Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

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2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.

Morning Crank: Eliminating “Single-Family” Zoning Altogether

1. It’s been three years (and three mayors) since the city first adopted a plan to implement the affordable housing plan known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for greater density in some parts of the city. Although some aspects of the plan are now in place, the most controversial element—expanding the city’s urban villages and centers to incorporate 6 percent of the city’s vast swaths of single-family land—was locked up in appeals until late last month, when city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil ruled that the city had adequately addressed almost all of the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.

The fundamental debate about whether to upzone any of the city’s single-family neighborhoods, however, continues. On Monday, at a council committee meeting about next steps, city council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson (with assists from Sally Bagshaw and Teresa Mosqueda) played out a miniature version of that debate, with Herbold taking up the banner for activists who claim that allowing more types of housing will lead to massive displacement of low-income people living in single-family houses. “My concern is that we are grossly underestimating the number of affordable units that are being lost to development” by using eligibility for tenant relocation assistance as a proxy for displacement, Herbold said. (Tenant relocation assistance is available to people who make less than 50 percent of the Seattle median income. A subsequent analysis, based on American Community Survey data, included people making up to 80 percent of median income, although as Herbold pointed out, this still may not capture people who share houses with roommates, and thus have a collective household income well above 80 percent of median). Johnson countered that while the council has dithered on passing the MHA legislation, hundreds of new apartments have been built with no affordable housing requirement at all. “Would it be fair to say that the ‘no-action alternative’ results in a whole lot of displacement?” he asked Nick Welch, a senior planner with the Office of Housing and Community Development. “Yes,” Welch replied.

Herbold also suggested that the council should adopt separate resolutions dealing with each of the city’s seven “unique” districts that would include “individual urban village commitments” in those districts. Johnson said that was certainly something the council could discuss in the future, but noted that the city has already spent years learning about the issues various neighborhood groups have with the upzone proposal. “I think we have a pretty good sense of what community issues and concerns are out there,” Johnson said. “We want to outline a process that would allow us to address some of those issues.” Herbold also said she was considering amendments that would require developers to replace every unit for which a tenant received relocation assistance on a one-for-one basis, and suggested requiring developers building in areas with high displacement risk to build affordable units on site, rather than paying into the city’s affordable housing fund.

Under the city’s current timeline, the council would vote to approve the legislation, with amendments in late March of next year.

2. As the council debated the merits of modest density increases, the city’s Planning Commission suggested a far more significant rewrite of the city’s housing laws—one that would include doing away with city’s “single-family” zoning designation entirely. In the , “Neighborhoods for All: Expanding Housing Opportunity in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones,” the advisory commission recommends reducing displacement and increasing economic and racial diversity in Seattle’s increasingly white single-family areas with “a return to the mix of housing and development patterns found in many of Seattle’s older and most walkable neighborhoods.” In other words: Backyard cottages and basement apartments aren’t enough; the city needs to allow small-scale apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes, and other types of housing in those areas as well. Crucially, the report notes that these changes wouldn’t represent a radical shift or a departure from single-family zones’ vaunted “neighborhood character”; in fact, both minimum lot-size requirements and “Seattle’s current single-family zoning code came into being in the 1950’s.”

At a time when arguments about development often center on the need to protect the “historic character” of Seattle’s neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes and laws restricting housing to one house per lot, this bears repeating. “Small lot houses, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments built prior to 1957 remain in single-family zones, but building them is illegal today.” Rules restricting development in single-family areas effectively concentrate all growth into narrow bands of land along busy arterials known as urban centers and urban villages; since 2006, according to the report, “over 80% of Seattle’s growth has occurred in urban villages and centers that make up less than a quarter of Seattle’s land. Urban villages have seen significant change and new construction, while most areas of the city have seen little physical change. Overall, multifamily housing is only allowed in 12 percent of the city’s residential land—a constriction of opportunity that perpetuates the historical impacts of redlining, racial covenants, and other discriminatory housing policies by “excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes,” the report says.And Seattle’s restrictive policies don’t even work to preserve “neighborhood character,” the report points out. Instead, they encourage homeowners and builders to tear down existing houses and build McMansions in their place. “Even under current zoning, the physical character of neighborhoods is changing as existing houses are replaced with larger, more expensive ones, as allowed by today’s land use code,” the report notes. “The average size of newly constructed detached houses in 2016 was 3,487 square feet, more than 1,000 square feet larger than the average for the first two-thirds of the last century.”

