Did Councilmember Rob Johnson oversell developers’ interest in voluntarily opting in to the city’s mandatory affordable housing program?
That’s the conclusion of a new report by local journalist (and former SW news editor) George Howland. Howland, using a public disclosure request, obtained documents that show none of the seven project Johnson identified in June as “beginning the process” to opt-in had in fact formally done so at that time, though several said they intended to.
Seattle’s mandatory affordable housing program requires that developers include rent-controlled units in new projects, or pay into the city’s housing fund. In exchange for the requirements, the city allows developers to build taller buildings via so-called “upzones.” Upzones/MHA have been rolled out in various neighborhoods over the last year, including in downtown and South Lake Union in April. With many projects already in the works in those neighborhoods, Johnson included a provision that would allow projects that were permitted or in the process of being permitted before the upzone was approved to opt-in to the MHA program. In exchange, the projects would be allowed to build higher.
In May, Johnson declared an early success in the program with a press release announcing “developers voluntarily entering into Mandatory Affordable Housing Program.” The press release said seven projects have “begun the process to opt-in to the new Mandatory Affordable Housing program in Downtown and South Lake Union.” In relating the news, Seattle Weekly was a bit stronger in its verbiage, saying that the announcement showed the seven projects will opt-in to the program, pending city approval.
Howland says documents show either telling is misleading. Through public disclosure requests and interviews with developers, he found that of the seven projects, all had expressed interest. But only three definitely intend to opt-in, one “likely” will, and three others are unclear. One of the permits is on hold.
We’ve reached out to a City Council spokesperson for comment from Johnson.