[Editor’s Note: Thanks Eric, for this exclusive interview. For our readers, this post is longer than our usual format, but packed with a lot of good information.]
Rob Johnson represents Wallingford on Seattle City Council and also leads land use issues for them, so nobody is more important in shaping how HALA ends up for Wallingford. The following Q&A is lightly edited for clarity. We very much appreciate Rob taking the time to address these questions with us, and look forward to your thoughts in the comments section.
Q- The Grand Bargain: A key complaint that we hear about HALA is that it is focused on developer incentives and treats residents simply as an obstacle to be removed. This ties back to the concern that the “Grand Bargain” framework for HALA was made by 25 developers and housing advocates with only a single person assigned to represent all impacted residents. Do you think HALA should be shifted away from a “teardown and replace” developer incentive model and towards a “reduce, reuse, recycle” model of housing affordability, one that places a value on preserving existing housing? For instance, could permit prices be bumped for teardowns and used to fund affordable ADU / DADU additions?
Rob: The framework for HALA is intended to be “affordability with growth”. I think it is a realistic approach which acknowledges that our City is growing, will continue to grow and that we have an obligation to ensure that with that growth comes more affordable units rather than rely on a dwindling supply of “naturally affordable” housing units or by trying to keep up with increasing affordable housing need with our limited public dollars. Of course, in addition to creating new units, we have several strategies to preserve existing affordable housing. For example, the housing levy was amended so that more of those funds could be used for affordable housing preservation and we continue to work in Olympia to establish a preservation tax exemption.
I certainly do not view residents simply as an obstacle to be removed. I have lived in Seattle my entire life and my family has lived here for generations – we have seen the City change immensely. I believe that we can keep Seattle affordable and livable and I hope that by doing so my young girls can also call Seattle home when they grow up. If we continue on our current path without changing our approach, I fear that will not be possible.
Q- Wallingford’s Upzone Targets: Wallingford is to take more than double the growth of urban villages located directly on light rail like Rainier Beach and N Beacon Hill, simply because we have a lot of single family zoning that happened to fall in urban village boundaries that were drawn over 20 years ago. We have no access to light rail, no community center, no neighborhood elementary school, and a middle school well over capacity already. Instead of basing upzone amounts on arbitrary lines drawn on old maps, why not instead focus development in areas that can be equipped to handle it?
Rob: Wallingford currently has a higher percentage of single family zoning than most urban villages. (Source) Allowing more zoning flexibility will make the zoning in Wallingford comparable with other urban villages and in accordance with the urban village strategy established over two decades ago. As outlined in the Seattle 2035 Comp Plan update, Seattle is re-examining its land use in all urban villages to ensure that each urban village has a range of housing suitable to all family types, more affordable housing and, city-wide, that we provide more housing near light rail and bus transit service and in our amenity-rich neighborhoods.
Based on the growth estimates that are in the Comprehensive Plan, Wallingford has a 30% rate of expected growth which is the lowest rate of growth for any urban village and is the same as North Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach, and lower than areas like Roosevelt, Crown Hill, Fremont, and Lake City. Growth estimates were set based on a combination of the transit service in the urban village and displacement risk. (Source: Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan, pages 29-30).
Clarification: As a percentage increase over housing units today, Wallingford’s numbers are similar to N Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach as Rob says. In terms of absolute numbers of new units and also in terms of new units per acre Wallingford is taking on double the rate of N Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach. Here is some raw data.
Q- What About Golf Courses: Why does HALA not target Seattle’s seasonally used golf courses that are located directly on top of light rail, where new urban villages could be established with space for infrastructure like schools and transit, where developer impact fees could easily be collected to fund that new infrastructure, and where developer incentives could be used to subsidize affordable housing across the city?
Rob: The publicly-owned golf courses are considered park land and, as such, are subject to Initiative 42, a Seattle-voter initiative which forbids the City from “selling, transferring or changing any park use to another use unless it receives in exchange land or facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park services.” Given the size of the golf courses, I think it would be impossible to find replacement park land to allow it existing golf courses be used for housing.
The purchase and use of the privately-held golf courses would most likely be cost-prohibitive, even if those land owners wanted to sell to the City. Furthermore, I believe that we need to be increasing our publicly and privately owned open lands, not reducing them, as they provide important health benefits for our residents as well as serve a critical role in our city’s ecological systems.
