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Seattle City Council Lays Groundwork For Grand Bargain With Developers

Ashley Gross


As Seattle’s construction boom continues, the city council is laying the groundwork for digging into Mayor Ed Murray’s grand bargain with developers to build affordable housing.

The backbone of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, is to charge developers of  commercial buildings a certain amount of money per square foot, known as a linkage fee.

If all of the proposed laws are eventually adopted, “essentially all private development in commercial and multi-family zones in the city will be required to contribute towards affordable housing,” said City Councilman Mike O’Brien.

What developers get in return is permission to build on a larger footprint or add an additional floor.

Today, the Committee on Housing Affordability is expected to approve linkage fees for commercial developments. It will be years, however, before people see the benefits.

“Three or four years from now we will see a significant increased rate of affordable housing being produced. But I know the demand is so great it’s going to continue to be a challenge, but we think this is a big step in the right direction,” said O’Brien.

The bill will have a final vote next week. The requirement to pay fees will not be enforced until after the council rezones various parts of the city to allow for more density. That work will begin early next year. Similar fees are planned for residential developments.

Meanwhile, construction is abundant in Seattle.  Permits for thousands of individual units have been issued since 2012, said Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city’s Planning and Development Department.

“Through this year for instance, 2015 through August, permits for 387 units have been approved for demolition, while 7,476 units have been permitted to be built,” said Stevens. “So it’s a pretty big contrast when you look at the difference between those two numbers.”

To look at it a different way, Stevens said that for each residential unit,  a house, or a single apartment that is torn down, 16 new units are being built in its place.

When Councilman O’Brien was asked whether charging developers affordable housing linkage fees might stymie growth, he said he expects the opposite will happen. He said commercial builders are telling him that the carrot of offering extra space in exchange for the fees will be a very strong, lucrative incentive to locate future projects in Seattle.

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