Illuminated Billboards: Coming Soon to a Street Near You?

Four years ago (an eternity in technological innovation terms) the Seattle City Council adopted new regulations intended to address what they worried was a coming onslaught of large billboards on the sides of Seattle buildings, especially downtown. The rules cracked down on the proliferation of “off-premises signs”—signs advertising products or services that weren’t offered in the buildings where they were displayed. Among other changes, the legislation closed some of the loopholes that allowed Alaska Airlines, for example, to claim it operated out of a building in Chinatown because it placed an ancient computer terminal in the lobby where people could theoretically buy plane tickets;, it also limited the size of new wall signs to 672 square feet (previously, there were no specific size limits.) The off-premises sign rules are still far from strict or strictly enforced, which is why you’ll see a sign advertising energy drinks, for example, on the wall of a building that houses a gym or convenience store.

Separately, back in 2011, the council rejected a proposal, pushed by Russell Investments, to allow companies (other than hotels) to display large illuminated logos on the tops of downtown buildings, which is why you don’t see logos all over Seattle’s downtown skyline. The council’s decisions didn’t make ugly signs go away (on-premises signs are still subject to few restrictions, which is why visitors to SoDo will still see huge video displays advertising “Amateur Night!” outside the Dream Girls strip club), but they kept them (sort of) down to size.

Fast forward to 2018, and the intersection of Fourth and Union downtown, where the owners of one building (1408 Fourth Ave.) are testing the limits of the city’s sign ordinance, with a large electronic billboard that alternates between ads for an eye clinic and leasing opportunities in the building and large-format images of screensaver-style images of flowers and hot air balloons. Paula Rees, a Seattle-based planner and designer who specializes in building public spaces, says the sign, which is located across the street from her downtown office, goes “against everything the code states as its intention”—it’s distracting, it creates visual pollution, and it advertises multiple businesses inside a single building.

 “This sign was predicted,” Rees says. “Many professionals testified about this mess coming when Sally Clark’s ill-considered legislation was before Council.” The reason there haven’t been more digital signs before now “is that nobody could afford it. When I first started seeing this stuff at conferences, a Barco [digital] sign that was 45 inches square could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can buy this stuff for hardly anything.”

The owner of the building is an LLC registered to Ann and Danny Schnitzer, who also are the registered agents for Sun Advertising, a billboard company registered at the same address, 11221 Pacific Hwy SW in Lakewood, as 4th Avenue Bldg LLC and at least 18 other businesses. I left messages for both Ann and Danny Schnitzer; Ann called me back and said she would respond to my questions by email; I called back several days later to make sure she had my correct email address and never heard back.

Council member Mike O’Brien bikes by the sign every day on his way home from work and says he noticed it a few weeks ago. ” I was like, ‘Holy cow, that has to be illegal,'” O’Brien says. “If the guy doing like my eye appointments can put up a sign like that, I can only imagine every building [with a business that] that sells Coca-Cola would be jumping at that opportunity.”

Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesman Bryan Stevens says the sign doesn’t violate any rules. “When the permit for this changing image sign was issued, we stipulated that the sign was only for use by the building owner (4th Avenue Building LLC) and is authorized to only display static images that change no more than 7 times per minute (otherwise it becomes video), no off-premises advertising, no flashing, no video display methods (movement) or moving text/images, in accordance with our land use code for on-premises signs in downtown zones.” The sign code allows one sign like the one at Fourth and Union every 300 “lineal feet” of street frontage, which works out to about one sign per block.

To Rees, the sign might as well be a giant, illuminated Pandora’s Box. “Since the ’70s, we’ve just kept burying our heads in the sand on the sign code,” Rees says. As long as the city fails to get ahead of technology, she adds, “we’re going to get whatever we get.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: A “Reset” for Move Seattle

1. The Seattle Department of Transportation and the Durkan administration will soon propose what is being called a “reset” for Move Seattle, the $930 million levy that passed in 2015, to reflect the reality that the federal funding that the city assumed would be available for many of the projects has not come through from the Trump Administration, as well as increased cost estimates for some projects on the levy list.

The “reset” will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The City Budget Office and the Seattle Department of Transportation are still having conversations about what the cuts might look like, but according to multiple current and former city staffers familiar with the situation, one possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be dramatically scaled back, but not eliminated entirely. A third possibility is that some projects could be delayed until a future levy (or Presidential administration) or paid for with other funding sources .Move Seattle taxes will be collected through 2024. The mayor and SDOT are expected to release details of the “reset” in the several weeks.

One possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be scaled back, but not eliminated entirely.  

The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the voter-approved levy, but since the 2016 election, all bets are off. (Seattle’s sanctuary city status has prompted several threats from the Trump Administration to withhold federal grant funding from the city.)  SDOT has not released a 2017 financial report for Move Seattle, so it’s difficult to say how much federal money came in during the first full year under the new federal regime, but in 2016, the city received and spent just $16.3 million in federal funds on Move Seattle projects—a tiny fraction of that $564 million total. I have requested the 2017 spending report for Move Seattle from SDOT and will update this post if I receive it.

The projects on this list that could be particularly at risk for cuts include those that rely heavily on federal funding, including not just the seven RapidRide lines but bridge safety improvements, pedestrian safety projects, and sidewalks in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. The percentage of federal funds assumed for each category of projects ranges from none to 86.7 percent.

“We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.” – Council member Rob Johnson  

It’s a particularly inopportune time for more bad news from SDOT. Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was putting the Center City Streetcar on “pause” because of dramatic cost overruns, and earlier this week, Durkan announced that the city would delay a long-planned protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle until 2021, when the Northgate light rail station opens, ostensibly to avoid eliminating motorized traffic lanes on Fourth during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint” downtown. Interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman got an earful about the delayed bike safety improvements from both O’Brien and council member (and former Transportation Choices Coalition director) Rob Johnson during his presentation on the One Center City plan earlier this week; Johnson said that one of his “frustrations” was that although the city says it prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders over cars, its actions downtown have done exactly the opposite. “It’s not just that we aren’t dedicating enough of the center city to bicycle facilities, but ditto on the transit side of things, Goran,” Johnson said. “We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.”

2. On Wednesday, with little fanfare, One Table—the 91-member work group tasked with coming up with recommendations to address the regional homelessness crisis—released its recommendations, in a nine-page document that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. The city of Seattle’s progressive revenue task force, which recommended a tax on employers that could raise up to $75 million annually, has said that it would wait until One Table to release its recommendations before recommending additional taxes, with the ultimate goal of raising a total of $150 million a year.

