Morning Crank: Slipping and Sliding

1. With the loss of an estimated $47.5 million in annual revenues from the head tax, the city is in the unenviable position of not only figuring out how to pay for new housing and services that would have been funded by the tax, but funding ongoing commitments that would have been backfilled with head tax funding. In addition to about $15 million in programs that were funded during in the 201 8 budget using one-time funding sources (I’ve asked the city’s budget office for a complete list), there’s Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” program, which was originally supposed to have funded 500 new shelter and “tiny house” encampment slots this year. The bridge housing program, which the council’s finance committee approved on Wednesday, will be funded through 2018 by  about $5.5 million from the sale of a piece of city property in South Lake Union but will cost about $9.5 million a year starting in 2019, according to City Budget Office Director Ben Noble.

The latest version of the plan would pay for 475 shelter beds (down from 500), with 100 of those now officially “TBD,” with no provider or timeline identified.  The timeline for some of the new projects has slipped, too, from late July to November in the case of the controversial proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, and from July to “TBD” in the case of the 100 shelter beds for which no provider is identified. (See below for a comparison between the mayor’s original proposal, announced May 30, and the plan as it stands this week.)

Mary’s Place, which the mayor’s office originally said would contribute 100 new beds by building out an upper floor of its North Seattle shelter, “had a change of situation because they bought a large facility in Burien that put them in a more difficult financial situation,” deputy mayor David Moseley told council members Wednesday, and has “offered us a different proposal that’s more of a diversion proposal,” one that would focus on prevention rather than shelter. “We’re working with them on that proposal,” Moseley continued. “At the same time, we’re working on backfilling those 100 shelter beds.”

HSD had previously denied that Mary’s Place was planning to substitute diversion for its 100 bed commitment. One day before Moseley told the council that Mary’s Place would no longer be able to contribute 100 of the new 500 shelter beds, I asked an HSD spokeswoman if Mary’s Place had proposed fulfilling its commitment through diversion rather than actual shelter beds, as I had heard. The spokeswoman told me that I was incorrect and that there had been no such proposal. Moseley’s comments Wednesday confirmed the existence of the proposal I had asked HSD about (and whose existence their spokeswoman denied) the previous day.

On Wednesday, I asked the spokeswoman for more details about the Mary’s Place beds and what will replace them. In response, she cut and pasted a section of Durkan’s Wednesday press release about the plan that did not include this information. I have followed up and will update this post if I get any more detailed information about how the city plans to replace those 100 beds.

Durkan has asked all city departments to come up with budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent for the 2019 budget cycle that begins this fall. Noble, the city’s budget director, told council members Wednesday that if the city wants to continue funding the new shelter beds after this year, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services. … This will be  a difficult fall with difficult decisions ahead.”

Bridge Housing plan, May 30, 2018

Bridge Housing Plan, June 13, 2018

2. A poll that apparently helped seal the fate of the head tax over the past weekend was reportedly conducted not by business interests, but by Bring Seattle Home, the SEIU-backed coalition that formed to oppose a potential referendum on the tax. The group’s latest expenditure report includes a $20,000 debt to EMC Research, a Seattle-based polling firm.

A spokesman for Bring Seattle Home didn’t return a call for comment. But the poll reportedly found that not only did voters oppose the head tax by wide margins (as previous polls had concluded), they had strong negative opinions of the city council, where the idea for the head tax originated. All seven of the council members who are elected by district are up for reelection next year, and although this poll didn’t ask respondents what they thought of their specific council representative, council members are well aware of this looming deadline. So far, none of the seven have filed their reelection paperwork with the city. Although Mayor Jenny Durkan supported and ultimately signed the “compromise” head tax bill that reduced the size of the head tax from $500 to $275 per employee for businesses with gross receipts above $20 million, poll respondents apparently blamed the council, not the mayor, for the tax, expressing much more favorable views of Durkan than council members.

