seattle affordable housing

Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr

Under Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, developers of multifamily residential and commercial projects must now support affordable housing by either including it in new developments or making a payment to the city. The MHA is expected to generate more than 6,000 affordable homes over a 10-year period.

MHA program details have been hammered into place over the last couple of years, but so far there’s been no need to enforce the rules laid out in the legislation. This month that could happen for the first time — Mayor Ed Murray’s “upzone” plan for the city’s University District could be voted on by the Seattle City Council before the end of January.

Under the “upzone” plan, the maximum building height in the University District will jump from 65 feet to 320 feet, with limits remaining lower on University Way and increasing around a planned light rail station. The idea is that with increased height, buildings in the area will be able to accommodate affordable housing units more easily.

It sounds like a reasonable plan, but critics aren’t so sure the MHA rules will be upheld. They fear that unhappy developers will manage to get the affordable housing construction requirements thrown out in court while retaining “upzone” benefits.

As Daniel Person writes in Seattle Weekly, “[h]ere’s how such a scenario would go down: Since the affordable housing requirements were put into place, developers have contended they are an illegal tax on their business and vowed an expensive lawsuit. However, they can’t challenge the rules in court until a developer is granted a building permit that triggers the affordable housing rules. A successful legal challenge could, conceivably, eliminate the affordable housing requirements but not the underlying zoning permit.”

Seattle council member Rob Johnson, who chairs the Planning, Land Use & Zoning Committee and whose district includes the University District, told the publication that the mandatory housing rules are legally reinforced and unlikely to be successfully countered. “Mandatory affordable housing requirements are authorized under state law and have been successfully enacted in several Washington cities, including Shoreline, Kirkland and Redmond,” he said.

“As with any legislation passed by Council, there is the chance that there may be legal challenges to the program at some time in the future. City Council continues to work closely with their counsel to ensure that the Mandatory Housing Affordability framework and implementation is within the authority provided by state law and that it will withstand any potential challenge,” Johnson added.

Some affordable housing advocates have also argued that the “upzone” will displace low-income residents because developers are likely to buy up old buildings with cheap apartments and tear them down. City officials have countered that new mandatory housing requirements will create as many as 910 affordable units in the University District, offsetting the displacement.

Affordability advocates hope to see the Seattle City Council add more protective language to the MHA to prevent developers from striking down their half of what’s now known as the “Grand Bargain.” 

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