Morning Crank: “Madame Chair, I Agree With You Completely.”

1. After a two-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday night, city council member Kshama Sawant cast the lone vote for her own resolution to send interim Human Services Department Jason Johnson’s nomination as HSD director back to the mayor’s office. However, since no one on the human services committee, which Sawant chairs, voted “no,” the resolution will move forward to the full council.

Sawant’s resolution calls for a formal search process by a search committee that includes nonprofit human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees. The resolution does not explicitly express opposition to Johnson or make the case that he is unqualified for the job. However, Sawant—who is up for reelection this year—has made little effort to hide the fact that she is not a fan of the interim director, who took over after former director Catherine Lester resigned almost a year ago, and many of the people who showed up to testify last night expressed their explicit opposition to his appointment.

Prior to last night’s meeting, as she did prior to a last-minute public hearing on Johnson’s appointment in January, Sawant sent out a “Pack City Hall!” rally notice, urging her supporters to show up and “Hold Mayor Durkan accountable to the community and Human Services workers!” Perhaps as a result, the overwhelming majority of the testimony was in favor of Sawant’s resolution.

(In a somewhat novel twist, a few of the speakers opposing Johnson did so because they felt he was too supportive of groups like the Low-Income Housing Institute and SHARE, whose members also showed up to oppose Johnson’s appointment, but for completely different reasons; one of these speakers called Johnson “incompetent,” and another blamed the city for “an extremely drunk woman” he said had been “terrorizing Magnolia.”)

In addition to inviting her supporters to show up and testify, Sawant took the highly unusual step of inviting eight people who supported her resolution  to sit with the council at the committee table as they deliberated and took a vote. This setup gave the advocates an opportunity to echo Sawant’s statements and respond whenever council members Bruce Harrell or Lisa Herbold said anything contrary to Sawant’s position. (A quote from one advocate that paraphrases many others made around the table over the course of the meeting: “Madame Chair, I agree with you completely.”)  The result was an atmosphere in council chambers even more circus-like than most Sawant rally/hearings, with Harrell, in particular, barely able to disguise his frustration when advocates at the table talked over him (“I feel like I have to raise my hand here,” he said) or accused him of being “afraid” of doing a national search.

The advocates, including representatives from the homeless advocacy group SHARE, the Human Services Department,  the Seattle Indian Center, and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, argued that the council should open up the nomination process and, in the words of Tia Jones with the Seattle Silence Breakers, “just make [Johnson] apply—post it on the site and make him apply like everybody else.”

Herbold and Harrell responded that if the process for appointing Johnson was inadequate, the appropriate thing to do would be to revisit the process after Johnson’s nomination moves forward, given that the nomination took place legitimately under rules the council established in 2007. “Those are the rules that we all agreed to,” Herbold said. “I’m appreciative of the idea that the status quo isn’t acceptable.” But, she added, “I’m inclined to consider the individual when we have an individual before us,” and to make that process transparent and accountable, rather than rejecting Johnson’s nomination out of hand. “I feel like sending [the nomination] back is making it about the person,” Herbold said.

Sawant countered that the rules delineating the council’s role in considering mayoral appointments have to be a “living body, meaning, when we hear from hundreds of people, we can’t tell them, ‘These are the rules, so we can’t do what you’re asking us to do.’ … Clearly, we’re hearing loud and clear from people that they want to do something different. How can we ignore that?”

In a final bit of political theater, Sawant opened up the question of whether she should call for a vote on her own resolution to the audience, most of whom had already spoken in favor of the resolution. “All here who are not on council or staff, do you think we should vote for this resolution?” Sawant said. Herbold pointed out that she had received many letters from people who support Johnson and want to move the process forward. “Where are they?” shouted someone in the crowd—suggesting, it seemed, that either Herbold was making up the emails or that the people who showed up in person should count more than the people who wrote emails or called their council members on the phone.

Sawant addressed her supporters again: “Should I call this for a vote? I’m asking members of the public because that’s who I’m accountable to.” After a chorus of “Ayes” from the audience, Sawant called the vote. It passed by a vote of 1, with both Harrell and Herbold abstaining.