3. On Thursday, with none of the angry public comments about “triplexes on every block” that often precede such decisions—even Marty Kaplan wasn’t there—the Seattle Planning Commission approved a letter endorsing key aspects of the city’s preferred plan to make it easier for single-family  homeowners to build backyard cottages and create living spaces in their basements. (This alternative is identified as option 2 in the environmental impact statement on the proposal, which the city was required to produce after Kaplan sued. The EIS confirms that backyard cottages promote equity and do not harm the environment.) The letter expresses the commission’s strong support for allowing both a basement apartment and a freestanding backyard unit (subject to the same lot coverage requirements that already exist); eliminating the requirement that homeowners add parking for their extra unit whether they will use it or not; and allowing up to 12 unrelated people to live on lots that have both a backyard cottage and a basement apartment.

The letter also urges the city not to force homeowners building a second additional unit to pay into the city’s mandatory housing affordability fund, a requirement supported by some opponents of backyard cottages, because the additional cost “could suppress production of these units and be counterproductive to the intent of the proposed legislation.” (The point of requiring developers to provide affordable housing is, in part, to offset the impacts of displacement and gentrification that can be side effects of large new developments in previously affordable neighborhoods; the planning commission’s point is that treating individual homeowners like massive developers discourages them from providing housing. It also implies that adding units for renters in single-family areas somehow contributes to gentrification and displacement, when it does the opposite.) The planning commission also recommended setting size limits for new houses to prevent the development of McMansions, and reducing development charges for accessory units, such as sewer hookup fees, and creating a sliding scale for some fees so that lower-income people could afford to build second units on their properties.

Support

Supporters Outnumber Naysayers as Backyard Apartments Move Closer to Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I schlepped up to the Queen Anne public library to watch a presentation by Marty Kaplan, the architect and homeowner who sued the city to stall a proposal that will make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement apartments on their property. Kaplan’s lawsuit effectively forced the city to do a full environmental review, or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), on the policy—a review that concluded that not only do garage apartments not harm the environment, they provide significant benefits, such as reducing the number of single-family homes that are torn down and redeveloped as McMansions and improving equity in neighborhoods that were originally designed to keep poor people of color out.

The “full build-out” scenario, included in the EIS for illustrative purposes only, shows massive single-family houses on every lot, an outcome that is already allowed under current rules.

Kaplan’s presentation, delivered to several dozen members of the Queen Anne and Magnolia Community Councils, was ostensibly about the results of that review, but anyone who actually read or even skimmed the 364-page document would be understandably confused by his interpretation of the report. The city’s preferred alternative, Kaplan claimed, would lead to the development of “three houses on every lot,” with “12 [unrelated] people on every lot. … If you’ve got a big family, 20 people could live there, I guess.” And without rules requiring homeowners to provide parking for all those new tenants, Kaplan continued, “if there’s 12 people living on site and ten of them own cars, then they’re going to park them in the neighborhood,” contributing to an already untenable parking situation in neighborhoods like Queen Anne. (As he said this, I thought of the four parking spots directly in front of the library that I had walked past on my way into the meeting.) In the background, as Kaplan spoke, was a slide of the city’s theoretical “full build-out” scenario (above), which Kaplan characterized as what the city hopes will happen within the next few years. Moreover, Kaplan said, backyard units would never be affordable to regular people: “It’s proved that in order to build a unit, you’re going to spend $300,000,” he said. “You’re not going to rent that out for $80 a month.” (Fact checks on all of those claims below.)

The preferred alternative, Alternative 2 in the EIS, shows the actual anticipated development pattern after 10 years under the new rules.

It was refreshing, then, to go to a well-attended public meeting at city hall a few days later—a meeting that Kaplan had told his neighbors would be “basically Madison Avenue coming in and telling you what you should like”—and see that the proponents of the long-delayed proposal outnumbered the naysayers by a factor of about 15 to 1. (Maybe the housing opponents were put off when Kaplan told them it wouldn’t make any difference if they showed up?) Tech workers in their 20s talked about their desire to share the city with people who didn’t have the good fortune to work in industries that pay six-figure starting salaries; homeowners talked about wanting to build backyard apartments so that they could share the city with new neighbors; and environmental advocates talked about density as an important solution to the climate crisis. Several people said they hoped the city would go even further than the preferred alternative and allow three accessory units per property—two inside the main house, and one in the backyard.

