“What is an Urban Village?” said the blissfully ignorant me

By Susanna Lin

In January of this year, the Wallingford Community Council convened a meeting to educate the neighborhood on changes to zoning and housing policies that could have drastic effects on our neighborhood and our city. I attended, as did many others (around 200 were in attendance). At this meeting, I asked the person next to me, “What is an Urban Village?” (Keep reading if you have had the same question).

Since that meeting I have dived in with both feet (which at times includes following the mayor around with a sign and balloons) but also includes getting past all of the city’s propaganda and trying to figure out what the heck is really going on.
I wanted to share what I’ve uncovered with all of you. Pardon me if you’ve read this before; I did make a similar post on Nextdoor a while back. But I am hoping to continue sharing housing information with you here on Seattle Fair Growth, and so I thought it would be best if my first post started with some background (with a little bit of commentary thrown in). I hope you find this information worth your while…

In 2015, Mayor Ed Murray convened a 28 person volunteer panel to develop the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The recommendations are starting to be voted on by City Council piece by piece.

HALA has some good points, like tenant protections against rent hikes in apartments that are not properly maintained, but a main focus is to increase density in our city to address the lack of affordable housing, i.e. more buildings, bigger buildings. Last year the mayor also made a “Grand Bargain” with developers. The agreement is that the developers will be required to provide affordable units in their residential buildings or pay into a fee and the city will build those units. In exchange, the developers have been promised upzones, i.e. increased heights and changes in zoning to allow for increased density. For commercial developments they pay a Linkage Fee. It is called this because the fee is linked to upzones. This is a large part of how the mayor plans to make the city a more affordable place to live.

Let’s look at the details. In exchange for upzones, new multifamily residential developments will be required to set aside two to five percent of their units as affordable in Downtown and South Lake Union, and five to seven percent in the rest of the city.* “Affordable” is defined as affordable for residents earning up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) and the units are required to stay affordable for 50 years. According to the HALA website: “In 2015, 60 percent of AMI is $37,680 for an individual and $53,760 for a family of four.” Two to seven percent is small compared to other cities with similar programs that require developers to set aside around 10 to 30 percent of their units as affordable. If the goal really is to provide more affordable units, it seems the perfect opportunity to do so would be the development boom that is happening right now in Downtown and South Lake Union. These areas are close to amenities and jobs and transit. Is two percent affordable units really acceptable?

If we look outside of Downtown there are also many concerns. Throughout the city, there are areas that have been designated as Hub Urban Villages and Residential Urban Villages (although often lumped together by city officials). These are the areas that are considered closer to transit, amenities, have walkable shopping areas, etc. They are also major targets for growth in HALA. Originally there was a consideration to upzone all single family neighborhoods in Seattle to multifamily zoning. When this was met with much public opposition, it was scaled back to urban villages, albeit with fuzzy or expanding boundaries. A current proposal is to upzone all single family neighborhoods inside hub and residential urban villages to multifamily. A large area in the center of Wallingford is designated a Residential Urban Village, including about 700 single family homes.

Is this upzoning really necessary? If we look in the Seattle 2035 Development Capacity Report, it states in the summary on the first page: “Based on current zoning, DPD estimates that the city has development capacity to add about 224,000 housing units.” It is important to note that development capacity is not a maximum capacity that could be built with current zoning but instead refers to the expected amount that would be built given current trends. In other words, with current zoning we could actually build more than 224,000 housing units. On the HALA website, Mayor Murray states he has a goal of adding 50,000 units in 10 years. The projected population growth for Seattle is 70,000 housing units (120,000 people) in 20 years.

So with current zoning we have plenty of room to meet those goals. So really, the main reason to upzone is the Grand Bargain because developers are not required to include affordable units or pay a fee until the upzones are in effect. Upzoning the neighborhoods is not necessary to meet the mayor’s goal of housing units, it is not necessary to accommodate the projected population growth, and it is not even for the improvement of the neighborhoods. It is because of the deal the mayor made with the developers.
The City’s answer to this is we still upzone the urban villages because they are close to amenities, good schools, transit and jobs. So let’s look at this. We already mentioned how Downtown and South Lake Union epitomizes this (all except for maybe good schools) but they are required to contribute the lowest percentages.

Here in Wallingford, waiting as several full buses pass people by is a frequent complaint. There was a large transportation levy passed last year but we are not on a projected light rail line so it is unclear what improvements in transit service we can expect. Yes, we have a modest and quaint walkable shopping district. We have very few jobs here. Yes, we have good schools. But they are over capacity and underfunded.

2696500_origAnd while we are on the subject of over capacity, can we take a minute to talk about our antiquated sewer system? Did you know that there are signs at Lake Union near Gas Works Park that read: “WARNING Possible Sewage Overflows During and Following Heavy Rain.” Seriously?!? In case you still have questions, the raw sewage that comes from your toilets mixes with street runoff that is going directly into Lake Union untreated during and after heavy rains. These are called Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) and there are many throughout the City. There is a pipeline that is planned to fix this problem in Wallingford, but it is not scheduled to be completed until 2025. Many of the areas around the City that drain into a CSO correspond to areas that Mayor Murray wants to upzone. We are concerned about plans to upzone without concurrent plans to update our infrastructure, an infrastructure which is already over burdened. The State Growth Management Act requires that growth has concurrent investment in infrastructure. And federal law includes the Clean Water Act. The City appears to already be in violation of these laws and plans to upzone despite its noncompliance.