The resolution now moves on to the full council, where it faces long odds.

2. Steve Daschle, with the Human Services Coalition, said that the thing he found most “irksome” about Durkan’s human services approach was that she still has not met with the coalition after more than a year in office. “In the 30 years I’ve been involved in the Human Services Coalition, this is the first mayor who has not met with the coalition in a full year and two months of her term, and we think it’s imperative that the chief executive of the city take the time to come and talk to one of the key constituencies that would help shape that decision, and it wasn’t done,” Daschle said.

3. In City Council news, two more candidates entered the race for District 4, the seat currently held by Rob Johnson: Abel Pacheco, a STEM education advocate who sought the same seat in 2015 and received 8.4 percent of the vote, and Cathy Tuttle, the founder of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Pacheco sent out an announcement that he was running Tuesday; Tuttle confirmed that she was running to The C Is for Crank yesterday afternoon.

Also, as I noted on Twitter Monday, nonprofit director Beto Yarce, who was one of the first candidates to challenge Sawant in District 3 (Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake), has dropped out of the race. Yarce drew criticism early on for the fact that he and his partner live in Mill Creek, not Seattle. Yarce said he and his partner, who owns a house in the Snohomish County suburb, were planning to move to Capitol Hill; during his campaign, Yarce was renting a space in the neighborhood from a friend on a short-term basis, his campaign consultant confirmed.

4. The city has finally hired a consultant to conduct outreach on a proposal to make the building that houses the Showbox nightclub a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The city council adopted “emergency” legislation making the Showbox a temporary part of the market last year, in order to prevent the property, which was recently upzoned to allow very dense housing, from being developed as apartments. In response, the owner of the building sued the city). The consultant, Stepherson and Associates, has also done outreach work for the city on the First Hill Streetcar, the downtown seawall replacement project, and the Move Seattle levy. Because the contract is for less than $305,000 and Stepherson and Associates is on the city’s consultant roster, the contract did not have to be bid through an open process.

The city’s schedule calls for all of the outreach work on the Showbox proposal, as well as a full environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act, to be done by March, with a council vote this June. As I noted when I reported on the search for a contractor in January, that’s a remarkably quick timeline for an expansion of the Market, at least by historical standards:

To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.

AEG Live, which owns the Showbox, is free to close or relocate the venue when its current lease runs out in 2021; the question at hand is whether the building itself is historic, and whether the city can require that it remain a live-music venue in perpetuity.

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Early Morning Crank: Wills Confirms Council Rumors, Johnson Denies Early Departure, Incentive Zoning Delayed

Image result for heidi wills

via Twitter.

1. Former council member Heidi Wills will soon declare her candidacy for city council in District 6, after District 6 incumbent Mike O’Brien announced that he did not plan to run for reelection. The news came courtesy of Wills’ Facebook page over the weekend, when Wills posted the following in the comments to a post by—of all people—former council member Judy Nicastro, who was ousted along with Wills in the wake of the Strippergate scandal in 2003:

Heidi Wills Thank you, Judy! I ❤️ Seattle. We’re growing so fast and facing big issues. I’d like a seat at the table to elevate all our voices for a more common sense, inclusive, equitable and sustainable city. Campaign logistics will be in place soon. Stay tuned!

I first reported on speculation that Wills would run in December. After losing to one-term council member David Della, Wills spent almost 15 years as the  executive director of The First Tee, an organization that teaches golf to disadvantaged youth.

 

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2. City council member Rob Johnson denies rumors that he plans to leave his council position to start a new job advising the National Hockey League on transportation issues related to KeyArena as early as May. (A more recent rumor had Johnson leaving as early as next month.) “It’s not true,” Johnson says. “I have no plans to leave early.” However, in the next breath, Johnson appeared to leave the door open for an early departure, adding, “I’ve got a firm commitment from [the NHL] that we won’t even start talking about that until we have concluded MHA”—the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which will allow more density in some areas in exchange for affordable housing. That process is supposed to wrap up in mid-May.