But my favorite comment of the night came from Zach Shaner, a renter who lives on Beacon Hill. Shaner (whose name you may recognize because he used to write for Seattle Transit Blog) started off by noting that in the time the city has been working on the EIS, the cost of a median home in Seattle has risen from $591,000 to more than $725,000. “This political process is not morally neutral,” Shaner said. “While we’ve talked and studied and dithered, owning a home has gotten $131,000 harder. In the meantime, my family has given up on owning a home in Seattle.” Shaner and his wife would like to help their friends build an extra unit on their property, he continued, but the current rules make it illegal for them to do so. “I really dream of the day that we have painstaking processes to stop housing rather than to permit it, but in the meantime this is a small but substantive step in the right direction.”

Now for that fact check: In reality, the preferred alternative would increase the number of unrelated people who can live on a lot from the eight allowed under existing rules to 12, and would allow homeowners to build one backyard cottage and retrofit their basement into a living space. The maximum number of buildings on a single lot, in other words, would be two—and any new construction would still be subject to the same rules that limit the amount of lot coverage on single-family land today. The “full build-out” scenario, which Kaplan portrayed as the city’s desired outcome, is clearly captioned, “The Full Build-Out Scenario is included for illustrative purposes only and is not an expected outcome of any alternative analyzed in the EIS.” And it actually looks overbuilt not because of backyard cottages, which are the small red boxes in the image above, but because of all the enormous single-family houses that are technically legal now but have not been built because most homeowners would rather live in charming homes with backyards than cover their lots with eight-bedroom megamansions. The city’s parking study concluded that “each additional ADU would generate between 1 and 1.3 additional vehicles using on-street parking,” not 10. And although higher-cost garage apartments can certainly cost well over $300,000 to build,  many cost substantially less; and it would require a breathtaking ignorance of the current rental market to actually believe that you could rent so much as a bean bag in the corner of an unfinished basement in Seattle for $80 a month.

Support

The City Studied the Impact of Easing Rules on Garage Apartments. What They Uncovered Was an Indictment of Single-Family Zoning.

In 2016, a group of homeowners, led by one especially ardent anti-density activist named Marty Kaplan, sued the city to stall proposed rules that would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units—basement apartments and backyard cottages—on their property.  (The rules, which would apply in single-family areas outside urban villages, would have eliminated parking requirements for accessory units; allowed homeowners to have both a basement unit and a backyard cottage, as long as they kept development under preexisting size limits; and eliminated owner-occupancy requirements, among other tweaks.) A city hearing examiner, Sue Tanner, found in favor of Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council later that same year, delaying the rule changes and forcing the city to do a full environmental impact statement to determine whether allowing several hundred more basement and backyard apartments across the city would have a detrimental environmental impact. (Environmental impact statements do not, as yet, consider the beneficial environmental impacts of making it possible for people to live near where they work or go to school, instead of driving in to the city every day on exhaust-choked freeways).

Nearly two years later, that document is finally here, and its 364 pages are a strong rebuke to anyone who has ever argued that single-family zoning is a natural feature of the landscape in Seattle, and that legalizing apartments in single-family areas will lead to displacement, environmental degradation, and drive up housing costs for low-income renters. The document places Seattle’s current zoning debates squarely in the context of history—not just redlining, which has been documented elsewhere, but post-redlining decisions that made apartments illegal on two-thirds of the city’s land and shut non-white, non-wealthy residents out of those areas almost as effectively as formal redlining did in the middle of the 20th century.

The DEIS begins by outlining the city’s zoning history, which began in the 1920s, when the city created two zoning designations: First Residence District (the equivalent of today’s single-family zoning) and Second Residence District (the equivalent of Seattle’s current multifamily zones). Over time, and through a series of zoning ordinance overhauls, the areas where apartments were legal in Seattle shrunk and shrunk again, until the city arrived at the zoning it has today. Single-family zoning, in other words, is hardly a sacred designation that has existed since time immemorial, as many neighborhood activists argue today, but a special protection for certain areas of the city that has grown dramatically over time, as these side-by-side maps of Ballard attest:

Today, when you see apartment buildings in areas designated single-family, know that those are relics of a time when apartments were legal in that area.

The DEIS goes on to trace population changes in Seattle over time. Somewhat surprisingly, given the dramatic population growth in Seattle between the 1960s and the 2010s, some parts of town actually lost population between 1970 and 2010, the period when zoning rule changes slowly made it impossible to build duplexes, triplexes, and apartments; the vast majority (81 percent) were in single-family-only neighborhoods. The areas with the most notable population loss were in North Seattle and certain parts of West Seattle.

