Seattle City Council passes legislative package easing design review restrictions to increase city’s stock of affordable housing

Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6 – Northwest Seattle) Chair of the Land Use Committee, celebrated the passage of a legislative package to increase affordable housing production by streamlining the permitting process was passed by the full council. This package was proposed by Mayor Harrell earlier this month and was passed out of Land Use Committee on June 28. This series of bills supports efforts to increase our City’s stock of affordable rental and for sale housing by exempting these projects from design review to increase efficiency in permitting and decrease the time it takes to build affordable housing.  

Council Bill 120591:

This bill codifies the temporary exemptions from design review that were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce bottlenecks that can slow down and increase the cost of building production. These projects are still subject to our City’s building and Land Use codes, and the regular health and safety requirements. This exemption had been previously applied only to rental housing projects with 40% of the units affordable at up to 60% AMI, but it has been expanded to include home-ownership projects with 40% of the units affordable at up to 80% AMI as well.  

Council Bill 120581:

This legislation introduces temporary provisions to the permit review process to allow housing projects that elect to meet the City’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirement with on-site performance, an exemption from design review. In addition, this ordinance will allow these projects to receive departures from design standards and eliminates obsolete or outdated language in the City’s Land Use code that provides clarity to our City’s definition of affordable housing. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the temporary exemptions from Design Review, now made permanent with Council Bill 120591, have proven to speed the rate that affordable housing projects open their doors. Council Bill 120581 was created in a similar vein, to test if these changes to permit review will increase affordable housing output. This legislation was originally going to last for 12 months, but Councilmember Strauss introduced an amendment to increase that time to 24 months to allow additional time to assess the revisions and better inform a permanent code change. 

“We cannot allow self-imposed city processes to delay building the affordable homes Seattleites need. Our legislation cuts bureaucratic red tape to speed the delivery of housing projects and homeownership opportunities,” said Councilmember Strauss. “I’m proud to partner with Mayor Harrell and sponsor this legislation because the family I grew up in should be able to afford to live in the Seattle of today, and tomorrow.”    

“We have to build more affordable housing and build affordable housing more quickly. Reducing barriers and creating a more efficient permitting process to expedite construction is an important part of our comprehensive approach to meeting Seattle’s urgent housing needs,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell. “I want to thank the City Council for passing this legislation and helping us make progress on our commitment that in One Seattle everyone should have a safe, affordable place to call home.” 

What People Are Saying 

“This legislation enables us to more quickly build desperately needed affordable homeownership opportunities that create stability, equity, and opportunity for first-time homebuyers,” said Kathleen Hosfeld, Executive Director of Homestead Community Land Trust. “We are deeply grateful to the Council and the Office of Housing for working together so that we can more effectively address the harms of redlining, restrictive covenants, and sky-high housing costs.” 

“The Housing Development Consortium applauds the passage of these two major pieces of legislation to reform design review. This legislation will remove regulatory barriers that have long slowed the production of housing for low-income people. We commend the City of Seattle for its commitment to addressing the housing affordability crisis and prioritizing the needs of low-income families and individuals. The current temporary exemptions for affordable housing from design review have successfully expedited projects and reduced costs, while maintaining high standards of design and inclusive community engagement,” said Jesse Simpson, Policy Manager for the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. “By permanently exempting affordable housing from design review, this legislation will streamline the development process and let our members build affordable homes in Seattle faster and more efficiently. This is a major step forward in our collective efforts to ensure everyone in our community has access to safe, affordable homes.” 

“Thank you to CM Strauss, Mayor Harrell, and the Seattle City Council for passing these important bills, which unify the definition of affordable housing and exempt affordable home ownership projects (80% AMI) from design review across Seattle,” said Brett D’Antonio, CEO, Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties. “These simple clean-up bills will likely save our organization and our homeowners significant amounts of money and time, allowing us to bring even more affordable homeownership opportunities to families and individuals in Seattle.” 

“There is growing recognition that Seattle’s Design Review can create barriers to housing production, affordability, and access. In the shadow of an ongoing housing crisis, our coalition sees this as an important and laudable step toward comprehensive Design Review reform. We can’t control all the factors that contribute to our housing shortage and rising housing costs, but we can control how we permit and review new housing. These bills work together to make our public dollars go further in the creation of urgently needed low-income units for both rental and ownership,” said Brady Nordstrom, Seattle for Everyone. “This builds on a strong foundation of success; some key provisions have already been available on a temporary basis with no known adverse impacts. As we celebrate this new success, our members are thrilled that City Council will soon contemplate additional legislation to address broader Design Review program issues impacting all housing types and to comply with recent state-level Design Review reforms from HB 1293.”  

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