If Johnson (or any of the other three council incumbents who have said they will not seek reelection when their terms end this year) does leave early, the council will have to appoint a replacement; the last time that happened was when Kirsten Harris-Talley replaced Position 8 council member Tim Burgess, who left the council to serve as mayor after former mayor Ed Murray resigned amid child sexual abuse allegations. Harris-Talley served for 51 days.

3. One issue that won’t come before Johnson’s committee before he leaves is a planned update of the city’s Incentive Zoning program—another density-for-public-benefits tradeoff that has been partly supplanted by MHA. Incentive zoning is a catchall term for a patchwork of zoning designations that allow developers to build more densely in exchange for funding or building affordable housing or other public benefits, such as child care, open space, or historic protection through a transfer of development rights (a program that has been used to protect historic buildings, such as Town Hall on First Hill, from demolition.) Once MHA goes through, incentive zoning will still apply in downtown and South Lake Union as well as parts of the University District, Uptown, and North Rainier neighborhoods.

The whole program was supposed to get an update this year to consolidate IZ standards across the city, strengthen some green building requirements (barring the use of fossil fuels for heating, for example), and impose minimum green building standards throughout downtown (currently, the city’s standard, which requires buildings to be 15 percent more efficient than what the state requires,  are only mandatory outside the downtown core). The proposed new rules would also remove “shopping corridors” and publicly accessible atriums from the list of public amenities allowed under incentive zoning, since these tend to be public in name only.

Last week, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development sent out a notice saying that “Due to the volume of land use policy and legislation work that the City of Seattle is currently undertaking, the Incentive Zoning Update has been temporarily delayed.” The notice continued, “There is currently no revised schedule for release of public draft legislation or transmission to Council. While there is still a possibility that legislation could be transmitted to Council for consideration in 2019, it is likely that the legislation will be delayed until 2020.”

City staffers say the delay is largely because the city’s law department, which reviews legislation, has been backed up not just with MHA, but with a backlog of litigation, from challenges to city rules allowing backyard apartments to defending legislation gerrymandering the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox. Developers, meanwhile, may be breathing a sigh of relief. In a letter to OPCD last year, NAIOP, which represents commercial real estate developers, objected to the new green standards, arguing that they would  lead to higher housing costs and jeopardize MHA’s ability to produce more density. NAIOP also argued that because the new energy standards have advanced faster than the technology that would enable builders to comply with them, the city should reduce the amount by which it requires new projects to best the state-mandated energy code. OPCD disputes NAIOP’s characterization of the current standards, but acknowledges that there may come a time when they need to be revisited.

Morning Crank: Streetcar Questioned, Sawant Challenged, and Fort Lawton Moves Forward

1. Ever since Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was moving forward with the stalled First Avenue streetcar last month, supporters and skeptics have been honing their arguments. Fans of the project, which a recent report costed out at $286 million, say it will create a critical link between two disconnected streetcars that each stop on the outskirts of downtown, boosting ridership dramatically while traveling swiftly in its own dedicated right-of-way; skeptics point to a $65 million funding gap, the need for ongoing operating subsidies from the city, and past ridership numbers that have been consistently optimistic.

Today, council members on both sides of the streetcar divide got their first chance to respond publicly to the latest numbers, and to question Seattle Department of Transportation and budget staffers about the viability of the project.  I covered some of the basic issues and streetcar background in this FAQ; here are several additional questions council members raised on Tuesday.

Q: Has the city secured the $75 million in federal funding it needs to build the streetcar?

A: No; the Federal Transit Administration has allocated $50 million to the project through its Small Starts grant process (the next best thing to a signed agreement), and the city has not yet secured the additional $25 million.

Q: Will the fact that the new downtown streetcar will parallel an existing light rail line two blocks to the east be good or bad for ridership? (Herbold implied that the two lines might be redundant, and Sally Bagshaw noted that “if I was at Westlake and I wanted to get to Broadway, I would jump on light rail, not the streetcar.” Rob Johnson countered that “redundancy in the transportation system is a good thing,” and suggested the two lines could have “network effects” as people transferred from one to the other.)

