Getting Smarter About Public Land: Lessons from Across the Northwest

The full version of this story is available at Sightline.

As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.

Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.

To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.

But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.

How much publicly owned land is there?

Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.

Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.

The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.

“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says.  “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.

Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing

Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.

Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.

The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.

Read the whole piece at Sightline.

Morning Crank: Rethinking the Vaunted Neighborhood Plans of the ’90s

In a move that could reveal hard truths about the city’s vaunted 1990s-era neighborhood planning process, city council member Teresa Mosqueda wants the city to do a full race and social justice analysis of the so-called urban village strategy, which concentrates all new development in narrow bands near arterial streets and preserves two-thirds of the city exclusively for detached single-family houses. The urban village strategy was crafted more than 20 years ago by neighborhood groups that were dominated, then as now, by white homeowners who wanted to ensure that the “character” of their neighborhoods would remain unchanged. The monoculture of exclusive single-family zoning, and the “character” of Seattle’s suburban-style neighborhoods, is a legacy of redlining—the process by which people of color and renters were systematically excluded from many parts of Seattle.

Introducing her proposal at Thursday’s council budget hearing, Mosqueda noted that at the time the urban village strategy was adopted, in 1994, there was no Race and Social Justice Initiative. That came in 2004, and “it wasn’t until 10 years after that that the race and social justice strategy was expanded to include policies that impact the urban environment,” Mosqueda said. “One of our questions is whether or not we are investing in urban villages equitably throughout Seattle. … I’m interested in whether or not we are crafting policies that are allowing more people to live here.”

The city recently completed a race and social equity analysis of a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to build second and third units on their property. That analysis found, not surprisingly, that allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments will disproportionately benefit white Seattle residents, because most homeowners in Seattle are white. (See chart, below). However, the analysis (like the environmental impact statement the city recently completed on the proposal) also found that allowing more backyard and basement apartments wouldn’t contribute to displacement; and it suggested several steps the city could take to make it easier for homeowners of color to build accessory units, such as pre-approved building plans and assistance with permits and financing. A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions. Neighborhood activists, in other words, are likely to oppose it. Channeling them Thursday, council member Sally Bagshaw raised objections to Mosqueda’s proposal, which she said might be “duplicative” with work the city has already done. (It isn’t.) “Good heavens, this feels like déjà vu to me,” Bagshaw said. Council member Rob Johnson, who supports Mosqueda’s idea in principle, said, “I think that the issues that council member Mosqueda brings up are very appropriate for us to consider,” but suggested that the council might fund it later in the year.

Neighborhood activists, ironically, actually raised the need for race and social justice analysis in their ongoing attempt to prevent the city from implementing its Mandatory Housing Affordability strategy arguing (disingenuously) that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal to allow slightly denser development on 6 percent of the city’s single-family land. (Developers building under the new rules would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into an affordable housing fund. The new rules have gone into effect in denser parts of the city, including downtown). They’re still fighting that one, a year after the council passed the legislation.

It’s hard to quantify how much funding for affordable housing the city has lost because single-family activists have locked MHA up with a series of seemingly endless appeals. Hard, but not impossible. About a week ago, Johnson asked the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development to do an analysis of how much money the city has forfeited from developments that would have happened under the new rules if they had gone into effect a year ago. “I’ve asked them to run the numbers about projects that might have vested under MHA, had we adopted it when the bill was first sent down to us,” Johnson told me yesterday. “As you can imagine, vesting times really vary, so  it’s difficult analysis for us to do.” However, Johnson hopes that by looking at the development cycle that just ended, the city can get a sense of how much affordable housing Seattle has foregone while activists have filed appeal after appeal.

A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions.

Speaking of appeals, the Queen Anne Community Council filed another one against the accessory dwelling unit proposal yesterday, arguing that the proposal—which would add about 2600 basement and backyard apartments, citywide, over what will likely be built anyway—”ignores, disrespects, and eliminates the citywide Neighborhood Plans.” The appeal, filed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan and his attorney, Jeff Eustis, reiterates Kaplan’s claim that the plan will upzone the entire city, effectively turning single-family neighborhoods into wall-to-wall apartment blocks. The complaint concludes, spaghetti-at-the-wall style, by listing a litany of supposed ills that will befall neighborhoods if the city allows a few thousand more backyard and basement units in a city of 700,000: the “displacement and destruction of older, more modest and
affordable housing, the displacement of populations, the loss of historic buildings, the change in neighborhood character, the unstudied stresses on existing utilities and infrastructure, the amount of available on-street parking. and the ability of
residents and emergency vehicles to circulate through neighborhood streets, and other population pressures among many more.”

Johnson notes one potential bright side to all this delay. If the appeals of MHA and the accessory dwelling legislation drag on indefinitely,  he says, the city’s planning department will have more free time to do the kind of analysis of single-family zoning that Mosqueda is requesting.

Support

Budget Crank: Juarez vs. Bike Lanes, Golf vs. Affordable Housing, and Climate Goals vs. Convenience

Mayor Jenny Durkan calibrated expectations for her first-ever city budget early, by asking every city department to come up with across-the-board budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent—creating the impression that her budget would require difficult choices, while also ensuring that if popular programs did manage to escape the knife, the mayor’s office would get the credit. That, essentially, is what happened—Durkan unveiled a budget that modestly increases general-fund spending, from $5.6 billion to $5.9 billion (slightly more than the rate of inflation) while preserving homelessness programs that were paid for this year with one-time funding, minimizing layoffs, and handing out $65 million in retroactive pay to  Seattle police officers who have been working without a contract since 2015.

