Dueling Motions Filed as Both Sides Prepare for Preliminary Hearing in Showbox Case Next Month

The owners of the Showbox building on First Ave. downtown filed a motion for partial summary judgment in its ongoing case against the city today, seeking to void an ordinance passed last year expanding the boundaries of Pike Place Market to include the two-story, unreinforced masonry building, which also houses a pawn shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a pub.

The motion argues that the ordinance, which halted the owners’ plans to sell the land to the Canadian apartment developer Onni,  violates the land owners’ due process and equal protection rights and constitutes an illegal spot rezone of a single property, and seeks to have the ordinance overturned immediately, whether or not the case goes to trial.

Back in 2017, as part of the pro-density Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the city council upzoned the Showbox property, along with others on First Ave, to encourage housing development downtown. The original plan for the property—a $40 million, 40-story apartment building—was exactly the kind of building the new zoning on First Avenue was meant to facilitate. When the plans became public, however, music fans—joined by council member Kshama Sawant and her supporters, who tagged Onni as a “greedy corporate developer”—rallied to “Save the Showbox” and the city council adopted legislation that prohibited the owners and Onni from moving forward with their plans.

The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building. AEG’s lease expires in 2021, and the company is under no mandate to renew.

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Also today, the city of Seattle filed its own motion asking a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the city council was within its rights to call “a brief time-out to preserve the status quo in light of news of the Showbox’s potential destruction” last August. That “time-out,” which was supposed to expire in July ,has since been extended another six months. Among other claims, the city’s motion argues that because the Pike Place Market extension doesn’t change the underlying 440-foot-high zoning (it just prohibits any changes to the existing, two-story building and the use of the building as a live-music venue  without the approval of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission), it doesn’t constitute an illegal spot rezone.

Neither the city’s nor the Showbox owners’ motion includes much that’s substantively new, but they do lay out some of the arguments that both sides are likely to raise if the case goes to trial.

One point that has not come up in previous court arguments is that if the reason people want to “Save the Showbox” is to preserve live-music venues (as opposed to, say, preserving a nostalgic set piece for people who miss how Seattle used to be in the ’90s), then they ought to be arguing to “save” the Triple Door, or Tula’s, or El Corazon—the latter two already threatened by redevelopment, and the former at risk by virtue of its prime downtown location.

For its part, the city is now arguing that the ordinance—which effectively prohibits the development of the prime downtown site as housing and preserves it as a two-story music venue in perpetuity—”is beneficial, not detrimental to the community and is consistent with comprehensive planning goals and policies.”

King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi will hear oral arguments from both sides at 10am on Friday, June 21.

 

Takeaways From Seattle’s Upzoning Endgame

After another epic committee meeting—lengthened, this time, not by public comment but by a barrage of amendments intended to chip away at modest density increases on the edges of urban villages—the city council moved one big step closer yesterday to finalizing the remaining citywide portion of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which has been in the works for the past four years. (MHA has already been implemented in several neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and parts of the University District).

City of Seattle

The plan, on the whole, is modest. It allows developers to build taller, denser buildings inside multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages, and expands some urban villages (areas where, under the neighborhood plans first adopted in the 1990s, density is intensely concentrated as a way of “protecting” single-family areas) to include about 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family use. One reason the plan is modest is that the upzones are small, generally increasing density by one zoning step (from Neighborhood Commercial-65, for example, to NC-75, a height increase of 10 feet) in exchange for various affordability contributions. The second reason is that by continuing to concentrate density along arterial slivers instead of legalizing condos, townhouses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings in the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential area that’s preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses, the changes can’t be anything but modest: 6 percent of 65 percent is still just a sliver.

Most of the amendments the council passed yesterday—generally with opposition from the two at-large council members, Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda, and District 5 (North Seattle) member Debora Juarez—were aimed at decreasing the size of even that tiny concession.

