Morning Crank: Public Land for the Public Good

1. City Council member Teresa Mosqueda will introduce affordable-housing legislation that could have major implications for one of the largest land holders in the city, Seattle City Light. Mosqueda’s bill would allow City Light to sell its surplus land to affordable-housing developers for less than market value—all the way down to the amount the city originally paid for the land—and would require City Light to do so if the agency committed to build housing making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. (That latter part may be up for negotiation.) For example, if City Light bought a piece of property in South Lake Union 60 years ago for a few thousand dollars, and the land is now worth millions, a nonprofit that agreed to build deeply affordable housing could buy it for the original, decades-old price.

The proposal, if it passes, will mark a significant change in the city’s policy for disposing of excess City Light land, and could invite a court challenge. Currently, the city requires property owned by its electric utility to be sold at fair-market value, thanks to a 2003 ruling striking down a fee City Light imposed to install and maintain streetlights. That ruling found that City Light could not charge ratepayers for any purpose other than providing utilities, and forced the agency to return $24 million to Seattle residents. Mosqueda’s legislation would change this disposition policy. However, Mosqueda’s office maintains that a separate ruling in 2013, in which the state supreme court disagreed with Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman’s claim that it was illegal to build light rail over I-90 because the bridge was built with gas taxes, which are supposed to be spent only on road purposes, establishes a precedent for City Light to sell its property at below-market value once that property is paid off and declared surplus to the city’s purposes.

Separately, Mosqueda’s office says she will introduce legislation that would encourage all city agencies that own surplus land to  give away or sell this excess property for below-market values to public agencies or nonprofit housing providers that agree to use the land to build affordable housing. The legislation comes in response to a new state law, House Bill bill passed by the state legislature last year allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.  Mosqueda’s proposal would also allow agencies, including nonprofits to exercise this right even if they don’t have all the money in hand or haven’t secured a development partner.

“Through smart management of public land, and using surplus and underutilized public land for the best public good, we can reduce the cost of building the affordable housing our communities need,” Mosqueda says. “This will also help us realize more community-led affordable housing and small-business development” by giving housing providers more time to pull together funding and development plans for properties that become available.

According to the latest city land inventory, there are about 35 pieces of city-owned land larger than 15,000 square feet that are surplus, “excess,” or underutilized, although some are outside Seattle and not all are suitable for housing development.

2. As I noted on Twitter last week, the anti-head tax campaign formed on May 18 and achieved its goal of repealing the tax on June 12. In the course of their brief effort, they spent nearly half a million dollars, according to their latest filing at the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission—more than most of last year’s city council candidates spent in a year-long campaign.

Morning Crank: Isn’t It Weird That…

Image: Low-Income Housing Institute

As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…

So: Isn’t It Weird That…

The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?

The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.

In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”

When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites,  he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.

But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.

Speaking of LIHI,  Isn’t It Weird That…

Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee?  What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.

“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”

Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other  Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):

• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation

• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation

•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation

• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.

And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”

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Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and  growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?

Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-daily updates on an unsightly encampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:

1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco,  one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That  quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that  “our city is out of control.”

2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.

3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.

It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.

* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.

Morning Crank: “Poor People Are People”

KIRO’s Jason Rantz was there, too.

1. A sharply divided standing-room-only crowd gathered last Thursday at 415 Westlake—an airy South Lake Union events center that ordinarily hosts weddings, fundraisers, and bat mitzvahs—and both sides came ready to shout. About 200 people (including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant) crammed into the space, many of them jostling for standing room in the back, to hear a presentation on a proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union and register their support or protest. Representatives from a new group called Unified Seattle handed out fact sheets and glossy campaign-style signs to fellow tiny-house opponents in the audience—a stark contrast to the hand-drawn, crayon-colored reading “We Welcome Our New Neighbors” that supporters of another tiny house village, at 18th and Yesler, held aloft at a similar meeting last month.  Unified Seattle—a group that, according to its website, includes Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and until last week also listed Speak Out Seattle among its backers—purchased Facebook ads to encourage people to show up at the meeting. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” the event page urged.

The “village”—a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that will occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street that was previously used as a parking lot—is the subject of a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, a statewide group that is best known for trying to thwart the Service Employees International Union from organizing home health care workers; according to the Seattle Times, the suit contends that the city did not adequately inform the community of the proposal, did not do a required environmental review, and has exceeded the maximum number of tiny house villages allowed under city law. The opening date for the encampment, (originally scheduled for July, then quietly bumped to November in the latest version of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” plan) could end up getting pushed back even further.

As of January 2018, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle; All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is in reality higher.

Opponents of the tiny house village, which would be run by the Low-Income Housing Institute and would provide temporary shelter to about 65 people, focused on the fact that the encampment will not be an explicitly clean and sober environment; although drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in all common areas (and smoking prohibited throughout the site), LIHI will not go into people’s individual sheds and search for contraband, which means, in practice, that people can drink and use drugs in the houses. When Seattle homelessness strategy division director Tiffany Washington noted that this is precisely the city’s policy for dealing with people who live in regular homes (“If I’m using drugs in my house, how will you know?”)—opponents in the crowd erupted in shouts and boos. “The taxpayers don’t pay for your house!” someone yelled. “I provide my kids with rules,” a speaker said moments later, adding that if he thought they were up to no good, “I might search the room.” That prompted another shout from the back: “They’re not kids!”

Elisabeth James, one of the leaders of Speak Out Seattle, suggested that the city would be foolish to give up the revenue it receives from the parking lot where the village would be located. “I look at this parking lot that generates over a million dollars a year, then we’re going to give up that and pay to house people on a parking lot? That seems like a waste of money to me,” she said. Brandishing a four-page, folded color flyer that LIHI handed out at the meeting, James continued, “I look at this fancy folder that you guys have and I think this is a waste of money! And this is one of the reasons that the neighbors are so upset and frustrated.”

Another neighbor, condo owner and retired police officer Greg Williams, suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment. “They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us to offset” what they cost the community Williams said. “We don’t live free. Why should they live free? If they want to do something, get that experience of a job. Get that experience having to be somewhere on time every day.” According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home King County, 20 percent of King County’s homeless residents have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they became homeless; and 45 percent were actively looking for work.

Many people wanted to know whether LIHI or the city would be doing “background checks” on the people who want to live in the village, either to see whether they have active warrants inside or outside Washington State, or to determine whether they are local residents, as a way of weeding out homeless people who aren’t “from here.” The short answer to each question is that the city won’t exclude anyone, except registered sex offenders, from shelter because of their criminal history, and they can’t exclude people based on where they came from, because that would be housing discrimination. The longer answer is that homeless people frequently have criminal records because of minor, nonviolent offenses, either because they committed low-level crimes like shoplifting or because they violated laws against loitering, lying down, sleeping, urinating, or having an open container in public. (Open containers are illegal for everybody, but homeless people are uniquely unable to drink, or perform many other activities housed people take for granted anywhere but in public.) Basically any activity that housed people do in the privacy of their own homes becomes illegal when you do it in public; denying shelter to every homeless person who has been caught doing one of these things and locking them in jail instead would be a logistical and civil-rights nightmare, not to mention a tremendous burden on public resources.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort. Hodes made an impassioned plea for the people who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out  that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.” “She’s saying nasty things! She’s attacking us!” members of the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience shouted.

Image via Fourth and Madison Building, fourthandmadison.com

2. The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is proposing changes to the existing incentive zoning program for commercial properties, which allows developers to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable child care and housing. OCPD strategic advisor Brennon Staley presented the proposed changes, which are aimed at making the city’s various incentive zoning programs more consistent and easier to use, to the Seattle Planning Commission last Thursday.

Although most of the changes won’t have an immediate, dramatic impact on the street level in places like downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District (making it easier for developers to preserve historic buildings and affordable housing through transfers of development rights, for example, will have the result of keeping the streetscape the same), one change that could make a visible impact is the proposed update to the city’s privately owned public space (POPS) program. POPS, which developers are required to provide as part of any new development, are often hard to find, hostile to the general public, and inaccessible outside business hours. (The quintessential example is the 7th-floor plaza at the Fourth and Madison Building, accessible only from inside the building and marked only by a small sign  at the building’s base. Thank former city council member Nick Licata for that modest marker!)

