City Hall

One Question for Mike O'Brien

The debate over affordable housing in South Lake Union heats up, with an unlikely cast of characters.

By Erica C. Barnett March 4, 2013


One Question

 City council members will vote on a proposal, known as incentive zoning, to require developers to provide affordable housing and other "incentives" in exchange for taller residential and commercial buildings in South Lake Union later this month. However, a dissident group of council members—including somewhat unlikely bedfellows Mike O'Brien and Nick Licata—have proposed increasing the amount of benefits developers would have to provide or pay for if they want greater density. 

In one corner: Mayor Mike McGinn and city council member Richard Conlin. They argue that requiring developers who want to build taller to pay more into the city's affordable housing fund (known as a "fee-in-lieu" of building actual housing) if they decide not to build actual, on-site affordable housing—will unnecessarily delay a process that has already dragged on for years. 


"The Council does not have adequate information to make an informed decision about the level of incentive requirements that are appropriate, necessary, or reasonable," Conlinsaid said. "If we pick [dollar figures per square foot of additional density] that are too high, we run the risk of having developers deciding to forego participation in the bonus program entirely. That means losing housing and jobs and losing the affordable housing we would have gotten under the current program."

In the other corner: City council members Tom Rasmussen, Nick Licata, and Mike O'Brien, who sent out a statement this morning calling for an increase to the fee-in-lieu, saying, "modest wage workers should be able to live affordably in neighborhoods that offer jobs and amenities, rather than sitting through long, polluting commutes. Ensuring sufficient affordable housing in South Lake Union will positively impact environmental sustainability, workforce retention, social equity, as well as strengthen our local economy." 

We were somewhat surprised to see O'Brien—a longtime urbanist and McGinn ally who served on the board of Great City and worked with McGinn at the Sierra Club—siding with Licata, the longtime bleeding-heart affordable housing advocate, against the mayor's proposal and on behalf of requiring even more funds for housing in exchange for heights. So our One Question for O'Brien today was: What made you switch allegiances and back requiring more from developers? 

O'Brien's response: 

It's interesting, you know—some of the people who have had a significant influence on me over the years [taught me] about really rethinking what development can do for cities and how cities are the solutions to environmental probelms, and that thinking is very influential on me still. But the other piece that I think is really important is income inequality.

Having an MBA, I think sometimes that I'm predisposed to think that if we just let people build it, the market will work. But time and time again, the evidence shows that even though we're all well intentioned, the income gap is getting larger and larger. The market isn't just working it out. New York is a huge city—it has more housing than any other city in the country, yet it's the most expensive too.

And a second question: What specific ideas is the council considering? 

There's a certain percentage requirement of workforce housing, and it varies by site—roughly, it's about five percent of the overall building. So one thing we could change is that percentage.

The other thing we're talking about is, let's leave that percentage alone. That would mean you'd have to allocate five percent [to affordable housing], or, if you'd rather not do that, you could just write us a check. We're saying the check amount that they're [currently] providing is much too low. They're mostly choosing to write that check, because it costs them much less to write that cheek.

Private developers can provide housing for those folks [so that] the Seattle Housing Authority and the nonprofit housing providers in the city can focus their attention on [lower-income people] where there are more challenges around housing.

As for his longtime ally, McGinn, O'Brien says he's only talked to the mayor "in passing" about his proposal.

In an email, McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus said the mayor has "put together an advisory group to overhaul our affordable housing approach in Seattle. ... Rushing through new policies without any public process will set us back in that work and could make it harder to incentivize affordable housing, not easier."

Regardless, O'Brien says he's optimistic that he can muster a majority in support of his proposal to increase the fee-in-lieu, although he doesn't know exactly what amount of payment (which is based on a fee per square foot of additional density) his colleagues will agree to. "I think there's momentum for it," he says.

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