The one major surprise at Mayor Paul Schell's August 10 housing press conference wasn't a program or rule change, but the presence of City Council member Peter Steinbrueck at the mayor's side.
Thus far, Mayor Schell has shown a marked reluctance to share the spotlight—especially with Steinbrueck, the council's Housing Committee chair and son of a past political rival. Less than a week before the press conference, Schell and Steinbrueck were still deadlocked on the mayor's proposal to extend 10-year property tax abatement deals to developers of new housing in selected urban neighborhoods. Steinbrueck argued that the abatement should be tied to affordability requirements; the mayor wanted to run the program with no strings attached.
But with a last-minute compromise crafted, the two presented a united front as Schell presented the legislative component of his Housing Action Agenda. Since the agenda had been trotted out for public comment in various drafts since March, there were few surprises. It included a set of nine minor land-use code changes for multifamily buildings, a new program to encourage construction of mother-in-law apartments in single-family homes, and a call for demonstration programs experimenting with alternative housing types and departures from existing codes. Minor changes all, Schell acknowledged, adding that the housing crunch will be addressed one project at a time: "Don't look for a single bold solution."
The tax abatement proposal is the agenda's boldest step. A 1995 Washington law authorizes large cities to offer tax exemptions to new multifamily construction in housing-starved areas. Projects must be built within three years of being tax-exempted. The mayor has designated eight Seattle neighborhoods for the tax breaks: Pioneer Square, the International District, Westlake/Denny Triangle, Columbia City, South Park, 23rd/Jackson, Martin Luther King/Holly Street, and Rainier Avenue/Interstate 90. Steinbrueck's compromise would impose modest affordability requirements in the first two areas. Projects in the International District and Pioneer Square would have to make one-quarter of units affordable to residents earning 80 percent of the city's median income to qualify for the tax abatement program. This isn't a huge hurdle; one-bedroom apartments renting for $750 per month would qualify.
Steinbrueck says the tax-break package isn't a huge windfall for developers or a major burden for the city. Even if the program proves extremely popular (resulting, say, in 1,200 units constructed), the city would only forgo about $350,000 in annual tax revenues.
Housing advocates aren't sold on the tax abatement plan. "The fact is, making it easier to build housing in the city of Seattle is not going to provide housing for low-income people," says Siobhan Ring of the Tenants Union. "The market is doing fine at providing housing for upper-middle-class and upper-income people."
A similar program in Tacoma has already seen approximately 200 new units constructed, with at least another 100 units approved for abatement but not yet built, says Gary Tiedeman, rehabilitation loan specialist for the city of Tacoma. Although that city has designated 14 areas for the program, applications to date have been clustered in four or five neighborhoods. Tacoma's program has no affordability restrictions.
Tiedeman notes that Tacoma has some problems Seattle doesn't, such as vacant apartment buildings. "You also have a lot of people who live downtown—we don't," he says. "But that's changing, it's starting to come around."
While the mayor's office is focusing on the supply side of housing development, the council is getting ready to consider a pair of tenant protections. One would lengthen the required notification on rent increases (of at least 10 percent) from 30 to 60 days . The second would give tenants the right to purchase their homes in the event of a property sale.
Lisa Herbold, legislative aide to council member Nick Licata, says the 60-day requirement would give tenants more time to consider whether to accept rent increases or move out. Under the current law, tenants "really have 10 days to decide what to do," she says. "They either can give their 20-day notice [to end their tenancy] or get charged for another month's rent."
Right of first refusal, pushed by housing advocates to preserve existing housing, may face significant modification: Apartment owners and other property groups are expected to fight its passage.
Ironically, these moves to spur housing production take place just as Seattle development peaks. Schell says the city has permitted almost 2,000 units this year, with almost as many under review. The city's job, he stresses, is to remove obstacles to natural growth: "We need to take out of the equation where we're the problem at City Hall. We are dependent on private-sector development."
The City Council will hold hearings on:
Tax abatement for new multifamily housing, August 26, 9:30am.
Sixty-day notice of rent increases, August 26, 4:30pm
Tenants' right of first refusal, September 17, 6:30pm
(Municipal Bldg, 600 Fourth, 11th floor)