Boosting Neighborhood Density Moves Seattle Toward Greater Housing Options for All
A new policy aims to concentrate growth where there are transit, services and parks
In Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, along Lake Washington, buildings will soon reach 55 feet up into the air — compared to the 40 feet they are today. Rainier Beach is one of 27 neighborhoods the City Council recently “upzoned,” allowing for denser and higher buildings throughout the Emerald City and the addition of up to 6,000 new affordable units.
The new policy, called Mandatory Housing Affordability, is just one part of an effort, supported by developers, state and local government, community groups, nonprofits and the private sector, to solve Seattle’s housing crisis and create homes for people at every income level.
Mayor Jenny Durkan called the law “another step toward more affordable housing choices and a more affordable, welcoming city for all.”
In a city known for quirky neighborhoods, the density and affordability law aims to concentrate growth where there are transit, services and parks — while maintaining each area’s character. To understand residents’ preferences and concerns, city employees held open forums in candidate neighborhoods. They went block-by-block to establish the new height requirements, Faith Pettis, who co-chaired the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Committee, said.
Under the new law, the designated neighborhoods will bump up one zoning tier above where they are now. A three-story apartment building can go up to four, for instance. And to maintain inclusive neighborhoods, the initiative requires developers to make 5% to 11% of units (depending on the building and the location) affordable for low-income households. Developers can opt out of the requirement by paying a fee that supports affordable housing efforts.
“This is a balanced approach that doesn’t impede continued growth in Seattle,” Pettis said.
As one of the champions of the new law, Councilmember Rob Johnson, put it, “Planning for growth means sharing space to make room for everyone who wants to find their place in Seattle.”
Private Sector Support
While the reform is a major step forward for affordable housing, more work is needed to alleviate Seattle’s housing crunch.
“The level of need is huge,” said Marty Kooistra, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium, a Seattle nonprofit that promotes greater housing affordability. “The bottom line is, we know we need to produce a whole lot more affordable housing and need to have everyone with their hand on the shovel focused on it.”
“[T]he business community has come together and said, ‘We’re working on solutions.’”
— Brett Waller, Washington Multi-Family Housing Association
Local businesses recognize this as well. As part of that effort, Microsoft, one of the area’s largest corporations, pledged $500 million in January to address homelessness and create more affordable housing, in part by making below market rate loans to developers. Additionally, the Seattle Mariners announced last year that the franchise will dedicate $3 million toward eviction prevention and defense for residents.
“As a city, we’ve benefited greatly from the tech boom, but it’s also caused an increase in homelessness and rent, so the burdens of growth have come in many ways,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association. “But the business community has come together and said, ‘We’re working on solutions,’ and part of that includes solutions like these.”
The involvement of the private sector in a variety of ways is key, local observers say.
“[Housing] is not a problem that can be solved by the public sector and nonprofits alone,” Pettis said.
“We’re getting there,” said Waller, regarding the multi-pronged approach. “It takes time, but we’re getting there and seeing opportunities increase now as a result.”