The recommendations, which were released jointly by King County and the cities of Seattle and Auburn, are mostly familiar: Providing 5,000 units of affordable housing across the county over three years, by building new housing and by “increasing access to existing housing choices”; treatment on demand; financial assistance for housing, including short-term help for people in crisis; and increased investment in job programs for people at risk of homelessness. Since the list of “actions” doesn’t include any dollar amounts, it’s hard to assess how ambitious the proposal truly is, but 5,000 units in three years throughout King County (to say nothing of the three-county Puget Sound region) will house fewer than half of the 12,000 people living outdoors or in sanctioned encampments or shelters in King County alone. Job programs and homelessness prevention efforts will undoubtedly prevent some people from falling into homelessness and making that number even larger, but until it’s clear how the recommendations would cost and where the money would come from, it’s hard to say what impact the proposals will have, and whether One Table will live up to its promise to “best tackle this problem to ensure expansive and lasting solutions,” as Mayor Jenny Durkan put it when the work group held its first meeting in January.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The High Cost of Mandatory Parking

1. By a 7-1 vote Monday (Kshama Sawant was absent, having just landed back in Seattle from a socialism conference in Germany), the city council adopted parking reform legislation that will lower parking mandates in certain parts of the city, require more bike parking in new developments, redefine frequent transit service so that more areas qualify for exemptions from parking mandates, and unbundle rent for housing from rent for parking, so that renters who don’t need parking spaces don’t have to pay for them.

As promised last week, council member Lisa Herbold introduced an amendment that would give the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections the authority to impose environmental “mitigation” measures on new developments in areas where there is no parking mandate and where more than 85 percent of on-street parking is generally occupied by cars. (Herbold raised objections to the unbundling provision and the new definition of frequent transit service in committee, too—and voted against sending the legislation to full council—but only reintroduced the mitigation amendment on Monday). Under the State Environmental  Policy Act, “mitigation” is supposed to reduce the environmental impact of land-use decisions; Herbold’s argument was that measures such as imposing minimum parking requirements, reducing non-residential density, and barring residents of new apartments from obtaining residential parking permits would mitigate the environmental impact caused by people circling the block, looking for parking. (At the advice of the city attorney, Herbold said, she removed the RPZ language from her amendment).

Citing parking guru Donald Shoup—whose book “The High Cost of Free Parking” has been the inspiration for many cities to charge variable rates for on-street parking, depending on demand—Herbold said 85 percent occupancy was “a good compromise between optimal use of the parking spots and [preventing] cars [from spending] five, ten minutes driving around looking for a parking spot.” But Shoup never said that the correct response to high on-street parking usage was to build more parking; in fact, he argued that overutilization is a sign that cities need to charge more for parking so that fewer people drive to neighborhoods where parking is at a premium. Shoup’s primary point wasn’t, as Herbold suggested, that the problem with scarce parking is that people burn gas while looking for a parking spot; it was that too many or too few vacancies is a sign that parking isn’t priced correctly, and the price should be adjusted accordingly.

Ironically, after her amendment failed, Herbold turned around and slammed Shoup for using what she called outdated data. But Shoup (and Johnson) got the last laugh. From the council press release on the passage of the legislation:

Council Bill 119221 aims to ensure that only drivers will have to pay for parking, which seems fair,” said Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. … “If drivers don’t pay for their parking, someone else has to pay for it, and that someone is everyone. But a city where everyone happily pays for everyone else’s free parking is a fool’s paradise.”

2. Now that longtime state Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-34) has announced that she will not seek reelection, Herbold’s onetime opponent, Shannon Braddock, is reportedly considering a bid for Nelson’s seat. Braddock, who serves as deputy chief of staff to King County Executive Dow Constantine, lost to Herbold in the 2015 council election. State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) told the West Seattle Blog this week that he did not plan to run for Nelson’s senate seat.

3. The King County Democrats will hold a meeting for all the precinct committee officers (PCOs) in the county to vote on whether to remove the group’s embattled chairman, Bailey Stober, from his position on Sunday, April 15. The meeting will come one week after a closed-door trial by a committee that will make its own recommendation about whether Stober should stay or go.

Stober, who has been accused of sexual harassment, creating a hostile work environment, bullying, and financial misconduct, has refused to step down from his position despite the fact that more than 60 percent of the voting members of his executive board have asked him to resign. Under King County bylaws, Stober can only be removed by a vote of two-thirds of the PCOs who show up at Sunday’s meeting—and, as I’ve reported, many PCOs who have been appointed will be unable to vote at the meeting specifically because Stober has failed to approve their appointments. Some of those PCOs have been waiting for Stober’s sign-off since last fall.

This document outlines the case against Stober, who is accused of sexually harassing and bullying his lone employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo, before firing her without board approval, “engag[ing] in physical altercations while with staff and other party members,” using Party money to fund certain candidates he personally favored while leaving others high and dry, and spraying Silly String in Koss Vallejo’s face while she was driving, an incident Stober filmed and posted on Instagram.

And this document contains Stober’s rebuttal, which he also posted to his personal website last month. The rebuttal includes a lengthy text exchange in which Stober pressures Koss Vallejo to leave her own birthday party to come out drinking with him and she resists, in a manner that is likely familiar to anyone who has tried to say no nicely to a man who won’t take no for an answer (an especially tricky situation when that man is your boss.) It also includes several claims that have been disputed, including Stober’s claim that the group’s treasurer, Nancy Podschwit, approved Koss-Vallejo’s firing, which she says she did not.

On Monday, Stober responded to a Facebook invitation to the PCO meeting, saying he guessed he would “swing by.”

4. The King County Democrats aren’t the only ones accusing Stober of fiscal misconduct. So is the state attorney general, in a separate case involving one of Stober’s three unsuccessful campaigns for Kent City Council. The state attorney general’s office has been trying to get Stober to hand over documents related to his 2015 council run since 2017, when the AG took the unusual step of  issuing a press release publicly demanding that Stober give them the documents. On March 21, the state attorney general’s office ordered Stober to pay the state $5015 in attorneys’ fees in a case involving campaign finance violations in 2015. According to court records, Stober repeatedly refused to hand over documents the attorney general requested despite multiple orders compelling him to do so. Stober’s attorneys removed themselves from his case in early March.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Democrats, Taxes, and “The Ideological Anti-Parking Agenda”

Detail from Seattle frequent transit map; click for link to full map.

1. A last-ditch email from anti-development activist Chris Leman with the subject line “Parking SOS!! E-mails and calls needed to prevent devastation of neighborhood parking” heralded next Monday’s vote on parking reform legislation that will clarify where apartments may be built without parking, require more bike parking at new buildings, and require developers of large buildings to “unbundle” the cost of parking and rent by charging separately for each.  Council member Lisa Herbold has proposed giving the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development the authority to institute parking  mandates, refuse to grant residential parking permits to new renters, or take other steps to reduce competition for on-street parking as part of the environmental mitigation process, arguing (among other things) that cars circling the block for parking produce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

Leman’s email makes several misleading claims, implying that the city wants to define “frequent transit service” as three buses per hour (in reality, it allows that frequency during low-ridership midday hours if a route offers extremely frequent service at rush hour, like the RapidRide buses that arrive every 10 minutes), and claiming that “many more areas of the city will be open to developers putting in dense buildings with no parking.” In reality, while the changes will slightly increase the amount of the city served by frequent transit service (from 18.6 percent to 22.5 percent), the changes will only allow new buildings with no parking in six small portions of urban villages served by six frequent bus routes (full list on page 20 of this report.)