The planning commission offers a number of suggested policy changes, including:

• Expanding urban village boundaries to include all areas within a 15-minute walk of frequent transit lines. Currently, the report points out, many urban villages are extremely narrow—the Greenwood/Phinney urban village, pictured below, is an extreme but not unique example—dramatically limiting housing choices for people who can’t afford to buy single-family homes. At the same time, the report recommends getting rid of frequent transit service as a requirement to expand urban villages, pointing out that this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem, where lack of transit justifies keeping density low, and low density justifies a lack of investment in transit.

• Renaming “single-family” zoning as “neighborhood residential,” with various levels of density (from backyard cottages to small apartment buildings) to reflect lot size and neighborhood amenities. Areas near parks and schools, which the report identifies as amenities that tend to be most accessible to people in single-family areas, would get more density so that more people would have access to those resources.

• Eliminating or reducing parking requirements—not just in urban villages, but everywhere. Single-family-housing activists have long argued that if the city allows more housing without requiring new parking, they will have no place to park their cars. Though the planning commission report doesn’t explicitly mention a recent study that found that Seattle already has more than five parking spaces per household, they do point out that prioritizing cars over people conflicts with the city’s stated climate goals. “Requiring parking on site takes away space that could be used for additional housing or open space,” the report says. Under their proposal, “While driveways and garages could still be allowed, people would not be required to provide space for cars over housing or space for trees–especially if they choose not to own a car.”

3. The J Is for Judge himself stepped up to the mic at city hall yesterday to explain why he wants to see more of every kind of housing in every neighborhood. At yesterday’s MHA briefing, after the authors of this piece (one of whom lives in Bellevue) claimed that the council was withholding information about displacement from the public,  Josh Feit got up to speak. Here, in slightly abridged form, is what he had to say.

My name is Josh Feit, and I am not originally from Seattle.

I did not grow up here.

I’m am not a 7th-generation Seattleite.

I was not born and raised in Ballard.

I did not go to Roosevelt High School.

I am not a lifelong member of my community.

To those of us who choose to move here, Seattle stands out as an exciting 21st Century landmark that’s taking up a brave experiment in progressive city building.

I’m excited to live here.

I have a public sector job.

I am a renter.

Please stop letting some residents of Seattle’s Single Family zones play Seattle First politics by mythologizing neighborhood “character” and stigmatizing renters.

That kind of dog whistling has no place in Seattle.

Please stop letting quarter-century-old neighborhood plans that were developed without a Race and Social Justice analysis be the blueprint for Seattle’s future. (Thank you, Council Member Mosqueda, for challenging the anti-growth narrative by taking a closer look at that vaunted 1994 plan.)

As you know, the Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation and upzones in front of you today did go through a displacement analysis by income and race.

Thank you for passing the six MHA Urban Center and Urban Village rezones last year.

But to make MHA work, to address the housing affordability crisis, all of Seattle needs to be neighborly.

Please pass this small but significant first step in taking down the walls that keep too many of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods–off limits for too many residents.

I am not proud that I’m from here. I’m proud that I moved here. I hope I can continue to feel that way.

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“F the Showbox!” Emails Reveal District 3 Discontent With Sawant’s Club Crusade

Although crowds of music fans showed up to cheer city council member Kshama Sawant’s efforts to “Save the Showbox” earlier this year, emails obtained through a public disclosure request reveal that many of Sawant’s District 3 constituents and longtime supporters were baffled by or outright opposed her decision to prioritize a downtown club owned by a billionaire Republican over other pressing needs, including affordable housing and promoting small, minority-owned businesses in her own district. Sawant, whose district includes the Central District, Capitol Hill, Montlake, and part of Beacon Hill, is up for reelection next year.

Back in October, Sawant led a successful effort to “Save the Showbox” by adding the Showbox to the Pike Place Market Historical District, preventing the development of a planned 44-story apartment building on the property. (The Showbox, which is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, is a tenant; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.) The move sparked an immediate lawsuit by the owners of the property, who argued that the legislation represents an illegal spot downzone of prime real estate that the council has already upzoned twice specifically to encourage residential development on First Avenue.

In the weeks leading up to the September vote, Sawant gave the Showbox the full Sawant treatment, with hundreds of red-and-white posters, multiple City Hall rallies, a sizeable ($1,325) ad buy in the Stranger, and even a concert on the plaza outside City Hall, held to coincide with the council’s vote inside. But as music fans and Showbox employees signed petitions and testified in favor of the legislation, some of Sawant’s constituents wondered why she was spending so much time and political capital “saving” a club that wasn’t even in her district. “I’m not interested in saving the showbox,” one District 3 constituent wrote. “I’m interested in building affordable housing. We/You are burning political capital on a fight we should not be in.”

