Neighborhood Groups Form Coalition Against Seattle Zoning Changes, Threaten Legal Action

by Will Sweger

Representatives of 26 neighborhood groups met at Seattle City Hall on Monday to oppose Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation. Introduced by former Mayor Ed Murray, MHA would institute zoning changes and require developers constructing new homes to either set aside affordable units or pay into a city fund for the creation of additional affordable housing. If passed, MHA would allow new buildings to be built higher and would increase the density in many urban areas.

The new organization, dubbed the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity, gathered outside the Bertha Knight Landes Room. In subsequent days, they plan to take further legal action to resist the proposed ordinance.

In his opening statement, Toby Thaler, the Board President of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, discussed the housing boom since the Great Recession in Seattle. “Housing is even more unaffordable, the homeless population rises with the rent, transit and traffic are dismal,” Thaler said.“Unfortunately, the city government under Mayor Ed Murray decided to impose a top-down solution to these problems rather than working with communities.”

Opponents of MHA have expressed concern that developers in possession of highly desirable areas will simply pay the fee rather than construct affordable homes in new buildings. Other activists fear dramatic neighborhood alteration as part of the zoning changes. Much criticism is leveled at the location of upzones, which avoid many affluent, single-family housing areas across the city.

Thaler promised to take legal action to shop the upzones by appealing the changes to the city hearing examiner. “We are asking the hearing examiner to require the city to honestly evaluate the problems that city-wide upzoning is expected to solve,” he said.

Cacima Lee, a UW student and Beacon Hill Council member, read a statement from the Beacon Hill Council, arguing the neighborhood should have a “balanced mix of market-rate, affordable and low-income housing” in order to ensure racial and economic diversity.

What constitutes ‘balance’ is up for debate, namely the addendum in MHA that allows developers to pay out of creating affordable housing, something critics may create a backlog on the construction of affordable homes.

The coalition faced questions from the audience about where additional income sources for affordable housing would come from if MHA is scuttled. Sarajane Siegfriedt with Seattle Fair Growth said the group has been advocating to use funds raised by the business tax the city council proposed in Resolution 31782 in the creation of affordable housing. Thaler also advocated starting over on the MHA legislation with higher fees for developers who choose to opt out of providing affordable housing.

Members of the coalition had other ideas to tackle Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. A U District Small Business Association member advocated for small business impact studies wherever upzones are implemented.

Member organizations even include TreePAC, an advocacy group focusing on keeping trees present in the city in the midst of large-scale development.

MHA legislation will likely face a council vote in the summer of 2018 after the council forms a committee to discuss the new rules and Seattleites have additional chances to weigh in at public hearings.

Will Sweger is a Beacon Hill resident and contributor at the South Seattle Emerald. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger

Featured image by Will Sweger 

9 thoughts on “Neighborhood Groups Form Coalition Against Seattle Zoning Changes, Threaten Legal Action”

  1. “Unfortunately, the city government under Mayor Ed Murray decided to impose a top-down solution to these problems rather than working with communities.”

    I hear that, but Seattle has a history of doing nothing in the face of major regional problems because it was waiting for consensus to form. Mass transit is the obvious example. This may be a situation where we need a top-down approach to ensure that something gets done.

  2. I’ve come to think there needs to be two different approaches depending on geography and community, “bottom-up” in SE Seattle, including self-development by friends and neighborhood groups (“Baugruppen”), land trusts like Homestead Community Land Trust and the Liberty Bank and the Othello station area groups, and “top down” (basically) north of the Ship Canal, where groups like this SCALE coalition seek to delay creation of more housing, and prevent development that will increase equity, using proxies like “concurrency” and “tree canopy.” I don’t know how that might be implemented fairly, but I’d be up for helping anyone who wanted to talk about it. What we have here with SCALE is pure predatory delay.

    1. Rob, I agree with suggested solutions for SE Seattle; using City assets—especially using revenue from market rate developments—to promote community and individual ownership is a great solution. However, your characterization of SCALE as “pure predatory delay” by people from “north of the Ship Canal” ignores the makeup of the coalition. Didn’t you read the member list?

  3. This city certainly needs to do a lot more than HALA, but it is a good first step. It will create significant, new affordable housing, and in the most suitable areas, corridors with for good transit and city services, like urban villages. So why on earth would these people oppose it?

    The answer is that many of these neighborhood groups have been the backbone of NIMBYSM in Seattle. I saw many of them in action when I was on the City Neighborhood Council. In reality they are always looking for some reason to stop, or at least slow down, development, not to help supply to catch up with demand. The result, of course, would be housing costs that would escalate even faster. Just look at San Francico to see what this same mind set did there.

    Where I live in Othello, a group of us (the Othello Station Community Action Team) long ago decided to work with developers – to help their buildings better fit the neighborhood and our vision of a new and more livable town center around the light rail station – not to stop them. After 20 years we’re finally succeeding, while gladly doing our part to meet to the huge challenge of affordability brought on by the Amazon boom.