The proposed changes would provide more flexibility for developers to build smaller, more flexible open spaces, allow cafes, movable seating, and games to help “activate” smaller public spaces, and require that all privately owned public spaces be open between 6am and 10pm, the same hours as public parks. One commissioner, Amy Shumann, suggested that OCPD require larger signs than the small, green-and-white markers that currently point pedestrians to these spaces; another, David Goldberg, asked whether developers might be able to pay a fee instead of providing open space on site, an idea Staley shot down by pointing out that when the city has tried to do this kind of program in the past, they’ve ended up having to give the money back because they haven’t been able to collect enough money to build the spaces elsewhere.

Fact-Checking the Weekly’s Fact Check On My Fact Check (Yes, We’re Talking About YIMBYs)

Last Friday, Seattle Weekly appended a lengthy editor’s note to its error-riddled story about Seattle’s YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement, which was written by a California activist who wrote an article last year asserting that YIMBYs are members of the “alt-right.” 

After a couple of perfunctory corrections (more on those in a moment), the editor’s note spends four paragraphs chiding me for a post I wrote fact-checking the Weekly’s piece and pointing out the ways in which the writer misrepresented himself to people he interviewed and mischaracterized the views of groups with which he disagreed.

This post is my response to the Weekly’s “Editorial Response,” which ran in both the print and online editions of the paper.

The note begins by arguing that my “criticism … relies heavily on her own imagined projections about how the story was put together.”

For example, Barnett suggests that we were completely unaware of the writer’s background and should’ve “googled him.” That’s simply not true. We were aware that Meronek (a San Francisco-based, Seattle native) had written articles in the past that had drawn the ire of people within the YIMBY movement. Perhaps that could’ve been framed better, but the idea that a reporter shouldn’t be able to write on a topic because of backlash they’ve received from the subject’s side would have a chilling effect (it would be incredibly difficult to write about the current Presidential administration, for example).

Well, I am just a silly girl given to flights of fancy and “imagined projections,” but even my ladybrain is capable of parsing that paragraph: The Weekly is saying that their editor, Seth Sommerfeld, was familiar with Meronek’s work, and was aware that it had caused an uproar because Meronek got a bunch of facts wrong, mischaracterized people’s comments and views, and made outrageous statements about YIMBYs, the subject of his piece. (Just this week, Meronek accused San Francisco YIMBYs of ethnic cleansing on his Twitter feed.)  He knew about Meronek’s error-riddled polemic calling YIMBYs members of the “alt-right.” He knew, too, about Meronek’s piece arguing that YIMBYs’ “politics are rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan.” He dismissed attempts to fact-check Meronek’s polemics by women (they were all women) in the Bay Area as “ire” aimed at a writer whose perspective they just didn’t like. And he decided Meronek would be a great person to cover the YIMBY movement in Seattle.

Given all that, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my suggestion that the Weekly could have found a local reporter, with actual reporting credentials, would get me compared to Trump. After all, isn’t suggesting that reporters ought to meet some basic standards—like characterizing people accurately, getting their facts straight, and not misrepresenting themselves to people they interview—exactly the same thing as saying that people whose opinions are controversial should be banned from writing? It’s like I always say: If you piss anyone off with your writing, you should pick another profession, because the point of journalism is to make everybody happy. Oh, wait. I don’t say that. In fact, some days I feel like my Twitter feed, emails, and comments are just a firehose of vitriol. If you aren’t pissing anyone off, you aren’t doing your job. The problem with Meronek isn’t that he made all those YIMBYs in California mad. The problem is that he misrepresented himself, mischaracterized them, and got a ton of verifiable facts wrong—and then came and did the same thing here.

The paragraph about the Central District being even more cost-prohibitive for people of color due to market-rate development (which is factual) at no point says that it’s the only reason for the demographic shift in the neighborhood. Barnett goes on for paragraphs about the issue, but this article wasn’t about the Central District, so a comprehensive history would’ve been a diversion.

First: Just saying something is “factual” doesn’t make it true (my post outlines, apparently at great length, why this claim is not supported by facts.) Second: I wasn’t asking for a “comprehensive history” of the Central District, nor did I attempt to provide one, even if I did “go on for paragraphs” (two) about Meronek’s error. My point was that Meronek’s claim that recent market-rate development has forced people out of the Central District is simply inaccurate, belied by history; market-rate development in the Central District is a very recent development, and at the risk of quoting from the piece where I apprently droned on for so long even Seattle Weekly got bored, my issue with Meronek’s claim was that the Central District began gentrifying dramatically years ago, thanks largely to high taxes, poor loan terms, and a lack of affordable housing. I don’t think the Weekly needed to publish a “comprehensive history” of the Central District. I think taking out the section that blamed the recent “unleash[ing] of market-rate development” on the area for gentrification that started 30 years ago (and maybe not referring to the area as “The District”) would have sufficed.

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In regards to the email contact between Seattle Weekly and Sightline, the numbers and money flow regarding Sightline and Good Ventures were corrected and clarified in a previous update. The quote about a “matter of perception” was willfully taken out of context and had nothing to do with Sightline’s money, but was a response to the other portions of the Sightline email which were not mentioned. (While Barnett was in contact with Sightline, she made no effort to contact Seattle Weekly.)

The issue wasn’t “the numbers and money flow”; the issue was the outrageous claim that Alan Durning, Sightline’s director, had “funneled at least 1.3 million dollars to YIMBY organizations through the charity Good Ventures, founded by Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz.” This suggests that Durning, and Sightline, have directed out-of-town money through mysterious channels to shady groups (the “shady” is implied). The fact that the reverse is true (Good Ventures/Open Philanthropy gave Sightline a total of $800,000 in two chunks over three years) isn’t just a matter of fixing “the numbers and money flow”; any correction should also correct the original implication, not just the direction the money went.

Sommerfeld accuses me of “willfully taking” his email to Sightline “out of context.” My response to that one is simple: The email is short, I characterized it accurately, and I took nothing out of context, “willfully” or otherwise. Here’s how I described Sommerfeld’s response to the error (which was, at least initially, to add up a bunch of numbers that didn’t actually total $1.3 million and claim that no error existed):

This is confirmed by an email from Weekly editor Seth Sommerfield to Sightline, in which Sommerfield explained that the $1.3 million number was “the approximate sum of these grants specifically: Sightline $350,000 10/17; East Bay Forward $40,000 4/17;  Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. $300,000 7/16; California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund $300,000 6/16; Sightline $450,000 10/15.” … Sommerfeld then said that any issues with the way the Weekly characterized Sightline were just “a matter of your perception, not based on false reporting.”

And here’s the entire email from Somerfeld to Kelsey Hamlin, Sightline’s communications associate:

Finally, the Weekly is bent out of shape that I didn’t contact them directly when fact-checking their story. This is a weird objection. A fact-checker is no more obligated to contact the author of an erroneous piece to go over his errors with him (or with his editor) than a reporter citing a set of statistics in a government document is obliged to contact the author of the report. Facts are either right or wrong. To use another Trump analogy, it’s like insisting that NPR’s crack annotation team get the president  on the phone when they know he’s lying to give him a chance to explain his own interpretation of the facts.

And speaking of which, the story is still wrong. In the original version of his piece, Meronek claimed that a single, childless person making up to $84,000 would be eligible for affordable housing through the city’s inclusionary zoning program, which he described as a program where “developers must set aside a few units in new condo complex as below-market-rate.” This was wrong on a whole bunch of levels: “New condo complexes” aren’t getting built in Seattle, for a whole bunch of reasons, and Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, creates rental units, not condos. (Inclusionary zoning is a catchall term for programs that give developers height and density bonuses in exchange for paying into an affordable housing fund or building affordable units on site.) The Office of Housing does invest in homeownership programs, for which a single person making up to $84,000 would be eligible, but those are separate from MHA. Only people making up to 80 percent of median income, or about $56,200 for a single person, can qualify for MHA. So that whole section is a mess.

But the “corrected”version  actually compounds the error:

Another solution would be to put more controls on who can apply for the city’s major affordable-housing push: inclusionary zoning, wherein developers must set aside a few units in new condo complexes as below-market-rate. As it stands, in Seattle an unmarried, childless buyer can make up to $84,000—or 120 percent of the area median income—and still be eligible for this affordable housing via the Multifamily Tax Exception. (Under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, renters making around $40,000—which is 60 percent area median income—are considered eligible for this affordable housing.) 

