Lawsuit: Council Violated Numerous Laws When It “Saved the Showbox”

In a move so predictable it hardly even merits an I-told-you-so (but I did tell you so), the owners of the building on First Avenue that houses the Showbox have sued the city in response to a land-use decision that effectively downzones their property from 44 stories to two, arguing (among other things) that the move constitutes an illegal spot zone and a taking of private property worth $40 million—the sum for which the owners had planned to sell the land.

To unpack the story—which David Kroman broke on Crosscut earlier today—it helps to recap a bit of the whirlwind history that led us to this point. Last month, news broke that a Vancouver developer called Onni Group planned to tear down the Showbox and redevelop the property as a 440-foot-tall apartment building with 442 units, which could have included a new ground-floor music venue. The city council had just upzoned  the property as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which grants developers in some areas, including downtown, the right to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable housing. However, a public outcry—spearheaded by music fans and amplified by anti-development council member Kshama Sawant, who saw the controversy as an opportunity to stop a “greedy developer” from profiting from a new high-end development—prompted “emergency” legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox property for at least the next ten months. (The property is owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, who also owns the Deja Vu Showgirls club down the street; the Showbox itself is operated by a tenant, AEG Live, which describes itself as “the world’s second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events.”)  Initially, Sawant proposed a dramatic expansion of the historical district that would have effectively downzoned a dozen existing properties and forced property owners to obtain permission from a historical commission before renting to new tenants or making any visible changes to their property, but that was eventually scaled back and only the Showbox property got the “historical” designation. The new rules last for ten months—long enough for the city to decide whether to extend them and make the two-story Showbox building a permanent part of Pike Place Market, and long enough (or so the “Save the Showbox” crowd hoped) to convince Onni to go away and for supporters to put together a plan to preserve the space as a music venue in perpetuity.

That brings us to the present, and the lawsuit filed last week. The suit claims that the city council violated the owners’ property rights by passing a spot rezone that reduces its value by tens of millions of dollars; that they violated  the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires officials like council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented and to make their deliberations in public, not behind closed doors; that the inclusion of the Showbox in a historical district designed to protect farmers and small-scale artisans is “the definition of arbitrary and capricious”; and that the “illegal spot zone” violates the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for more density in places like downtown Seattle.  “The Decision [to expand the historical district to include just the Showbox] bears no rational relationship to promoting a legitimate public interest; it singles a small area out of a larger area for use and development restrictions that are not in accordance with similarly situated neighboring properties and not in accordance with the City’s Comprehensive Plan.”

The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate.

The argument that the council’s vote to put the Showbox in the Market historical district represents a spot rezone—that is, that it effectively turns a property with a 440-foot height limit into one with a limit of just two stories, the height of the existing Showbox building— is critical. If the court accepts this argument, they may also be inclined to accept the property owners’ argument that council members, particularly Sawant, violated the law by discussing the decision outside the public eye, and participated in a campaign in favor of the rezone. The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate. (If this argument sounds vaguely familiar, you probably remember it from Strippergate—a scandal that contributed to the defeat of two city council members who violated quasi-judicial rules when they discussed, and voted for, a rezone to allow strip-club owner Frank Colicurcio to expand the parking lot at his Rick’s strip club in North Seattle. In an odd turn of fate, Showbox property owner Forbes purchased Rick’s from Colacurcio in 2011.)

The lawsuit echoes a point that I have made numerous times at The C for Crank about basing policy on the wishes of a vocal few—in this case, music fans and industry employees who sign petitions and hold signs that say “Save the Showbox” and write songs bemoaning the inexorable fact that cities change:  “When politicians cater to populist calls – whether those calls are ‘lock her up,’ ‘build the wall’ ‘ban Muslims,’ or ‘Save the Showbox’ – civil and other rights are placed at risk. Populism, and politicians’ desires to appease their loudest constituents and generate headlines must, however, yield to the rule of law. Luckily for those who prefer protection of civil, constitutional and property rights, the courts exist to preserve, protect and enforce the rule of law.”  Indeed, the suit argues that the council caved to public pressure in order “to enhance its political popularity” and “enacted an unlawful ordinance that was intended to, and did, place all the burden of providing a public music venue to City residents onto the shoulders of a private landowner. The ordinance greatly and instantly devalued the property and will scuttle its redevelopment unless the City’s improper spot down zone is declared unlawful.”

The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit. But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.

The complaint also takes a swing at the notion—which several council members, particularly Lisa Herbold, made explicit during the debate over the historical designation—that the squat, repeatedly remodeled Showbox building itself is “historic.” The city, the lawsuit notes, hired a consultant to consider the Showbox for historic landmark status in 2007, but found that the building lacked “any redeeming landmark features.” This, the complaint continues, “was partly because the building had been remodeled during its many uses in the past including as a comedy stage, an adult entertainment arcade, a furniture store and a bingo hall.” When Showbox preservationists talk about “silencing the ghosts of Seattle’s history,” as one of the venue’s bartenders did last month, is that the history they’re thinking of?