Q- What About Country Clubs: For private, invitation only country club golf courses you previously have pointed to how these locations can be developed- by rezoning them and taxing the value of the zoned land, not the structures on top. Either revenue would be generated to subsidize affordable housing, or the land would be redeveloped. Why are you looking to upzone historic, walkable neighborhoods built at a human scale while elite, car centric communities like Broadmoor, Sand Point, and the Seattle Golf Club go untouched?
Rob: I believe you are referring to a comment I made about during the campaign in response to a very specific question about derelict properties presenting threats to public safety and health. That comment was hypothetical and just an example of what had been proposed in other jurisdictions as a way to encourage redevelopment. I did not, and still do not, have any intention of pursuing that strategy for golf courses or any other privately held property.
I think that one of the challenges of your proposal is that many of the areas you mentioned do not have any, or very few, of the community assets you mention are needed to support growth. The City can and should do more to make those investments in our urban villages, but retrofitting those areas into new urban villages would be a much less efficient use of resources than investing in our 39 existing urban villages.
Q- Backyard Cottages: The main concern with backyard cottage legislation is that it will act as yet another developer incentive, a backdoor to multifamily rezoning that will simply drive speculation and tear downs. Current legislation contains red flags like increased zoning envelopes and reduced owner occupancy requirements. Perhaps the focus could instead shift to a model like how Seattle City Light rolled out solar, by going neighborhood to neighborhood with information sessions for residents, incentives laid out and vetted contractors at the ready, making it very simple for homeowners. Instead of just fighting with neighborhood residents who oppose these changes, is someone looking to work with them towards a compromise that empowers residents to be part of the solution?
Rob: During the Environmental Review process, the City initially issued a “Determination of Non-Significance” indicating that there would not be significant environmental impacts due to the proposal. The Queen Anne Community Council appealed that decision and in December 2016 the Office of the Hearing Examiner ruled that the City should do further Environmental Review on the proposed changes. The City is currently considering their options regarding further Environmental Review and amending the proposal, but no decision has been made about next steps.
Currently in Seattle, many of our older, smaller homes are being torn down to build larger single family homes. I have heard from many constituents that they would prefer to keep their existing home and add a backyard cottage for aging parents, grown children who can otherwise not afford to live in Seattle, or to have a rental property to supplement their income and help them stay in their homes rather than sell to someone who may tear down the home. I believe that making it easier to build backyard cottages will result in more homes being preserved.
The Backyard Cottage proposal was developed from an outreach process led by Councilmember O’Brien and the Department of Planning and Development (now the Office of Planning and Community Development) and many of the proposed changes reflect what was heard during that public outreach process. As with all legislation that comes before the Council, I am happy to discuss potential changes and improvements to the legislation. For example, I had been exploring ways that some of the proposed changes could be tied to an affordable housing requirement to further encourage homeowners to commit to renting their accessory units at affordable prices.
Q- Displacement: It seems that having your land rezoned from single family to LR2 or LR3 as is planned for many in Wallingford will incentivize tear downs, since you as a home owner can either sell to a developer or live in the middle of a construction zone for years, ending up surrounded by walls like Edith Macefield. DPD in its presentation to Wallingford estimated that the upzoning of 110 blocks of single family housing in Wallingford will only generate 45 to 74 affordable units in over the next 20 years while adding 1484 additional homes with MHA and 1000 homes without MHA, and that new housing will be more expensive on average than existing housing. Given these numbers, can you explain to people how displacement will not occur and why only about 50 new, affordable units makes this upzone worth the impact?
Rob: The zoning changes are not intended to incentivize tear downs. While zoning changes will create value for property owners, the affordability requirements are calibrated to be commensurate to the value created by the additional capacity provided, therefore neither incentivizing nor suppressing redevelopment.
There are folks who live in single family homes in areas with higher density zoning for decades who do not see any changes in their neighborhood at all. Additionally, there are many people who happily live in neighborhoods that combine single family homes and small apartment projects – the way that much of Seattle developed before more restrictive zoning was put in place. The proposed zoning changes will not force anyone to sell their homes, nor, as I mentioned, will it make tearing down and redeveloping a home more profitable because of the new affordable housing requirement. Most likely, those areas that are currently seeing growth will continue to do so.
