Why Fort Lawton Is a Tipping Point in Seattle’s Housing Debate

This piece originally appeared in Seattle magazine.

Photo Credit: Alex Crook

The Fort Lawton army reserve center—an old military outpost in Magnolia, established in 1900 to defend Seattle and North Puget Sound—isn’t much to look at these days. What was once a bustling, 703-acre military base, housing as many as 20,000 soldiers, has shrunk over the years to a mere 34 acres abutting 534-acre Discovery Park. Abandoned barracks, windswept parking lots and boarded-up windows make it obvious to the visitor who wanders inside its boundaries that this is a place frozen in time—frozen, specifically, in 2011, when the U.S. Army formally mothballed the facility.

But the battle over the future of Fort Lawton can be traced back to 2008, when a group of homeowners in Magnolia sued to prevent the city from building a 415-unit mixed-income housing development, including 85 units for homeless families, on the site. (The Army ceded management of the land to the city in 2005 in preparation for its closure, and offered the land to the city for free on the condition it is developed as affordable housing.) In 2010, a state appeals court ruled that the city would have to produce a full environmental impact statement (EIS) before moving forward with the housing proposal; that requirement, combined with the recession, has kept redevelopment plans on the shelf ever since.

Last year, shortly after an annual count of the city’s homeless population tallied a record 4,000 people sleeping on Seattle streets, the city revived the plan, issuing an EIS that laid out its preferred alternative to the earlier plan. It includes less housing, more open space and several acres of playfields on which a school could eventually be built. Public interest was revived, too: The plan, which includes 85 supportive housing units for formerly homeless seniors and veterans, 100 subsidized units for low- to moderate-income families and 52 Habitat for Humanity townhomes, has garnered more than 1,000 public comments.

Many of the comments strike a familiar tone, arguing that the new residents will drive down property values, overwhelm local streets and damage the historic single-family character of a close-knit neighborhood.

But something has shifted since 2008: More Magnolia residents—and former Magnolia residents who’ve been priced out of the neighborhood—are stepping up in support of the project. At a January public hearing at the Magnolia United Church of Christ, near Magnolia Village, dozens of speakers voiced support for the city’s proposal—a dramatic shift in tone since last summer, when the public comment at similar meetings was overwhelmingly negative. True, some of the speakers had found out about the hearing from the pro-housing Housing Development Consortium, but just as many speakers identified themselves as current or former Magnolia homeowners—the very demographic that torpedoed the project 10 years ago.

George Smith, who has owned his Magnolia home, less than a mile from Fort Lawton, for 26 years, was one of those who spoke up in January, and he says he’s seen a shift since 2008. “I think in the years since then, the homelessness and affordability crisis has gotten so much worse that you’d have to be living in a hole underground not to understand, at some level, that we’ve got a huge problem in Seattle,” Smith says. While he still has neighbors who oppose the plan, he also sees a new group of people who welcome the project. “I think that the folks that move into the Fort Lawton housing will be folks that are able to contribute to the community in positive ways,” Smith adds. “Hopefully, they’ll also be a little more diverse than the Magnolia demographic.”

Magnolia, generally speaking, is wealthier (average income in the Census tract immediately adjacent to Fort Lawton: $90,951), whiter (81.6 percent, compared to 69.5 percent citywide) and less likely to be in the workforce (67.5 percent, compared to 72.3 percent citywide) than the rest of Seattle.

But even in Magnolia, there is demographic diversity. Over on the eastern slope of the hill, near the Burlington Northern railroad tracks, the median household income goes down—to $69,865 by the Magnolia QFC, and $66,455 farther south by the Magnolia Bridge, where the city periodically removes homeless camps. “I call it ‘Forgotten Magnolia,’ because I don’t think the people who actually live in the houses up in Magnolia ever think about us,” says Lisa Barnes, a longtime Magnolia renter who lives in a small apartment in the area, along with her husband and daughter.

Barnes, who works at a small social service agency, says that early on, she was surprised to discover so many of her neighbors opposed the city’s plan. But by January, when she showed up at the Magnolia United Church of Christ expecting to be one of just a few speakers in favor of the plan, the mood had shifted. “I kind of give it up to the city,” Barnes says now. “I think they have been responsive [with the new plan] to what people have said they want.”

Among other changes, the plan now sets aside 6 acres for active recreational space—think sports fields, not virgin forest—that could be purchased by the Seattle school district for a new school or environmental learning center. Local schools are crowded, and the neighborhood is getting younger; Smith, the longtime homeowner, says many of his elderly neighbors have sold their houses to young families, and nearby Lawton Elementary is already over capacity, according to the city’s EIS. (Magnolia Elementary School and Lincoln High School, both reopening next year, are expected to lighten some of the burden on existing schools.)

That’s important to Valerie Cooper, the legislative representative for the Lawton Elementary PTA and a member of the Fort Lawton School Coalition, a group that originally organized to advocate for a middle or high school on the Fort Lawton property. “I’m not opposed to housing, by any means, but I want to make sure that if it moves forward, we have the infrastructure that goes with it.” She notes, “My son [now in third grade] had had 29 kids in his kindergarten class when he started, and that was out of control. It has continued to grow since then.”

