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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Northgate Residents Pissed at City for Potentially Costing Them Low-Income Housing

Posted by on Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 1:20 PM

The owners of a low-income housing property adjacent to the Northgate Mall are attempting to exploit a loophole in city development laws to raze over 200 units of affordable housing and build new high-rise apartments, without replacing the lost affordable units lost—and without letting neighbors a chance to weigh in on the process.

And nearby residents aren't pleased.

"Normally, when we're talking about zoning changes, there’s a bunch of comment periods where neighbors have a chance to connect and voice their concerns," explains David Miller, director of the Maple Leaf Community Council, the small neighborhood that abuts the Northgate Mall at its northern boundaries. "This loophole allows them to bypass all that. We can’t even talk to council—we’re prohibited."

Aside from potentially losing a sizable amount of affordable housing in the area, if the owners succeed, it could set the stage for future developers to sidestep the city's so-called "incentive zoning" provisions, which give developers the option to raise their building heights in certain residential areas if they commit to keeping a percentage of low-rent units on site.

Which has affordable housing advocates simmering: "This case highlights the city's inconsistent approach to incentivized zoning," says Sarah Lewontin, Executive Director of Bellwether Housing, which provides low-income housing for working families and seniors. "People should be able to work close to transit and their jobs. Any development plans should accommodate the working families who are currently living there—it's that simple."

In other words, hold on to your girdles, development nerds, it's a zoning drama worthy of your favorite daytime soap!

But first, a little background. The property in question—the Mullally property, as it's commonly called—was constructed in 1951. Its 200-odd apartment units are bundled in small one- and two-store apartment buildings and the apartments have been used continuously since that time, making the well-kept but shabby units de-facto affordable housing, which is incredibly important given their location: 11200 1st Ave NE, next to large employers like the Northgate Mall and Kindred Hospital, and within a 10-minute walk of the Northgate Transit Station, the major metro hub for the area (as well as the future site of Northgate's Light Rail station).

In other words, the property sits in the heart of Northgate's urban center, which has put the neighborhood in an unusual position: Residents who have lobbied for density are now opposing this project because they're desperate to retain affordable housing in the neighborhood.

"We strongly believe in higher density in our urban center," Miller says, "and we always knew that property would be redeveloped—that's why we lobbied for light rail. But those 200 units are some of the most affordable housing in the north end. There are families there, a lot of families. Losing that much low-income housing to redevelopment is a huge concern for us."

The property is currently zoned for 60-foot development, or up to 75 feet with incentive zoning provisions. But the Mullally family wants to go bigger—up to 85 feet by changing the zoning from multi-residential to commercial (which is a wonky but important detail—I'll explain why in a minute). And they're doing it by asking the city to rewrite the official property map for the site, like so:

Height limit, 75 85 feet.

The process is called a map change because it bypasses the rigmarole of a standard zoning change—including notifying the public hand hosting a passel of public meetings. Meanwhile, the zone change means the Mullallys wouldn't be required to honor the city's incentive provisions, even though the city specifically encourages mixed-income housing development in areas near transit stations.

"We still have the ability to look at the impacts of low income housing zoning," argues Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD).

Indeed. Here's how the loophole process works: DPD makes a recommendation to the city's Hearing Examiner, who makes a recommendation to the city council, which makes a decision on the map change. And in the interim, the city council is prohibited from hearing or reading anything about the project—other than the recommendations issued by DPD and the Hearing examiner (the argument being that they're acting like judges and shouldn't be swayed by anything outside of the city's official records). For example, city council members are prohibited from listening to neighbor's concerns or even reading this post, which means that I can point out that council member Tim Burgess looks exactly like a baby vulture with relative impunity.

So where are we in this exhaustively boring-yet-nuanced process? Well! Yesterday, DPD issued it's 33-page recommendation (.pdf), which found, among other things, that the rezone would "have a positive impact on the supply of housing on the site and its surroundings by providing capacity for additional new dwelling units"—i.e., allowing the Mullallys to increase their potential rentable floor area by 41 percent—but that "the proposed rezone would result in an impact to affordable housing by allowing substantially more development potential without advancing the City’s policy to provide some housing affordability in an urban center."

Basically, neighbors' worst fears. Despite this finding, DPD is all for "conditionally approving" the change. (If you enjoy being confused, see pages 16/17 of the report for their wonky reasoning).

Meanwhile, Miller breaks down the DPD's numbers, found on pages 16/17, in human speak:

"Housing 'affordability' is rated by Average Median Income," he explains, which for King County, is $67,806. "Under the current zoning, the developer would be able to build 2,216 units, including 262 units at 50 percent of [the Area Median Income] (10 percent of units) or 303 units at 50-80 percent AMI (17.5 percent of units).

