Seattle’s Own Housing Affordability Efforts Could Worsen Displacement

by Carolyn Bick

Conversations around what the City of Seattle is doing to combat its burgeoning affordability crisis have been dominated by discussions of Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) policies. Some neighborhood groups are concerned these projects will not create the expected amount of affordable housing, while worsening the effects of redlining –– and a report from the City of Seattle supports the notion that the effects of MHA have the risk of disproportionately impacting communities of color.

An appeal filed in November 2017 by a coalition of neighborhood groups contends, among other things, that the city’s policies effectively ignore its own racial and social equity rules and will end up worsening displacement, rather than ameliorating it. Appellants and other critics of MHA contend that the problems remain even after the city released its final analysis with more focus on racial equity.

Another group, Got Green — a nonprofit organizing for racial, environmental, and social justice run by and focused on people of color in the South End — has been a vocal opponent of MHA and HALA since early 2018. While it is not affiliated with the appeal, Got Green also argues the initiatives will accelerate displacement of communities of color and low-income people.

“The concessions … that the city is giving to developers … is not in the best interests of the community, and is not in the best interests of the people who live in Seattle,” Hodan Hassan, a climate change organizer with Got Green said. “The city government is supposed to be the entity that protects the people who live here. … It is not to make money, and it is not so that other people can make money.”

In 2014, then-Mayor Ed Murray introduced what was known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which was meant to “create an affordable and livable city,” according to the HALA website. The agenda points to specific figures, namely that about 40,000 of Seattle’s low-income households spend more than half their incomes on housing and that, at the time the HALA was enacted, about 2,800 people were homeless. Even with the new, $15-per-hour minimum wage, “the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is out of reach for a single-person household minimum wage worker,” according to the site.

Along with this agenda came the city’s process of upzoning 27 areas in Seattle known as Urban Villages. Upzoning means the city will redesignate land in those neighborhoods to allow for more population density, and taller buildings. The legislation meant land within the urban villages zoned for single-family homes would also allow for multi-tenant apartment buildings and townhouses. In all, six percent of Seattle’s single-family lots will be rezoned as residential and commercial lots. Some areas of Seattle are already upzoned, but the city does not yet know exactly when the policy will take effect in the rest of the Urban Villages.

Under MHA, developers who want to build new commercial or multi-tenant residences in upzoned neighborhoods must either include a certain percentage of affordable units in their developments or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. The percentage of units that must be affordable falls between 2.9 percent and 11 percent, depending on the location of the development, and what kind of development it will be. Most fall between 5 percent and 7 percent. The payments are calculated based on the square footage of the project. The city is obligated under the legislation to use the fund to create more affordable housing elsewhere.

But developers are required to follow the new affordability requirements only if the area has already been upzoned. They are free to build without these restrictions in areas that have not yet been upzoned under MHA. Given the city’s stated goals, it surprised Bill Bradburd, a member of the Jackson Place Community Council Board, when he came across the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections’ blog post that he said encourages developers to submit proposals before the upzones go into effect.

The April 30, 2018, blog post starts by outlining how the upzones will affect developers, in terms of the restrictions to which their proposals will be subject. But then it states, “Remember, your project is not subject to the MHA requirements or any of the new development standards if your project is vested to a Land Use Code in effect before an MHA upzone.”

The Jackson Place Community Council Board is one of the neighborhood groups opposed to MHA and HALA. It joined a coalition of 28 other neighborhood groups to file an appeal under the collective Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE) on Nov. 27, 2017, that challenges the city’s analysis of MHA released Nov. 9. The appeal contends the city has failed to follow its own 10-year-old Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) rules in putting together the plans for Seattle’s neighborhoods. The first two of three week-long hearings on the matter occured in June and July. Three more are scheduled for later in August with the possibility of more hearings at later dates.

When asked why the city would want to remind developers that they can avoid any MHA requirements by getting in projects before upzoning takes place, Department of Construction and Inspections land use planner and supervisor Megan Neuman said the department was simply responding to queries from developers.

“It’s simply just a fact of the land use code,” Neuman said. “There are people who are asking questions about projects that are really close to coming in the door, and we have projects that are coming in in the future, so [the blog post] was supposed to be well-rounded to address both sides.”

The mayor’s Policy Advisor Sara Maxana said MHA was supposed to be implemented this month, but the appeal has stalled the process. Until the hearing examiner has made a decision, she said, the Seattle City Council can’t take action.

“We’ve always had an ideal scenario, but some of the issues are out of our control, and we need to wait until the hearing examiner process resolves,” Maxana said. “Then, we can do additional analysis, if that’s what’s called for in the decision, or if we have a favorable decision, council can start talking about amendments, and just take action. The scenarios could vary from being able to take action in December of this year to sometime in 2019.”

