Affordable Housing and Single Family Zones

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Single family zoneThis afternoon the Council’s Select Committee on Housing Affordability will be briefed on Mayor Murray’s proposal to increase affordable housing options in the city.

Housing costs eat up more than half of the income of about 45,000 households in Seattle (spending more than 30% of income on housing is considered burdensome). Seattle’s population is estimated to grow by 120,000 over the next 20 years. The Mayor’s plan is designed to create 50,000 new homes in the next 10 years, 20,000 of which would be affordable to households with low and moderate incomes.

This year, the Council will consider the proposed downtown and South Lake Union “Commercial Linkage Fee,” a fee paid by developers designed to provide money for new affordable housing construction. (Here is the Council meeting schedule.)

The other proposals from the Mayor and his advisory committee will come to the Council later because of necessary environmental reviews that must first take place. It will be a long process with multiple opportunities for public comment over the next 18 to 24 months, including public hearings at neighborhood locations across Seattle. You can read about the linkage fee and other proposals in the Mayor’s roadmap document or the full 65 recommendations of the committee.

Single Family Neighborhood Zoning

Much of the initial reaction over the past two weeks has focused on what might happen to single family zoned areas.  I want to summarize the proposed changes and give perspective on the process before the Council.

There are three broad recommendations presented by the Mayor that will impact single family areas.

First, the Mayor has proposed rezoning single family zones that are located inside Urban Village boundaries — some of which are proposed to be expanded slightly — and along major transportation corridors. The single family areas inside or adjacent to these villages comprise only 6% of the city’s total single family areas. You can view a map of these proposed areas here. I support this rezone because it is consistent with decisions made back in the 1990s to concentrate growth in these villages and centers.

Second, the Mayor has proposed relaxing some of the rules related to backyard cottages and attached dwelling units or so-called “in-law” units to allow more of them in single family zoned areas of the city. These units have generally worked to provide additional housing choices, especially for extended family members. I support expanding options for these units.

Third, the Mayor has proposed allowing different housing types (duplexes, triplexes, rowhouses, cottage housing) in single family zones, but without allowing for additional bulk and scale. Essentially, the Mayor proposes allowing more units to be put into the same amount of building space allowed now on a single lot. This has been the most controversial proposal among the 65 recommendations advanced by the Mayor; many people living in single family areas of the city have reacted strongly against this idea, arguing it will lead to the demolition of many older homes.

While technically not a rezone in legal terms, the idea sounds like a rezone and could look like a rezone. There is still a lot to learn about what types of construction — and at what pace — this proposal would encourage. Thankfully, the necessary review processes give the Council and the public plenty of time to explore all the ramifications of this proposal.

Yesterday, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat shared an intriguing idea: why not expand the city’s affordable housing investments to include homeowners who want to convert a basement to an affordable apartment? Portland and other cities do it, he writes, so why not Seattle?

The basic idea is that the City would lend a homeowner a portion of the costs of converting a portion of their house into an apartment in exchange for the homeowner agreeing to rent the unit to someone making 60% or less of our area median income (about $37,680 for a single wage earner) for a fixed period of time. The City’s loan could be secured through a lien filed against the property. I’ve asked our City Attorney whether this type of lending would pass legal muster in Washington State, which has pretty restrictive laws around the use of public money.

The Mayor’s recommendations have sparked a conversation we must have if we want to keep Seattle affordable and accessible to people from all walks of life. The next 18 to 24 months will be interesting for sure as we wrestle with how to promote affordable housing options in our city.