    1. It is admirable that you have been able to work with developers in Othello, however many years it took you to make a productive conversation happen.

      It is disappointing that you generalize the concerns of many other communities as “NIMBYs” for questioning the claims that the City’s specific MHA proposals (not “HALA” in its entirety) will significantly increase affordable housing without significant unmitigated impacts. Such as displacement of existing low income renters and homeowners.

      If you have to ask “why on earth” over 2 dozen groups from all over the city are challenging the City’s SEPA review of the proposed zoning changes under the MHA program, you clearly have not read or understood the appeal.

      1. “Displacement” is a perfect example of an issue being used to try to stop or slow development, exacerbating the housing crisis.

        Take the case of a small, older apartment building close to good transit that is replaced by a big apartment building, with HALA affordable units included, housing more than 10 times as many people. The low income renters get a better place to live, plus more affluent workers aren’t competing as much to drive up prices.

        And if HALA does not work perfectly as intended, then improve it, don’t stop it, making “the perfect the enemy of the good.”

        And if you’re really serious about displacement, then get serious about the 2/3 of availabe city land that is zoned for single family. Not a few of these families are of modest means but could stay in their homes if they could remodel and rent out rooms, or an apartment or backyard cottage.

        The city could encourage this with technical and financial assistance, converting single family to the new “small lot residential” zone included in HALA. Many other big cities do something like this. The single family scale is maintained but neighborhood livability goes way up, as the increased density can support better transit and other services and amenities.

        Given the current political disaster at the federal level, and the grossly inadequate funding of “social housing”, this is likely the only way Seattle could actually afford to keep housing prices within reason.

      2. I agree with some of your solutions, but you continue to misconstrue the nature of the appeal of the MHA FEIS. I believe you also make claims for the MHA that are not accurate. It is the appellants’ position that the MHA program will result in a net loss of affordable housing for low income households. Worse, the replacement affordable housing will not appear until years after the MHA fees are collected, and for the most part not in the neighborhoods where existing ‘naturally affordable’ housing is torn down to be replaced mostly by market rate housing.

        Seattle cannot turn back the clock; unless there is a severe economic downturn, it is highly unlikely that housing on average will become more affordable to non-high wage workers. Some of your solutions are good ones—like your second to the last paragraph—but they won’t be implemented under the MHA as proposed. That’s a major reason for the appeal; the City should be working with its residents and community organizations to implement solutions that make the most sense, not impose policies “negotiated” by developers with the City in the back room of a back room (the “Grand Bargain”).

        You continue with your false claim that appellants simply want to stop everything. Their desire is indeed to “improve it.” Unfortunately, the City’s top down policy making has made that difficult, and left a SEPA appeal as the last avenue available to open a dialogue where all impacted communities are represented. I challenge you to put your Othello experience on the scale; would you be so hostile to others’ attempts to engage with the City if you were also largely being ignored? Why are you so hostile to other communities’ desires to have a similar level of engagement?

        As for the “2/3 of available city land that is zoned for single family,” that is not this case. You are referring to the ADU/DADU matter, a separate example of the City utterly failing to be objective and to engage with impacted communities. The City is now preparing the EIS the hearing examiner required. Many of the people associated with the MHA appeal—myself included—really want more ADU/DADUs. Again, just not by means of policies developed without adequate consideration of the impacts, and imposed from City Hall with little real engagement with the citizens of Seattle.

      3. Second response: (1) As to single family zoning, it depends on definitions. If we mean, like I did, all areas of the city that are zoned single family, not commercial, etc., then the number I’ve seen is 65%. If you cut up a neighborhood to exclude right of way, parks, etc., then it drops to 57% ( Huge, either way.
        (2) HALA could have been more bottom up, but it was certainly not top down, what with a wide range of groups at the bargaining table. And if you used the district council system, or anything resembling that, then it would almost certainly have led to myriad rationalizations for slowing development, hence even faster rising housing prices and much more displacement. This is because affluent homeowners and certain business interests have dominated these groups, not renters. Also, displacement has been affecting much more than just low income people, with even some middle class families leaving, or being excluded, if they lack two good earners. More than anything else, an affordable city needs a huge variety of housing in all districts.

        (3) Now let’s suppose you shut down HALA for several years of “Seattle process”. Skyrocketing prices guaranteed, all other things being equal. And would you really save low income households from displacement? Perhaps in a few places, but displacement would become all too real for many others. All across the city developers are already buying up older properties, tearing them down, and rebuilding as much as the zoning allows. But due to the lack of upzones, they can’t build multi-family units, so they just build expensive mcmansions for single families, doing little to add to the housing stock. Even the fairly small rezones that have been proposed would do a lot to rectify this absurd situation.

  4. (1) Still irrelevant.
    (2) Yes, mostly agree.
    (3) You are confusing what’s happening in SF zones with LR, MR, HR, NC, and C zones. Irrelevant. You also confuse the purpose of the MHA—generate money for subsidized housing—with increasing the zoned capacity—higher density. Irrelevant.

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