HALA started out with an exact year goal in mind: 20,000 affordable units by 2035, and 6,000 units to be built under MHA within 10 years of the MHA implementation date. When city council first introduced the MHA resolution, the projected goal was 2025. But that has changed, Maxana said.

“Because we are now three years in, and haven’t put the rezones in place, we prefer to think of it as 6,000 [affordable units] within 10 years. Hopefully, that can still happen by 2025, but we’re three years in and haven’t put the requirements in place, so the clock isn’t really ticking yet,” Maxana said.

Appealing gentrification

Across the country, people of color, especially Black people, are most negatively affected by housing inequities. This is no different in Seattle, where, according to the city’s findings, one in three Black renter households spend more than half their incomes on housing, compared with one in five white renter households. Just 35 percent of householders who are people of color own their own homes, compared to 51 percent of white householders. Incomes for Black families are just 36 percent that of white families; incomes for Asian families are a little more than double that, at 67 percent of white family incomes.

Got Green joined 23 other South End-based organizations in signing a letter to the city opposing MHA without amendment. The letter was authored by Puget Sound Sage, an organization meant to serve low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrants, and included organization members of South Communities Organizing for Racial & Regional Equity (South CORE). South CORE is a nonprofit formed in 2012 as a means to support the South End community and its institutions, as well as advocate for South End residents.

The letter asks the city to re-evaluate the MHA percentages in areas with high displacement risk, and direct in-lieu fees gleaned from development within these neighborhoods back into those same neighborhoods. For instance, if the money came from a development with the Othello neighborhood, the money would be used to build affordable units in Othello. It also asks that the city develop a plan to alert residents to new developments in their neighborhoods, so that they may have a say in the final plans. The letter also requests that the city implement a strategy to ensure low-income or fixed-income single family homeowners are able to stay within the community.

The latter provision is something one of Got Green’s own has already faced: in October 2017, Got Green Climate Justice steering committee member Esther “Little Dove” John was forced from her North Beacon Hill home after the apartment building in which she lived was slated for demolition. In its place, developer Build Urban planned to construct  a 42-unit efficiency apartment complex, with rents out of John’s price range. John found an affordable home in the South End as of late July 2018, but that doesn’t mean the area will remain affordable, Got Green’s Hassan said.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who is being pressured by developers to sell in the neighborhood and in areas that are around, but there used to be this empty lot by the Rainier Beach Light Rail Station … that is now being built to have small little condos that are $400,000 to $800,000,” Hassan said, referring to the Greenbelt Station Townhomes.

At the time of this writing, the cheapest unit at Greenbelt Station cost $574,800 to buy, while the only available to-rent unit cost $2,800 per month.

City findings in its initial analysis of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) appear to support Hassan’s and Got Green’s concerns, as well as SCALE’s appeal. Though the city has since made adjustments included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) based on meetings with community members and with city employees on an equity review team, Got Green and SCALE say the changes made are inadequate to ameliorate displacement.

According to the 2017 report by the city’s own MHA EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) Racial Equity Review Team, the committee found MHA “did a good job of addressing affordability.” But when it came to the issue of racial equity, “we found that there was no consistency of consideration regarding race across chapters. The Growth and Equity analysis is the only place race was clearly considered.”

The summary of the report, written by committee co-leader and city employee Daniel Nelson, stated the city lacked information to demonstrate that race was considered in developing MHA.

“We couldn’t tell what racial equity outcomes were being addressed or which would be improved by MHA or the EIS,” the report said. “Because of this, our recommendation is not one of mitigation, but of further action to be taken; action that will lead to gathering the information that is missing, that will inform our strategy and help develop an equitable problem-solving approach that leads with race.”

The report goes on to recommend not that the city scrap MHA, but that it “intentionally include racial equity in the problem-solving approaches developed by the MHA as it proceeds” — in other words, to follow its own RSJI rules by which the authors said it would abide, in introducing MHA.

It isn’t clear the city carefully considered these rules in the initial creation of MHA, either. After the city introduced the idea of MHA, the committee formed in response to the city council’s question of whether racial equity was truly being addressed in MHA, because “[i]t was not clear a toolkit or other such review had been done as [the MHA EIS] was being conceived and assembled.”

Over the course of four meetings in four weeks, the Racial Equity Review Team, made up of experts across different fields from within the city’s government, discovered that while the city has been looking at data regarding housing tenancy and household income, there is a dearth of information when it comes to the impacts of MHA on racial equity.