Shortly after she released her budget, Durkan’s office sent supporters a list of 18 suggested social media posts intended for use on social media. Each suggested post included messaging and images created by Durkan’s staff. For example, to illustrate the fact that her budget preserves funding for existing homelessness programs without raising taxes, Durkan’s office suggested the following Facebook post:

“To help our neighbors experiencing homelessness, @Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget commits $89.5 million to support programs that we know work, including rapid rehousing, diversion, and enhanced shelters – without new taxes on businesses and residents.”

For a Twitter post on the new police contract, which also includes a 17 percent raise for officers,, Durkan’s office suggested the following:

. @SeattlePD officers haven’t had a raise since 2014. @MayorJenny’s new budget includes funding for the proposed @SPOG1952 contract that’s a good deal for our officers, good for reform, and good for Seattle. #SEAtheFuture 

Durkan appears to engage in the practice of distributing canned social-media materials, which more than one observer recently described as “very D.C.,” much more frequently than her predecessors. (Kshama Sawant may use city-owned printers to make hundreds of posters for her frequent rallies at city hall, but it’s still unusual for a mayor to use staff time to rally support for her initiatives on social media). As in D.C. politics,  the method is hit  or miss. A quick search of Twitter and Facebook reveals that the hashtag, and a handful of the posts, were mostly picked up by the social-media accounts of several city of Seattle departments—which, of course, report to Durkan.

2. The council got its first look at the budget this past week. And while this year’s discussions are shaping up to be more muted than 2017’s dramatic debate (which culminated in a flurry of last-minute changes after an early version of the head tax failed) council members are asking questions that indicate where their priorities for this year’s budget lie. Here are some of the issues I’ll be keeping an eye on, based on the first week of budget deliberations:

• Golf 

Did you know that Seattle has four taxpayer-funded public golf courses? (The city of Houston, whose population is more than three times that of Seattle, has six). The city is worried about its ability to sustain so many courses, which are supposed to bring in profits of 5 percent a year to pay back the debt the city took out to improve the golf courses to make them more attractive to golfers. (Guess that saying about spending money to make money doesn’t apply to sports with a dwindling fan base?)  This year, the city moved the cost of paying debt service on those upgrades out of the general fund (the main city budget) and into the city’s separate capital budget, where it will be paid for with King County Park Levy funding, as “a bridge solution to address the anticipated [golf revenue] shortfall for 2019,” according to the budget. The city is also considering the use of real estate excise tax (REET) money to pay for debt service on the golf course improvements.

All of this puts the future of municipal golf in question. Parks Department director Christopher Williams told the council Thursday, “We’ve got a sustainability … problem with our golf program. We’ve got a situation where rounds of golf are declining and the cost of labor for golf is increasing. … The policy question is, to what level should we subsidize public golf?

Council member Sally Bagshaw reminded Williams that affordable-housing advocates have suggested using some portion of the golf courses for affordable housing—they do occupy huge swaths of land in a city that has made all but a tiny percentage of its land off-limits to apartment buildings—but Williams demurred. “We feel we have an obligation to explore some of the more restorative steps that ask the question… can we sustain golf in the city? And does that come down to, maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” The department is working on a fiscal analysis of the golf courses, which a parks department spokeswoman told me should be out in mid-October.

Budget director Ben Noble said the city is looking at alternatives such as carsharing and sharing motor pools with other jurisdictions, like King County and Sound Transit, to reduce the number of cars the city needs.

• Shrinking the City’s Car Dependence

During her budget speech and in an executive order that accompanied her budget, Mayor Durkan proposed reducing the city’s vehicle fleet, over an unspecified period of time, by 10 percent—a reduction that would mean getting rid of more than 400 city-owned cars. Lorena Gonzalez, who lives in West Seattle and is one of two at-large council members who represent the whole city, had some concerns. “Sometimes my office has to be way up in District 5 or way down in District 2 or over in District 1, and getting there and back in an efficient amount of time using a bus is pretty difficult, so we rely a lot on the motor pool, and I think that’s true of a lot of other departments throughout the city,” Gonzalez said.

“Certainly we try to encourage our employees to ride public transit into the city of Seattle, and I think one of the benefits of doing that, and one of the incentives for doing that, is that if an employee needs to get somewhere during the day, they have a motor pool car available to them.” Budget director Ben Noble responded that the city is looking at alternatives such as carsharing and sharing motor pools with other jurisdictions, like King County and Sound Transit, to reduce the number of cars the city needs.

Support

• Fort Lawton

The former Army base next to Discovery Park has been mothballed for years, awaiting the end of hostilities over a plan to build affordable family, senior, and veteran housing on the grounds. (The Army owns the land but offered it to the city for free more than a decade ago in exchange for an agreement to build affordable housing on the property. The city has been unable to hold up its side of the bargain due to ongoing challenges to its plans for housing.) While neighbors squabble over whether to allow low-income people onto the  high-end peninsula, squatters moved into some of the vacant buildings on the property, and the Army decided it was tired of paying to keep them out. That’s how the cost of securing Fort Lawton fell to the city‚ and ultimately, how a line item for hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Fort Lawton Security and Maintenance Costs” ended up in this year’s city budget.

