Chamber members dive into housing affordability

By: Maggie Wilson Posted: 02/26/2019

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson leads discussion on MHA program

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At our Business Issues Forum in February, Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson (District 4), walked Chamber members through a major piece of legislation on one of Seattle's most pressing issues: housing affordability. The citywide mandatory housing affordability (MHA) bill is now before the full City Council, following years of research, meetings and public input. 

Johnson discussed the bill's progress to date and broke down what the program does.

Expanding housing affordability across the income spectrum

The city of Seattle is struggling to build affordable housing for all income levels, said Johnson. This problem has become more acute as the population grows: the city’s population increased by 114,000 in the first seven years of this decade.

MHA is one program, as part of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), that would help address this issue. 

The program, which would provide at least 6,000 rent-restricted, income-restricted homes for qualifying residents, is already in place in six Seattle neighborhoods. What is under consideration is implementing MHA citywide. Johnson showed attendees a map tool that illustrates where the City would make zoning changes and changes proposed on each block. 

The missing middle

Johnson noted that many residents who are not low-income qualified in current programs are left to find what the market can provide, which they can’t afford. 

The MHA program seeks to address this "missing middle" by targeting residents in the 60 percent area median income bracket. In Seattle in 2018, this would be a one-person household making $42,150 per year, or a family of four making $60,000 per year.  Johnson pointed out that this includes people in a wide variety of professions, such as teachers, baristas and workers at nonprofits. 

Money or constructed units? Both

Johnson also walked members through how the program creates new units: it requires developers to either build affordable units into their new construction or pay a fee that is later used to build affordable housing. No matter which pathway is used, the created units will be maintained as affordable for 75 years, Johnson said. His hope is that the program will prevent displacement.

As an example of the ideal type of development that would be funded with money from MHA, Johnson talked about an affordable apartment complex that incorporated childcare and a community gathering space. 

‘Do we build there, or are single-family homes kept forever as single-family homes?’ 

Johnson then covered several aspects that the Council is working through such as the newly designated historic districts, like the Ravenna-Cowen Historic District. These districts raise the question: ‘Do we build there, or are single-family homes kept forever as single-family homes?’ 

Other considerations are development incentives and what the housing will actually look like. Johnson shared how leaders are discussing encouraging green roof development and vegetation on the ground around new buildings. 

In response to a question about requiring parking, Johnson said they would let the market decide. He said developers should be able to choose what type of parking they want, and he noted much development would be close to transit centers. 

Seattle Metro Chamber’s “active and bold” support of MHA

Johnson heralded the Seattle Metro Chamber’s active support of MHA legislation. 

The Seattle Metro Chamber has turned people out to public hearings, and Johnson said the Chamber has been “bold and stepped into the space” of support in a way he’s proud of. 

This program will generate as much, if not more, than a head tax would have for affordable housing, Johnson noted. 

Balancing politics around housing affordability

Jack McCullough, an attorney with McCullough Hill Leary, PS, added his observations about the larger policy and political environment around MHA and housing policy in Seattle. He noted his disappointment about Johnson’s upcoming departure from the Seattle City Council, given his leadership on this issue.

McCullough said there are many barriers to the MHA program, including oppositional politics and what he called “death by a thousand cuts.” Still, he is encouraged by and spotlighted the great advocacy done daily at Seattle for Everyone, a grassroots coalition of affordable housing developers and advocates, for-profit developers and businesses, labor and social justice advocates, environmentalists and urbanists. 

A new Chamber-incubated housing resource

Rounding out the discussion on housing affordability, Shkëlqim Kelmendi, the new executive director of Housing Connector, a program being incubated by the Seattle Metro Chamber, introduced himself to the membership.

Housing Connector is a business-to-business organization that works with landlords and property managers to lower barriers for individuals and families facing homelessness or housing insecurity. In return, owners and property managers are provided with steady and free referrals for their vacancies, as well as incentives and risk mitigation funds.

Kelmendi spoke about how the program will fill an important need. He noted that rapid rehousing in Seattle, at this point, takes 90 days. 

“There’s nothing rapid about that, in my opinion,” Kelmendi said. Zillow is partnering with Housing Connector to create a platform that will host the program, and Kelmendi plans to pilot the program this spring and to fully launch in July.