But the biggest misrepresentation in Leman’s letter, which describes Herbold as a lone voice of sanity against the “ideological anti-parking agenda” of North Seattle council members Rob Johnson and Mike O’Brien,  is that eliminating parking mandates contradicts “the majority wishes and interests of [council members’]  constituents.” For months, tenants, commuters, and environmental advocates have been showing up in council chambers and at public meetings to make the case that renters shouldn’t have to pay extra for  parking spaces they don’t want or need. Although the old-guard neighborhood activists may not like or want their input, those people are constituents, too, and their numbers are growing.

2. This one is still in the “credible rumor” category, but former state Senator Rodney Tom—the Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-leader of the Republican-voting Majority Coalition Caucus—may be considering a run for the 48th District state senate seat currently held by Democrat Patty Kuderer. And he’d be running as a Democrat.

Tom, who did not run for reelection for the Bellevue-Medina seat in 2014, did not return a call to his office on Tuesday. But Halei Watkins of Moxie Media, which recently merged with Kuderer’s campaign consulting firm, Winpower Strategies, says she has heard the rumor repeated frequently enough, and with enough “fervor,” that she believes it. “I think he is going to run because he thinks he needs to, [and] is probably being encouraged by the business community,” Watkins says. “Frankly, I don’t think that it matters to him if he runs as a d or an r he might as well just run as [a member of the Rodney Tom party at this point.” Tom was one of two nominally Democratic members of the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus, creating a 25-24 Republican-voting majority in a senate that had a Democratic majority on paper. Tim Sheldon, the other Democratic member of the MCC, remains in the senate, which has had a true Democratic majority since the 2017 election of Manka Dhingra in the 45th, another Eastside district that neighbors the 48th.

Kuderer, for her part, doesn’t sound worried about a challenge from the right in her Democratic-leaning district. “I really don’t know” if Tom is running or not, she says, but “it doesn’t change my campaign strategy any” if he is.

3.  As the city council gets ready to take up the recommendation of the Progressive Revenue Task Force, including a new, $75 million employee hours tax on businesses, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce put a phone poll in the field out this week focusing on the tax proposal, homeless encampments, and Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien. Summer Stinson, a Democratic Party activist and co-founder of Washington’s Paramount Duty, a pro-school-funding group, live-tweeted the poll. Among the questions Simpson said she was asked (linked and reproduced here with permission):

• What do you think of Mayor Jenny Durkan, Amazon, and city council member Mike O’Brien?

• Do you see “the ineffective city council as a problem?”

• Do you think  “there is too much influence from labor unions on city government?”

• Do you agree “that the Seattle City Council has raised too many taxes and fees?

• “Is homelessness getting worse because the City Council, despite spending millions a year, does not know how to reduce homelessness?”

Chamber spokeswoman Alicia Teel confirmed that the organization is funding the poll. Asked about its purpose—and, specifically, why the poll zeroed in on O’Brien—Teel said, “Understanding public opinion is part of our overall advocacy strategy; we poll on a fairly regular basis to get a sense of how much people are tuned into developments at City Hall, including how Council is stewarding taxpayer dollars. The tax on jobs”—the Chamber’s preferred term for the employee hours tax—”is a proposal that would affect all of our members in Seattle, so it’s definitely top of mind for us. As for asking about specific Councilmembers, we are curious about how well people feel that they are being represented by their district Councilmembers.”

4. After publishing a nearly 9,000-word defense of his behavior as chair of the King County Democrats (a defense that included four sentences that could be generously construed as apologetic), Bailey Stober temporarily ceded his duties as chair last night but did not step down, saying that he wanted the chance to defend himself in an trial that will take place on April 8, followed by a vote by the county’s precinct committee officers on whether to remove him from office on April 15.

For all the details on last night’s meeting of the King County Democrats, and Stober’s non-apology apology, I’ve posted a few highlights from Twitter below, and collected all my tweets here.

Stober remains on paid leave from his job as communications director for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson while the office, with the help of an outside attorney, investigates the charges against him and determines whether they impact his ability to do his job as chief spokesman for the assessor. Chief deputy assessor Al Dams says the investigation will be limited to the allegations of harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior; the county will not look into allegations that Stober misused Party funds because he does not have the authority to spend county funds. Dams did not immediately respond to a request for Stober’s salary; last year, when his job was listed as “administrative assistant II,” the 26-year-old made $90,445, according to the Tacoma News Tribune’s public employee salary database.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The “Unique Problem” That Separates Us from Salt Lake City and Houston

1. A line of people and pets snaked along the eastern perimeter of CenturyLink Field yesterday morning as the United Way’s annual Community Resource Exchange, an annual event where volunteers and service providers offer resources, food, dental care, and other services to people experiencing homelessness. Upstairs, in the stadium’s event center, a decidedly more well-heeled crowd gathered for an event called the Changemakers Rally—a series of short speeches, actually, followed by a panel discussion with leaders from Amazon, Starbucks, and Zillow, along with All Home, the Chief Seattle Club, and United Way. The highlight of the odd event wasn’t the anodyne address by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who skirted substance in her speech and during the brief Q&A with remarks like, “We need to commit over time to make this change in people’s lives for every day of their lives” and “We know what works, we just need to do it and have the collective will to do it.” Nor was it an awkward onstage back-and-forth between United Way board chair Kathy Surace-Smith and Justin Butler, a formerly homeless Metropolitan Improvement District Ambassador who moved here from Phoenix and couldn’t be prodded to say much more about the Community Resource Exchange beyond, “Well, it got me a job.”

No, the highlight was when Starbucks VP John Kelly took the mic and used his time to blast the Seattle City Council for considering an employee hours tax to fund investments in homelessness at a cost of up to $75 million a year, a proposal he called an example of the way “our government keeps on targeting [businesses] as a  source of funds rather than innovators and problem solvers.” Starbucks has focused its homelessness spending on family homelessness, as has Ohio homelessness consultant Barb Poppe, whose famous/infamous “Poppe Report” is the blueprint for Seattle’s Pathways Home initiative. Kelly highlighted that report, which calls on the city to move funding away from service-rich transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers to help people rent apartments on the private market. “We know the decisions, we’ve got the Poppe Report with all the solutions, the blueprint is there—we just need to act on reform,” Kelly said. “Barbara Poppe has worked with Salt Lake City and Houston and seen demonstrable progress.”

The “unique problem” that differentiates  Seattle from those two cities, Kelly continued, is that only Seattle has a large number of families living on the streets and in cars. The other difference, of course, is that Seattle apartments cost about twice as much as apartments in either of those cities, thanks in no small part to a housing shortage that is also unlike anything Houston or Salt Lake City is experiencing.

2. A curious addendum to the saga of former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned last year amid accusations that he had sexually abused several minors in the past: Last April, as the scandal was breaking, Murray filed a financial disclosure report showing that he owned just one property—his Seattle house on Capitol Hill, valued at $876,000. (I came across Murray’s financial documents while I was looking into an item related to current Mayor Jenny Durkan’s own investments). That was odd, because a previous financial disclosure report, from 2016, showed that he owned another house—a three-bedroom, two-bath vacation home in the coastal community of Seabrook, which Murray and his husband Michael Shiosaki bought in November 2015 for $470,000.

