Tax credits at work in the neighborhoods

February 26th, 2015

The City’s Office of Economic Development (OED) has a range of tools to assist businesses and industries in Seattle, with creating jobs, vitalizing neighborhoods, and growing an ever-stronger economy. One of those tools is financial support through allocation of federal New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC). The City’s New Markets entity, the Seattle Investment Fund (SIF), received $51 million in 2008, then an additional $28 million in 2014 to invest in development located in or serving low income communities.

OK, banker-types, this part is for you — the federal NMTC program works by providing an interest-only, seven-year loan, for which approximately 30% is permanent equity that does not need to be repaid. In order to qualify, projects must be located in areas of the city where residents have low incomes and high levels of unemployment; be ready to build; include at least 20% non-residential income; and, preferably, create or retain jobs and serve as an anchor for further development in the surrounding neighborhood. Banks put up the money in the NMTC pool and, in return, receive a tax break from the federal government.

I serve on the SIF committee as chair of the Council’s economic development committee. We review the applications for these funds and approve the investment decisions. Here’s where we’re investing the City’s most recent $28 million allocation:

Washington Hall: $9 million

Since opening in 1908, Washington Hall has hosted theater, dance, boxing matches, jazz performances, punk shows and everything in between. Billie Holiday performed there, as did a young Jimi Hendrix. My favorite memories of Washington Hall are from its time as home to On The Boards in the 1980s and 1990s. Located near 14th and Yesler, the building was designated as a landmark by the City and is currently home to the arts and community-based nonprofits 206 Zulu, Hidmo and Voices Rising. However, the building is in need of significant repair and renovation. The NMTC will make it possible for this historic building to continue to serve the community today and into the future.

Neighborcare’s Meridian Center for Health: $9 million

Located in the Northgate Neighborhood, the Meridian Center will provide integrated health and human services to low income patients through partnerships with Seattle/King County Public Health and Valley Cities Medical. This new facility will replace and expand the existing Neighborcare center in Greenwood and contain the existing Public Health Center that’s currently onsite. The Meridian Center will include expanded primary care, a new dental clinic, mental health and recovery services, nutrition services for women, infants and children, maternity support, and more. 

The Pacific Tower Community Health and Innovation Center:  $10 million

The Pacific Tower, located on North Beacon Hill, has had a storied history as a Marine hospital and the former home of Amazon before Amazon found South Lake Union. The building is owned by the Pacific Hospital Public Development Authority with rent proceeds funding grants to groups working to close health disparities in King County. That funding happens only if the building has renters, though. The new Community Health and Innovation Center pays rent AND trains the next generation of healthcare staff for our region. The State’s Department of Commerce has signed a lease for 13 floors of the building (a PacMed clinic operates on the ground floor). Commerce has an agreement with Seattle Central College to expand and consolidate their health care education and training programs in the tower; Neighborcare for administrative offices and to create an on-site dental teaching clinic; Cross Cultural Health Care Program for medical interpreter training; Building Changes for their work on housing solutions; Fare Start to expand its culinary training program and produce meals for students and low-income people; and a host of smaller nonprofits. The Seattle Central College expansion will be significant, including three new programs in Nursing, Community Health Education, and Community Healthcare Services Management. They expect to increase enrollment by a whopping 67%.  

We approved investments in these projects because they meet the basic requirements, but, also, because each will be a catalyst in a neighborhood and in industry. None of these are great candidates for conventional financing. New Markets Tax Credits have proved to be a critical tool for the City to assist projects like these. I have my fingers crossed that Congress will see value in approving another round of tax credits so Seattle can apply and continue investing in projects that keep our history alive, bring health care to those who need it, and train the workforce of the future.

Visiting YouthBuild.

