In 2008, Puget Sound Sage and allied community, labor, and faith organizations kicked off a "Development with Justice" campaign by bringing over 100 people wearing orange t-shirts to testify at a Seattle City Council public hearing on Incentive Zoning (IZ). Our goal wasn’t to oppose new development, but to insist that when it comes, it should benefit communities of color and low-wage workers--those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of development.
The City Council adopted an IZ policy that requires developers to build moderate-income housing in exchange for building taller and bigger buildings. The policy marked a start to addressing the growing jobs and housing crisis in Seattle, but it falls short of our real needs.
What is IZ?
Incentive Zoning is a policy that requires developers to
provide benefits to the community when they are allowed to build higher or
bigger through “upzones.” Many major cities in the U.S. have adopted some form
of incentive zoning, also called inclusionary housing, as highlighted here.
For example, in Washington, DC, developers must offer 8-10% of all units in a
project to households making 50-80% of average regional income in exchange for
building 20% above existing zoning limits.
While in other cities the policies are mandatory, Seattle
officials proposed IZ as a voluntary program. From the beginning, City
officials targeted moderate-income residents, even though the affordable
housing crisis in Seattle is far worse for low-income working families.
What should Incentive Zoning do?
In our campaign for a better IZ policy, we called upon City officials to make IZ a cornerstone for a vision of social and economic justice. Our goals were to curb the displacement of existing residents by building affordable housing and creating access to good jobs to support families in the face of rising costs.
Specifically, we thought that the policy should:
Require more affordable units from developers than proposed by City officials,
Be affordable to households making an average of 65% of area median income (AMI) (with some units set-aside for 50%),
Favor the building of affordable units on site over payment of fees,
Offer low-income residents pathways into family-wage construction careers,
Require one-for-one replacement of demolished affordable units.
Seattle's New Incentive Zoning Policy
After months of calls for a stronger policy from our coalition, Council voted 6 to 3 to pass the Incentive Zoning ordinance. The policy came up short on a lot of what we were asking for. Only 17.5% of the bonus density must be set aside as affordable, which is far less than what we asked for and is less than in other cities. Units will be set aside for households making as high as 80% of AMI (or $55,350 for a family of three). And the ordinance does not address construction standards or target hiring of low-income residents at all.
But there are a few highlights:
On-site affordable units in buildings under 85 feet. Developers of projects under 85 feet who use Incentive Zoning will not be able to pay a fee to get out of building the units. This will ensure that in neighborhood areas, moderate-income units will be built alongside market rate units.
Targeted hire and apprenticeship utilization. A resolution accompanying the ordinance states that Council recognizes a connection between upzones and potential job opportunities for low-income residents, thus opening the door for such policy in future upzones.
One-for-one replacement. Each unit of affordable housing that is torn down for new development must be replaced.
Questions of racial equity and economic opportunity for all workers are vital to consider when we talk about making a denser city. Yes, density can curb climate change, but only if everyone can share in the prosperity of development.
Together, our work as part of the Development with Justice Coalition--led by the Tenants' Union, the Laborers, Construction Clearing House, and Sage--helped insert our shared priorities of social and economic justice into the debate.
The debate continues, and we'll keep campaigning for community benefits from development. There will be future opportunities to hold developers and City Council accountable. Stay tuned.