Another change since 2008 is the addition of acres of parkland; the 2008 proposal included just one neighborhood park of less than an acre and a 1-acre greenway. The new plan calls for 13 acres of new passive park space, along with up to 4.7 acres of forest from existing Army land. But for activists who want the entire Fort Lawton area turned into an extension of Discovery Park, that isn’t enough. They support an alternative plan that would sacrifice the housing and active recreational space for 4 additional acres of undeveloped park space. They say that plan would create avenues for migrating wildlife to travel through Kiwanis Ravine, a few blocks east of Discovery Park, and into a part of Magnolia that has long been fenced off and inaccessible.

“I don’t want to be flippant or dismissive of the housing or the school option or any other option,” says Philip Vogelzang, president of Friends of Discovery Park, “but really, there is no other land near Discovery Park that can be added to the park, and there’s lots of options for housing.”

Barnes, the East Magnolia renter, takes the opposite perspective: Given that the land for housing at Fort Lawton would be free, why not use it for housing and add new parks elsewhere? “What would be better is putting more small green spaces throughout the city, not concentrating them in these giant parks that people have to drive to,” she says. For that matter, Smith adds, why not build even more housing at Fort Lawton and give more people the chance to enjoy a huge park right in their backyard? “My only regret,” Smith says, “is I think this was a very timid proposal—using so little of the property in an inefficient way, with single-family homes [townhomes] rather than apartment-style flats.… I wish they had been more ambitious.”

Dan Cantrell, a Phinney Ridge homeowner who grew up in Magnolia in the 1960s, agrees. “Even if there were a dozen developments like what’s being proposed at Fort Lawton, I don’t think it would change the character of the neighborhood,” Cantrell says. “I believe that the people who are opposing [the city’s plan] are in the minority, and I believe that, across the city, there’s a clear majority that understands and agrees that we need to build more housing.”

Unsurprisingly, there are still voices of dissent. At the meeting in January, Aden Nardone, a representative of the homelessness and drug policy advocacy group Speak Out Seattle, said that building housing in such an “isolated area” was like “putting people in internment camps.” Social media sites like Facebook and Nextdoor Magnolia bristled with predictions that the plan would bring crime, drugs and overcrowding to Magnolia. Elisabeth James, one of Speak Out Seattle’s founders, provided Seattle magazine with written comments stating that the group largely supports the housing option, but the plan “fails to provide a holistic plan for the existing neighborhood or the anticipated new residents,” such as additional service on Metro’s Route 33, which serves Fort Lawton.

Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia activist whose lawsuit back in 2008 forced the city to do a full EIS, told the Magnolia Voice blog that the “way to tackle the city” was to take “a legal approach,” presumably by challenging the final EIS—a common tactic for slowing or stopping development in Seattle. (Campbell did not respond to requests for comment.) The city, according to Fort Lawton redevelopment project manager Lindsay Masters, has taken that possibility into account by securing a five-year lease from the Army. Will that be long enough to wrap up any future litigation? Masters hesitates, then laughs. “It better be.”

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.

Afternoon Crank: “Giving the Appearance that the Chair Was Partying on Contributions to the Organization.”

1. The treasurer for the King County Democrats, Nancy Podschwit, along with several other members of the group’s finance committee, has called for a special meeting to remove embattled chairman Bailey Stober in a letter documenting no fewer than 13 instances of what they refer to as “inappropriate” spending by Stober. The letter and an accompanying memo add details to the financial case against Stober, who is also accused of targeting his female coworkers and a former employee whom he fired of sexual harassment and bullying.

Among other claims, the finance committee members say that Stober:

• Spent thousands on unauthorized entertainment and travel. The King County Democrats’ budget authorized $3,100 for “travel and entertainment.” “Per the budget, this was intended to be a $100 stipend per state party meeting for the chair and state committee people to attend the three state party meetings, as well as sponsorship for the WSDCC meetings,” the memo says. “However, it appears to include many other trips, and includes mileage, hotels and restaurants. … At no point has the chair asked for budgetary authority for general entertainment or travel purposes.” This extra spending included $2,336 to reimburse Stober for mileage on trips in the Seattle area and around the state, as well as two Airbnbs—one for a state committee meeting, which cost $857, and another for a board retreat, which cost $968. Most members of the board were told to reserve a few daytime hours on a Saturday for the retreat, but a select group was apparently invited to spend two nights at the house on Vashon, which was equipped with a hot tub, with all expenses paid for out of county Party funds. According to the memo, “The chair and some others stayed at the facility for Friday night and Saturday, posting on social media about grilling and drinking, giving the appearance that the chair was partying on contributions to the organization.” 

• Spent unauthorized funds on lightning-speed, business-level Internet service. Although the board authorized $250 a month for all utilities, combined, Stober signed a contract with Comcast for its most expensive, top-of-the-line business planthe “Deluxe 250,” which cost the group more than $500 a month. Comcast recommends the Deluxe 250 for e-commerce businesses with 12 employees or more and “extensive employee and customer wifi usage.” The King County Democrats had one employee (they now have none).

• Misled King County Democrats members and the board about the failure of its annual fundraiser, by claiming they had raised $17,100 when in fact it had resulted in a net loss of $730. (Once late contributions were counted, the event—which cost the party more than twice what was originally budgeted, and several thousand dollars more than a revised budget—raised about $630.) UPDATED: A member of the group has brought additional information to my attention suggesting that some of the revenues from pledges associated with this event may have been logged as part of the group’s general fundraising revenues, which would increase the net profit from the event. I will update this post when I get more detailed information about how these pledges were counted in the group’s budget.

