Many who hope to see the cost of housing on Capitol Hill and throughout Seattle stabilize — and, someday, maybe even drop — came to the Broadway Performance Hall Monday night for a special public hearing on proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability rezoning. With more than 100 people signed up to speak on the night, the Seattle City Council’s visit to Capitol Hill created a multi-hour stream of two-minute statements on the process to raise key Seattle neighborhood zoning heights tied with new developer requirements to either create more affordable housing or pay for it elsewhere.
Many were forward looking. “We have to make room for new people… cities are places that change,” said one woman in support of the legislation with most of the City Council including District 3 representative Kshama Sawant as an audience.
“Seattle needs more housing, housing in all shapes and sizes, for all our neighbors,” said another, a Capitol Hill Renters Initiative member and a Capitol Hill tenant.
If you can do the math, you’ll understand it was a long night full of ideas and statements from across Seattle’s housing spectrum. Speakers from the Miller Park Neighbors group had more immediate concerns. Resident Ellen Taft asked for rejection of upzone plans around the Miller Park neighborhood because “there is already a surplus” of “high rent projects” in the area. She said residents of the Miller-Madison area will be the “victims” of upzones, not the beneficiaries. “What the plan offers is a lot of units for high income people,” said another speaker from the group. “The current residents are not being considered, only the new development.” Another member of the group said he was worried the MHA would destroy his neighborhood’s “moderately priced homes.”
Monday night’s hearing at the Broadway Performance Hall focused on District 3 (the Capitol Hill and Central District area) and District 7 (Queen Anne, Magnolia, Downtown, South Lake Union and the International District). In District 3, the areas under consideration for upzones include 23rd and Union-Jackson, First Hill-Capitol Hill, Madison-Miller and North Rainier-Mt. Baker. If you were not able to attend or if you have more to say, you can submit your comments to Spencer Williams in Council member Rob Johnson’s office via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Speakers against the proposals were outnumbered on the night. Many expressed concerns about the loss of neighborhood character but there were also clear underlying issues around housing security for aging populations and the rising property taxes. “You can see affordable housing being torn down all through this city and ubiquitous boxes being built in their place,” another neighborhood critic said.
One of the few women of color to speak during the public comments talked about the difficulty her family faces remaining in the Central District and said MHA will accelerate displacement. “Are they going to come tear our place down too?” a second Black woman who currently lives in affordable housing in South Lake Union asked. “Please find something that is affordable to everybody.”
But many public speakers said that the worries about MHA were misplaced and that current zoning is what should be blamed for the city’s affordability crisis. “MHA is not the cause,” one landowner said. “Development is. The answer is to get some money and build affordable housing.”
Like most public hearings on significant topics, many of the two-minute statements repeated similar ideas and talking points from community groups and advocacy organizations. But there were also opportunities for new dialogues about the ideas behind MHA and how they will change Capitol Hill. Residents near 15th Ave E raised the example of the eventual development of the street’sQFC property to consider under the proposed zoning changes. Today, the zoning for the land would result in a four-story mixed-use building. MHA would likely open the door to a five-story building on the street. In the end, support — or non-support — for the MHA changes might come down to examples like this across the city.
Another speaker pointed out the shortcomings of the urban village concept noting that the area around the coming Judkins Park light rail station won’t be boosted by the upzoning and, instead, will remain dominated by single-family style housing when it opens in 2023.
As part of a citywide effort to address housing affordability, Seattle City Hall has embarked on a wide-ranging plan that would allow developers to build extra density in exchange for including affordable housing in their projects or making a payment toward an affordable housing fund. Born under the Murray administration, the process is moving forward under Mayor Jenny Durkan though she has so far kept her distance from the debates surrounding the proposals. Under the MHA framework, affordability requirements chained to the proposed upzoning vary by scale and developers can choose to pay fees instead of including rent-restricted units. The legislation “is expected to result in $380M in revenue from the payment option and 1,325 units” over 20 years, according to a presentation on the proposals to a City Council’s special committee Monday morning. That $380 million could build another 4,300 affordable units, according to the city’s analysis.
District 7 has only one urban village (Upper Queen Anne) under consideration for changes – its other areas, such as Downtown and the ID have their own plans that have already gone through the process. Many areas on the edges of the city’s so-called “urban villages” were found to not meet “frequent transit node requirements” under the agreed on framework for the planning process. Critics have pointed at these areas as lost opportunities in expanding the village borders and increasing the area of the city that will be opened up for increased development. Officials point at a growth and equity analysis that they say has helped make sure the MHA process will “vary (the) scale of zoning changes based on displacement risk and access to opportunity.”
“Most District 3 urban villages have high risk of displacement,” planners write. “All have high access to opportunity.”
A final, citywide public hearing will follow with legislation planned to be voted on by fall.
The proposed zoning changes for Capitol Hill and the Central District include transitioning Broadway from around Cal Anderson Park all the way north to Roy to 75-foot height limits and “neighborhood commercial” zoning that would allow seven-story buildings with commercial use throughout. Some of the bigger changes would also come around the Miller Community Center. In the Central District, most proposed changes are focused on the area around Madison and 23rd with smaller areas around 23rd and Union and 23rd and Jackson where surgical upzoning has already been approved.
There has been considerable opposition to the planned changes in some corners of the city though Capitol Hill’s community groups have mostly been supportive of the changes. The Miller Park Neighbors have not. The Miller Park YAY-bors? All for it. The proposals, meanwhile, face litigation from a coalition of 26 neighborhood groups.
Others, including many Monday night, have been critical of Seattle’s reluctance to find solutions that include allowing more multifamily housing in areas of the city now dominated by hugely expensive single-family housing where the city has been, they say, “focused on responding to white, single family home owners.”
Renters Monday night said it is time to listen to them. “Don’t tell me we’re not a community because we don’t live in single family homes and we’re just renters,” said one.
Others, still, said pass the MHA upzoning but then get on to even more important new legislation around inclusivity and preventing displacement. “Please pass MHA and then go further.”
Many reminded the council that this “long, rough, and unfortunately exclusive” process is dragging on and it is time to get the legislation passed this summer. “This is taking too long,” said Alex Brennan of Capitol Hill Housing. “No ordinary person can stay engaged in a policy conversation for over three years.”
With photography and reporting by Alex Garland
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