This guest post is by Sharon H. Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute.
Today, the Seattle City Council is poised to approve the South Lake Union rezone legislation.
Council Member Tim Burgess called this proposal in his recent newsletter "a sensible solution that brings affordable workforce housing to the City’s hottest real estate market far above the level called for in the Mayor’s original proposal." But I was curious about how the council’s proposal really stacked up to Mayor Mike McGinn's original legislation, so I inquired with the city's Department of Planning and Development. Marshall Foster, the City’s Planning Director, confirmed my suspicion. The mayor’s proposed legislation, including taller buildings near Lake Union and the Block 59 proposal, would have generated over $2 million more in funding for affordable housing than the scheme council is now looking to approve.
How did this happen?
Council Members Burgess, Nick Licata, and Mike O’Brien retooled the mayor's proposal, stating that their adjustments would create more affordable housing for those in need. To do this, the council is increasing the fees charged as a part of the incentive zoning program in SLU from $15.15 to $21.68 per square foot for residential.
At the same time, the council has also voted to decrease the height of buildings near South Lake Union Park to protect views. This will also substantially reduce the public benefits that would have been provided by developers in exchange for that additional height.
Building to the full 240 feet proposed by Mayor McGinn would have required developers to provide extraordinary public benefits. In fact, Vulcan Real Estate had proposed a deal that would have provided land for development of affordable housing within SLU. The parcel, known as Block 59, is located near Mercer Street and Dexter Avenue North. The parcel encompasses property owned by Vulcan Real Estate, the city and the state. More than 15 nonprofits envision that Block 59 could support 400 units of mixed-income housing, along with much needed affordable childcare and a job training center. The Block 59 deal alone would have provided $10-15 million in value for affordable housing.
But some members of council were suspicious of this unique deal. They were also under pressure to reduce building heights in the rezone. So the council has a made a choice. They lowered heights and reduced the public benefits that could have otherwise been created to provide housing for low income families.
The council also proposed increasing the fees charged as a part of the incentive zoning program in SLU. By increasing incentive zoning fees, council members claim they will add resources for affordable housing. However, there are two problems with this argument: One, the council attempted to set the fee at a level that would encourage “affordable” units on-site rather than pay into the city’s affordable housing account. This means developers will create units for households with incomes between $70,400 to $86,700, or those earning 80 percent to 100 percent of area median income. These units are not really affordable. If instead these funds go into the city’s affordable housing account, the dollars would be granted to nonprofit housing providers that create units for families earning less than $52,800, or 60 percent of area median income.
Secondly, the higher fees are pushing many developers to reconsider their development plans. There are at least five projects in SLU that are going ahead with plans to build at current zoning. This will mean squat buildings that are roughly seven stories in height. It will also mean that these projects will provide very few public benefits since the developers are forgoing bonus programs and therefor will not be required to contribute to affordable housing or other community needs. For these five projects alone, the city will forgo roughly $13 million in funds for affordable housing that could have been provided by developers if they had taken advantage of the full heights allowed under the rezone.
The city council also failed to take any action to preserve existing low income housing in SLU.
It is unfortunate that the city council, after a decade of public process, prioritized politics and protecting the views of the few above supporting affordable housing.