"If DPD's recommended conditions hold, under the upzone the developer would be able to build 3,128 units. However, they would only be required to build 94 units at 50 percent AMI or 156 units at 80 percent AMI."

In other words, the DPD is recommending that the developers be allowed to build an additional 1002 residential units on their property through the zoning change, while acknowledging that their recommendation means the neighborhood would lose out on between 147 to 168 units of affordable housing. Which neighbors do not want.

A little fucked up for a city that's been beating the drum about adding more affordable housing to urban centers, no?

"We all must demand our city officials take actions to stem the continuing loss of low-income housing in our communities," co-wrote John Fox, head of the affordable housing advocacy group Seattle Displacement Coalition, in a recent editorial of Seattle City Living. "That means implementing policies that stop developers from destroying what’s left of our low income housing stock and/or ensuring that when it does occur, they pay 100 percent of the cost of replacing those units and at comparable price. It's time developers paid their fair share. Instead our city leaders are rewarding bad behavior by granting them upzones and tens of millions in 'multi- family tax exemptions.'"

Miller and other leaders of the Maple Leaf neighborhood agree. "If we screw this up by allowing this development to go through without, at the very least, replacing on a unit-by-unit basis the affordable housing on that lot, we’re messing up," he says. "If we can’t increasing the amount of housing that’s affordable to people who work in the area, we’re doing it wrong."


Comments (19) RSS

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Max Solomon 1
i find the idea of 3128 new high-rise housing units being developed on that site to be laughable.

but as to affordability: it is not public housing. it is privately owned. can the city require a 1:1 replacement as a condition of the rezone? i doubt it.

Posted by Max Solomon on March 27, 2012 at 1:38 PM · Report this
"...11200 1st Ave NE,..."
You need to double-check this. This location is the off-ramp from I-5 on one side of the road and the entrance to the parking lot for Northgate Mall on the other side.
Posted by TJ on March 27, 2012 at 1:49 PM · Report this
@2 I think Google Maps is just wrong about that. The description in the pdf makes it clear it's the complex north of Northgate Way.
Posted by YoungBS on March 27, 2012 at 1:57 PM · Report this
Sorry Cienna -

Google Maps is wrong; you had the address correct.
Posted by TJ on March 27, 2012 at 1:58 PM · Report this
TVDinner 5
@1: Absolutely the city can. That is well within the city's purview. We have enabling legislation on the books and plenty of Supreme Court precedent to uphold it.

This is a fascinating case. I'm so glad you're covering it, Cienna.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on March 27, 2012 at 2:02 PM · Report this
What will be most interesting is the reaction from the usual pro-density neo-urbanist blogosphere types. I'm not a big fan of litmus tests in land use because there are always nuances in land use, but this seems to be a pretty easy one.

Are Seattle's neo-urbanist bloggers actually advocates for affordable, community-oriented development around LINK stations? Or are they advocates for "whatever the hell the developer who pays my architect salary wants to do"?

Soap opera is right, and it's just now starting to get interesting... Nice article, Cienna. Thanks for shining some light on this.

Posted by David Miller on March 27, 2012 at 2:16 PM · Report this
TVDinner 7
I've always thought that neo-urbanists trace their lineage to Jane Jacobs, and as such are in favor of affordable housing. I think this is really just an old-fashioned boondoggle, where the developer's lawyers find a loophole and exploit it. That's as old as the history of the first nuisance laws governing land use, in merry olde Englande.

What's really commendable here is the Maple Leaf neighborhood council. That they're aware of the subtleties of this boondoggle is impressive. May the force be with them in this fight.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on March 27, 2012 at 2:25 PM · Report this
south downtown 8
well, if Burgess isn't reading this, not only does he look exactly like a baby vulture, he acts like a vulture too.

my bet is he'll side ultimately w big development, neighborhood be damned. he started the Roosevelt ball rolling...

as far as David Miler's pondering about our new "City Builder" class, my bet is on them fucking over the poor with their density=affordability mantra.
Posted by south downtown on March 27, 2012 at 2:30 PM · Report this

Well put (as usual).


Jane Jacobs saw the value in old buildings. New Urbanists, not so much...


Posted by Mr. X on March 27, 2012 at 3:11 PM · Report this
Max Solomon 10
@5: has a 1:1 replacement condition already been done to a private developer in the city? i know the SHA made that part of their redevelopment proposals, which sought federal funding, but i don't know of any instances where 1:1 has been required on private property.

@9: are you asserting that those ticky-tack barracks have a value on par with historic structures that Jacobs valued? if you think that new urbanists don't value historic structures, you're wrong. but costs & benefits are part of any analysis - its why the awesome brick barracks building at magnusson park sits moldering with its downspouts stripped by metal thieves, while non-profits build brand new low-income housing on empty space elsewhere in the park.
Posted by Max Solomon on March 27, 2012 at 3:47 PM · Report this

Jacobs was talking about ordinary buildings that ordinary people live and work in. You know - like these apartments.
Posted by Mr. X on March 27, 2012 at 4:37 PM · Report this

As she wrote,

"“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation—although these make fine ingredients—but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

…If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction….for this reason, enterprises that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead—high in comparison to that necessarily required by old buildings.

…Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts—studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and table can absorb uneconomic discussions—these go into old buildings.

…The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.”

And while it isn't mentioned here, old buildings also provide unsubsidized housing for poor and working class people, too.

New Urbanists may occasionally talk a good game about "affordable housing", but their actions and priorities speak a lot louder than their words.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure that the building at Sand Point that you are talking about was acquired by the U of W under an "educational" public benefit discount when the US Govt. surplussed the property - they recently decided that wasn't going to fly after all and have put the project out to bid to housing developers. We'll have to see how that pans out....
Posted by Mr. X on March 27, 2012 at 5:13 PM · Report this
@10, SHA may have made that part of its pitch, but it has never yet done a 1:1 replacement on any of its redeveloped projects.

There's something uncomfortably brown-shirt-ish about the phrase "new urbanist".
Posted by sarah70 on March 27, 2012 at 7:28 PM · Report this

The fact that SHA had to be dragged kicking and screaming into replacing the number of units onsite that they finally did was because the low-income/antipoverty/neighborhood activists that are most loathed by the New Urbanist posters at Slog and Publicola (most notably John Fox and the Displacement Coalition, though there were also others) shamed the Council into requiring it, which they were able to do as they negotiated with SHA for things it wanted such as street vacations and other zoning changes/exemptions/etc that required Council approval.

Considering the massive increase in density that Hope VI projects are bringing to old garden housing projects, there ought to be a net increase in the number of low-income units onsite, not a decrease. I don't know the specifics of the Northgate proposal (yet), but if it involves street or alley vacations the Council has plenty of leverage to demand additional low-income units (beyond the leverage that an upzone request also gives them).
Posted by Mr. X on March 27, 2012 at 8:10 PM · Report this
ChadK 15
"Development wants, development gets / It's official
Development wants this neighborhood gone so the city
Just wants the same" -- "Cashout" Fugazi
Posted by ChadK on March 27, 2012 at 11:10 PM · Report this
@6 -- I have often quibbled with David Miller, but I think he is spot on with this one. As @7 said in the second paragraph, excellent work.
Posted by Ross on March 29, 2012 at 8:20 PM · Report this
@14: The entire point of HOPE VI is to DISPERSE poverty so you don't end up with blocks of concentrated poverty/crime/hopelessness. SHA was never going to do 1:1 replacement of ON-SITE low-income units because HOPE VI is a MIXED-income initiative. The low-income housing is meant to be spread out in the city and what was once a hellhole of poor despair is now a mixed-income, utopian community (in theory).

None of that is controversial. It's a federal program and similar themes are found in the criteria the city uses to decide which affordable housing projects get housing levy funds.

What I'll say next is controversial: It's a good idea because anything that works to destroy concentrated poverty is working to destroy a community/CULTURE of poverty. The idea of a culture of poverty has been off limits since the 1960s but very recent academic literature is catching up to our common sense. Maybe you don't believe a drunk poster, but you might believe the NY Times:…
Posted by one_day_purchasing_mayors_seat on March 29, 2012 at 11:44 PM · Report this
NY Times, October 17, 2010, ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback…
Posted by seattle's_fun_city_mayor on March 29, 2012 at 11:47 PM · Report this
It's kind of pissing me off the way every media outlet in town, the Stranger included, is confusing "Affordable Housing" with "Low Income Housing". I keep seeing them used as synonyms. They are not synonyms.

By definition, "Affordable Housing" is not Low Income housing. It is directly tied to the exact center of the middle class. It is 2-3 times the cost of Low Income housing. It has rents over $1000/month.

The purpose of the affordable housing rules is to avoid having every new apartment building built in the city to be exclusively high-end luxury apartments. Which is what the market typically builds - the rental business cycle is:
1) build for the high end, set rents high enough to absorb a high initial vacancy rate
2) rake in the dough when the building fills
3) allow rents to stagnate as the building ages
4) when you reach the bottom of the market, kick everyone out, remodel, and repeat.

Stage 3 is where "affordable housing" is naturally found. Stage 4 is where Low Income housing is naturally found, if the property owner cannot get financing for a rebuild.

However, zoning has restricted new rental construction so badly over the past quarter-century that we don't have hardly any buildings entering stage 3 any more. We've got a bunch moving from stage 1 to stage 2, and most of our stage 3's are on their way to stage 4 or already being redeveloped. There's a donut hole here.
Posted by Lack Thereof on March 30, 2012 at 3:30 AM · Report this

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