Futurewise Celebrates the Affordable Housing Design Review Exemption in Seattle

December 19, 2022

Photo by Leandre Chastagnier

Futurewise Celebrates the Affordable Housing Design Review Exemption in Seattle (CB 1204646)

After nearly two years of policy work and advocacy, we would like to celebrate the passage of CB 120464 in Seattle, which temporarily exempts affordable housing projects from Design Review and sets a workplan for comprehensive reform legislation in 2023. We’re excited to share this positive, but early, step in the larger reform efforts.

What is Design Review and Why Does it Need to Change?

Seattle’s Design Review is a locally mandated part of the permitting process that is meant to improve the exterior design of buildings using design guidelines, community input, boards, and planners. All multifamily, mixed-used, and commercial developments must pass through Design Review before they are allowed to break ground and start building.

Design Review, as it operates in Seattle, is not working. There are systematic issues with delay, unpredictability, and unaccountability that extend an already complex and lengthy permitting process. Design Review can also be opaque for community members, inhibiting diverse participation. Combined, these issues make it difficult for certain community members to participate while adding costs, delays, and hurdles to urgently needed housing. Such concerns are not new. The city attempted reforms in 2017, but some of these problems have only gotten worse.

Futurewise is a big believer in the importance of affordable housing to make cities more livable, accessible, and equitable. We also believe that land use, permitting, and review processes—such as Seattle’s Design Review— impact housing affordability. Futurewise is optimistic that Seattle can fix Design Review to be more efficient, predictable, and inclusive without sacrificing the goal of a well-designed city with unique neighborhoods.

Celebrating the Passage of CB 120464

After nearly two years of working alongside a broad base of partners in the Seattle for Everyone coalition, Futurewise has helped achieve an early, but important win for Design Review reform! On Tuesday, December 13th Seattle City Council passed CB 120464, which extends a pandemic-era exemption for affordable housing at 60% area median income and below. It also establishes a work plan to create permanent, comprehensive legislation in 2023. This gives temporary relief to some of the most urgently needed housing in the city while bolder programmatic changes are considered. This is a truly exciting step in the right direction for Seattle. Futurewise is proud of the role that we played convening stakeholders, developing policies, and advocating to City leaders for administrative and legislation solutions.

What’s Next?

We will be closely following the next stage of Seattle's Design Review reform process in 2023. If you’d like to get action alerts and updates about Design Review and other parts of our work at Futurewise, subscribe to our mailing list.