Sunday, September 14, 2008

Twilight Zoning

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels recently rolled out his latest proposal to increase development in the City of Seattle while ostensibly benefiting the affected communities. The plan creates a structure for a voluntary trade off: developers would be asked to create or pay for new affordable housing in exchange for lucrative land-use changes. Basically, the proposal would require developers to convert 11% of increased height into affordable housing. The legislation won't change building heights anywhere, but it would establish how developers can take advantage of greater building height allowances in the future.

Puget Sound SAGE (Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone) called a community meeting last Friday, September 11, to dissect the proposed plan. SAGE, an up-and-coming coalition of labor, faith and community organizations, is coming off of a successful three-year effort which created the landmark Community Benefits Agreement guaranteeing culturally sensitive development and 200 units of affordable-housing in the rapidly changing Little Saigon neighborhood.

Around 75 people showed up at the Columbia City Library to learn about incentive zoning from local development experts, and to hear a detailed analysis of the Mayor's proposal. The organizers made it perfectly clear that while they support increasing density as an important means of creating urban communities, curbing traffic and reducing greenhouse gases, the City could do much more for its citizens in exchange for instituting zoning changes that make development far more lucrative.

The general feeling at the meeting was that the Mayor's proposed incentive program does very little to create affordable housing in neighborhoods where it's most needed. Given the option, most developers will make the choice that least affects their bottom line - either paying a fee to build low-income housing in distant locations, or designing smaller projects to avoid the costs altogether. Unsurprisingly, many developers are arguing that any legislated community benefit is too much. In cities where zoning has worked well to create affordable housing - including New York City, San Francisco, and Boston - the rules have not been voluntary but rather require that a given share of new construction be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes.

Adding insult to injury, Mayor Nickels' current proposal provides primarily "workforce housing," or homes for people making up to 100% of Seattle's median income - around $77,000. By any measure there is already an abundance of such housing in Seattle. What we really need is a strategy to build housing for poor people within existing communities.

Seattle area developers will make a presentation to the Seattle City Council on Sept. 24, and the only public hearing on the matter is scheduled for October 7. Every Seattle resident who has an interest in the future of their neighborhood and who believes that the creation of affordable housing is a necessity, should come to this meeting to demand that any new laws work to meet the housing needs of people in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, and don't just open up further opportunities for massive give-aways to powerful developers.

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