What’s interesting about the emails, which came in response to two email blasts urging Sawant’s supporters to show up for an “organizing meeting” on September 11 and a “FREE CONCERT & Public Hearing” on the 19th, is that most of them aren’t from diehard Sawant opponents, but from people who say they support Sawant but oppose her single-minded focus on the Showbox.

“We’re spending a lot of energy and political capital on one building. It won’t create more housing or prevent people from being driven out of Seattle,” another District 3 resident wrote. “It won’t reduce Seattle’s climate impact. It won’t help our problems with homelessness, congestions or anything else. We could be spending this energy on the Mercer Megablock, but we’re not. How much staff time is being spent on this rather than more pressing issues?”

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Another District 3 resident wrote: “I’m a big fan of yours, but this is such a waste of time and energy. …  The city will be fine without the showbox- it won’t be fine without lots and lots of serious investment in housing.” And another, which I’ve taken out of all-caps: “You and your office team are failing to help black folks in the Central District!!!! Fuck the Showbox! You can count on one hand the persons of color who actually make a living by working for the Showbox! Save black and persons of color owned places in seattle too!!”

Caveat time. Emails from constituents represent the views of an unrepresentative sample of people motivated to write their council member. And Sawant, who won her last election with nearly 56 percent of the vote, hasn’t drawn an opponent yet. (Nor has she officially said whether she’s running for reelection.) However, it’s not hard to see Sawant’s focus on the Showbox emerging as a campaign issue, especially after a year in which the council’s lone socialist logged few major wins. The head tax is dead, Sawant’s lengthy speeches denouncing her colleagues for failing to support a series of hastily drafted affordable-housing proposals played to a mostly empty room, and the most noteworthy gains for low-paid workers—modest wage increases for social-service providers who contract with the city—were sponsored this year by council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, as part of a budget Sawant cast the lone vote against. None of this necessarily spells trouble for Sawant’s reelection chances. But it does suggest that she’ll have to do more than hold cheering sessions for citywide causes like the Showbox to rally the troops who actually matter—the 92,000-plus residents of her own council district.

Morning Crank: Ruling Bolsters Housing Plan, Chides City for Failing to Do “Granular” Analysis Neighborhood Activists Demanded

1. Urbanists celebrated a ruling yesterday that could allow a long-delayed plan to increase density and fund affordable housing to move forward. The ruling by city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, which mostly affirms that an environmental impact statement on the plan was adequate, came in response to a challenge by a group of homeowners, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), who have long opposed the plan. The plan, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, would allow modest density increases in urban villages and urban centers, and would rezone six percent of the land current zoned exclusively for single-family houses—currently, two-thirds of the city’s land—to allow townhouses and small apartments. Developers who build under the new rules will have to include affordable housing in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund.

“This ruling is a step forward for more affordable housing in Seattle,” Durkan said in a statement. Meanwhile, Seattle for Everyone, the group that formed in 2015 to support then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, planned a celebration party and issued a statement, titled “Yay for MHA!” celebrating the ruling as “a win for affordable housing.”

We’ll see. Toby Thaler, the leader of the group that challenged the  Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), told the Seattle Times that he plans to keep fighting against the MHA legislation, although it was unclear in what venue (the courthouse or city council chambers) he intends to do so. (Thaler did not immediately return an email last night, but I will update this post if I hear back from him.) Meanwhile, the city will have to do more analysis of how allowing more density will impact designated city landmarks;  according to the ruling, the city failed to consider impacts on historic properties other than those on the National Register of Historic Places, which Vancil called inadequate.

“The more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.” — Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil

Vancil’s ruling also chides the city for failing to include detailed, “granular” analysis of the impact the zoning changes would have on individual neighborhoods in the environmental impact statement, and suggested that including this kind of analysis could have forestalled the whole drawn-out appeal. “[I]t is certainly the case, at least in part, that the choice not to tell a more detailed story of the City’s neighborhoods contributed to why the City faced a very protracted appeal and hearing process from representatives in many of its neighborhoods,” Vancil writes. “While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.”

Whether you believe that a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of the upzone’s impact would have made neighborhood opposition evaporate (dubious, given that challenging the EIS for a project is one of the most common obstructionist tactics in the Seattle neighborhood activist playbook), what’s undeniable is that while the upzones have been tied up in appeals, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing—and hundreds of units of market-rate housing needed for the thousands of people moving to Seattle every year—remained unbuilt.

“Unfortunately …  this appeal has cost Seattle at least $87 million worth of affordable housing that we could have brought in during the year since the appeal was filed,” council member Rob Johnson, who has led the charge for MHA as head of the council’s land use committee, said in a statement. (Johnson asked for this analysis last month). “Had we been able to adopt MHA across the city without this delay, more neighborhoods would be receiving the investment in affordable housing they need, and more families in our city would have an affordable place to call home.”