A: This is a critical question, because the city’s ridership projections for the two existing streetcar lines were consistently optimistic. (Ridership is important because riders are what justify the cost of a project, and because the more people ride the streetcar, the less the city will have to subsidize its operations budget). The city’s answer, basically, is that it’s hard to say. Lines that are too redundant can compete with each other; on the other hand, the existence of multiple north-south bus lines throughout downtown has probably helped ridership on light rail, and vice versa. SDOT’s Karen Melanson said the city took the existence of light rail (including future light rail lines) into account when coming up with its ridership projections, which predict about 18,000 rides a day on the combined streetcar route, or about 5.7 million rides a year.

Q. Can the city afford to operate the streetcar, especially when subsidies from other transit agencies run out? King County Metro has been paying the city $1.5 million a year to help operate the existing streetcars, and Sound Transit has kicked in another $5 million a year. Those subsidies are set to end in 2019 and 2023, respectively. If both funding sources do dry up (city budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the city could make a case for the Metro funding to continue), the city will have to find some other source that funding as part of an ongoing operating subsidy of between $18 million and $19 million a year.

A: It’s unclear exactly where the additional funding for ongoing streetcar operating costs would come from; options include the commercial parking tax and street use fees. Streetcar supporters cautioned against thinking of the ongoing city contribution as a “subsidy.” Instead, Johnson said, council members should think of it as “an investment in infrastructure that our citizens support,” much like funding for King County Metro through the city’s  Transportation Benefit District—or, as O’Brien chimed in, roads. “Roads are heavily subsidized,” O’Brien said. “When we talk about roads, we don’t talk about farebox recovery, because we don’t have a farebox.”

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2. In response to reporting by Kevin Schofield at SCC Insight, which revealed that the Socialist Alternative party decides how District 3 Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant will vote and makes all the hiring and firing decisions for her council office, an anonymous person has filed an ethics complaint against Sawant at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The complaint, signed, “District 3 Resident,” charges that Sawant:

• Violated her obligation to represent her constituents by allowing Socialist Alternative to determine her actions on the council;

• Misused her position as a council member by allowing SA to make employment decisions for her council office;

• Improperly “assisted”  SA in matters involving her office by allowing them to determine her council votes;

• Accepted gifts in exchange for giving SA special access and “consideration,” including extensive travel on the party’s dime; and

• Either disclosed or withheld public information by discussing personnel matters on private email accounts, depending on whether that information turns out to have been disclosable (in which case, the complaint charges, she withheld it from the public by using a private account) or confidential (in which case Sawant violated the law by showing confidential information to outside parties, namely the SA members who, according to SCC Insight’s reporting, decide who she hires and fires.)

“Sawant is not independent, not impartial, and not responsible to her constituents,” the complaint concludes. “Her decisions are not made through the proper channels, and due to her actions, the public does not have confidence in the integrity of its government.”

It’s unclear when the ethics commission will take up the complaint, which was filed on January 8. The agenda for their committee meeting tomorrow, which includes a discussion of the rule requiring candidates who participate in the “democracy voucher” public-financing program to participate in at least one debate to which every candidate is invited, does not include any discussion of the complaint against Sawant.

According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections website, “Seattle’s Ethics Code is a statement of our shared values — integrity, impartiality, independence, transparency. It is our pledge to the people of Seattle that our only allegiance is to them when we conduct City business.”

3. On Monday, the city’s Office of Housing published a draft of the redevelopment plan for Fort Lawton, a decommissioned Army base next to Discovery Park in Magnolia, moving the long-delayed project one step closer to completion. For years, the project, which will include about 200 units of affordable housing, has stagnated, stymied first by a lawsuit, from Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, and then by the recession. In 2017, when the latest version of the plan started moving forward, I called the debate over Fort Lawton “a tipping point in Seattle’s affordable housing crisis,” predicting, perhaps optimistically, that Seattle residents, including Fort Lawton’s neighbors in Magnolia, were more likely to support the project than oppose it, in part because the scale of the housing crisis had grown so immensely in the last ten years.