I spoke with the Office of Community Development and they clarified that, based on a rough analysis, without these zoning changes and the MHA program, there will likely be 1000 new homes in Wallingford over 20 years. If we implement the MHA program, there will be an addition 484 homes built, mostly by adding more housing units to the properties that would have redeveloped even without the program. Of those new units, 45 to 74 units will be built on-site, however it does not take into account the units that will be built in Wallingford by the Office of Housing using payment-in-lieu funds. The City is currently working on a much more detailed analysis of the production and displacement as part of the Environmental Impact Study and I think we can speak more about the numbers, particularly regarding displacement, after that study is complete this Spring.
I think it is important to note that we are already seeing significant displacement in the City, both from redevelopment of property as well as rising housing costs that are forcing people to leave the City in search of cheaper housing. We know that if we do nothing, we will still see displacement. Implementing this program along with our other affordable housing tools to create new and preserve existing affordable housing is critical to addressing this existing displacement.
Note: Teasing apart how many new homes will be generated by the upzone over the next 20 years is difficult here- we have 1000 as the number for organic growth without upzones, which matches Seattle 2035 targets. We have the 484 additional units through MHA with 45 to 74 affordable units. What we are missing is the contribution from the upzone.
Q- Representing Residents: You don’t appear to be challenging any HALA developer incentives and you have not participated in the open urban village upzone meetings attended by hundreds of district residents on January 7th (sponsored by the Wallingford Community Council) and on January 17th (sponsored by the city). There is a perception that you are simply a HALA cheerleader who is ducking NIMBY blowback rather than engaging. How do you address these concerns?
Rob: In early 2016, I met with City staff to learn more about their planned outreach related to the MHA program and potential upzones. At the time, I expressed my concern that the planned outreach was not sufficient and that there needed to be more opportunities for specific, neighborhood-based feedback on the proposal. I then secured funding from Council to have additional outreach opportunities for residents, which has funded a series of neighborhood workshops and will continue to fund other outreach activities in 2017. In addition, I hired a part-time staff member out of my office budget to focus solely on organizing neighborhood workshops, to respond to questions and comments of constituents, and to attend smaller meetings with neighborhood groups. Feedback from workshop participants has been overwhelmingly positive – even from folks who do not like the proposal. They feel that these outreach activities have been both informative and have been structured in a way that they and the other participants can give the detailed, specific feedback that is needed to inform potential changes to the proposal.
Regarding the meeting on January 7th, I was not invited to attend the meeting, but did send staff members from my office as well as members of the consulting team who are assisting our office on the MHA outreach. In the future, please feel free to invite our office by contacting either Patty Camacho or Geri Morris. The meeting in Wallingford on the 17th was one that was funded by City Council at my behest and was organized by my office. While I planned to attend, a last-minute family obligation prevented me from attending. Though I try to attend as many evening neighborhood meetings as possible, I hope that folks understand that there are some evenings in which my responsibility to my family means that I cannot be present and that when my staff is in attendance, as they were on the 7th and 17th, that the information and feedback from the meeting is shared with me personally.
Q- Impact Fees: How are you advancing developer impact fees to pay for needed infrastructure, and will you insist impact fees are in place before any upzones occur?
Rob: At the direction of Council, the Office of Planning and Community Development is currently studying the feasibility of impact fees and I am happy to consider them as soon as that work is complete. I do not think that we should wait on the zoning changes because they implement the mandatory housing program which will result in affordable housing that our City desperately needs.
Q- No Really, Impact Fees: There is already a detailed Seattle City Council study from 2015 regarding impact fees and they’ve been assessed successfully in many cities throughout the state for many years. Without impact fees, the only plan to pay for new schools, transit, public safety facilities, community centers, and parks required by new residents is increased property taxes, raising rents and worsening housing affordability for everyone. What remains to be studied before impact fees are finally assessed, and why are you not planning to pay for any new infrastructure as part of HALA?
Rob: The Study that was conducted in 2015 was intended to be the first phase of study to conduct a threshold-level policy assessment, develop a recommended approach and a work plan. The second phase is the development of a more specific implementation plan, as described on pages 25 to 27 of the document linked above. The document shows the workplan should have been completed last year, so I will follow up with the Executive branch about the status of that work.
Q- Upzone Ties To MHA: Will you delay any zoning changes until after lawsuits against MHA are resolved, so that we aren’t stuck with upzones that include no affordable housing at all?