His description of inclusionary zoning is still inaccurate, but now even more confusing (and inaccurate). People making up to 120 percent of median can indeed qualify for homeownership assistance under the Multifamily Tax Exemption (not “tax exception”) program, but that program—which provides a property tax exemption to developers who agree to set aside some units as affordable for 12 years—isn’t an inclusionary zoning program. It has nothing to do with zoning at all.

Oh, and $40,000 is not 60 percent of the Seattle area median income; the real number is $42,150.

My point in pointing all this out isn’t to gloat or suggest that I don’t make errors, or that I never inadvertently mischaracterize people’s positions. Believe me, I do—every reporter does. The responsible thing to do when that happens, though, is to quickly make sure you understand what the facts are and why you got them wrong, append a correction/retraction identifying and addressing the specific error, express regret, and try to do better in the future. Not issue a condescending editor’s note accusing the person who pointed those errors out of imagining things, taking quotes “out of context,” and trying to stifle free speech, of all things, by suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to report on a topic if they’ve ever elicited a “backlash.” That kind of stuff may get clicks, but it doesn’t build long-term trust in your publication—and it may elicit a backlash of its own.

Looking for Common Ground Between Anti-Tax and Pro-Housing Advocates

During the overheated debate about the head tax—a tax on high-grossing businesses that would have funded housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population—it was easy to see the overlap between neighborhood groups that opposed the head tax and neighborhood groups that oppose zoning changes on the grounds that density will ruin the “character” of their exclusive single-family neighborhoods. Anxiety about visible homelessness and anxiety about visible renters often takes a similar tone: Spending on homelessness will encourage more of “those” people to come to Seattle, and allowing triplexes or apartment buildings in single-family areas will allow more of “those” people to live in “our” neighborhood. As SEIU 775 president David Rolf told the Seattle Times , the companies that funded the head tax repeal campaign “targeted conservative voters, residents who miss old Seattle and people upset over street camping, among others. ‘They figured out how to knit those groups together[.]'”

At the same time, I noticed a surprising counter-trend among some head tax opponents: While they expressed many of the same reasons as traditional neighborhood activists for opposing the tax (bad for business, the city needs to show progress before we give it more money, and so forth), they also argued that the city should open up its restrictive zoning codes to allow more housing in all parts of the city—an idea that’s anathema to most traditional neighborhood groups. (The first time I heard this argument, as it happened, was during an over-the-top vitriolic town hall meeting in Ballard, from a guy who kept screaming directly in my ear, “NO HEAD TAX! CHANGE THE ZONING!”) This is an argument you hear all the time from urbanists and YIMBYs—who, generally speaking, support policies that encourage more housing at every income level—but I’d never heard it coming to someone who opposed a tax that would have paid for housing. I wondered: Could this be a rare area of common ground between anti-tax and pro-housing advocates?

So I put a call out on Twitter, asking people to contact me if they opposed the head tax and supported reducing restrictions on where housing could be built in Seattle. Quite a few people got back to me, and I had a number of interesting offline conversations from people who didn’t want to be quoted, but who gave me some hope that even in the absence of new revenues to address our current crisis (revenues, I should add, that I still think are desperately needed), progress is still possible.  This isn’t data—the people who responded, all men, represent a tiny, self-selected slice of the larger group of Seattle residents who oppose the head tax and support density—but it is an interesting look at why at least some people who opposed this specific tax are open to other solutions, and why increased density might be an area where people on both sides of the head tax issue can agree.

“Deliberately Divisive”

Mark (not his real name) is a thirtysomething tech worker and longtime Seattle resident who lives on Capitol Hill. He considers himself socially liberal and fiscally conservative—the kind of person who votes for taxes if he thinks they will make an actual, measurable dent in solving the problem they’re supposed to solve. Mark says he opposed the head tax because the spending plan for the tax failed to identify how it would address different homeless populations with different needs (people in active addiction or with debilitating mental illness will need different approaches than, say, someone who has just lost their job and is living in their car); because the city isn’t acknowledging or addressing the problems created by tent encampments; and because he doesn’t trust the city council, particularly Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant, to spend the money well.

“In my time as a Seattleite, I’ve never seen council members as deliberately divisive as those two, and they’ve fractured the council into a group of individuals who can’t actually accomplish anything. I miss folks like Tim Burgess and Nick Licata (and on the KCC side, Dow Constantine). I often disagreed with their opinions, but they were truly interested in talking with everyone and doing what was best for the city,” Mark says. He believes that O’Brien and Sawant “would rather fund an  ineffective solution than release information that reveals it’s ineffective, and continue to willfully ignore encampments as long as homelessness or even affordable housing hasn’t been solved.”

Mark says he would “love to see …  a significant city-wide upzone.” He believes 2015’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which recommended upzoning a tiny sliver of Seattle’s single-family areas, is “laughably inadequate” and that the “grand bargain,” in which developers agreed to pay into an affordable housing fund (or build affordable housing on site) in exchange for higher density, has failed. “The HALA Committee proposal left too much of the city untouched, and what was passed was a notch above nothing.” While it’s reasonable to debate the maximum height of buildings in different areas, he says, “What isn’t reasonable is the city acting like it’s still 1995 (and yes, I lived here then), nor using its own policies to protect certain groups at the expense of others. Just like it would be insane for the city to say ‘You can’t build a single family house here,’ it’s insane to say ‘You can’t build a multifamily building here.'”

“At some level, we need to acknowledge that not everyone who wants to live in Seattle is going to be able to afford it, let alone be able to afford a place they want to live in. I’d love for that threshold to be as low as we can practically make it; IMO, re-zoning is the single biggest impact we can make on that, followed by allowing smaller units (pods), and incredibly, both of those are free to do.”

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“There Is No Plan”

Neil, who owns a duplex and four-unit apartment building on Beacon Hill (and lives, with his wife, in one of the apartments), has worn a lot of hats in his life: Business owner, CPA, landlord—he even ran a “distressed fishing lodge” in Alaska for a number of years. An independent who mostly votes for Democrats, he says he has supported most of Seattle’s recurring tax levies, but voted against the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure “because of my frustration with recent governance in Seattle, and [because] the $50 billion price tag was too big to decipher.”

Neil says the main reason he opposed the head tax was because it was “too small,” because it applied only to a narrow group of businesses (those with gross receipts above $20 million a year), and because he did not have confidence that the city council and the progressive revenue task force that recommended the tax were starting with the right goals or had the right expertise for the job. “The annual tax raised by the original [head tax] proposal [during last year’s budget discussions] was $24 million, then it was $75 million but really needed to be $150 million but they settled with $47 million.  My observation: The council concentrates more on how much money they can generate rather than what is needed and how it will be used.  Whether real or perceived, it feeds the narrative of ‘there is no plan,'” he says. Additionally, he says, council members and advocates who campaigned for the head tax by vilifying Amazon were being “cynical and destructive to the well being of Seattle. … Good policy should stand on its own, at least in principle.”

Neil, unlike Mark, doesn’t support major citywide upzones; he thinks that allowing more attached and detached accessory dwelling units (backyard and basement apartments) in single-family areas, and implementing the HALA recommendations throughout the city, will do a lot to address the current housing shortage. “Personally, I am fine living in and amongst apartments,” he says.  “But my situation is unique and we are not surrounded by five-story buildings.  ADU[s and] DADU[s] seem to be low-impact personal housing alternatives. [They] also promote investment and vitality at a neighborhood level.”

“We Need WAY More Density”

Jeff, a software engineer who has lived in Seattle twice, for a total of about 15 years, owns a house in the Green Lake/Roosevelt area, on a block where two single-family homes are being torn down and replaced with larger single-family houses. He says that although he has consistently voted to raise taxes for housing, education, and transportation, he opposed the head tax because he “disliked the ‘stick it to the rich’ sentiments behind” it, and believes it punishes high-grossing, low-margin businesses, like grocery stores and restaurants. (Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s hamburger chain Dick Spady, made this argument in his PR campaign against the tax, for which his consulting firm was  paid at least $20,000).