Murray amended the report to include his second home six weeks after filing the initial report without it. However, those six weeks—from April 14, when he filed the initial report, to May 31, when he corrected it—were critical ones. During April and May, while the press was all over the story, Murray repeatedly pleaded poverty—claiming, for example, that he needed a special dispensation from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission allowing him to raise money from supporters for his own legal defense because as “a lifelong public servant, [he] does not have the personal resources needed to fund his own legal defense.” Murray also told Q13 Fox that he had “no assets.” Referring to his house in Seattle, he said,  “Michael owns the house.” In fact, both Shiosaki and Murray, who are married, are listed as the owners of both houses.

The mis-filed report could have been a simple oversight, and the addition of the house didn’t change Murray’s total assets, which he listed in 2017 as $1.8 million. Murray and Shiosaki still own the Seabrook house, which can be rented for between $148 and $335, depending on the season. One other bit of historical trivia: In 2013, when he was still a state senator, Murray earmarked $437,000 in the state budget for a new bike and pedestrian connection between Pacific Beach and Seabrook—at the time a brand-new planned community—at the request of a longtime friend who owned a house there. Not long afterward, the friend maxed out to Murray’s first campaign. And about two years after that, Murray himself bought a vacation house in the town.

3. After the Seattle Times reported last week that, according to King County Metro, the downtown Seattle streetcar will cost 50 percent more to operate than the Seattle Department of Transportation previously claimed, Mayor Durkan requested an independent review of the $177 million megaproject, which is already under construction. On Tuesday, city budget director Ben Noble told the council’s transportation committee that the mayor’s office is concerned about “whether we have accurate information about the operating costs and… potentially the capital costs as well.” That prompted council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime opponent of the streetcar, to suggest “pressing pause” on the project until the city could get a handle on how much it will cost to operate and build (and how the city will pay for any overruns). Goran Sparrman, SDOT’s interim director, suggested that putting the project on ice, even temporarily, could put federal funds at risk and lead to higher costs in the future, since the cost of labor and materials tends to escalate while projects are idle.

Fans of the downtown streetcar, which will link the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, will conclude from today’s discussion that it makes sense to keep plowing ahead with the project; even if the thing is over budget, the costs will only get worse if we wait. Detractors, meanwhile, will see that argument as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy—the idea that because the city has already invested so much in the project, the only option is to keep building, when in fact, there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Adapting Parking Policies for the Next 50 Years

Dark gray: No parking minimum. Light gray: No parking minimum within 1/4 mile of frequent transit service. Orange: Multifamily and commercial areas with reduced parking requirements. Green dots: Bus stops along frequent transit corridors.

1. The city council continues to debate legislation that makes modest changes to the current rules regulating parking in new buildings, with West Seattle city council member Lisa Herbold continuing to lead the charge against changes to the code that might impact drivers in her district by increasing the walk between their cars and their homes. The updates would, among other changes, change the definition of “frequent transit service”—a direct response to a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners challenging a development on Greenwood Avenue that is directly on a major bus route. The homeowners claim that because the route’s actual schedule varies at rush hour due to traffic, the area doesn’t actually have frequent transit service.

Additionally, the legislation would:

• Allow “flexible-use parking,” which would allow shared parking between buildings (for example, if one apartment building had empty spaces during the day, a retail building without parking next door might rent some of those spaces for their customers.)

• In developments where parking is required, allow that parking to be up to a quarter-mile away from the building (up from 800 feet), in keeping with the definition of accessible transit  as all areas within a quarter-mile of a bus stop served by frequent transit.

• Require landlords to charge for parking separately from rent, to “unbundle” the cost of parking from the cost of a unit.

• Reduce parking requirements for some large institutions and affordable-housing providers.

• Require more bike parking in new developments.

Herbold, who previously argued that the city’s studies showing a low level of car ownership among renters in dense areas don’t account for areas like her district, where most people drive, made the case Tuesday that the city should open up developments where parking is not required to challenges under the State Environmental Policy Act, which are generally intended to mitigate the environmental impact of proposals, not their impact on convenient car use. If SEPA analysis determined that there wasn’t “enough” parking in an area, the city could take a number of actions, including—Herbold suggested—denying residential parking zone permits, which are currently available to all residents of the city, to the tenants in that building. (Herbold pointed out that her proposal would also apply to people buying new condos, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of new units in Seattle are apartments, not condos).

Herbold also argued that the proposal to allow parking a quarter-mile away from new buildings that are required to have parking could discriminate against elderly people, for whom, she said, “I’ve seen estimates that an acceptable walking distance” is between 300 and 600 feet. “We talk about Seattle wanting to be an age-friendly city, and I’m just concerned that the proposed change to a quarter mile does not serve the needs of that aging population.”  A few minutes later, though, she undermined her case by saying that if the quarter-mile rule for car parking passed, she would propose that developers be allowed to move their mandatory bike parking up to a quarter-mile away; after all, she argued, if a quarter-mile is the rule for cars, shouldn’t it be the rule for cyclists, too? Council member Mike O’Brien pointed out that cars and bikes have very different impacts and serve different purposes; instead of “trying to pretend that cars and bikes are identical and have the same impacts,” he said, the city should adopt bike parking requirements that actually work for bike riders—and encourage cycling, which is already official city policy.

2. If Herbold’s RPZ idea sounds familiar, that’s because it has been proposed loudly and often by homeowner activists , who see it as a kind of “gotcha” that will demonstrate that people who move into buildings without parking actually own cars and plan to park them on the street. Taking away their ability to park on the street serves as both a punishment meted exclusively against renters in new buildings (on behalf of homeowners and incumbent renters who own cars) and a targeted I-told-you-so.

RPZ restrictions were one of many proposals to stick it to developers and renters during a rowdy meeting of the Phinney Ridge Community Council Monday night. Staffers from the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Department of Construction and Inspections, and council member Rob Johnson’s office came to present the legislation and ask questions, but the “Q&A” devolved into a shouting match before it even began.

SDCI’s Gordon Clowers, Johnson staffer Spencer Williams, and SDOT staffer Mary Catherine Snyder only made it through a few minutes of their presentation before members of the crowd—mostly white, mostly gray-haired—began pelting them with rhetorical questions. “Have you considered shift workers who might work at night” in your parking vacancy studies, one woman wanted to know.  (Yes). “If you say, ‘You can’t lock your door'”—a reference to shared parking, which would allow shared use of parking garages—”and there’s a whole lot of break-ins, who fixes it?” (That’s a question for the landlord.) “If most neighborhoods are facing growth and most people are looking for on-street parking, there’s eventually going to be such a rat race of parking demand, looking for that last free spot, that it’s not going to be viable.” (Not a question).

I sat and listened as a woman behind me stage-whispered, “SO WRONG. SO WRONG. SO WRONG” while Williams explained that people living in subsidized housing are less likely to own cars, and I watched as people shouted him down when he tried to explain the rationale behind allowing buses that sometimes arrive every 16 minutes to count as “frequent transit service” for the purposes of parking policy.  I heard a dozen people start yelling in unison when Williams was insufficiently surprised that 1,700 apartment units are in the pipeline along the 5 bus route from Shoreline to Fremont (“That’s been part of our growth strategy since the 1990s”), and I listened as grown adults screamed “Bullshit!” when Clowers said the city wasn’t trying to force people out of their cars and when a different person told Clowers he was full of, again, “bullshit,” because “you can interrupt us but we can’t interrupt you.”

