affordable housing seattle Photo: Joe Mabel/Flickr

This week, the Seattle City Council passed framework for new rules that will require apartment and condo developers to build or fund housing that more members of the general public can afford.

Called Mandatory Housing Affordability – Residential, or MHA-R, the policy will require residential developers to set aside new units for people earning 60 percent of the area median income — that’s $37,980 for a single person, $43,380 for a two-person household and $54,180 for a family of four. The units will be rent- and income-restricted — for example, an individual earning $38,000 per year will pay about $1,000 per month in rent.

affordable housing seattle chart Chart: HALA/City of Seattle

MHA-R is part of the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, which is a major component of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s goal to produce some 20,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. MHA alone is anticipated to deliver 6,200 affordable housing units. This push for affordable housing is the result of nearly a decade of blood-sweat-and-tears local activism. Equity champions such as Puget Sound Sage and 70 other advocacy organizations began organizing in 2008 to move the city toward an inclusionary housing policy aimed at capturing increasing land values for public benefit.

Last year, Seattle approved Mandatory Housing Affordability – Commercial (MHA-C), the first piece of the MHA program. It requires commercial developments to contribute to affordable housing. Commercial developers must either build on-site affordable housing or pay a fee to the city that can be used for the development of affordable housing off site. MHA-R is similar to the plan for commercial development and forms the second part of the MHA program.

affordable housing seattle zoning Graphic: HALA/City of Seattle

Despite these great gains, there is still much work to be done before Seattle has a more equitable housing landscape. According to Urbanist, neither the commercial nor residential piece of the MHA puzzle can be implemented until the city adopts rezones that increase development capacity. Seattle already has three rezone proposals queued up for approval, and the plan is for other area-wide rezones to follow.

However, some high-rise dwellers are already blocking zoning changes proposed for downtown Seattle, and activists have accused the city of moving forward with the MHA program before adequately studying its potential environmental impact, reports The Seattle Times. Additionally, MHA-R and MHA-C don’t specify how many low-rent units developers will be required to include in each project, nor what the fees will be for developers who do not offer affordable housing. Most recently, officials have discussed setting inclusion requirements for residential developers at 3 to 8 percent of units, lower than in some other cities with similar programs. But those numbers aren’t locked in. The exact numbers will be determined in the next phases of the process as the Seattle City Council adopts area-specific rezones.

Nevertheless, Seattle city officials are optimistic about MHA. “We know that over 40,000 of our City’s households are paying more than 50% of their income in rent and that this burden is experienced even more by communities of color,” said council member Rob Johnson in an August press release. “We must address this crisis with all the tools available to us, and this program has the potential to be an effective and innovative one.”

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