Problems in Seattle housing equity addressed in new local, federal plans

The Station luxury apartments was one of 13 rental property sites charged with discrimination last month. (Photo by Christina Twu)
The Station luxury apartment complex was one of 13 rental property sites charged with discrimination last month. (Photo by Christina Twu)

With historic redlining casting a shadow over our city, fair access to housing for Seattle’s people of color and immigrants remains a major issue. This week, federal and local long-term plans have been released to address continued disparities in housing.

On the local level, Seattle’s Housing Affordability & Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee on Monday released its 65 final policy recommendations — including some zoning changes — to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. The proposal addresses the bigger picture of institutionalized segregation in Seattle.

The plan calls for renewing and doubling Seattle’s $145 million housing levy and advocates for allowing increased density in existing single-family residential zones, which would include duplexes and triplexes.

Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the City’s goals for equity and affordability,” according to HALA’s report.

Currently about 65 percent of all Seattle’s land is zoned for single family homes, limiting how much housing is possible within the city, the report notes. The committee says this is one reason for the unavailability of housing for low-income families within city limits.

The “exclusivity of Single Family Zones limits the type of housing available for sale or rent, limits the presence of smaller format housing and limits access for those with less income,” the report states. Proposal writers say, however, that the change in zoning would still allow a homeowner the option of building a single-family home.

HALA recommends revising land codes for accessory dwelling units (commonly called “mother-in-law” apartments) and backyard cottages (also referred to as detached accessory dwelling units)  for about 120,000 single family units in Seattle. The changes could produce 4,000 or more homes within a decade.

Proposed changes include:

  • Allowing a single family housing lot to have both an ADU and a DADU, versus one or the other.
  • Allowing the units to be rented and owned separately (current law stipulates ownership, prohibits rental).
  • Adjusting development standards for the detached units, including height limits, setbacks, maximum square footage, and minimum lot size.

Murray also delivered his action plan for affordable housing based on HALA’s recommendations, and Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess is reportedly creating a new council committee on housing tasked with putting the plan into action sometime this month.

However, increasing the number of available housing units alone won’t guarantee racial equity or avoid displacing communities, HALA’s report notes, and the committee made several recommendations.

“The City should explore available data on protected classes within Seattle to determine how they have been impacted by displacement from rising rents and the impact of public resources that have been deployed to address such displacement. If additional data are needed, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights could work with a reputable academic institution to collect further data to inform policy and fair housing efforts.

“Limiting the locations where new flexibility would apply could continue patterns of exclusion,” the report states. “Therefore, monitoring of efforts to diversify housing options in single family areas should be included as the strategies are implemented. This monitoring would also be consistent with Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.”

Discrimination in rentals

The recommendations were released a month after evidence of Seattle housing discrimination was in the news.

Last month, Rainier Valley Post reported that 13 rental properties around Seattle demonstrated a pattern of housing discrimination in testing conducted by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) last year.

Two of the locations charged with housing discrimination have a history of displacement in Seattle’s South End and Central District: The Station on the corner of South Othello Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way South and Verse Seattle on the corner of Jackson Street and Twenty-Third Avenue South.

SOCR found the violations by conducting 124 tests, sending pairs of testers of different backgrounds to apply for apartments between March and July 2014 and tracking how property managers treated them.

One testing group found that 64 percent of its testing experiences showed evidence of different treatment according to the applicants’ racial background. Another found that 67 percent showed treatment differences for applicants in the gender identity group. For the sexual orientation group, 63 percent of the tests showed a difference in treatment as compared to a control group. (More details about the test results and procedure can be found here).

Twelve of the site managers of the violating properties have already agreed to a settlement to reimburse the city for the $750 cost per test administered at their site (most of them required two), to put up fair housing notices on their properties and to require that property managers undergo training in fair housing laws to avoid “implicit bias,” said Mike Chin, SOCR’s enforcement manager.

The holdout is challenging the settlement and is still under investigation by the Washington State Human Rights Commission. SOCR will fine this site an additional $1,000 for “frustration of mission and purpose,” Chin said.

The tests were funded through a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and $50,000 in city money approved by the City Council.

The tests based on sexual orientation and gender identity are new, resulting from a new HUD rule prohibiting public housing providers from discriminating based on these identifiers, said Chin.

SOCR plans to continue to address housing discrimination with a Fair Housing Campaign aimed at both landlords and renters. This will consist of an ad campaign, workshops open to everyone and a Fair Housing Hotline.

On the federal level, U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a new rule last week aimed at tackling institutional racial segregation across the country. According to the Washington Post, cities like Seattle that receive HUD funding must publicly report evidence of patterns of racial bias in housing and set goals for reducing segregation, or risk losing federal housing funding.

By collecting data from various cities, HUD plans to assess “patterns of integration and racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty, disproportionate housing needs, and disparities in access to opportunity,” according the the HUD policy site.

“Inevitably, that means an office like ours is going to be looking at those HUD rules, working with others in departments like the Office of Housing to develop long-term, big-picture strategies to promote housing equity,” said Elliott Bronstein, SOCR’s public information officer.

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1 Comment

  1. I am writing a paper on actions people can take to create positive socio-economic change in Seattles Central district. Do you have any good resources or organizations you could recommend? Thanks!

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