Listening to the Phinney Ridge homeowners in the room, you would think that Seattle is a city where it’s impossible for anyone to get around without a car, where no one takes the bus because they’re all too full anyway, where the local transit agency fabricates bus schedules from whole cloth, and where parking policy is made without consideration for “working-class” residents with work trucks and delivery vehicles. If I hadn’t known that I was sitting in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, in a roomful of homeowners motivated not by altruism but by the desire to park their cars near their houses, I would think Seattle was in the middle of a class war between elitist city policymakers and paycheck-to-paycheck laborers getting screwed over by policies designed to crush working-class renters.

But that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the city is starting to make progress toward adapting its parking policies for the next 50 years, when driving alone in privately owned cars will become the exception, not the rule. It’s hard to see the future when the present is all that’s in front of you—if you and all the people you know own cars, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else does, too, and will for the foreseeable future. Policy makers, and elected officials, are supposed to look beyond the next few years and think about how people who haven’t even arrived in the city yet will want to live 20 years from now, especially when crafting land-use policies that will have implications for decades. It’s a shame when otherwise progressive elected officials can’t see beyond the immediate self-serving demands (for ample, free, convenient parking; for laws preserving single-family neighborhoods) of their current constituents.

3. In an example of the kind of inconveniences transit riders are frequently subjected to, King County Metro will relocate its Route 4—a lifeline route that serves downtown, Harborview and Swedish Hospital, Garfield High School, and the Central District down to Judkins Park—for a year, moving the line four blocks to Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. S. in the Central District. That’s inconvenient enough, but Metro is adding an extra wrinkle: Bus riders will also be forced to transfer to a different bus at 21st and Jefferson, making an already slow route that is frequently delayed even slower. Metro says they had to add the transfer because there aren’t enough diesel hybrid buses to run along the route, which is on wires until it gets to 23rd and Jefferson, on weekdays. In response to my tweet about this yesterday, Metro said that “to minimize the inconvenience, hybrids will serve the entire route on weekends, when hybrids are more available than during the w[ee]k.” I have asked why hybrids couldn’t be made “more available” for this route, given that riders will already face a year-long route change; they said they’d get back to me later today.

Last year, the agency dead-ended the route at 21st Ave. and Jefferson Street, forcing people headed south to transfer to the Route 48 bus two blocks away.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Sound Transit Is Not Felt To Be a Safe Workplace”

1. Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff escaped serious reprimand on Wednesday for alleged behavior toward agency employees that included looking women up and down and giving them “elevator eyes,” using racially insensitive language, swearing at employees, and using an abrasive style that both the public memo on the investigation into his behavior and King County Executive Dow Constantine described as “East Coast” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). With only Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson dissenting (because they believed Rogoff’s punishment was insufficient), the board voted to require Rogoff to create a “leadership development plan” to improve his listening, self-awareness, and relationship building” skills and to  assign a three-member panel, made up of Sound Transit board members, to monitor his progress on the plan for six months.

Durkan skipped the launch of an NHL season ticket drive and the raising of the NHL flag over the Space Needle to be at today’s board meeting, an indication of how seriously she took the charges. Before voting, Durkan read the following statement:

“The issues raised and on which we were briefed led me to believe the conclusion that these [performance] factors cannot be met, and so I will be voting against this motion. I think the facts that we have been briefed on and the conclusions reached by our Counsel demonstrate that Sound Transit is not felt to be a safe workplace for all employees, that they do not feel that they can act without repercussions, and that there are many who feel that their work is not valued. I am also concerned that the statements that were alleged to have been made by the CEO, and the actions that were raised – raised the issue of racial bias and insensitivity, as well as other workplace harassment issues. I do not believe that these issues have been resolved as completely as indicated by Counsel, and that having three Board Members oversee the daily work of this CEO is not the resolution, and so I will be voting against this motion.”

Neither Durkan nor Johnson had any further comment after the meeting.

The memo on the investigation lays out a few specific examples of behaviors that the investigation deemed inappropriate, including a Black History Month event in 2016 at which Rogoff “reportedly made comments condescending toward persons of color” and a 2017 incident in which he dismissively told a female employee, “Honey, that ain’t ever going to happen” in response to a question. But the memo, and most of the Sound Transit board, is also quick to chalk much of Rogoff’s reported behavior up to difficulty navigating the politeness of Pacific Northwest culture and the fact that the previous CEO, Joni Earl, was so beloved that Rogoff faced built-in challenges from the time he was hired, in late 2015. To wit:

In the meeting, King County Executive Dow Constantine, who was chair of the Sound Transit board when Rogoff was hired, said he talked to Rogoff when he applied for the position and “cautioned him that his directness was going to run up against a very different way of interacting  to which we are accustomed here in the Pacific Northwest, and that he was going to have to modify his manner and understand the local culture if we were going to be successful.” Constantine also described Rogoff as “bracingly direct” before praising his effectiveness.

Rogoff echoed Constantine’s complimentary assessment of his style in his own memo responding to the allegations. In the memo, Rogoff acknowledges (using language that reads a bit like a job applicant saying that his worst flaw is his “relentless attention to detail”) that his “directness and unvarnished clarity did not sit well with some staff” and that he was, at times, “overly intense in articulating my expectations for performance.” Rogoff goes on to explicitly deny some of the allegations,” calling some of the claims made during the investigation “misquoted, misunderstood, mischaracterized or false. I don’t yell at people.  I don’t disparage small city mayors and I don’t shove chairs to make a point,” two incidents that were detailed in the documents released today. “I was shocked to read some of the characterizations on this list.”

A document labeled “Peter Rogoff, CEO ST: Note to file” describes some of those alleged incidents. They include: Directing a staffer to tell Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom to “go fuck himself”; yelling over the phone at a staffer in a conversation that lasted from 11pm to 1am; standing up at a meeting and saying “When I give direction, it’s for action, not rumination” and shoving a chair; saying that he “couldn’t give a flying fuck about how things were when Joni [Earl] was here, because she’s not here anymore”; using the term “flying fuck” constantly “to everyone”; and the aforementioned incidents in which he allegedly looked women up and down and gave them “elevator eyes.”

King County Council member and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci said after the meeting that she has “seen a lot of improvement” in Rogoff’s behavior. “I think that at least shows that it’s possible, and therefore that we could have a successful CEO. If he can manage people with respect and dignity then I felt he deserves the opportunity.” Balducci disagreed that Rogoff’s management style could be explained away by “regional” differences. “I’m from New York,” she said, and “I think everybody, no matter where they’re from, knows how to be respectful. The things that we were talking about were more than just style.”

Although Rogoff did not receive a bonus this year, he did receive a five percent cost of living adjustment, which puts his salary at just over $328,000.

