Last week, Mayor Ed Murray reversed his position on a key portion of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee’s recommendations, which would have allowed a small amount of housing diversity (duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes) inside the 65 percent of Seattle’s land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Citing significant “blowback” from the same neighborhood activists who had opposed HALA and portrayed it as a conspiracy between developers and the political elite since its inception, Murray said he was abandoning both the recommendation to allow more housing forms (not density) in single-family areas and a separate proposal that would have made it easier for homeowners to build secondary units (detached or attached apartments) on their property.
Single-family exclusionists–those who argue that all of Seattle’s non-property-owning class should be segregated into a small portion of the city’s developable land area and live in towers there–like Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times–applauded the decision. Westneat, who owns a $700,000 house in Madrona and was one of the most prominent voices against the 28-member committee’s recommendations, crowed disingenuously that the real reason Murray had lost is that he didn’t open HALA’s heated and lengthy negotiations up to the public (a process that would have likely sunk another large, closed-door committee compromise, the $15 minimum wage), like Danny Westneat had told him to in the first place. (Not to dwell on one smug, self-interested writer, but it’s worth pointing that Westneat smirks, dishonestly and with zero evidence, that if only Murray had played nice and given him and the single-family protectionists what they wanted–apparently, transparency–then maybe they wouldn’t have forced him to throw his committee under the bus.)
Westneat and the Times, in a separate editorial praising Murray’s cave on Sunday, claim that Murray blamed the media for killing his plan. That strikes me as the kind of self-centered echo chamber that happens in hidebound editorial boards that don’t know much about the majority of Seattle that doesn’t match the Times’ white, wealthy, land-owning demographic. My sense was that Murray has been caught in the headlights, with no clear idea of who to blame. At times, he did blame the media; at others, it was that (totally, 100% predictable) NIMBY “blowback”; at other times, it was erstwhile HALA allies like city council president (and current candidate) Tim Burgess. And sometimes, as it was when I talked to him last week, Murray blamed himself. (He did also kinda blame the media.)
I talked to Murray on Thursday night, and at that point, he was taking the line that he didn’t do enough to promote the single-family changes as a positive development and soothe neighborhood activists’ fears. Once he saw how much opposition there was to housing diversity, he had to abandon it, essentially, to save the rest of HALA from a similar fate. Losing mandatory inclusionary zoning for the sake of a few duplexes and townhomes would be a far worse fate than jettisoning that political ballast and keeping the rest of the plan intact.
I’m not sure I buy that. For one thing, there’s always the possibility that single-family changes were an intentional distraction in the first place. For another, Murray is usually very careful about how he rolls out plans like this “grand bargain.” Even if a disgruntled committee member (and at this point, I think which member that was is an open secret) hadn’t leaked the document to Westneat before it was ready for release, Murray’s a savvy enough guy to know that the self-appointed “neighborhood representatives” (those with the time and money and motivation to spend hours crafting battle plans and showing up at daytime meetings and lodging their complaints via letter-writing campaigns) would have a fit. For now, though, that’s his line and he’s sticking to it.
Here’s what Murray had to say late last week.
I don’t disagree with what you’ve written. [I wrote: “Murray Gives In to Bullying, Abandons Housing Diversity Plan.”] I did give in to single-family pressure. [Single-family] isn’t where the numbers are for creating affordable housing and low-income housing. It helps, but the numbers aren’t there. It helps provide what we we’re talking about. Look at Portland or Vancouver. It does provide a lot of options for people who are buying their first home, or for people who are elderly and looking to downsize.
But I didn’t want to see [mandatory inclusionary zoning] lose over a proposal we weren’t even proposing. We weren’t going to turn every single-family house into a duplex or a triplex, but that’s what people were saying. We weren’t making the case. Perhaps if we were not in the middle of the first district elections in the city’s history, we would have had the time to explain to people who were saying we were proposing something we were not proposing. But unfortunately, there are a lot of council members running for election who are flipping on what they said they supported.
I feel like we’ve made our job to get to a grand bargain much harder. Because people have conflated this proposal with a plan to destroy single family [zones]. The blame lies with me. We didn’t do a good job of explaining the plan. I don’t believe we would get inclusionary zoning if we continued to have a confusing argument about a proposal we actually didn’t make, because we couldn’t explain to people about Portland or other models. The only thing we were able to talk about was the issue of single-family.
Murray also noted that, in Portland, just 3 percent of the land area is zoned the same way as Seattle’s single-family zones, which cover two-thirds of the city’s land mass. What that tells me is that we’ve got a long way to go.