February 13, 2016 – Will HALA deliver on its promise or result in more gentrification?

The effort to address Seattle’s affordable housing crisis is in full motion.   The City is forging ahead with Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) which is attempting to spur the development of 50,000 new units of housing over the next decade, including 20,000 units for low- and moderate-income households.

And while self-styled Urbanists and so-called NIMBYs battle over the future direction of the city, the marketing of HALA is underway with town halls, phone calls with the Mayor (“The Mayor will be calling 70,000 households directly to talk with them about HALA”), and focus groups.  Neighborhoods are already reacting to the proposals from City Hall with hundreds of residents turning out to meetings in Wallingford, Fremont, Magnolia, and Ballard running from organized to contentious.

Elements of HALA are already in front of City Council.  Backyard cottages and mother-in-law units (Accessory Dwelling Units – ADUs) are getting a public airing and will likely see a loosening of requirements, including parking and owner-occupancy, in order to boost what is currently a very marginal production.   The cornerstone of the HALA recommendation however is the mandatory production of affordable units (or payment of fees) as allowed under State law:  “Inclusionary Zoning”, branded as “Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA)” by HALA.  And its commercial zoning counterpart, Linkage Fees.

Other Washington municipalities effectively use Inclusionary Zoning to deliver affordable housing.  Other cities around the US garner as much as 20% of units in a project to be affordable.  Under the HALA Grand Bargain O’Brien and Murray made with developers, 5%-7% performance was announced.

But last week at the Planning Commission, DPD presented that 2% to 5% mandatory affordable units was being considered (or an in lieu of fee of $5 to $13 per square ft).

All of the proposed HALA up-zoning throughout the city produces a mere 1,600 units of the 20,000 affordable units that is the target for the first 10 years.  And it is hard to see how 6,000 of those affordable housing units, according to Murray, will be produced under this “bargain” which relies on developers buying into the tenuous scheme.  (The remaining 14,000 units are produced using other means, including an increased Housing Levy and other funding sources, and preserving existing affordable units).  The City has not been forthcoming with the details explaining how this will all work.

San Francisco is also struggling with an affordable housing bonus program that will yield affordability in exchange for additional development potential.    But their proposal far exceeds what would be delivered by the Grand Bargain, including 30% onsite affordable units, 40% 2-bedroom requirement, and design principles. And while the program has merit, it would apply to over 30,000 sites causing concern that that the proposal is too blunt without safeguards.

Greater heights in areas already zoned for height makes sense – it is how affordable multifamily units will materialize with MHA (unless the projects vest BEFORE Council acts).

But the proposal to up-zone any remaining Single Family (SF) zoned areas within the Urban Villages to low-rise is controversial and likely to lead to further gentrification and displacement.  And while up-zoning SF to low-rise will allow the Master Builders Association to produce more expensive townhouses (that are far from affordable even if nominally contributing into an affordable housing fund) it is hard to see how making Seattle a city of townhouses does anything for achieving real long-term urban density.  Areas such as the Central Area have already significantly gentrified because of previous SF up-zones, and plans to change the last remaining pockets of housing of this historic black community are troubling.  Yet the push to add housing at all costs – including gentrification and displacement – has been made for a while by density advocates.

In fact the City was concerned enough about this to produce an Equity Analysis as part of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan update.  The report points out vulnerabilities of certain neighborhoods to redevelopment and displacement.  Neighborhoods that are already home to lower income families and people of color, such as single family homes in Urban Villages and areas around the south-end station areas, are most vulnerable.  The report however provides some policy suggestions, such as revitalization through home rehabilitation and business and cultural preservation.    But often the “fix” that Council will fall back on is to let “the market” build more market rate housing and let the nominal 5% inclusionary zoning be the basis for preventing further gentrification.

A closer look at the possible negative displacement and gentrification impacts of the HALA recommendations is warranted, and the City needs to be more forthcoming about explore how “the market” will produce so many deeply affordable units with the developers threatening lawsuits over linkage fees and inclusionary zoning.

An important conversation lays ahead in 2016 for the city and our neighborhoods.

[Bill Bradburd, February 4, 2016]