• Misrepresented the success of the group’s fundraising in general, claiming at meetings that the group was meeting or exceeding fundraising goals when, in reality, fundraising fell short by more than $18,000 in 2017.

• Made most of the group’s campaign contributions last year in violation of bylaws that say the board must approve endorsements and contributions. These contributions included $75 to Matthew Sutherland, a candidate in Eastern Washington who was not endorsed by the group, which doesn’t generally endorse or fund candidates outside King County.

• Spent $10,135 more on candidate contributions than he was authorized to spend under the organization’s adopted budget, which included $20,000 for donations to candidates and campaign committees.

• Doled out contributions without board approval, despite repeated warnings that the board needed to sign off on such expenditures. Tara Gallagher, a member of the finance committee, is quoted in the memo saying that she met with Stober to discuss the unapproved contributions, and that he told her he would address it at the next board meeting. However, according to Gallagher, “At the next meeting he went into executive session to discuss the budget, which is weird, and mumbled something about the contributions when it would not show up in the minutes” because executive sessions are private.

• Signed an office lease through December 2018 that cost more than double ($1,800 a month) what the board approved ($800), without telling the board about the extra $12,000 annual commitment.

• Spent $6,600 in unapproved funds remodeling the rented office space—the sort of expense, the memo notes, that is typically borne by a landlord—along with $3,877 on office furniture and $5,500 on “office supplies,” nearly $5,000 more than the approved budget of $517. “It is unclear why this is so far over budget, however the treasurer notes that a laptop for the executive director, a printer and other items for the office were purchased,” the memo notes.

2. Podschwit brought up the financial allegations in a heated meeting of the 37th District Democrats last night, at which several officers proposed a resolution calling on Stober to step down and resolving to withhold dues from the King County Democrats until he does. (Ultimately, the resolution—which mirrored similar proposals that have been approved or will be considered in other districts—failed by a vote of 27 to 16.) In her comments supporting the resolution, Podscwhit described watching helplessly as Stober drained the group’s checking account. (Stober was, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the situation unable to get bank approval to be on the checking account, so instead he directed Koss Vallejo’s spending.)

“I truly believe part of the harassment that Natalia went through was him asking to spend money over my continued telling her not to,” Podschwit said. “And I felt terrible—every time I would get a charge on the bank statement or a check that cleared that I was not told about, the first person I would contact was Natalia, and Natalia would tell me that Bailey told her that he was her boss and he told her to do it. We had repeated conference calls [with Stober and the group’s finance committee] on Monday nights where we went over this over and over again as the money slowly drained out of the checking account. … We have text messages, we have emails, explaining to us in no uncertain terms that he was large and in charge. Much like Donald Trump, he was the only one that could fix it. Well, we’re broke.”

Most of the time allotted for discussing the resolution calling on Stober to resign was taken up by a lengthy, discursive, and often misleading explanation of the proposal by 37th District Democrats chair Alec Stephens, a staunch Stober ally who previously compared his treatment by the King County Democrats to a lynching. (Stober and Stephens are black.) Stephens spent nearly 15 minutes very slowly explaining the events that led up to the resolution (“On the vice chairs’ side, they’re down to one now, as opposed to there were two, then there were originally three, or there were originally four…”) before taking the podium again, this time to speak explicitly against the resolution.

“The very first investigation that was done, in my opinion, was totally flawed. Its biggest flaw was not taking the time that we still have not had to actually hear from the accused.” (According to the vice chairs who did the initial investigation, Stober refused to speak to them without a lawyer present, then stopped responding to their requests to meet). He continued: “I am playing no cards, but there is a racial dynamic to this that is of great concern to me. … I think we have to let the process play out and not just say, ‘Well, we’ve decided, and so”—even without hearing him”—you’ve got to go.” At that point, a man’s voice rang out. “It’s called due process!” “It’s called due process,” Stephens echoed.

Shasti Conrad, the King County Committeewoman for the 37th District and—like Koss Vallejo, Stober’s alleged victim, a woman of color—had a response for that question. Speaking in favor of the resolution, she said: “You want to talk about due process? Where is the due process for the woman he fired while there was an ongoing investigation happening? What about the due process for the women who were subjected to that hostility in that work environment? What about the women who had to put up with the jokes, the comments, feeling less than because there wasn’t space for them to speak up? What about due process for them?  … I love this party, but if we are not able to stand up for women’s rights, for victims of sexual misconduct, if we are going to turn a blind eye to blatant financial malfeasance, then I no longer feel safe here.”

Later, Conrad said on Twitter that she was “heartbroken” by the “painful” experience of being “shouted down as I was calling for a Democratic Party free of sexual harassment and a party that is safe for all.”

Meanwhile, a second investigation into Stober remains stalled, as I reported Monday, because the one remaining vice chair has been unable to find volunteers to serve on the five-member panel investigating Stober. Notably, that panel will include two members directly chosen by Stober himself—one reason some potential volunteers have reportedly declined to participate in the process. Stober has called a special meeting of the executive board for next week to discuss next steps in his own investigation.