“There are no absolutely accurate indicators available now, in any of the subjects of the EIS, that can tell us how people of color are affected or will be affected by the proposals of MHA,” the report reads. “The only real reason we know displacement has occurred is by looking around and seeing it, and hearing from those effected [sic]. Any data that could tell us what we needed to know wasn’t available before displacement happened, and there would be very little if any of it available now to make the same determination.”

The committee report recommends several actions in order to proceed with MHA in a way that will realize the plan’s stated goals. It asks the city to take into consideration “studies done by various city departments that were not originally included in MHA and the EIS, which have begun to consider racial equity,” as well as create a permanent, interdepartmental RSJI team for oversight, and create a mechanism for community reportage that will allow for “real time” reaction to construction and displacement, none of which it currently has.

According to a presentation at a Select Committee meeting on Aug. 6, the city has begun to create actions based on initial MHA feedback and the equity team’s recommendations, such as creating an equitable development monitoring program meant to monitor the effects of development in communities and “track early warning signals” within communities at risk for higher displacement. The program will also create a Racial Equity Toolkit, which Maxana said has never before been applied to a formal environmental impact statement process. However, the only provision within the program that has a timeline is the program report, which isn’t expected out until early 2019.

After the team submitted its written recommendations to the city in November 2017, Maxana said the city invited the team to be a part of the action process the following month. She said she did not know exactly when team members came on board, but said that the work over the past seven to eight months has involved “overlap” of meetings with the equity review team.

Bradburd and others associated with the appeal also said the fees developers may opt to pay, in lieu of including affordable housing on-site, are too low. Bradburd explained the low fees MHA currently calls for encourage developers to pay into the affordable housing fund, rather than build affordable units.

Maxana said in a later email that “the City assumes that about half of development projects will elect payment and half will elect performance.”

Seattle Fair Growth member and housing activist Sarajane Siegfriedt said the way the system currently works does not incentivize developers to build housing anywhere but on the cheapest land available, in places like South Seattle. By buying up cheap, single-family houses and demolishing them to quickly erect market-rate, multi-family townhouses, developers maximize their profits, while pricing out low-income individuals and families.

It is this same turnover strategy that pushed John out of her home.

Though the city didn’t include data for South Seattle in its Aug. 6 presentation, it did show the last several decades have seen a slow bleed of Black households out of the Central District. According to the data presented, in 1990, 60 percent of the area’s households were Black. In 2010, that number had dropped to just 25 percent.

Both Ward and Bradburd said it’s hard to believe the city will make its goal of 6,000 affordable homes under MHA within 10 years, and its goal of 20,000 affordable units under HALA by 2035. Even if it did, though, the rate at which housing is being built isn’t enough, and the number of units isn’t enough, Hassan said.

“The fact that they want to build 6,000 units over 10 years is … not enough. We need 6,000 in the next six months, and I think they are not grasping the gravity of the situation, and how quickly people are being displaced from the city to different cities, different towns,” Hassan said. “In theory, it’s nice that you want to solve this problem, but you’re going about it all the wrong ways, and you’re not listening to the people about what the right ways are.”

Got Green also argued that there has been almost no community engagement on the part of the city, either. Hassan said there have been too few meetings for South End residents — not that it would necessarily have mattered if there were more, in Got Green’s view, she said.

“At the point of … outreach to the community, everything was already done. It felt like it was just a last thing they were checking off, so they could say, ‘We talked to people,’” Hassan said. “So, even if I did take time off, or left my children with my neighbor, and came to this place to tell you … that this would absolutely displace me, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, well, we have heard from this community member, but we’re still obviously going to continue doing the thing we are already doing.’ Community engagement has to be one of the very first steps, instead of the very last.”

Featured Photo: Seen here on Aug. 12, an in-process construction project stands at 3828 37th Ave. S., in Seattle, Washington by Carolyn Bick

Another version of this article appeared earlier. It has since been updated to reflect further reporting on the issue.

2 thoughts on “Seattle’s Own Housing Affordability Efforts Could Worsen Displacement”

  1. The photo illustrating this article is of a single family detached house, being built on what was an empty lot. It’s strange because:
    1) No one was displaced by the construction and now there’s space for a new household to live in a great neighborhood.
    2) As it is in ‘SF5000’ a zone which bans apartments or townhouses (2/3rds of the city) it isn’t subject to Mandatory Housing Affordability.
    3) Because it is well outside an urban village, it wouldn’t fall within the area where it even could be upzoned for multifamily.
    4) Likely the family next door sold off their extra lot, kept their house. This is not a bad thing!

    We have a housing crisis that stems from not building enough places for people to live and that drives prices up for everyone. When I see an article like this using a single house as the bogeyman, I don’t know how we expect to address housing unaffordablilty in any meaningful way.