February 11th, 2015

Guest post by LaTonya Brown, Legislative Aide

Sally and I visited YouthBuild, a nationally recognized pre-apprentice construction training program housed at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle College. This was an amazing and heartfelt tour that every public agency contractor and labor group should invest the time to attend. We were joined on the tour by other City of Seattle staff. King County, Sound Transit, Port of Seattle, Port Jobs, Turner Construction and Mortenson Manson, the prime contractor on the Seawall.

Councilmember Sally Clark crouching down in a timed tape measuring contest with Marie Kurose from the Port of Seattle.  Councilmember Clark was declared the winner.  Great job Sally and Marie!

Councilmember Sally Clark crouching down in a timed tape measuring contest with Marie Kurose from the Port of Seattle. Councilmember Clark was declared the winner. Great job Sally and Marie!

What is YouthBuild?

YouthBuild, part of YouthCare, is a 6-month paid pre-apprenticeship construction training program designed to help young adults earn a GED while establishing a clear path to a high-paying career in the construction industry. Participants have to be 18-24 years old, low-income and out of school but seeking a diploma, and legally authorized to work in the United States. As a part of the program, participants receive educational support, job readiness, community service and leadership training skills while getting real money and real experience.

Why is it important?

Young people need a goal to work towards that produce real results and portable skills into future.  Programs such as YouthBuild give young people who are often faced with systemic and racial barriers a chance to become their own advocates by becoming self-efficient in ways some young people thought was impossible.  With the recently passed Priority Hire legislation, the tour was a great starting place to see the impact and vision come true for so many young adults who want to work in the construction field in Seattle.

How to get involved

Young people who come to YouthBuild come for a variety of reasons and from a variety of places in the city.  These youth are looking to better themselves and are ready to take the next step in their lives. If you are a young adult wanting to make a commitment to work, education, and your community, YouthBuild  may be right for you.

We’re particularly excited about YouthBuild’s success since they will be one of the pre-apprentice programs feeding people into the new Priority Hire program. Through Priority Hire, YouthBuild grads will test into the trade or craft of their choice and become full-fledged apprentices on the way to journey-level careers. That means better pay, benefits and meaningful work to support themselves and their families.

What a great presentation and tour led by YouthBuild cohorts!  I was proud to be invited!

Continuing the foreclosure fight

January 12th, 2015

At the top of the year I’m lining up committee and “special project” priorities for 2015. We’ll launch new initiatives this year, but several projects started in 2014 will carry over. One of these projects focuses on foreclosure prevention, specifically mortgage principal reduction as a way to keep people in their homes.

Zillow reports that for 2014 approximately 16% of homes in King County were in negative equity. That means the owner is “underwater” – the mortgage amount is more than the current value of the home. In a subset of those cases the owner is underwater and behind on mortgage payments. In recent months home values in Seattle have risen helping many people rise above the water line, but still too many are left under. Some are weighed down by the lasting effects of pre-recession over-heated home prices. Those prices lead to high mortgages with unsustainable terms. Definitely not the financial security homeownership is supposed to give.

There are ways to assist underwater homeowners and I figure we should put those options into action as aggressively as we can. Councilmember Licata and I have teamed up on this work.

First, we rearranged money in the last quarter of 2014 to fund more aggressive outreach to people underwater and behind on their payments. We know from experience that people have a much better shot at keeping their home — and even at principal reduction in some cases – if they have professional help when facing their lender. No one should try to deal with being underwater or being behind on their mortgage payments or actual foreclosure without the help of a financial advocate. We pushed a quick $150,000 out to community based agencies to contact every homeowner in Seattle we can find who is underwater and behind on payments.

Concurrently, Councilmember Licata and I, with huge help from staff and advocates, started working on how to get a principal reduction fund operating in Seattle. Models for this exist in Boston and in Oregon, so how hard can it be to get something going here?

As it turns out, harder than I originally thought.

Principal reduction is the holy grail of help for underwater home owners. Before the recession too many people signed on for mortgages at unsupportable high values. Court records in too many parts of the country show that many lenders knew this and took advantage.

