Affordable Housing Legislation Nearing the Home Stretch

New housing on Seattle’s Dexter Ave.

The long-studied Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) is moving to the top of the Seattle City Council’s agenda. MHA requires new multifamily construction to pay include on-site affordable housing or pay into a housing fund. (Single-family construction is exempt, because reasons.)

Former Mosqueda staffer Mike Maddux had a great analysis of each of the amendments and how each of the council members approached the task differently when it came to their particular district:

So here we are with a series of amendments, most of which would limit the ability of MHA specifically, and affordable home development broadly, to be successful, but in different ways. I’ve broken these out into the District 1 amendments, the District 6 amendments, the Historic District carve-outs, and some miscellaneous amendments. Of note: District 3 managed to get away with no amendments for limiting growth, and District 7 no amendments at all. Essentially these two areas are taking growth (and happen to be the most expensive areas to build).

Kevin Schofield has a solid rundown of the political battle lines:

In each case, the Council member representing that district went to bat for the reduction: Herbold for West Seattle Junction and Morgan Junction, Harrell for Beacon Hill, Johnson for Roosevelt and Wallingford, and O’Brien for Crown Hill. But on the flip side, the two city-wide Council members, Mosqueda and Gonzalez, held firm in their desire to maximize the upzones wherever possible and resist reductions. Council member Juarez joined them in the resistance; Baghsaw was conspicuously silent on the matter, and Sawant was absent from the meeting.

Both are worth reading if you want to understand where things stand. With Bagshaw and nominally pro-density Sawant as the swing votes, it’s possible all these amendments get voted down next week.

It’s not the most novel piece of analysis to add that MHA is both necessary and insufficient. It’s hugely regrettable that Mayor Murray dropped single-family zones so early on. It’s puzzling that three lame-duck council members are being so hostile to zoning changes. Furthermore, it’s terrible policy that the EIS is a one-way ratchet: in the bizarro world of our state environmental policy, up-zoning causes impacts but downzoning causes none.

There will be a public hearing this Thursday at 5:30pm at City Hall with a vote likely for Monday the 25th. You can also contact the council and let them know your thoughts.

Suburban construction freezes can kill density—or create it

New multifamily construction in Sammamish. Courtesy Sky Sammamish.

The Puget Sound region’s extreme growth hasn’t gone over well with some residents. (To put it mildly.) That backlash has caused some frustrating policy snags, like the lawsuit that has placed Seattle’s MHA upzones on hold.

But construction in Seattle continued on plenty of multifamily projects. That hasn’t always been the case in the rest of King County. In recent years, several suburban cities, including Issaquah, Sammamish, and Federal Way, halted construction on new projects by enacting construction moratoria.

Under the Growth Management Act, a city can pause work on any or all kinds of new projects by enacting a construction moratorium. The power is broad, but not unlimited. A city has to cite specific detrimental impacts caused by new construction, and use the period of the moratorium to enact code changes that address the problem. A moratorium only lasts six months at a time, but can be renewed indefinitely. Issaquah, for example, renewed its moratorium three times before letting it expire earlier this year.

You might think that those laws are the product of NIMBYism. In some cases, that’s true. But the reality is more complicated.

Continue reading “Suburban construction freezes can kill density—or create it”

Seattle booms on

New housing on Seattle’s Dexter Avenue.

Seattle’s growth is still accelerating. Census estimates released yesterday show almost 21 thousand new residents in Seattle in the year ended July 2016. With 704 thousand residents, Seattle is once again the nation’s fastest growing city with 3.1% annual growth.

We’ve become accustomed to fast growth, averaging 15 thousand new residents in Seattle annually between 2010 and 2015. So it’s impressive how Seattle has stepped up its game to add even more residents. As Gene Balk observed yesterday, Seattle is only the second top 50 city to grow more than 3% in one year this decade (the other was Austin in 2012). 3% growth in a mature city is a big deal.

Demand for urban living is strong, as evidenced by high prices for homes in walkable neighborhoods all over the US. But most cities have a hard time delivering those homes. Curbs on urban growth push many involuntarily to the suburbs, and most metropolitan areas are still becoming more suburban. More so than any large American metropolitan area, Seattle has densified as it has grown.

Seattle accounted for a massive 58% of all King County growth in 2016. Seattle’s acceleration was matched by a slowing of growth in many King County suburban cities. Total growth in King County in 2016 was about the same as 2015. A few cities on the central Eastside performed well. Bellevue (+1.3%), Redmond (+3.2%), and Issaquah (+3.6%) all showed healthy growth rates. But the rest of King County had its weakest growth since the recession, and expanded just 0.8%. Continue reading “Seattle booms on”

Displacement is a Thing, Sometimes

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Highland Village Apartments in Bellevue. Photo by Author.

Sightline had an interesting report recently about displacement of older (presumably more affordable) homes by new development. They looked at 19 apartment complexes built in Seattle (all of the 8+ unit developments the King County Assessor considers as built in 2016). Those developments created 1,764 new homes while displacing only 21 older homes, a compelling 84-to-1 ratio. 12 developments on former commercial sites did not displace any older homes at all.

That’s great news, but what’s this? In Bellevue, the King County Housing Authority stepped in to buy a 76-unit apartment complex that was to be demolished for 87 town homes. Rents at Highland Village Apartments average $1,200 per month, well below the average Bellevue rent of $1,930. The KHCA spent $20 million to buy the complex, located on NE 8th St between Downtown Bellevue and Crossroads. The KHCA will now renovate the apartments, maintaining rents near their current level.

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Before and after in Kirkland. The newer buildings are technically multifamily, but appeal to buyers in the single-family market. (Before: Google Street View, 2011. After: Photo by Author).

The Sightline report reminds us that development generally expands supply and is mostly good for affordability. But the story of Highland Village is hardly unique. It may be more typical in a certain kind of pricier suburban community. Highland Village look like hundreds of other older multifamily developments in this region. Two stories; on an arterial but not in downtown; surrounded by surface parking; in a low-rise neighborhood where the zoning will not permit much greater height or density (and perhaps not the market either). Rents are lower because the buildings are depreciated. Older small single family houses may get more sympathetic news coverage because they appeal to boomer nostalgia, but older multifamily units are the most affordable unsubsidized homes in most cities.

Like Highland Village, many older apartment buildings are ripe for redevelopment to higher-priced homes.

Continue reading “Displacement is a Thing, Sometimes”