Between 1990 and 2010 alone, while Seattle’s population grew 18 percent, the population in single-family-zoned areas outside urban villages, which “compris[e] 60 percent of Seattle’s total land area,” grew just three percent. (Those areas, again, are the parts of town where the proposed zoning changes would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to add an additional unit or two to their property.) Single-family areas, in other words, have not only failed to absorb an equitable proportion of the city’s growth, but they have managed this feat through the adoption of ever more restrictive zoning laws in Seattle’s relatively recent history.

Excluding new residents from single-family areas has had class and racial implications. According to the DEIS, people of color have become disproportionately more likely to live in areas zoned for multifamily use—that is, areas outside the single-family zones that Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council are suing to “protect”—with a few exceptions, including Southeast Seattle and the Central District. “Non-Hispanic White people are, by contrast, disproportionately likely to live in areas where single-family housing predominates.” Meanwhile, people of color are dramatically more likely to be renters rather than homeowners and more likely to spend more than 30 percent (or even 50 percent) of their income on housing than the non-Hispanic white folks who dominate single-family areas. Less than a third of all households of color, and fewer than 30 percent of Black and Hispanic/Latinx households, live in detached single-family houses, while more white people live in houses than any other housing type. According to the city’s analysis, “[T]hese citywide statistics illustrate that housing type varies along racial lines and are suggestive of patterns in single- family zones, where detached one-unit structures are the only housing type allowed.”

The DEIS also demolishes the notion—common among both wealthy homeowners like Kaplan and anti-displacement activists on the left—that allowing more housing in single-family areas will result in greater displacement of low-income people from those areas. (This theory was recently articulated by former Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, who claimed that “one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes.”) According to the city’s analysis, although 54 percent of homes citywide are renter-occupied, just 27 percent of homes in the “study area” (single-family areas outside urban villages) are. Since the study area includes many apartments built before apartments were made illegal in those areas, it’s safe to assume that those rental units are mostly those apartments, not single-family houses.

Looking at the data another way, it’s clear that the people who do live in detached single-family houses are mostly well above Seattle’s area median income, which was around $75,000 in 2015 (and is closer to $80,000 now). The disparity is perhaps best illustrated with a couple of charts:

The report also spells it out: Most poor people don’t live in detached single-family houses, rental or otherwise, because they simply can’t afford them. “Only 14 percent of households in detached one-unit structures are below 200 percent of the poverty level, a common threshold to be eligible for certain assistance programs, while for most other housing types about one-third of households are below 200 percent of the poverty level,” the report concludes. Given that 81 percent of single-family homes are occupied by homeowners, not renters, that means that just 2.66 percent of all single-family houses are occupied by people making twice the poverty level or less. That doesn’t mean those renters can actually afford the houses they are renting; in fact, the city’s analysis found that a renter would have to make 123 percent of the Seattle area median income to afford an average single-family rental house, and that even the very rare low-rent houses are unaffordable to people making twice the federal poverty rate, or about $33,000 for family of two.

Put still another way: “For households with incomes of 80 percent of AMI, even two- or three-bedroom single-family homes with rents at the 25th percentile, a common marker of rent for the least expensive homes on the market, are out of reach.” In Seattle, in other words, essentially no single-family rental homes are affordable to very low-income renters.

The DEIS also, of course, looked into the specific environmental claims that are being made by the homeowners who want to ensure that backyard cottages remain effectively illegal in their neighborhoods. They found, not surprisingly, that neither of the two alternatives the city considered, which the city estimates would produce between 1,210 and 1,440 more attached and detached accessory dwelling units, combined, across the city in the next 10 years—would have a significant impact on tree canopy, overall density, parking availability, or neighborhood aesthetics. (Alternative 3, which includes more size restrictions on detached units and would require homeowners building a second accessory unit to contribute to the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, would have slightly lower impacts in some areas, but the impact of 121 to 144 new units spread across the city would be generally negligible.) The report did note, however, that “removing the off-street parking requirement could reduce the amount of vegetation and tree removal otherwise needed to accommodate a parking space when creating an ADU.”