For many of us principal reduction is the right answer because it’s the yin to the bank bailout yang. Big banks received help, why shouldn’t individual homeowners? Many people in this crisis want to pay their mortgage and can pay a mortgage. They want to keep their home. The combination of aggressive lending and inflated values proved a trap. That trap is bad for individuals, families and neighborhoods.

As you might imagine, principal reduction generally isn’t favored by lenders. However, “solving” for people underwater and behind on their payments should help banks avoid costly foreclosures and, frankly, bad PR. The moral and financial reasons for lenders to consider principal reduction are strong.

So, what have we done do far?

  • Late last summer we hired an expert from the Oregon experience to draft a report on how the two existing models in Boston and Oregon work and detail how a Seattle fund could work. This is a document we can share to educate potential operators and funders.
  • We’ve met with the operators of the Oregon program. That was super helpful, but also reinforced how complex program set-up and the transactions themselves can be. Also, the Oregon model operates in only four counties in Oregon.
  • We’ve met twice with Craft3, a community development financial group, possibly interested in bringing the Oregon model into Washington. Neither the Boston nor Oregon model is operated by the government.
  • We’ve briefed representatives from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission and the United States Department of Housing & Urban Development. HUD is especially important because of the way mortgages are insured and who needs to sign off on a repackaged loan.
  • We met in October with the State Attorney General to explain the proposal and seek help with funding. We’d need a few million dollars to get going (figure each mortgage re-write involves $200,000-$300,000) and we enquired about national mortgage settlement funds. Washington didn’t receive federal Hardest Hit dollars after the initial mortgage crisis fallout and, so far, dollars from lender settlements that do include Washington have been allocated to non-profits in the state helping homeowners with counseling and legal aid. The door isn’t totally shut here, but there was no magic box of money at the AG’s office.
  • With the Seattle Foundation we hosted an information session in early December for lenders, foundations and other institutions who might be interested in supporting this project. The Oregon program operators attended and explained how the principal reduction transactions work and how the new loans are then bundled and sold to responsible banks for long-term holding and servicing (someone has to mail you your payment coupon every month). HomeStreet, Bank of America, Washington Federal, BECU and Wells Fargo attended this first session and asked serious questions about risk, eligibility screening, attractiveness of the loans on the secondary market and more. We will be continuing these conversations in the next couple of months.
  • Staff is continuously working to get information about how national mortgage settlement dollars are being spent to see if we can attract unallocated dollars to this proposal.

In the meantime, the future of the Oregon program has become murky. Currently, the program revolves the money – re-writing troubled mortgages, selling them to a reputable bank and then using that money from the sale to go out and re-write more mortgages. However, the federal funding that they have been revolving is officially due back to the feds at the end of 2017. So, while they are asking the federal Treasury for permission to keep using and revolving the funds, our nearest great model may be in peril unless other funds become available.

So why not switch our focus to the Boston model? We might have to do that. The Beantown model utilizes grants and loans from individuals and foundations through a community-based fund. No matter which model we adopt, finding the funding is the top challenge.

A number of people work hard on this issue, including an advocacy group called SAFE (Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction). SAFE would like Seattle to condemn underwater mortgages, repackage the loans at lesser amounts, and get them back to the homeowner who was underwater. This would be a way of giving direct relief to homeowners who have struggled to get help from the banks and financiers, some of whom knew full well that the mortgages they were writing would prove too heavy and bring down individuals and families all over the country.

Unfortunately, mortgage law is heavily regulated at the federal level and any attempt by a city to condemn a mortgage (not the home, but the mortgage) would end up in the courts for years. A financial boon for attorneys, but not for homeowners.

And that’s where we are as we start 2015. Yes, rising home values mean that as of last month fewer people in Seattle are underwater, but there are still many, many people in need and I’m committed to doing what I can to help.