2. On Tuesday, Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan sent out a bombastic email blast (subject line: “Single-Family Rezone: Negotiation Rejected!”) announcing his intention to “proceed full-speed ahead in preparing and proving our case” against the city, in the ongoing battle over new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build basement and backyard units on their property.

The “negotiation” Kaplan’s email refers to is apparently a meeting he had on Monday with council member Mike O’Brien, who led the charge to liberalize Seattle rules governing backyard and mother-in-law units, about a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) concluding that the proposal would not have a detrimental environmental impact on the city. was sufficient to allow the long-delayed rules to move forward. The new rules, which would allow homeowners to add up to one unit inside an existing house and one detached unit in the backyard, subject to existing height and lot coverage limits, would produce about 2,500 additional units of housing citywide.

“Unfortunately, I must inform you that CM O’Brien has closed the door to negotiating.,” Kaplan wrote. “He relat[ed] to me unequivocally that the EIS spoke to all his issues leaving no room to consider any compromise.  He remains firmly entrenched in every line-item of his legislation to eliminate every Seattle single-family neighborhood without considering any important neighborhood, property, infrastructure or economic differentiations.  One-size-fits-all!” 

“In addition,” Kaplan’s email continues, “he shared his confidence that every councilmember firmly supports him and his legislation.  He left no door open and even told me directly that there was no reason for us to withdraw our appeal – nothing would change!”

On Wednesday, O’Brien put up a blog post responding to Kaplan’s email. (The post appears to have since been taken down.) In the post, O’Brien wrote that during their conversation over the weekend, “I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process.  Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable.  …If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing.  … Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.”

The email concludes with “a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications,” which, O’Brien says, represented “our friendly conversation as a divisive fight.  Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics.  As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.” 

Kaplan responded more warmly to comments Mayor Jenny Durkan made about the proposal over the weekend, at a community meeting on Queen Anne. According to the  Queen Anne News, when a constituent asked what should happen with the appeal, Durkan said “she’d like to get all parties in a room to hash out a compromise” rather than moving forward with the “litigation” process. (Kaplan’s challenge is currently before the hearing examiner, but litigation is an option if the hearing examiner rejects his argument that the FEIS is inadequate). Durkan, according to the Queen Anne News, expressed concern at the meeting that loosening the rules too much could “fuel a more expensive Seattle by letting people speculate on that land.” That argument—that “developers” will snap up single-family houses and turn the land into triplexes—is belied not only by the FEIS, which concludes, again, that the changes would result in just 2,500 new units citywide, but by the economic logic of development. To wit: If you’re a developer (or, as Kaplan and the mayor suggest, a “speculator”), are you going to build a house with a basement apartment and a small backyard cottage in a single-family zone? Or a 20-unit apartment complex in a multifamily area?

Kaplan did not attend the meeting with Durkan, but says that from conversations with another community council member who was there, “the take-away was that she [opposes] what I have called a one-size-fits-all rezoning of single-family throughout the city.”

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The Beauty Contest: Or, How John Maynard Keynes Explains Seattle’s Gentrification

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Earlier this month, Washington, D.C.-based economist Ben Klemens and I wrote a two-part series about how the human desire to emulate other people can help explain (and help cities address) gentrification for the website Strong Towns. The two-part series can be found here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). Here’s a bit of the beginning of Part 1, which explores a game-theory concept known as the Beauty Contest (which, as the non-economist author, I’ll describe as the process by which people sometimes make decisions based not on their own preferences or prejudices, but on the perceived preferences and prejudices of other people). The series focuses on the corner of 23rd and Union in Seattle, and the neon-clad monument to cannabis consumerism that is Uncle Ike’s.

It’s a little more academic than the usual fare here at The C is for Crank, but I encourage you to read it if you’re interested in alternative ways of looking at gentrification.

 

This story takes place in Seattle, but it could be set in any large or midsize city where gentrification is changing the political, cultural, and physical landscape. For the purposes of this story, we’ll define gentrification as the process by which the residents of historically working-class, minority neighborhoods are displaced, often rapidly, by people with lighter skins and higher incomes. [Editor’s note: Read our own previous discussion of the different understandings of “gentrification” here.] How you choose to explain gentrification says a lot about your political worldview. Do gentrifiers act out of self-interest? Racism? A little of both? Or something else entirely?