We are also concerned about the loss of trees and grass and dirt, which clean our air and our water and reduce street water runoff. Mayor Murray and the Sierra Club have given speeches saying that HALA is green because by concentrating the growth in certain areas it protects other areas. I say, more cement is not green. Green is green. We are the Emerald City not the Concrete Jungle. Is Seattle ok with less stringent environmental guidelines and fewer environmental reviews for developers? Is protecting our trees important to us?

Parking is another commodity that will become scarce if the mayor’s vision is realized. The argument is that $30,000 to provide an onsite parking space is too expensive for the developer, especially if they are going to provide affordable units. However we must ask this question, if the developer is reducing his costs by not including parking in the building, is he passing that savings on to the resident and offering the unit at an “affordable” rate? Or is he still pricing the unit at market value and just increasing his profit margin? The City is already decreasing parking by allowing bike racks and parklets to occupy spaces on public streets and they have been renting public street spaces to car share companies. The City seems intent on having people abandon their cars. More difficulty parking on the street hurts many groups including: handicapped persons, elderly, families with small children, workers who use their vehicles (landscapers, house cleaners, caterers), etc. Not requiring developers to include parking increases the developers profits and decreases the livability of our City.

One more piece of this puzzle is Seattle 2035. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan is a roadmap for urban planning over a 20 year period. We reached the end of that 20 year period for our first Comprehensive Plan, so the mayor has undertaken to write another one, which will be the 2035 Comprehensive Plan. A draft report was recently published by the mayor’s office. Some of the themes include: upzoning single family zones and small lot development, decreasing available parking, removing protections for trees, and stripping neighborhood plans of authority. In essence, the new Comprehensive Plan would make it easier for the mayor to implement HALA. The mayor’s plan is being presented to City Council in pieces, they will then have the option of amending it before it goes to a vote.

HALA and the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan are still works in progress for now but they are on a fast timeline to become law. They have good parts, but we can do better. Seattle should be on the cutting edge of equitable housing solutions and environmental leadership. We should be asking questions to ensure that HALA and the Seattle 2035 are the best that they can be so everyone benefits from these policies.

  • Are the developers the main group that benefit from HALA?
  • Does HALA actually make our city more affordable?
  • Will for-profit developers really be the ones to fix our affordability crisis?
  • Should the City sell bonds to pay for low income housing?
  • Should the city repeal the Multi Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) which has given over $200 million in tax breaks in 10 years to developers? Could we do more with this money?
  • What about the older, more affordable units that were demolished and the people in them who were displaced? Are we even gaining more affordable housing than we are losing?
  • Why are the developers only required to set aside 2 to 5% affordable units in Downtown and South Lake Union and only 5 to 7% affordable units in the rest of the City? Why are these numbers so low?
  • Is there any guarantee that upzoning will result in affordable housing being built in Wallingford?
  • Can Wallingford expect improvements in bus service with upzoning?
  • Will schools get more funds and more space in areas that are upzoned?
  • Why are we removing protections for trees?
  • How can we upzone areas that already have raw sewage overflowing into our waterways? Shouldn’t this be fixed before any upzones can be discussed?
  • Are there protections for solar panels to prevent shadowing from large developments?
  • Why are we not charging the developers Impact Fees? Impact Fees can be used to fund schools, parks, transportation and Fire/Safety. Impact Fees are charged in many other cities including Yakima, Edmonds, Everett, Bellevue, Spokane, Kirkland, etc.
  • The mayor wants to double the Housing Levy to help pay for HALA. Will tax increases for homeowners be used to fund tax breaks to for-profit landlords and for-profit developers?
  • Does upzoning in exchange for affordable units and fees have the potential to upzone a neighborhood for the wrong reasons?
  • Why are we upzoning when we already have so much development capacity with current zoning?
  • Why are neighborhood plans being stripped of their authority in Comprehensive Plan? This would allow upzones anywhere City Hall determines (likely at the request of developers) without neighborhood input, which is not ok.

TAKE ACTION!
Write Mayor Ed Murray: http://www.seattle.gov/mayor/get-involved/contact-the-mayor

Write the City Council, remember all members will vote:

Sign up for City Council agendas. Attend a meeting and sign up to make a public comment. Recommended agendas to sign up for & meetings to attend:

  • Full Council
  • Planning, Land Use & Zoning Affordable Housing

*The HALA website http://www.seattle.gov/hala/about states: “The second part of the “Grand Bargain” calls for a Mandatory Housing Affordability program for new multifamily developments, requiring five to eight percent of units be affordable for residents earning up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) for 50 years.” However it has been verified by Geoffrey Wentlandt (Geoffrey.Wentlandt@seattle.gov) that the percentages are actually two to five percent for Downtown and South Lake Union and five to seven percent for the other neighborhoods. Mr. Wentlandt has stated that the information on the website is out of date. There have been requests made to update the website with the correct information but as of this writing it has not been corrected.

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