A week in Councilmember Clark’s office

December 19th, 2014

Guest Post by Hallie Huffaker

Coming in as a weeklong intern randomly in December with no experience in government work, I was not expecting much from my time in Councilmember Clark’s office. However, I was blown away with the amount I have been able to see, learn and help out with despite my lack of experience and young age. Sally Clark and her three legislative assistants went above and beyond to give me an insider’s perspective on the city council.

As I walked up City Hall’s picturesque stone staircase, I was struck by the majestic building’s beauty. Only a few minutes after meeting LaTonya Brown, one of the LAs, I was shown around a floor full of friendly faces. I was amazed by how each person, from LAs to analysts, took the time to step away from their work and introduce themselves to me. I even chatted with Council President Tim Burgess!

Within an hour of my arrival, I was able, without any prior experience or knowledge, to attend the council briefing on the tunnel project, a hot-button issue. During the briefing I was party to the most updated reports on settlement observation in the Pioneer Square area, as well as information about Bertha and the tunnel project. I sat in the audience amongst members of the State Department of Transportation and got to exit through the special council staff doors (using my “Legislative Department” pass). The access that I was allowed was incredible.Councilmember Sally Clark and Hallie Huffaker.

I quickly realized that I would not be just sitting around while I was here. Right away I was shown to my own desk, complete with a stack of mail to file and access to Sally’s emails. Jesse Gilliam, another of the LAs, gave me research tasks to work on while I was not attending meetings and doing office work.

Since Sally was traveling during my first day, I met her on Tuesday. Sally was far from intimidating; she immediately she made me feel at home, allowing me to tag along to most of her meetings, both small office ones and large committee briefings, including one with the Mayor and the Speaker of the House! During meetings, Sally always made sure to introduce me to everyone at the table, making me feel like a part of her team.

My first project was categorizing the emails that Sally had received from constituents about the tunnel and compiling them into a report. Since the LAs were so approachable, I never felt nervous to ask questions. Because of their guidance, two days into my time I was able to make a substantive contribution to the team!

By my third day it almost felt natural to walk up the steps of City Hall. It was a slower meeting day than Tuesday, so I focused on desk work. I opened the stack of mail that comes at least twice a day for the councilmembers, before sorting the mail in order of importance for Sally. This helped me glimpse the kind of events and requests (and holiday cards!) councilmembers receive.

Next, I was given the phone tutorial, which is more complicated than it sounds. Even during a slower week like this one, constituents call daily with concerns, problems and requests for the LAs and Sally to deal with. Only a few minutes in, the phone rang with someone calling about a housing problem. After a quick moment of panic, my confidence grew as I asked questions and took down the constituent’s information, slowly getting the hang of things.

Although there is not an easy fix to everything, the LAs know who to contact and where to look for answers. They told me where to direct the complaint, and it was gratifying to feel like I had done something tangible to help someone in need. The council members do their jobs to help better the lives of Seattleites, and being in the office I was able to see how much effort it takes to make that happen.

Bright and early Thursday morning was a meeting of the Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency that Sally chairs. The public meeting took place in the council chambers. I arrived early with Jesse to help set up and make sure that everything would run smoothly. We opened the doors to the public, manned the comment sign-up sheets and checked microphones. Jesse used his free time to give me the inside scoop on how committee meetings work. So much more goes into these meetings than meets the eye!

Sally introduced and thanked me in her opening statement to the roomful of community members. It was little things like this that Sally continuously did during my week in her office that really made the experience special. The first 20 minutes of the meeting were reserved for public comment, when constituents can come up and have two minutes to voice their concerns to the council. Sally listened to each one carefully, asking some for follow-up information and calling those she knew well by name with friendly smiles and jokes. Despite the formal trappings of the event, the room had a warm, community-like feel.

This week in Sally Clark’s office was so much more than I expected. It was invaluable to have exposure into the daily lives of the councilmembers and their staff. I was amazed at how the work never ends; there is always more work to do, more people to meet with, more constituent concerns to respond to, but everyone meets the challenge head on. They were welcoming and dedicated to giving me the best education possible during my brief time here. The atmosphere on the second floor of City Hall was friendly and cheerful, despite the huge responsibility that its inhabitants carry daily. This week passed much too quickly…is it really over already?