Gonzalez was the one who noticed the eye-popping number—the Office of Housing and the Department of Finance and Administrative Services are each responsible for about $167,000 in 2019 and $172,455 in 2020—and asked OH director Steve Walker about it. “Throughout 2018, the city took responsibility for maintaining that property, as opposed to the Army maintaining that property, and that was part of the Army’s way of saying, ‘You guys are taking a long time and it’s costing us a lot of money. If we’re going to extend this window of opportunity for you, we want you the city to own those costs,’ and we agreed to do so.” Budget director Noble said the city isn’t in a great position to ask the Army to take on more of the costs to secure the property, given that the city was supposed to build housing there years ago, but added that if the city does manage to reach a deal to develop Fort Lawton, the Seattle public school district—which hopes to purchase some of the property—would be on the hook for some of the costs that the city is incurring now, so “we may even get a rebate.”

“We have two bike lanes in Seattle in District 5 that aren’t even used —125th and, barely, Roosevelt. … Some neighborhoods just don’t need bike lanes—it  just doesn’t make sense to have them.” —District 5 city council member Debora Juarez

• And—What Else?—Bike Lanes

Council member Debora Juarez, who appears to view bike and pedestrian safety improvements as a zero-sum game, sounded frustrated when her colleague Sally Bagshaw talked about the need to connect bike lanes in her downtown district so that people will feel safer riding bikes. (Last year, the percentage of commuters riding their bikes downtown actually declined.)  Juarez said she had “a different take on bike lanes than council member Bagshaw.” Then she unloaded on the idea of spending money on bike lanes in her North Seattle district when many areas don’t even have sidewalks. (This is a perennial complaint about North Seattle that stems largely from the fact that the area was built without sidewalks and annexed to the city in the 1950s.)

“We have two bike lanes in Seattle in District 5 that aren’t even used —125th and, barely, Roosevelt,” Juarez said—a claim that was immediately refuted by North Seattle cyclists on Twitter. “So I’m going to ask you to be accountable to us, to tell me how you’re justifying those bike lanes and their maintenance, particularly when I heard some numbers about … how much are we spending per mile on a bike lane… Was it $10 million or something like that?” This misconception (and it is a misconception) stems from the fact that the city’s cost estimates for bike infrastructure also include things like total street repaving, sewer replacement and repair, streetlight relocation and replacement, sidewalks, and other improvements that benefit the general public. Although bike lanes make up only a fraction of such estimates (a fact that should be obvious, given that simple bike lanes involve nothing more than paint on a road), many opponents of bike safety improvements have seized on the higher numbers to claim that bike lanes are many times more expensive than their actual cost.

Juarez continued, noting that her constituents have griped that bike lanes do not have to go through a full environmental review under the State Environmental Protection Act (a review intended to determine whether bike lanes are bad for the environment). “If you’re just putting them in to slow down traffic, then tell us you’re putting in something to slow down traffic,” Juarez said, adding, “Some neighborhoods just don’t need bike lanes—it  just doesn’t make sense to have them. In some neighborhoods, it does make sense to have them. I wasn’t around when the pedestrian bike plan was passed, but I am around now, and I do have a base that … are still scratching their heads [avout] why there are particular bike lanes and what their costs are.”

The council will hold its first public hearing on the budget at city hall (400 5th Ave.) at 5:30pm this Thursday, October 4.

Claim: Affordable and Family Housing Proposal Would “Cause Irreparable harm to the Entire Phinney Ridge Neighborhood if

Two Phinney Ridge homeowners—longtime Phinney Ridge Community Council activist Irene Wall and former Seattle City Council central staffer Bob Morgan—have filed an appeal in King County Superior Court seeking to stop a proposed 55-foot-tall, five-story apartment building at 70th and Greenwood. The land use petition claims that a site-specific zoning change approved by the city council earlier this month is illegal and will allow developer Chad Dale to construct a building that is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood. Wall and Morgan filed their petition after the city’s hearing examiner rejected their arguments and recommended that the council adopt the rezone.

The site of the proposed development, where a long-closed Oroweat Bakery outlet used to stand, abuts a single-family area and is flanked by lots where 40-foot-tall apartment buildings are already allowed. Under the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would require developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for denser zoning in designated urban villages like Greenwood Ave., the entire site and the adjoining land are supposed to be upzoned to allow 55-foot buildings. That upzone, however, is also being delayed by homeowner litigation—which is why the council granted the contract rezone, allowing the project (in play since 2016) to move forward.

Support

Although the project isn’t subject to MHA rules, the developer plans to participate in the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which provides a 12-year tax break to developers who agree to set aside 20 percent of units to people making less than 80 percent of the Seattle median income. Sixty percent of the units would have two or more bedrooms—a rare commodity in Seattle, where most new apartments are studios and one-bedrooms—and there would be less than one parking space per unit. That’s another likely point of contention in a neighborhood where activists have consistently and adamantly argued against developments that fail to provide  far more parking than the city requires, though not an argument Wall and Morgan make directly in their land use petition. Phinney Ridge homeowners successfully stalled a proposed four-story apartment building down the street from the building Wall and Morgan are suing to stop, arguing in appeal after appeal that the new apartments would block neighbors’ sunlight, lead to noise from rooftop parties, and make it impossible for homeowners to park their cars on the street.

 

 

In their petition, Wall and Morgan argue that there isn’t enough of a  height transition between the proposed 55-story developments and adjacent single-family houses directly behind the Greenwood Avenue property;  that the new building would “block Olympic Mountain views from the commercial lots to the east’; that a five-story building would restrict neighbors’ access to “light and air”; and that, furthermore, any building on Greenwood Avenue that’s adjacent to a single-family lot on either side of the street should be kept as small as possible—in this case, the current, pre-MHA 40 feet. “The Council’s approval of the 7009 contract rezone … allows for construction of a five story building right on the property line shared with the single family zone (except for a minimal setback on the fifth floor) when the Code requires a gradual transition between zones and specifies substantially greater setbacks,” Wall and Morgan’s petition says, creating “a structure out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.”

