Bonus Crank: “Why Can’t It Be an ‘And’?”

1. In a letter sent on Tuesday to members of the city council’s select committee on Mandatory Housing Affordability, the Seattle Coalition for Livability, Affordability, and Equity (SCALE) urged council members to adopt a raft of amendments scaling back the (already watered-down) citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow duplexes, townhomes, and some small apartment buildings on six percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas.

SCALE’s letter encourages the council to adopt all “neighborhood self-determined amendments and resolutions,” which I wrote about last week, and zeroes in on a few specific amendments, including:

• An amendment reverting the MHA zoning back to whatever it was before the council adopted the plan, “should the courts find the affordability housing requirement sections (e.g. requirements to build on site or in-lieu fees) not legal.” MHA requires developers to fund or build affordable housing in exchange for the higher densities allowed by the plan.

• An amendment requiring “one-for-one replacement” of any housing removed as the result of development under MHA. The city has argued that mandatory one-for-one replacement discourages new development and does not accomplish the broader goal of producing more affordable housing throughout the city than is lost directly to development through physical displacement.

• Another, similar amendment requiring that any new development that results from developers paying a fee into an affordable housing fund be inside the same urban village as, or no more than 10 minutes’ walking distance from, the new development. This would also have the impact of reducing development, and thereby lowering the number of new affordable housing units built under MHA.

• Amendments mandating large new setbacks (15 feet in the front and rear, and between 5 and10 feet on the sides) and yards for new development, including small, low-rise apartment buildings, which would be required to have “at least one 20′ x 20′ area at grade for landscape and a large tree planted in natural soil.”

• An amendment changing the definition of “family-sized housing,” which is required in some affordable-housing developments, to three bedrooms (from the current two). The letter justifies this change, which would likely prevent some development because larger apartments are both more expensive and less lucrative, by arguing that “[f]amily sizes for low income, immigrants and refugees and people of color tend to be larger.” The average household size in Seattle, as of the 2017 American Community Survey, was 2.11—1.85 for renters.

The city council took up the first set of district-specific MHA amendments, including some proposed by residents and some from council members themselves, on Monday; on Wednesday, they’ll consider the second batch. I wrote about all those amendments here.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and citywide mobility director Mike Worden

2. As the longest (by one week) Seattle highway closure in history enters its third weekday, predictions of “viadoom” and “carpocalypse” haven’t come to fruition. But as city, state, and county leaders reminded the city at a press event last week, the “period of maximum constraint” is a long-term issue, which is one reason, Mayor Jenny Durkan explained, that the city needed to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, one of the two finalists for the Seattle Department of Transportation director job that was ultimately filled by Washington, D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe, to oversee the city’s “mobility operations.”

It didn’t get coverage at the time (most of the assembled press were focused, understandably, on the coming permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct), but Durkan offered her most detailed explanation yet of why she believes the city needs not only a new SDOT director and a director of downtown mobility, but a “director of citywide mobility operations coordination,” which is Worden’s full, official title.

“Both Sam and the General came up through the SDOT search, and both of them were enthusiastically supported by the search committee, who said, ‘Either one, you’re going to get a winner.’ And I said, ‘Why does it have to be an or? Why can’t it be an and?'”

Durkan went on to joke that Worden would benefit from his past experience under “enemy fire” and reiterated that Worden’s job wasn’t just monitoring traffic, but coordinating responses from “29 city departments” (which is, incidentally, all of the city departments). For example, “When a tree comes down and blocks a road, that’s not necessarily a Seattle Department of Transportation issue; it could be a City Light issue because it could take wires with it. It could be a Parks Department issue, because the tree was originally in a park.”

Worden also cited his military experience as something that uniquely prepared him for his new job as, effectively, the city’s traffic czar. “My experience with coming together on the eve of a crisis with a bunch of strangers who are arriving from different locations, different countries, facing a crisis, and the ability to work with them to build relationships, to get everyone on a common frame of reference, to achieve the objectives, may come into play … as we transform like a butterfly into the city that everybody wants to be,” Worden said.

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At Long Last, Council Takes Up Mandatory Housing Affordability Upzones

As the city council prepares to finally take up former mayor Ed Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan—which alters zoning and land use across the city, and would allow duplexes and small apartment buildings on 6 percent of the land currently reserved exclusively for detached single-family houses—today, the council’s seven district members are also proposing dozens of amendments to the plan.