3. While that meeting was going on (I watched it after the fact thanks to video posted by the King County Precinct Committee Officers’ Media Group, or PCOMG), another meeting, also with a subtle racial subtext, was happening across town. The city council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee held a public hearing at Northgate for residents of Districts 5 and 6, which encompass most of North Seattle, to weigh in on proposed upzones that will impact 6 percent of the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land that is zoned exclusively for single-family use. Longtime (white) homeowners invoked theoretical ruined gardens and equally theoretical immigrants, refugees, and people of color who would be impacted by allowing more housing in the city, and renters, advocates for workers and low-income people, and even a few homeowners pushed back. I’ve collected those 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: 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.

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: “This Is Our Dakota Access Pipeline Moment”

1. Environmental activists and tribal leaders have been waging a quixotic battle against Puget Sound Energy’s proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at the Port of Tacoma for months, but many Seattle residents just took notice in the past couple of weeks, after socialist council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution that would have condemned the plant as “an unacceptable risk” to the region.

Sawant had hoped to move the resolution through the council without sending it through the usual committee process, arguing that it it was urgent to take a position on the plant as quickly as possible. Last week, at the urging of council member Debora Juarez—an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation who once lived on the Puyallup Reservation—Sawant agreed to add language noting that numerous Northwest tribal groups, including the Puyallup tribe, have expressed their strong opposition to the LNG plant but have not been included in the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s environmental review process. Last week’s amended resolution also noted the need for intergovernmental partnerships between the PSCAA and the tribes, as required, according to the resolution, by “local, state, and federal permitting and other approval processes.”

But several council members, including Juarez, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw, still felt the resolution needed work, and they spent the weekend, starting last Thursday, drafting a version that eliminated some of Sawant’s more incendiary (pun intended) references, including two “whereas” clauses about the 2016 fire that claimed several businesses in Greenwood and sections urging both the public and Mayor Jenny Durkan to actively oppose the facility. Sawant protested that she had not been included in the process of drafting the latest version of her resolution—”I just want everyone to know that I’m not responsible for those changes,” she said Monday morning—but council members reportedly reached out to her by phone throughout the weekend and never heard back.

The basic question at issue, Juarez argued, isn’t really whether Seattle should meddle in “Tacoma’s business,” or labor versus tribes or labor versus environmentalists. It’s about the fact that climate change has a disproportionate impact on low-income people and people of color, particularly the nine tribes whose land is located in the four-county Puget Sound region, and that those tribes were not consulted in the siting or permitting process. “This is an issue that transcends any political, legal, or jurisdictional lines that people have drawn,” Juarez said. “This is our Dakota Access Pipeline moment, except that we are on the front end of this.”

Whatever the merits of that argument (some members of the labor community, for example, have argued that environmental  protection and tribal sovereignty shouldn’t trump the potential for job creation at the plant), the debate quickly pitted Sawant against other council members who supported, as Sawant put it, “postponing” the resolution. Juarez, in particular, seemed perturbed by the crowd of (largely white) activists who showed up to express their support for Sawant’s amendment and to cheer loudly throughout Sawant’s speeches, which took up nearly 20 minutes of the two-hour meeting. “I mean no disrespect to the advocates, activists, environmentalists, and other groups that align themselves with native people,” Juarez said, but “we’re not a club. We’re not a political base. We’re not a grassroots organization. We are a government. … We will not stay in our lane.” To that, Sawant responded, “This is not about government-to-government relations. This is about the lives of ordinary people, many of whom are native, but others who are not. … I don’t’ think that we should in any way accept this kind of divisive language that native people are the only real speakers and others don’t get to speak. No, all of us have a stake in this.”

Noting that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recently ordered further environmental review of the project, council president Bruce Harrell argued yesterday that there was no real risk in delay, telling Juarez, “I think that your advocacy that the native communities have not been consulted properly or even legally is a great point… We haven’t really had any public process on this issue.” Several council members, saying that they hadn’t seen the latest version of the legislation by late yesterday morning, just hours before they were supposed to vote on it, agreed, and the council sent the measure to Juarez’s Civic Development, Public Assets & Native Communities committee for a rewrite.

2. Public comment was mostly muted during the first council meeting on the proposed citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal, which will allow small density increases in six percent of the nearly 26,000 acres zoned exclusively for single-family housing in Seattle. (That number includes parks and open space, but not rights-of-way, such as streets; when green space is excluded, single-family houses and their yards cover nearly 22,000 acres of the city, or nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land.)  One speaker said that residents of her neighborhood come “unglued” when they find out about new buildings that don’t have parking; another called the Grand Bargain that authorized MHA a “sham bargain,” which probably sounded more clever on paper. And then there was this lady, from a group called Seattle Fair Growth:

Don’t expect density opponents to accept what they’re (misleadingly) calling a “citywide rezone” without a fight. The first public open house on the proposal is at 6:00 tonight at Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford; District 4 rep Rob Johnson, who heads up the council’s land use committee, said he’ll be there at 7.

3. I somehow missed this when it happened, but Elaine Rose, the longtime president of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, left the organization at the end of December with little fanfare and, as far as I can tell, no public announcement. Rose’s departure leaves a major agency without a permanent leader going into a short legislative session with several key bills under consideration*; an ad announcing the open position went out on a local employment listserv last week. (Planned Parenthood also listed a fundraising position earlier this month.) I’ve contacted Planned Parenthood and will update this post if I get more information about Rose’s departure.

