Mandatory Housing Affordability residential bill moves forward

After slogging through twelve amendments to the bill, the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee forwarded on the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) residential framework bill for the full Council’s approval on August 15th.

PLUZ committee 8-2-16

My previous coverage on the MHA residential framework is here and here.

The meeting’s public comment session was split on the topic, showing that among the city’s activists there is no consensus on how best to preserve and create sufficient affordable housing.

None of the proposed amendments today (an administrative one to insert the final council bill number into the bill, plus these 11) made drastic changes to the MHA framework. Many were small tweaks, ratcheting up some aspect of execution: reporting, what happens when a set-aside rental unit gets converted to ownership, setting fees, and how requests for zoning variances should be heard.

But a few were interesting in their intent to move the ball forward faster or more significantly.  The amendment that received the most discussion — both before and during the committee meeting today — establishes the Council’s intent to address potential displacement due to the MHA upzones by identifying areas of the city that are at high risk of displacement, estimate the number of affordable units that would be lost to MHA-driven development, and increase the performance and payment options to recover those lost units.  The proposal wouldn’t do the displacement estimate on a project-by-project basis; rather, it would do one estimate for an entire area (for example, the U District analysis found that 40 units would be lost) and then incrementally increase the MHA requirements for that area so that the same number of units would, in aggregate, be recovered across all anticipated development there.  Developers object to this because they worry that the increased requirement will make development projects unprofitable; nevertheless it passed unanimously in committee (Burgess, Gonzalez, O’Brien, Herbold and Johnson participated).

Another amendment looked to address an ongoing concern that the “pay in lieu” option would not result in affordable housing being built in the same neighborhood as the development project that contributed the funds. As Council member Burgess pointed out today, the city’s track record for spreading affordable housing around the city is very good, so this shouldn’t be a strong concern.

MHA map

Nevertheless, there are advantages to both the “performance” option that sets aside affordable units within the development project, and the “pay in lieu” option that actually creates more affordable units than “performance” and allows contributions from multiple projects to be pooled together to create larger affordable housing projects in prime locations (such as next to light-rail stations).  The Council is aiming for a 50/50 split between performance and paying. But to soothe the nerves of community members who worry about payment funds disproportionately benefitting other neighborhoods, the amendment adds another decision criterion for how funds are spent to include proximity to the projects contributing the funds. It’s a soft requirement, and the devil is in the details of how the program is implemented, but given the city’s strong track record on affordable housing project placement, there isn’t much to worry about here.

Another amendment changed the term under which a set-aside unit must be kept affordable from 50 years to 75 years. Council member Johnson explained that city staff did an analysis of expected lifetime of buildings being constructed today, and the average was about 75 years — so effectively this will make those units available until they are torn down.

Council member Rob Johnson briefing reporters this morning
Council member Rob Johnson briefing reporters this morning

Finally, the bill was amended to being reporting at 2 years after program inception, instead of 5 years. Council member Johnson explained that while there won’t be much data on what happens after buildings are completed (since projects started now will just be coming online then) it will give early indicators of whether the 50/50 balance between performance and payment is being achieved. It will also provide some data on whether there is the right balance between zoning incentives and payment/set-aside requirements so that development is not discouraged — otherwise the city will miss its goal for creating new housing units.

All twelve amendments passed unanimously, and the amended bill was sent on to the full Council for consideration and approval at its August 15th meeting. Given five Council members voted for it today (out of nine total), it’s a foregone conclusion that it will be voted into law in two weeks.