The city has been debating whether to allow more homeowners to build extra units for decades, and this specific proposal has been on the table since 2014, when the council adopted a resolution calling for a plan to “promot[e] workforce housing” by exploring ways to make building backyard cottages easier. This latest round will inevitably result in another challenge and more delays, illustrating just how hard it is to make even incremental zoning changes in Seattle. As long as homeowners believe sharing their prosperous neighborhoods with even a few newcomers will impact their property values, which continue to skyrocket year over year, even the most modest request that they participate in solving our affordability crisis will continue to be met with a barrage of legal challenges. By the time this legislation actually starts producing new housing for non-wealthy Seattle residents, it seems more likely than not that the median home in Seattle will have risen from its current high, around $820,000, to well over than a million dollars.

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Six Things to Think About When Thinking About the Head Tax

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

Weeks of tense negotiations, heated yelling sessions, and a high-stakes game of chicken between the biggest employer in the city and the city council culminated in a unanimous city council vote to approve a $275-per-employee “head tax” on Monday afternoon. But what does the vote mean? Is Amazon’s threat to abandon the city off the table? And where does Seattle go from here?

We’ve put together a handy primer to answer these and other pressing questions about this latest effort to address the growing homelessness crisis in Seattle.

1. The $275-per-head tax the council passed Monday was not the tax a majority of the council wanted to pass. Last Friday, in fact, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee (made up, on this occasion, of all nine council members) approved a much larger tax of $500 per employee, which would have raised around $75 million a year. That vote, however, was too narrow (at 5-4) to withstand a likely veto by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who offered up a $250 version of the tax as a counterproposal last week. The “compromise” most council members agreed to over the weekend raised the total size of the tax by just $25 per employee, enough for Durkan to cheerfully declare victory on Monday evening and for council members who wanted a larger tax, such as council member Mike O’Brien, to say that they had done everything they could.

2. The original $500 tax proposal didn’t come out of nowhere—it was recommended by the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, a group that was established after a group of council members failed to pass a smaller, but similar, business tax during the city council’s 2017 budget process. The task force was charged with coming up with a tax that would produce between $25 million and $75 million in revenues; they ended up proposing a $500-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues after considering, and rejecting, lower tax levels that would apply to a larger number of businesses. By targeting the tax at businesses at the very top of the city’s revenue scale, the task force was attempting to respond to objections by smaller businesses (those with more than $5 million but less than $20 million in gross revenues) operate on narrow profit margins and shouldn’t really count as “big businesses.” The more businesses the task force exempted from the tax, the larger the tax had to be to yield the same revenues, which is how the task force arrived at $500

3. The head tax isn’t enough to address the problem. The tax, which sunsets after five years, would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. Under the spending plan adopted by the council, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median.  The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, and more money for safe parking lots and sanitation stations.

A few hundred housing units is obviously far from adequate to house the more than 8,500 people who were homeless in Seattle at the beginning of 2017, when All Home did its most recent homeless census—a number that has likely only grown since then. In fact, a report commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., concluded that the county needs an additional 14,000 units of affordable just to address the current needs of people experiencing homelessness in King County. Building that much housing and addressing the other needs of King County’s homeless population would cost the public and private sectors $410 million a year, the independent report concluded, and that’s only if the annual rate of people falling into homelessness does not increase. King County would need to spend between $164 million and $215 million a year to pay its “share” of that $410 million total.

Michael Maddux, a staffer for council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office, crunched the numbers in the report and determined that Seattle’s “share” of that countywide total would be somewhere between $59 million and $79 million. The $47 million in annual spending that the $275 head tax would provide falls short of the bottom end of that range.

4. The tax that passed Monday is just the beginning of the story. Although the national news crews packed up their cameras and left before the council could begin discussing how to spend the new revenues on Monday, the spending plan is in many ways more critical than the size of the tax. The plan Durkan proposed for her $250 tax would have focused the vast majority of its spending on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and other stopgap solutions, rather than housing, building just 250 units of new affordable housing over five years.

On Monday, the council approved a spending plan that took the opposite approach, emphasizing housing over temporary shelter. However, the real debate will come later this year, when Durkan proposes an implementation plan for the tax as part of the city’s annual budget process. (The spending plan adopted this week sets the council’s priorities, but is itself a nonbinding resolution.) That plan, and the budget process, will give proponents of the Durkan spending model another opportunity to attempt to recalibrate the spending balance in the tax proposal.

