Mandatory Housing Affordability in Seattle

June 29, 2016 -- Jamie Way

As one of the fastest growing cities in the country, Seattle has seen developers and investors cash in on developing the city’s neighborhoods as residents were priced out and pushed from their homes. That is why since its inception, affiliate Puget Sound Sage has advocated for a mandatory inclusionary zoning program. In Sage’s vision, when developers build, the city must capture a public value from this growth in the form of affordable housing.

Through its efforts, Sage helped win a voluntary incentive zoning program for Downtown Seattle in 2008 and then for the South Lake Union neighborhood, where Amazon’s headquarters and Seattle’s biotech and medical research industries are located, in 2013. Overall, the incentive program helped to generate a $70 million investment in more than 2,300 units of affordable housing. Those units are available to households earning less than 80% of area’s median income of $74,000 for a family of four.

While the incentive program in the downtown core has generated some units, the city has no mechanism to ensure affordable housing outside of the downtown core. This dynamic has resulted in older multi-family buildings torn down for new luxury units and has exacerbated displacement pressures in the neighborhoods. This is especially true along the recently constructed light rail, which historically was home to low-income households and communities of color. Skyrocketing rents in the Columbia City neighborhood have resulted in a 23% decrease in communities of color as a share of the neighborhood’s population over the last decade.

In 2014, as part of the Growing Together coalition, Sage won a citywide linkage fee, requiring developers to pay a fee that would go toward affordable housing. As soon as the resolution for the policy was passed, developers sued the city. In order to help resolve lawsuit, Seattle’s Mayor convened 28 leaders from the development community, affordable housing advocates, social justice organizations, and labor unions for a 9-month mediated conversation, called the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). Sage was invited to represent the interests of low-income households and communities of color facing displacement. Program Director, Ubax Gardheere, served on the committee, ensuring that the policy negotiations were analyzed using a racial equity framework.

Ultimately, developers agreed to a city-wide mandatory inclusionary zoning program and a linkage fee for commercial development and promised not to sue in return for upzones which allow for greater development throughout the city. The mandatory inclusionary program and linkage fee would result in over 6,000 units alone. City council passed the framework for all commercial development and is deliberating over the residential portion this month. Once the framework is passed, we will see rolling implementation as the upzones get passed neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

Sage is continuing to explore other routes toward an equitable and inclusive city, including greater community control of land and resources. Learn more about the effort here.