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we use the example of one Seattle neighborhood to argue that it’s entirely possible to explain gentrification with something we can easily observe—signals, which communicate to prospective homebuyers what other people like them believe about whether it’s a good idea to invest in a certain neighborhood. Then, in Part 2, we use accessible theoretical modeling to demonstrate two ways in which, even in the absence of conscious beliefs (such as racism, classism, or the belief that land values will rise over time) or preferences (a desire to live next to popular amenities), signals can still lead to gentrification.

But before we get to Seattle, we have to go back to 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, and an economic concept called the beauty contest. In 1936—a time when newspaper sweepstakes were popular—Keynes came up with the following thought experiment: What if newspaper readers were asked to choose the most beautiful woman from a roster of photos, and the sweepstakes winner was drawn from a list of everyone who chose the most popular woman? The trick to winning that kind of “beauty contest” isn’t to pick the woman you personally find most beautiful, but to guess which woman other players think is the most beautiful, knowing that they’re doing the same thing.

The crux of the beauty contest is that we don’t form our opinions about beauty, the value of a dollar, or a house, in a vacuum—we come up with those beliefs based on a long chain of assumptions about what we think other people think. Why do I think a piece of paper printed by the Treasury that says “$1” in the corner is worth a dollar? Because I think I can give it to somebody, Steve, because Steve values it. Why does Steve value it? Because he thinks Maria thinks it is worth something. And I believe Steve thinks Maria values it because she knows Paula will accept it. And so on.

If the piece of paper said something else (maybe the ID for a bitcoin wallet), the same process might not happen. Given multiple options, it isn’t always obvious who’s going to win the beauty contest, or which centrally located neighborhood is going to suddenly shoot up in value. What is certain is that as long as human beings make predictions about value based on these signals, they will result in predictable behavioral patterns—you may not know where gentrification is going to happen next, but there will be some sequence of signals that will precede it.

So let’s make this less abstract.

Consider buying a new condo, with an asking price of $500,000. Whether it is a good deal today at $500,000 is partly a question of whether it will one day sell for more or less than $500,000. Your purchase is a wager, based on the information available to you, that the value of your condo and similar properties in the area will continue to appreciate.

Your decision to buy also depends on what amenities are nearby now. Will your friends want to move in nearby? Will restaurants and a grocery store start filling up empty storefronts nearby, and will they be able to stay in business? Will you have access to reliable transit lines when you move in? In a decade? All these questions also factor into whether you choose to buy here or across town.

There is no way to poll all the people somehow involved in such questions, so we have to play a beauty contest game, guessing what our friends, local restaurateurs, and transit planning agencies are thinking, and what they will be thinking in a decade. Meanwhile, they’re all doing the same thing: just as I don’t want to move to a neighborhood with no restaurants, no restaurant wants to open in a neighborhood where they aren’t likely to have customers.

In the 1950s, determining a neighborhood’s status was easy: check the map. As part of an arrangement by the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. federal government to limit the ability of African American homebuyers to buy houses in “white” neighborhoods, maps were developed with clear red lines around black neighborhoods and explicit racial covenants or bank practices enforced the racial divides on those maps. Today, these formal covenants have been replaced in most US cities by zoning, which walls off certain areas—often those originally segregated by redlines—as designated single-family-only neighborhoods, which tend, by historical precedent and by design, to be mostly white.

Seattle’s Central District in 1968. (Source: Seattle Municipal Archives)

Recent years have seen the demographics in the Central District nearly flip. In the 1970s, the neighborhood was more than 70 percent black; by 2016, that number was 20 percent. Whites now make up about 60 percent of the area’s population, and the trend is on track to continue.

Few neighborhood businesses more perfectly exemplify this demographic shift—or serve as more of a lightning rod for protests and accusations of racial insensitivity and white colonization—than a flashy recreational pot shop called Uncle Ike’s. (Washington state voters legalized recreational pot in 2012.) Lit by cheeky neon signs—on the next block: “Hey, stoner, around the corner”—it sells recreational pot like fancy coffee: expensive and unabashedly bourgeois. A ten-pack of Magic Kitchen peanut butter brownie bites will set you back $28, and a bottle of Moss Cow Mule cannabis ginger ale goes for $20.

Situated between an old car wash (recently purchased by Uncle Ike himself, Ian Einsenberg, and rebranded as Uncle Ike’s Car Wash) and an African- American church, Uncle Ike’s is a sign of the apocalypse for anti-gentrification activists, at the literal crossroads of old and new. Across one street: A doomed strip mall anchored by a liquor store, a barber shop called Earl’s Cuts and Styles, and Africatown, a local nonprofit working to build affordable housing and preserve the history of the neighborhood. Across the other: A sleek modern apartment box called The Central, where open-plan one-bedrooms go for $2,060 a month.