Many of the amendments involve undoing or reducing the proposed density increases, although some proposals do call for higher densities in certain areas. It’s highly improbable that every one of the downzoning amendments will pass, but if they did, it would be tantamount to rejecting the very premise of MHA, which allows developers to build more densely in a small swath of the city in exchange for funding new affordable housing. If all the amendments, including both downzones and upzones, passed, the overall result would still be lower density overall than MHA proposes). And even if MHA were passed unamended, the vast majority of Seattle would still be preserved for suburban-style single-family houses.

The implications of not adopting MHA as drafted (or of downzoning the proposal, block by contested block) go beyond just density. Exempting some commercial and multifamily areas from the plan will mean that developers who build in those areas will not have to build affordable housing (either on-site or by contributing money to a city fund), which have two effects: First, it will make MHA-exempt areas more attractive to developers, not less, because they won’t have to contribute to affordable housing, making development cheaper; second, because developers who build in exempted areas won’t have to contribute to affordable housing, less affordable housing will get built, making it harder for the city to reach its goal of 6,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years. Council members who act to exempt certain multifamily areas from upzones in order to prevent displacement may, in other words, actually be encouraging development in those areas.

Here are some of the amendments the council will consider this week, starting at today’s special MHA committee meeting in council chambers at 2:30, listed by district. All the amendments are available in in this 100-page document, which lists the amendments in district order; amendments that are tagged “Additional Environmental review needed” are outside the scope of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal (which the city’s hearing examiner recently upheld after a lengthy appeal process), and are less likely to move forward than those within the scope of the FEIS. Many of the amendments in each district are proposed by the council member for that district; however, because this isn’t true of every amendment (many of the amendments came from council central staff or from constituents in that district), I’ll refer to the amendments by district rather than author, with one exception. Also, when I refer to “downzones” and “upzones,” I am generally referring to those changes relative to what is proposed in the MHA plan, not to the current zoning.

 District 1 (Lisa Herbold)

The amendments proposed for Herbold’s West Seattle District would reduce the proposed upzones in areas that are currently zoned single-family from low-rise (a catchall term for zones that allow multifamily development) to lower-density designations. Seven of the 11 District 1 amendments call for scaling back the MHA density increases to Residential Small Lot zoning, which allows no more than one unit per 2,000 square feet of land area and limits the size of new houses to 2,200 square feet. Other amendments would undo every proposed upzone in the areas of the West Seattle Junction that are currently single-family, while upzoning a swath of land known as the Triangle, along Fauntleroy Way SW, from 65 feet to 95 feet.

In practice, Residential Small Lot, a new zoning designation, imposes a density limit of about two units on a typical 5,000-square-foot Seattle lot—far less than, say, Low-Rise 3, which is supposed to encourage “infill housing at medium to high densities,” according to the city.

District 2 (Bruce Harrell)

Areas around the Mount Baker light rail station would not be upzoned, or would receive more modest upzones, under two District 2 amendments, and a proposed expansion of the North Beacon Hill Urban Village (along with an upzone within the existing urban village, which is served by the Beacon Hill light rail station) would be eliminated. Getting rid of upzones on Beacon Hill has been a priority of the anti-density SCALE coalition, whose environmental appeals have stalled the implementation of MHA, and Harrell’s amendments would largely accomplish this goal.

The District 2 amendments also include small, specific upzones and downzones in far southeast Seattle (including lower heights and densities around the Rainier Beach light rail station).

District 3 (Kshama Sawant)

Most of the proposed MHA amendments in District 3 consist of downzones on North Capitol Hill east of 15th Ave. and north of Thomas St.—generally speaking, one of the wealthier parts of Sawant’s district, which includes the rest of Capitol Hill as well as the Central District small parts of Mount Baker and Beacon Hill. Geographically, the majority of the proposed District 3 downzones are in the Madison-Miller Urban Village, along 19th Ave. E between East Aloha and East Thomas Streets, and between 20th and 24rd Aves. E on Capitol Hill.

The District 3 amendments also include a few small upzones on individual properties and blocks—all of them, with one exception, in the Central District or further south.

District 4 (Rob Johnson)

Johnson is a vocal proponent of MHA and of increasing density in his own Northeast Seattle district. Many of the amendments in District 4, not surprisingly, would upzone parts of Johnson’s district even more than MHA calls for, particularly around the two light rail stations that are being built near the University of Washington and in the Ravenna-Roosevelt neighborhood. The amendments would also increase potential building heights near the Roosevelt station, on 12th Ave. NE between NE 65th and 67th Streets, from 65 feet to 125 feet, and would add 20 feet to the potential height of new apartments around University Village.

The District 4 amendments also include a few proposed downzones—one for the block just north of Roosevelt High School, two for a site just north of Ravenna Park, and one on the northern boundary of his district, where he has proposed reducing part of the Wallingford Urban Village from low-rise to residential small lot.