*Full disclosure: I was communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, a reproductive rights advocacy group, until April 2017, and I do communications consulting for NARAL for approximately 3.5 hours a week. NARAL often partners with Planned Parenthood on advocacy efforts, but I found out Rose had left PPVNH through the WHOW list, which is not connected to either group.

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: Resolutely Pro-Housing

1. Queen Anne homeowner and anti-housing activist Marty Kaplan, who scored a victory in his fight against backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in 2016 when a city hearing examiner ruled that the city must do a full environmental impact statement on new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units on their properties, is taking his show on the road.

Specifically, Kaplan is going to Bellingham, where he’ll share his experiences “fighting city hall” with the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition, a group that says it’s fighting “over-densification, parking [problems], congestion, tree canopy loss, noise, and removal of open space” in the small town. As in Seattle, it’s hard to see how allowing homeowners to convert their basements into apartments or build backyard mini-cottages will lead to any of those things (unless we’re now referring to private backyards as “open space”?), but as in Seattle, Bellingham’s homeowner activists appear to be for property rights except for property owners who want to share their property with renters. At any rate, they seem to have adopted some very familiar (and Seattle-specific) rhetoric: The meeting notice suggests that a proposal to allow backyard cottages will lead to “Bellingham being ‘Ballardized’ as city leaders legalize the bulldozing of historic housing stock to be replaced by duplexes, tri-plexes, four-plexes, townhomes, and apartments.”

2. This happened a couple of weeks ago, while I was out of town, but I wanted to highlight it here: Dupre + Scott, the real-estate research firm that since 1979 has been the local source for information about trends in apartment development, sales, rents, and vacancy rates in the Seattle area, announced in late December that they were shutting down at the end of the year. Patty Dupré and Mike Scott, who are married, made the announcement on the Dupré + Scott website on December 27. The closure will leave the city without a critical source of information and analysis about what’s going on in Seattle’s rental market, an especially troubling loss at a time when renters are poised to outnumber homeowners in the city and when rents continue to rise in response to an ongoing housing shortage in the city.

Plus, I’ll miss the hell out of their goofy videos. The latest, and last:

3. Last night, I attended back-to-back public hearings on two proposed developments, both of which could help address Seattle’s housing shortage, albeit in very different ways.

The first meeting was a special review board discussion of a proposed high-rise condo building in Japantown (part of the Chinatown International District), which would be built what is currently a surface parking lot at the intersection of Fifth Avenue S and Main Street. The project, which has to go through a special design review process because of its location in the historic CID, is, predictably, controversial.

Opponents have argued that the 17-story glass-and-steel tower, called Koda Condos, is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood and will contribute to the gentrification of the area. While the building, which is definitely tall and definitely modern, doesn’t look much like the two- and three-story brick-clad, tile-roofed buildings that dominate in the neighborhood, neither did the surface parking lot it will replace. Marlon Herrera, a member of the city’s parks commission, said the building will contribute to the “repeated bastardization of this community” and that the developer’s plan to include “privately owned public space” in the project “is a sham. Only rich white yuppies drinking lattes will be allowed to use this space and everybody else will be forced out by security,” Herrera said. The review board will hold at least one more meeting before deciding whether to permit the project.

The building would add more than 200 new condos to the downtown area, and is one of a small handful of condo projects currently underway in Seattle, where for years developers have focused almost exclusively on new apartment buildings.  Developers tend to favor apartments over condos because the state subjects condos to higher quality assurance standards than any other type of housing in Washington state, making rental units a safer bet.  Although condos don’t generally constitute affordable housing, they are still cheaper than single-family houses—about one-third cheaper, according to Sightline—making them a viable homeownership option for people who can’t afford the median $725,000 house in Seattle. The Koda condos will start in the mid-$300,000 range, according to the developer’s website—if the city allows them to be built.

The second meeting last night, of course, was a public hearing on a planned development on long-vacant Army surplus land at Fort Lawton, in Magnolia next to Discovery Park. Opponents say the proposal, which would include between 75 and 100 units of affordable rental housing, 85 supportive housing units for seniors, and up to 50 affordable houses for purchase, is too dense for a part of the city that several speakers described as “isolated” and “remote.” (Notably, some of the speakers who disparaged the area as an unlivable wasteland lacking bus service, shops, grocery stores, sidewalks, and other basic amenities  live in the area themselves and somehow manage.)

One speaker, Aden Nardone with SOS Seattle, said building housing at Fort Lawton would be tantamount to putting low-income people “in internment camps”; others suggested that nothing should be built at Fort Lawton until there was enough infrastructure (sidewalks, bus routes, retail stores, groceries, sewer lines, etc.) to support it.

I wondered on Twitter what the speakers claiming to support “infrastructure” at Fort Lawton would say if the city actually did divert its limited resources toward funding infrastructure to an uninhabited area, rather than the many neighborhoods that are always complaining they don’t have frequent bus service or sidewalks. And:

A big crowd in the back, which dissipated a little more than an hour into the meeting, seemed to be the source of most of the night’s heckling. People in the back booed a woman who was talking about how affordable housing reflects Seattle’s values as a welcoming city for all people, and repeatedly shouted that people who own homes in Magnolia were somehow being prevented from speaking. For example:

For the most part, though, the speakers at last night’s meeting were resolutely pro-housing, a welcome change from many meetings about homelessness and affordable housing, including several at the same venue (the Magnolia United Church of Christ), that have been dominated by anti-housing activists. A majority of those who spoke, including many who identified themselves as homeowners in Magnolia, renters in Magnolia, people who were born and raised in Magnolia, and people who were priced out of Magnolia, supported the proposal. And some people with actual experience living in affordable housing spoke up about the stability it brought to their lives  as children:

To read all my tweets from last night’s meeting, check out my Twitter feed.