For example: All of the amendments proposed by District 6 representative Mike O’Brien in the Crown Hill neighborhood, as well as his proposal to create a new, entirely speculative protection for a strip of houses in Fremont’s tech center that some people feel might have historic potential, were downzones from the MHA proposal. O’Brien, who was unable to attend yesterday’s meeting, has said that the proposals to shrink MHA in Crown Hill and Fremont came at the behest of “the community,” and that they were all offset by increased density along 15th Ave. NW, making them a win-win for density proponents and the Crown Hill community. (Lisa Herbold, in District 1, made a similar argument for her own proposal to downzone parts of the Morgan Junction neighborhood from the MHA proposal, saying that “I feel really strongly that the work, not just that I’ve done with the community, but that community leaders have done with other folks that have engaged with this effort, should be honored.”)

O’Brien’s Crown Hill downzones all passed, along with corresponding upzones that will further concentrate density (to put a human point on it, apartment buildings occupied by renters) on the noisy, dirty quasi-highway that is 15th Ave. NW, where it intersects with NW 85th St.:

The intersection where “the Crown Hill community” says they will allow renters to live.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda—who told me before the vote that the revelation that 56 affordable units would be lost if all the downzones passed increased her resolve to vote against all of them—pointed out the environmental justice implications of banning renters in the heart of a neighborhood and restricting them to large buildings on busy arterials: “When we look at neighborhood changes that would squish the zoning changes to an area along 15th, which we know to be a high traffic area with noise and pollution… it doesn’t feel like an equitable way to best serve our community. … I think it’s important that we take the opportunity to create not just access to housing along 15th, but really talk about how we equitably spread housing throughout the neighborhood.”

District 5 council member Debora Juarez added, “Of course [residents of a neighborhood] can organize, and of course they’re going to find a way to opt out or reduce their responsibility or their role or how they would like to see their neighborhoods grow. I know what happens when you do that, because then the burden shifts to those neighborhoods that we are trying to protect particularly from displacement.” Although District 3 council member Kshama Sawant countered that the people in Crown Hill are largely “working-class homeowners” at high risk for displacement, citywide council member Lorena Gonzalez quickly put that notion to rest, pointing out that the city’s own analysis found that Crown Hill is a neighborhood with high access to opportunity and a low displacement risk.

O’Brien’s amendments passed 5-3.

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Other amendments that came up yesterday:

Although several of District 4 council member Rob Johnson’s amendments to reduce density in the Roosevelt and Ravenna-Cowen neighborhoods passed, a proposal to preserve a single-family designation for a single block of houses in Roosevelt failed, sparking some pointed comments from both Mosqueda and Gonzalez about the need to build housing near transit corridors and future light rail stations like the one four blocks from the block Johnson proposed keeping single-family. “We have to, as a city, either be committed to the urban village growth model or not, and to me this is an example where we need to be committed to that urban village growth strategy,” Gonzalez said.

• A proposal by O’Brien to reduce the proposed zoning along N 36th Street near the Fremont Troll statue by two full stops (from Low-Rise 3, which allows apartments, to Low-Rise 1, which allows townhouses), lost on a unanimous vote. Council members pointed out that not only is the street O’Brien wanted to downzone within spitting distance of high-tech companies like Google and Tableau, making it a prime location for new housing, the houses on it do not have any historic designation, which was one of O’Brien’s primary justifications for the amendment. “This is quite literally a dense area,” an exasperated Mosqueda said.

• A suite of Herbold amendments to reduces some of the proposed upzones near the West Seattle Junction, and the site of the future Link Light Rail station, from low-rise (1 through 3, depending on the lot) to residential small lot all passed. Herbold justified the downzones from the MHA proposal by noting that Sound Transit hasn’t finalized its alignment through West Seattle yet, and expressing her “commitment” to come back and adopt some kind of upzone in the area once they do. As she has before, Herbold suggested that not upzoning would be a cost-saving measure, because Sound Transit will have to purchase some land in the area for station construction, and land zoned for higher density typically costs more. When Juarez, whose district includes two future light rail stations (at Northgate and N. 130th St.), noted that her district clamored for more density around the stations, not less, Herbold said that Sound Transit currently has “three different options, and they’re spread across about 10 different blocks.” Mosqueda chimed in, saying that her “argument would be that it’s precisely because we have a new [light rail] line… that we should be doing everything we can now to raise the bar, so that when a decision is made [any new density] would be in addition to that baseline.