2. The city’s progressive revenue task force held its final meeting on Wednesday morning, adopting a report (final version to come) that recommends new taxes that could bring in as much as $150 million a year for housing and services for homeless and low-income people in Seattle. Half of that total, $75 million, would come from some version of an employee hours tax; the variables include what size business will pay the tax ($8 million vs. $10 million in gross revenues), the tax rate and whether it will be a flat per-employee fee or a percentage of revenues; and whether businesses that don’t hit the threshold for the tax will have to pay a so-called “skin in the game” fee for doing business in the city. The task force also talked about making the tax graduated based on employer size, but noted that such a tax may not be legal and would almost certainly be subject to immediate legal challenges.

The original memo on the head tax proposals suggests that the “skin in the game” fee should be $200 and that the fee would kick in once a business makes gross revenues—not net profits—of $500,000. During the conversation Wednesday morning, some task force members floated the idea of lowering that threshold to just $100,000, a level that would require many small businesses, such as street-level retailers, to pay the fee, regardless of what their actual profit margins are. However, after council member and task force chair Lorena Gonzalez pointed out that the city has not done a racial equity analysis to see how any of the head tax proposals would impact minority business owners, the group decided to keep the trigger at $500,000 in gross revenues. Additionally, they decided to raise the recommended fee to $395—a number that was thrown out, seemingly at random, by a task force member who called it “psychological pricing” (on the theory that $395 feels like significantly less than $400).

The other $75 million would come, in theory, from a combination of other taxes, some of them untested in Seattle and likely to face legal challenges, including a local excise tax, an excess compensation tax, a tax on “speculative real estate investment activity,” and an increase in the real estate excise tax. Legal challenges could delay implementation of new taxes months or years, and—although no one brought it up at yesterday’s meeting—REET revenues always take a nosedive during economic downturns, making them a fairly volatile revenue source.

3. The Teamsters Local 174 confirmed yesterday that they will no longer allow the King County Democrats to hold meetings at their building in Tukwila, after a contentious meeting Tuesday night that lasted until nearly midnight. My report on that meeting, at which the group decided to extend and expand the investigation into sexual harassment and financial misconduct claims against the group’s chairman, Bailey Stober, is here.

According to Teamsters senior business agent Tim Allen, the decision wasn’t directly related to the allegations against Stober, but had to do with the behavior of some of the group’s members and their treatment of a custodial worker who had to clean up after the group, who may have been drinking alcohol on the premises. “We have standards of conduct that people are supposed to live up to” around how guests treat the building and whether they “treat our [staffers] properly,” Allen said. “They had the whole building to clean, and usually we expect [groups that use the building] to clean up after themselves. Stober, contacted by email, said “I’ve heard varying degrees of that story” (that people were drinking, continued to do so after they were asked to stop, and left a mess), “but I can’t confirm that because I was sitting in the front of the room and have no knowledge of what was happening outside of the room.” Many other local progressive groups, including some legislative Democratic groups, have alcohol at their meetings (many provide beer or wine for a suggested donation), but some venues do not allow alcohol without a banquet license.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: A Proposal to Bar Renters from Parking on City Streets

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses (and much more). Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

1. This morning at 9:30, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) committee will hold a public hearing on a proposal that would reform parking requirements to allow more housing to be built without parking in dense, transit-rich neighborhoods. The parking update would also require developers who do build parking to charge separately for rent and parking, so that people who don’t own cars wouldn’t have to pay for parking spaces they don’t use. (A 2012 study of 95 Seattle apartment buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, meaning that developers are building more parking than they need. On-site parking, according to a 2013 report from the Sightline Institute, inflates the cost of rent by around 15 percent. Essentially, many renters are paying for an extra 200 square feet of housing for cars they don’t have.)

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes, a change that would effectively expand the areas where new apartments can be built without parking. Currently, the city allows developers to construct buildings without parking if they’re located within a quarter mile of frequent transit service, defined as service that arrives every 15 minutes or less. The problem is that if this rule is interpreted in the most literal possible way—by standing at the bus stop and measuring when each bus arrives—even one late bus per hour can disqualify a whole neighborhood. Since this is obviously ridiculous, the new rules propose to redefine “frequency” by measuring average arrivals over an hour and ten minutes; if buses arrive every 15 minutes, on average, then the service counts as frequent.

Despite the fact that the city has a longstanding official goal of reducing car ownership and solo car trips in the city,  the idea of allowing—not requiring, but allowing—new apartments that don’t come with “free” parking on site remains intensely controversial. (About half of all apartments in Seattle include parking in the cost of rent, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections). Council member Lisa Herbold, who recently questioned the city’s conclusion that much of the new parking that’s being built goes unused, wrote a blog post last Friday arguing that despite the fact that many renters don’t own cars (about 40 percent of those who live in the quarter of Seattle’s Census tracts with the largest percentage of renters), plenty of residents in other parts of town still have cars, and shouldn’t have to fight for on-street parking with tenants in apartment buildings that lack garages. Specifically, Herbold said she still has “concerns” about changing the definition of frequent transit service to a more flexible standard that acknowledges factors like traffic. “I still have to analyze the impacts of the proposed changes, but my fundamental concern is still that I question whether the case has been made to demonstrate a correlation between transit ridership and a reduction in car ownership, and therefore not needing a place to park a vehicle,” Herbold wrote.

Herbold’s blog post includes several maps that do, in fact, indicate that some areas in Herbold’s district—where, she notes pointedly, 82 percent of people own cars—will newly qualify as having “frequent transit service” under the new rules. This, she suggests, could indicate that the council is being too hasty in expanding the areas of the city where developers can build without parking based on access to frequent bus service. However, what Herbold doesn’t note is that most of the areas where the definition of “frequent” service will be expanded are inside urban villages or future urban villages, where developers can already build without parking, and where the percentage of renters is already high—in her own district, for example, the neighborhoods where transit will be considered “frequent” under the new rule include Highland Park and South Park, where, according to Herbold’s maps, between 50 and 68 percent of residents rent, and where far fewer households (37 percent and 29 percent of renters and homeowners, respectively), don’t own cars.

2. Anti-development activist Chris Leman circulated an email last week urging recipients to testify or write letters condemning the proposed new “frequent transit” definition. “On-street parking is no frill or luxury,” Leman writes. “It’s central to neighborhood safety and livability; to business success; and to mobility for children, seniors, the disabled, everyone.” (The entire concept behind Safe Routes to School, by the way, is that kids should be able to get to school safely without being driven there in a car). “Without on-street parking,” the email continues, “our residents could not go about their lives, and our restaurants and other small businesses would suffer or fail.” It goes on to suggest several policy “solutions,” including new rules barring renters from parking on city streets once they get above 85 percent capacity.

This, then, is the logical conclusion of some property owners’ (incorrect) belief that they have a “right” to park in front of their house: A two-tiered system in which only property owners have the right to access public spaces. I’m sure it won’t be long before we hear this argument applied to other public spaces, such as parks and libraries, too: If we’re willing to ban people without assets from using public streets, why wouldn’t we be willing to ban them from using other public assets? A truly fair system, of course, would be one in which everyone pays equally for parking (instead of getting subsidized parking on the street in front of their house for free), but I won’t hold my breath waiting for anti-development activists to advocate for that one.