Hallie is a graduate of Garfield High School and a sophomore at Dartmouth College. She’ll study in Italy next quarter and look for an internship in Washington DC next year. Thanks, Hallie!

Housing affordability committee needs your voice

December 17th, 2014

The City took our first steps this past September toward creating a plan for housing –particularly affordable housing — in Seattle by launching a Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. The group has until the end of May to report back to the Mayor and Council with a vision and recommendations for how to achieve that vision. They kicked off their work by hosting three community listening sessions at the end of November and beginning of December, one each held in in Rainier Valley, the Central District, and Northgate. Attendees participated in an electronic survey with real time results, and then had time to take in data on the City’s growth and existing programs, as well as give feedback to the advisory committee members, staff, and councilmembers who stopped in (including me).

If you were not able to make it out to one of these sessions, it’s not too late to add your voice. The survey will be online through mid-January. You’ll miss the real-time group results (and the snacks), but we’d appreciate your participation.

Budget 2015

November 20th, 2014

We’re just about to end our work adopting a City budget for 2015. Each year we go through hours of review and discussion about available revenue, efficiency, effectiveness and values. This year’s review, wrapping with a Full Council vote Monday, Nov. 24, like most others I’ve had the privilege to be part of, has focused greatly on how our spending can improve the safety and well-being of those around us who are homeless, food-less and, too often, feeling hopeless.

As the chair of the Council’s Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services & Economic Resiliency, I put forward and gained support for a number of additions to Mayor Murray’s proposed 2015 spending plan:

$200,000 to address recommendations from the Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness– We’ll set this money aside because the task force won’t wrap up until the middle of December. For a variety of reasons we have more people living outside in Seattle than ever before. I hope to see new ideas from the task force on ways to keep homeless people safe now and better ways to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

$175,000 to incentivize regional partners to develop homeless shelters. The Committee to End Homelessness advocates a regional approach to ending homelessness and I serve with Mayor Murray on the Governing Board. At this point, the City of Seattle shelters constitute 91% of the cot and mat space in King County. That means that when someone becomes homeless outside the city they may have to travel to Seattle for help, making it harder to maintain contact with services and jobs in their home community. I put forward this first-ever fund as a way to have Seattle more fully support regional help for people experiencing homelessness. The fund will match funding put forward by regional partners to create shelter beds in their communities.

$150,000 for homeless youth street outreach. Organizations like YouthCare reach out to young people living on the streets to connect to case management, health care, education and employment training, and move them toward housing. You might see these outreach and case management staff at Westlake Park. YouthCare told me a few weeks ago that federal funding for this outreach is being cut. So, we’ll backfill this funding. I had hoped to propose new funding for outreach to places like Cal Anderson Park, but I’ll have to look for that money next year.

A Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) to Investigate City Owned Property for Shelter Space. At the same time we help regional partners open up more shelter beds we need to explore what City-owned buildings might be used for more shelter. Already City Hall shelters 40-50 men and women every night. When the thermometer goes down below 36 degrees, Seattle center opens up emergency shelter in the Northwest Rooms. This SLI asks the City’s Human Services Department to look at other City properties (for instance, community centers) to identify possible locations for shelter.

$250,000 for the soon to be new and improved University District Food Bank. The University District Food Bank serves hundreds of individuals and families living in the greater U-District and North Seattle in need of help to get them through the month. They’ve been doing all of this out of a small, cramped space. This funding will help complete fundraising for a new, larger space on the ground floor of a low-income housing project. I proposed this because, having worked at Chicken Soup Brigade and seeing CSB move into its new home earlier this year, I know that better space can make a huge difference for agency efficiency and client access.

