If affordable-housing law falls, will skyscrapers still be built?


Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants affordable-housing requirements and upzones to stand or fall together

Councilmember Mike O’Brien pledges to prevent upzones from remaining in place if low-income housing loses in court

In August, the Seattle City Council passed a law that requires builders of multi-family developments to include housing for poor and working people in their projects or pay into a low-income housing fund. Now, developers are threatening a lawsuit to overturn this new affordable-housing law.

To make matters more complicated, the affordable-housing law will not go into effect until the city council makes zoning changes (upzones) that would allow developers to build bigger and taller buildings in neighborhoods across Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray calls this link between the affordable-housing requirements and the upzones the “Grand Bargain” of his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The University District is the first neighborhood being considered for an upzone by the city council.

What will happen if the builders overturn the affordable-housing law in court? Will developers get to keep the upzones but not have to build any affordable housing in return? Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a member if the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee (PLUZ), states, “My understanding is that there is nothing in the proposed [U District upzoning]…that will require that if the… affordable-housing obligations are struck down the zoning changes are also repealed.”

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, PLUZ’s vice chair, is determined to link all upzones to the affordable-housing requirements. “Those two things should be tied together so if one is removed, the other is removed,” he says.

Smart Growth’s Roger Valdez, a developer lobbyist, says there is no doubt that his builder clients will sue to remove the affordable-housing requirement. “The building industry will spend $500,000–$1,000,000 fighting it in court,” he says. “We told the city council it was illegal. It’s an unauthorized tax.”

Valdez also explained that his clients cannot bring a lawsuit until the affordability requirements are imposed on a specific project.

Valdez believes that a less-regulated housing market will provide low-income housing units on its own. He favors the proposed upzones because they will increase housing supply.

Under the proposal currently before the council, in some parts of the U District, developers could build up to 320- feet-tall buildings—as tall as the University Plaza building (formerly known as Safeco Plaza). Seattle Fair Growth’s Sarajane Siegfriedt told Crosscut that if the U District upzone passes, 1,500 units of affordable housing will be at risk. In The Seattle Times, Mayor Ed Murray said the U District upzone would only result in the loss of between 40 and 275 homes, while the affordable-housing requirements will mandate the construction of between 620 and 910 new low-income housing units. (The discrepancy between these sets of numbers requires further investigation.)

Early in 2017, the city council will vote on the U District upzone. Yet, at this point, the council doesn’t know how to make sure that the link between the affordable-housing mandates and the upzones is not severed by the courts. They don’t even agree on what the current version of the U District upzone requires. While Councilmember Herbold states the current upzone bill isn’t linked to the affordable-housing requirements, Seattle City Councilmember and PLUZ chair Rob Johnson has a different take.

Johnson’s legislative assistant states, “Central staff [the city council’s analysts] is currently working on this with the law department [AKA the city attorney’s office]—it’s not a yes or no answer at this point.”

One thing is clear in Councilmember O’Brien’s mind: the council must ensure that if the affordable housing requirements fall in court, the upzones are also eliminated. He says, this link must be written into the U District upzoning bill before any vote by the council. “We need clarity on that before we make any zoning changes,” he says. O’Brien also believes that his point-of-view is shared by all other eight city councilmembers. “There’s a range of opinions on density, but everyone is committed to more affordable housing.”

Questions, tips, comments: georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.

About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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