The plan is far more modest than the lengthy debate might lead you to expect—85 studio apartments for homeless seniors, including veterans, at a total cost of $28.3 million; 100 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle median income, at a cost of $40.2 million; and 52 row homes and townhouses for purchase, at a total cost of $18.4 million. Overall, about $21.5 million of the total cost would come from the city. Construction would start, if all goes according to the latest schedule, in 2021, with the first apartments opening in 2026—exactly 20 years, coincidentally, after the city council adopted legislation designating the city of Seattle as the local redevelopment authority for the property.

Anxious About Durkan’s Decision, Council Members and Housing Advocates Scheduled Last-Minute Press Conference on Density Plan

Image via City of Seattle

For months, advocates for a denser, more affordable city have been waiting with gritted teeth to see how Mayor Jenny Durkan would put her imprint on the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which was developed under her predecessor, Ed Murray. The plan, which has already been implemented in a handful of neighborhoods, allows more types of housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings—in more parts of the city, including 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Given Durkan’s somewhat spotty record on key urbanist issues—stalling bike lanes downtown and in North Seattle, siding with housing opponents on the Showbox, and delaying the First Avenue streetcar—density advocates worried that any changes Durkan made would only water down the proposal.

Last week, it looked like the advocates were about to get the bad news they were expecting: Durkan, under pressure from the city attorney’s office, was reportedly poised to call for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to examine the plan’s potential impacts on historic resources (like the Admiral Theatre, above)—an additional layer of process that would have added months of delay and created new avenues for MHA opponents to appeal the plan, perhaps into oblivion. Instead, MHA advocates wanted the city to limit its additional historical-resources analysis—required by an otherwise favorable ruling by the city’s hearing examiner last November—to an addendum to the final environmental impact statement, which would require only a 14-day public comment period and could not be challenged. The ruling marked the conclusion of a yearlong appeal by single-family neighborhood activists, who argued that MHA should not go forward because of its supposed negative environmental impacts.

The city attorney, whose spokesman said he could not comment on any legal advice the office provides to the mayor, reportedly expressed concern that doing an addendum, rather than a full SEIS, could open the city up to legal liability.

Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about whether she initially leaned toward recommending the more arduous, time-consuming EIS process. But representatives from the Housing Development Consortium, Vulcan, the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority, and several city council members were apparently concerned enough about the potential for more delay that they planned a press conference this past Friday morning at Sound Transit’s Union Station to encourage the mayor to move forward quickly with the plan.

According to a planning email obtained by The C Is for Crank, pro-MHA city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office billed the event—officially a kickoff to Affordable Housing Month— as an opportunity for participating organizations “to speak directly with members of the press about the importance of moving MHA forward by March… and why you and/or your organization is excited to support this legislation that has been years in the making!” In addition to Mosqueda, council members Rob Johnson and Lorena Gonzalez were scheduled to speak.

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And then, without notice, the press conference was called off. One participant says they showed up to find no one there. Mosqueda would not comment on why the event was canceled; nor would Johnson, the chairman of the council’s land use committee and a longtime vocal MHA proponent.

However, sources inside and outside city hall who spoke on background say that Durkan met last week with a coalition of MHA advocates, including developers whose plans would be impacted by more delay, who strongly urged her to go with the less onerous addendum option. As, indeed, she ultimately did: The city’s Office of Planning and Development will publish the addendum on Thursday, eliminating one of the last potential roadblocks to MHA’s approval. At some point between now and March, the council will approve the plan (with amendments) and a companion resolution, which could call for mitigation plans to protect historical resources inside the MHA boundaries.

The mayor’s office provided a statement about the decision to move MHA forward:

Mayor Durkan believes the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements are critical to building more affordable housing while ensuring that our fastest-growing neighborhoods can be vibrant, livable places for the next generation. In November 2018, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled that the environmental analysis of MHA conducted by the City adequately addressed the impacts of the proposal with the exception of the analysis of historic resources. As required by the Hearing Examiner’s remand, the City has been working diligently to conduct a thorough environmental review of historic resources, and this week OPCD will publish the addendum in order to move forward on a path for the City Council to pass MHA this Spring. Understanding appellants have challenged MHA every step of the way, the City will continue to successfully work to increase development capacity and support affordable housing requirements.