This is a small subset of the changes the Council made for 2015. I haven’t touched on the other adds in human services (domestic violence case management and support, covering minimum wage changes for providers with City contracts, support for encampments and more low-barrier women’s shelter), economic development (support for small manufacturing), and pedestrian safety (more sidewalks and crosswalks).

Unfortunately, these additions still aren’t sufficient when you look at the level of need in our city and region. We’re still working to meet basic survival needs when no one should become homeless in the first place.

Field trips during 2015 budget review

November 12th, 2014

Councilmembers have been locked in 2015 city budget review for the past few weeks on our way to a final vote the Monday before Thanksgiving. It’s a little difficult to schedule other work during this time because we’re in three-hour sessions morning and afternoon, but breaks do come up to give staff time to research questions and build proposed adds and subtractions.

In those breaks I’ve managed three recent “field trips” that have served to further illustrate for me the strange combination of growing wealth and growing disparity in our city, and to remind me that the budget we talk about in Council Chambers has real impact out in the world.

Nickelsville and Northacres – On a rainy Thursday afternoon a couple of weeks ago my legislative aide Jesse Gilliam and I met up with Alison Eisinger from the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness at Nickelsville’s new site on Dearborn just east of I-5. Approximately 40-50 people live at Nickelsville currently, some in small pink shacks and some in tents pitched on platforms or the ground. The site, for which the group has permission from the owner, slopes and now that the Fall rains have started, the site is muddy and slippery. Some residents are new to homelessness and a few have been with Nickelsville for many years, finding at Nickelsville safety, community and a sense of purpose in the management of the camp. For one reason or another, including a lack of space, the residents have eschewed the shelter system. In the past month many families with children have shown up at Nickelsville either staying or getting connected to a shelter or other help.

We then drove to Northacres Park, the park in north Seattle that you likely have never visited. It’s a great park, though. Great trees. And, for the past few weeks, home to a small encampment that splintered from Tent City 3 when TC3 decided to leave its Haller Lake site. Disagreements over decision-making prompted a group of approximately 20 people now known as United We Stand to strike out on their own and seek a new spot. They set up originally at Licton Springs, but then moved to Northacres where they’re set back from the street and parking lot, but still prompting complaints from neighbors and other park users. We met one family with kids and multiple people with jobs, but not enough to put together first, last and a deposit. The group welcomed us and ran through the work they’re doing to find a church host somewhere in Seattle or King County. At that point, as a dozen of us stood in the creeping darkness under a couple of tarps at a picnic table with camp stoves, coffee pots, plastic boxes of supplies and rain splattering a small fire in a barbecue stand, they’d been told no almost 30 times.   

Career Bridge Cohort 13 Graduation – Through Career Bridge, started two years ago by the City’s Human Services Department, formerly incarcerated men, predominantly African-American, go through a two-week intensive confidence and job search skills building program. This year the program has been picked up and stabilized by the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. They’ve done a great job structuring the curriculum, the intake, the support and the job connections needed for these men to get jobs and earn the income they need to support themselves and their families. I was glad to be able to help celebrate at the recent graduation for Cohort 13. Held Tues., Nov. 4, at a church in Rainier Valley, the men stood before friends and family as Career Bridge graduates, speaking of self-worth, who they want to be and that they want not just jobs, but careers.

Casa Latina – When Casa Latina had to move from their original spot in Belltown they had a tough time finding a new home. They finally landed on S. Jackson where they have a dispatch hall, classrooms and offices. My other legislative aide LaTonya Brown and I visited Wed., Nov. 5, to see the dispatch system (with rules devised by the workers themselves) and to talk about Casa Latina’s wage theft work recovering wages for workers shorted by their employers. Unfortunately, this happens far more often in this region than it should. Casa Latina works through communication with employers, sometimes though direct action drawing attention to disreputable businesses and through legal action to recover wages.

