Mayor Murray answers your questions on housing affordability

Housing affordability is a major issue across the city, and a key focus for my administration, City departments and community stakeholders. I recently joined Robert Feldstein, my director of policy and innovation, for a Facebook chat about our efforts under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to create and preserve thousands of affordable homes, and to address your questions. Watch the video below, and scroll down for a recap, answers to additional questions, and information on how you can get involved.

Why is Seattle facing such a housing affordability issue? 

As our economy and population grow, housing prices and rents have skyrocketed. As a result, thousands of families and workers – particularly lower-income people and among communities of color – are unable to afford the cost of living in Seattle. The thing that’s driving our affordability crisis is our booming economy. We’re anticipating growing by 120,000 people and 115,000 jobs over the next 20 years. If people weren’t moving here for jobs in our booming tech sector and the many attributes that make Seattle a great city, we wouldn’t have an affordability problem. But the answer isn’t to stop growth, but to plan for it and increase affordable housing supplies and reduce displacement.

What is Seattle doing to create more affordable housing?

In late 2014 I convened a group of stakeholders to look at this issue and come up with a set of recommendations. We adopted a multi-pronged approach – our Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) – that includes developer mandates, capital investments through a renewed housing levy, expansion of multifamily tax exemptions, prioritization of surplus property for affordable housing projects, a new set of tenant protections, building preservation programs and other anti-displacement measures.

Through HALA, our goal is to build 50,000 new homes over the next decade, including 20,000 affordable homes – something that’s never happened before in Seattle.

How we get to 20,000 affordable homes: 

  • Capital investments and partnerships with low-income housing providers through the renewed Housing Levy (expected to produce 7,500 units over the next 10 years)
  • Mandating commercial and residential developments build or fund affordable housing (+6,300 units)
  • Preservation property tax exemption (+3,300 units)
  • Expanding tax exemptions for new multifamily developments that agree to set aside 20-25% for affordable units. (+2,100 units)
  • Use surplus properties for affordable housing either by redevelopment as affordable units or proceeds of sales used for that development elsewhere (+1,100 units)
  • Exploring voluntary employer Housing Fund program, as has been done by some companies in Silicon Valley
  • Negotiating with the federal government to allow Medicaid benefits to be used for eligible supportive housing residents
  • Expanding down payment assistance and other homeowner programs

How much progress has been made?

Since the start of 2015, more than 4,400 units of affordable housing have opened, been funded or are under construction. In just the last few weeks we’ve broken ground on more than 200 units of affordable housing developed in partnership with Bellwether Housing in the University District and South Lake Union. In October, 112 affordable units opened at Plaza Roberto Maestas, an El Centro de la Raza project near the Beacon Hill Light Rail station made possible in part through an $8 million Housing Levy grant. More than $34 million in Housing Levy and other funding will be awarded in December.

How can we ensure equitable distribution of affordable housing? 

As part of our Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan, we conducted a Growth & Equity Analysis to ensure growth strategies address the needs of marginalized residents and are applied equitably. As we guide affordable housing development through HALA, we’re focusing on urban villages throughout the City – 28 areas with access to high-frequency transit, parks and schools. Zoning incentives, developer mandates, expanded multi-family tax exemption programs, Housing Levy and other City funding of new construction and preservation projects are being applied in a geographically equitable manner so affordable housing options might bring people together, rather than drive them apart.

 

What’s considered affordable and who’s eligible for assistance?

Housing is generally considered affordable to a household if it costs no more than 30% of a household’s income. More than 107,000 Seattle households pay more than 30% of their income for housing, and more than 46,000 Seattle households spend more than half their income on housing.

We’re focused on range of affordable options to assist people with no income, to those on fixed incomes or who need assistance buying their first home. Most programs that are part of HALA are targeted at households with incomes up to 30%, 60%, or 80% of area median income. For instance, the MHA program – developer mandates – require housing be made available to households earning under 60% of area median income – about $38,000 for an individual or $54,000 for a family of four.

 

Why not adopt rent control?

Rent control is prohibited by the State of Washington. Overturning it would take years and not address current affordability crisis, nor ensure more affordability (see: San Francisco). While that may be a fight worth having, right now we’re focused on acting to ensure neighborhoods are economically diverse and provide affordability for all incomes.

 

What’s the City doing to protect tenants?

In just he last year we’ve passed several measures to protect renters:

  • We expanded Source of Income protections and are working on reducing housing barriers for those with criminal records. Under new rules, property owners may not refuse to rent to tenants with Section 8 subsidies or alternative sources of income such as disability, Social Security or child support
  • Property owners may not give move-in discounts or other favorable terms for tenants who work for certain employers.
  • We adopted a “first in time rule” which requires property owner to rent to the first applicant who meets necessary screening criteria.
  • Property owners may not raise rent if their building is substandard and/or not up to code.

 

How do developer mandates work?

For the first time the City is requiring developers of commercial and residential projects contribute to affordable housing by building it onsite, or paying for its construction elsewhere in the City. This will generate more than 6,000 affordable homes in the next decade. Since our goal is to steer development and reduce displacement in urban villages, upzoning could allow for an additional couple stories of building capacity, and developers would need to make even greater investments in affordable housing to take advantage of that capacity.

