP, uncovered in their research. Several board members suggested that this previously unknown history might be a basis for landmarking the building; MacLeod, for example, called the “maternity ward aspect of the history… really interesting and really unique” and suggested the “marginalized women” who used the maternity services might present a “parallel narrative” to the “LGBT history of Capitol Hill.”

Using theoretical marginalized women from the past to justify preserving the Jai Thai building today could prevent the construction of apartments for marginalized women who are currently living.

The landmark application goes deep into this history, which is indeed fascinating; it also notes that residential wards for young women with unwanted pregnancies proliferated across the country during the 1930s and ’40s, before abortion was legal. Preserving a building based on the previously unknown presence of a maternity ward, in other words, would be like preserving a structure because it once housed a patent medicine salesman—a part of medical history, for sure, but one that was common all over the city, the way barre studios and tattoo parlors are today.

Ralston said Thursday that she was “grateful” for the landmarks board’s decision. “We believe the presentation allowed the facts to speak for themselves. The lack of a specific architectural style, the lack of a notable patron, the lack of a celebrated architect, the lack of a documented historic event—these are the criteria by which a historic building should be evaluated, not whether or not one thinks it is charming and adds character to the neighborhood, [which] is completely subjective and open to much debate.”

Maybe Metropolis: The Solution Is More Density, Not Just More Taxes

Image of three developments allowed in some former single-family areas, from least to most dense: residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2.
MHA’s modest upzones on a sliver of Seattle’s single-family land include (l-r) residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2. Images via City of Seattle.

By Josh Feit

The JumpStart tax, city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s payroll tax on big employers like Amazon, is posting standout numbers. This year, JumpStart will fund $97 million in affordable housing investments, including nearly $80 million for 1,769 units of affordable rental housing. Last year, the $71.4 million it provided toward affordable housing amounted to almost half the $153 million total raised by all the city’s affordable housing funding streams.

The Jump Start tax teases out the nexus between surging tech job growth and housing prices by capturing nouveau corporate Seattle’s impact on the market. That is: As the hyper growth of tech companies like Amazon inflate local housing prices, the city is taxing them to help fund affordable housing. It’s a good look, and it seems like a logical offset for the influx of high-earning tech employees. And, let’s be honest: It also feels good.

However, as much as I agree with the logic of an Amazon tax, and as much as it’s bringing in, I think there’s a more germane and effective way to raise affordable housing dollars. Luckily, it’s already part of our affordable housing strategy—sort of.

I’m talking about 2019’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, a fee on new development in designated parts of the city, which brought in an impressive $50 million in 2021 itself.

Given that Jump Start outpaced MHA by $20 million, why am I focusing on  MHA as the smarter policy? For starters, MHA, which came with a series of targeted upzones that allow more housing in more places, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city. These historical zoning laws cordon off nearly 75 percent of the city from multifamily housing, pinching supply and thus fueling steep housing prices.

While conventional wisdom holds that upzones and new development inflate housing costs, a 2021 UCLA report found that the latest studies show the opposite: Five out of six studies looking at the impact of market-rate housing determined that new market-rate density “makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units.”

Conversely, those who warn that upzones lead to gentrification, have a hard time explaining why gentrification is alreday happening in Seattle today, under our status-quo zoning that prohibits the very density urbanists are calling for. More logically, the prohibition on new development in so much of the city is spiking prices for the limited housing that is available.

Seattle gained 130,000 people between 2010 and 2020 (13,000 a year) and another 8,400 during the first year of the pandemic, many of them tech transplants. These newcomers didn’t cause the housing shortage, though—they merely brought it into sharper relief. The MHA strategy, which encourages housing development, is actually in the position to do something about it.

MHA, which came with a series of targeted up-zones, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city.

And MHA might be worth more money than JumpStart. The MHA data point that interests me most is $13.4 million, a subset of MHA dollars raised. This figure represents the amount of money MHA raised specifically from developments built on land where it was previously prohibited: multifamily housing built on land that was upzoned in Seattle’s previously exclusive single-family zones.

Passed in 2019, MHA didn’t merely tack a fee onto new development; it also upzoned tracts along the edges of 27 single-family zones, allowing small-scale density in some previously single-family-only neighborhoods by expanding low-rise and neighborhood commercial zones and creating a new “residential small lot” zoning designation. These modest upzones, which the city adopted on just 6 percent of single-family land, allow new housing that fits in seamlessly with single-family houses.

Interestingly, this modest bit of geography— 6% of the single-family zones, or  4% of the city’s total developable land—accounted for nearly 20 percent of all MHA dollars. This outsized production could represent an upward trend. Last year, the same modestly upzoned fraction of single-family areas brought in 12 percent of the money raised from MHA overall, $8.3 million out of MHA’s $68.3 million.

This disproportionate performance indicates that pent-up demand for development on formerly cordoned-off land could be a spigot of affordable housing cash. Consider: There’s a lot more developable land where that 6 percent came from, and the city could increase the potential density of those areas more dramatically than it has to allow multifamily and commercial development, for example. If the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell had the courage to stand up to Seattle’s NIMBY class by extending the upzones further into exclusive single-family areas and by opting for denser upzones, Seattle would generate far more cash for affordable housing.

Sure, $80 million from the JumpStart tax  is helping a lot. But the truth is, we need far more money for housing. According to the Office of Housing, MHA helped fund 990 units in 2021. But, according to the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force , we need 12,000 a year. Unfortunately, JumpStart’s impressive figures could dampen any move to expand the more on-point MHA approach, which raises money for affordable housing (and could raise a lot more) while actually addressing the crux of the housing problem by freeing up land for development.

In this way, JumpStart could unwittingly play to the interests of single-family homeowners (and their ever-appreciating property values) by shifting the focus away from the central role these homeowners play in the housing crisis, holding them harmless and avoiding bold policy solutions by taking their communities off the table.

According to the MHA numbers, the 4 percent of Seattle that we timidly opened up to more housing construction is trying to tell us something: The table is bigger than we think.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents

Bellwether Housing's Anchor Flats building in South Lake Union
Bellwether Housing, whose properties include the Anchor Flats apartment building in South Lake Union, is limiting rent increases this year. Image via Bellwether Housing

By Katie Wilson

It’s no secret that rents are rising. Landlords are making up for lost time after pandemic-era rent freezes, and passing inflation-driven cost increases on to tenants. After a brief exodus from urban areas, many renters who left have now returned. Climbing interest rates are forcing potential homebuyers to wait, crowding the rental market.

With all these pressures driving up market-rate rents, it must feel great to live in an affordable, rent-restricted apartment right now. Right?

Maybe not. A quiet wave of large rent hikes is coming. For some, it’s already here. Earlier this month, seniors at a building operated by Mercy Housing in Bellingham hit the streets to protest a 9 percent rent increase that left some residents owing more than 60 percent of their monthly income to their nonprofit landlord—twice as much as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of “affordable” housing.

Every April, HUD releases income and rent limits for certain types of affordable housing, based on area median income. Once upon a time, these limits might rise in King County by 1 or 2 percent a year, but starting in 2017, the annual increase jumped as high as 7 percent. The pandemic briefly slowed this ascent, but the increase announced this April is truly startling: In HUD’s calculation, King County’s median family income rose by 16.3 percent from 2021 to 2022. That means rents at properties governed by HUD’s formulas may also rise by 16.3 percent this year—or even more, if a unit wasn’t already priced at its upper limit.

Of course, the fact that King County’s median household is now pulling in $134,600 instead of $115,700 doesn’t mean that lower-income households suddenly have more money to spend on rent. Seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, working families earning near the minimum wage—they’re not getting raises like that. Therein lies the problem.

Although many types of affordable housing are protected from large rent increases, many buildings financed with federal low income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and tax-exempt bonds are not. The same is true for most units whose rents are restricted through state and local multifamily tax exemptions (MFTE) and programs like incentive zoning and Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

When the HUD limits began rising sharply several years ago, the city of Seattle changed the rules for new MFTE units so that maximum rents wouldn’t go up more than 4.5 percent a year. That change has kept rent hikes within reason for more than 200 units so far, but tenants living in older MFTE units—about 5,600—are subject to the escalating HUD limits.

That’s how Fatima ended up with a rent increase of over $600 a month. (We’ve changed the names of renters to protect their privacy).

More than a year ago, Fatima moved into an MFTE unit in North Seattle thanks to a rapid rehousing program run by a domestic violence organization. (Rapid rehousing is a form of temporary rent subsidy that helps low-income renters pay for housing). The rent was $1,500 for a 2-bedroom—significantly less than the going rent for the area, possibly because there weren’t many takers during the pandemic slump

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

Fatima said her landlord assured her that the rent wouldn’t go up drastically. After the rapid rehousing support ended, she was selected for an emergency housing voucher, a federal COVID relief program similar to Section 8 (now known as Housing Choice) that pays for a portion of a tenant’s rent.

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

“We said, hold on, you told us it wouldn’t be that much. They said, you know, it’s based on the market,” said the housing advocate. “That put it over the [rent] limit for her voucher.” 

This week, Fatima’s landlord agreed to lower her rent to fit her voucher limit, allowing her to stay in her home. But not every renter is able to negotiate that kind of agreement.

Seniors on fixed incomes are an especially vulnerable group. King County’s area median income has been rising faster than social security payments for some time now. When the rent rises beyond seniors’ means, “we simply have nowhere else to go,” said Sarah, who lives in a senior housing complex in Seattle.

Sarah’s building was financed through the federal LIHTC program, and up until four years ago, it was run by a nonprofit. “Rent increases were minimal, and management was responsive to tenants’ needs,” she said. Then a national for-profit company bought the building. By that time, many tenants were also voucher holders, seeking out lower-cost units as market-rate rents rose beyond what their vouchers would cover. The corporation quickly showed itself to be all business.

“A tenant association begun under previous ownership was not allowed to use common rooms for meetings,” said Sarah, and a manager threatened to evict a tenant who started a Facebook group for residents. The corporation also tried to require electronic rent payments, until residents pointed out that this is illegal in Seattle.

Now some tenants are facing rent increases of $175 a month, surpassing some residents’ voucher limits. “Because some voucher holders have disabilities involving psychological difficulties, this situation caused much anguish,” said Sarah. “All tenants, including those with vouchers, know that buildings like ours are their only answer—they are shut out of market-rate housing and waiting lists for low-income apartments are years long.”

Not every resident of affordable housing is in trouble. Programs that receive federal operating funds typically limit the amount of rent tenants must pay to 30 percent of the person’s income; this includes many buildings owned and managed by the King County Housing Authority and the Seattle Housing Authority. Housing Choice voucher holders are similarly protected—as long as they live in units with rent low enough that a voucher will pay for them. Many nonprofit housing providers also receive operating funds from other sources that come with limits on rent hikes.

“The city of Seattle is a funder in most of our buildings,” said Michelle House, director of compliance at Community Roots Housing. “This year, Seattle restricted [rent increases] to 4.2 percent. We did follow that guideline for most of our apartments.”

Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, says that rent increases at their properties depend “on the building and which entities regulate the building, if any.” But Bellwether made a decision this year to limit rent hikes to an average of 3 percent.

“Notwithstanding ever-increasing rents in the market and significant inflation in operation costs, this will be the first year since 2019 that we have raised rents at all. We are very careful to ensure that our residents do not get overwhelmed by steep rent increases, regardless of what is happening with the HUD rent levels,” she said.

Continue reading “Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents”

Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)
City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)

By Erica C. Barnett

When City Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed legislation that would require landlords to report basic information about their rental units, such as the size of each unit they own and how much it rents for, twice a year, his intent wasn’t to make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.

In fact, one of the goals of the proposal was to provide data to demonstrate the value of protecting so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing”—private, nonsubsidized apartments that rent below market rate—against development, through limits on density in areas that might otherwise be redeveloped into high-rise apartments.