Jeff believes that, had the head tax passed, companies might choose to locate in the suburbs, rather than in the city proper, working “against the trend towards a higher density city, which is the direction I think we should be moving in. ”

“I think we need WAY more density,” Jeff says. “Traffic sucks, but high density should make transit more viable and also means there are enough people within walking distances to support local businesses without driving.” In particular, he says he would support removing “almost all” restrictions on basement and backyard apartments in single-family areas, allowing row houses and triplexes in those areas, getting rid of parking mandates for new developments, and reducing restrictions on efficiency apartments and rooming houses, which “traditionally have provided housing for low-income people.”

“For those currently on the street, even building complexes of semi-permanent buildings with sanitary facilities and availability to drug treatment would be a step up,” Jeff says. “I don’t know the costs and also there are some that wouldn’t want to go there, but people setting up camp in the parks and on highway medians isn’t acceptable for them or for everyone else.” Locking people up when they refuse to go into shelter or treatment is too expensive, doesn’t work, and leads to a lifetime of misery, Jeff says. “We can offer people something pretty good for much less than the cost of prison.”

“Upzone Like Crazy”

Andrew is a longtime Seattle resident who lives in a townhouse in South Seattle and works in finance for a telecomm company in Factoria. He says he’s “definitely on the liberal end of the spectrum—he voted for Cary Moon in the primary and general elections last year—but he “tend[s[ not to support the kinds of solutions provided by Kshama Sawant or Nikkita Oliver that engage in class warfare at the expense of good, progressive policy.”

Andrew’s concern about the head tax stemmed from the fact that it “appeared largely to demonize Amazon despite its broad impact on large headcount businesses that don’t necessarily share Amazon’s profit structure. … It is not, generally speaking, the fault of business that the city has not absorbed its growing population or kept housing in check,” he says. Another problem with the head tax, he says, was that its spending plan would have gone all-in on building new housing (which can cost more than $300,000 a unit) instead of spending more on less-expensive solutions like services, diversion, treatment, and rent subsidies until housing supply can catch up with demand.

To that end, Andrew says, “the city needs to upzone like crazy. … I honestly see no reason why all of the single-family zones in the city shouldn’t be upzoned to” low-rise 2 or low-rise 3, which would allow townhouses and two- or three-story apartment buildings. “My townhome has earned as much money in appreciation as I have at my six-figure job in the two years we’ve lived here” thanks in no small part to Seattle’s housing shortage, he says. “This is ridiculous rent-seeking and I don’t need it, nor does any other homeowner who bought in the good old days”. I would rather see housing prices decline to 2010 levels in the city if it meant that everyone had a place to live.”

“In my ideal world, people would be prohibited from living on the street because we had ample shelter, services, care, and support to provide to them through official channels. Only then do we have the right to chase them from view.”

“A More Collaborative Process”

Ian, a city employee who lives in a four-bedroom house in North Seattle with his wife, two children, elderly in-laws, and a roommate, has always voted for every housing, education, and transportation levy, but says he has started considering such measures more carefully in recent years, given the rising cost of living in Seattle. He opposed the head tax because of its potential to cause what he calls “collateral damage”—impacts on companies other than Amazon and “Big Tech” firms that could have easily absorbed the cost of the $275-per-employee tax.

For example, Ian says, “I have a friend who’s a longtime Nucor employee; apparently his management told them point blank that if the tax had passed in its original ($500) form, the plant would close. That mill’s been here for over a century and is not part of the reason why housing and living costs have skyrocketed, so why ‘punish’ them and their employees? How many other businesses like that would meet a similar fate?” Ian says he was also concerned that grocery chains would have increased prices to offset the tax, which would have disproportionately impacted homeless and rent-burdened people. (This was a point hammered home by head tax opponents, who frequently argued that the cost of groceries would go up if the tax passed. Before the head tax was repealed, a phone survey asked Seattle residents whether they would be more or less likely to support the tax if they knew it would raise their grocery prices.)

Ian, like  Neil, believes the progressive revenue task force was the wrong approach; if the city wanted to come up with a tax that would enjoy wide support, he suggests, they should have created  “a more collaborative process, like what happened for the minimum wage increase. I thought it was weird that the Council didn’t pursue a similar strategy for the head tax, and cagey that the Council seemed to avoid talking about which specific business would actually be affected outside of the tech industry.” As I noted after Amazon and other big businesses launched their formal campaign to kill the head tax, former mayor Ed Murray took a much different approach to passing the $15 minimum wage, bringing reluctant businesses, labor groups, and activists to the table to hammer out a compromise everyone was willing to sign off on before rolling it out in a press conference that featured some of the same players who gave thousands of dollars to the anti-head tax campaign.

Ian supports “eliminating single family residential zoning in its current form” altogether, but adds, “I don’t think that the market will solve affordability by itself; having worked in private sector construction management, I know for a fact that it won’t. Developers primarily want to build more expensive housing for incoming tech workers and that’s not going to change any time soon. But zoning changes could still have a significant effect on availability and pricing.” This is the argument made by many urbanists, who point out that if developers can’t or don’t provide huge amounts of housing at the high end to accommodate the thousands of new workers who move to Seattle every year, they will be forced to compete for existing mid-range housing, driving up prices all the way down the line. And today’s high-end housing is tomorrow’s mid-range housing. Ian also supports “open[ing] up City-owned land for dedicated low-income housing development, to help more people on the edge keep from falling into homelessness.” A new law that just went into effect this month allows government agencies, including the city, to provide land to housing developers for free if it fulfills a public purpose; this could lead to more housing on public land, and will, in theory, create an incentive for the city to hang on to property it owns instead of selling it to the highest bidder for a one-time profit.

Morning Crank: “Crime-Infused Shack Encampments”

“URGENT…tell them NO!”—the message of every call to action by anti-homeless groups in Seattle

1. A new group calling itself Unified Seattle has paid for Facebook ads urging people to turn up in force to oppose a new tiny house encampment in South Lake Union. The ads include the line “SOLUTIONS NOT SHACKS,” a reference to the fact that the encampments are made up of small wooden structures rather than tents. The encampment, which was funded as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” strategy, will include 54 “tiny houses” and house up to 65 people; it may or may not be “low-barrier,” meaning that it would people with active mental illness or addiction would be allowed to stay there. A low-barrier encampment at Licton Springs, near Aurora Avenue in North Seattle, has been blamed for increased crime in the area, although a recent review of tiny house villages across Seattle, including Licton Springs, found that the crime rate typically goes down, not up, after such encampments open.

“URGENT community meeting on NEW Shack Encampment this Thursday, June 28!” the ad says. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” Despite the reference to “our neighborhood,” the ads appear to directed at anyone who lives “near Seattle.” Another indication that Unified Seattle is not a homegrown South Lake Union group? Their website indicates that the group is sponsored by the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Safe Seattle, and Speak Out Seattle, all citywide groups in existence long before the South Lake Union tiny house village was ever announced.

“The city has imposed an unconstitutional income tax on residents which was ultimately struck down by the courts,” the website claims. “It passed a job-killing head-tax that was embarrassingly repealed. Now, it has undertaken a campaign to seize valuable land and build crime-infused shack encampments to house city homeless. All this in the course of six months.”  The income tax, which actually passed a year ago and was struck down by a court, was never implemented. The head tax was never implemented, either. And no land is being “seized” to build the encampment; the land is owned by the city of Seattle.

The meeting is on Thursday night at 6pm, at 415 Westlake Avenue N.

2. Overshadowed by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump’s Muslim Ban 3.0 was another ruling that could have significant implications for pregnant women in King County. The Court’s ruling in NIFLA v. California struck down a state law requiring that so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—fake clinics run by anti-choice religious organizations that provide false and misleading information to pregnant women in an effort to talk them out of having abortions—post signs saying what services they do and don’t provide. In its 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the California law violated the center’s First Amendment rights (to lie to women).

Earlier this year, the King County Board of Health adopted a rule requiring so-called crisis pregnancy centers to post signs that say “This facility is not a health care facility” in 10 different languages. Crisis pregnancy centers typically offer sonograms, anti-abortion “counseling,” and misinformation about the risks associated with abortion, including (false) claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer and a higher risk of suicide.

In a statement, Board of Health director and King County Council member Rod Dembowski said that he and the county’s legal team were mindful of the California challenge when drafting the rule. “We intentionally crafted King County’s rule to be less broad than the California … requirements, while still ensuring that women who are or may be pregnant understand that limited service pregnancy centers are not health care facilities,” Dembowski said. “If we need to fine tune the particulars of the form of the disclosure, we will do so.  Regardless, I am optimistic that the County’s more narrow regulation that was supported with a strong factual record is constitutional and will remain in place.”

