MHA issues come into focus as Council debates amendments

Last Friday, the City Council held its first public discussion of the amendments formally proposed for the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) “upzone” ordinance.  While no official decisions were made (that will happen on February 25th), it became clear which ones had consensus support — and on others, where the battle lines are being drawn.

MHA committee chair Rob Johnson took a page from the budget process for dealing with the 80 proposed amendments: as they walked through and discussed each, he polled his colleagues to see which had broad support and could be folded into a “consensus package” that could be approved on the 25th with a single vote. In the end, about half of the amendments were put into the consensus package, though Council members will still have the option to pull anything out for a separate discussion and vote before the consensus package is approved. Of the proposed amendments to the development standards, nearly all made it into the consensus package; not so much for the proposed changes to the zoning map.

Amendments to further increase the upzones on particular properties weren’t controversial, nor were requests to add or delete a “pedestrian street” designation to lots; those all came through conversations with community members, and each had its own one-off context. Where there were controversies, the centered around requests to decrease the magnitude of the upzone for specific lots, to pull back on expansion of an Urban Village boundary, or to leave properties out of the MHA program altogether. Those cases centered around six urban villages:

  • West Seattle Junction;
  • Morgan Junction;
  • Beacon Hill;
  • Roosevelt;
  • Wallingford; and
  • Crown Hill.

In each case, the Council member representing that district went to bat for the reduction: Herbold for West Seattle Junction and Morgan Junction, Harrell for Beacon Hill, Johnson for Roosevelt and Wallingford, and O’Brien for Crown Hill. But on the flip side, the two city-wide Council members, Mosqueda and Gonzalez, held firm in their desire to maximize the upzones wherever possible and resist reductions. Council member Juarez joined them in the resistance; Baghsaw was conspicuously silent on the matter, and Sawant was absent from the meeting.

Each of the six had a story behind it, some stronger than others. West Seattle Junction’s request was, at least in theory, more of a delay than an opt-out, as the Sound Transit 3 light-rail line and station will be placed somewhere in in the urban village and Herbold said that the neighborhood has asked to wait until the placement is decided in May so that the right properties are fully upzoned around the station. Beacon Hill and Roosevelt each have a new National Historic District, and argued that the historic district properties should be excluded. Crown Hill counter-proposed an arrangement where the center of the urban village was upzoned more, offset by a gentler transition down near the edges. For Morgan Junction and Wallingford, the request was simply to create a “transitional zone” between lowrise and surrounding single-family zones.

But it was interesting to watch Herbold, Harrell, Johnson and O’Brien squirm as they tried to simultaneously argue for the broad principles of the upzones while asking for special exceptions in their own districts; in the end they found an uncomfortable truce with (and mild support for) each other as a counterweight to Gonzalez, Mosqueda and Juarez. O’Brien offered three principles guiding his decisions on whether to support specific proposals:

  • all multifamily and commercial property in the city that is redeveloped will contribute to MHA affordable housing;
  • urban village boundaries are being drawn to represent a 10-minute walkshed to frequent transit;
  • within the urban villages, something more dense than single-family zoning is being applied.

(He later suggested that a fourth principle could be related to preserving historic districts.)

The debate highlights four important issues that the Council will need to struggle with as it concludes its deliberations on the MHA ordinance:

  1. How do district-based Council members balance their responsibilities to their district against their responsibilities to the city as a whole? MHA is turning out to be a big test. Council member Juarez is perhaps best known for going to bat for her district, with Herbold a close second, but in this case four Council members are clearly putting district desires above a city-wide principle that each of them has embraced — even though so far only one of the four is running for re-election this year. Is this what the voters intended to happen when they passed a voter initiative to switch to district-based elections, and if so, is it a good thing?
  2. The MHA legislation is about much more than mandating affordable housing. It’s also about more than just increasing the amount of housing that can be built (though that itself is a two-fer since increasing density increases MHA contributions to affordable housing as well). The legislation is now also a racial and social justice initiative to wrong the racist zoning practices of the past. On Friday, Council member Mosqueda made that point explicitly. Those practices are well documented and beyond denial; they are the primary reason that Seattle’s African-American community in Seattle ended up concentrated in the Central District and the southeast corner of the city — and as those areas gentrify, that community is now being pushed out of the city altogether. There is a strong case to be made that using the MHA ordinance to mitigate those harms is the right thing to do; but it’s not how MHA was originally sold to the residents of Seattle. It was brought into the conversation very late, in June 2017,  as an additional  Environmental Impact Statement alternative that ranked all the urban villages by displacement risk and economic opportunity and skewed greater upzones toward places with high opportunity and low risk. For many in the city, it still doesn’t go far enough: they argue that single-family housing should be replaced with greater density zoning across the entire city, not just in urban villages — a proposal in the original HALA recommendations that was dropped because of vocal opposition. But for many others, the MHA legislation goes too far. The Council is being pulled hard in both directions, and is at risk of satisfying no one as it aims for a middle-ground compromise and the opposing extremes dig in.
  3.  The deeper meaning of RSL. One of the tools for achieving that middle-ground is the rewrite of what has been a rarely-used zoning type: “Residential Small Lot” or RSL. Originally written to be literally a detached single-family home on a smaller piece of land, with separate RSL sub-types for other kinds of small-lot residential developments, under the MHA legislation it’s been rewritten as a single zoning category with multiple options a developer can invoke so long as they remain at the scale of single-family homes: a single-family home, cottage housing, townhouse and rowhouse developments, and small apartment structures. As such, many envision RSL as the transitional zone between lowrise and single-family: low-density multifamily, but higher density than single-family detached houses.
    But then what does RSL represent? For some, including Council members Herbold and O’Brien, it’s the camel’s nose in the tent: through hard negotiations, they have begun to get some of the strongest community advocates for preserving single-family housing to grudgingly accept RSL as a compromise they can live with. But for others, including Council members Mosqueda and Gonzalez, it is a step back from maximizing the allowable density in desirable neighborhoods — and thus the number of people who can live in those places. Many of the proposed amendments reduce a lowrise zone to RSL, placing those two perspective squarely in opposition.
    If RSL, as implemented in urban villages through the MHA ordinance, is shown in practice not to destroy the “unique character” of adjacent single-family neighborhoods, could we perhaps see a not-too-distant future attempt to rezone all single-family residential lots in the city to RSL?  Or will RSL become the go-to compromise for city officials to avoid bitter fights with their constituents — at the cost of maximizing residential density, reducing access to desirable neighborhoods, and slowing housing construction?
  4. Historic districts. Parts of two urban villages (Beacon Hill and Roosevelt) just avoided MHA upzones by getting themselves listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “historic district.” That itself carries no official protections against development, but it seems to have scared off many of the Council members from proposing upzones in those areas. Will that become the tool of choice for other residential neighborhoods that wish to avoid getting upzoned the next time the urban village boundaries and density are revisited? Will we soon see a deluge of national historic district designations around Seattle? That’s probably easier said than done, but expect neighborhood organizations with NIMBY tendencies to build on whatever successful models they can find.
    That’s not to say that historic districts are by definition a sham. They’re not, and as Harrell pointed out last Friday, particularly in communities with high risk of displacement, they can be important in maintaining a sense of community. But if they proliferate, it will be at to the detriment of both density and affordable housing.

Several Council members (particularly the ones opposed to reducing some upzones) asked for more data on how much the requested reductions would likely decrease housing development and MHA-driven affordable housing production. The Council’s central staff explained that they could provide that to some extent in aggregate, but it’s simply not possible to calculate those numbers for individual units. That’s because the modeling is statistical: they are based on predictions for the total percentage of lots that will be redeveloped in an urban village, and not individual lot-by-lot predictions.

It’s hard to say how the Council will ultimately vote on the amendments proposing reductions in upzones. Herbold, Harrell, Johnson and O’Brien seemed to be showing solidarity in supporting each other’s amendments, but there are three others leaning “no” (Mosqueda, Gonzalez and Juarez), and Baghsaw isn’t showing her cards yet. Sawant, while not a big fan of MHA (she thinks it’s a giveaway to rich developers), is also likely to vote against reducing density and affordable housing. So this is shaping up to be a close call.

On February 21st at 5:30pm there is a public hearing on the MHA legislation.



  1. I guess my first comment attempt was too inflammatory. Here it is toned down:

    “How do district-based Council members balance their responsibilities to their district against their responsibilities to the city as a whole? … in this case four Council members are clearly putting district desires above a city-wide principle that each of them has embraced … Is this what the voters intended to happen when they passed a voter initiative to switch to district-based elections, and if so, is it a good thing?”

    The author of the districting initiative explicitly hoped for districting to favor NIMBYism and its policies among the Council members. I do think the voters were duped: They were told simply that this would increase local accountability when in fact it changed the structure of accountability. City-wide, NIMBYs are relatively diluted; they don’t have the same power that they can have in smaller districts. Sure, they lose their voice in the downtown district, but they are amplified everywhere else.

    Run this out to its logical conclusion and you get some odd results, mirroring gerrymandering issues… as the population grows in dense areas, the less dense districts will grow geographically. Their distinguishing characteristic will be their single-family landscape (with a few mid-rise commercial nodes). It is possible that those districts will fight even harder to preserve their uniqueness– their single-family zoning– that is until some tipping point or effort to crack them up (redraw/gerrymander the district map so that each district includes a range of hyper density to single family and changes the dynamic) takes place.

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