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District 5 (Debora Juarez)

The amendments proposed for District 5, which stretches from the northern boundary of Johnson’s district to the border between Seattle and Shoreline, also include a number of upzones centering on three dense (and densifying) areas of North Seattle—Northgate, where a light-rail station is under construction, Lake City, and Aurora Avenue North, in the Aurora-Licton Urban Village.

District 3 council member Sawant has also proposed an amendment in Juarez’s district that would cancel an upzone planned for commercially zoned two mobile home parks located just south of N 125th Street, which are slated for an upzone from 40 to 55 feet. It’s unclear whether Sawant consulted with Juarez on her amendment about the mobile home park, which is also the subject of a special committee meeting Sawant is holding in her renters’ rights committee on Friday afternoon.

District 6 (Mike O’Brien)The 15 proposed amendments in District 6, which includes all of Northwest Seattle, largely sidestep Ballard’s historical center and the area around a potential light rail station, along NW Market Street. Instead, the proposed changes center on the Crown Hill Urban Village, where nine amendments would reduce MHA’s proposed upzones, mostly by lowering proposed densities in areas that are currently single-family from low-rise to residential small lot.

A handful of other District 6 amendments would modestly increase density on a few specific parcels—including one block just south of Holman Rd. NW, currently the site of a Dick’s Drive-In location—but most of the proposals involve lowering development capacity in the northern half of O’Brien’s district.

District 7 (Sally Bagshaw) 

There are just three proposed amendments in Bagshaw’s district, which includes parts of the city (downtown and South Lake Union) that have already gone through their own upzone process and are not part of the current MHA debate. They include two downzones from the MHA proposal, in Upper Queen Anne, and a reversal of a proposed upzone in Magnolia, near the Kiwanis Memorial Preserve Park, just south of the Ballard Locks.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is likely to want to leave her own stamp on the previous mayor’s upzone proposal; during the campaign, she said she supported Murray’s decision to take single-family housing (mostly) off the table, and commented that in considering changes to the plan, it was important to make sure “that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.”

The plan has already been drastically watered down once, during the Murray administration—from a proposal that would have allowed duplexes and townhomes in the 65 percent of Seattle that is preserved exclusively for single-family houses, to the current version, which upzones just a sliver of that land and keeps the city’s single-family mandate intact. Any further backsliding on MHA will only hinder the city’s ability to create affordable housing for low-income residents, and ensure that more middle-income people are pushed out of the city simply

Afternoon Crank: Density Opponents Sharpen Their Pencils, City Seeks Consultant for Quick-Turnaround Showbox Review

1. As the city council begins what could—could—be the final round of discussions about the Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal (the plan, in the works for two years now, would upzone 6 percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas and require developers to fund new affordable housing), density opponents are sharpening their pencils.

The Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), which blocked the plan for a year with environmental appeals, produced a list of proposed amendments to the plan that would effectively gut the proposal, by forcing the city to charge developers to pay new “impact fees” to offset the perceived negative impacts of new housing, instituting minimum parking requirements for new developments, quadrupling the fees developers would pay toward affordable housing under the ordinance, and rolling back many of the zoning changes entirely.

The proposed amendments include things like increasing tree canopy requirements (thereby reducing development capacity) in low-income neighborhoods; changing the definition of “family-sized” housing to exclude two-bedroom apartments; requiring large open spaces or even yards for new multifamily developments; and reducing the MHA rezones to reflect the affordable housing targets in existing neighborhood plans, which did not contemplate the massive population growth nor the rise in inequality that Seattle has experienced over the last ten years.

SCALE’s Toby Thaler, who argued the group’s case against MHA before the city hearing examiner, did not respond to an email with questions about the document. While some of the amendments the group is proposing are obviously fanciful—no one is seriously talking, for example, about blowing up the “Grand Bargain” with developers by requiring them to fulfill 50 percent of their affordability requirements with on-site housing—they could serve as a kind of Overton window (or, if you prefer, opening gambit) for the upcoming discussion about neighborhood-specific changes to the plan, which begins next week.

Housing advocates will want to keep an eye out for what citywide and block-by-block changes council members (and Mayor Jenny Durkan) propose, and whether those changes track with the proposals put forward by SCALE. (The amendments aren’t available yet, but I’ll post about them as soon as they are.) Durkan has said in the past that she believes “neighborhoods” should have more input into the city’s development decisions; whether that means acceding to homeowner advocates’ demands during the final stretch of the MHA debate will become clear in the coming weeks.