 

Best of Crank 2017: Candidate Interviews

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This year, I sat down for interviews (in some cases, multiple interviews) with the top six candidates for mayor as well as the two candidates for city attorney and the top two candidates for City Council Positions 8 and 9, which were both on the ballot this year. This post is a compendium of my pre-primary mayoral interviews, which included conversations with former mayor Mike McGinn, former state legislator Jessyn Farrell, current state legislator Bob Hasegawa, educator and activist Nikkita Oliver, and the two candidates who made it through the primary, now-Mayor Jenny Durkan and urban planner Cary Moon. Each excerpt links to my full interview with each candidate.

This piece ran on July 31.

Election Day Is Tomorrow. If You Haven’t Voted, Read This.

If you haven’t voted yet, you still have until tomorrow, August 1, at 8pm to get your ballot into a King County Elections drop box (locations here); if you’re planning to mail your ballot, do it today so you won’t miss the August 1 postmark deadline.

And if you haven’t decided who you’re voting for in the mayoral election, check out my interviews with the top six candidates, which cover topics ranging from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to the controversial North Precinct building to gender and transportation equity. Or check out  a few key moments from each of those interviews below.

Former mayor Mike McGinn

ECB: One specific thing Murray has done is to distance the city from the neighborhood councils, and as you know, there was a backlash to that. His response to that backlash, and I think it was a appropriate one, was to say, ‘We’re not excluding you, we’re just including other people too.

MM: I personally was bothered by the way Ed kind of got rid of them. I do think they have a place but—you should go reread the article I wrote on Crosscut. I expressed that there were weaknesses. But I think that [cutting ties with the councils] was a divisive act. It was perceived by those folks as an attack. And I think there’s a way to say, ‘Look, you’re a voice and we’re going to continue to solicit your views, but we’re also going to invite more people in. That’s a process issue as well.

ECB: But I feel like those people hated you anyway. So how are you going to convince people that Ed is divisive but you’re not?

MM: You have to define what you mean when you say [divisive]. Are there are people in every neighborhood who are resistant to changes? Sure. But I think there are also people in every neighborhood who are open to change. I’ll give you an example: Bicycling in the the city. When it was portrayed as, the mayor is imposing his will on neighborhoods on biking, that was not something that went so well. That was one of the beauties of the road safety action plan. We actually brought folks in the room and we found a different way of talking about and approaching the issue. That helped change the debate. Now I’m not saying that all of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m for a bike lane.’ There are going to always be some people who hate a bike lane. But when you have neighbors talking to neighbors about what an outcome should be, you remove the process objection. I look at the HALA focus groups. The reason people dropped out is that ultimately, it didn’t feel meaningful to them, for whatever reason. And so that’s what I’m trying to get at, is you need to have that engagement on the front end. When I went to a town hall and had a group of people saying we can’t do something on this street, and we had other people saying, ‘I live in this neighborhood, and I do those things.’ That fundamentally changes the debate.

ECB: It’s my impression that the neighborhood-versus-city or homeowner-versus-renter divide is much sharper now than it was when you were mayor. What’s the breaking point, when you have to say, ‘Sorry, you might not like this policy, but we’re going to do it anyway’?

MM: Ultimately, you have to make the call, but first you have to listen.

And I walked into rooms with hundreds of people yelling at me, and I brought my staff with me and I brought my department heads with me. Has [Murray] ever just walked into the room and said, ‘Anybody in the neighborhood who wants to ask me a question, go, one after the other’? I did. And what I learned was, the first meeting, people really unload. And the second meeting, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s showing up again.’ And by the third meeting, maybe you feel like you’re starting to make some progress. But you need to show that you’re going to have a continued commitment to showing up in the room, and the next time you show up in the room, you show that that you’ve delivered something, and that you’ve heard what they say and you’re trying to deliver an outcome. Who you speak to, who you let question you, changes what you do, and if you’re just in the room with the lobbyists, if you’re just in the room with the donors, certain things are going to become priorities. If  you don’t hold yourself accountable to the neighborhoods, other things become priorities.

Educator and attorney Nikkita Oliver

ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?

NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.

The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’

What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.

And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.

And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.

ECB: Did you support the housing levy? Because Murray touts that as a big achievement in that direction, in the direction of providing for zero to 30 [percent of Area Median Income]– you know, whatever you think of AMI, because I know it is like $70,000 or something like that—*

NO: Which levy?

ECB: Sorry, the $290 million one—

[Oliver campaign manager Gyasi Ross]: You mean the one he retracted? [Murray initially proposed, then retracted, a property tax to pay for shelter, housing, and services for homeless Seattle residents.]

ECB: No, no, no, we’ll talk about that in a sec, but no, the one to actually build affordable housing.

NO: Honestly, I don’t remember.

ECB: Because that was aimed at building that kind of housing, you know, and it was a property tax levy.

NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.

* Although I usually edit interviews for length and clarity (adding or removing explanatory information from the questions, omitting redundant answers, etc.), this portion of my interview with Oliver has been repeatedly called into question by some of her supporters, who have accused me of misquoting or misrepresenting our conversation to do a “gotcha” on the candidate. For this reason, I have transcribed the interview to include a background comment from Oliver’s campaign manager, sentences that trail off, and verbal tics like “you know.” The question followed immediately on Oliver’s previous answer about the need for the city to provide affordable housing; I was pointing out that the city did just vote to spend $290 million on affordable housing, and asking if Oliver had supported that ballot measure. 

Urban planner Cary Moon

ECB: To what do you attribute rising housing prices?

CM: If you look at what’s happening in other world-class cities, you see this phenomenon of outside investors piling on and taking advantage of everyone wanting to move here. It’s just like Wall Street—when Wall Street sees a stock go up two days in a row, all of Wall Street piles on to that stock. That same phenomenon is going on in our housing market.

Housing used to be local. It used to be local players, building housing for local people. Now they’re acting more and more like Wall Street, where outside predators are piling on just left and right.

ECB:  You’ve mentioned this theory before—that foreign investors from places like China are snapping up properties here as investments and leaving them vacant, which helps drive up housing prices. But all the available data seems to show that while this is happening in Vancouver, it isn’t happening here. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen in the future, but what evidence do you have that so-called hot money is driving up housing prices now?

CM: I don’t have any secret information that nobody else has, but the dynamic is there. I’ve read enough articles that have said that investors that have been in Vancouver are now looking at other cities, and Seattle is one of their choices. It’s not just hot money, it’s not just foreign investors, but everything has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be, you buy property, you build a building, you get a certain rate of return, and you get your money back, maybe 7 percent in 20  years. It’s completely different now. Now, you buy a building and sell it right away, and the return on investment comes not from the slow, long revenue stream of rents coming in, but from the quick turn of selling at a higher rate and doing the same thing again and again and again and again. Our development world is behaving more like Wall Street than it used to. It’s developers leaving buildings vacant, it’s people buying investment properties, it’s Airbnb, it’s people building second and third and fourth homes that might not have anybody living in them for most of the year. Real estate is a great place to put your money, if you have money.

Former US Attorney Jenny Durkan

ECB: Do you support the idea of a supervised drug-consumption site?

JD: Here’s what I think. We have a huge injectable heroin problem in this city. You go to any city park, alley, street, or neighborhood in any part of the city and you can see that it’s there. The battle and the discussions we’re having now almost mirror exactly the debates around safe needle sites. I mean it is the same arguments: ‘Its legitimizes heroin.’ ‘It’s saying it’s okay to shoot up.’ It’s not. It was harm reduction and this is a harm reduction measure now. It makes no sense that we can have a site where we can have someone come in for a needle exchange, and you hand them the clean needle and you say, ‘Okay, go to the alley. Go to the park. Go to the street where you might OD and die in the middle of the night.’ And you have no access to health care treatment services or even someone to talk to. It is not a solution standing by itself, but I think it is part of a humane health care solution for dealing with a very real problem.

ECB: You said recently that you’re skeptical that a citywide income tax would be legal. Can you elaborate on why you think it might not be, and would you pursue it further if elected?

JD: If I could wave my wand, we would have a statewide income tax tomorrow.

ECB: OK, you don’t have a wand.

JD: Nobody does, but that’s what they’re trying to do, is wave a wand.

Look: I think if there’s a time to make a test case, now’s the time to do it. I am not persuaded that the legal landscape has changed. You have two barriers. The first is the RCW, the state law that prohibits cities from establishing an income tax. Then you have the state constitution, and in multiple cases, the [Washington State] Supreme Court has held that an income tax is unconstitutional. People think the makeup of our state Supreme Court might change that second outcome, but you still have to get around the first one. I’m skeptical that it will meet the legal test.

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Former state legislator (D-46) Jessyn Farrell

ECB: There’s been a lot of debate over the payments developers will be required to make under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program; some social justice advocates say they’re too low to make a dent in displacement, while some urbanists, including the Sightline Institute, say they’re so high they discourage development. What do you think? Would you change anything about MHA, or the mayor’s larger Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)?

JF: I am fundamentally supportive of HALA. I deeply believe that Seattle needs to increase its housing stock and housing options across the economic spectrum in a really significant way. I think the zoning changes, though, are only one piece of the affordability puzzle, and I would like to go much beyond that.

We need to inventory all the surplus property in the city—whether it’s WSDOT, Sound Transit, Seattle Public Utilities—all publicly held property, and land bank it as the cornerstone for a major new investment in public housing. That has traditionally been a really important strategy for providing housing stability and economic mobility for people, especially in Seattle. And it then becomes an effort around matchmaking, so that you find the nonprofit or private developer resources to do the development.

Just as we allocate population growth across the region through [the Puget Sound Regional Council’s] 2040 plan, I think we need to set a target of $1 billion in affordable housing and allocate affordability targets across the entire city, so you’re not really letting any neighborhood off the hook. Then you create neighborhood-based plans that use an array of affordability tools, so some neighborhoods are going to focus more on rental vouchers so that people who are living in current housing can stay there; some neighborhoods are going to focus more on [accessory dwelling units]; some neighborhoods are going to have more traditional density. We need a strategic plan for the city that allows us to hold ourselves accountable, and then we can create programs within every single neighborhood.

