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September 2018

Multiple groups challenge Seattle's rezoning plans as path to worsen displacements

Several neighborhood groups and housing activists, together with small businesses and environmentalists, are questioning whether Seattle's housing affordability efforts are backfiring. Rather than create the expected volume of affordable housing, some representatives suggest proposed programs will worsen displacement.

In a report published by South Seattle Emerald, writer Carolyn Bick cited various sources who are challenging claims by the city of Seattle and contending the city is giving concessions to developers.

Twenty-nine groups banded together as the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE) to file an appeal with the city's Office of the Hearing Examiner on Nov. 27, 2017. Until the appeal is resolved, council members won't be able to vote on the proposal.

The formal appeal opposes proposed upzones as part of the city's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and maintains such rezoning will result in displacement and gentrification. They believe the city's policies effectively ignore its own racial and social equity rules.

In its appeal, SCALE states it "supports the concept of increased density and supports the broader goal of increasing affordable housing and livability in the City of Seattle." They then say the City's approach with the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program has been "focused purely on increasing housing development capacity, not good land use planning," and that the city has "disregarded numerous existing neighborhood plans."

Along with challenging the city's analysis of MHA, which was 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.

A report by the city revealed one in three Black renter households spend more than half their incomes on housing. By comparison, one in five white renter households spend that amount. Similar gaps exist when comparing ownership rates. While 51 percent of white householders own their own home, only about a third (35 percent) who are people of color own their own home.

MHA requires developers who want to build new commercial or multi-tenant residences in Seattle neighborhoods that are already upzoned must either include a certain percentage of affordable units in their developments or pay into the city's affordable housing fund. Depending on the location, type of development and square footage, the percentage of units that must be affordable is between 2.9 percent and 11 percent, with most falling between 5 percent and 7 percent.

Projects being developed in areas yet to be upzoned are not subject to the restrictions.

When HALA was unveiled in 2014, its projected goal was 20,000 affordable units by 2035, and 6,000 units to be built under MHA within 10 years of MHA's implementation date.

Sara Maxana, the mayor's policy advisor, said MHA was supposed to be implemented in August, but until the hearing examiner renders a decision, council action is stalled. "We've always had an ideal scenario, but some of the issues are out of our control, and we need to wait until the hearing examiner process resolves," Maxana explained to Bick, the reporter with South Seattle Emerald. "Then, we can do additional analysis, if that's what's called for in the decision, or if we have a favorable decision, council can start talking about amendments, and just take action," she added.

Seattle is assuming about half of development projects will elect payment and half will elect performance, according to Maxana.

Another coalition joined SCALE in opposing proposed mandates. Two dozen South End-based organizations signed a letter to the city opposing MHA without amendment. That letter was authored by Puget Sound Sage, which serves low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrants.

Got Green joined 23 other South End-based organizations in signing a letter to the city opposing MHA without amendment. The letter asks the city to re-evaluate the MHA percentages in areas with high displacement risk, and that in-lieu fees gleaned from development within these neighborhoods be directed back into those same neighborhoods.