The argument that mixed-use apartment buildings are inappropriate for commercial corridors located directly on bus lines, such as Greenwood Avenue, is particularly bitter, given that the city kept urban villages as shallow as possible—typically the half-block immediately adjacent to major commercial arterials—specifically at the request of single-family neighborhood groups, which did not want apartments to encroach on the city’s exclusive single-family areas. (This happened during the vaunted neighborhood planning process of the 1990s, whose result was that nearly two-thirds of the city’s buildable land are preserved exclusively for single-family housing.) Now, that decision to ban apartments from all but a sliver of the city’s residential land is being used to justify a legal challenge that would restrict developers’ ability to build apartments on that sliver.

The petition asks the King County Superior court to place a stay on the council’s legislation allowing the rezone on the grounds that, if the project were allowed to move forward (after being on hold for two years, thanks largely to Wall and Morgan’s repeated appeals), it would “cause irreparable harm to Petitioners and the entire Phinney Ridge neighborhood.”

The J Is for Judge: Yes, Capitol Hill Has Changed. For the Better.

I was bummed when Seattle’s music community rallied around the Lesser-Seattle cause of saving the Showbox because I believe cities need the arts and their artists to be forces for progressive policy, not forces of obstruction.

Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard emerged as the frontman of that parochial crusade, which prioritized nostalgia over housing and embraced the knee-jerk narrative that development is bad.

The  housing/retail high rise that was supposed to replace the two-story Showbox would have generated more than $5 million for affordable housing in one fell swoop under the city’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability policy. It also would have provided hundreds of housing units in one of Seattle’s densest, most transit-rich neighborhoods.

I’m rehashing the Showbox issue because it turns out—judging from the unofficial, version of Death Cab for Cutie’s recent video, “Gold Rush,” (shot among cranes on Capitol Hill)—loopy nostalgia isn’t limited to one-off preservation crusades. If there was a Grammy for NIMBY politics, Death Cab would have it locked.

I don’t mean to be to hard on Gibbard. His explanation of the song on NPR was evocative and poetic. “The song is not a complaint about how things were better or anything like that…It’s an observation, but more about coming to terms with the passage of time and losing the people and the moments in my life all over again as I walk down a street that is now so unfamiliar.”

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

But at this tense and critical moment both nationally and in Seattle, where the populist inclination to be aggrieved by what’s “unfamiliar” can translate into harmful, exclusionary ideologies, it’s worth taking the politics of this local anthem to task.

I’m not exaggerating when I say “Gold Rush” is a NIMBY anthem. After lamenting how developers are tearing down his old haunts in favor profits and parking—“they keep digging it down/down so their cars/can live underground”—here’s the plaintive refrain:

“Change/Please don’t change/Stay/Stay the same”

When Gibbard uses parking as a trope to represent evil developers, he reveals that this song’s phoned-in politics are ill-informed. Sure, it worked for Joni Mitchell in 1970; back then, cities were, in fact, catering to cars with a set of messed-up priorities that we’re still trying to undo today.

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

Most notably, the city has tied the new development Gibbard deplores to reformed parking rules that dramatically reduce the amount of parking.  Check it out: Between 2004 and 2017, the average number of parking stalls for each new apartment unit has actually decreased from 1.57 to 0.63—a 60 percent drop.  And, according to the city, 30 percent of new apartment buildings have no parking at all.

In Capitol Hill, the setting for Death Cab’s mournful video, this progressive trend toward less parking might have something to do with all the groovy change that has come to the neighborhood: A light rail station opened on Broadway and John in 2016, the streetcar came online in 2015, and protected bike lanes on Broadway opened in 2014. None of this green infrastructure existed in the good old days, which are commemorated by an old gas station on the corner of Broadway & Pine. Meanwhile, hundreds of units of affordable housing are in the pipeline thanks to MHA and the new transit-oriented development blueprint for the neighborhood. One of the projects will have 308 units with no more than 20 parking stalls, or a maximum of one stall for every 15 units.

Certainly, Capitol Hill isn’t they gay enclave it was in the 1980s. But what hasn’t changed on Capitol Hill? There are tons of places—more than ever, it seems—for artists to play music and show their art. (There are even pizza places that stay open past 10:45 pm now!) Yes, it’s harder for artists to pay rent on Capitol Hill, but there are more opportunities for artists to be artists on Capitol Hill. And there’s a way to ensure artists can have housing in the city: By building more housing in the city.

Anti-Density Activists’ Race and Social Justice Gotcha Backfires

In blue: The parts of the city where apartments are illegal. (h/t @sharethecities)

SCALE, a group made up primarily of activist North End homeowners, is suing the city to prevent the implementation of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which—in addition to allowing increased density in multifamily areas around the city—would allow duplexes, townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings to be built on six percent of the land currently zoned for exclusive single-family use. In exchange for the right to build about one story higher than what’s currently allowed in these areas, developers would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into a fund to build affordable apartments elsewhere. The city has already implemented MHA in a number of areas, including the University District, South Lake Union, and downtown, where Showbox fans are trying to stop one of the first developments proposed under the new rules.

Since the beginning of its drawn-out attempt to kill MHA, SCALE has mischaracterized the plan as a citywide upzone, which it is not; currently, two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land is reserved exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, and MHA would only remove a tiny sliver of land at the edges of those areas, adjacent to “urban villages” and “urban centers” that are already dense and well-served by transit. As council member Debora Juarez said last week, “with that six percent, what we’re trying to do is right a historical wrong”—that is, racist redlining—”because we know that for people of color, marginalized communities, refugees, and immigrants,  in order for us to build wealth, we need to have a home.”