The city’s adopted Pathways Home plan, which directs the city to focus its homeless service spending on programs that get people off the streets and into “permanent housing” as quickly as possible, recommends that the city do the exact opposite of what Durkan recommended in her original spending plan. Last year, the city adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers that actually eliminated funding for a large number of basic shelter beds, on the grounds that those shelter providers failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. Pathways Home is controversial, in part, because it penalizes nonprofits that serve the hardest to house, but the “housing first” principles that underlie it are right in line with the McKinsey report that suggested a lack of housing is the fundamental problem underlying Seattle’s homelessness crisis.

5. Seattle has continued to insist that it won’t continue to “go it alone” on funding for homelessness, but King County has yet to step up and propose its own tax plan to supplement Seattle’s. Although Durkan announced Monday that King County will provide $5.7 million in one-time funding to help keep shelters and authorized encampments open in 2018, the county has been noticeably quiet about what it will do to fund housing and services on an ongoing basis. One Table,” a regional task force made up of elected officials, advocates, and business leaders from across King County, began meeting in January. So far, they have announced that Pearl Jam will hold two concerts in Seattle to raise at least $1 million for homelessness—and not much else. The group’s last two public meetings were canceled with minimal public notice, and the closest they have gotten to a set of recommendations is nine-page document, released quietly last month, that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. That document no longer appears to be available on King County’s website.

6. Finally, the passage of the head tax is unlikely to end the vitriol that has accompanied the debate over homelessness in the past few months, exemplified by a recent town hall meeting at a church in Ballard where homeowners shouted down a panel of elected leaders and progressive revenue task force members with bellows of “BULLSHIT!” “FUCK YOU!” and “RESIGN NOW!”  The problem with any spending plan that fails to house enough people to make an appreciable dent in homelessness is that it leaves too many people on the streets, opening the city up to the predictable objection that “no matter how much money we give them, the problem keeps getting worse”  and the problem with any spending plan that takes a large number of people off the streets and stuffs them into new “tiny house” camps and shelters is that those people have nowhere to go and shelter becomes a way of warehousing people indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the problem with spending the amount that experts consider “enough” is that it tends to inspire fierce pushback from the business community. (According to Maddux’s report, a thorough response may require about $69 million per year from Seattle and $120 million from the rest of the county.)  Amazon threatened to stop construction on one of its downtown projects over the original $75 million head tax proposal, and said on Monday that the adopted $47 million tax “causes us to question our growth here” in Seattle. That kind of talk tends to send those who have benefited from the recent Amazon-fueled boom, such as homeowners who have seen the value of their properties skyrocket to an average of $820,000 over the last few years, into a tizzy. Amazon may not leave Seattle, or even slow its growth here—Fast Company, the business magazine, called the company’s latest statement “passive-aggressive and vaguely threatening”—but the possibility that the company, which just reported $1.6 billion in quarterly profits, might retaliate against the city remains a guillotine that the company is more than happy to hold over the heads of those who have benefited from its success.

Is It Time for Mixed Industrial-Housing Zones?

 

The Fair-Haired Dumbbell building, on Portland’s Central Eastside.

The full version of this story is available at Sightline

Seattle’s Interbay industrial district is a landscape dominated by warehouses, small manufacturing plants, and parking lots, with hardly a sidewalk to be found. Unlike other former manufacturing districts in Cascadia’s first city, like Amazon-occupied South Lake Union, Interbay has very few buildings that would qualify as “mixed-use,” and that’s by design; for decades, the district, like Seattle’s other industrial areas, has been “preserved” by zoning that prohibits most non-industrial uses, including office space, large retail stores, and housing.

In recent years, though, the city’s housing shortage has led developers to take a new look at the city’s previously sacrosanct industrial areas and ask: Why couldn’t people live here? Jeff Thompson, president of the Freehold Group, owns several properties in the area. A couple of years ago, he did some back-of-the-envelope math and discovered that by taking just five percent of the city’s vacant industrial land—about 28 acres—and rezoning it to allow six-story buildings, the city could accommodate 6,800 new apartments, without touching Seattle’s famously development-averse single-family neighborhoods. It’s a possibility relevant not only in Seattle but across Cascadia and beyond, everywhere housing shortages are escalating rents and pinching off opportunity for urbanites.

