Seattle Passes Design Review Reform to Streamline Construction of Affordable Housing

July 12, 2023

Office Building in Seattle's International District, with the street car and a Metro bus in the foreground

On July 5 2023, the Seattle City Council passed Council Bill 120591 and Council Bill 120581, two pieces of legislation that will remove barriers to affordable housing production in Seattle by streamlining the permitting process for new construction.

Since 2017, Futurewise has staffed the Seattle for Everyone coalition, bringing together partners across sectors who share a commitment to increasing housing affordability in Seattle. For nearly three years now, the Seattle for Everyone coalition has advocated for improvements to Seattle’s design review program. We believe that Design Review, as it currently operates in Seattle, has issues that make it difficult for many community members to participate while adding costs, delays, and hurdles to urgently needed housing.

What is Design Review?

Design review is a process set up by the city that allows community members and city officials to provide feedback on the exterior design of new construction. The goal of design review is to give community members input on the aesthetics of their neighborhood and to ensure that new multifamily and commercial buildings fit into and relate to the neighborhood. Seattle currently has 8 different design review boards that serve different neighborhoods of the city.

However, design review can add years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the construction process, slowing down the production of desperately needed new housing in Seattle. Data from ECONorthwest and shared by Futurewise’s Seattle for Everyone coalition shows that the total time to get a master use permit for new construction increased by 84% between 2010 and 2018. In 2020, the average time to complete full design review had increased to 2.2 years. The city attempted program reforms in 2017, but some program issues have only gotten worse since then.

Reforming Design Review

Since November 2020, Futurewise and Seattle for Everyone have been advocating to comprehensively reform the design review process to more inclusively reflect the needs of Seattle communities while minimizing undue barriers the process can create for housing. Futurewise is optimistic that Seattle can fix Design Review without sacrificing the goal of a well-designed city with unique neighborhoods.

In July 2023, we are thrilled that Seattle City Council passed two pieces of legislation to streamline the production of new affordable housing by changing design requirements. CB 120591 exempts affordable housing projects that have at least 40% of rental units affordable to families earning 60% AMI, and affordable homeownership projects that have at least 40% of units affordable to families earning 80% AMI. CB 120581 provides a temporary (24 month) exemption from design review for new housing projects that are participating in the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program (a previous policy priority for the Seattle for Everyone coalition!). In both cases, the aim is to streamline and expedite the construction of new affordable units, the deepest housing need in Seattle where the median new apartment rent has reached over $2,200.

Futurewise is honored to partner with organizations like Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties and the Housing Development Consortium in our advocacy.

“There is growing recognition that Seattle’s Design Review can create barriers to housing production, affordability, and access. In the shadow of an ongoing housing crisis, our coalition sees this as an important and laudable step toward comprehensive Design Review reform. We can’t control all the factors that contribute to our housing shortage and rising housing costs, but we can control how we permit and review new housing. These bills work together to make our public dollars go further in the creation of urgently needed low-income units for both rental and ownership.

This builds on a strong foundation of success; some key provisions have already been available on a temporary basis with no known adverse impacts. As we celebrate this new success, our members are thrilled that City Council will soon contemplate additional legislation to address broader Design Review program issues impacting all housing types and to comply with recent state-level Design Review reforms from HB 1293.”

- Brady Nordstrom, Futurewise Eastside Program Manager and Seattle for Everyone staffer