Central District couple sues Seattle over affordable housing program

A Central District couple is suing the city of Seattle over its Mandatory Housing Affordability policy, which could charge the pair more than $75,000 in permitting fees to build on their property.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Anita and Vance Adams claim the city’s 2016 policy — designed to promote affordable housing among large developers — is unconstitutional under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments and is driving displacement of homeowners. 

“The Constitution prohibits the government from using the fact that someone needs a building permit as the hook to strong-arm people into giving the city money or building housing they do not want,” said Bill Maurer, an attorney with The Institute for Justice — a national libertarian-leaning law firm – in a news release Thursday.

A spokesperson for the city attorney’s office said on Thursday that in “two prior lawsuits, constitutional claims were raised against [the program], but in neither case did the court reach the merits of those claims,” but declined to comment further on the lawsuit.

In 2016 and 2017, Seattle established the Mandatory Housing Affordability program to increase density and collect money for affordable housing through developers. In 2019, 27 neighborhoods were then upzoned, allowing developers to build taller or larger buildings.

In return, developers must either include units affordable to people who make 60% of the median income or less, or pay fees toward affordable housing to get permits in those neighborhoods. Seattle’s household median income is just over $110,000.

Despite its challenges, the program has raised significant funding — including more than $75 million in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021, developers paid more than $140 million in fees to skip adding affordable units to their buildings. So far, 116 affordable units have been added in the same time frame. 

But the Adamses say the requirements could cause them to leave their neighborhood, where they are one of the last Black families on a block that they say used to be majority Black. 

“We don’t want to leave, we want to stay here and I want my kids to live near me,” Vance Adams said. 

In 2020, Adams and his wife decided they would try to build on their existing lot to allow their children to escape the burden of finding housing in their price range, and to keep their family in the Central District where they have lived for generations. 

The Adamses have owned their South Jenkins Street home for more than 20 years, and Anita Adams grew up in the same Central District neighborhood where she raised her two children. 

They took out a second mortgage on their existing home to fund a four-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot addition for their adult children and aging parents. Then, the couple learned that they would have to pay $77,000 in fees under the affordability program to build.

“[The city] is encouraging affordable housing for who? They’re preventing displacement of who?” Anita Adams said. 

While the city’s policy allows exemptions to the developer fees, the criteria is vague and the waiver cannot be granted until an application — including pricey plans by an architect — is submitted.

For the Adamses, whose estimated project cost has gone from about $600,000 to more than $750,000 in the time they’ve been trying to fight the fees, paying tens of thousands of dollars to an architect without assurance they will get a waiver is not an option. 

Anita Adams said she was inspired to consider a lawsuit after hearing about a Highland Park couple in a similar position who had managed to get an exemption, enlisting the Institute for Justice to press the city and threatening legal action if they didn’t obtain a waiver. 

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