The committee declined to reduce a proposed height increase in southwest Delridge, in an area that, Herbold said, “provides a very wonderful view of Mount Rainier… in a low-income neighborhood in an area that doesn’t see a lot of city investment.” Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda pointed out that the downzone from MHA that Herbold was requesting wouldn’t actually reduce heights at all—the only difference would be how much low-rise housing property owners could build on private property—and District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw said she had been swayed by Mosqueda’s argument that the point of MHA is “build back in the opportunity for people to live in areas that they were excluded form living in.” However, Bagshaw added, she had already committed to supporting the amendment, which ultimately failed on a 4-4 vote.

• Two other Herbold amendments—one sweeping, the other potentially precedent-setting—are worth noting. The first, which supporters referred to as “the claw-back provision,” would nullify all the MHA upzones if a court overturns MHA’s affordability requirements at any point in the future. Mosqueda argued forcefully against the provision, saying, “I am not interested in sending a message that we would have some sort of moratorium [on development]. I think that could have adverse impacts on our ability to build affordable housing.” Johnson, who said that he “philosophically agreed” with Mosqueda, argued nonetheless that the amendment was “purely intent language”; it would only go into effect if a court overturned MHA’s affordability requirements in the future. That amendment passed.

The second, an amendment that triggers a new neighborhood planning process whenever “more than 25 percent of the [Morgan Junction] urban village could be affected by proposed zoning changes,” impacts a small area but could set a precedent for throwing MHA zoning changes (or other future zoning changes) back to community groups whenever they start to appreciably change the way an area looks and feels (which is, some might argue, the entire point of zoning changes). “I’m not hearing a rational basis for the establishment of a 25 percent benchmark,” Gonzalez said. “I’m worried about the establishment of a benchmark … based on a feeling or a sense that that that seems to be the right place to engage in the conversation. I’m not sure that’s wise policy. I’m not really sure how we even quantify what 25 percent” means.

That amendment passed 6-2, with Juarez and Mosqueda voting against.

The full MHA package passed the committee unanimously, with O’Brien absent. It now heads to the full council for a vote on March 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Jenny Durkan and citywide mobility director Mike Worden

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

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

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

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

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

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At Long Last, Council Takes Up Mandatory Housing Affordability Upzones

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

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

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

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

 District 1 (Lisa Herbold)

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

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

District 2 (Bruce Harrell)

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

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

District 3 (Kshama Sawant)

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

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

District 4 (Rob Johnson)

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

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

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District 5 (Debora Juarez)

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

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

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

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

District 7 (Sally Bagshaw) 

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

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

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

Morning Crank: Ruling Bolsters Housing Plan, Chides City for Failing to Do “Granular” Analysis Neighborhood Activists Demanded

1. Urbanists celebrated a ruling yesterday that could allow a long-delayed plan to increase density and fund affordable housing to move forward. The ruling by city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, which mostly affirms that an environmental impact statement on the plan was adequate, came in response to a challenge by a group of homeowners, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), who have long opposed the plan. The plan, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, would allow modest density increases in urban villages and urban centers, and would rezone six percent of the land current zoned exclusively for single-family houses—currently, two-thirds of the city’s land—to allow townhouses and small apartments. Developers who build under the new rules will have to include affordable housing in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund.

“This ruling is a step forward for more affordable housing in Seattle,” Durkan said in a statement. Meanwhile, Seattle for Everyone, the group that formed in 2015 to support then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, planned a celebration party and issued a statement, titled “Yay for MHA!” celebrating the ruling as “a win for affordable housing.”

We’ll see. Toby Thaler, the leader of the group that challenged the  Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), told the Seattle Times that he plans to keep fighting against the MHA legislation, although it was unclear in what venue (the courthouse or city council chambers) he intends to do so. (Thaler did not immediately return an email last night, but I will update this post if I hear back from him.) Meanwhile, the city will have to do more analysis of how allowing more density will impact designated city landmarks;  according to the ruling, the city failed to consider impacts on historic properties other than those on the National Register of Historic Places, which Vancil called inadequate.

