Sage Brings Community Benefits Model to Northwest

December 20, 2008 -- Puget Sound Sage

Puget Sound Sage successfully brought the Partnership for Working Families community benefits model to the northwest in 2008. We signed a landmark community benefits agreement, culminating a two-year campaign and we took the first step in inserting these values into Metro-Seattle’s public policy debate as well.

At the beginning of September, the Dearborn Street Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods and Dearborn Street Developers LLC reached an agreement on a $300-million project, slated to be built on a 10-acre site at the crossroads of Seattle’s most economic and ethnically diverse communities. The CBA came after a campaign that included marches, rallies, petitions and extensive community mobilization.

The project will be anchored by a Target and include 600,000-square feet of retail and 500 units of housing. Under the community benefits agreement, the developers have agreed to:

  • Follow fair labor standards by hiring construction contractors that pay prevailing wages and provide health and retirement benefits; and by ensuring that 15% of all work hours be performed by apprentices. The contractors will also participate in minority/women-owned business programs and strive to hire local residents through pre-apprentice programs;
  • Ensure grocery and drugstores stay neutral if employees decide to unionize.  Janitors, security officers and other mall employees will be covered by the same policy;
  • Build 200 units of low-income housing in the project;
  • Contribute $200,000 to mitigate traffic impacts in the nearby neighborhoods in addition to the street improvements that the developer will pay for as traffic mitigation;
  • Offer $1 million in below-market rents on 5,000 square feet of space in the project to community nonprofits;
  • Contribute $200,000 for the design of a community center in Little Saigon, and $600,000 over 12 years to support the Little Saigon commercial district;
  • Use environmentally sustainable building practices.

The project still needs to be approved by the Seattle City Council, which must approve a site rezone and street vacations.  The developer will have to pay the city for the street vacations and the coalition and developer will ask that the city invest those funds in neighborhoods around the project. These street vacation funds, expected to be $4-8 million, will be applied toward capitol costs of a Vietnamese community center or marketplace, traffic calming improvements, and other community development projects.

Just as the Dearborn campaign was reaching a milestone, the Seattle City Council was considering adopting an incentive zoning ordinance.

Many other cities have inclusionary zoning policies, requiring developers to provide benefits like affordable housing and giving them some bonus density in return. Seattle’s proposed policy wasn’t mandatory though. Instead, only developers who choose to build higher or bigger through upzones would be subject to the policy, setting the stage for the community benefits model.

With this in mind, Puget Sound Sage joined with allied community, faith, and labor organizations to begin the Development with Justice campaign. We wanted a policy that would address the city’s real needs.

The reality in Seattle is that average rents are currently affordable to people making 80% of average median income (AMI), while low-wage workers have far fewer options. Seattle needs better policies to:

  1. Help curb displacement of low-wage workers by adopting standards that would provide more housing options for people making about 50-80% AMI;
  2. Build these units on-site instead of letting developers pay a fee; and
  3. Connect low-income residents to family-wage jobs and construction careers through local hire and apprenticeship programs.

Connecting land use policy and private investment with labor standards would be a major change from current Seattle policy. Sage and coalition partners were able to accomplish the first steps in responsible development by getting the City Council to agree to a resolution in December connecting upzones to potential job opportunities and apprenticeship training for low-income residents. The resolution also charges the City Attorney with resolving the legal debate over connecting employment standards to voluntary development by March 2009.


While the Council hasn’t yet addressed the issue of housing for residents in the 50-80% of AMI range, Sage did make inroads on other issues. Developers of projects under 85 will have to build affordable housing on site (instead of paying in-lieu fees), and each unit of affordable housing that is torn down for new development must be replaced.