Ben Crowther’s three-part interview with Seattle Fair Growth

Part I: https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/08/28/seattle-fair-growth-interview-part-1/

Part II: https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/08/29/seattle-fair-growth-interview-part-2-housing-debate/

Part III: https://medium.com/@bencrowther_29683/seattle-fair-growth-an-interview-part-3-affordability-crisis-68bcb64ec1f7

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HALA Update and Timeline

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Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, has been bulldozing its way through City Hall.  HALA allows developers to build more by changing the zoning, and in exchange developers are required to include affordable units in their buildings or pay an in lieu fee to have those affordable units built somewhere else (my money is on the latter).

While the City claims this will improve affordability, critics such as myself see these upzones as only pouring gasoline on the fire.  Too little is required of developers and this plan incentivizes tearing down our most affordable homes.  HALA will metaphorically bulldoze over any remaining neighborhood character and buildings of historical value and displace low income renters and small businesses.  Not to mention City Hall has a deaf ear to neighborhood input on how we grow and that without any upzones at all we have development capacity that is more than sufficient for expected growth.  But the City continues on…

The specific HALA program that in essence sells upzones to developers in exchange for fees is called Mandatory Affordable Housing or MHA.  So far the City has upzoned those areas that have had planning efforts in the works for the last few years (although neighborhood activists have lamented that the City’s  “outreach” has ignored neighbors concerns).  MHA upzones have been implemented in the U District, Downtown/South Lake Union, the International District, 23rd & Jackson/Cherry/Union and Uptown.

That leaves the remaining urban villages, many of which have not had any recent meaningful neighborhood planning (at the time of this writing the draft zoning maps for the remaining urban villages can be found here).  Because of this, the City has been required to perform an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to look at the effects of the zoning changes.  Given the varying attributes of the many different neighborhoods concerned, it is surprising the City is lumping them all together, but that is the faster way to get things done.

The draft EIS gave three alternatives to study.  These were 1) No Action, 2) MHA upzones, & 3) MHA upzones with growth spread around differently to minimize displacement in areas with existing affordable housing.  Excuse me, but why are both “alternatives” just different versions of MHA?

City Hall: Neighborhoods, would you like your upzones sunny side up or scrambled?  Sorry, upzones are the only option we have on the menu today.
Neighborhoods: Umm, excuse me City Hall but I’m pretty sure upzones are not the only option available to provide affordable housing.  (Actually on our website we have a lot of other options
here.)  

According to Jesseca Brand from the Department of Neighborhoods, the final EIS will include a preferred alternative with recommended zoning changes for the remaining urban villages.  The Executive is expected to send these recommended zoning changes to City Council by late summer or early fall at the latest.

The City Council is currently putting together their work plan for next year.  Although this timeline is not finalized, the current estimate is the Council will vote on these zoning changes mid-2018 (think June, July or August).

This legislation for all of the remaining urban villages, will be sent by the Executive to City Council as a whole.  Meaning all of the remaining neighborhoods are lumped together.  There will be zoning changes on all of the maps, but this one-sized-fits all approach is not neighborhood planning.  

This is really opening up the flood gates to let developers build much larger throughout large swaths of the City, regardless of whether the schools have capacity, the transportation options are sufficient or the sewers are updated.  The Growth Management Act requires concurrent planning for infrastructure with growth and the City is falling short.  And to add salt to the wound there is zero promise that affordable housing will be built inside these affected neighborhoods, and zero promise that there will be a net gain in affordable units since this plan incentivizes tearing down our most affordable housing to build larger, luxury units.

One key roadblock neighborhood activists could put forth, is to formally appeal the EIS with the City’s Hearing Examiner.  The final EIS is expected to be released in the coming weeks (perhaps mid September or October, but the date has not been finalized yet).  The EIS will be published on the City’s website at Seattle.gov/HALA and will be announced on the HALA newsletter (sign up at the link just mentioned).  Also, if you submitted comments for the draft EIS (kudos to you), the City should notify you directly that the EIS has been published.  Once the final EIS has been published, a challenger has only FOURTEEN DAYS from date of publish to submit an appeal to the City’s Hearing Examiner.  Fourteen days!  Seriously?  These documents are longer than a grad school chemistry textbook.  If the EIS is challenged, then the City Council can continue to deliberate on the legislation, but cannot vote until the appeal is resolved.

I’ve been binge watching this HALA show for about a year and a half.  I’ve been to more City Council and local government meetings than I can count.  Time and again, I have watched most of the City Council disregard many thoughtful arguments put forth to challenge HALA.  They do not respond to reasonable dialogue and already have their minds made up.  In my personal opinion, the current City Council will only be stopped by a formal challenge.

Land Use Chair Rob Johnson and the majority of the City Council are in the pockets of big developers like Vulcan.  If you are a group who is considering challenging this thing (please do) then get your ducks in a row now.  If you would like to hire an attorney to help with the appeal, get one lined up and start thinking about funding.  Because you only have FOURTEEN stinking days to challenge the EIS once it’s released and it will be released soon.  And if you are not in a position to challenge, but want to fight this thing, please be on the lookout to respond to donation requests to cover the legal fees.  Because these fights are expensive and so called “wealthy” neighborhood groups often operate on a shoestring budget.

Timeline Summary

  • Final EIS to be released in the coming weeks (possibly mid September or October, date not finalized)
  • You have only FOURTEEN DAYS from the date of publish to submit an appeal to the Hearing Examiner
  • If EIS is not challenged, City Council is expected to vote on the rezone legislation mid-2018 (date also not finalized)

Hearing Examiner Public Guide (how to file an appeal, etc.): http://www.seattle.gov/examiner/guide-toc.htm

Not overwhelmed yet and want to read more?  Here’s my recommendations to stay informed:
https://www.wallingfordcc.org/
https://outsidecityhall.wordpress.com/
http://www.4toexplore.org/4-to-explore-2/