Seattle streamlines building process for affordable housing

Affordable housing in Seattle just got another win. In a city that is in dire need of as many affordable units as possible to make up for skyrocketing living costs, the wait times for larger developments can be a major pain point for developers and future residents alike. Thankfully, the city council recently passed two new bills which will serve to speed up the development process for these critical projects.

The two new bills will allow affordable developments to bypass the lengthy design review process in favor of quicker turnaround times. Design review is the step during which developers, stakeholders and local citizens weigh in on the design and aesthetics of a project, sometimes lingering for months over details like windows and building appearance.

By some accounts, the design review step can add as much as eight to ten months to a project’s timeline. This, coupled with already lengthy permitting times and high costs can cause the budget for a project to balloon and potentially undermine it entirely.

The two new bills introduced by the Seattle City Council aim to bypass these issues entirely. The first bill simply makes a pandemic-era policy permanent; it will fully exempt affordable housing projects from design review. However, these developments will still be subject to the city’s regulations relating to land use, health and safety.

This exemption will specifically “target rental developments where at least 40% of the apartments are affordable to people making 60% of area median income, or $74,000 for a family of three, and for-sale housing developments where at least 40% of the homes are affordable to people making 80% of area median income, or $90,850 for a family of three,” according to the Seattle Times.

Given that this bill has essentially already been in effect for three years, the city reported no negative effects from this change. A total of about 725 housing units should qualify for the exemption, spread between seven to nine affordable developments.

The second bill will offer a similar exemption on a temporary basis to developments taking part in the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. Under this program, developers of market-rate projects are required to either include affordable units within their projects, or pay additional fees that will be used to fund affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

Currently, a majority of developers opt for the fees. The bill hopes to incentivize them to prioritize affordable housing by offering a design review exemption for MHA projects that include affordable units.

Although the latter bill is a two-year pilot program, these bills will help to keep affordable projects moving for the time being. Developers in the city already have to contend with high land and materials costs, zoning restrictions and finite government funds as they start building. Any move that increases access to affordable housing for the residents who need it is going in the right direction.

This article was based on information from The Seattle Times.

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