3. A presentation by the city’s Human Services Department on how well its programs are performing supported the narrative that the Pathways Home approach to getting people off the streets, which emphasizes rapid rehousing and diversion programs over temporary shelter and transitional housing, is working. But it continued to raise a question the city has yet to answer directly: What does the city mean by “permanent housing,” and how does they know that people who get vouchers for private-market apartments through rapid rehousing programs remain in their apartments once their voucher funding runs out?

According to HSD’s first-quarter performance report, which department staffers presented to the council’s housing committee on Tuesday, 83 percent of people in rapid rehousing ended up in “permanent housing” after their vouchers ran out. Meanwhile, according to HSD director Jason Johnson, aggregated data suggests that 95 percent of the people enrolled in rapid rehousing were still housed after six months. In contrast, the department found that just 59 percent of people in transitional housing moved directly into permanent housing, and that just 3.8 percent of people in basic shelter did so, compared to more than 20 percent of people in “enhanced” shelter with 24/7 capacity and case management. Ninety-eight percent of people in permanent supportive housing were counted as “exiting” to permanent housing, giving permanent supportive housing the best success rate of any type of program.

However, there are a few factors that make those numbers somewhat less definitive than they sound. First of all, “permanent housing” is not defined as “housing that a person is able to afford for the long term after his or her voucher runs out”; rather, the term encompasses any housing that isn’t transitional housing or shelter, no matter how long a person actually lives in it. If your voucher runs out and you get evicted after paying the rent for one month, then wind up sleeping on a cousin’s couch for a while, that still counts as an exit to permanent housing, and a rapid rehousing success.

Second, the six-month data is aggregated data on how many people reenter King County’s formal homelessness system; the fact that a person gets a voucher and is not back in a shelter within six months does not automatically mean that they were able to afford market rent on their apartment after their voucher ran out (which, after all, is the promise of rapid rehousing.)

Third, the fact that permanent supportive housing received a 98 percent “success” rate highlights the difficulty of basing performance ratings on “exits to permanent housing”; success, in the case of a program that consists entirely of permanent housing, means people simply stayed in the program. To give an even odder example, HSD notes an 89 percent rate of “exits to permanent housing” from diversion programs, which are by definition targeted at people who are already housed but at risk of slipping into homelessness. “Prevention is successful when people maintain housing and don’t become homeless,” the presentation says. It’s unclear how the city counts “exits to permanent housing” among a population that is, by definition, not homeless to begin with. I’ll update if and when I get more information from HSD about how people who are already housed are being counted toward HSD’s “exits to permanent housing” rate.

4 .Last week, after months of inaction from One Table—a regional task force that was charged with coming up with regional solutions to the homelessness crisis—King County Executive Dow Constantine announced plans to issue $100 million in bonds to pay for housing for people earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle-area median income (AMI), calling the move an “immediate ste[p] to tackle the region’s homelessness crisis.”

That sounds like an impressive amount of money, and it is, with a few major caveats: First, the money isn’t new. Constantine is just bumping up the timeline for issuing bonds that will be paid back with future proceeds from the existing tax on hotel and motel stays in King County. Second, the $100 million—like an earlier bond issuance estimated at $87 million—won’t be available until 2021, when the debt on CenturyLink Field (for which the hotel/motel tax was originally intended) is paid off. King County has been providing some funds to housing developers since 2016 by borrowing from itself now and promising to pay itself back later. Both the $87 million figure and the new $100 million figure are based on county forecasts of future tourism revenue. And third, the amount of hotel/motel tax revenue dedicated to affordable housing could, under state law, be much higher—two-thirds more than what Constantine proposed last week—if the county weren’t planning to spend up to $190 million on improvements at Safeco Field that include luxury suite upgrades and improvements to the concession stands. That’s because although state law dictates that at least 37.5 percent of the hotel/motel tax be spent on arts and affordable housing, and that whatever money remains be spent on tourism, it does not limit the amount that can be spent on either arts or housing. Theoretically, the county could dedicate 37.5 percent of its revenues to arts spending and the remaining 62.5 percent to housing.

The fact  that Constantine is describing the new bonds as a solution to homelessness is itself a matter of some debate. Under state law, the hotel/motel tax can only be used to build “workforce housing” near transit stops, which the county interprets to mean housing for people making between 30 and 80 percent of AMI. Homeless people generally don’t earn anywhere close to that. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that although “taking steps that will help to address the critical need for affordable housing for low-wage workers and people who can afford housing at 30 to 80 percent is a good  thing, unless there’s a plan to prioritize those units for people experiencing homelessness, along with resources to help buy down some of the rents for people for whom 30 to 80 percent is out of reach, I’m not sure how that helps address homelessness.”

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Seattle Weekly Prints Error-Riddled Piece by Bay Area Activist Who Compared YIMBYs to “Alt-Right”

This week, Seattle Weekly ran an error-riddled piece by a San Francisco activist and writer named Toshio Meronek titled “The Growing Power of Seattle YIMBYs.”

As someone who has covered the YIMBY movement  in Seattle (and attended the first-ever national YIMBY conference two years ago), I was intrigued by the headline, which echoed my own reporting on the increasing influence of YIMBY activists in Seattle and other high-cost cities. Unfortunately, the headline was just about the only thing about the story that was accurate.

Generally speaking, YIMBYs can be described as people who support the development of housing affordable to people at every income level, from formerly homeless individuals and families to those who can afford market-rate housing in an expensive city like Seattle. Since YIMBYs span the political spectrum, making the term itself a somewhat slippery catch-all, they might better be described as pro-housing: They support zoning and other regulatory changes that make it easier for affordable and market-rate housing developers to add housing to cities, and oppose exclusionary zoning and other restrictions that keep single-family homeowners’ house values on an ever-rising trajectory while pushing people who lack the means to buy single-family homes out of cities. Many YIMBYs explicitly oppose exclusionary single-family zoning because of its roots in racist redlining policies; others do so because it artificially drives up land values by excluding whole classes of people from huge swaths of growing cities. Some YIMBYs support more government-subsidized housing and protections for incumbent tenants; others oppose regulations like rent control on the grounds that they can drive up housing costs. But on one thing, they agree: They say “Yes in My Backyard.”

I wasn’t familiar with the writer, Toshio Meronek. So I did what the editor who green-lighted the story probably should have done in the first place: I googled him. As it turns out, Meronek is a Bay Area activist with a long history of making inflammatory, unsubstantiated claims about YIMBY activists. In a piece for the lefty online publication Truthout titled “YIMBYs: The Alt-Right Darlings of the Real Estate Industry,” Meronek made the bizarre claim that YIMBYs’ goal is to turn cities into playgrounds for the tech nouveau riche while driving poor people into “debtors’ prisons” with the aid of “militarized policing ” and “social control.” In a followup piece for the San Francisco Examiner titled “The Problem with YIMBY,” he doubled down, claiming that  YIMBYs’ “alt-right” views are “rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan. Further, they collaborate with the real estate industry to rebrand these racist and conservative policies as hip and edgy — this is the ‘alt-right’s’ method of spreading right-wing politics beyond its old white men in suits image.”  Victoria Fierce, a YIMBY activist whose group, East Bay Forward, was featured (and mischaracterized) in Meronek’s Truthout piece, had a particularly scathing, and thoughtful, rebuttal.

Meronek imported the template he employed in San Francisco to Seattle, writing a poorly researched polemic for the Weekly that pits tenants’ rights activists such as the Seattle Tenants Union against YIMBYs writ large, to the diminishment of both.

The piece is a mashup of unrelated policy arguments and mischaracterizations of YIMBY views that reveals Meronek’s ignorance of Seattle’s policy debates and his disdain for accurately reporting basic facts that interfere with his agenda of portrayingYIMBY activists as wealthy, racist, Silicon Valley-funded proxies for the real estate industry.

