Speaking Up for Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Policy
By: Yen Baynes
I would never have guessed when I woke up last Monday morning that I would be on the evening news. As a graduate student in Antioch University Seattle’s Urban Environmental Education M.A.Ed. graduate program, I want to provoke meaningful discussions regarding land use policy and educate city residents about the ways in which these policies impact their lives. I spend most of my time in the city conducting participatory research with communities on the ground. My aim is to focus my learning around the displacement that is taking place in Seattle and how residents can prepare for, prevent, and mitigate its impact in their lives.
It all started when I read an article on a West Seattle blog that said that the newly formed Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity had filed an appeal to the policy known as Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). The policy was due to take effect on Tuesday, and Monday was the last day to file an appeal. The policy’s zoning changes are one step toward increased density in Seattle. Given the speed of population growth, this type of delay made me angry. In their press release, the members claimed that upzoning, or allowing developers to build taller in specific neighborhoods throughout the city, doesn’t provide affordability and that their concerns about “losing neighborhood character” were not adequately addressed in the years-long community engagement effort that has created the policy as it is now. In the article, they mentioned that they would be holding a press conference at noon. I didn’t have class until 1:30, so I decided to go so I could listen to what they had to say and understand their critique of the policy.
Coalition members cited many angles of one primary concern: upzoning in their neighborhoods. Upzoning is a central aspect of Mandatory Housing Affordability, which dictates that developers choose between incorporating affordable units into their buildings and paying a fee to the city. The funds collected from the fee go toward building affordable housing in areas where there is currently less density due to zoning rules that allow only single-family homes.
Don’t get me wrong. MHA as it is today won’t do enough to prevent the massive displacement that is taking place right now in our city. We need to go farther and provide multiple avenues for vulnerable city residents who live in the city’s most affordable neighborhoods to remain in their homes. As I stood there and listened to about two dozen people give a differently worded version of the same argument, I couldn’t let their claims go unanswered. I spoke up and within seconds the news cameras were surrounding me.
What prompted me to speak up against this most recent attempt to stall change is that I believe that the process, which has been underway for the past five years, has produced a policy that is ready to become law. At this point, there can be disagreements about details, such as the amount of the fee or the timeline in which the affordable housing would be built, but there is no time for anything more substantial. I personally have disagreements regarding both those issues, as well as the actual percentage that developers would have to pay toward low-income housing. But I am not willing to scrap all the work that has led up to MHA. It is paramount that our city government institute policies that guarantee the building of low-income housing in the city as soon as possible. This coalition is not offering any solutions that are better than what is being proposed. In fact, by opposing upzones and insisting on a neighborhood by neighborhood approach, it is actively contributing to displacement by holding up the process. As Seattle grows, increased density has become a key component of the city’s overall housing strategy which calls for upzoning at least a portion of the current 65% of land taken up by single-family homes, thereby allowing more units in less space. If neighborhoods that want primarily single-family housing refuse to share, the housing crisis we are facing as a city will be much worse.
Yen Baynes is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.