“The more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.” — Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil

Vancil’s ruling also chides the city for failing to include detailed, “granular” analysis of the impact the zoning changes would have on individual neighborhoods in the environmental impact statement, and suggested that including this kind of analysis could have forestalled the whole drawn-out appeal. “[I]t is certainly the case, at least in part, that the choice not to tell a more detailed story of the City’s neighborhoods contributed to why the City faced a very protracted appeal and hearing process from representatives in many of its neighborhoods,” Vancil writes. “While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.”

Whether you believe that a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of the upzone’s impact would have made neighborhood opposition evaporate (dubious, given that challenging the EIS for a project is one of the most common obstructionist tactics in the Seattle neighborhood activist playbook), what’s undeniable is that while the upzones have been tied up in appeals, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing—and hundreds of units of market-rate housing needed for the thousands of people moving to Seattle every year—remained unbuilt.

“Unfortunately …  this appeal has cost Seattle at least $87 million worth of affordable housing that we could have brought in during the year since the appeal was filed,” council member Rob Johnson, who has led the charge for MHA as head of the council’s land use committee, said in a statement. (Johnson asked for this analysis last month). “Had we been able to adopt MHA across the city without this delay, more neighborhoods would be receiving the investment in affordable housing they need, and more families in our city would have an affordable place to call home.”

2. On Tuesday, Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan sent out a bombastic email blast (subject line: “Single-Family Rezone: Negotiation Rejected!”) announcing his intention to “proceed full-speed ahead in preparing and proving our case” against the city, in the ongoing battle over new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build basement and backyard units on their property.

The “negotiation” Kaplan’s email refers to is apparently a meeting he had on Monday with council member Mike O’Brien, who led the charge to liberalize Seattle rules governing backyard and mother-in-law units, about a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) concluding that the proposal would not have a detrimental environmental impact on the city. was sufficient to allow the long-delayed rules to move forward. The new rules, which would allow homeowners to add up to one unit inside an existing house and one detached unit in the backyard, subject to existing height and lot coverage limits, would produce about 2,500 additional units of housing citywide.

“Unfortunately, I must inform you that CM O’Brien has closed the door to negotiating.,” Kaplan wrote. “He relat[ed] to me unequivocally that the EIS spoke to all his issues leaving no room to consider any compromise.  He remains firmly entrenched in every line-item of his legislation to eliminate every Seattle single-family neighborhood without considering any important neighborhood, property, infrastructure or economic differentiations.  One-size-fits-all!” 

“In addition,” Kaplan’s email continues, “he shared his confidence that every councilmember firmly supports him and his legislation.  He left no door open and even told me directly that there was no reason for us to withdraw our appeal – nothing would change!”

On Wednesday, O’Brien put up a blog post responding to Kaplan’s email. (The post appears to have since been taken down.) In the post, O’Brien wrote that during their conversation over the weekend, “I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process.  Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable.  …If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing.  … Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.”

The email concludes with “a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications,” which, O’Brien says, represented “our friendly conversation as a divisive fight.  Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics.  As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.” 

Kaplan responded more warmly to comments Mayor Jenny Durkan made about the proposal over the weekend, at a community meeting on Queen Anne. According to the  Queen Anne News, when a constituent asked what should happen with the appeal, Durkan said “she’d like to get all parties in a room to hash out a compromise” rather than moving forward with the “litigation” process. (Kaplan’s challenge is currently before the hearing examiner, but litigation is an option if the hearing examiner rejects his argument that the FEIS is inadequate). Durkan, according to the Queen Anne News, expressed concern at the meeting that loosening the rules too much could “fuel a more expensive Seattle by letting people speculate on that land.” That argument—that “developers” will snap up single-family houses and turn the land into triplexes—is belied not only by the FEIS, which concludes, again, that the changes would result in just 2,500 new units citywide, but by the economic logic of development. To wit: If you’re a developer (or, as Kaplan and the mayor suggest, a “speculator”), are you going to build a house with a basement apartment and a small backyard cottage in a single-family zone? Or a 20-unit apartment complex in a multifamily area?