Originally, I had planned to address every discursive non sequitur in the piece, but then I realized that that’s the entire point: Meronek is attempting to dazzle us with bullshit. By suggesting that YIMBYs are somehow on the wrong side of local, national, and international debates over everything from rent control to rent bidding web sites to Airbnbs to the relative number of public housing units in New York City and Singapore, Meronek manages to implicate them by mere proximity in issues that are barely related, if at all, to the availability of housing in Seattle—which, after all, is what YIMBYs are actually working to increase. The straw men Meronek sets up can then be knocked down with a whisper. The Tenants Union wants more affordable housing? Imply that YIMBYs are against that. The Seattle City Council wants restrictions on rent bidding websites? I bet YIMBYs are super into rent bidding, too. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in King County is absurd, and has been for decades? Sure, they weren’t even around when the problem first materialized, but let’s blame YIMBYs for that, too. Some venture capitalist in San Francisco who has nothing to do with the YIMBY movement compares housing to sandwiches? Attribute that same belief to an unrelated think tank researcher in Seattle, while presenting no reason whatsoever for making that connection. Think about it for two seconds and it’s too late, because we’ve crossed ten lanes of traffic to get to an anecdote about Airbnb regulations in New York City.

In the end, the YIMBY becomes a comical straw capitalist with blinking dollar signs in his eyes—the kind of imaginary person who isn’t himself “impacted by the housing crisis” but has figured out how to benefit from it, one greasy backroom deal at a time.

So I’ll just stick, for the most part, to the many mischaracterizations and factual errors  in the Weekly’s piece, starting with the claim that the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank for which I have written about equitable development and affordable housing solutions, “promote[s] a libertarian, free-market solution to the housing crisis based on trickle-down economics.” Sightline, formerly Northwest Environment Watch, is in reality a Seattle-based think tank that promotes policies that advance sustainability, environmental justice, and social equity. Even if you aren’t familiar with the group, their mission statement and a description of the work they do is right on their website. And even if you’re skeptical of things like mission statements—perhaps  you read “We strive to identify injustice and work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it” and think, “That sounds like free-market libertarianism based on trickle-down Reaganomics to me!”—you can always look over Sightline’s exhaustively archived research, or interview local Seattle sources about their work, or actually talk to the group itself about their mission. There is no evidence that Meronek did this.

Instead—after an 11-word, out-of-context quote from Bertolet, the only YIMBY voice in this story ostensibly about YIMBYs—Meronek accuses Sightline of funneling money… to itself.

Specifically, Meronek makes the bizarre and nonsensical claim that Alan Durning, the director of Sightline, has “funneled at least 1.3 million dollars to YIMBY organizations through the charity Good Ventures, founded by Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz.” This claim is so ridiculous on its face that I’m going to take a second to unravel it, because it speaks to the poor level of reporting in this piece overall, and is the kind of thing that should have made an editor or fact-checker question the veracity of the entire story.

Open Philanthropy, the foundation created by Good Ventures, is a nonprofit that provides grants to a long list of mostly left-leaning organizations, including Sightline and other sustainability groups. Sightline is not itself a granting organization and does not control the giving of any organization that provides its funding.

What Meronek appears to have done is look at Open Philanthropy’s grants database, picked a few groups more or less at random, including Sightline, and added those up to get to (approximately) $1.3 million. (I say “more or less at random ” because there are several groups that received funding from Open Philanthropy, including California YIMBY, that have “YIMBY” right in their name but did not make Meronek’s list of YIMBY groups). What’s bizarre about Meronek’s statement is not only that he’s claiming that Sightline made funding decisions for Open Philanthropy, a group that gave Sightline money and not the other way around, but that Sightline gave Open Philanthropy’s money to itself.

This is confirmed by an email from Weekly editor Seth Sommerfield to Sightline, in which Sommerfield explained that the $1.3 million number was “the approximate sum of these grants specifically: Sightline $350,000 10/17; East Bay Forward $40,000 4/17;  Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. $300,000 7/16; California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund $300,000 6/16; Sightline $450,000 10/15.” (Those numbers actually add up to $1.44 million, not $1.3 million, which seems like a weird rounding error if those were in fact the numbers Meronek used to get to $1.3 million.) Sommerfeld then said that any issues with the way the Weekly characterized Sightline were just ” a matter of your perception, not based on false reporting.”

“We have not found any inaccuracies in the reporting,” Sommerfeld wrote.

What the Weekly is saying, and standing by, then, is that of the funding it is claiming Sightline “funneled” to nonprofits through Open Philanthropy, a funder that is not controlled by Sightline, approximately $800,000 went to Sightline itself. Put another way, they’re claiming that Sightline granted itself $800,000 from an organization it does not control. There’s no way to make these numbers make sense. They just don’t. It’s like saying that a group that gets money from the United Way—say, the Downtown Emergency Services Coalition—is in control of all of United Way’s charitable giving because they received a grant from United Way.  Claiming that a group controlled the funding decisions of one of its benefactors, and somehow gave money to itself, is not a matter of perception, or a different way of looking at the numbers. It is a falsehood, represented as fact.

But the YIMBYs at Sightline aren’t the only thing Meronek mischaracterizes. He also blames YIMBYs—an acronym that barely existed before 2016—for gentrification in the Central District, implying that it is a new phenomenon that can be laid at their feet.

The city’s Central District is a stark example of what can happen when market-rate development is unleashed on a neighborhood. Once a majority-black area, the District is now cost-prohibitive to many black Seattleites, who make, on average, less than Asians or whites. The city now faces what its own Race & Social Justice Initiative calls an “extreme racial disproportionality in homelessness,” with—no surprise—black people ending up on the street in droves.

I couldn’t find an online source for that RSJI quote, which gives me pause in the context of a story that is so littered with misrepresentations and sentence-fragment quotes throughout, but that isn’t the part that’s wrong—Seattle’s homelessness crisis is also a racial equity crisis, with Native Americans and African Americans ending up homeless far out of proportion to their representation in the population. The problem is that the Central District (or, as Meronek adorably calls it, “The District”) lost the bulk of its African American population long before the current boom. See, for example, this 2005 Seattle Times article bemoaning gentrification from a wave of white newcomers to the area. Or this 2007 Seattle PI article describing the  same trend.

In fact, you can go all the way back to the year 2000, when the Central District’s African American population had been reduced to more than 70 percent in the 1960s to just over a third.  (Today, it’s closer to 20 percent).  People were trying to figure out what to do about the problem then, too. At the time, though, the issue wasn’t a wave of market-rate development—that didn’t happen until recently—it was a lack of housing affordable to people who were being priced out of the area by taxes and losing their homes to predatory housing lenders. (Policies that would have allowed and incentivized more housing in the area, including affordable units, could have helped with that.) The current wave of market-rate development that is being “unleashed on” the Central District is not responsible for gentrification that emptied the neighborhood of African American residents 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. These are complicated problems that shouldn’t be placed, ahistorically and unfairly, at the feet of present-day activists who are, in real time and on the ground, trying to solve them. There are certainly groups, particularly in the Bay Area, that promote market-rate housing at the expense of other solutions. But that’s not what’s happening in Seattle—nor, for the most part, anywhere. Pro-housing YIMBY groups here in Seattle have actually supported equitable development projects that are attempting to slow the trend of gentrification in the CD, like the recent partnership between Forterra (a sustainability nonprofit that has recently gotten into urban development) and Africatown, to develop affordable housing and support black-owned businesses in the heart of the neighborhood.

After blaming historical gentrification in the Central District on a movement that just started in the last few years, Meronek pivots back to Sightline, which is when he makes his most bizarre

The next misrepresentation, which has little to do with the YIMBYs, is minor in comparison: Meronek claims that an electricity survey showed that Vancouver was overrun with foreign investors buying up apartments and leaving them vacant. (The evidence was that 12,000 units had very low electricity usage, a stat that advocates for foreign investor taxes have used to argue that those units are sitting vacant.) Bertolet himself actually did a great job debunking this survey, using historical electricity usage data and occupancy data over time to show that the rate of low-usage units has remained flat over time, as has the occupancy rate of apartments in Vancouver. His research, headlined “Stop Blaming Foreign Home Buyers,” is well worth reading in full.

