The City Council has begun consideration of the 65 recommendations from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Advisory Committee (HALA). We will spend 18 to 24 months learning about, discussing, and considering these recommendations. They involve a wide range of topics with varying degrees of legal and policy complexity.
I’m certain that as we listen to people across the city we will learn new things that may better inform our positions before we have to make final decisions. There will be many opportunities for public engagement and comment throughout this process, including public hearings in the new City Council districts.
As the HALA committee clearly established in their report, the need for an increased supply of affordable housing has never been greater. In support of this statement, the HALA committee observed:
- More than 2,800 people are homeless on a typical night in Seattle.
- More than 45,000 households in our city—one in six households—are spending more than 50% of their incomes on housing. (Spending more than 30% is considered burdensome.)
- Middle income families are struggling to keep pace with the increasing costs of housing.
- Uncounted others have already left the city in search of affordability, a trek that usually results in much longer commute times and increased environmental harm.
Single Family Areas
While the list of recommendations from HALA is long, one specific policy has received the most attention and criticism from neighborhoods across Seattle. It’s the recommendation that single-family zoning be relaxed in all areas of the city to allow for new duplexes, triplexes and stacked flats, a policy some believe will lead to speculators buying up homes, tearing them down, and replacing them with more expensive multi-family structures. We should take a step back from any policy that leads to that kind of speculation, disruption, and the widespread loss of existing, more affordable housing.
However, in certain areas of the city—Urban Villages, near major transit stations, along major transportation corridors with frequent transit service—we should allow more multi-family housing. This change would affect about 6% of our current single family zoned areas.
Biggest Impact on Affordable Housing
Lost in the initial reaction to the HALA recommendations is the reality that a few key proposals will produce the biggest benefit. These include what’s called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a requirement that every new multi-family project set aside a certain percentage of units as affordable, and the Commercial Linkage Fee, which would require new commercial development to help fund production and preservation of affordable housing.
The recommendation to relax some of the restrictions on backyard cottages and accessory dwelling units to provide more affordable options in our neighborhoods is estimated to create some 2,500 units over 10 years. These units can be affordable and provide alternative housing choices for family members, friends, and new neighbors.
Modifying and strengthening the Multi-Family Tax Exemption to include existing structures that are remodeled and providing new capital investment to build more affordable housing are also promising ideas.
Move the Needle
These key policy recommendations represent a striking and positive shift in affordable housing policy for the city. If implemented correctly, these new policies will create thousands of affordable housing units at a variety of income levels.
Our focus should be on these policies that will provide the most significant number of affordable units. We should not get distracted by other recommendations that will create massive opposition and threaten to derail this entire worthy effort.