by Carolyn Bick
While many Seattle residents applaud the city for its Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) policies, neighborhood groups are concerned these projects will not create the expected amount of affordable housing, while worsening the effects of redlining — and the City of Seattle appears to be ignoring its own findings that support these groups’ fears.
An appeal filed in November 2017 by a coalition of neighborhood groups contends that the city’s policies ignore its own racial and social equity rules, and will end up worsening displacement, rather than ameliorating it. 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, and does not believe the City of Seattle has the South End’s best interests in mind.
“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. It goes on to point 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 Seattle’s different neighborhoods, which the city has divided into 27 different areas called Urban Villages. Upzoning means the land in those neighborhoods will be redesignated to allow for more population density, and taller buildings. The legislation meant land zoned for single-family homes would be rezoned to allow for multi-tenant apartment buildings and townhouses. Six of Seattle’s neighborhoods — the University District, South Lake Union, Downtown, International District/Chinatown, and portions of 23rd in the Central District — have already been upzoned; the remaining 21 neighborhoods have yet to see the changes.
This is where the Mandatory Housing Affordability Act (MHA) comes in. 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 fund will be used to create more affordable housing elsewhere.
But developers are only required follow the new affordability requirements if the area has already been upzoned. In areas that have not yet been upzoned, they are free to build without these restrictions. Given the city’s stated goals, it surprised Bill Bradburd, of the Jackson Place Community Council Board, when he came across the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s 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 happened 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 they were 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.”
Though Seattle City Council legislative assistant Noah An said the goal is to get MHA in place as soon as possible, in order to create housing, it appears the city didn’t have a set timeline for upzoning the remaining neighborhoods.
“It is a pretty major piece of legislative action, so it’s always hard, ahead of time, predicting that timeline with that much certainty, because … as with pieces of big legislation, sometimes they go fast, sometimes they go slow, which is the case with this piece of legislation,” An said.
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 and HALA. The coalition, called the South Communities Organizing for Racial & Regional Equity (South CORE), formed as a nonprofit 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 that the city re-evaluate the MHA percentages in areas with high displacement risk, and direct in-lieu fees gleaned from development within these neighborhoods back into the communities. 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. It also asks for 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, 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 in 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 appear to support Hassan’s and Got Green’s concerns, as well as SCALE’s appeal.
According to the 2017 report by the city’s own MHA EIS Racial Equity Review Team, released July 11, 2018, and briefly made available on the city’s MHA webpage on Aug. 7 before the material was taken down the following day, the committee found that 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 that the city lacked information to demonstrate that race was considered in developing the 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 that the city carefully considered these rules in the initial creation of MHA, either. The committee formed in response to the city council’s question, after the creation of MHA, as to whether racial equity was truly being addressed, 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 of Seattle’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 now-missing report read. “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 decided to implement some of the committee’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. However, the only provision within the program that has a timeline is the program report, which isn’t expected out until early 2019.
The city had not reuploaded presentation or the analysis to the city’s website at press time, despite Emerald requests. The screenshots provided of both the presentation and the analysis were taken from computer tabs that had been open since Aug. 7.
An said the city has been counseled not to take action until the appeal has been resolved, so the timeline for the remaining neighborhoods’ upzones “is not a timeline that anyone knows.”
“That is not something that is going to happen in the immediate future,” An said. “It’s probably not going to be before that report [from the appeal], just based on … the hearing examiner’s schedule for that appeal.”
Bradburd and others associated with the appeal also said that the fees developers may opt to pay, in lieu of including affordable housing, are too low. This, Bradburd said, encourages developers to pay into the affordable housing fund, rather than build affordable units. This belief is supported by the city’s own findings, the raw form of which SCALE obtained through discovery in its appeal, and then organized.
Moreover, Seattle Fair Growth member and housing advocate Sarajane Siegfriedt said, the way the system currently works does not incentivize developers to build housing anywhere but the cheapest available land, such as in 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 that 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 housing units under MHA by 2025, and its goal of 70,000 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 and other South End organizations also feel there has been almost no community engagement on the part of the city, either. Despite the outreach meetings the city held in the South End, Hassan said she and others felt as though there were too few of them, and that these meetings were organized and held just to check off a box.
“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.