If MHA does move forward in March, it will mark the end of delay tactics that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing, worth an estimated $87 million, over the year that MHA has been locked up in appeals. It will also represent a significant moment in the Durkan administration—a decision to move forward, rather than delay, a program that will create a significant amount of new housing despite the fact that it’s controversial with the single-family homeowners who helped the mayor get elected.

It’s not clear exactly why Durkan made this decision when she did—whether, for example, she was swayed by the specter of a big press conference starring three council members, Vulcan, and the county’s largest affordable housing coalition, or by direct appeals from developers themselves. But tensions were reportedly high at City Hall right up until Friday, after Durkan decided to support the fast-track option— if you can say that a process that has taken nearly two years is on a fast track.

As Council Moves to Protect Mobile Home Park, It’s Important to Remember How We Got Here

Next week, the city council is expected to adopt an emergency one-year moratorium on development at the Halcyon Mobile Home Park in North Seattle, to prevent developers from buying the property while the council crafts legislation to preserve the park in perpetuity. That future legislation, which will be developed in council member Rob Johnson’s land use committee, would most likely create a new zoning designation allowing only mobile or manufactured homes on the two properties, similar to a law Portland adopted last year.

If this is the first you’re hearing about the plight of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park,  you’re not alone. Although the park, which houses dozens of low-income seniors and their families, has been on the market since last June, it recently caught the attention of council member Kshama Sawant, who called a special meeting of her human services and renters’ rights committee last Friday afternoon to discuss her emergency legislation, which she said was necessary to prevent “US Bank, a big financial institution that does not care about ordinary people, [from] selling the property to a corporate developer called Blue Fern.”

Urging Halcyon’s elderly residents to write to the council and turn out in force for public comment at the full council meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sawant did not mince words. “It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it,” Sawant said.

“It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it.” —Council member Kshama Sawant, urging residents of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park to write the council

The sudden “emergency” was news to  council member Debora Juarez, who said she couldn’t attend Sawant’s special committee meeting on Friday due to a prior commitment. (Sawant’s committee ordinarily meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, although it has only met once since last July.) On Tuesday, after Sawant repeated her claim that “the developer, Blue Fern, could vest literally any day now,” Juarez took the mic to “correct the record.”

Among those corrections: Blue Fern has not filed plans to develop the property. The property is not owned by US Bank. And no development plans are in the offing.

It’s true that the property, which was owned by one family but is now part of a trust, of which the University of Washington is a beneficiary, is on the market—with US Bank as the trustee and Kidder Matthews as the broker—but Blue Fern, after inquiring about the preapplication process last October and attending a meeting with the city in December, has decided they do not plan to move forward with the proposal. According to a spokesman for Blue Fern, Benjamin Paulus, “Neither Blue Fern Development, LLC or its affiliated companies are under contract to purchase this property.”

The sudden panic—the last-minute committee meeting, the declaration of emergency, the chartered bus that ferried Halcyon residents and supporters to today’s council meeting—was, in other words, at least partly based on misinformation. Confronted by her colleagues about this, Sawant said the specific details didn’t matter, because “it is only a matter of time before another corporate developer comes along and decides to buy this property, so the residents haven’t been misled.”

Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reexamined  single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council was busy arguing over every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere if we had built somewhere else for them to go.

Many of the residents themselves—one of whom fell down during yesterday’s council meeting, causing a brief hush in the room —appeared to believe, as late as yesterday afternoon, that they were at imminent risk of losing their homes. Several residents choked back tears as they testified, saying they were terrified about becoming homeless. These are real, legitimate fears—of nine mobile home parks that existed in Seattle in 1990, when the city council passed a series of similar development moratoria,  just two remain—but it’s hard to see how stoking them, by suggesting that the bulldozers are practically at the gate, serves the interests of vulnerable low-income seniors.

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Mobile homes are naturally occurring affordable housing, and developing them into other kinds of housing—in this case, townhouses or apartments—creates a very literal kind of physical displacement. It’s understandable that the city council, faced with the prospect of tossing dozens of senior citizens out of their homes, would do everything in their power to prevent that from happening, including creating special new zones that protect mobile home parks in perpetuity.