“Most of our industrial areas are derelict—full of potholes, with streets that were never meant to be places for people,” Thompson says.

Developers could improve those areas, adding sidewalks and paving crumbling streets themselves at a lower cost (and a lower lifespan) than expensive, heavy-duty reinforced concrete pavement typically found in industrial areas. In exchange, they would be allowed to build housing for some of the thousands of people who continue to pour in to Seattle every year—more than 100,000 of them between 2010 and 2017 alone.

Yes, those new residents might find themselves living next to warehouses where trucks go in and out day and night. Yes, they may have to get used to the sound of railroad traffic. But how is that different, Thompson asks, than living in the middle of any big city?

“You can go to Brooklyn or Chicago and find an apartment next to an elevated rail line,” Thompson says. “Is it inhumane of us to provide housing like that?”

Like Seattle’s evolution from sleepy outpost to big city, the definition of “industrial” has been quietly changing for at least the past several decades. Instead of factories spewing toxic fumes and “enormous vats of splashing and spluttering metal,” Thompson says, the term now encompasses firms that make software that enables customers to make their own robots at home, or labs where food production companies test new products. Or companies like Interbay’s Thermetrics, which makes mannequins that measure how fast an air conditioner cools down a car, or how effectively a sleeping bag retains a person’s body heat.

The idea that people might choose to live in an industrial area is no longer revolutionary. At the TAXI development in Denver’s River North industrial area, a company that manufactures boots for snowboards sits cheek to jowl with an outpost of the international advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. The firm is just downstairs from 48 units of housing, which overlook a pool built from recycled shipping containers that offers a view of an active railroad line. Also on site: Business incubators, a pot shop, design and architecture studios, and several software firms. Several nearby developments follow a similar mixed industrial-housing model, and developers have proposed hundreds of units of affordable housing as part of a future project in the area.

The success of the TAXI project, Thompson says, proves that industrial areas are compatible with housing. “It’s an industrial area, and it is a popular, cool place to be,” Thompson says. “People may say, ‘No one will want to live [in an industrial area]—well, they do want to live there.”

Read the rest of the story at Sightline.org.

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: Needles are a Longstanding Problem

Needles in libraries, a shift in the city’s protectionist industrial-land policies?, and more in today’s Morning Crank.

1. In my piece last month about a library employee who was stuck by a needle while changing the trash in the women’s restroom of the Ballard branch library, Seattle Public Library spokeswoman Andra Addison said that she was unaware of any other instance in which a library staffer had been stuck by a needle and said that the library’s administrative services division had determined that the system “just really [doesn’t] have the need” for sharps containers.

Since then, the library has changed course, and is installing sharps containers at three branches—Capitol Hill, Ballard, and the University District. A review of the “shift logs” (daily logs of notable incidents and interactions with patrons) at the Ballard branch indicates that far from being an anomaly, needle sightings are a regular, even banal, occurrence. Over the course of just six weeks, spanning from late December 2017 to mid-March of this year, Ballard library staff recorded a dozen needle-related incidents, including a man slumped over after shooting up at the library, a needle left unattended in a Pop-Tart box in the lobby, needles found floating in toilets on two different occasions, and an oversized CD case stuffed with needles and empty baggies that had been tossed in the book drop. In one case, an uncapped needle was found lying on the floor in the teen area of the library; in another, a library staffer discovered two needles in the restroom while cleaning up piles of trash and clothes that a patron had left behind.

“We could see the man slumped over and the needle was lying in front of him,” one log report says. “I called 9-11 to report a man shooting up in front of the library. I also called security. I then went back out to check on the man. At this time he was holding the needle in his hand. I told the man that I was excluding him from SPL for 2 weeks. He became very upset and said that he had found the needle on the ground and that the library was putting him at risk. He then came into the library and threw the needle in the garbage in the lobby.”