3. After holding a typically boisterous committee hearing to protest cuts to hygiene centers and to shelters run by SHARE/WHEEL (I called it a “rally,” she called it a “town hall”), council member Kshama Sawant got her wish: The council restored $1 million in funding for SHARE/WHEEL and Urban Rest Stops, ensuring that they will be funded for another year. (The money was restored as part of legislation approving the sale of city-owned land in South Lake Union, which I’ve covered in more detail here and here.) According to a Human Services Department document explaining why the group didn’t receive funding, SHARE and WHEEL’s shelter proposals cost too much per bed and did not address racial equity goals; SHARE’s application, in particular, was “the lowest scoring application among shelters serving single adults, and had poor performance data; lack of specific examples; lack of specificity about actions/policies in cultural competency; high barriers to entry; more focus on chemical dependency compliance than on housing; concerns about fiscal capacity.” (The Seattle Times covered some of the controversies surrounding SHARE back in 2013).

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the council came up with that $1 million: They found the money lying around in last year’s real estate excise tax (REET) revenues, which, according to the city’s calculations, came in $1 million higher than originally estimated.  That allowed them to reallocate $1 million that was supposed to go to a new fire facility to the programs that were cut last year.  All this new funding comes from one-time expenditures, meaning that the city will have to find long-term funding sources in future years if they want to keep them going—a proposition that, like everything else that relies on tax dollars, is easier to do in boom times than in bad.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan hit many of the themes she’s been talking about during her first three months in office in her first State of the City speech yesterday at Rainier Beach High School (which also happened to be the first State of the City speech by a female mayor in Seattle’s history.) The speech, which I livetweeted from the auditorium, was generally sunny and full of promises, like free college for every Seattle high school graduate and free ORCA transit passes for every high school student —typical in years when the economy is booming. Durkan also touched on the homelessness crisis, the possibility of an NHL franchise (put deposits down for your season tickets starting March 1, she said), and her campaign promise to pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights. And she alluded briefly to the fact that the economy can’t stay on an upswing forever—an unusual admission in such a speech, although one that was somewhat contradicted by her promises to put more money into education, homeless shelters, and transportation. And, as I noted on Twitter,  Durkan also said she supported building new middle- and low-income housing across the city: “We need to speed up permitting, add density, and expand our housing options in every part of this city,” she said. But that, too, was somewhat undercut by a comment later in Durkan’s speech, when she said—citing a sentiment that has become conventional wisdom, fairly or not—that “growth” itself “has made it hard for the middle class” to get by.

 

Morning Crank: To Think Otherwise is Really Idealistic

1. Council members expressed concern and some skepticism Wednesday at a committee discussion of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to spend around $7 million in proceeds from the sale of a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on “tiny house” encampments and housing vouchers—so much concern and skepticism, in fact, that they decided to put off a decision on the tiny houses until mid-March, and could end up tabling the voucher program  as well.

Durkan’s proposal, called “Building a Bridge to Housing for All,” includes two one-time expenditures on homeless shelters and homeless prevention. The shelter funding, about $5.25 million, will initially be used to open a single “tiny house village” for chronically homeless women, but could ultimately be used to add as many as 10 new authorized encampments with a total of 500 tiny houses, across the city. According to city council staffer Alan Lee, each tiny house would cost about $10,500, a number that includes on-site security and 24/7 case management for residents (according to council staff, case management and other operating expenses for 500 tiny houses would cost the city about $500,000 a year.) Durkan has convened an “interdepartmental housing strategy” group to come up with a final proposal in June; Lee said at yesterday’s meeting that the numbers were intended to “give a very rough framework of what direction this money could go… whether or not that’s the strategy that comes out in June.” But it’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest that the strategy that comes out in June will include a heavy emphasis on tiny-house encampments;  Durkan even held her press conference announcing the Bridge to Housing program at the Seattle Vocational Institute, with two under-construction tiny housesas her backdrop.

The council’s finance committee agreed to hold off on the $5 million for a few weeks and vote on it, at the earliest, at the full council meeting on March 12. Meanwhile, they decided to move forward with the plan to spend $2 million on short-term housing assistance vouchers for a small number of people on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which recipients use to rent housing on the private market. (Or not—although landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against people who use Section 8 vouchers to pay their rent, it can be hard to find housing that fits the program criteria, including a maximum monthly rent of around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment in the Seattle area.) The assistance, which staffers estimated would work out to about $7,300 per household per year (about half that $1,200 maximum), would help just 150 of the 3,500 or so on the SHA waiting list for vouchers—those who make less than half the area median income and are at high risk of becoming homeless. (My earlier estimate, which worked out to a much lower per-month subsidy, was based on the assumption that the city planned to help 15 percent of those on the SHA waiting list, rather than 15 percent of a smaller subset of 1,000 wait-listed people in need of housing. The fact that the city’s estimates for monthly subsidies are higher reflects the fact that the $2 million it plans to spend will only help a relatively small number of people.)

Quite a few council members questioned the wisdom of moving forward with a housing assistance program without identifying a long-term funding source (the $2 million is a one-time windfall from the sale of city property), and some wondered whether the city should be spending its limited resources on people who aren’t actually homeless, instead of, say, the 536 people on SHA’s waiting list who are either actually homeless or unstably housed.

“What I’m concerned about,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said, addressing staff for the mayor’s office and SHA, “is that we’ve identified a gap in the system and are proposing to address that gap in the system in a short-term fashion with a finite amount of resources. … I guess I don’t have a level of confidence that in two years, we will have patched the gap in the system that you have identified. So if that gap still exists, then there will be an expectation created” that the city will continue to fund the program, even though the money has all been spent. To think otherwise, Gonzalez added pointedly, is “really idealistic.”

It’s unclear what the council will do next Tuesday. Of seven council members at the table, four—Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Mike O’Brien—abstained from voting to move the allocation of the $2 million (part of an ordinance meant to accompany a separate bill authorizing the sale of the property for a total of $11 million) onto next Tuesday’s full council agenda. Because abstentions aren’t “no” votes, the measure passed, with Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, and Rob Johnson voting “yes.”

2. The progressive revenue task force, which has been meeting for the past two months after the failure of a proposed employee hours tax, or “head tax,” last year, will hold its final meeting at 9am on March 1 in the Bertha Knight Landes Room at City Hall. The group is expected to propose a new version of the EHT rejected by the council during last year’s budget process, which would have required businesses with more than $10 million in gross receipts to pay an annual tax of $125 per employee. The task force held its penultimate meeting yesterday morning.

