Moving Beyond the Status Quo to Provide More Workforce Housing

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SLU modelThe following article was sent out in my City View Newsletter, which you can sign up to receive here.

Today the City Council approved bold amendments to the zoning legislation that will positively impact South Lake Union for a generation. In February, I articulated my three guiding principles focused on fairness as the City Council considered a major increase in housing and office density for the neighborhood:

1. Increase benefits to the public in exchange for value given to the private sector.
2. Build homes for our workforce.
3. Support our public school system.

I am pleased to report that, after collaborating with economists, local businesses and affordable housing advocates, we are on a path to achieve all of these goals.

Together we passed in committee 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. Now many more nurses, school teachers, construction workers and other working families can call this booming neighborhood home.

When the City allows greater heights and density in South Lake Union, that action delivers significant value to landowners. In exchange, the Council has increased the responsibility of developers to provide affordable workforce housing if they choose to take advantage of the higher heights. Under the current rules, developers can provide a certain level of affordable workforce housing within their residential projects or pay an “in-lieu” fee. (For commercial development, they can only pay the fee.)

The Council’s Special Committee on South Lake Union voted to raise the in-lieu fee significantly for this neighborhood: a 43% increase for residential projects, 33% for commercial.

When fee increases were first proposed by myself and other councilmembers, however, we heard concerns from local businesses about possible shocks to the office and retail real estate market. In response, the Council decided to phase in the increase to the commercial fee over the next 15 months, providing a smoother and more predictable transition.

In addition to achieving reasonable increases in fees to encourage workforce housing in South Lake Union (which will also be phased in downtown for parity), the committee passed a Resolution I sponsored establishing an even more collaborative and inclusive process going forward – a process I believe can yield even greater public benefit and more affordable housing.

The Resolution will establish an Expert Advisory Team to look at best practices throughout our nation, gather input from a large and diverse group of local stakeholders and make recommendations for increasing workforce housing. When reporting back to Council early next year, this team would explore a range of workforce housing tools for each of Seattle’s growing urban centers.

Separate from the workforce housing discussion, the Council created stronger provisions to enable the creation of a public school to serve the increasing number of families with children in the neighborhood. Having an elementary school for our downtown residents is critical to keeping them in our city. The Council’s amendment ensures that any new school facility built would be suitable to the needs of the school district.

Taken together, these important amendments will enable moderate income workers and their growing families to live near their jobs, which is a pillar of smart growth.

Facilitating such growth is good for our environment because it reduces commute times, traffic and pollution. It is good for the economy because denser neighborhoods lead to innovation and activity. And it is good for communities because it increases time at home and in the neighborhood with family and friends. That’s what makes a great city.