The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance on Dec. 13 allowing a one-year exemption to the design review process for affordable housing developers. The legislation extends an existing COVID-19-era carve out to design review for affordable housing projects.
Affordable housing projects that serve residents making 60 percent or less of the area median income would be exempt from the traditional design review process under the new law.
According to a memo from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), six affordable housing projects composed of 450 units would be exempted. The department also estimates that 19 publicly funded developments — making up 2,400 units — have benefited from the pandemic-era design review carve out.
Design review has long been a target of housing advocates and developers, who argue that the process wastes time on trivial aesthetic considerations and delays much-needed homes.
Under the current system, residents from various neighborhoods serve on volunteer design review boards, where they look at proposed large, multifamily developments and decide if aesthetic changes need to be made. Smaller buildings and single family homes are exempt from the process. One infamous example is the development of a building containing a Safeway supermarket, which was delayed for three years for, among other things, the color of brick used on the exterior.
In an op-ed on PubliCola, housing advocate Laura Loe wrote that, while the affordable housing exemption was a good start, it still leaves a lot of room for progress on reforming the design review process.
“Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either,” Loe wrote. “Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters.”
Loe also wrote that the SDCI administrative design review process, which is conducted by city staff instead of volunteer boards, has its own set of problems and must be streamlined and made more predictable.
Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored the legislation, applauded its passage in the council. In an interview with Real Change, he said that it was vital to develop more affordable housing as quickly as possible.
“With our housing shortage right now, it's just incredibly important that we continue policies that bring affordable housing online faster,” Strauss said. “Does adequate housing eliminate homelessness altogether? No. But does it reduce it fivefold? Yes.”
Read more of the Dec. 21-27, 2022 issue.