Projects like these have changed the lives of many of the families and individuals that I had the opportunity to meet over the past few weeks, and they have also been priorities in the City’s budget. Shelter expansion has been a part of almost every budget on which I’ve voted. Career Bridge funds are in the 2015 proposed city spending plan with possible expansion on the horizon. Casa Latina received capital funds from the City when they built on S. Jackson in return for the public benefit of the agency’s work.

Although government budgets are political documents full of compromises large and small, they’re also maps showing if our tax payer money flows to our priorities.

Linkage Fees

October 17th, 2014

Councilmember O’Brien and I submitted a guest opinion piece to the Seattle Times about linkage fees.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can read it here:


Guest: Seattle needs a linkage fee to make housing more affordable for lower-income residents

Home, it’s where I want to be.

September 23rd, 2014

Just got back from the official launch for our new housing affordability and livability plan. The plan, outlined in this resolution, convenes an advisory committee to establish a Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, due to Council and the Mayor in May. There’s more information in the Mayor’s press release. Below are my comments as prepared.


Home is where the heart is. Home sweet home. And in the words of David Byrne, home, it’s where I want to be.

Housing is the wonkier word for homes and I’m thankful for the Mayor’s collaboration so we as a city will focus our work on a plan for housing affordability and livability – so we can plan for what we want and need. The price point, the style, the size, the locations. We are a city of booms and busts, but all indications point to continued long-term influx of people wanting to make Seattle their home. We need this plan so we can chart a course to ensuring housing meets the needs of our whole community and does it in a way that helps our environment and keeps our neighborhoods the great, interesting places they are.

Last week I toured Bianca’s place, that’s the congregate family shelter run by Mary’s Place. The families at Bianca’s Place, and the families in Seattle’s future who will need a Bianca’s Place, are just one reason we need this effort, this sharpened focus and blueprint for housing.

I met several parents doing what it takes to keep their families safe and together. In particular I met one woman, an East African woman, who had found Bianca’s Place and spent some time there, but last Thursday was a big day – she showed me the keys to her new house. Her smile was bigger than the room. Her family would have a place to call their own.

I want to thank the advisory committee members and City staff who will work on this plan.


The Rise of Microhousing

September 18th, 2014

First we called them aPodments, but that soon switched to micros. Whatever you call them, they inspire either horror at the resurgence of the old-time single-room-occupancy hotel or they look to be the latest and greatest in affordable urban living.

After Tuesday’s Planning, Land Use & Sustainability meeting they’re also the subject of a possible mayoral veto, but for reasons that are unclear.

I can’t imagine anyone doesn’t know what a micro unit is at this point, but just in case…. Micros started appearing as a variation on the townhome. We saw four-packs or six-packs appear in parts of town (first Capitol Hill and the U-District), but instead of a typical two-bedroom configuration, we saw a full eight sleeping rooms connected to the core kitchen.

Many neighbors came out opposed to the projects because they feared the impacts of so many people living in the buildings. In a standard four-pack townhouse development, maybe you have two people per unit for eight total. In a four-pack of aPodments, you’ll have at least one person per sleeping room for a minimum total of 32 people.

On the good side, these buildings have generally been constructed near frequent transit and most residents are trying to live in the city car-free. On the bad side many micro developers were skirting design review thresholds by counting the eight sleeping units as one dwelling unit.

I think micros are a good addition to housing choice in our city. The late developer Jim Potter was a great, irascible proponent of City government figuring out how to help the private market produce affordability without direct subsidy. He toured me through one of his micro projects on Capitol Hill a few years ago and it was impressive. It’s not where I want to live at this stage of my life, but that’s not important in policy development. What’s important to me is that micros are available, safe and regulated for “fit” in a neighborhood the same way similarly-scaled buildings for full-size apartments are.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien did the hard work of assembling a stakeholder group of developers, architects and neighborhood advocates to review the micro regulations sent to Council by Mayor Murray earlier this year. After a series of difficult meetings the group came to some agreements and remained in fierce disagreement on others.

