Op-Ed: HALA Recommendations Don’t Address Seattle’s Affordability Crisis

by Bill Bradburd

On the whole, the HALA Report’s recommendations will not dramatically address the affordability crisis in the near term.  Rather than simply looking for a path to quickly address our affordable housing crisis, the recommendations broaden the scope to include ways of producing as much market-rate housing as possible throughout the city.  

As a package deal, the recommendations provide a windfall to developer profitability and will hypercharge the gentrification and class segregation occurring throughout the city.  They do not provide a clear path to more affordability or livability in Seattle.

Because the centerpiece of the proposal – residential multifamily inclusionary housing – won’t have legislation enacted until 2017, the proposal sets the stage for years of delay putting affordable housing into place.  The HALA recommendations largely avoid more immediate and effective alternatives, such as using the City’s bonding capacity to create a $500 million fund for a land trust, bridge loans, preservation of older moderate-rent buildings, ADU production, and low-cost maintenance loans to small landlords in exchange for a guarantee of moderate rents.

The HALA Recommendations, now passed with little change by the Mayor to the Council, were developed in closed meetings by a select committee largely representing development interests.  The committee used a consensus process to effectively veto ideas put forward by the Community Housing Caucus and others.

The false assumption inherent in the HALA Report is that creating more supply at the high end will trickle down to increase the supply of workforce and very low-income housing for seniors and people with disabilities.  Tearing down or renovating older, moderate-cost buildings only displaces renters and exacerbates the affordability problem.  In reality, truly affordable housing types can only be produced with subsidies.

Additionally, HALA proposes an extensive code modification and increased intensity of use in Single Family zones by injecting duplex/triplex row/townhouses, in effect “rezoning” 50% of Seattle and setting the stage for rapid growth citywide.  Worse, this change largely avoids the role of neighborhood planning in shaping our neighborhoods.  And unbelievably there is not any discussion of how to fund transportation systems and other infrastructure necessary to support this growth.

The recommendation to up-zone most of the city is made outside State-mandated planning under the Growth Management Act, specifically, the “Seattle 2035” Comprehensive Plan Update that the City is currently reviewing.

The GMA provides for developer impact fees for urgently needed schools, parks, road improvements and fire services, but Seattle developers have blocked them.  I support impact fees to provide infrastructure concurrent with growth, as done in 80 other cities in our state.

The HALA report relies heavily on mechanisms that favor developers’ bottom lines rather than the delivery of truly affordable housing.  Rather than using a non-profit housing preservation fund, HALA wants a for-profit preservation tax exemption that the State would have to legislate.  Much of the 6,000 low-income units are provided by a significantly increased housing levy. HALA asks Seattle voters in 2016 to double down on more property taxes that especially hurt renters and fixed income seniors. Under the HALA proposals, developers continue to escape paying their fair share. Maximizing the Linkage fee, and having it apply to market rate and above housing is a clear, immediate path to providing more funding for affordable housing.

Additionally, when tasked with identifying ways to produce affordable housing during this period of crisis, the HALA recommendations barely exceed the affordable housing goals of our current Comprehensive Plan.  In fact the City to date has repeatedly failed to enact legislation to achieve even those modest goals.

Much of Seattle’s legislation related to land use and zoning since the Great Recession has been to stimulate for-profit housing development, with the promise that this would lead to affordability:  tax breaks such as MFTE (multifamily tax exemption), incentives, additional development capacity through greater heights and lot coverage, lifting of density limits, removal of parking requirements, and easing of regulatory requirements.   All of these “reforms” were produced with guidance from the same development industry behind HALA, and it is quite demonstrable that while their profits continue to rise and housing production is at an all-time high in Seattle, we have not seen increased affordability as an outcome.

Now the HALA Committee and the Mayor come asking for more of the same, because, they say, this time it will work. History tells us this is very unlikely.  We need to do better.

Bill Bradburd is currently running for the Seattle City Council’s District 9 (at large) position. 

Featured Image Courtesy of Seattle Transit Blog

5 thoughts on “Op-Ed: HALA Recommendations Don’t Address Seattle’s Affordability Crisis”

  1. Right on the money. After reading the full HALA-Report I completely agree. Is this the best our Mr Ed and his developer committee can do?

  2. A couple of things:

    – I am happy the Mayor backed off of the single family zoning changes for all. (And I don’t think it was the media “sensationalizing” it as he said.)

    – I am unhappy that my neighborhood of Roosevelt-Ravenna remains in the 6% that WILL see its zoning changed. We already have the 20+year burden of the blight that comes from our slumlords (which KIRO tv covered on Monday) AND, despite our neighborhood plan that would have given the City MORE upzoning density than they asked for, they went higher further away from the light rail station, now we are being asked to do more.

    It is not fair. The pain as well as the gain should be a shared concept for our city.

    – why should you care? Because if they do it to a couple of neighborhoods, eventually they will do it to all neighborhoods. If the City enables slumlords in a couple of places, they will do nothing when it comes to your neighborhood.

    – Lastly, the HALA report addresses schools in a most peculiar manner. They keep calling them “amenities” like they are a coffeeshop. Public education is not a one-off proposition. And the HALA report supports charter schools which the voters of Seattle very clearly said no to. I have no idea who’s bright idea it was to give charters first preference in any buildings but it’s there in black and white.