Uncle Ike’s wasn’t the first new business in the neighborhood to cater to a largely white crowd—a quaint, quirky bar next door called “The Neighbor Lady”, which a local news report said would “breathe new activity” into “the troubled corner,” preceded the pot shop by two years. But Ike’s opening in 2014 was quickly followed by an influx of new businesses catering to a similar crowd, which converged on the intersection as if summoned by a pot-leaf-shaped bat signal. Today, a strip that once housed a 25-year-old soul food restaurant called Thompson’s Point of View and was notorious for gang-related violence is home to an airy, loft-style coffee shop, a salon/cafe owned by two women who have said they were priced out of a nearby neighborhood known in past decades as a haven for artists and hipsters, a bike shop that sells $3,000 electric bikes, and a doughnut shop specializing in gluten-free mochi doughnuts.

Read the rest of this piece, and Part 2, at Strongtowns.org.

Seattle Rep. Macri Has a Plan to Ease Eviction Fears

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Image result for nicole macriSeattle state representative Nicole Macri (D-43) is drafting legislation that could address some of the issues raised in last month’s report on evictions by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project. That report revealed that many renters who get evicted owe very small amounts of money, and that the vast majority of people who get evicted in Seattle end up homeless.

In Washington state, landlords have no obligation to accept rent that is more than three days late. And aside from Seattle—where landlords are barred from terminating a lease without cause—landlords can terminate a renter’s tenancy with just 20 days’ notice, giving the renter almost no time to find a new place to live and to come up with the money to pay for first and last month’s rent, and deposit.

Macri says her office is meeting with stakeholders to figure out the exact parameters of the bill (or bills) that she will propose in the upcoming state legislative session. The options include things like extending the current three-day limit to somewhere between 14 and 30 days—meaning that tenants who fall behind on their rent would get a bit more breathing room to come up with the rent, instead of immediately getting an eviction notice on their door.

“What we’re hearing is that folks are being put out of their homes for relatively minor infractions, including small underpayments of rent,” Macri says. “Say you underpay your rent by $20. The [state] statute allows a three-day notice to go up on your door at the moment the late day comes up on your lease. You can be in court the very next week after the three days expire, and within a week and a half or two weeks a sheriff could come to remove your possessions.”

Another problem the eviction report found is that judges in Washington have no discretion to order landlords to accept late rent or work out payment plans; if a landlord wants to evict a tenant for late payment, for example, a judge can’t order the landlord to accept partial payment or set up a payment plan. In jurisdictions with judicial discretion, like New York City, the eviction rate is much lower than in Washington.

Another proposal Macri is drafting would create a just cause eviction ordinance—similar to what Seattle already has in place—for the whole state. Like Seattle’s, it would specify the circumstances under which a tenant could be evicted, and bar evictions for reasons that fall outside the ordinance. The current situation, Macri says, “creates fear [among tenants] about bringing up any concerns with their unit. People are afraid to say, like, ‘I need a new refrigerator, because it isn’t working,’ because they’re worried that they’ll get a 20-day notice.”

Macri says she hopes to have legislation ready to pre-file by next month, in time for next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

Morning Crank: “Preparations are Underway for a Litigation Budget” on Fort Lawton

1. Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia neighborhood activist whose land-use appeals have helped stall the development of affordable housing at Fort Lawton for so long that the city now has to pay to secure the former Army base out of its own budget, says she isn’t giving up yet on her effort to stop the plan to build 415 units of affordable housing, including 85 apartments for formerly homeless families, in its tracks.

Campbell filed a complaint alleging that the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the affordable-housing plan failed to adequately consider all the potential environmental impacts of the project; that  seeking and receiving several postponements, Campbell failed to show up at recent hearings on her appeal of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the development, prompting city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil to say that he would be justified in dismissing the case outright but would give Campbell one last opportunity to hire a lawyer and make her case on strictly legal grounds. Vancil’s order stipulated that Campbell could not introduce any new evidence or call any witnesses.

Late on Friday afternoon, Campbell’s new lawyer, a fairly recent law-school graduate named Nathan Arnold, filed a new brief asking Vancil to re-open discovery in the case, which would allow her to interview and cross-examine witnesses from the city. (Campbell and the Discovery Park Community Alliance were represented until at least this past January by an attorney at Foster Pepper, to whom the group paid about $15,000 for their services, according to Campbell.) The city has until next Friday, November 9, to respond, and Campbell has until the following Wednesday, November 14, to respond in turn.