Kaplan did not attend the meeting with Durkan, but says that from conversations with another community council member who was there, “the take-away was that she [opposes] what I have called a one-size-fits-all rezoning of single-family throughout the city.”

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

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.

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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.”

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.

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“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Morning Crank: To Think Otherwise is Really Idealistic

1. Council members expressed concern and some skepticism Wednesday at a committee discussion of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to spend around $7 million in proceeds from the sale of a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on “tiny house” encampments and housing vouchers—so much concern and skepticism, in fact, that they decided to put off a decision on the tiny houses until mid-March, and could end up tabling the voucher program  as well.

Durkan’s proposal, called “Building a Bridge to Housing for All,” includes two one-time expenditures on homeless shelters and homeless prevention. The shelter funding, about $5.25 million, will initially be used to open a single “tiny house village” for chronically homeless women, but could ultimately be used to add as many as 10 new authorized encampments with a total of 500 tiny houses, across the city. According to city council staffer Alan Lee, each tiny house would cost about $10,500, a number that includes on-site security and 24/7 case management for residents (according to council staff, case management and other operating expenses for 500 tiny houses would cost the city about $500,000 a year.) Durkan has convened an “interdepartmental housing strategy” group to come up with a final proposal in June; Lee said at yesterday’s meeting that the numbers were intended to “give a very rough framework of what direction this money could go… whether or not that’s the strategy that comes out in June.” But it’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest that the strategy that comes out in June will include a heavy emphasis on tiny-house encampments;  Durkan even held her press conference announcing the Bridge to Housing program at the Seattle Vocational Institute, with two under-construction tiny housesas her backdrop.

The council’s finance committee agreed to hold off on the $5 million for a few weeks and vote on it, at the earliest, at the full council meeting on March 12. Meanwhile, they decided to move forward with the plan to spend $2 million on short-term housing assistance vouchers for a small number of people on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which recipients use to rent housing on the private market. (Or not—although landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against people who use Section 8 vouchers to pay their rent, it can be hard to find housing that fits the program criteria, including a maximum monthly rent of around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment in the Seattle area.) The assistance, which staffers estimated would work out to about $7,300 per household per year (about half that $1,200 maximum), would help just 150 of the 3,500 or so on the SHA waiting list for vouchers—those who make less than half the area median income and are at high risk of becoming homeless. (My earlier estimate, which worked out to a much lower per-month subsidy, was based on the assumption that the city planned to help 15 percent of those on the SHA waiting list, rather than 15 percent of a smaller subset of 1,000 wait-listed people in need of housing. The fact that the city’s estimates for monthly subsidies are higher reflects the fact that the $2 million it plans to spend will only help a relatively small number of people.)

Quite a few council members questioned the wisdom of moving forward with a housing assistance program without identifying a long-term funding source (the $2 million is a one-time windfall from the sale of city property), and some wondered whether the city should be spending its limited resources on people who aren’t actually homeless, instead of, say, the 536 people on SHA’s waiting list who are either actually homeless or unstably housed.

“What I’m concerned about,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said, addressing staff for the mayor’s office and SHA, “is that we’ve identified a gap in the system and are proposing to address that gap in the system in a short-term fashion with a finite amount of resources. … I guess I don’t have a level of confidence that in two years, we will have patched the gap in the system that you have identified. So if that gap still exists, then there will be an expectation created” that the city will continue to fund the program, even though the money has all been spent. To think otherwise, Gonzalez added pointedly, is “really idealistic.”

It’s unclear what the council will do next Tuesday. Of seven council members at the table, four—Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Mike O’Brien—abstained from voting to move the allocation of the $2 million (part of an ordinance meant to accompany a separate bill authorizing the sale of the property for a total of $11 million) onto next Tuesday’s full council agenda. Because abstentions aren’t “no” votes, the measure passed, with Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, and Rob Johnson voting “yes.”

2. The progressive revenue task force, which has been meeting for the past two months after the failure of a proposed employee hours tax, or “head tax,” last year, will hold its final meeting at 9am on March 1 in the Bertha Knight Landes Room at City Hall. The group is expected to propose a new version of the EHT rejected by the council during last year’s budget process, which would have required businesses with more than $10 million in gross receipts to pay an annual tax of $125 per employee. The task force held its penultimate meeting yesterday morning.

