The Seattle City Council passed an emergency bill on April 27 that allows certain housing projects to move forward after a similar version of the bill failed to garner enough support to pass just a week before over concerns it would grease the wheels for gentrification.
The bill aimed to modify the Design Review process, which vets new housing projects to ensure that the exterior of the buildings pass muster. Under the temporary rules, certain projects already in the pipeline could opt for an “administrative review” process that forgoes public meetings until city staff are able to set up virtual meetings for public participation.
Affordable housing projects, which already go through an administrative review process, would be exempt from design review altogether. Those projects could be approved by the director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI).
The legislation expires after 180 days.
Councilmember Tammy Morales became the swing vote, switching to a yes after carving out an exemption for the International Special Review District (IRSD). The board will not meet for at least 60 days in order to ensure people in the Chinatown International District (CID) can weigh in on developments targeted at their neighborhood.
Many of her constituents lack access to the technology and English proficiency needed to participate in a virtual meeting, effectively cutting them out of the process altogether, Morales said at the council meeting approving the bill.
“Speeding up the administrative backlog in the name of progress often has negative consequences on communities of color,” Morales said. She noted that most of the projects proposed for the CID were market-rate housing and hotels, not the affordable housing that the community needs.
The project backlog is growing.
Roughly 20 projects with approximately 3,500 units between them were stuck in the pipeline because they could not get a decision from one of eight design review boards in the city, according to staff.
That waitlist was expected to grow by 20 projects a week, said Councilmember Dan Strauss, the sponsor of the legislation.
“This is temporary in nature. The intention of this legislation is to allow housing projects to continue moving forward through the public process in a way that preserves public input and public health,” Strauss said.
Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Lisa Herbold voted against the bills in both iterations.
Decreasing the amount of public comment on design decisions will end in worse buildings, Pedersen said.
“I find it hard to believe that projects that we cannot solve the tech challenge we have here for design review in our highly advanced tech city,” Pedersen said on April 20. “I’m concerned when there isn’t an opportunity for the public to weigh in, the quality of the housing can go down.”
The administrative review process, which most market-rate buildings would use, still invites written public comment at multiple stages.
Herbold told the public that she wanted to support it, but that a change that pushes affordable housing out of the design review process did not appear to comport with guidance from Attorney General Bob Ferguson about the kinds of legislation passed during the coronavirus emergency.
The bills must be “necessary or routine” or directly relate to addressing the coronavirus. Changing the design process to exempt affordable housing from review was an unnecessary policy change given that affordable housing projects are already prioritized in administrative review.
No one knows how long the coronavirus will shut down public meetings and other functions but getting people into housing during the pandemic is crucial to Seattle’s housing and virus-related crises, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said on April 20.
“I would propose it is precisely because of the length of time it takes to build affordable housing that is exactly why we need to include affordable housing under this umbrella of COVID being a crisis that is directly affecting whether or not people can have access to healthy, secure housing,” Mosqueda said.
Design review can take as long as a year. Delays can make projects more expensive or render them dead in the water. That’s of particular concern with affordable housing projects that already operate on tight margins and complex funding streams.
Meetings will continue without public comment until the virtual meeting space can be set up. It’s uncertain how long that will take.
April 20 was the first time in two months that the City Council had a digital system for public comment. Nearly 30 people signed up hours before the meeting took place, and all but one were able to speak.
It wasn’t completely smooth on the council’s end — at one point, Morales lost the connection and struggled to regain it in time to vote. Strauss said he dropped out of the meeting twice.
Getting a working virtual meeting system stood up will return the process to a “fairly familiar design review system,” prevent a backlog of projects from building up and help rebuild the Seattle economy, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said.
“The department should take the cue that sooner rather than later is better to set up the virtual process," Lewis said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.