The zoning requirements of a state bill aimed at putting more housing around light-rail stations were edited out last week, but developers and some of the Seattle neighborhood activists who fought the requirements say they're still anxious about what the final bill will look like -- and what it will ultimately do.
One version of the Transit-Oriented Development bill now awaiting a floor vote in the Senate would require residential builders to make 25 percent of their units affordable within a half-mile of transit stations, which nonprofit housing advocates say would be a landmark in terms of mandating what's called "inclusionary zoning" across the state.
Developers say the mandates would only add costs and deter new construction, defeating the whole purpose of the legislation. Some residents who live along the rail lines in Seattle's south end say the opposite: that the bill will only encourage construction and displacement of lower-income families of color. That's something the bill's backers say the legislation is meant to prevent, with the Senate version requiring one-for-one replacement of any low-income housing that's torn down.
"There's going to be massive growth and development in these areas around train stations because they're going to be desirable places to live," says Rachael Myers, director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, one of the bill's supporters. "We have to figure out a way to get new affordable housing built, and inclusionary zoning is a way to do that that puts the onus on developers."
In its original form, House Bill 1490, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and its companion, Senate Bill 5687, sought to reduce car trips and greenhouse gas emissions, in part, by requiring zoning capacities of 50 housing units per acre within a half-mile radius of all transit stations. The mandate would have applied to 46 stations that are already built or planned from Everett to Kent and Redmond to Seattle, where light rail is schedule to start running in July or August.
After neighborhood activists in Seattle objected, complaining that zoning is for local decision-making and that the bill would override years of their own station-area planning, Nelson and the bill's Senate sponsor, Chris Marr, D-Spokane, overhauled the legislation last week, removing the 50-unit zoning mandate. In its place, they substituted more flexible rules, which would allow communities to zone for 50 housing units per acre and/or add a comparable number of jobs in just 21 station areas located in certain designated high-growth urban centers.
In Seattle, that includes downtown, Capitol Hill, the University District, and Northgate, leaving out the Roosevelt area to the north and Rainier Valley in the south, where residents have complained density is being forced on them.
The inclusionary zoning and one-for-one replacement mandate, along with the relaxed 50-unit rule for the 21 urban stations, remain in the Senate version of the bill, which passed out of committee last week. But, in order to get the bill through the House's Local Government and Housing Committee, says John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, lawmakers stripped all zoning and housing rules out of the bill, replacing them with a nonspecific statement about providing affordable housing.
In the House bill's final version, Fox is hoping to replace that language with more sturdy rules on the affordable housing and one-for-one replacement. But that won't be easy, says Sara Nikolic, urban strategies director for Futurewise, a nonprofit that works on growth management issues statewide.
"The tendency is for bills to get weakened in the legislative process," not strengthened, Nikolic says. "It will be an uphill battle to get the housing and density back in" -- though, in the reconciliation process between the House and Senate versions of the bill, Nikolic says House Speaker Frank Chopp has promised support.
In and of itself, the inclusionary zoning wouldn't prevent lower-income people from being displaced by new construction, says Sen. Adam Kline, a Seattle Democrat and Mount Baker resident who supports the language. But it will ensure that "there's going to be housing affordable to them in this area."
Whether or not the affordable housing requirements make it into the final bill, says Jenna Walden, a homeowner who lives near Rainier Valley's Othello transit station, the legislation's half-mile radius would still be in place at 43 stations and, with it, a call for local planning authorities to pass more foot- and transit-oriented zoning -- something that worries her.
"The mandate might be lightened, but the radius is still there," Walden says. "It gives the city the leverage to scope-creep -- essentially, instead of looking at just the stations, now they've got a whole half-mile of radius to start playing with."