3. ICYMI: Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I was able to watch two simultaneous committee hearings—a meeting of the council’s planning, land use, and zoning (PLUZ) committee, to take comment on the city’s plans to upzone and require affordable housing in Northeast Seattle’s District Four, and a public hearing/rally against cuts to homeless shelters the city made last year—online. For about three hours, I whiplashed between a barrage of testimony against shelter cuts by council member Sawant’s army of invited supporters (as usual, she advertised her hearing with a “PACK CITY HALL!” invitation, turning what was ostensibly a council committee hearing into a standard Sawant protest rally) and public comments on zoning changes that ranged from earnest (the upzone, one speaker said, will allow “more neighbors to share the amenities” she already enjoys) to entitled (“I choose to live in Seattle,” a Wallingford homeowner said. “I like it. Other people want to live in Seattle too, and they want to take my spot”) to ridiculous (“It seems the department of planning has specifically targeted Wallingford for destruction of neighborhood character.”) If you missed the opportunity to follow along in real time (or if you just want to relive the whiplash) I’ve gathered my tweets in a Twitter Moment.

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

Morning Crank: Parking Reform, Density Delay Tactics, Election Funding, and More

A look back at some of the meetings I didn’t get around to covering last week:

1. Last week, as the city council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee began to discuss legislation that would overhaul parking requirements for new development around the city, council member Lisa Herbold argued that the city should do a more extensive study of parking demand before adopting parking reforms that could result in developments with less parking per unit. A 2012 King County survey of 95 existing buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, but Herbold wondered why the city hadn’t done a more recent survey, in the years since the council eliminated parking minimums in the densest urban areas. “If we’re going to be changing policies based on our perception of our success. I think it ‘s just helpful to have data about unused parking in buildings where we’ve been doing this for a while,” Herbold said. A council staffer countered that doing so would require the city to seek permission from landlords to get inside their garages in the middle of the night, and suggested that the data probably wouldn’t be much different than it was five years ago. According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the average apartment has 0.72 parking spaces, and the average demand for parking ranges from 0.3 to 0.8 parking spaces per unit.

Herbold also questioned the city’s conclusion that between 40 and 48 percent of Seattle renters do not own cars, citing a statistic showing that 77 percent of people living in multifamily units own cars, until a city staffer pointed out that that data was regionwide. And, in a letter to SDCI director Nathan Torgelson that was included in last week’s committee materials, she questioned whether rents would actually go down if parking was “unbundled” from rent, meaning that renters without cars could not be forced to pay for parking spaces they will never use, and suggested that “most parking is unbundled,” a conclusion Torgelson said wasn’t accurate. “[D]ata from 2017 indicate that in the region about 50% of apartment buildings… have parking bundled into the costs of rents,” Torgelson wrote—a number that is higher in the southern half of the city, an area that  includes Herbold’s West Seattle district.

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” (one measure that determines where apartments may be built without parking) to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes. Currently, if a bus is supposed to arrive every 15 minutes but it arrives one minute late once an hour, it doesn’t count as “frequent” enough to reduce or eliminate parking requirements; the new measure would average actual arrivals over time, to account for the fact that buses, like cars, sometimes get stuck in traffic.

The PLUZ committee will hold a public hearing on the parking reform proposals on February 21.

2. Reducing parking requirements for new buildings is one key element of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a plan to add housing, including affordable housing, across the city. Another cornerstone of HALA is a new requirement called Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers of multifamily housing to include units affordable for people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income, or to pay into a fund to build affordable units elsewhere. A group calling itself SCALE (the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity) has sued to force the city into a longer, more drawn-out environmental review process to assess the impact of MHA, and a representative from the group, longtime Lake City neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, gave a progress report to the Phinney Ridge Community Council last Tuesday.