The result is the bill we voted out of committee Tuesday along with a series of amendments. Within the base bill the City now defines “small efficiency dwelling units” (SEDU) for the first time in code. The intent of this change is to replace the current form of micro-housing, with multiple sleeping rooms arranged around a core kitchen, with individual, self-contained, small apartments that are regulated as such. The legislation also sets thresholds for different intensities of design review depending upon the size of the building. The new rules limit the number of residential parking zone passes to one per SEDU rather than the four allowed other homes inside an RPZ boundary. The bill, also, better defines congregate housing so that’s a less attractive work-around for some developers.

This definition of SEDU and the design review thresholds are a big improvement over our current situation, though the contents of the bill remain controversial, especially with some developers. The amendments acted on in Tuesday’s meeting seem to be the focus of ire now by some who think the changes go too far. (Jim Potter would probably agree.) I might agree on one of them (minimum size), but I think we struck a good balance in the exchanges represented by the others.

Minimum SEDU size – I would prefer to allow architects flexibility down to 180 square feet, but the votes weren’t there for that. I think there are great examples of smaller spaces and I don’t think all renters want more space. Councilmember O’Brien and I attempted a minimum average across all units of 220 square feet and an absolute minimum of 180 square feet, but that failed. The majority of the committee voted to make 220 square feet the minimum for SEDUs arguing that peer cities like San Francisco and New York don’t allow units smaller than 220 square feet.

Bike parking – Councilmembers in the previous meeting advocated for enough storage to ensure bikes don’t have to be kept inside SEDUs or congregate residence sleeping rooms, so we increased the required bike parking to .75 per unit and also specified this has to be a covered area. Thanks to the suggestion of a smart architect, Councilmember O’Brien proposed not counting this bike parking space in the FAR (developable people space). That amendment passed and I think was a good way to ensure we’re not trading bike parking for residential units.

Common space in congregate housing – OK, congregates are a little different from SEDUs. They’re more like dorms and play an important role in affordable housing and housing for people with special needs. Councilmember Licata proposed increasing the required common area space from 10 percent of the building to 15 percent of the building. Laundry space will count, though, I worry too many of the spaces will be less about social interaction and more about just getting the wash done.

Sinks – The draft legislation required a minimum of one sink per SEDU and that if the SEDU has only one sink that the sink be located in the kitchen area. I was OK with this until King County Public Health weighed in with advice that living units have at least two sinks, one in the bathroom and one elsewhere, as a “best practice” in disease control. Developers have argued the second sink is superfluous and just a means for project-opponents to weigh down projects with unneeded fixtures and costs. In the end I sided with Public Health. If these are now stand-alone living spaces, no longer predicated on availability of a separate kitchen, and if there may be multiple people living in the units, then units should have two sinks, however small they might be.

Parking – This may be the issue neighbors of new micro buildings bring up the most. Most of the micro projects developed to date don’t provide parking for even the majority of units in the building and, to my mind, that’s OK. Most likely at least a few of the tenants own cars and park them in the neighborhood. That’s anyone’s right to do, but neighbors see the possibility of lots of new cars clogging up parking. Personally, I think it’s good that the City got out of the business of parking minimums in urban centers, our densest neighborhoods. I think it’s worth reviewing parking rules and what we’re seeing developed further out from the core of the urban villages and near frequent transit in other areas. We amended the bill with a request for the Seattle Department of Planning & Development to conduct a review of Seattle’s current car and bike parking requirements for new development. The results of that review will come back to the Council in late March of next year.

Overall, the bill defines SEDUs in Seattle’s code for the first time, lays out development standards and sets appropriate design review thresholds. I’m not happy about where the majority of the committee landed for minimum square footage per unit, but I want to get the other standards in place as soon as possible.

The amended bill now awaits Full Council consideration. That’s set to occur on Mon., Oct. 6. Regulations would take effect 30 days after the Mayor signs the bill.