After a quote from “Capitol Hill staple” Dennis Saxman (an old-school lefty with little influence but who’s always game for a quote about how development is bad) describing YIMBYs as advocates for “uber-development,” the aforementioned non sequitur about New York and Singapore, and some random  statistics about Airbnbs in Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, and New York, the piece winds down with a plea for rent control and inclusionary zoning. But Meronek gets that one wrong, too. After implying that Seattle doesn’t have inclusionary zoning, Meronek pivots and says we do, but that “an unmarried, childless buyer can make up to $84,000—or 120 percent of the area median income—and still be eligible for this affordable housing.” Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, provides rent-stabilized apartments to people making up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income, or $42,150 for a single person with no children, and homeownership assistance is available for people making up to 80 percent of AMI, or $56,200 for that same single, childless person. It’s unclear where Meronek got his 120 percent figure, which also remains uncorrected.

Would a local writer with some familiarity with local organizations and issues have done a better job writing about this issue? Probably. Would an established journalist have done a better job than an activist with an (easily Googleable) ax to grind? Almost certainly. But the biggest issue I see with this story isn’t even its writer’s mangling of the truth. It’s that the writer decided he wanted to tell a story—about a shadowy cabal of corrupt Silicon Valley capitalists and associated sham nonprofits lining their pockets with the spoils of late-stage capitalism—but he didn’t have the goods. That’s why the story, on its face and setting aside all the errors it contains, makes no sense. What do Singapore’s public housing policies, Facebook, Airbnb, Chinese investors in Vancouver, and Rentberry have to do with a bunch of activists in Seattle? Nothing, really, but when you glue them all together with a few quotes from tenant advocates and random Capitol Hill activists, it sure sounds sinister, doesn’t it?

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A Conversation With a Neighbor Who Changed His Mind About a Tiny House Village

In case you haven’t noticed, the debate about homelessness in Seattle has gotten a little toxic. At a time when homeowners show up to chant “bullshit!” at public hearings and socialists attempt to drown out city council votes they don’t agree with, it’s rare to hear about anyone actually changing their mind after talking to “the other side.” Which is why I was eager to sit down with a guy I met at a recent public meeting on a new “tiny house” village that’s currently being built in a vacant lot at 18th and Yesler and hear more about how he went from distributing flyers opposing the project to figuring out ways he could support the people living there.

Omeed, who asked me to use his first name only, joined a group called Yesler Neighbors that distributed flyers in the neighborhood around the tiny house village urging neighbors to write and call the city to demand that they put a “pause” on what they described as an “illegal encampment” based on a litany of what they described as land use and public notice violations. (See the full letter here). “We support ending homelessness in our city but believe it should be done in a transparent, legal, and thoughtful manner,” the letter left on neighbors’ doorsteps concluded.

After the meeting at Ernestine Anderson Place on South Jackson Street, which included a Q&A with project sponsors from the Low-Income Housing Institute and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, I started chatting with Omeed outside. “I’m someone who changed his mind,” he told me—he now supported the encampment, although he still thought neighbors hadn’t received adequate information to form their own views on the project in the first place. For example, he said, he had been unable to determine whether the encampment would be “low-barrier”—that is, whether it would allow residents to consume drugs and alcohol on-site—and how the rules would be enforced. On Monday, Omeed broke ties with Yesler Neighbors to focus on other activist work—namely, electing Democrats to the state legislature through an organization called the Sister District Project, which sends activists into swing districts, like Washington’s 26th and 30th, to support Democratic candidates at the state level.

I sat down with Omeed in Pratt Park, just a few blocks from the tiny house village, which is currently under construction. Omeed, whose parents moved to the United States as refugees during the Iranian revolution, moved to Seattle about six years ago from Washington, D.C.; his wife is a native Seattleite with roots in the city going back 12 generations. They live a few blocks from the new tiny house village at 18th and Yesler.

How did you become aware that this tiny house village was being built in your neighborhood?

We got a flyer on our front door on May 15 or 16, and that same week, or shortly after, gravel started going down [on the lot]. It really did seem abrupt. We’re used to getting a certain amount of notification and time to understand what the project is. That was like—wait a second. But that part didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there were a lot of houses that did not get flyers, and there were houses several blocks further away from it, where it’s not necessarily in view, and they were flyered when I know some of the houses along the fence line never received any notice of it. I got it; some of my neighbors did not.

What did you think when you got the flyer? Were you supportive of the idea?

My initial reaction was like, ‘Cool, let’s save some lives. This might be great.’ My wife’s initial reaction was like, ‘I wonder if I can volunteer and help them with some landscaping stuff’—just do something that’s welcoming. And then we started hearing some other information, and then when you do some Google searches about these villages, Licton Springs [an encampment in North Seattle that allows drugs and alcohol] tends to be the thing that makes it up to the surface, and that was really jarring and it put some guards up. I’m a naturally defensive person. Growing up in a household where your parents are refugees, your mom’s an asylum seeker… siege mentality is a kind of natural thing to have. So my guard just tends to go up really quickly.

What was your concern related to Licton Springs?

Crime stats, the fact that there is open drug use—I don’t know how much is anecdotal or real. I only drove by. On the Aurora Avenue side, it was like, ‘Uh, this is an interesting part of town…’ Then the barbed wire along the top of it, too—it just seemed like that isn’t something that I necessarily want in my neighborhood.

You mentioned when we spoke before that your main concern was whether this tiny house village was going to allow drugs and alcohol. Can you talk more about that concern?

The flyer didn’t indicate if this site was going to be low-barrier. There was no information about it. When we went to the first meeting on the 22nd, I don’t recall that very strong commitment [to a no-drugs-and-alcohol policy] and that gave me kind of a pause. After that first meeting my guard went up a little more. More concerns started to bubble up.

I don’t think addiction is criminal. I can’t say that addicted people mean crime. I would be concerned, though, if there’s other folks that want to come there, [like] dealers. If that gets drawn over to it because they know it’s a low-barrier site where people are going to be allowed to use, that’s just not okay.

What changed your mind about this project?

I went to visit the 22nd and Union village a little while ago, and I talked with those folks, and they were just like normal working people. They’re just having a hard time. [Mayor Jenny] Durkan said in press release that these folks are, in a way, economic refugees. A segment of the population really is. Something like 40 percent, give or take, of the unsheltered population is employed in some capacity, and 20 percent of those are employed full-time. The fact that there isn’t enough housing that those folks can afford is disgusting. It’s a frustration.

I get frustrated when I hear things like Fort Lawton are held up in litigation, which just makes them more expensive to build. We declared a state of emergency a few years back and my understanding of a state of emergency is you suspend some rules and blockers because it’s a state of emergency. So I’m just thinking, what kind of state of emergency is it where things can end up in litigation or get blocked by neighbors because they’d rather have another park? We have lots of great parks. I’m not saying we shouldn’t find more ways to create green space, but this is an emergency.

So how are you feeling about the tiny house village now? Are you planning to volunteer to help them out, or put your efforts into pushing for other housing solutions, now that you know more about the project?

It takes a lot of effort to be in that mindset, to try and fight with the city and fight with this organization and do all those things. What I think might be a better use of my time moving forward, especially if I’m serious about building more housing and finding the funds to pay for it, is to make that call to the county saying, ‘You have nearly $200 million over 20 years to give to a profitable baseball team, yet you have yet to come up with a way to pay for [housing]. It’s there. We don’t have to subsidize these sport teams and these stadiums. We also don’t have to subsidize massive tax breaks to Boeing, the largest defense contractor and one of the largest companies in the world. It’s absurd to say we need to come up with these other revenue streams when the money really is there. It’s not a matter of efficiency in government or ‘audit this’ or ‘make cuts there.’ It’s, stop giving away money to people who already have millions of dollars and we’ll have it.

My wife is setting up the [National Night Out] event for our block and I said, ‘They should be invited.’ I don’t think I have to take anything out on the folks who are going to be living there. My gripes are with the city, the county, and the state—the people who refuse to actually do the things that need to be done to actually deal with this emergency. So I don’t see why I have to turn my back to those folks who otherwise need help.

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City Approves More One-Time Spending on Homelessness as Budget Cuts Loom

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The Seattle City Council’s repeal of a controversial business “head tax” last week didn’t just eliminate future spending on solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis—it also killed funding for several ongoing programs that are currently being funded with one-time revenues, casting the future of existing homeless programs in doubt at a time when Mayor Jenny Durkan is asking for significant budget cuts in every city department.

Meanwhile, city funding for new housing projects, for which housing agencies compete through an annual process called a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA), is shrinking this year from more than $100 million to $40 million, enough to fund only a handful of proposals submitted by housing providers this year. (That $40 million could end up being slightly higher if more money comes in from developer payments into the city’s incentive zoning fund, and if a transit-oriented development planned for Northgate, which accounts for $10 million, does not move forward, making that money available for bids.)