Historically, SCALE and its leaders—who include Toby Thaler, head of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, Bill Bradburd, a onetime city council candidate who called the city’s entire Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda “dumb,” and Sarajane Siegfriedt, a longtime Lake City neighborhood activist —have argued that townhouses and small apartment buildings violate the “historic character” of single-family areas. But last month, they switched tactics, portraying themselves as social justice advocates and defenders of low-income communities. Making their case to hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, SCALE argued that the city failed to consider feedback about the impacts of expanding urban villages on low-income people and people of color in conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) about the proposal, and then tried to bury that feedback.

In fact, the city spent the better part of a year doing outreach to nontraditional neighborhood groups and marginalized communities to find out their concerns about the potential impacts of MHA and wrote a final EIS that responded explicitly to those concerns, changing the zoning mix in neighborhoods with a high risk of displacement in an effort to help people stay in those communities.

SCALE’s evidence for the supposed coverup: A single letter from a group of city employees, known as the Race and Social Equity Team, who were charged with reviewing the city’s draft environmental impact statement for the MHA plan through a race and social justice lens. Their report (pages 9-18), which was submitted several months after the end of the public comment period for the draft version of the plan, suggested that the city needed to go further than it did in the draft EIS to address the race and social justice impacts of upzoning low-income neighborhoods where people of color are concentrated.

Support

“A number of honorable city employees conducted a thorough review of the race and social justice equity aspects of the EIS, but the city executive administration ignored their work,”  Thaler said at a special city council meeting on the plan last week. “There is no explicit reference in the EIS to [race and social justice at all.. … Read the record! This is a coverup!”

The letter, submitted by Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections staffer Dan Nelson on behalf of staffers at several city departments, says the draft EIS “did not consider race as deeply” as other factors related to housing affordability, and suggests that the city should collect  “qualitative information” from community residents about what historic resources and cultural assets they consider most important and vulnerable to displacement as MHA moves forward, and to continue doing so on an ongoing basis as MHA proceeds.

There is ample reason to do this kind of analysis. Historically, zoning (both official and unofficial, through policies that redlined people of color out of the most desirable areas of Seattle and cities across the country) has been used as a tool of discrimination against people of color in cities. In order to avoid perpetuating that legacy, race and social justice must be considered carefully as part of every land-use decision the city makes. The city also, it must be said, has not made this a top priority until relatively recently; Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, an effort to programmatically eliminate institutional racism within the city itself and in city policies, still has not been fully implemented 13 years after it was adopted in 2005. Many of the recommendations in the race and social equity team’s letter involve addressing race and social justice proactively in the future, not just with MHA but with other policy initiatives that impact communities of color. Undeniably, this is an area where the city still has work to do.

Looking only at MHA, however, it’s important to note that contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released. The letter, which reflects concerns about the draft version of the document—namely, that it did not adequately consider the plan’s potential for driving people and institutions out of their neighborhoods through physical and economic displacement—was just one of dozens of responses from community groups, committees, and interest groups across the city, whose extensive feedback is summarized here.

The MHA process included many new kinds of community outreach—led by former neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland—aimed at reaching communities that have been poorly served by traditional neighborhood groups like the neighborhood councils that make up most of the SCALE “coalition”.  I covered a number of these, including the city’s new community liaison program and Community Involvement Commission, last year.

Contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released.

Taking all that feedback into consideration, the city then changed the proposal between the draft and final versions to explicitly discourage high-intensity development in areas that were determined, through a separate process called the Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis, to have both a high risk of displacement and low access to economic opportunity, which tend to be neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income people and people of color. (“Displacement risk” was determined by factors such as race, ethnicity, and “linguistic isolation,” according to the city.) At the same time, the final EIS emphasized development in areas with a low risk of displacement and high access to opportunity—the same north-of-I-90 neighborhoods, in other words, where most of SCALE’s members own houses.

The changes the city made between the draft and final EIS came response to direct community feedback, independent of the letter from city employees that SCALE considers its smoking gun. Those changes include:

• Reducing the amount of new housing that can be built in several areas where community members raised concerns about displacement, including the 23rd and Jackson-Union, Othello, and Rainier Beach residential urban villages;

• Increasing the zoning capacity in areas that have historically excluded low-income people and people of color—defined in MHA as places with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity—such as the Admiral residential urban village in West Seattle and the Ballard hub urban village, to encourage more development in those areas; and

• Amending the EIS between the final and draft version to explicitly direct the city’s office of housing to spend payments collected for affordable housing from developments in high-displacement risk neighborhoods into affordable housing in those neighborhoods.

Last month, SCALE rested its case before hearing examiner Ryan Vancil with testimony from, among others, Maria Batayola, a former Beacon Hill resident who testified that she has lived in Bellevue for four years but who still chairs the Beacon Hill Community Council’s land use committee. Batayola testified that her group joined SCALE in its lawsuit because they believed the city had failed to consider race and social justice in deciding which areas would receive upzones under MHA. But on cross-examination from an attorney with the city, Batayola said that she thought Nelson’s letter, and the Race and Social Equity Team’s report, were in response to the final document, not the (substantively different) draft. (Under questioning, Batayola reversed herself. She did not discuss the changes the city had made since the first version of the EIS.)

