Can Building Housing Lower Rents? 

Seattle says "yes."

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click to enlarge TIFFANY VON ARMIN/FLICKR (CC)
  • Tiffany Von Armin/Flickr (CC)

HALA increases housing density throughout most of the city. This helps prevent the economic and racial segregation that many cities now seek to avoid. HALA co-chair Faith Pettis believed that "committee members were driven to create affordable housing citywide, in all neighborhoods, not simply concentrating affordable units in less desirable areas of the city." The committee sought a housing agenda that "erased the city's clouded history of exclusionary zoning" and felt that vision could be realized through tools such as MHA, Pettis said.

Political realities, however, stopped the HALA committee from recommending expansion of the MHA into single-family neighborhoods outside of an urban village. Instead, the committee recommended single-family neighborhoods permit a broader mix of low-density housing types, including small-lot dwellings, cottages or courtyard housing, row houses, duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats. But neighborhood groups were up in arms over even these small-scale strategies. They unalterably opposed any new housing that added renters to their neighborhoods. To prevent this issue from jeopardizing HALA's implementation elsewhere, the committee put off this fight for another day and did not send that recommendation to the city.

Even with the restriction on expansion into single-family neighborhoods, MHA still covers roughly 37 percent of Seattle's residential districts. Over 10 years, it is projected to create 6,000 new units of affordable housing for households with incomes no higher than 60 percent of the area median income, which for Seattle in 2017 was $40,000 for an individual and $57,000 for a family of four.

A Faster Approval Process

Central to Seattle's pro-housing orientation is a building approval process over twice as fast as San Francisco's. In Seattle, once a neighborhood design review board approves a project, the developer can apply for building permits. The Seattle Planning Commission does not approve projects, and the city council is not routinely hearing project appeals as in San Francisco.

As a result, a 43-story apartment tower at 600 Wall Street in Seattle was approved following an eight-month approval process. Paul Menzies of the Bay Area's Walnut Creek-based Laconia Developments told the San Francisco Business Times in 2017 that this would be "impossible" in San Francisco.

Impossible is right. In the heat of San Francisco's building boom in 2014, it could take 12 months for a project to even get assigned to a planner for environmental review; after that, a six-month delay remained common. San Francisco projects routinely took two to three years just to get a hearing date for approval; delays and opposition could then extend the approval period for years. Menzies echoed Bill Rumpf in noting "there is more of an understanding in Seattle that we have to accommodate growth." Statistics bear this out. Seattle added one housing unit for every three jobs added during the economic boom covered from 2010 to 2015; San Francisco added one housing unit for every additional 12 jobs.

Maria Barrientos has owned and operated her own Seattle real estate development firm since 1999. She typically builds projects in the 75- to 150-unit range. Barrientos has been building housing in Seattle since 1989 and is one of the city's leading housing developers in a very male-dominated field. When I spoke with her in July 2017, Seattle was leading the nation in the number of cranes in the city. She felt the increased volume of work at the planning department meant that "every permit is taking four to six months longer than usual."

But in talking to Barrientos, I could only think of how Seattle at its slowest offered builders a faster and more predictable process than San Francisco at its fastest. Barrientos's projects typically break ground a year after submission of the plans. That's two years faster than the standard similarly sized project in San Francisco. As Barrientos said, "The land use and building codes are pretty clear in Seattle. As long as you follow these rules, you get your permit. The city's attitude tends to veer toward working with developers and being pro-density. The code is geared toward ensuring smart growth and encouraging better design, not toward stifling production."

Builders yearn for such a process in San Francisco and in most of the surrounding Bay Area cities. As state State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, described the situation in a September 2017 speech, "Getting a permit to build housing should not be a shell game. If you meet the rules, your housing should get built."

But Seattle's approval process still has critics. David Neiman is an architect and small builder with two decades of experience in the Seattle housing market. Neiman was part of a Regulatory Round Table convened in 2010 that sought to streamline building approval procedures. He also sat on the HALA committee that recommended many ways to expedite the building approval process. He felt HALA "recognized there was a lot of process solely for the sake of process," and that it made critical recommendations on expediting and reforming the design review phase. Neiman feels that the sections of HALA improving the process were ultimately "watered down" and that Mayor Murray gave only "lip service" to these changes. He also felt Murray sought to avoid neighborhood opposition to meaningful changes in the approval process. Others have also expressed disappointment as to how HALA played out. Some feel Murray backed down too quickly in the face of opposition to upzoning many single-family-home neighborhoods. But Seattle's next mayor can revisit this issue. (Murray did not seek reelection in 2017 after sex abuse charges were leveled against him. He resigned from office in September 2017.)

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