Meanwhile, Campbell is preparing to sue the city. In a message to the DCPA email list, she writes: “It is not known how soon after November 2nd the examiner will issue his decision. However, when it is issued and if it affirms the adequacy of the City’s FEIS then DPCA will need to promptly shift gears and prepare for a judicial appeal and review of the FEIS. In fact, given the probability that this will be the outcome preparations are already underway to establish a litigation budget and to start exploring the grounds, the causes of action, for a lawsuit in either King County Superior Court or in U.S. District Court.”

Campbell’s email also mentions an alternative “workaround plan” that she says would turn Fort Lawton into part of Discovery Park—without housing—”while deploying a network of currently-owned properties that meet and exceed housing objectives crafted for Fort Lawton land.” The email also says that the DCPA has already met with interim Parks directory Christopher Williams and deputy mayor David Moseley to discuss this alternative.

2. Rebecca Lovell, the tech-savvy former head of the city’s Startup Seattle program, stepped down as acting director of the city’s Office of Economic Development this week after nearly a year in limbo under Mayor Jenny Durkan. Lovell, who was appointed acting director by former mayor Ed Murray, is joining Create33, an offshoot of Madrona Ventures, which Geekwire describes as “a unique hybrid of co-working space and a community nexus.” OED’s new interim director is Karl Stickel, a city veteran who most recently was OED’s director of entrepreneurship and industry.

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In addition to OED, the city’s departments of  Transportation, Civil Rights, Human Services, Parks, Human Resources, and Information Technology are all headed by acting or interim directors.

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3. City council member Kshama Sawant, who used the city council’s shared printer to print thousands of anti-Amazon posters during the head tax debate, spent as much as $1,700 in city funds on Facebook ads promoting rallies and forums for her proposed “people’s budget” (and denouncing her council colleagues) between the end of September and the beginning of this month.

The ads, which include the mandatory disclaimer “Paid for by  Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s Office,” denounce Mayor Jenny Durkan, Sawant’s colleagues on the council, and the “Democratic Party establishment.”

“Seattle is facing an unprecedented affordable housing crisis,” the Sawant-sponsored ads say. “And yet, Mayor Durkan and the majority of the Council shamefully repealed the Amazon Tax that our movement fought so hard for, which would have modestly taxed the largest 3% of the city’s corporations to fund affordable housing.”

Because Facebook only releases limited information about its political ads, the cost of each ad is listed as a range. Of the five ads Sawant’s office has funded since September 28, two cost less than $100 and three cost between $100 and $499.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett  says that “since these are about the budget process, she can use city funds to pay for them without violating the ethics code. There’s no electioneering here that would trigger the need to pay for these with non-public funds.” I have contacted Sawant’s office for comment and will update this post if I hear back.

 

Getting Smarter About Public Land: Lessons from Across the Northwest

The full version of this story is available at Sightline.

As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.

Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.

To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.

But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.

How much publicly owned land is there?

Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.

Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.

The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.

“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says.  “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.

Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing

Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.

Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.

The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.

Read the whole piece at Sightline.

Extra Fizz: Challenge to Fort Lawton Housing Is On Its Last Legs

Photo: Alex Crook for Seattle magazine.

A legal challenge to proposed affordable housing at Fort Lawton, the former Army base next to Discovery Park, appears to be on its last legs. If the city’s hearing examiner dismisses the case, which has been going on, in various forms, since 2008, the city will finally be able to proceed on plans to build hundreds of units of housing on the site, which the Army formally mothballed in 2011.

Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia activist who has filed appeal after appeal to stall the development, did not show up at a scheduled meeting with the hearing examiner last week, which had already been postponed for a month at Campbell’s request so that she could get an attorney to represent her. (Campbell asked for a stay, initially, because of a planned vacation; later, she asked for more time because of an illness. The result has been additional months of delay.)

At the meeting last week, hearing examiner Ryan Vancil set a schedule for the rest of the hearing process, but noted that because Campbell has missed numerous deadlines for providing evidence, calling witnesses, and appointing counsel, any arguments she makes from this point forward must be restricted to purely legal theory, and can’t include any new facts or evidence.

At the conference last week, Vancil noted that Campbell had not called to let him know she would not be showing up, and noted that he would be justified in dismissing the case based on her “failure to prosecute,” but said that “out of an abundance of caution,” that he wanted to give her one last chance to reply to the city in the case. In his order, Vancil wrote that:

Appellants’ failure to appear at the pre-hearing conference, failure to file exhibit and witness lists, and apparent failure to secure counsel as a result of the stay are sufficient grounds for this matter to be dismissed. However, the Appellants will be afforded a final opportunity to pursue their case. As there is no opportunity remaining for Appellants to introduce new evidence or testimony, the hearing for this matter scheduled for Monday October 29, 2018 is canceled. The parties will address any remaining issues in this matter in the form of legal briefing.