That, obviously, is not easy. There are neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily going to want it. But here’s what I see: There are people in every single neighborhood who are worried about affordability, whether it is their kids not being able to buy into Seattle, whether they’re worried about property taxes or whether they’ve been in their houses for 40 years and now they’re on a fixed income. Clearly, renters are worried. And I think that you appeal to people from that perspective: Look, we are all in this together. We cannot solve this problem in traditional ways. Our traditional frame in Seattle has been around zoning, and that is a piece of the puzzle, but it cannot be the only piece. We need major public-sector investment, and then we need to really open up all of the different tools. And I think it becomes really micro, property-by-property, arterial-by-arterial planning. Part of that is preserving cultural spaces in neighborhoods and preserving environmental spaces in neighborhoods. Upzoning certainly has a role, and there are places where we need to do it, but there are so many other affordability tools that we can use and that I think neighborhoods would embrace.

11th District State Senator Bob Hasegawa

ECB: What do you think of Mayor Murray’s decision to cut ties with the neighborhood councils? That was an effort to get more new voices included in city planning, including, importantly, people of color.

BH: I think we need to be going the opposite direction from dismantling the neighborhood councils to empowering them more. The city’s argument was that the community councils don’t necessarily represent the diversity of the people in the community, and I think that’s true. They’re pretty much white, middle-class, older—even in the Rainier Valley. That’s the people that have the time to do it. I think grassroots organizing is the hardest job in the world, and the most underappreciated, and that’s why it never gets done. But it is the only way democracy can succeed. So if we are going to reverse our top-down structure, which is what the city has become, to a more bottom-up structure, we have to put a lot of work into it. So I want to fund the neighborhood councils so they can go into the neighborhoods and start organizing.

ECB: What is your definition of gentrification and how would you deal with it?

BH: I don’t know if there is a definition. It’s the loss of the economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity—what the city has always had. The income inequality that’s facing the whole country right now is being demonstrated to an extreme in Seattle, because you’ve got so many people making six-figure salaries moving in and displacing minimum-wage people.

When you look at the [Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda] set-aside for South Lake Union, they only require 2 percent of the units to be affordable, whatever affordable is. I think other cities are at 25 percent or above.

ECB: So what’s your alternative?

HB: A public bank.

This year, The C Is for Crank also made endorsements in two races—the mayor’s race and Seattle City Council Position 8. Read my endorsement of Jessyn Farrell for mayor here, and my endorsement of Teresa Mosqueda for council here. And look for more endorsements for the general election in October.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Why “I See Lots of Apartments Going Up” Is Not an Argument Against Building More

Last week on KUOW, former Seattle Times editorial board member Joni Balter took issue with my statement that the reason apartments are so expensive in Seattle is that we simply aren’t building enough of them. “I don’t know, have you been to Ballard lately?” she asked (rhetorically, I think, although the answer is yes I have.) I managed to get out the words, “But the numbers don’t support that. Numbers-wise, we aren’t—” before she interrupted me and directed a question to the other guest: “So here’s a question for you, Tim Burgess…”

That’s cool. I get that the only real response to facts that defy arguments based specious anecdata is to deflect or change the subject, and I’m used to people doing it. “But I know someone who…” is basically always the first response any time I bring up an economic or land-use fact that defies the wisdom of the anecdote. So here’s my response to Joni Balter’s claim that we’re building more than enough housing for everyone who’s moving here, based not on that one time I went to Ballard and barely recognized it anymore, but on numbers.

According to new-ID statistics from the state Department of Licensing, which is a fairly accurate proxy for the in-migration (it fails to count people who don’t update their IDs, like students and short-term residents, so it’s a lowball, which is fine for our purposes), 60,527 people moved into King County from elsewhere (out of county or out of state) in the first ten months of 2017. Taking the monthly average (which varies widely and does not depend strictly on season) and assuming growth of 6,053 people a month for November and December, we arrive at total in-migration to King County of 72,632 people in 2017.

Now let’s look at apartment growth. According to a recent analysis by the Seattle Times, the city is on pace to add a record number of units this year—nearly 9,900 of those in Seattle alone. Overall, King County as a whole is on pace to add just over 10,600 units. Next year, that record pace is expected to continue, with apartment forecasting firm Dupre + Scott, the source for the Times’ information, predicting that more than 12,500 units will open in Seattle.

 

Notice a difference between those “record” numbers of units opening up and the number of people moving here? Me too. It’s a ratio of about 1 to 7.

I’ve been listening to a great podcast series about the rise of the flat-earth movement—people who literally believe that the earth is shaped like a pizza, with walls around the edges so we don’t fall off. The specifics vary—some flat-earthers think the sky is just a giant dome built by the government, others believe that there is no such thing as “space” and we only think there is because of implanted memories. But all have one thing in common: They rely on an absolute belief in what you can perceive with your senses. Plainly, the horizon is flat because that’s how it looks. Clearly, the earth isn’t spinning because we aren’t dizzy.

Obviously, we’re building more than enough apartments because just look at all that construction.

Except that we aren’t. And the longer we make decisions based on people’s gut feelings about how the way things look, the more inadequate our response to the housing shortage will be.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.