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Seattle's Affordable Housing Plan: For Developers, It's Carrots Served With A Side Of Sticks

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Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has revealed what he’s calling a “grand bargain” to ease the city’s affordable housing crunch, and it relies on a series of carrots and sticks for developers.

The heart of the plan is a proposal to let developers build bigger buildings in exchange for creating thousands of new affordable units, and charging new fees on commercial developments.

The city’s zoning map would change significantly. In zones where multifamily buildings are allowed, new developments could add an extra floor to their apartment or condo buildings. The developers would then have to make 5-7 percent of their units affordable to someone earning less than 60 percent of the area median income – about $37,680 for an individual. The developer could choose to pay a fee instead, which would fund affordable housing elsewhere.

Not “Plowing Under Every Single-Family Neighborhood”

Some single family zones, which cover two-thirds of Seattle, would be upzoned to allow denser housing. The affected zones lie mainly inside or on the edges of designated “urban villages,” or along transit corridors.

Murray insisted the plan would not do away with single-family zoning, as a leaked draft of the report suggested.

“I want to say this again, because there’s been a little fun out there about us plowing under every single-family neighborhood,” Murray said. “Under our plan, 94 percent of existing single-family neighborhoods would see no upzones.”

However, all single-family zones citywide would in fact change to allow things like duplexes and triplexes that fit on the same footprint as a detached house. Murray also called for encouraging more cottages and mother-in-law units in those neighborhoods. The changes could be accomplished through re-writing codes.

An Alternative Plan

The list of 65 proposals passed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee overwhelmingly, Murray said. Jon Grant, however, abstained. He is a former Tenants Union director and a candidate for the city council.

He has proposed an alternative plan, with the endorsements of council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata. It would impose those linkage fees on all developers citywide, not just commercial, and designate more of the units for people making less than 30 percent of the median income.

Grant still called the mayor’s plan a “good start” ad said he doesn’t oppose it.

Mayor Murray said he expects the changes to take at least two years to clear the city council. They intend to begin with the commercial linkage fees. 

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.
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