The hearing on SCALE’s lawsuit will continue later this month, and will likely last well into September; MHA can’t move forward until the lawsuit is resolved. Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues. Every day that MHA is not in place, the city loses out not only on opportunities to address the ongoing shortage of market-rate housing, it loses out on funding for affordable housing as well—a slow drip-drip-drip that adds up to millions of dollars in lost housing opportunities.

Whether restricting the creation of housing—any type of housing—will work as a long-time anti-displacement strategy is, of course, another question—one that city council member Teresa Mosqueda posed at last week’s meeting. “I still struggle with the terminology that if we were to do more development—again, through the community lens, led by community organizations and neighborhood leaders who who can talk about the type of housing that they’d like to see—we can actually benefit by seeing increased housing and density requirements in some of these areas that are being called at risk of displacement.

“If they are at risk of displacement, then [it seems like] we would like to see more opportunities for folks to live in those areas and not get pushed out,” Mosqueda concluded.

Note: This post originally identified the Fremont Neighborhood Council as the Fremont Neighborhood Association.

The J Is for Judge Responds to the Stranger’s Showbox Nostalgia

The Stranger took issue yesterday with my debut column at the C is for Crank where I challenged the nostalgic movement to save the Showbox.

In the column, I argued that knocking down the Showbox to build apartments downtown wouldn’t just replace a two-story building with hundreds of units of sorely needed housing. It would also generate $5 million for affordable housing in one fell swoop. That’s nearly 11 percent of what the Stranger-supported (and since-repealed) head tax would have raised to address the housing crisis over the course of an entire year.

I pointed out that the city has lots of cultural spaces (including music venues) and that sentimental attachment to the Showbox isn’t a legit policy reason to stop a perfectly legal development. I’d add: It’s a slippery subjective standard to shut down new housing because Stereolab once played at the Showbox. Do we want to set the NIMBY precedent that sentimental value is more important than housing?

The Stranger pointed out that in using the numbers from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture survey, I cited a countywide number for cultural spaces (1,132) instead of the Seattle-only number (821). It’s true. I did. Or put another way: Seattle is currently home to more than 70 percent of the region’s cultural spaces, making us the region’s cultural Mecca.

The Stranger should check its own packed arts calendar. This city is hopping. 

Meanwhile, the Stranger misrepresents me, implying I said there were 121 Showboxes out there. Nope. I said: Saving the Showbox won’t make you 21 again, but there are plenty of places for 21-year-olds to see shows in 2018. The Stranger should check its own packed arts calendar. This city is hopping.

My favorite packed show this year was seeing Stas Thee Boss with JusMoni and Falon Sierra at Chop Suey earlier this summer.

The Stranger article goes on to make the case that the answer to our housing crisis is to build more housing all over the city. I agree. I’ve been arguing that point for nearly 15 years, explicitly noting (back in 2004!) that an out of whack 60-plus-percent of the city is reserved exclusively for single-family housing.

However, saying we need to add more development capacity doesn’t mean we ought to stop development where it’s currently allowed—even if we personally like a business that’s currently there. Arguing against development downtown by saying it should go somewhere else is straight-up NIBMYism. I’ll leave the NIMBYism to the Stranger and say: More units and $5 million for affordable housing please.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t report that the Stranger takes ad money from the Showbox; the paper is currently running a full-page, full color ad from the club.  Stranger publisher Tim Keck would not tell me how much revenue his paper makes annually from Showbox advertising. To be clear, I’m not saying the Showbox called Keck and Keck told his reporter to write pro-Showbox articles. I was news editor at the Stranger for nearly a decade back in the 2000s, and I can tell you there’s nothing that tacky or nefarious going on. In fact, my experience was that Stranger  writers were given a great deal of freedom and independence. However, that independence existed within a business model that was financially symbiotic with successful clubs and nightlife culture leading us to go all in on night life issues like fighting the Teen Dance Ordinance.

Watch for the next installment of the J is for Judge here at the C is for Crank next week.

Looking for Common Ground Between Anti-Tax and Pro-Housing Advocates

During the overheated debate about the head tax—a tax on high-grossing businesses that would have funded housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population—it was easy to see the overlap between neighborhood groups that opposed the head tax and neighborhood groups that oppose zoning changes on the grounds that density will ruin the “character” of their exclusive single-family neighborhoods. Anxiety about visible homelessness and anxiety about visible renters often takes a similar tone: Spending on homelessness will encourage more of “those” people to come to Seattle, and allowing triplexes or apartment buildings in single-family areas will allow more of “those” people to live in “our” neighborhood. As SEIU 775 president David Rolf told the Seattle Times , the companies that funded the head tax repeal campaign “targeted conservative voters, residents who miss old Seattle and people upset over street camping, among others. ‘They figured out how to knit those groups together[.]'”

At the same time, I noticed a surprising counter-trend among some head tax opponents: While they expressed many of the same reasons as traditional neighborhood activists for opposing the tax (bad for business, the city needs to show progress before we give it more money, and so forth), they also argued that the city should open up its restrictive zoning codes to allow more housing in all parts of the city—an idea that’s anathema to most traditional neighborhood groups. (The first time I heard this argument, as it happened, was during an over-the-top vitriolic town hall meeting in Ballard, from a guy who kept screaming directly in my ear, “NO HEAD TAX! CHANGE THE ZONING!”) This is an argument you hear all the time from urbanists and YIMBYs—who, generally speaking, support policies that encourage more housing at every income level—but I’d never heard it coming to someone who opposed a tax that would have paid for housing. I wondered: Could this be a rare area of common ground between anti-tax and pro-housing advocates?