One final note. Ordinarily, when the city makes land-use decisions, it puts those decisions through a rigorous Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) analysis to determine what impacts the decision might have, positive or negative, on marginalized and low-income communities. As far as I can tell, the city did no such analysis when it decided to effectively downzone the Showbox block—a decision that also meant foregoing about $5 million in funding for affordable housing under MHA. The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit, perhaps because such goals are hard to quantify (and harder still in the absence of the usual analysis). But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.

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The Showbox Is “Saved.” Now What?

When I lived in Austin, back in the 1990s, there was this bar called the Cedar Door that kept getting displaced by development. The proprietors just couldn’t catch a break: As soon as they opened in a new location, it seemed, some developer would come along and announce a new condo or apartment or office building and the Cedar Door had to go. By the time I lived in Austin, the bar’s peripatetic nature was part of local lore: The bar that never stays in one place for long.

Let me tell you another story: There was this club, also in Austin , called Liberty Lunch, where I saw some of the most memorable shows of my young adult life, including the Pixies, Failure, Clutch, and a bunch of other bands whose names are lost to time. In the late ’90s, despite a concerted local effort to save it, Liberty Lunch shut down—a victim, it was said, of development run amok. (You can still visit it virtually, on the “I Still Miss Liberty Lunch” Facebook page.) Many of the bands I saw there are now on their second or third reunion tours, playing at $30-and-up venues like the Showbox.

A final story, from Seattle. A beloved cultural institution, the Museum of History and Industry, was forced from its location in Montlake by the need to rebuild the floating bridge across SR-520. The old bridge was, in a way, itself a victim of development: Massive suburban growth that state highway planners said necessitated a wider bridge to carry commuters swiftly back and forth across Lake Washington. The museum struck a deal with the city and state, and opened in a new (and arguably more apt location): South Lake Union, where old history rubs shoulders with new industry.

What did the city council vote for today, when it voted to “Save the Showbox” by making it part of the Pike Place Market Historical District?  To the mostly middle-aged crowd who testified about the value of the venue, the vote was about the musical heritage and cultural future of Seattle. To the Pike Place Market preservationists who see the Showbox debate as an opportunity to relitigate the city’s decision to upzone First Avenue to allow taller buildings—an upzone that today’s vote partly reversed—the decision was about protecting the “entrance to the market” from towers near the Market, which they have long opposed. (The Showbox, notably, was not included in the Pike Place Market historical district in 1971, when the district was created after a lengthy citizens’ effort to save the market from development, even though it had been around, at that point, for more than four decades.) To residents of the Newmark Tower condos on Second Avenue, the vote was an opportunity to preserve their views of Elliott Bay and limit traffic in the alley behind their building. “Past city councils shouldn’t have upzoned,” attorney and Newmark condo owner Dan Merkle said. He wore a “Save the Showbox” T-shirt. (Opponents of theoretical “luxury apartments,” in one of the day’s many ironies, were in league with the owners of actual luxury condos.) And to density advocates like council member Teresa Mosqueda, it was a symbolic vote to “protect” one downtown block that came with an implicit bargain: If people who showed up over the past week to “Save the Showbox” really want to preserve cultural institutions and build affordable housing, she said, they need to show up for future debates about development, too—to advocate for more density all over the city.

The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups, without regard for whether doing so violates the spirit of prior land-use policies that resulted from lengthy, and often hard-fought, public processes. This week, it was the Showbox. Next month, it could be  an industrial business that stands in the way of a bike lane, or a single-family house whose preservation could prevent the development of dense housing in a neighborhood.

The legislation the council adopted today adds the Showbox property, owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, to the Pike Place Market Historical District for the next ten months so the city can “review the historic significance ot the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the Pike Place Market Historical District Design Guidelines related to the Showbox, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” In plain English, that means that the city has effectively downzoned the block on which the Showbox is located from about 450 feet to its current height of two stories on an “emergency” basis while the city decides whether to include the Showbox in the district permanently. Inclusion in the historical district means that any alterations to the building—from the tenants who occupy the first floor to the lighting and signage—will have to be approved by the historical commission that oversees the market. (Proponents have argued that this will force the Showbox to remain a music venue in perpetuity, but the city cannot legally force a private business to stay in business or renew its lease.) For now, the legislation effectively precludes demolition of the Showbox and prevents the building’s owner, Roger Forbes, from selling the property to Onni Group, the developer that wants to build a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

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In theory, the legislation provides some breathing room for the city to work out a deal to preserve the physical structure that houses the Showbox—a two-story unreinforced masonry building—while allowing Onni to build its tower on top of the venue. However, as Mosqueda acknowledged after the “this vote today makes a negotiated resolution more challenging.” Even if Onni and Forbes want to reach such a resolution, building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself may not be possible, and could be prohibitively expensive if it is. At today’s meeting, council members repeatedly cited a project built by developer Kevin Daniels that saved the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church sanctuary on Fifth and Marion as an example of preservation that allowed a new development to co-exist with a historical structure. But that development did not involve actually placing a new building on top of the church—and it cost an estimated $40 million. (Daniels has said that from a purely financial perspective, he regrets saving the church building.)

In any case, neither Onni nor Forbes has indicated that they plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to “save” a music venue in which neither party is actually invested, in any sense of that word. Moreover, the uncertainty created by today’s legislation may lead Onni to abandon the project. That could “save” the Showbox until its lease ends in two years, but does not guarantee its continued existence; AEG, the multinational company that operates the Showbox, could decide to leave, or Forbes, the building’s owner, could decline to renew their lease or raise the rent to a  prohibitive level.

Would anyone who was at city hall today declare victory if the Showbox was “saved,” only to become a new Tom Douglas restaurant, or an actual museum? Or if it ends up sitting empty, the victim of economic forces that can’t be altered by a million signatures on change.org petitions?

Or Forbes could sue. On Sunday, the law firm that represents Forbes, Byrnes Keller Cromwell, sent a letter to city attorney Pete Holmes and council president Bruce Harrell noting that Forbes has the legal right to redevelop the Showbox property as a high-rise; in fact, the lawyers note, the city implicitly endorsed its redevelopment when it upzoned the land in both 2006 and 2016, when the zoning capacity of downtown Seattle was increased as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. “That zoning and up-zoning were and are entirely consistent with the City’s high-density urban plan and goal of promoting affordable housing,” the letter says. (If Onni does not move forward with its development, the city will  forego about $5 million that would have gone toward affordable housing under MHA.)

The letter continues:

As you are aware, property owners, the City and the courts all have respective rights, obligations and oversight related to the significant economic interests that arise from real property and re-zoning issues. Just this last Thursday, the State Supreme Court unanimously issued an opinion on land use rights in a case where a property owner was not given a fair opportunity to use a property. [That case upheld a decision finding that Thurston County illegally delayed the sale of a piece of land owned by the Port of Tacoma and awarded total damages of $12 million].  Of course, you know that case does not stand alone, but is part of a larger body of state and federal law addressing these kinds of significant economic and constitutional issues.

It is important for all parties involved to be heard fairly and accorded consideration and for rights to be recognized and protected. Process should be afforded and both procedural and substantive fairness observed.  We understand that a more considered  approach may be underway for the Monday, August 13, 2018, City Council meeting at which these issues are to be considered, and we sincerely appreciate a path toward working through the issues in a way that avoids unnecessary entanglements, missteps and interference with contractual and other expectations of the parties involved.

Whatever ultimately happens with the Showbox, the ramifications of today’s vote will be far-reaching. Although council member Mosqueda told me after the vote that she did not intend for the decision to set any kind of precedent, that’s exactly what it does. The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups, without regard for whether doing so violates the spirit of prior land-use policies that resulted from lengthy, and often hard-fought, public processes. This week, it was the Showbox. Next month, it could be  an industrial business that stands in the way of a bike lane, or a single-family house whose preservation could prevent the development of dense housing in a neighborhood. For all Mosqueda’s optimism that the “Save the Showbox” crowd will turn out in the future to advocate for density all over the city, it’s important to note that council members who often advocate against density, including Lisa Herbold and Sawant, see the same people as an opportunity to advance their own anti-development agendas.

At today’s meeting, while Herbold was talking about the need to save the physical structure of the Showbox, rather than preserving its spirit by rebuilding or revamping the venue, someone shouted from the back. “The soul is in the walls, it’s in the stage, it’s in the floor!” But he was wrong.  The Showbox isn’t the Lincoln Memorial, or La Sagrada Familia, or the Louvre. Its cultural relevance comes not from the squat, architecturally unremarkable building in which it is located, but from the music that has been made, and continues to be made, inside its walls. And cultural institutions sometimes move, or are rebuilt, or even close only to reopen later in a different form. (Moe’s, a once-shuttered institution whose rebirth as Neumos helped to spur the reinvention of the Pike-Pine corridor as a nightlife district, springs to mind.) Would anyone who was at city hall today declare victory if the Showbox was “saved,” only to become a new Tom Douglas restaurant, or an actual museum? Or if it ends up sitting empty, the victim of economic forces that can’t be altered by a million signatures on change.org petitions? Twenty years ago, Liberty Lunch was replaced by a generic office building. But Austin remained a music destination, largely on the strength of the new venues that emerged on the other side of town after the Lunch shut down. Cities rarely grow and improve by preserving their culture in amber. Almost always, they do so by letting things change.

Late Morning Crank: New Homelessness Policies and New Streetcar Claims

1. Update: The mayor’s office says they have been briefing council members on the four elements of its homelessness strategy (spending and accountability, crisis response/creating safer spaces, regional coordination, and affordable housing) but is not rolling out any major new policies. Mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas says rumors around ramped-up enforcement could be related to the previously announced additional $500,000 the city plans to spend on its Navigation Teams. As for the idea that the city plans to implement involuntary commitment to detox for addicted people who decline assistance from Navigation Team members, Formas pointed to a letter to the co-chairs of the One Table task force signed by the mayors of Auburn, Renton, Kent, Bellevue, and Kirkland suggesting that the leaders of the regional initiative (which has been dormant for months but is meeting again next week), should consider “involuntary treatment for those presenting an imminent likelihood of serious harm to self or others, or who are gravely disabled as a result of substance use disorder” and who refuse to go to treatment. Should this become an element of the One Table implementation strategy, it would mean forcing people into short-term detox, which has not been shown to be effective for treating severe addiction.

Original item: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has reportedly been briefing city council members on a new policy related to homelessness that, rumor has it, involves more strenuous enforcement of the city’s anti-trespassing and no-camping laws. Conversations with folks on the second floor and advocates working on homelessness-related issues indicate that the new policy could involve involuntary commitments for people suffering from addiction under Ricky’s Law, which allows adults to beheld for up to 17 days in “secure withdrawal management and stabilization facilities,” AKA secure detox, if they are available; since the state and King County would ultimately be responsible for actually funding detox beds, this could be a way of putting pressure on the county for ramping up detox funding. Currently, there are only a few dozen detox beds available in all of King County, including a recently opened facility on Beacon Hill that filled an existing gap in care left by the closure of Recovery Centers of King County; that facility has 32 beds for patients needing detox. Formas said they would be “doing some action items on homelessness and affordability next week.”

So far, according to council log-in sheets, the mayor’s office has met with council public safety committee chair Lorena Gonzalez, council president Bruce Harrell (both yesterday), and council members Mike O’Brien  and Sally Bagshaw (this morning). I will update as I learn more.

2. I reported last week on the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenging a tiny house village” encampment in South Lake Union on the grounds that it violates state environmental rules. One thing I didn’t discuss in detail is the fact that the reason the city has been able to authorize so many tiny house villages—seven, at the moment, or four more than are allowed under a city ordinance limiting the total number of authorized encampments to three—is that each of the new authorized camps has been approved on a rolling conditional basis under what’s known as a “type 1 permit.” Such permits, which must be renewed every four weeks, are meant for temporary uses such as temporary fire and police station relocations or farmers’ markets, as well as any other temporary use that’s meant to last four weeks or less. Type 1 permits can be approved administratively, meaning that they don’t have to go through a lengthy public hearing process or the usual environmental review. (The Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenges this premise, and also argues that temporary encampments should be Type 2 decisions, which require more process and are more involved.)

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This struck me as a peculiar way of permitting encampments, given that the city has decided as a matter of policy and law that only three encampments should be allowed citywide. I’m no lawyer, but it also seems like an area where the city could be legally vulnerable—if the city wants to allow more than three encampments, then why not do so through the legislative process, by changing the law, instead of using this workaround? The city attorney’s office had no comment on the legal ramifications of using Type 1 four-week permits to allow tiny house villages.  Wendy Shark, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says temporary permits are only for “encampments that are also in the process of applying for the 6-month temporary use permit.  In every case, encampments needing temporary use permits are applying for the 6-month permit or will soon apply.  Since the 6-month permit is a ‘Type II’ application involving public notice and opportunity to appeal to the City’s Hearing Examiner, the Type I four-week permit is a means to establish an encampment in the short term while the longer public process occurs.”

However, since city law currently restricts the total number of longer-term encampments to three, Shark adds that “legislation will be needed to change the current number of interim use encampments that are permitted.”

3. Local transportation Twitter was buzzing this week over a couple of articles about Seattle projects aimed at improving mobility for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. I covered the first, a Crosscut editorial claiming that bike lanes are only for rich white people,  on Wednesday. The second, an article by Times reporter David Gutman, repeated claims from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the delayed downtown streetcar may be too bulky, and use the wrong track gauge, to connect to the existing South Lake Union and First Hill lines. I reported on the same claims in a brief item Wednesday morning, noting that if the claims turned out to be true, it would represent a significant embarrassment for the city along the lines of the time when Sound Transit had to go in and remove tracks installed by King County Metro in the downtown transit tunnel because they were the wrong size for light rail.

Yesterday, however, transit advocates began to dispute the mayor’s claims, and Gutman’s story, pointing out that both of the two types of streetcar bodies that would run along the connected line use the same standard gauge (1435-millimeter) track, and that the difference in the car widths is relatively trivial. The new cars, built by CAF USA, would be about ten feet longer than existing streetcars, which were manufactured by Inekon. The print and current online editions of Gutman’s story include context about the likely actual size of the vehicles and the fact that the gauge of the tracks is compatible with both cars, contrary to what Durkan implied in her statement, which suggested that the city does not even know if “the new vehicles [are] compatible with the current track gauge.”

However, the story that the  Times initially ran online did not include any of that information. After it went up, both FOX News and local conservative radio host Dori Monson latched on to what FOX calls the “streetcar fiasco,” which FOX described, in typical FOX fashion, as the latest setback for a left-wing mayor trying to raise her national profile with “fervent attacks against the Trump administration over immigration, climate change and abortion.”  Monson, meanwhile, suggested that former SDOT director Scott Kubly “should be in prison” and that former King County executive Ron Sims is a fake “man of God” who is destined for hell.

When I asked mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas about the mayor’s statement Tuesday night, she said, “we do know that the cars are heavier, wider, and longer than the current cars, but engineers are looking at all the facts in the context of these cars running on the full system.” On Wednesday, Formas followed up with more details, acknowledging that the tracks are technically compatible with the new cars and that the new vehicles are actually slightly narrower than the existing streetcars, but adding that “evaluation of the existing conditions related to track gauge is necessary to provide accurate data to CAF so that they can account for these differences in the design of the track and wheel profile for the CAF vehicle.”

In addition to concerns about whether the new streetcars would fit into the existing maintenance barn, Formas said that the “dynamic envelope” of the streetcar, which includes both width and length, raised concerns about the vehicles “hit[ting] other elements in the ROW, such as trees, signage, curbs, and poles as they travel along the track.” The streetcar will be still about six inches narrower than a typical King County Metro bus, which are eight and a half feet wide (compared to eight feet, .038 inches for the new streetcars and eight feet, .085 inches for the existing ones.)

Morning Crank: Public Land for the Public Good

1. City Council member Teresa Mosqueda will introduce affordable-housing legislation that could have major implications for one of the largest land holders in the city, Seattle City Light. Mosqueda’s bill would allow City Light to sell its surplus land to affordable-housing developers for less than market value—all the way down to the amount the city originally paid for the land—and would require City Light to do so if the agency committed to build housing making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. (That latter part may be up for negotiation.) For example, if City Light bought a piece of property in South Lake Union 60 years ago for a few thousand dollars, and the land is now worth millions, a nonprofit that agreed to build deeply affordable housing could buy it for the original, decades-old price.

The proposal, if it passes, will mark a significant change in the city’s policy for disposing of excess City Light land, and could invite a court challenge. Currently, the city requires property owned by its electric utility to be sold at fair-market value, thanks to a 2003 ruling striking down a fee City Light imposed to install and maintain streetlights. That ruling found that City Light could not charge ratepayers for any purpose other than providing utilities, and forced the agency to return $24 million to Seattle residents. Mosqueda’s legislation would change this disposition policy. However, Mosqueda’s office maintains that a separate ruling in 2013, in which the state supreme court disagreed with Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman’s claim that it was illegal to build light rail over I-90 because the bridge was built with gas taxes, which are supposed to be spent only on road purposes, establishes a precedent for City Light to sell its property at below-market value once that property is paid off and declared surplus to the city’s purposes.

Separately, Mosqueda’s office says she will introduce legislation that would encourage all city agencies that own surplus land to  give away or sell this excess property for below-market values to public agencies or nonprofit housing providers that agree to use the land to build affordable housing. The legislation comes in response to a new state law, House Bill 2382, passed by the state legislature last year allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.  Mosqueda’s proposal would also allow agencies, including nonprofits to exercise this right even if they don’t have all the money in hand or haven’t secured a development partner.

“Through smart management of public land, and using surplus and underutilized public land for the best public good, we can reduce the cost of building the affordable housing our communities need,” Mosqueda says. “This will also help us realize more community-led affordable housing and small-business development” by giving housing providers more time to pull together funding and development plans for properties that become available.

According to the latest city land inventory, there are about 35 pieces of city-owned land larger than 15,000 square feet that are surplus, “excess,” or underutilized, although some are outside Seattle and not all are suitable for housing development.

2. As I noted on Twitter last week, the anti-head tax campaign formed on May 18 and achieved its goal of repealing the tax on June 12. In the course of their brief effort, they spent nearly half a million dollars, according to their latest filing at the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission—more than most of last year’s city council candidates spent in a year-long campaign.

Morning Crank: Isn’t It Weird That…

Image: Low-Income Housing Institute

As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…

So: Isn’t It Weird That…

The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?

The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.

In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”

When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites,  he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.

But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.

Speaking of LIHI,  Isn’t It Weird That…

Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee?  What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.

“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”

Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other  Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):

• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation

• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation

•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation

• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.

And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”

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Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and  growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?

Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-daily updates on an unsightly encampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:

1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco,  one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That  quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that  “our city is out of control.”

2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.

3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.

It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.

* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.

Morning Crank: “Poor People Are People”

KIRO’s Jason Rantz was there, too.

1. A sharply divided standing-room-only crowd gathered last Thursday at 415 Westlake—an airy South Lake Union events center that ordinarily hosts weddings, fundraisers, and bat mitzvahs—and both sides came ready to shout. About 200 people (including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant) crammed into the space, many of them jostling for standing room in the back, to hear a presentation on a proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union and register their support or protest. Representatives from a new group called Unified Seattle handed out fact sheets and glossy campaign-style signs to fellow tiny-house opponents in the audience—a stark contrast to the hand-drawn, crayon-colored reading “We Welcome Our New Neighbors” that supporters of another tiny house village, at 18th and Yesler, held aloft at a similar meeting last month.  Unified Seattle—a group that, according to its website, includes Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and until last week also listed Speak Out Seattle among its backers—purchased Facebook ads to encourage people to show up at the meeting. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” the event page urged.

The “village”—a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that will occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street that was previously used as a parking lot—is the subject of a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, a statewide group that is best known for trying to thwart the Service Employees International Union from organizing home health care workers; according to the Seattle Times, the suit contends that the city did not adequately inform the community of the proposal, did not do a required environmental review, and has exceeded the maximum number of tiny house villages allowed under city law. The opening date for the encampment, (originally scheduled for July, then quietly bumped to November in the latest version of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” plan) could end up getting pushed back even further.

As of January 2018, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle; All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is in reality higher.

Opponents of the tiny house village, which would be run by the Low-Income Housing Institute and would provide temporary shelter to about 65 people, focused on the fact that the encampment will not be an explicitly clean and sober environment; although drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in all common areas (and smoking prohibited throughout the site), LIHI will not go into people’s individual sheds and search for contraband, which means, in practice, that people can drink and use drugs in the houses. When Seattle homelessness strategy division director Tiffany Washington noted that this is precisely the city’s policy for dealing with people who live in regular homes (“If I’m using drugs in my house, how will you know?”)—opponents in the crowd erupted in shouts and boos. “The taxpayers don’t pay for your house!” someone yelled. “I provide my kids with rules,” a speaker said moments later, adding that if he thought they were up to no good, “I might search the room.” That prompted another shout from the back: “They’re not kids!”

Elisabeth James, one of the leaders of Speak Out Seattle, suggested that the city would be foolish to give up the revenue it receives from the parking lot where the village would be located. “I look at this parking lot that generates over a million dollars a year, then we’re going to give up that and pay to house people on a parking lot? That seems like a waste of money to me,” she said. Brandishing a four-page, folded color flyer that LIHI handed out at the meeting, James continued, “I look at this fancy folder that you guys have and I think this is a waste of money! And this is one of the reasons that the neighbors are so upset and frustrated.”

Another neighbor, condo owner and retired police officer Greg Williams, suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment. “They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us to offset” what they cost the community Williams said. “We don’t live free. Why should they live free? If they want to do something, get that experience of a job. Get that experience having to be somewhere on time every day.” According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home King County, 20 percent of King County’s homeless residents have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they became homeless; and 45 percent were actively looking for work.

Many people wanted to know whether LIHI or the city would be doing “background checks” on the people who want to live in the village, either to see whether they have active warrants inside or outside Washington State, or to determine whether they are local residents, as a way of weeding out homeless people who aren’t “from here.” The short answer to each question is that the city won’t exclude anyone, except registered sex offenders, from shelter because of their criminal history, and they can’t exclude people based on where they came from, because that would be housing discrimination. The longer answer is that homeless people frequently have criminal records because of minor, nonviolent offenses, either because they committed low-level crimes like shoplifting or because they violated laws against loitering, lying down, sleeping, urinating, or having an open container in public. (Open containers are illegal for everybody, but homeless people are uniquely unable to drink, or perform many other activities housed people take for granted anywhere but in public.) Basically any activity that housed people do in the privacy of their own homes becomes illegal when you do it in public; denying shelter to every homeless person who has been caught doing one of these things and locking them in jail instead would be a logistical and civil-rights nightmare, not to mention a tremendous burden on public resources.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort. Hodes made an impassioned plea for the people who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out  that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.” “She’s saying nasty things! She’s attacking us!” members of the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience shouted.

Image via Fourth and Madison Building, fourthandmadison.com

2. The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is proposing changes to the existing incentive zoning program for commercial properties, which allows developers to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable child care and housing. OCPD strategic advisor Brennon Staley presented the proposed changes, which are aimed at making the city’s various incentive zoning programs more consistent and easier to use, to the Seattle Planning Commission last Thursday.

Although most of the changes won’t have an immediate, dramatic impact on the street level in places like downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District (making it easier for developers to preserve historic buildings and affordable housing through transfers of development rights, for example, will have the result of keeping the streetscape the same), one change that could make a visible impact is the proposed update to the city’s privately owned public space (POPS) program. POPS, which developers are required to provide as part of any new development, are often hard to find, hostile to the general public, and inaccessible outside business hours. (The quintessential example is the 7th-floor plaza at the Fourth and Madison Building, accessible only from inside the building and marked only by a small sign  at the building’s base. Thank former city council member Nick Licata for that modest marker!)

The proposed changes would provide more flexibility for developers to build smaller, more flexible open spaces, allow cafes, movable seating, and games to help “activate” smaller public spaces, and require that all privately owned public spaces be open between 6am and 10pm, the same hours as public parks. One commissioner, Amy Shumann, suggested that OCPD require larger signs than the small, green-and-white markers that currently point pedestrians to these spaces; another, David Goldberg, asked whether developers might be able to pay a fee instead of providing open space on site, an idea Staley shot down by pointing out that when the city has tried to do this kind of program in the past, they’ve ended up having to give the money back because they haven’t been able to collect enough money to build the spaces elsewhere.

A Conversation With a Neighbor Who Changed His Mind About a Tiny House Village

In case you haven’t noticed, the debate about homelessness in Seattle has gotten a little toxic. At a time when homeowners show up to chant “bullshit!” at public hearings and socialists attempt to drown out city council votes they don’t agree with, it’s rare to hear about anyone actually changing their mind after talking to “the other side.” Which is why I was eager to sit down with a guy I met at a recent public meeting on a new “tiny house” village that’s currently being built in a vacant lot at 18th and Yesler and hear more about how he went from distributing flyers opposing the project to figuring out ways he could support the people living there.

Omeed, who asked me to use his first name only, joined a group called Yesler Neighbors that distributed flyers in the neighborhood around the tiny house village urging neighbors to write and call the city to demand that they put a “pause” on what they described as an “illegal encampment” based on a litany of what they described as land use and public notice violations. (See the full letter here). “We support ending homelessness in our city but believe it should be done in a transparent, legal, and thoughtful manner,” the letter left on neighbors’ doorsteps concluded.

After the meeting at Ernestine Anderson Place on South Jackson Street, which included a Q&A with project sponsors from the Low-Income Housing Institute and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, I started chatting with Omeed outside. “I’m someone who changed his mind,” he told me—he now supported the encampment, although he still thought neighbors hadn’t received adequate information to form their own views on the project in the first place. For example, he said, he had been unable to determine whether the encampment would be “low-barrier”—that is, whether it would allow residents to consume drugs and alcohol on-site—and how the rules would be enforced. On Monday, Omeed broke ties with Yesler Neighbors to focus on other activist work—namely, electing Democrats to the state legislature through an organization called the Sister District Project, which sends activists into swing districts, like Washington’s 26th and 30th, to support Democratic candidates at the state level.

I sat down with Omeed in Pratt Park, just a few blocks from the tiny house village, which is currently under construction. Omeed, whose parents moved to the United States as refugees during the Iranian revolution, moved to Seattle about six years ago from Washington, D.C.; his wife is a native Seattleite with roots in the city going back 12 generations. They live a few blocks from the new tiny house village at 18th and Yesler.

How did you become aware that this tiny house village was being built in your neighborhood?

We got a flyer on our front door on May 15 or 16, and that same week, or shortly after, gravel started going down [on the lot]. It really did seem abrupt. We’re used to getting a certain amount of notification and time to understand what the project is. That was like—wait a second. But that part didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there were a lot of houses that did not get flyers, and there were houses several blocks further away from it, where it’s not necessarily in view, and they were flyered when I know some of the houses along the fence line never received any notice of it. I got it; some of my neighbors did not.

What did you think when you got the flyer? Were you supportive of the idea?

My initial reaction was like, ‘Cool, let’s save some lives. This might be great.’ My wife’s initial reaction was like, ‘I wonder if I can volunteer and help them with some landscaping stuff’—just do something that’s welcoming. And then we started hearing some other information, and then when you do some Google searches about these villages, Licton Springs [an encampment in North Seattle that allows drugs and alcohol] tends to be the thing that makes it up to the surface, and that was really jarring and it put some guards up. I’m a naturally defensive person. Growing up in a household where your parents are refugees, your mom’s an asylum seeker… siege mentality is a kind of natural thing to have. So my guard just tends to go up really quickly.

What was your concern related to Licton Springs?

Crime stats, the fact that there is open drug use—I don’t know how much is anecdotal or real. I only drove by. On the Aurora Avenue side, it was like, ‘Uh, this is an interesting part of town…’ Then the barbed wire along the top of it, too—it just seemed like that isn’t something that I necessarily want in my neighborhood.

You mentioned when we spoke before that your main concern was whether this tiny house village was going to allow drugs and alcohol. Can you talk more about that concern?

The flyer didn’t indicate if this site was going to be low-barrier. There was no information about it. When we went to the first meeting on the 22nd, I don’t recall that very strong commitment [to a no-drugs-and-alcohol policy] and that gave me kind of a pause. After that first meeting my guard went up a little more. More concerns started to bubble up.

I don’t think addiction is criminal. I can’t say that addicted people mean crime. I would be concerned, though, if there’s other folks that want to come there, [like] dealers. If that gets drawn over to it because they know it’s a low-barrier site where people are going to be allowed to use, that’s just not okay.

What changed your mind about this project?

I went to visit the 22nd and Union village a little while ago, and I talked with those folks, and they were just like normal working people. They’re just having a hard time. [Mayor Jenny] Durkan said in press release that these folks are, in a way, economic refugees. A segment of the population really is. Something like 40 percent, give or take, of the unsheltered population is employed in some capacity, and 20 percent of those are employed full-time. The fact that there isn’t enough housing that those folks can afford is disgusting. It’s a frustration.

I get frustrated when I hear things like Fort Lawton are held up in litigation, which just makes them more expensive to build. We declared a state of emergency a few years back and my understanding of a state of emergency is you suspend some rules and blockers because it’s a state of emergency. So I’m just thinking, what kind of state of emergency is it where things can end up in litigation or get blocked by neighbors because they’d rather have another park? We have lots of great parks. I’m not saying we shouldn’t find more ways to create green space, but this is an emergency.

So how are you feeling about the tiny house village now? Are you planning to volunteer to help them out, or put your efforts into pushing for other housing solutions, now that you know more about the project?

It takes a lot of effort to be in that mindset, to try and fight with the city and fight with this organization and do all those things. What I think might be a better use of my time moving forward, especially if I’m serious about building more housing and finding the funds to pay for it, is to make that call to the county saying, ‘You have nearly $200 million over 20 years to give to a profitable baseball team, yet you have yet to come up with a way to pay for [housing]. It’s there. We don’t have to subsidize these sport teams and these stadiums. We also don’t have to subsidize massive tax breaks to Boeing, the largest defense contractor and one of the largest companies in the world. It’s absurd to say we need to come up with these other revenue streams when the money really is there. It’s not a matter of efficiency in government or ‘audit this’ or ‘make cuts there.’ It’s, stop giving away money to people who already have millions of dollars and we’ll have it.

My wife is setting up the [National Night Out] event for our block and I said, ‘They should be invited.’ I don’t think I have to take anything out on the folks who are going to be living there. My gripes are with the city, the county, and the state—the people who refuse to actually do the things that need to be done to actually deal with this emergency. So I don’t see why I have to turn my back to those folks who otherwise need help.

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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.

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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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Buses May Leave Downtown Tunnel for Surface Streets As Soon as March 2019

Dozens of buses per hour may move from downtown transit tunnel and onto surface streets as soon as next March, thanks to an amendment  adopted by the city council’s transportation committee on Tuesday. The amendment, proposed by council member Rob Johnson, alters legislation vacating several public alleys for the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center,  which will require buses to move from the tunnel onto surface streets sometime next year. Johnson’s amendment, which passed 4-3, struck language that would have barred the convention center  from kicking buses out of the tunnel until September 2019, which bill sponsor Mike O’Brien said was intended to give the city and King County Metro more time to implement transit improvements downtown. The amended legislation would allow the developers to evict buses from the tunnel as early as March 2019,  adding 40 more buses  to downtown streets in each direction during rush hour. (March and September were the two possibilities because those are the months when Metro implements its service updates.)

Although a group of Seattle Department of Transportation and council staffers warned committee members that the city and  county might not be able to implement all the improvements they need to make by March, Johnson countered that it was time to “hold SDOT’s feet to the fire on getting some of these transit pathways up and running in a more aggressive timeline.” If the council gives SDOT an additional six months, he added, they are likely to take it. Johnson also echoed comments made earlier by convention center developer Matt Griffin about the need to avoid unnecessary delays that could increase the cost of the project and forestall job creation and affordable housing construction.

On Tuesday, O’Brien argued that adding so many buses to surface streets in March will result in unnecessary traffic chaos at a time—known as the “period of maximum constraint”—when downtown streets will be most impacted by various downtown construction projects, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the opening of the new  tunnel on the downtown waterfront. March 2019, he added, may be an unrealistic deadline for the city and county to coordinate and complete all the improvements planned as part of the delayed One Center City project, including the implementation of off-board payment for all buses that travel on Third Avenue and the reconfiguration of Fifth and Sixth Avenues for buses, which will require new bus lanes and tricky signal timing changes.

“Next March, I think we’re all going to wish we had six more months of buses operating in the tunnel,” O’Brien said. “Even with buses operating in the tunnel, we’re going to have some major chaos on the streets downtown. … We’ll survive. The city won’t end. But I think it’s going to be a real mess.”

Contacted after the vote, Johnson said he isn’t convinced that the “period of maximum constraint” will be as cataclysmic as some of his colleagues, and SDOT, seem to think. As evidence, he points to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carried 120,000 cars a day as recently as 2009, when the city, county, and state signed an agreement to build a four-lane bypass tunnel and a wide surface Alaskan Way to replace the aging bridge that spans the downtown waterfront. At the time, advocates for building a bigger tunnel or rebuilding the viaduct said the number of cars driving through downtown would only grow. Instead, the number has steadily shrunk—to just over 90,000 in 2016, according to Johnson.

“I’m cognizant of the doomsday period of maximum constraint that everyone’s talking about, but also, I look at downtown, with its 24-plus lanes going north-south, and I think, that’s plenty of capacity, if we could just do a better job at managing that capacity,” Johnson said. “I get frustrated by the delay of projects that could have real benefits for transit pathways. I  really want to light a fire under SDOT to make some of these projects happen and not just take as long as we give them to do it.”

O’Brien says it’s unfair to lay every delay at SDOT’s feet; in the case of implementing off-board payment for buses on Third Avenue, for example, King County Metro is equally responsible.  “The frustrating thing for me is that Rob is just saying, ‘We think SDOT needs to work harder,’ and I’m like, Our experts just showed up and said we can’t do it in six months. And Rob is just saying, ‘You better.’

“This is all in the context of the new tunnel and tolling and rebuilding Alaskan Way. It’s not like SDOT just has nothing going on,” O’Brien says.

On Tuesday, the developer, Griffin, suggested that if the city allows buses to stay in the tunnel until September, it will result in costly delays, the elimination of tens of thousands of “bed hours” in affordable housing his firm has agreed to build as part of its deal with the city, and could potentially scuttle the project. O’Brien says that when Griffin made that last claim, he thought, “we’re outside [the realm of] rational thought—now you’re just making threats.”  He added: “Matt’s a powerful guy who has some influence about other things that other people care about.”

Griffin gave the maximum contribution, $700, to Johnson’s 2015 campaign, and contributed $10,000 that year to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, which was the largest contributor (at $46,500) to an independent expenditure campaign supporting Johnson. Griffin did not contribute to O’Brien’s campaign.

There’s still another situation, by the way, in which the convention center could be forced to let buses stay in the tunnel until September of next year: The legislation the committee adopted requires the convention center developer to obtain all its construction permits by July 1 of this year; if that doesn’t happen, buses must stay in the tunnel until September 2019.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the convention center street vacation agreement today at 2:00.