The well-being of a neighborhood, and in-turn, a city, depends on a number of key factors. While issues such as access to public transportation, the availability of top-ranked schools, and the propinquity of leisure sites usually attract the attention of current and prospective residents, an important consideration is often left overlooked: zoning laws. The ability for zoning laws to affect the vibrancy and makeup of a community cannot be understated as they serve as the framework for how local land is to be utilized, what type of properties can exist in a particular area, setting the desired level of density and the extent to which development may occur. Therefore, zoning laws are able to influence the lives of individual residents as well as the community as a whole due to their association with the distribution of social services and utilities, crime rates, and income inequality.
Due to their overall importance in guiding the growth of a city, it should come as no surprise that reforming zoning laws is an integral part of the Mayor and City Council’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The current agenda seeks to address the suggestions developed by the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. The committee consisted of 28 members ranging from “renters and homeowners, for-profit and non-profit developers and other local housing experts” and was co-chaired by Faith Li Pettis of Pacifica Law Group and philanthropic-sector leader David Wertheimer. Among the 65 recommendations put forward by the committee were suggestions to build more affordable housing units, increase the amount of land dedicated to multifamily housing, and allow for more diversity in the type of properties that may be constructed in single family zones.
Currently, nearly 110,000 people in Seattle are considered “rent burdened” as they spend more than 30% of their total income on housing. People of color are disproportionately represented in this category, according to Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. Lee said that 55% of Asian renters have incomes less than 50% of the area median income (AMI). Lee worries about an “expanding economy that is leaving homeless people, seniors, people of color and minimum wage workers behind.”
To meet the demand being placed on the housing market, HALA has set a goal of creating or preserving 50,000 housing units over the next decade with 20,000 units being reserved for affordable housing. The financing of affordable housing units—in addition to funds from the state and national government—will be supported by a two-pronged strategy, which has come to be known as the “grand bargain.” This arrangement relies upon a commercial linkage fee that requires developers to pay between $5 to $17 per gross square foot on all new commercial developments into a fund for new affordable housing units as well as mandating that new multifamily developments allot five to eight percent of their total housing units for those making 60 percent of the AMI ($37,680 for an individual and $53,760 for a family of four).
While the plan for financing HALA is rather straight-forward, a wide array of options are presented to quell the strain that is being placed on Seattle’s housing market. Two of the possibilities to increase the number of housing units that deserve special consideration are the transformation of areas from single family zoning to multifamily zoning, also known as upzoning, and the ability to add new types of properties to single family zones. Through these two developments alone, a significant number of new housing units may come into existence.
According to Maiko Winkler-Chin, the executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, although issues may arise in relation to how they are permitted, financed, and built, the ability to develop new properties such as cottages and duplexes in single family zones could, by some estimates, add several thousand housing units to the Seattle area.
While the targets of 50,000 new units and 20,000 pegged for affordable housing have been considered a challenging task to achieve, even by the Mayor and members of HALA, they are by no means unattainable. Considering that Seattle was able to add nearly 40,000 housing units from 2000 to 2010 (despite a nearly unparalleled recession taking place in 2008) and created approximately 400 new affordable housing units last year, the two goals set by HALA appear to be within the realm of possibility. Even if the final tally falls marginally below the stated goal, the political will exhibited to facilitate a deal that will meaningfully contribute to a growing municipal concern, despite depending on a diverse set of stakeholders, should be applauded.
It is important to note that since not all of Seattle’s neighborhoods are equally situated in regards to their current allotment of affordable housing or state of population density, the changes proposed in HALA will not uniformly affect all of the neighborhoods throughout the city. The ambitious nature of HALA will undoubtedly be more evident in some neighborhoods than others. While nearly two-thirds of Seattle’s land is zoned for single family homes, 94% of that land will not be upzoned. The 6% of land that will undergo zoning reform will be within or in the vicinity of designated urban villages near public transportation sites or existing multiple family zones.
Lance Matteson, the executive director of Southeast Effective Development Seattle, contends that although the urban villages and urban centers approach is fundamentally sound, “the scale of the [housing] need will also require more productive use of areas zoned [for] single family residential” usage. While this development will likely only have a modest impact due to the relatively low percentage of land being affected, it nevertheless allows for greater density and more affordable housing units in desirable areas of the city that have been shaped by a past of exclusion and restriction.
The creation of new affordable housing units through the construction of new properties in single family lots such as duplexes and upzoning selected sections of the city will contribute to reaching the 20,000 unit goal. However, the majority of these units will be generated through preserving and restoring existing housing units. This strategy for growth would likely be applied to neighborhoods such as Chinatown International District. Over the next decade, structural improvements will be made to buildings throughout the neighborhood.
“For those historic buildings that are under-utilized—for example, vacant upper floors—this push for housing development could help,” Winkler-Chin said.
Despite the fact that CID has one of the highest concentrations of poverty, limited English speakers, and elderly, Winkler-Chin said she believes that this initiative can produce benefits for the neighborhood. Due to the community’s proximity to downtown and major public transportation hubs, she explains, the creation of new affordable housing units through the preservation of ageing buildings will allow the CID to expand its population and economic base in a manner that shouldn’t compromise the welfare of current residents or local businesses.
While neighborhoods such as the CID will primarily be affected by having its existing buildings undergo a process of restoration, other areas will have a more drastic change due to the construction of entirely new structures. The Rainier Valley is one such area. By as early as late 2016, construction on the fourth phase of Rainier Court may take place. This new addition would provide “93 units of affordable senior housing and almost 6,000 square feet of commercial space.” According to Matteson, the development of the commercial space will be modeled after other SEED projects that were sold to “local immigrant owned businesses at risk of displacement.”
As Seattle enters into an era of accelerated growth for both its population and its average monthly rent, ensuring the strength and vitality of neighborhoods by preventing current residents from being displaced warrants considerable attention.