So it was somewhat surprising when, earlier this month, Pedersen’s frequent ally Sara Nelson accused him of trying to impose onerous regulations that would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Comparing housing to consumer goods, Nelson said the legislation would force landlords to divulge “proprietary” information that other types of businesses don’t have to disclose.

“We don’t ask other small business owners for this kind of detailed information,” Nelson said during a May 20 meeting of the council’s renter’s rights committee. “For example, we don’t ask all produce vendors to submit the kinds of vegetables they sell and the prices they charge.” (Actually, we do, and on a much larger scale.)

Pedersen, seeming a bit startled by the analogy, pointed out that “the current prices of products are publicly available, whereas we don’t know what the current contract rents are for an apartment project.”

“The problem here is that the price of housing is not known,” added committee chair Kshama Sawant, who supports Pedersen’s legislation. “I don’t understand how it is a burden to disclose the amount of rent you charge—it seems to be the most basic form of information that landlords should be required to share.”

In response, Nelson said people can find out what rents landlords are charging, “kind of, when you’re looking for units,” and that if the city wants to know more about rents they should hire a contractor to do a study. Then she said supporters of the legislation should be honest and acknowledge that “this information is going to be used for other political purposes, such as rent control.”

Sawant, a socialist, supports rent control; Pedersen, a former aide to onetime City Council member Tim Burgess, does not. Continue reading “Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents”

Initiative Would Pave the Way for Social Housing in Seattle

Wohnpark Alterlaa, a social housing project in Vienna
Social housing in Vienna; photo by Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The House Our Neighbors coalition, a project of the homeless advocacy group Real Change, will file a ballot initiative on Monday to create a new public development authority (PDA) to build publicly owned, permanently affordable housing—also known as social housing—in Seattle. Funding for the PDA would come later, through future state or local legislation.

Social housing, according to Real Change advocacy director Tiffani McCoy, differs from other types of affordable housing because it’s permanently affordable, including to people whose income changes; because it gives renters a say in policies that impact them; and because it’s publicly owned, rather than subsidized or operated by a private nonprofit, like much of the affordable housing in Seattle.

“Developments MUST be permanently protected from being sold or transferred to a private entity or public-private partnership,” the proposed ordinance says.

McCoy says the coalition backing the initiative “didn’t want to just advocate for more money for the [Seattle] Office of Housing or affordable housing in general, because while those are obviously very, very important programs, they can be very restrictive in terms of what [income levels] you can serve. The proposed new authority would build housing for people earning between 0 and 120 percent of Seattle’s Area Median Income, currently $81,000 for a single person or $115,700 for a family of four.

The initiative would set up a PDA—a type of public developer—and require the city of Seattle to provide “in-kind” startup support to run it for the first 18 months; funding to actually build new housing would come later and could require the state legislature to approve a new funding mechanism, as it has for other large local projects like Sound Transit. State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43), a longtime advocate for affordable housing, is supporting the initiative and could be instrumental in creating a funding source for the authority, if the measure passes; he did not immediately return a call for comment last week.

The initiative would also require the city to do a feasibility study before selling off public land to determine whether it could be developed as social housing and transferred to the PDA. In 2019, the city sold a three-acre piece of land in South Lake Union known as the “Mercer Megablock” to a real estate equity firm for $143 million; the sale required the buyer, Alexandria Real Estate, to build 175 units of affordable housing and a make a one-time $5 million contribution to help the city address homelessness. Affordable housing advocates criticized the sale as a missed opportunity to build a much larger number of permanently affordable units on the site.

By adding the requirement that the city study the feasibility of affordable housing before selling off public land, “we just wanted to set up some accountability mechanism,” McCoy said: “A record of [the city] saying why they want this land to go to a private developer, as opposed to being for for public use.”

Initiative backers will have to collect around 26,500 valid signatures to get the measure on the November ballot; since some signatures are always ruled invalid, that means collecting around 35,000 signatures total.

Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

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.” Continue reading “Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property”

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”