So I put a call out on Twitter, asking people to contact me if they opposed the head tax and supported reducing restrictions on where housing could be built in Seattle. Quite a few people got back to me, and I had a number of interesting offline conversations from people who didn’t want to be quoted, but who gave me some hope that even in the absence of new revenues to address our current crisis (revenues, I should add, that I still think are desperately needed), progress is still possible.  This isn’t data—the people who responded, all men, represent a tiny, self-selected slice of the larger group of Seattle residents who oppose the head tax and support density—but it is an interesting look at why at least some people who opposed this specific tax are open to other solutions, and why increased density might be an area where people on both sides of the head tax issue can agree.

“Deliberately Divisive”

Mark (not his real name) is a thirtysomething tech worker and longtime Seattle resident who lives on Capitol Hill. He considers himself socially liberal and fiscally conservative—the kind of person who votes for taxes if he thinks they will make an actual, measurable dent in solving the problem they’re supposed to solve. Mark says he opposed the head tax because the spending plan for the tax failed to identify how it would address different homeless populations with different needs (people in active addiction or with debilitating mental illness will need different approaches than, say, someone who has just lost their job and is living in their car); because the city isn’t acknowledging or addressing the problems created by tent encampments; and because he doesn’t trust the city council, particularly Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant, to spend the money well.

“In my time as a Seattleite, I’ve never seen council members as deliberately divisive as those two, and they’ve fractured the council into a group of individuals who can’t actually accomplish anything. I miss folks like Tim Burgess and Nick Licata (and on the KCC side, Dow Constantine). I often disagreed with their opinions, but they were truly interested in talking with everyone and doing what was best for the city,” Mark says. He believes that O’Brien and Sawant “would rather fund an  ineffective solution than release information that reveals it’s ineffective, and continue to willfully ignore encampments as long as homelessness or even affordable housing hasn’t been solved.”

Mark says he would “love to see …  a significant city-wide upzone.” He believes 2015’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which recommended upzoning a tiny sliver of Seattle’s single-family areas, is “laughably inadequate” and that the “grand bargain,” in which developers agreed to pay into an affordable housing fund (or build affordable housing on site) in exchange for higher density, has failed. “The HALA Committee proposal left too much of the city untouched, and what was passed was a notch above nothing.” While it’s reasonable to debate the maximum height of buildings in different areas, he says, “What isn’t reasonable is the city acting like it’s still 1995 (and yes, I lived here then), nor using its own policies to protect certain groups at the expense of others. Just like it would be insane for the city to say ‘You can’t build a single family house here,’ it’s insane to say ‘You can’t build a multifamily building here.'”

“At some level, we need to acknowledge that not everyone who wants to live in Seattle is going to be able to afford it, let alone be able to afford a place they want to live in. I’d love for that threshold to be as low as we can practically make it; IMO, re-zoning is the single biggest impact we can make on that, followed by allowing smaller units (pods), and incredibly, both of those are free to do.”

Support

“There Is No Plan”

Neil, who owns a duplex and four-unit apartment building on Beacon Hill (and lives, with his wife, in one of the apartments), has worn a lot of hats in his life: Business owner, CPA, landlord—he even ran a “distressed fishing lodge” in Alaska for a number of years. An independent who mostly votes for Democrats, he says he has supported most of Seattle’s recurring tax levies, but voted against the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure “because of my frustration with recent governance in Seattle, and [because] the $50 billion price tag was too big to decipher.”

Neil says the main reason he opposed the head tax was because it was “too small,” because it applied only to a narrow group of businesses (those with gross receipts above $20 million a year), and because he did not have confidence that the city council and the progressive revenue task force that recommended the tax were starting with the right goals or had the right expertise for the job. “The annual tax raised by the original [head tax] proposal [during last year’s budget discussions] was $24 million, then it was $75 million but really needed to be $150 million but they settled with $47 million.  My observation: The council concentrates more on how much money they can generate rather than what is needed and how it will be used.  Whether real or perceived, it feeds the narrative of ‘there is no plan,'” he says. Additionally, he says, council members and advocates who campaigned for the head tax by vilifying Amazon were being “cynical and destructive to the well being of Seattle. … Good policy should stand on its own, at least in principle.”

Neil, unlike Mark, doesn’t support major citywide upzones; he thinks that allowing more attached and detached accessory dwelling units (backyard and basement apartments) in single-family areas, and implementing the HALA recommendations throughout the city, will do a lot to address the current housing shortage. “Personally, I am fine living in and amongst apartments,” he says.  “But my situation is unique and we are not surrounded by five-story buildings.  ADU[s and] DADU[s] seem to be low-impact personal housing alternatives. [They] also promote investment and vitality at a neighborhood level.”

“We Need WAY More Density”

Jeff, a software engineer who has lived in Seattle twice, for a total of about 15 years, owns a house in the Green Lake/Roosevelt area, on a block where two single-family homes are being torn down and replaced with larger single-family houses. He says that although he has consistently voted to raise taxes for housing, education, and transportation, he opposed the head tax because he “disliked the ‘stick it to the rich’ sentiments behind” it, and believes it punishes high-grossing, low-margin businesses, like grocery stores and restaurants. (Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s hamburger chain Dick Spady, made this argument in his PR campaign against the tax, for which his consulting firm was  paid at least $20,000).

Jeff believes that, had the head tax passed, companies might choose to locate in the suburbs, rather than in the city proper, working “against the trend towards a higher density city, which is the direction I think we should be moving in. ”

“I think we need WAY more density,” Jeff says. “Traffic sucks, but high density should make transit more viable and also means there are enough people within walking distances to support local businesses without driving.” In particular, he says he would support removing “almost all” restrictions on basement and backyard apartments in single-family areas, allowing row houses and triplexes in those areas, getting rid of parking mandates for new developments, and reducing restrictions on efficiency apartments and rooming houses, which “traditionally have provided housing for low-income people.”

“For those currently on the street, even building complexes of semi-permanent buildings with sanitary facilities and availability to drug treatment would be a step up,” Jeff says. “I don’t know the costs and also there are some that wouldn’t want to go there, but people setting up camp in the parks and on highway medians isn’t acceptable for them or for everyone else.” Locking people up when they refuse to go into shelter or treatment is too expensive, doesn’t work, and leads to a lifetime of misery, Jeff says. “We can offer people something pretty good for much less than the cost of prison.”

“Upzone Like Crazy”

Andrew is a longtime Seattle resident who lives in a townhouse in South Seattle and works in finance for a telecomm company in Factoria. He says he’s “definitely on the liberal end of the spectrum—he voted for Cary Moon in the primary and general elections last year—but he “tend[s[ not to support the kinds of solutions provided by Kshama Sawant or Nikkita Oliver that engage in class warfare at the expense of good, progressive policy.”

Andrew’s concern about the head tax stemmed from the fact that it “appeared largely to demonize Amazon despite its broad impact on large headcount businesses that don’t necessarily share Amazon’s profit structure. … It is not, generally speaking, the fault of business that the city has not absorbed its growing population or kept housing in check,” he says. Another problem with the head tax, he says, was that its spending plan would have gone all-in on building new housing (which can cost more than $300,000 a unit) instead of spending more on less-expensive solutions like services, diversion, treatment, and rent subsidies until housing supply can catch up with demand.

To that end, Andrew says, “the city needs to upzone like crazy. … I honestly see no reason why all of the single-family zones in the city shouldn’t be upzoned to” low-rise 2 or low-rise 3, which would allow townhouses and two- or three-story apartment buildings. “My townhome has earned as much money in appreciation as I have at my six-figure job in the two years we’ve lived here” thanks in no small part to Seattle’s housing shortage, he says. “This is ridiculous rent-seeking and I don’t need it, nor does any other homeowner who bought in the good old days”. I would rather see housing prices decline to 2010 levels in the city if it meant that everyone had a place to live.”

“In my ideal world, people would be prohibited from living on the street because we had ample shelter, services, care, and support to provide to them through official channels. Only then do we have the right to chase them from view.”

“A More Collaborative Process”

Ian, a city employee who lives in a four-bedroom house in North Seattle with his wife, two children, elderly in-laws, and a roommate, has always voted for every housing, education, and transportation levy, but says he has started considering such measures more carefully in recent years, given the rising cost of living in Seattle. He opposed the head tax because of its potential to cause what he calls “collateral damage”—impacts on companies other than Amazon and “Big Tech” firms that could have easily absorbed the cost of the $275-per-employee tax.

For example, Ian says, “I have a friend who’s a longtime Nucor employee; apparently his management told them point blank that if the tax had passed in its original ($500) form, the plant would close. That mill’s been here for over a century and is not part of the reason why housing and living costs have skyrocketed, so why ‘punish’ them and their employees? How many other businesses like that would meet a similar fate?” Ian says he was also concerned that grocery chains would have increased prices to offset the tax, which would have disproportionately impacted homeless and rent-burdened people. (This was a point hammered home by head tax opponents, who frequently argued that the cost of groceries would go up if the tax passed. Before the head tax was repealed, a phone survey asked Seattle residents whether they would be more or less likely to support the tax if they knew it would raise their grocery prices.)

Ian, like  Neil, believes the progressive revenue task force was the wrong approach; if the city wanted to come up with a tax that would enjoy wide support, he suggests, they should have created  “a more collaborative process, like what happened for the minimum wage increase. I thought it was weird that the Council didn’t pursue a similar strategy for the head tax, and cagey that the Council seemed to avoid talking about which specific business would actually be affected outside of the tech industry.” As I noted after Amazon and other big businesses launched their formal campaign to kill the head tax, former mayor Ed Murray took a much different approach to passing the $15 minimum wage, bringing reluctant businesses, labor groups, and activists to the table to hammer out a compromise everyone was willing to sign off on before rolling it out in a press conference that featured some of the same players who gave thousands of dollars to the anti-head tax campaign.

Ian supports “eliminating single family residential zoning in its current form” altogether, but adds, “I don’t think that the market will solve affordability by itself; having worked in private sector construction management, I know for a fact that it won’t. Developers primarily want to build more expensive housing for incoming tech workers and that’s not going to change any time soon. But zoning changes could still have a significant effect on availability and pricing.” This is the argument made by many urbanists, who point out that if developers can’t or don’t provide huge amounts of housing at the high end to accommodate the thousands of new workers who move to Seattle every year, they will be forced to compete for existing mid-range housing, driving up prices all the way down the line. And today’s high-end housing is tomorrow’s mid-range housing. Ian also supports “open[ing] up City-owned land for dedicated low-income housing development, to help more people on the edge keep from falling into homelessness.” A new law that just went into effect this month allows government agencies, including the city, to provide land to housing developers for free if it fulfills a public purpose; this could lead to more housing on public land, and will, in theory, create an incentive for the city to hang on to property it owns instead of selling it to the highest bidder for a one-time profit.

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.

Support

Is It Time for Mixed Industrial-Housing Zones?

 

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

The full version of this story is available at Sightline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of the story at Sightline.org.