The Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), as Lizz reported, was properly focused on the main issue in a housing shortage: the number of units produced. The punch line is that the zoning changes and affordable housing requirements, taken together, will create about 19,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. Astonishingly, it would create almost 6,000 units formally defined as affordable, up from 200 under the status quo.

The results punch back against both anti-growth and pro-growth critiques of HALA. The argument against upzones us that we already have “enough” zoned capacity to reach our growth targets. This result predicts that an upzone will allow substantially more households to live in a city very worried about displacement and inclusion.

The pro-growth critique is that the affordability requirements deter the construction of new housing. The HALA grand bargain might do that compared to some abstract ideal, but it is clearly an improvement on the status quo, even setting aside that reduced price units let us skip the process where old housing becomes “naturally” affordable.

Another key finding compares an upzone in all the transit-accessible places with one that shifts more of the new capacity to “low displacement risk” (rich) areas. By definition, this doesn’t substantially affect the overall units built. However, for a strategy intended to combat displacement, it’s disconcerting that “throughout the city as a whole, there is little difference between Alternative 2 and Alternative 3 in the amount of total expected physical displacement of low-income households” (p. 1.14). The question is whether this displacement happens in richer neighborhoods (Alternative 2) or poorer ones (Alternative 3). It inevitably trades off deepened economic and racial segregation against preserving the unique cultures of communities of color.

There’s an added risk in counting on growth in richer neighborhoods: because the system is unfair, those neighborhoods have more procedural tools to resist upzones. If the outcome of a well-intentioned effort to shield vulnerable communities from change is to aggravate the housing shortage, that would be a tragedy for everyone.

Finally, a word about methodology: the first move against any study that jolts a partisan is to find something to dislike about the study techniques.  Perhaps we’ll see a convincing critique of this one. Until then, I much prefer a systematic study of the impact to anyone’s hunch.

21 Replies to “Takeaways from the MHA DEIS”

  1. I think that targeting the richer areas is “fair”. For one, richer residents have more resources to make a move. Moving is expensive. Paying for a truck, movers if you don’t have time, deposit, first and last months rent, etc. Also, upper income are better able to stay in their neighborhood if their building is knocked down. Since they have money, they can move to another location nearby. In a gentrifying neighborhood, the less well off will have to move out completely because all the new buildings will be out of their price range.

    Reason number two why it is fairer to upzone the moneyed communities. Taller buildings cost more for a given amount of area. That means taller buildings need to charge higher rent to support the building cost. A costly location already supports the cost of a taller building. A low income location either will not build, resulting in less density, or general rent will increase, resulting in displacement, even from the buildings which are not demolished.

    A third reason I think it fair to upzone the richer sections of the city is because that is the only way to make upzones balanced. Richer neighborhoods have more resources to fight upzones. If we made a balanced, or so called “fair” upzone, it seems likely many of the better off neighborhoods would fight the upzones, resulting in more upzones in lower income neighborhoods.

    Personally I think they should do the upzones of both proposals. That way, after all the fights with the richer neighborhoods finish, we will have a balanced upzoning across the city.

    1. Who says “taller” buildings have to be high rises? Replacing single family and surface parking lots with no-frills urban row houses or 2-4 story walk-ups could do wonders. Don’t forget the “missing middle.” Seattle is not (yet?) a big enough city that it has to be high rises everywhere including the hill sides (e.g., Hong Kong)! It may make more sense to do this in lower income neighborhoods since, as mentioned above, the higher land value does tend to beg for taller buildings with amenities. Also makes most sense in communities served by good transit since setting aside the space and expense for off-street parking kind of defeats the purpose. So transit probably needs to be beefed up in many lower income areas for this to work.

      Seattle: good opportunity to fix the condo rules so “workforce” folks or even “starter home couples” wanting to live in Town aren’t limited to renting! (And if renting, we could do with more local landlords and fewer corporate management companies that charge fees to pay the extra building fees on top of the advertised rent).

      Meanwhile, up-zoning higher income areas perhaps allows those with the means to stick to the more “desirable” areas rather than spreading out and gentrifying everything. So, in the end, upzoning throughout helps.

      1. Might be interesting to upzone every neighborhood to the hight the current cost could support. It would essentially be saying, zoning will not encourage gentrification, but will not slow gentrification either. Of course a lot of the single family zoning would end up mid-rise

      2. @Ben P

        I’d love for that to happen, but hell wold sooner freeze over, thaw due to global warming, then freeze over again before that happened.

    2. This is deeply confused.

      Failing to upzone the poorer neighborhoods doesn’t help them. It just ensures that those neighborhoods stay underdeveloped and lack economic opportunity.

      On the other hand, upzones in the white neighborhoods of north Seattle will transfer hundreds millions of dollars in property value instantly into the hands of mostly white homeowners there. When those residents are “displaced” i.e. sell their home to a developer and move, they make a lot of money.

      In fact, the failure to invest in those neighborhoods, which are majority minority, has long been considered a racist policy. Now the decision to NOT invest is being defended as “fighting gentrification.”

      This is because people have confused rising rents caused by a housing shortage, which causes the majority of real displacement, with “displacement” caused by developers buying up single family homes and building apartments. The first is an economic hardship, the second is a huge windfall.

      Homeowners fight upzones because they don’t like the idea of their neighborhood changing, but it isn’t really in their economic interest.

      1. Keeping the neighborhoods away from economic opportunity is how you keep them from gentrifying. That’s not how it’s usually put, but that’s how it works.