Rob: Like all legislation passed by the City, it is possible that there will be a legal challenge to the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. It is the City’s opinion that it is a program that is authorized by the State of Washington and its implementation in cities like Shoreline, Redmond and Kirkland support that opinion. If the City’s MHA program is challenged and struck down, there are several potential solutions, including legislative action to revert to current zoning, tying the zoning changes to a voluntary rather than mandatory program or by making small changes to the MHA program to comply with any court decision. We are continuing to work with our legal counsel to ensure that the City is creating a program that is compliant with state law and that we will be able to withstand any potential challenge or court ruling. However, because a legal challenge could occur at any time, including years into the future, there is no way to delay the zoning changes until any lawsuits are resolved.
Q- Other Important Upzone Concerns: Finally, what other specific upzone concerns are you hearing from residents that you think are valid and important concerns, and how are you addressing them?
Rob: Council already made a number of changes to the program based on feedback received from residents. During the adoption of the “framework legislation” in 2016, Council made several amendments, including increasing the term of affordability for MHA units from 50 to 75 years, adding language to encourage affordable housing to be built in the neighborhood where growth is occurring, earlier review of program performance so that Council can make changes if needed and increasing the affordable housing requirement, particularly in places with greater upzones or in areas where residents are at high risk of displacement.
As mentioned, I have worked to provide residents with more opportunities to give feedback, both by securing funding from Council and by using resources from my office. I am committing to supporting discussions that foster detailed feedback about the proposed zoning changes that can inform amendments to the program. The comments and feedback from participants will be given to the Office of Planning and Community Development as they revise their proposal and will also direct changes that will be made to the proposal when the legislation comes before City Council.
There are a number of comments that I am hearing from residents and businesses that we can address through changes to the MHA program, the zoning proposal, or through regulations that fall outside of the scope of MHA and zoning. For example:
- Through the neighborhood workshops, we have heard a lot of constructive feedback which can be used to make changes to the proposed zoning changes. In many areas, residents would like to see a more strategic use of the “P” designation (pedestrian overlay) to encourage walkable business districts. We have also heard concerns about areas zoned for neighborhood commercial abutting Residential Small Lot zoning, and residents would prefer a gentler transition between zoning categories. In some urban villages, participants have asked for additional height to support stronger business districts or to create additional housing opportunities.
- I have heard concerns about the design of new buildings and this year City Council will be considering changes to the design review process to encourage earlier outreach to neighbors. I also want to prioritize creating design guidelines for neighborhoods that do not yet have them to empower neighbors to influence the design of new development.
- I have heard concerns about the need for family-sized housing for all income ranges and am exploring ways that we can encourage more large units to be built in the City, through the MHA program as well as other strategies.
- I have heard a lot of concerns about parking and this year Council will be taking up legislation to update its parking management strategies such as the Residential Parking Zone program, as well as potentially expanding our Transportation Demand Management to residential as well as commercial buildings.
- I have heard from neighborhoods throughout the City about needed investments in transportation, parks and community spaces to support growth. I am working with the Office of Planning and Community Development in the establishment of the Capital Cabinet, which is a new approach to budgeting decisions to ensure that those areas that are seeing significant growth are also getting the investments they need to support that growth.
- Finally, I do not want to lose sight of the fact that I am also hearing from residents every day about the impacts of rising housing costs in Seattle and their desire to implement the Mandatory Housing program as soon as possible. I believe that building new, income- and rent-restricted housing units is our best way to ensure that we continue to be a City where families of all incomes can live. Achieving this goal will require many different strategies and Council continues to pursue as many of them as possible, including increasing the housing levy, working to establish a Preservation Tax Credit, and enacting renter protections to help people stay in their homes.
I encourage folks to continue to stay involved in this process. The City and Council are listening and want to ensure that this program achieves a more affordable and livable Seattle. Here are some links to resources that you might find helpful:
- HALA Frequently Asked Questions
- Weekly Wonk-About the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) Program (Video)
- Weekly Wonk-About Zoning (Video)
- Principles for MHA Implementation (PDF)
- How to read the draft zoning maps (PDF)
- Interactive online map of Proposed Zoning Changes (Map)
- Online Maps (PDF) and Online Survey about Proposed Changes
- HALA Hotline: 206.743.6612
- Contact Information for Councilmember Rob Johnson
- City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning website