Seattle – Today, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced new legislation supporting efforts to increase production of affordable housing by streamlining the design review process and decreasing the amount of time to complete new housing projects. The legislation represents the latest efforts in Mayor Harrell’s comprehensive approach to bring new solutions, drive efficiencies, and build more housing to address issues at the root of the City’s affordability and homelessness crises.
Mayor Harrell’s proposal will provide a permanent exemption for affordable rental housing from the design review process – focused largely on building aesthetics – and go further to expand this exemption to affordable home ownership projects. Temporarily allowed during COVID, this exemption has been shown to improve production speed and decrease costs, while projects still undergo essential permitting processes related to land use, building code, and health and safety.
A second bill proposes temporary provisions providing design review exemption for housing development projects with onsite performance of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirement and will allow all housing project applicants to choose a shorter administrative design review option rather than full design review.
“Establishing a more efficient and flexible review process will help us address Seattle’s urgent housing needs, significantly reducing the time between project proposal and when new housing is available for occupancy,” said Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. “This legislation is an important step in solving our growing city’s housing affordability and homelessness crisis, and we’ve already seen promising results from some of these measures during the temporary design review waiver under COVID.”
Under the temporary exemption enacted during the pandemic, Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) staff were authorized to complete design review processes through administrative design review (ADR) and allow virtual Design Review Board meetings. Previously, full design review was required for mid- and large-sized residential development projects with public review by one of the City’s Design Review Boards.
“We cannot allow self-imposed city processes to delay building the affordable homes Seattleites need and our legislation cuts bureaucratic red tape to speed the delivery of housing projects and homeownership opportunities,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6, Northwest Seattle). “I’m proud to sponsor this legislation because the family I grew up in should be able to afford to live in the Seattle of today, and tomorrow.”
“As we work to scale up our investments to meet Seattle’s growing need for affordable housing through sources like the Housing Levy legislation just passed unanimously by Council and JumpStart progressive revenue, we must simultaneously remove barriers within the city code that add time and costs to these critical projects that support the health, resilience, and stability of our community and quite literally save lives, said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (Position 8, Citywide). It’s been proven during the pandemic that we can create affordable housing that’s driven by and serves the community without long and expensive design review processes. I’m excited to support making this policy permanent to better align the city’s policies with our investments and values.”
Multiple state bills promoting housing production and streamlining permitting were passed during the last legislative session in Olympia. HB 1293 aims to shorten design review process timelines statewide. SB 5412 exempts the construction of new housing from the SEPA process, while preserving SEPA reviews at the land use policy and planning level, as well as for commercial and industrial projects.
The SEPA exemption, combined with the City’s new design review exemption legislation, could potentially cut 12-15 months off regulatory processes and provide more predictability in permitting timelines. The exemption takes effect on July 23, 2023, and will remain in effect until July 2025, when the updated Seattle comprehensive plan update provides new housing growth targets and updated SEPA thresholds. More information on 2023 SEPA exemption for Infill Housing related to SB5412 is available from the Department of Construction and Inspections.
The City’s Office of Planning and Community Development is continuing its work on the One Seattle Comprehensive Plan, an update to the City’s 20-year plan that guides decisions such as where new housing and jobs should be located, how to improve our transportation system, and where to make capital investments such as utilities, sidewalks, and libraries. A draft of the One Seattle Comprehensive Plan is expected to be released for public review this fall, with finalization of the plan by mid-2024 and new zoning legislation aligned with state legislative changes to move forward by 2025.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
Brett D’Antonio, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Seattle – King County
“By unifying the definition of affordable housing and exempting affordable home ownership projects (80% AMI) from design review, the City of Seattle has the potential to save our organization significant amounts of money and time, which allows us to bring even more affordable homeownership opportunities to families and individuals across Seattle. Ultimately, it won’t just help us build more homes – it’ll help us build more homeowners too.”
Chris Bendix, Mercy Housing / Design Review Board Member
“This legislation shows that Mayor Harrell trusts affordable housing developers to deliver high-quality projects that make a positive impact on the communities in which they’re built. Exempting affordable housing projects (including MHA on-site performance) from the design review process will result in faster permitting and lower design and construction costs—savings that will be passed on to our neighbors most in need. As a Design Review board member, I am supportive of giving up my influence over new development to help ensure we are doing everything we can to address our affordable housing crisis and ensure everyone has an affordable home.”
Terry Galiney, Seattle Housing Authority
“SHA seeks community input in designing our buildings but has found that the formal design review process is slow and costly, which hampers our ability to provide more affordable housing more quickly as we work to help alleviate our city’s shortage. With pandemic-related suspension of the design review process, we have been able to design three buildings totaling 364 affordable units without the design review process and each of these designs meet the highest urban design standards and are assets to the community. Making the exemption for affordable housing permanent will result in building more affordable units more quickly.”
Maiko Winkler-Chin, Director of the Seattle Office of Housing
“At the Office of Housing, we believe that everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home. This legislation is designed to streamline the design review process for publicly funded low-income housing, making it more predictable and efficient. In making regulations clearer and easier to understand, removing outdated sections, and providing greater flexibility in development standards, this legislation will accelerate the construction of affordable housing.”