  2. I don’t have a strong feeling on option B vs C. Option C tells developers to concentrate where they’re already concentrating, and not to think about being pioneers in areas that have less transit and less access to amenities and jobs. Perhaps that’s fair as a temporary measure, if it really doesn’t alter the amount of new housing and new affordable housing. The thing to watch for is McMansionizing: are the old buildings remaining in place or are they still being replaced by something unaffordable but with fewer units.

    The differences between options B and C are also little compared to the 3/4 of Seattle’s land that is locked in single-family zoning. If that changed, and if it allowed small apartments as well as row houses and DADUs, that could bring hundreds of thousands of new units and really take care of the housing shortage. And the only thing it would replace are structures that are even less affordable and lower density than anything at risk of displacement now.

  3. Upzones in transit adjacent areas. Got it.

    So why is montlake north of 520 single family land? Hard to take the city seriously when being rich and white means you are insulated from change.

    1. @Stevel Lorenza

      I asked that very question to my council member, and he basically dodged the question. I’m assuming the answer they gave was that there are no commercial regions there, which sorta makes sense, but I wish they would upzone it. Call Rob Johnson for me would ya?

  4. If I was made king for a day, I would mandate low and middle income housing be built in transit rich areas (what good is affordable housing if you can’t get anywhere/have to drive, park everywhere) which cannot be bought off by developers (similar to Montgomery County, MD– where middle and low income housing is specifically reserved in all new developments).

    1. You have to be careful with mandates. If you have a 9% affordable mandate and require it for any multi-family construction, developers will avoid building anything with less than 11 units. Furthermore to avoid raising the price of market rate housing further, and to avoid reducing supply you have to give developers something in return (also required by state law), this comes in the form of a FAR bonus or tax breaks. Even at the fairly low inclusion rates in MHA it looks like the upzones won’t be enough to cover the cost of the mandate in many zones (especially any LR zoning).

  5. As for the last point, it seems to me that the best way to validate methodology is to require peer review before publication. The study had a lot of statistical number crunching and conclusions made from those results (at points, it had the feel of an academic paper), and I would much rather see independent review of the work than take their word for it. The peer review process is often frustrating and time consuming, but it definitely firms up the subjective into objective. It’s just words from a flim flam man until things are given a formal review.

    1. That would be ideal academically, but it would also add cost and delay to all projects and reforms.

  6. I call bull on any effort to preserve neighborhood identity and demographics through policy. Once a person moves into a neighborhood it’s just as much theirs as anyone elses. I’m a 4th generation Seattleite, but the person (or 100s) who just moved here today is every much a resident of the city as I am. Has the character of the city changed? The answer is irrelevant. This idea is equally applicable from block to nation.

    1. I’ll go further and argue that changing neighborhood identities is good & a sign of vibrancy. If Seattle is a progressive city, it should be always changing & evolving, no?

      1. The answer is no. A large majority of people live in houses and have bought houses in neighborhoods with a lot of houses. No need to force up zones and changes to all of Seattle. If houses were bad, people would not buy them at outrageous prices, like here in Seattle. Lots of house envy on this board. Apartments are not the end goal for most people, just a stop until they buy a house.

      2. If houses were bad, people would not buy them at outrageous prices, like here in Seattle. Lots of house envy on this board.

        This is ridiculous. I own a single family home in North Seattle, and I if all goes well plan to die here in 40-50 years. I *welcome* an upzone. I like urban amenities and walkability, and recognize density will bring more of it, and I reject the notion that my home ownership entitles me to prevent people poorer than me (who can’t afford a home here, but might be able to afford to rent a small apartment) from enjoying what I find to be great about my neighborhood.

        The only reason to think upzoning is “anti-single family home” is if you think the charms of living in single family homes are largely contingent on the exclusion of people who lack the wealth (or good timing) to own, and will therefore be apartment dwellers from your presence.I reject that notion; none of the reasons I like my neighborhood require the exclusion of newcomers, young people, or people with less money.

  7. The problem I have with the “Grand Bargain” is that the discussion of it has replaced the hard work done by the HALA committee. The most important part of the big HALA compromise was to enable more density in single family areas. This is the bulk of private land in the city (2/3 by some measure) and right now, it is very difficult to add accessory dwelling units (whether attached or not). This is where the action is. Or at least, this is where it should be. It won’t work forever — if Amazon keeps growing then we will need to do something different — but simply changing the rules in the single family zones would result in a lot more affordable housing (until you reach the saturation point). This is what happened in Vancouver. Before the latest wave of development, apartments in Vancouver were fairly cheap. That is because building a backyard cottage or basement apartment is very cheap (and a lot of it slipped by before the regulators could stop it). On the other hand, in Seattle — despite sky high rental prices and the biggest boom in employment here since the Yukon gold rush — not much is happening in the bulk of the city. Oh, by all means, those little cottages are being torn down and replaced by so called monster houses. But are thousands upon thousands of backyard cottages or basement apartments being built every year? Nope. Very few, because the regulators have managed to keep a tight lid on things.

    This was the key, essential change that the HALA committee managed to address, and they addressed it well. But the mayor immediately killed it, and then shifted focus to building heights, so that “Urbanists” could debate the economics of inclusionary zoning, and idiots on The Stranger go about trying to blame landlords or Chinese investors for high rents. Good riddance, mayor McChicken. You didn’t want to upset the folks in Laurelhurst who would have had to deal with people living in a tiny houses or basements that rent out for less than four grand a month (“Oh good heavens, where will they park their BMW’s?”). Let’s hope we elect someone with a little more courage this time — someone who will actually listen to the recommendations of the diverse committee they form.

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