Council members, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly identified a lack of affordable housing as a key bottleneck that keeps people from moving off the streets or out of the shelter system; in a recent survey of 898 people experiencing homelessness in King County, 98 percent said they would move into safe and affordable housing if it was available.

The head tax, a $275-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues, would have provided about $47.5 million in annual revenue for the city to spend on housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

Although proponents pitched the head tax as a funding source for new programs, much of the money would have backfilled spending on existing projects, including the mayor’s new “bridge housing” initiative, which the city council approved on Monday. Without the head tax, the mayor and council will have to come up with tens of millions of dollars in cuts (or borrow the money from the city’s dwindling reserves) to keep those programs going.

The bridge housing program, which will pay for about 500 new and existing shelter beds and “tiny houses,” will be funded this year with $7.2 million in one-time funds from the sale of a piece of city-owned property in South Lake Union.

Ben Noble, director of the City Budget Office told the council last Wednesday, the city will need to come up with about $9.5 million a year to maintain the bridge housing program in 2019.

In addition to the 500 shelter beds, Durkan and the council will have to come up with funding this year for about $8 million in programs that the council only funded through the end of 2018, on the belief that by the time they began budget deliberations this year, a head tax or some other progressive revenue source would be available to pay for those programs in future years. And they will have to do so at a time when Mayor Durkan has asked for budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent from every city department in response to tepid revenue projections.

“Unless things change radically, I wouldn’t expect a major infusion of revenue,” Noble told council members last week. Noble said that if the city wants to continue funding Durkan’s bridge housing plan and all the other services that are currently being paid for with one-time funding, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services.”

On Monday, council member Teresa Mosqueda—one of two council members who voted against repealing the head tax—said the upcoming budget crunch highlights the need for a permanent, progressive revenue source to pay for services on an ongoing basis, “so that we don’t have to think about the heartbreaking reality when the money runs out at the end of this year.”

As those deliberations are going on, the city will be inviting housing providers to compete for a drastically reduced pool of funding to build affordable housing this year. Last year, the city granted about $101 million in funding for affordable housing projects through its competitive bidding process; this year, providers have submitted about $280 million in requests for just $40 million in available funding. (About $30 million in additional funds are already earmarked for specific projects). King County, which does its own funding process, has made just $7 million available this year for transit-oriented affordable housing projects across the county—down from about $18 million in 2017.

Miriam Roskin, deputy director at the Seattle Office of Housing, says the amount of money available through the NOFA process fluctuates from year to year depending on how much the city is taking in from sources like developer affordable-housing fees, payments from developers for permanent street closures, and federal funding.

Regardless of the reason, the reduction in available funds comes at a time when there is more need for affordable housing in the city than ever, and when other funding sources to build that housing appear on the verge of drying up.

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Morning Crank: Slipping and Sliding

1. With the loss of an estimated $47.5 million in annual revenues from the head tax, the city is in the unenviable position of not only figuring out how to pay for new housing and services that would have been funded by the tax, but funding ongoing commitments that would have been backfilled with head tax funding. In addition to about $15 million in programs that were funded during in the 201 8 budget using one-time funding sources (I’ve asked the city’s budget office for a complete list), there’s Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” program, which was originally supposed to have funded 500 new shelter and “tiny house” encampment slots this year. The bridge housing program, which the council’s finance committee approved on Wednesday, will be funded through 2018 by  about $5.5 million from the sale of a piece of city property in South Lake Union but will cost about $9.5 million a year starting in 2019, according to City Budget Office Director Ben Noble.

The latest version of the plan would pay for 475 shelter beds (down from 500), with 100 of those now officially “TBD,” with no provider or timeline identified.  The timeline for some of the new projects has slipped, too, from late July to November in the case of the controversial proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, and from July to “TBD” in the case of the 100 shelter beds for which no provider is identified. (See below for a comparison between the mayor’s original proposal, announced May 30, and the plan as it stands this week.)

Mary’s Place, which the mayor’s office originally said would contribute 100 new beds by building out an upper floor of its North Seattle shelter, “had a change of situation because they bought a large facility in Burien that put them in a more difficult financial situation,” deputy mayor David Moseley told council members Wednesday, and has “offered us a different proposal that’s more of a diversion proposal,” one that would focus on prevention rather than shelter. “We’re working with them on that proposal,” Moseley continued. “At the same time, we’re working on backfilling those 100 shelter beds.”

HSD had previously denied that Mary’s Place was planning to substitute diversion for its 100 bed commitment. One day before Moseley told the council that Mary’s Place would no longer be able to contribute 100 of the new 500 shelter beds, I asked an HSD spokeswoman if Mary’s Place had proposed fulfilling its commitment through diversion rather than actual shelter beds, as I had heard. The spokeswoman told me that I was incorrect and that there had been no such proposal. Moseley’s comments Wednesday confirmed the existence of the proposal I had asked HSD about (and whose existence their spokeswoman denied) the previous day.

On Wednesday, I asked the spokeswoman for more details about the Mary’s Place beds and what will replace them. In response, she cut and pasted a section of Durkan’s Wednesday press release about the plan that did not include this information. I have followed up and will update this post if I get any more detailed information about how the city plans to replace those 100 beds.

Durkan has asked all city departments to come up with budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent for the 2019 budget cycle that begins this fall. Noble, the city’s budget director, told council members Wednesday that if the city wants to continue funding the new shelter beds after this year, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services. … This will be  a difficult fall with difficult decisions ahead.”

Bridge Housing plan, May 30, 2018

Bridge Housing Plan, June 13, 2018

2. A poll that apparently helped seal the fate of the head tax over the past weekend was reportedly conducted not by business interests, but by Bring Seattle Home, the SEIU-backed coalition that formed to oppose a potential referendum on the tax. The group’s latest expenditure report includes a $20,000 debt to EMC Research, a Seattle-based polling firm.

A spokesman for Bring Seattle Home didn’t return a call for comment. But the poll reportedly found that not only did voters oppose the head tax by wide margins (as previous polls had concluded), they had strong negative opinions of the city council, where the idea for the head tax originated. All seven of the council members who are elected by district are up for reelection next year, and although this poll didn’t ask respondents what they thought of their specific council representative, council members are well aware of this looming deadline. So far, none of the seven have filed their reelection paperwork with the city. Although Mayor Jenny Durkan supported and ultimately signed the “compromise” head tax bill that reduced the size of the head tax from $500 to $275 per employee for businesses with gross receipts above $20 million, poll respondents apparently blamed the council, not the mayor, for the tax, expressing much more favorable views of Durkan than council members.

3. On Thursday, with none of the angry public comments about “triplexes on every block” that often precede such decisions—even Marty Kaplan wasn’t there—the Seattle Planning Commission approved a letter endorsing key aspects of the city’s preferred plan to make it easier for single-family  homeowners to build backyard cottages and create living spaces in their basements. (This alternative is identified as option 2 in the environmental impact statement on the proposal, which the city was required to produce after Kaplan sued. The EIS confirms that backyard cottages promote equity and do not harm the environment.) The letter expresses the commission’s strong support for allowing both a basement apartment and a freestanding backyard unit (subject to the same lot coverage requirements that already exist); eliminating the requirement that homeowners add parking for their extra unit whether they will use it or not; and allowing up to 12 unrelated people to live on lots that have both a backyard cottage and a basement apartment.

The letter also urges the city not to force homeowners building a second additional unit to pay into the city’s mandatory housing affordability fund, a requirement supported by some opponents of backyard cottages, because the additional cost “could suppress production of these units and be counterproductive to the intent of the proposed legislation.” (The point of requiring developers to provide affordable housing is, in part, to offset the impacts of displacement and gentrification that can be side effects of large new developments in previously affordable neighborhoods; the planning commission’s point is that treating individual homeowners like massive developers discourages them from providing housing. It also implies that adding units for renters in single-family areas somehow contributes to gentrification and displacement, when it does the opposite.) The planning commission also recommended setting size limits for new houses to prevent the development of McMansions, and reducing development charges for accessory units, such as sewer hookup fees, and creating a sliding scale for some fees so that lower-income people could afford to build second units on their properties.

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