Campbell, who did not respond to a request for comment, has until this Friday, November 2, to file a closing brief in her case.

Morning Crank: Rethinking the Vaunted Neighborhood Plans of the ’90s

In a move that could reveal hard truths about the city’s vaunted 1990s-era neighborhood planning process, city council member Teresa Mosqueda wants the city to do a full race and social justice analysis of the so-called urban village strategy, which concentrates all new development in narrow bands near arterial streets and preserves two-thirds of the city exclusively for detached single-family houses. The urban village strategy was crafted more than 20 years ago by neighborhood groups that were dominated, then as now, by white homeowners who wanted to ensure that the “character” of their neighborhoods would remain unchanged. The monoculture of exclusive single-family zoning, and the “character” of Seattle’s suburban-style neighborhoods, is a legacy of redlining—the process by which people of color and renters were systematically excluded from many parts of Seattle.

Introducing her proposal at Thursday’s council budget hearing, Mosqueda noted that at the time the urban village strategy was adopted, in 1994, there was no Race and Social Justice Initiative. That came in 2004, and “it wasn’t until 10 years after that that the race and social justice strategy was expanded to include policies that impact the urban environment,” Mosqueda said. “One of our questions is whether or not we are investing in urban villages equitably throughout Seattle. … I’m interested in whether or not we are crafting policies that are allowing more people to live here.”

The city recently completed a race and social equity analysis of a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to build second and third units on their property. That analysis found, not surprisingly, that allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments will disproportionately benefit white Seattle residents, because most homeowners in Seattle are white. (See chart, below). However, the analysis (like the environmental impact statement the city recently completed on the proposal) also found that allowing more backyard and basement apartments wouldn’t contribute to displacement; and it suggested several steps the city could take to make it easier for homeowners of color to build accessory units, such as pre-approved building plans and assistance with permits and financing. A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions. Neighborhood activists, in other words, are likely to oppose it. Channeling them Thursday, council member Sally Bagshaw raised objections to Mosqueda’s proposal, which she said might be “duplicative” with work the city has already done. (It isn’t.) “Good heavens, this feels like déjà vu to me,” Bagshaw said. Council member Rob Johnson, who supports Mosqueda’s idea in principle, said, “I think that the issues that council member Mosqueda brings up are very appropriate for us to consider,” but suggested that the council might fund it later in the year.

Neighborhood activists, ironically, actually raised the need for race and social justice analysis in their ongoing attempt to prevent the city from implementing its Mandatory Housing Affordability strategy arguing (disingenuously) that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal to allow slightly denser development on 6 percent of the city’s single-family land. (Developers building under the new rules would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into an affordable housing fund. The new rules have gone into effect in denser parts of the city, including downtown). They’re still fighting that one, a year after the council passed the legislation.

It’s hard to quantify how much funding for affordable housing the city has lost because single-family activists have locked MHA up with a series of seemingly endless appeals. Hard, but not impossible. About a week ago, Johnson asked the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development to do an analysis of how much money the city has forfeited from developments that would have happened under the new rules if they had gone into effect a year ago. “I’ve asked them to run the numbers about projects that might have vested under MHA, had we adopted it when the bill was first sent down to us,” Johnson told me yesterday. “As you can imagine, vesting times really vary, so  it’s difficult analysis for us to do.” However, Johnson hopes that by looking at the development cycle that just ended, the city can get a sense of how much affordable housing Seattle has foregone while activists have filed appeal after appeal.

A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions.

Speaking of appeals, the Queen Anne Community Council filed another one against the accessory dwelling unit proposal yesterday, arguing that the proposal—which would add about 2600 basement and backyard apartments, citywide, over what will likely be built anyway—”ignores, disrespects, and eliminates the citywide Neighborhood Plans.” The appeal, filed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan and his attorney, Jeff Eustis, reiterates Kaplan’s claim that the plan will upzone the entire city, effectively turning single-family neighborhoods into wall-to-wall apartment blocks. The complaint concludes, spaghetti-at-the-wall style, by listing a litany of supposed ills that will befall neighborhoods if the city allows a few thousand more backyard and basement units in a city of 700,000: the “displacement and destruction of older, more modest and
affordable housing, the displacement of populations, the loss of historic buildings, the change in neighborhood character, the unstudied stresses on existing utilities and infrastructure, the amount of available on-street parking. and the ability of
residents and emergency vehicles to circulate through neighborhood streets, and other population pressures among many more.”

Johnson notes one potential bright side to all this delay. If the appeals of MHA and the accessory dwelling legislation drag on indefinitely,  he says, the city’s planning department will have more free time to do the kind of analysis of single-family zoning that Mosqueda is requesting.

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