Guest Column by Susanna Lin
It’s a disappointing day for Seattle when the City Council can’t raise the affordable housing requirements for Downtown/South Lake Union developers from 2 to 5%, when other cities with “Mandatory Incentive Zoning” programs set aside 10-30% of their units as affordable. In a time when a record number of people are sleeping on the streets, most of our City Council voted on Monday to give corporate developers, the wealthiest of all city developers and rich enough to build in these areas, a virtual free pass on affordable housing requirements.
The recently enacted incentive zoning program in Seattle is called Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA. It gives developers an “incentive” (more potential profit) in the form of extra developable height in exchange for a mandatory requirement that developers set aside some of their units as affordable or pay an in-lieu fee towards affordable housing. This mandatory requirement only is applied in areas affected by the rezone. (Lots of technical speak, I know, but keep reading!)
During the Full City Council meeting on Monday regarding the Downtown/South Lake Union rezone, Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced an amendment to try and increase the minimum affordable housing requirement from 2 to 5% of units that developers would have to set aside as affordable. Still far below other cities with similar programs. Her amendment would have applied the same formula to the Downtown/SLU rezone as is being applied to the rest of the city. But only Councilmember Kshama Sawant supported Herbold’s amendment. Once this was disposed of, the full Council then voted 9-0 to approve the upzones.
The crowd that gathered in the City Council chambers on Monday to testify was roughly 50/50 split on asking the Council to pass the rezone without amendments versus urging the Council to support Herbold’s amendment because a 2% affordable housing requirement is not enough! The Raging Grannies were one of the first testifiers and put to song their support for Herbold’s amendment. I recommend you watch it…
Also testifying was City Councilmember candidate Jon Grant. Grant was also a member of the Mayor’s original Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) advisory committee. He reminded us that the “Grand Bargain,” which concedes lucrative upzones to developers in exchange for these meager affordable housing requirements, was not a public process and the formula was never truly scrutinized.
Grant was the one member of the HALA advisory committee who abstained from a vote because he felt the proposal did not go far enough. Grant is campaigning on a platform of 25% affordable housing, a far cry from the 2% minimum that was passed earlier this week. Seriously, even as I’m writing this I still cannot believe that we had to beg City Council to raise the affordable housing “set-aside” to 5% and yet most of the Council still voted to maintain the outrageously low 2% minimum. (I’m kinda embarrassed for the other big cities to hear about this one.)
The other half of the room supporting the plan with its feebly low housing requirement wore “Seattle For Everyone” stickers. I understand that many of these testifiers may believe HALA’s promise to make Seattle more affordable and I do commend them for their activism. But I’m skeptical of the powers behind Seattle For Everyone – a group funded by Vulcan and Vulcan is listed as a supporter on its website. Vulcan, founded by Paul Allen, just happens to own over a third of South Lake Union properties and some downtown properties, all within the area benefiting from these upzones.
Allen certainly has a few extra dollars lying around that he could devote to affordable housing. However he (and other downtown developers) would rather put them into a group like Seattle for Everyone. But of course, he’s just doing this out of his sense of civic duty. Why he would never support such a group just because they are pushing forward policies that also happen to increase his profits (while keeping his housing requirement and the public’s benefit as low as possible). I’m sure that is just a coincidence.
And just to add to the irony of the day, at the end of the meeting president Bruce Harrell and the rest of the Council heard from a group of people who were living in a homeless encampment under the West Seattle bridge which was scheduled to be swept the next day. Sadly, as is often the case, most of these human beings were given no other place to go (please for a moment imagine what this must be like). Maybe Paul Allen will offer them a spot on his $250 million dollar yacht, it’s named Octopus. Or maybe I’ll just go throw up now because I’m so disgusted with the wealthy in this city and the majority of our City Councilmembers who have sold out to them.
Susanna Lin is a neighborhood activist, blogger, volunteer, mom, wife, and physical therapist. All opinions expressed here are her own. Her writing can also be found on Wallyhood, Seattle Fair Growth and Rumblecrash blogs. In addition to her land use interests, she has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University and practices in Seattle.