Caffeinated News

1. The state senate passed the Republican majority's budget proposal along straight party lines yesterday, 26 to 23. The no-new-taxes budget puts $1.3 billion of new money into K–12 funding, but robs Peter to pay Paul, according to Democrats, by raiding other funds, such as taking $63 million from the higher-ed financial aid grant fund, $42 million from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and using $300 million from anticipated marijuana revenues that voters earmarked for health and drug programs.    

The Democratic proposal in the house, which puts about the same amount, $1.4 billion into K–12, but spends about $1 billion more overall,  raises new revenue with a capital gains tax and cuts glaring tax breaks such as a $30.3 million per-biennium break to oil refineries.

A new Elway poll favors the Republican approach. Summarizing a poll of 505 voters interviewed between April 1 and April 3, pollster Stuart Elway said:

Asked to choose between the two general approaches, voters interviewed in this survey gave neither majority support, although there was a slight edge to the “no new taxes” approach: Forty-eight percent favored “Increase spending on public education using current revenue, then fund the rest of state government with the money remaining—even if that means further cuts to other programs and services”; 43 percent favored “Increase spending on public education and avoid further cuts to other programs and services—even if that means raising some taxes.” Adding proposed funding mechanisms to the mix did nothing to clarify the picture. Majorities of survey respondents favored the Republicans’ idea to divert marijuana taxes away from public health to education. But just as large a majority opposed the GOP plan to reduce the state employee raises negotiated last year. Slight majorities said that the Democrats’ taxes on capital gains and bottled water would be “acceptable.”

In some good news for liberals, though, the poll did show support for the capital gains tax and that voters opposed cutting state raises. With the Republican senate budget proposal rejecting things like the state workers' collective bargaining agreement and eliminating health benefits for spouses, the Democratic house budget spends about $500 million more on state workers.

2. The mayor's housing affordability task force isn't due to make its policy recommendations to the city council until May, but the task force, known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee, sent a letter to mayor Ed Murray and council members Sally Clark and Mike O'Brien last week outlining recommendations on development guidelines in low-rise, multifamily zones that challenge a pending council move to limit density. 

The affordable housing committee's letter specifically spelled out its objections to taking away more options for density.

Given the restrictions on building in single-family zones and given the pricey rents in downtown, South Lake Union, and commercial hubs, the low-rise multifamily zones—usually located between mixed-use commercial hubs and single-family neighborhoods all around the city—offer one of the best opportunities to build housing. Mayor Murray has tasked the HALA with submitting a plan to create 50,000 new units (20,000 affordable units and 30,000 market-rate units) in the next 10 years.

Low-rise buildings (three and four stories tall) have been controversial to nearby neighbors ever since a set of tweaks to zoning guidelines in 2010 allowed more density in the low-rise zones. The council, under pressure from community groups who objected to the size of the buildings, had been set to undo some of those 2010 pro-density changes such as a provision that gave developers the leeway not to count basement square footage against allotted square footage caps, a proposal to count more square footage under the floor-area-ratio guidelines, and a proposal to take away a height bonus.

The HALA committee letter specifically spelled out its objections to taking away more options for density:

We feel strongly that the low-rise multifamily zones serve a critical role in providing important new housing supply that can relieve upward pressure on housing prices. A large percentage of our city’s land is currently zoned single family or industrial where multifamily housing is not allowed, so the multifamily zones are particularly important. Development in the low-rise zones is relatively cost effective when compared with more expensive mid-rise and high-rise construction types. And the low-rise zones are providing a range of new housing options, from small apartments for individuals, to rowhouse and townhouse units conducive to families. For these reasons most of the group recommends not moving forward with several of the proposed low-rise code corrections that would directly reduce the amount of buildable square footage in the low-rise zones. An example is the floor-area-ratio (FAR) exemption for a partially below-grade story (daylight basement). The current version of the low-rise code corrections bill would remove this exemption, which we oppose because it would effectively reduce the amount of housing that can be built. 

 3. In cryptic news out of the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD): Late last week, they withdrew their "Determination of Nonsignificance" (DNS) on a series of comprehensive plan amendments, which included the controversial linkage fee—a tax on all new development to pay for affordable housing.

Developers had challenged the proposal and argued that the DPD's initial determination of nonsignficance unfairly fast-tracked the linkage fee (the relevant comp plan amendment changed city rules that limited developer fees for affordable housing to incentive zoning programs).

By withdrawing their DNS ruling, DPD has either taken the linkage fee off the table or at least opened it up to a whole new review.

 I have a call in to DPD.