The logs, which detail many other security incidents as well as a case of mistaken identity (a giant stuffed panda that appeared to be a sleeping patron), make a couple of things clear: First, that improperly discarded syringes, far from being an unusual or notable occurrence, were a well-documented issue at the Ballard library long before the custodian was stuck with a needle and rushed to the hospital. And second, library workers are doing double duty as security guards and hazardous-waste cleanup crew, a situation that has complex causes but that can’t be addressed by merely telling workers to use heavier rubber gloves, or even by installing sharps containers in a couple of branches. As long as the city fails to adequately fund housing and treatment, and delays building safe consumption spaces for people living with active addiction, as a county task force unanimously recommended a year and a half ago, our libraries are going to continue to be de facto safe consumption spaces, crisis clinics, and emergency waiting rooms.

2. Seattle may be known for its rigid rules protecting single-family neighborhoods from incursions by off-brand housing like duplexes, townhomes, and apartments, but when it comes to protected land-use classes, nothing compares to the city’s industrial districts. Since the 1990s, it has been official city policy to wall off industrial areas from other uses by restricting or prohibiting uses (like offices and housing) “that may negatively affect the availability, character, or function of industrial areas.”

That quote is from a presentation Seattle Office of Planning and Community development senior planner Tom Hauger delivered to the Seattle Planning Commission yesterday, and it was meant to show the way the city has viewed industrial lands historically—not necessarily the way they will be viewed in the future. In fact, Hauger said, an industrial lands advisory panel that has been meeting since 2016 to come up with proposed changes to the city’s industrial lands policy is about to release a somewhat radical-by-city-standards) “draft concept” (don’t call it a proposal) that could open much of the industrial land in the SoDo district, around the stadiums and within walking distance of the two south-of-downtown light rail stations, to office uses. This could help reduce the traffic impact of the nearly two million new workers that are expected to move to the region by 2050, and it could provide a bridge to the kind of hybrid office/industrial spaces that are already taking root in other cities as the definition of “industrial” itself evolves.

Under rules adopted in 2007 (and reviled by developers ever since), office buildings in industrial areas are restricted to 10,000 square feet (retail is restricted to 25,000), meaning that in practical terms, there is virtually no office space in the city’s two industrial areas, the Duwamish Manufacturing Industrial Center (which includes SoDo) and theBallard Interbay Northend Manufacturing Industrial Center. The change that’s being contemplated, known as the “SoDo concept,” would allow developers to build office space in the  district if they provide space for industrial businesses on the lower levels, up to a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 1.0, which can be visualized (roughly) as a single story stretching across 100 percent of a lot, two stories that cover half the lot, and so on. In exchange, developers could build up to five times as many stories of  office space, up to the height limit, although Hauger said the task force would probably end up settling on two to four additional office stories (again, roughly) for each full story of industrial space.

This sounds like minor stuff, but in the context of the industrial lands debate in Seattle, it’s a shot across the bow. More radical proposals, such as allowing housing near existing and future light rail stations in SoDo and Interbay, are, for the moment, off the table. “The advisory panel has talked about housing, but it’s been a minority view, and the majority has decided that, especially in the Duwamish area, that housing near the light rail stations is off the table,” Hauger said.

3. King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober gave himself a full week to wrap up his affairs before formally stepping down after his executive board found him guilty on all five charges against him, which included allegations of financial misconduct, conduct unbecoming an officer, and creating a hostile work environment last Sunday. The nearly 14-hour trial ended Stober’s nine-week-long effort to keep his position after an initial investigation concluded that he should step down.

Although it’s unclear why Stober announced his resignation a week in advance instead of stepping down immediately, he did knock out one task right away: Sending an email out to all the precinct committee officers in the county—the same group that would have voted this coming Sunday, April 15, on whether to remove Stober if he had not resigned—thanking them “for the honor and the privilege.” Stober frames the decision to step down as his own voluntary choice—”I have decided to resign,” he writes—and enumerates the Party’s achievements under his leadership before concluding, “Most importantly, we had fun doing all of it. I am so proud of the things we did together – thinking about it brings a smile to my face.” The only hint of an apology to the woman he fired after another woman in the Party who had witnessed his behavior filed a complaint on her behalf? A vague “to those I have let down and disappointed – I am truly sorry,” followed by four sentences of thanks to the people who “have stood by my side.”

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

Morning Crank: The High Cost of Mandatory Parking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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