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2. The city will spend $75,000 this year (of $100,000 allocated in last year’s budget) on a contractor who will advise the mayor and council on whether the Showbox should become a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. According to the scope of work for the contract, obtained through a public records request, the contractor will “Review the historic significance of the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the PPMHD Design Guidelines related to the Showbox theater, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” According to a spokeswoman with the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, DON has not chosen a consultant yet, but remains on the schedule outlined in the work plan.

The contractor will have to get all that work done quickly; the city’s schedule calls for any SEPA findings to be published in March, with all the work wrapping up in April, and a council vote to permanently expand the historical district in June. Two to three months is a remarkably short time frame for a single contractor to conduct a full public outreach process, do a thorough environmental review, and draft legislation for the council to consider and pass. To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.

Under the city’s current schedule, the Showbox building would become a permanent part of Pike Place Market three months before a trial is scheduled to begin in a lawsuit the property owners filed against the city; that suit charges that the city violated the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires council members to remain neutral on so-called quasi-judicial decisions like historic district boundary expansions, as well as the owners’ First Amendment and due process rights.

The debate over the Showbox’s fate began when a developer, Vancouver-based Onni, filed plans to build a 44-story apartment building on the property, which the council had recently rezoned to allow just such a development. The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building, which is owned by strip club magnate Roger Forbes; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.

3. After pushback over the fact that its original “service area” was confined almost exclusively to  neighborhoods north of I-90 (including many north of the Ship Canal), Uber announced today that its JUMP bikes will be available in South and West Seattle. The company, which launched its bikesharing service in Seattle late last year, got some bad press last week when the Seattle Times reported that riders who left bikes outside the service area could be charged $25. (An Uber spokesman says the company has not imposed the fee on any riders.) Lime Bikes, Uber’s competitor, launched citywide in the summer of 2017.

The red outline on this map shows the new service area, which includes three of four “equity areas” (low-income communities and communities of color) designated by the city. The original, blue-outlined area included just one of the equity areas, which includes the Central District and a sliver of South Seattle that extends down to the Mount Baker light rail station.

This is hardly the first time a “sharing economy” company has decided to serve the wealthier, whiter areas of the city first. Six years ago, Car2Go launched with a service area that excluded the entire South End and West Seattle while serving areas as far north as Bitter Lake.

Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

Image result for futurewise logo

1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.

Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in  7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.

To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.

Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”

Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

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2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s]  an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.

The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.

ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.

The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”

Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”

The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.

This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data.  Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.

Morning Crank: Details Emerge About Megablock Sale

1. Yesterday, six months after the city put the largest remaining piece of publicly owned land in South Lake Union on the market, the city council got its first look at the bids for the property. The conjoined parcel, which some affordable housing advocates have argued the city should hold onto and develop as public housing, is worth upwards of $90 million on the open market.  Although the city budget office wasn’t willing to say much about the bids in open session (for fear, according to city budget office director Ben Noble, of weakening the city’s bargaining position), a few details did emerge during the public discussion.

First, budget staffers revealed that seven teams presented proposals to either purchase or lease and develop the property, and that the city determined that six were responsive. After a team made up of city staffers and one private citizen—former Downtown Seattle Association director  and deputy mayor Kate Joncas—reviewed the applications and interviewed the candidates, they decided to move all six forward to the “best and final offer” stage of the process rather than eliminating any of them right away. Noble said that most, but not all, of the proposals included the 175 units of affordable housing suggested in the request for proposals, and that some of the bidders proposed developing the land under a long-term ground lease, rather than buying it outright. Some of the bidders apparently proposed two different offers—one price with affordable housing, and another, higher price without—and staffers said that one goal of the negotiations will be reducing the difference between those two numbers. If the city decided to keep the property and develop it in cooperation with a nonprofit housing provider, budget office staffer Steven Shain said, the cost to the city would be about $100,000 a unit, or about $100 million for 1,000 units of affordable housing.

City council members questioned why Joncas was the only non-city employee on the committee reviewing the bids for the Megablock property. “I was unaware until very recently that it is even possible to have somebody not of the city family to participate in a process like this,” council member Lisa Herbold said. “It would have been really helpful, knowing now  that we could have external stakeholders participate… having somebody participate with expertise in nonprofit affordable housing production.” Shain said the executive reached out to other people and organizations, including Capitol Hill Housing, but they weren’t able to commit the amount of time the job required without any kind of compensation from the city.

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“As the issues facing our city become more critical and more complicated, we are as elected leaders… pursuing the expertise of subject matter experts within the community more and more often,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said, but there isn’t a clear policy about how and when to pay people who work for nonprofits, rather than for-profit consulting firms. “That’s an inherent inequity in how we engage subject matter experts in a variety of areas. We tend to not monetarily value nonprofits, but we will monetarily value people who are literally in the business of providing expert consultant opinions.”