Never has a room full of white North Seattle homeowners (most of them over 50, which I point out not to be ageist but as a sign of who generally has time to get super involved in neighborhood activism) acted so concerned about the fate of “large immigrant and refugee families” who would, Siegfriedt said, soon be unable to find houses for rent in Beacon Hill, Othello, and Rainier Beach if MHA went forward. “These are the only places where large immigrant families can rent,” Siegfriedt said, “so when we start talking about people living in single-family homes being exclusionary, well, that’s not true on the face of it. In fact, it’s a refuge.”

SCALE’s big objection to HALA is that it proposes allowing developers to build low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the nearly two-thirds of Seattle that is currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. These upzones, which are confined to areas immediately adjacent to already dense urban villages and centers, will help accommodate some of the 120,000 people expected to move to Seattle by 2035. Siegfriedt said that by forcing the city to do individual environmental assessments for every single neighborhood that would be impacted by MHA, SCALE hopes to “delay [MHA] a year or more—and I hope we could get neighborhood planning back on the table.”

3. On Friday, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee dug into the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to spend $2 million on rental vouchers for certain people at risk for becoming homeless. The program targets a subsection of people on the waiting list for Seattle Housing Authority Section 8 vouchers—federally funded housing vouchers that people can use to rent housing on the private market, as long as that housing is below the fair market rent set by HUD, currently around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. The $2 million is part of $11 million the city expects to see from the sale of a piece of land in South Lake Union that currently houses the city’s radio-communications repair shop; the rest of the proceeds (which also include an early payment  into the aforementioned MHA affordable-housing fund, for a total of $13 million) will pay to design a new fire station in South Lake Union, relocate the communications shop, and for “bridge housing” in the form of tiny houses and a seventh authorized encampment, this one for chronically homeless women.

To qualify for a temporary city voucher, a person must be on the SHA waiting list, currently housed but at risk of becoming homeless, and at or below 50 percent of area median income.

To give a sense of how many people who need housing and will actually be eligible for Durkan’s Bridge to Housing funding over the two years the pilot will be underway, consider: 22,000 people entered the lottery to get on SHA’s 2017 waiting list. Of those 22,000, just 3,500 won slots on the waiting list to get a voucher sometime in the next two or three years, or fewer than 16 percent. According to the city, about 15 percent of people on the 2015 waiting list were housed when they got on the list but became homeless. Using that figure, I extrapolated that (very roughly) 525 people on the current list are housed but at risk of becoming homeless. Extrapolating further, the average assistance for a person on this list works out to $158 a month over the two years of the pilot program. I’m sure there are factors I’m not accounting for—don’t @ me—but that’s a pretty paltry sum in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment now costs around $1,800.

4. It will be another month or so before the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission releases its first-year report on Initiative 122, the voter-approved measure that imposed new campaign contribution restrictions and authorized public campaign financing through “democracy vouchers” sent to every registered voter, but two of the unsuccessful candidates for city council Position 8 (won by Teresa Mosqueda) showed up at the commission’s meeting last Friday to offer their own takes on what worked, and didn’t, about the program. Jon Grant, who received the maximum possible amount of $300,000 in public funding for his race against Mosqueda, praised the program, calling it “an outstanding success—and you know I’m telling the truth because I’m the guy who lost.”

But Hisam Goueli, another “guy who lost” in the same race—he failed to make it through the primary—said if he ever ran again, he wouldn’t participate in the program. Goueli said he spent “several hours every day begging people to complete the process,” which required candidates to receive and have King County Elections validate at least 400 signatures, along with 400 contributions of at least $10, from registered voters, before they were eligible for public funding. Goueli said he was finally cleared to use democracy vouchers the day before the election—too late to do a mailing or a last-minute ad push. Because he had opted to participate in the democracy voucher program, Goueli was subject to smaller contribution limits—$250, as opposed to $500—than candidates who didn’t participate, but he never saw any of the benefits.

And “those people who had the most money in democracy vouchers”—Grant and Mosqueda—”still won the primary,” Goueli said. “The program is a cumbersome process, and even if you do it, it doesn’t limit big money” in the form of independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to restrict. Mosqueda, who was the political director at the Washington State Labor Council before joining the city council, benefited from about $200,000 in outside spending by unions.

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