Seattle extends affordable housing development exemption

A pandemic-era policy designed to cut red tape on the development of affordable housing projects will be extended through 2023 in Seattle.

In their last meeting of the year, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously last week to add another year to an exemption that allows affordable housing projects to skip the lengthy, and some say needless, design review process in order to expedite the projects. The exemption may become permanent after the year.

Seattle’s Design Review Board is tasked with looking at the aesthetics and features of proposed multifamily and commercial buildings and giving input on whether they “fit into” the surrounding neighborhoods. It can take months to complete, and many housing experts, developers and advocates argue it is unnecessary – and sometimes harmful to increasing the stock of housing for people making 80% or less of the area’s household median income, which is currently just more than $110,000.

The exemption was originally passed in April 2020, and has allowed 19 developments accounting for more than 2,000 affordable housing units to go through an abridged “administrative review” instead. 

With the exemption set to end next week, 60 days after the expiration of the city’s COVID emergency order, Councilmember Dan Strauss sponsored a bill extending the exemption, and committing to “streamlining” the production of affordable housing, with support from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Mayor Bruce Harrell.

Strauss, who represents Northwest Seattle, said the city’s ability to effectively use temporary shelter to help those experiencing homelessness hinges on the timely availability of more affordable housing. He cited recent efforts to address homelessness his district, including the clearing of an estimated 80 people from Woodland Park earlier this year. 

“Our shelter capacity is pretty much at full,” Strauss said before the vote on Tuesday. “And we are better able to use our shelter resources by graduating people out of shelter and into permanent supportive and affordable housing.”

The extension was universally supported by public commenters ahead of the vote.

During the one-year extension, Strauss and Harrell say they’ll work to craft more permanent shortcuts to speed up the construction of affordable housing.

Those changes may include a permanent exemption from design review, exempting projects which use the Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce their units on site for a two-year pilot, and permitting all other housing projects to choose whether to participate in full design review or administrative design review as a two-year pilot.

“We have more work to do and will continue to advance immediate and long-term solutions to reduce bottlenecks and expand affordable housing options in our communities,” Harrell said.

Harrell has committed to creating a process through which affordable housing project permits are approved within 12 months of submission.

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