Developer mandates are being phased in, and already apply downtown and in South Lake Union. Zoning changes to support MHA are being implemented in 28 areas identified as urban centers, urban villages or areas already zoned for apartments and commercial buildings. Mandates are not being applied in areas zoned for single-family housing, but the City is exploring how more types of housing might be supported in these areas.

On Oct. 17, I joined seven councilmembers in announcing proposed updates to MHA aimed at producing even more affordable housing and addressing growing displacement risk in several neighborhoods. Changes include:

1) Adopting a tiered approach in areas such as the U District that are receiving a development capacity increases greater than the typical one-story increase proposed as part of original MHA. This would support higher development capacity – potentially several additional stories – that would be tied to even greater developer investments  in affordable housing.

2) Moving some areas at higher risk of displacement – including the Central District, Chinatown/ID and parts of the Rainier Valley – into zones with higher developer requirements to reflect updated market conditions and stem displacement.

 

What areas will get higher MHA requirements?

The U District, which has gone through more than five years of community planning, is the first neighborhood where we’re proposing zoning changes tied to MHA requirements. With light rail opening in we’re focusing future housing and employment density in areas with the most accessibility to the station. Our proposal for zoning changes in U District are accompanied by other city investments in open space, transportation and services to ensure a walkable, equitable, vibrant urban center.

Under new proposals to increase affordable housing production through MHA, Chinatown/International District, Central Area and parts of Rainier Valley would be moved to a High-MHA designation to reflect updated rent data and the City’s analysis of higher displacement risk.

North Beacon Hill, North Rainier, and Columbia City, Northgate, and Crown Hill development would be moved from low-MHA requirements to medium-MHA requirements.

Mandatory Housing Affordability proposed implementation area

 

Won’t mandates discourage development, or lead to even higher prices? 

Increasing development capacity is one of the ways we can achieve greater affordability. The MHA program is based on an exchange of value: Through upzones, developers can build more market-rate units to meet demand, and must make greater investments in affordable housing to do so. Those units must be built onsite as a set percentage of building size, or fund development elsewhere through the Housing Levy, affordable housing partners and other programs that ensure equitable development or housing preservation throughout the city. We project that increased performance requirements will lead to an additional 200-300 affordable housing units on top of the original program goal of 6,000. The MHA program can be re-calibrated to guard against unintended consequences, and we’ll be closely monitoring the affordable housing production and making changes as necessary.

 

How is the City encouraging more family-oriented housing?

Multifamily tax exemptions have helped create thousands of units of affordable housing designed for families. We’ve expanded that program to every neighborhood, so more two- and three-bedroom units can come on line and be available to more families.

 

What about micro-housing?

Small housing units are a good, lower cost option for many tenants. Innovative builders have made Seattle a national leader in micro-housing. In 2014, the City Council passed new regulations to clarify how the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections regulates this type of housing, ensuring greater design review. The City continues to encourage both Small Efficiency Dwelling Units (SEDUs) that have a minimum size of 220 square feet, and in certain locations (i.e. urban villages) Congregate Residences that can have shared kitchens and can be even smaller. We are continuing to monitor production of SEDUs and Congregate Residences, and expect to evaluate how they can be a part of the housing solution in the future.

 

How can we preserve neighborhood character?

I understand concerns that density and taller buildings may detract from neighborhood character. The City is working hard to ensure that upzones do not come at the expense of livability. We provide incentives for historic preservation and are directing growth to the core of urban villages to avoid large buildings right next to single-family homes. We’re applying new development standards for attractive and varied buildings, and implementing new affordable housing requirements and incentives to encourage a variety of housing types. HALA and urban village plans such as the one adopted for the U District after much public input contain incentives and requirements for open space, historic preservation, social services, and other community priorities. Along with affordable, family-oriented housing options, we’re working to increase commercial affordability so more people can work near where they live and have easy access to restaurants, shopping and services. As the city grows, we must maintain the uniqueness and high quality of life made possible by diverse neighborhoods and are working with neighborhoods to get that right. To weigh in on urban village plans and zoning proposals, visit Hala.Consider.It.

 

Is there state and federal assistance for affordable housing? 

Housing affordability is an issue facing every county. We need the state to expand the housing trust fund to $200 million. You can help by contacting state legislators about this issue. And we need the federal government to recognize that fully funding opioid treatment and anti-poverty measures will better allow cities to address issues of homelessness and housing affordability. These issues are connected.

 

What’s the public process on HALA and how can I be involved?

The public engagement process for HALA started in July 2015, followed by a citywide kick off in January 2016 for the HALA community focus groups comprised of over 180 participants who have met monthly to provide the City with feedback. City staff have attended over 70 community meetings and have had thousands of in-person contacts as well as a strong online dialogue like my recent online Q&A.

Beginning in November, the City will hold five community meetings throughout Seattle to share more about the proposal and receive feedback from residents. For those who cannot attend a meeting, or to review the proposals and weigh in, visit Hala.Consider.It.

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