Gonzalez also suggested that the council think about whether they’re overusing executive sessions and invoking confidentiality provisions when they don’t have to. “My frustration is that we just assume that everything is confidential, and we don’t afford ourselves the opportunity to take a scalpel approach to the issues related to confidentiality,” Gonzalez said. “So, yes, while the details of the transactions and the proposals mightbe subject to confidentiality, there are several details around the transactions… that could have been daylighted in a more transparent way that could, at a minimum, contribute to a higher level of public confidence in whatever deal that we’re going to be judged for approving or not approving.”

Then the council went into executive session.

2.  After the council approves Mayor Jenny Durkan’s appointment of two more Transportation Choices Coalition staffers to the city’s bike and transit boards next week, there will, by my count, be just one person on TCC’s entire full-time staff who Mayor Durkan has not appointed to a city board, commission, or advisory committee during her first year in office. This year, Durkan has appointed TCC staffers to serve on the advisory committee overseeing the selection of a new Seattle Department of Transportation director; the Bicycle Advisory Board; the Transit Advisory Board; and the Levy to Move Seattle Oversight Committee. And, of course, her deputy mayor is Shefali Ranganathan, who left her job as TCC director to join the Durkan administration last year.

Honestly, there are worse things than a takeover by the IlluminaTCC. As I wrote back in November, the group is a strong, effective voice for alternatives to driving, especially transit, in a city that too often takes a windshield perspective on transportation planning. (New director Alex Hudson, who ran the uber-YIMBY First Hill Improvement Association, was an especially inspired hire.) Still, it’s worth asking whether other voices—the voices of groups that did not support Durkan’s election campaign, as TCC did, for example—are being displaced. As advocates from advocacy groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways worry that they’re being shut out of official city appointments, TCC’s presence inside the city’s power structure appears to only be growing.

The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle

Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.

Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.

Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.

MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next  decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.

Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.

The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”

If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.

A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.

This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households  and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.

The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be  physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.

One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.

Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.

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 report, “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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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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Seattle Magazine’s “Influentials” Include YIMBYs, Mosqueda, and Others Working for a Better City

Credit: Seattle magazine

I was proud this year to once again participate in Seattle magazine’s “Most Influentials” issue, which focuses every year on people and institutions that are making a positive difference in Seattle. At a time when it’s easy to notice only what’s negative about the city—the escalating homelessness crisis, the affordable-housing shortage, debates over whether the city has lost its “soul” (it hasn’t), the issue is a timely reminder that Seattle is actually a pretty great place, with people doing amazing work in fields that don’t always get their due, from bus driver/artist/filmmaker Nathan Vass, whose essays about driving the Route 7 are urban poetry, to TransYouth Project leader and UW psychology professor Kristina Olson.

Here are a couple of my contributions to the issue; read the whole list, along with Rachel Hart’s editor’s note about the issue, at Seattle magazine’s website, or pick up a copy on newsstands now.

The YIMBYs

YIMBY—the acronym stands for “yes in my backyard”—started as a national rebuke to so-called NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”), residents who oppose development in their neighborhoods. Today, the politically diverse movement has an active Seattle presence that is focused on saying yes to new density in urban neighborhoods. In the past year, YIMBYs have helped elect two council members: freshman Teresa Mosqueda and incumbent Lorena González, both of whom faced anti-density opponents.

They’ve advocated to allow homeowners to build second and third units on their property; pushed the city to convert the Talaris Conference Center site in Laurelhurst into affordable, high-density housing; and testified in favor of tiny-house villages to serve as temporary encampments that provide shelter to homeless Seattleites. And they also have helped to reframe the debate about a proposed affordable housing development in Magnolia’s Fort Lawton.

Battles over zoning and housing move slowly, so the true impact of today’s YIMBY activism might not be visible for years. What’s clear is that YIMBYs are framing important debates—and changing what it means to be a neighborhood activist.

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

In her first several months on the council, Mosqueda, an energetic former labor lobbyist elected in 2017, proposed a plan, one that shouldn’t be radical yet is, to give surplus city land to affordable-housing developers, instead of selling it to the highest bidder; cast one of just two votes against repealing the “head tax,” which would have paid for housing and homeless services; passed new city protections for domestic workers; and stuck her neck out as a high-density housing advocate at a time when a revanchist neighborhood movement is ascending. Rarely has a City Council freshman taken a mandate and run with it quite as hard as Mosqueda. In doing so, she’s proving to be a bridge player on an increasingly fractured City Council.

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.