But there’s a larger question such parcel-by-parcel anti-displacement efforts elide: Why are apartments still illegal almost everywhere in Seattle?  Every time the city decides to preserve one apartment building, or one mobile home park, without asking about the opportunity cost of that decision, they are putting off a crucial conversation about Seattle’s housing shortage, and how to solve it. Every time the city walls off another block from development—whether it’s the Showbox, which also got the “emergency moratorium” treatment, or a mobile home park for low-income seniors—without addressing the astonishing reality that two-thirds of Seattle is zoned exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, they are making a deliberate decision that this same thing will happen again.

None of these choices happen in a vacuum. Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reformed single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council and anti-displacement advocates were busy litigating the fate of every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe the residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere, if we had built somewhere else for them to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Jenny Durkan and citywide mobility director Mike Worden

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

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

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

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

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

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At Long Last, Council Takes Up Mandatory Housing Affordability Upzones

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

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

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

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

 District 1 (Lisa Herbold)

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

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

District 2 (Bruce Harrell)

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

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

District 3 (Kshama Sawant)

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

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

District 4 (Rob Johnson)

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

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

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District 5 (Debora Juarez)

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

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

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

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

District 7 (Sally Bagshaw) 

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

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

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

Council Members Talk Amazon in NYC: “Don’t Flinch Every Time a Corporation Flexes Its Muscles”

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

File:Long Island City New York May 2015 panorama 3.jpg

Image via King of Hearts; Creative Commons license

As New York City braces itself against the potential “Seattleization” of Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon recently announced it will build one of two satellite “HQ2”s, two Seattle City councilmembers arrived in New York City Monday morning with a dual message: It’s going to be every bit as bad as you imagined. And: There’s still time to prepare.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold spoke at the headquarters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Monday morning, following a succession of local elected officials and progressive activists who denounced the company. (RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum, for example, described Amazon as “one of the worst employers not just in the United States but anywhere in the world.”)

Herbold read a letter from an Amazon contractor who described a desperate, daily scramble for shifts in a job with no benefits, no job security, and no health care—just an 800 number staffed by a nurse who “will tell you to see a doctor that you can’t afford.” Her advice for New Yorkers who want to extract some benefits from Amazon, which will receive an estimated $3 billion in tax breaks for the project? Mobilize early, align with small businesses, and be prepared for Amazon to try to change the conversation.

“We simply weren’t able to counter the influence of big money on public opinion” in Seattle, Herbold said, referring to the failure of the city’s $275-per-employee “head tax,” which would have funded housing and homeless services. “In Seattle, Amazon used small businesses as a stalking horse. … You have to remind small businesses that they, too, are victims of regressive tax structures.”

After telling Seattle leaders  they would support a scaled back “compromise” version of the tax, Amazon helped fund the “No Tax on Jobs” campaign, which planned to run a referendum to overturn the measure. Eventually, the council voted to overturn the tax, with Herbold voting with the majority and Mosqueda voting no.

Mosqueda offered the head tax experience as a cautionary tale, and warned the New York activists, “Don’t be the city or the state that flinches every time a corporation flexes its muscles, threatens to move out of town, tries to say that they’re going to cut jobs or stop construction, and pulls back on investing on the very system and infrastructure that they refuse to pay into.” Amazon’s outsize presence in Seattle, Mosqueda said, has “had a dramatic impact on who can afford to live in the city,” contributing to homelessness, gentrification, and “people not being able to keep the homes that they grew up in.”

Finally, Herbold cautioned that activists should brace themselves for Amazon and its supporters to suggest that private philanthropists, not the government, should be responsible for creating an adequate social safety net. Herbold recalled that when she wrote an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to participate in a national conversation about how to meet workers’ basic needs in the “gig economy.” The response, she said Monday, was “basically [that we need] more philanthropy.”

“We are in a modern Gilded Era,” Herbold said. “There is no accountability for private philanthropy, and charitable gifts don’t solve infrastructure issues or inequality.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

Image result for futurewise logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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