3. ICYMI: Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I was able to watch two simultaneous committee hearings—a meeting of the council’s planning, land use, and zoning (PLUZ) committee, to take comment on the city’s plans to upzone and require affordable housing in Northeast Seattle’s District Four, and a public hearing/rally against cuts to homeless shelters the city made last year—online. For about three hours, I whiplashed between a barrage of testimony against shelter cuts by council member Sawant’s army of invited supporters (as usual, she advertised her hearing with a “PACK CITY HALL!” invitation, turning what was ostensibly a council committee hearing into a standard Sawant protest rally) and public comments on zoning changes that ranged from earnest (the upzone, one speaker said, will allow “more neighbors to share the amenities” she already enjoys) to entitled (“I choose to live in Seattle,” a Wallingford homeowner said. “I like it. Other people want to live in Seattle too, and they want to take my spot”) to ridiculous (“It seems the department of planning has specifically targeted Wallingford for destruction of neighborhood character.”) If you missed the opportunity to follow along in real time (or if you just want to relive the whiplash) I’ve gathered my tweets in a Twitter Moment.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Parking Reform, Density Delay Tactics, Election Funding, and More

A look back at some of the meetings I didn’t get around to covering last week:

1. Last week, as the city council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee began to discuss legislation that would overhaul parking requirements for new development around the city, council member Lisa Herbold argued that the city should do a more extensive study of parking demand before adopting parking reforms that could result in developments with less parking per unit. A 2012 King County survey of 95 existing buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, but Herbold wondered why the city hadn’t done a more recent survey, in the years since the council eliminated parking minimums in the densest urban areas. “If we’re going to be changing policies based on our perception of our success. I think it ‘s just helpful to have data about unused parking in buildings where we’ve been doing this for a while,” Herbold said. A council staffer countered that doing so would require the city to seek permission from landlords to get inside their garages in the middle of the night, and suggested that the data probably wouldn’t be much different than it was five years ago. According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the average apartment has 0.72 parking spaces, and the average demand for parking ranges from 0.3 to 0.8 parking spaces per unit.

Herbold also questioned the city’s conclusion that between 40 and 48 percent of Seattle renters do not own cars, citing a statistic showing that 77 percent of people living in multifamily units own cars, until a city staffer pointed out that that data was regionwide. And, in a letter to SDCI director Nathan Torgelson that was included in last week’s committee materials, she questioned whether rents would actually go down if parking was “unbundled” from rent, meaning that renters without cars could not be forced to pay for parking spaces they will never use, and suggested that “most parking is unbundled,” a conclusion Torgelson said wasn’t accurate. “[D]ata from 2017 indicate that in the region about 50% of apartment buildings… have parking bundled into the costs of rents,” Torgelson wrote—a number that is higher in the southern half of the city, an area that  includes Herbold’s West Seattle district.

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” (one measure that determines where apartments may be built without parking) to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes. Currently, if a bus is supposed to arrive every 15 minutes but it arrives one minute late once an hour, it doesn’t count as “frequent” enough to reduce or eliminate parking requirements; the new measure would average actual arrivals over time, to account for the fact that buses, like cars, sometimes get stuck in traffic.

The PLUZ committee will hold a public hearing on the parking reform proposals on February 21.

2. Reducing parking requirements for new buildings is one key element of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a plan to add housing, including affordable housing, across the city. Another cornerstone of HALA is a new requirement called Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers of multifamily housing to include units affordable for people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income, or to pay into a fund to build affordable units elsewhere. A group calling itself SCALE (the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity) has sued to force the city into a longer, more drawn-out environmental review process to assess the impact of MHA, and a representative from the group, longtime Lake City neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, gave a progress report to the Phinney Ridge Community Council last Tuesday.

Never has a room full of white North Seattle homeowners (most of them over 50, which I point out not to be ageist but as a sign of who generally has time to get super involved in neighborhood activism) acted so concerned about the fate of “large immigrant and refugee families” who would, Siegfriedt said, soon be unable to find houses for rent in Beacon Hill, Othello, and Rainier Beach if MHA went forward. “These are the only places where large immigrant families can rent,” Siegfriedt said, “so when we start talking about people living in single-family homes being exclusionary, well, that’s not true on the face of it. In fact, it’s a refuge.”

SCALE’s big objection to HALA is that it proposes allowing developers to build low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the nearly two-thirds of Seattle that is currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. These upzones, which are confined to areas immediately adjacent to already dense urban villages and centers, will help accommodate some of the 120,000 people expected to move to Seattle by 2035. Siegfriedt said that by forcing the city to do individual environmental assessments for every single neighborhood that would be impacted by MHA, SCALE hopes to “delay [MHA] a year or more—and I hope we could get neighborhood planning back on the table.”

3. On Friday, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee dug into the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to spend $2 million on rental vouchers for certain people at risk for becoming homeless. The program targets a subsection of people on the waiting list for Seattle Housing Authority Section 8 vouchers—federally funded housing vouchers that people can use to rent housing on the private market, as long as that housing is below the fair market rent set by HUD, currently around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. The $2 million is part of $11 million the city expects to see from the sale of a piece of land in South Lake Union that currently houses the city’s radio-communications repair shop; the rest of the proceeds (which also include an early payment  into the aforementioned MHA affordable-housing fund, for a total of $13 million) will pay to design a new fire station in South Lake Union, relocate the communications shop, and for “bridge housing” in the form of tiny houses and a seventh authorized encampment, this one for chronically homeless women.

To qualify for a temporary city voucher, a person must be on the SHA waiting list, currently housed but at risk of becoming homeless, and at or below 50 percent of area median income.

To give a sense of how many people who need housing and will actually be eligible for Durkan’s Bridge to Housing funding over the two years the pilot will be underway, consider: 22,000 people entered the lottery to get on SHA’s 2017 waiting list. Of those 22,000, just 3,500 won slots on the waiting list to get a voucher sometime in the next two or three years, or fewer than 16 percent. According to the city, about 15 percent of people on the 2015 waiting list were housed when they got on the list but became homeless. Using that figure, I extrapolated that (very roughly) 525 people on the current list are housed but at risk of becoming homeless. Extrapolating further, the average assistance for a person on this list works out to $158 a month over the two years of the pilot program. I’m sure there are factors I’m not accounting for—don’t @ me—but that’s a pretty paltry sum in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment now costs around $1,800.

4. It will be another month or so before the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission releases its first-year report on Initiative 122, the voter-approved measure that imposed new campaign contribution restrictions and authorized public campaign financing through “democracy vouchers” sent to every registered voter, but two of the unsuccessful candidates for city council Position 8 (won by Teresa Mosqueda) showed up at the commission’s meeting last Friday to offer their own takes on what worked, and didn’t, about the program. Jon Grant, who received the maximum possible amount of $300,000 in public funding for his race against Mosqueda, praised the program, calling it “an outstanding success—and you know I’m telling the truth because I’m the guy who lost.”

But Hisam Goueli, another “guy who lost” in the same race—he failed to make it through the primary—said if he ever ran again, he wouldn’t participate in the program. Goueli said he spent “several hours every day begging people to complete the process,” which required candidates to receive and have King County Elections validate at least 400 signatures, along with 400 contributions of at least $10, from registered voters, before they were eligible for public funding. Goueli said he was finally cleared to use democracy vouchers the day before the election—too late to do a mailing or a last-minute ad push. Because he had opted to participate in the democracy voucher program, Goueli was subject to smaller contribution limits—$250, as opposed to $500—than candidates who didn’t participate, but he never saw any of the benefits.

And “those people who had the most money in democracy vouchers”—Grant and Mosqueda—”still won the primary,” Goueli said. “The program is a cumbersome process, and even if you do it, it doesn’t limit big money” in the form of independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to restrict. Mosqueda, who was the political director at the Washington State Labor Council before joining the city council, benefited from about $200,000 in outside spending by unions.

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