MHA: Mandatory Housing Affordability

Laura Loe
6 min readFeb 21, 2019

Washington State doesn’t have an income tax. We don’t have pots of money for important things like properly funding education. We don’t have enough money to build housing for people that are paid too little at their jobs or who do not have any income or wealth.

I believe people should have a right to housing and anyone should have the opportunity to live in Seattle, if they want to. People who have bad luck, lose their jobs, struggle with medical debt and other financial issues need to be given shelter when they can’t afford it. They also need to be given food and medical care. In one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, we can afford it.

There’s a lot of people in Seattle that might not agree with me. I hear conversations all the time that make me really worried. There’s Seattleites with permanent housing and lots of money or family wealth that perpetuate an attitude that only some people deserve to live in Seattle. They falsely believe that people have money and wealth because they “worked really hard and sacrificed” and have “worked their way up” to live in exclusive neighborhoods like Queen Anne or apartment buildings, like Escala. The implication is that people who don’t earn as much money or don’t have wealth haven’t earned the right to live in our city. I reject this kind of thinking.

I’m grateful that these toxic ideas are not the majority of my neighbors. 71% of voters approved an historic housing levy a few years ago to build deeply affordable housing. Council members who loudly speak out for building more housing in each and every neighborhood have been elected with very large percentages of the vote.

There’s been 150+ MHA public meetings and events.

Tomorrow is a critical public hearing for Mandatory Housing Affordability, MHA.

What’s MHA?

MHA stands for Mandatory Housing Affordability. MHA is a method to extract money from broken systems to fund housing for people who are unable to afford housing due to other broken systems. It is an indirect and inefficient way to redistribute wealth. It doesn’t do anything to dismantle systems of class and racial oppression.

When did MHA begin?

MHA was 1of 65 items in the 2015 roadmap to a more affordable Seattle. This roadmap is called the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, HALA. HALA is 64 recommendations plus the MHA. MHA is a framework for getting affordable housing dollars or actual affordable housing built during a “rezone”.

Rezones are when we make a plan that builders can build taller than what is currently legal. In some neighborhoods that means making it legal to build six stories instead of five and in others it means we might get 24 story buildings, or taller.

“Looking for affordable housing in Seattle? The Office of Housing has collected resources to assist low-income families to find an apartment that fits their budget and needs. The majority of these apartments are rent-restricted and require income verification.” https://www.seattle.gov/housing/renters/find-housing

Is MHA citywide?

This MHA plan will only happen in about 25% of the city. That means that when new fancy buildings are built in 75% of the city, no dollars for affordable housing will be collected.

Why is MHA so complicated?

Because of state law and who has power in our capitalist society, the City of Seattle is always worried about getting sued by developers. So this MHA plan is a ‘bargain’ with developers. It makes bigger buildings legal which is supposed to incentivize builders to contribute affordable housing dollars to the city. In about half the cases, affordable housing will get built directly inside new buildings.

FUN FACT: Washington State law forbids rent control but MHA units inside new buildings will basically be rent controlled units!

Why are you ok with the city bargaining with developers?

Opposing MHA is one of the most misguided fights I’ve seen in my life and it makes me frustrated that everyone has spent 4 years of our lives on something that will be viewed historically as the bare minimum we should have been doing to make our city more climate friendly and more economically just. Tall buildings aren’t the enemy. People that build buildings aren’t the enemy. Deep systems of inequality are destroying our ability to have societies where people look out for each other. We are engaging in the wrong fights with the wrong people on the wrong issues because the things we should be fighting about seem so unwinnable. My opinion: MHA is the bare minimum we should be doing in our dual housing and climate crises.

Here’s some things we all can agree on:

Mandatory Housing Affordability won’t keep residential and commercial tenants from being economically or physically evicted and MHA sure won’t keep corporate chains from replacing small local retail.

But guess what!? Opposing MHA won’t stop corporate chains from making our commercial corridors look like outdoor corporate malls either…. and Opposing MHA won’t stop a landlord from raising the rents or selling their buildings for redevelopment. Our favorite coffee shop could still lose their business to high rents and our favorite neighbor could still be displaced to some far flung suburb… or more upsettingly, to live in their car or outside.

I’m angry. Maybe you hate the way all new buildings look? But opposing MHA won’t stop those new buildings from all looking the same. That’s a different issue entirely!

Opposing MHA has wasted countless hours of the city staff’s time. Opposing MHA has wasted countless hours of council members’ time.

All of that energy could have been spent on many other important policies that would directly address the concerns about gentrification, displacement and houselessness … and the superficial concerns about ugly, new buildings.

Another big issue with people is… trees.

MHA dollars or affordable units included in new development won’t keep our city from losing trees to development… but stopping MHA rezones sure won’t help us with tree canopy loss either!

Some of the most egregious examples of tree canopy loss happen in the 75% of the city where we get teardowns of small houses for lot line to lot line McMansion that gets rid of the charming garden along with the beautiful trees in our communities. And those fancy luxury McMansions don’t have to pay into a fund for affordable housing or include a basement unit of affordable housing.

The rich just get richer and our policies push poor people further away. The invisible class-based walls that communities create through land use patterns are also walls that keep out non-white people. Don’t use race or social justice language to oppose MHA. That’s fake equity. Go talk to communities of color and find out what they want and need. They have the solutions and the power and the knowledge. All of the mostly white people who have the luxury to learn about land use and navigate the complexity of local city processes should be ashamed of co-opting other communities struggles as their own.

Talking about zoning is an issue mostly privileged folks are discussing. It isn’t an issue of immediate survival for those most impacted by our climate and housing crises.

Sidenote: Opposing Backyard Cottages won’t stop McMansions from replacing your charming older houses. In fact more Backyard Cottages could mean about 20% of those tear downs would be halted!

Everyone that will go to tomorrow night’s meeting to fight MHA — all this energy for the last 6% of rezones that are definitely not CITYWIDE …

I hope the anti-rezone people have all written to the legislators in Olympia and fought just as hard for eviction reforms, tenant protections, and asked that the legislature fund deeply affordable housing and make meaningful tax revenue changes that would make a dent in our need for subsidized affordable housing.

If you are one of the land owning people fighting MHA and all you’ve done is delay, delay, delay you need to be ashamed of yourself. You’re fighting the wrong fight. I used to be like you. Financial capital is global and luxury housing in the form of a condo building or a McMansion is a symbol of systemic failure, but if we stop it in one place it will just pop up somewhere else. And meanwhile people don’t have housing because we aren’t building enough housing. Stop fighting against MHA and fight for something that will actually house people.

additional reading:

The Case for Ending Apartment Bans

https://www.dataforprogress.org/housing

Google “mha seattle” for endless news articles and links to City of Seattle resources about MHA.

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Laura Loe

Laura Loe is a renter, an educator, a musician, and a gardener from Colombia/NY/LA/Chicago who has lived in Seattle for over 10 years.