Morning Crank: An Excuse to Remove Us Immediately

1. The city council’s approval of the HALA upzone in South Lake Union and downtown yesterday—which requires developers to make between 2 and 5 percent of their new units affordable, or pay a fee of up to $13.50 per square foot into an affordable-housing fund—played out pretty much as everybody expected it would. aAnti-development activists booed loudly and shouted “Shame!” when council members Rob Johnson and Tim Burgess spoke in favor of the legislation, the Raging Grannies sang, and Lisa Herbold proposed an amendment that would have required developers to contribute more to affordable housing, which lost.

Oh, and Kshama Sawant gave a speech.

But there were some familiar faces who were missing from today’s HALA hearing—namely, the single-family homeowners and erstwhile affordable housing advocates who turn out in droves (and even sue the city) when a proposed upzone threatens to allow apartments (or cottages) in their North Seattle backyards. When the U District upzone was up before the council, for example, homeowners from across North Seattle filled council chambers, decrying developers as heartless opportunists and demanding greater concessions in the form of large affordable housing mandates that would have made the upzone unworkable. And yet, when an upzone that actually constitutes more of a giveaway to developers, because it will require them to build less affordable housing than in any other upzoned part of the city, came up, they were nowhere to be found.

Weird. It’s almost as if they care more about preserving exclusive single-family zoning in their own neighborhoods than they do about making sure developers provide affordable housing in every part of the city.

2. Homeless residents of the West Seattle bridge encampment where an RV caught fire last week said they have been informed that the city will sweep their camp tomorrow morning at 9. The fire destroyed two RVs at the camp, which has been home to dozens of people in recent months. It was ruled an accident.

Rebecca Massey, who has lived at the encampment for the last eight months, told the council yesterday morning that the city was using the fire as “an excuse to remove us immediately.

“They’re offering a few individuals places to go, but most of the people that live there are not being told where to go—they’re just being told you have to leave,” Massey said. “The housing solution for the homeless is great, [but] it’s a long-term solution—it’s an eventual solution—and there’s people living under the bridge in my community that have been on the waiting list for housing for years.”

3. Council president Bruce Harrell, who would become mayor if Mayor Ed Murray were to resign in the wake of a lawsuit alleging he molested a teenage boy in the 1980s, said yesterday that the council would have no comment on the allegations, then went on to comment:

“Our city cannot afford to be distracted. There is a judicial process that will address the serious allegations that this situation has presented, and we will respect that process and the rights of all parties involved. All accusations of abuse require a thorough investigation. It is in our human nature to immediately want answers, but I ask we not cast aspersions to the parties involved before we have all the facts through the legal process. I am confident that through this process, truth and justice will prevail.”

Murray isn’t hiding from public view. Yesterday, he attended a naturalization ceremony at the downtown library (where he was trailed by multiple TV cameras) and went to the Mariners’ opening game.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The War on Immigrants Is a War on Cities

1. “The war on facts has become a war on cities.” 

That was Mayor Ed Murray’s latest volley in his own war against the Trump Administration, launched yesterday along with a lawsuit charging that Trump has no legal right to pull federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to enforce federal immigration statutes according to the new Administration’s harsh interpretation of those laws.

Yesterday, the mayor and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced they were filing suit against the US Justice Department, whose director, KKK apologist Jeff Sessions, announced this week that he would pull Department of Justice grants to cities that refuse to assist federal agents in tracking down and detaining undocumented immigrants. Seattle’s 2017 budget assumes $2.6 million in DOJ grants for domestic violence prevention, officer body cams, human trafficking prosecution, and more.

The lawsuit contends that Sessions’ order violates the 10th Amendment, by dictating the way the city enforces federal laws, and the Spending Clause from Article 1 of the Constitution, by attempting to coerce the city into aiding immigration agents by threatening to withhold federal funding if it doesn’t.

“We have the law on our side: the federal government cannot compel our police department to enforce federal immigration law and cannot use our federal dollars to coerce Seattle into turning our backs on our immigrant and refugee communities,” Murray said.

Trump’s war on immigrants is a war on cities because cities are made stronger, politically, culturally, and economically, by the presences of immigrants, and he’s waging that war because city values—diversity, inclusion, resistance, queerness, intellectualism, and unconformity—are anathema to his backward-looking vision of a nation united by fear and mutual distrust. Seattle is the first city to formally resist Sessions’ and Trump’s unconstitutional bullying by filing a lawsuit. If cities’ response to the last unconstitutional order targeting immigrants was any indication, we won’t be the last.

2. A Queen Anne homeowner’s dogged, well-financed effort to kill backyard cottages in Seattle won a victory that will further delay a proposal to make it easier for homeowners to build accessory units and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in the process.

This week, city council member Mike O’Brien announced that thanks to activist Marty Kaplan‘s successful effort to delay new rules that would loosen the regulations that currently make it prohibitively expensive for many homeowners to build accessory units, the city will do a full environmental impact statement to determine the impact accessory units will have on the city’s environment. The intuitively obvious conclusion would be that backyard cottages improve the environment, because they add density, which helps prevent suburban sprawl and reduce auto dependence. In addition, they allow homeowners to age in place, promoting multigenerational households and preventing the development of lot-line-to-lot-line McMansions that often sprout in neighborhoods when single-family properties change hands.

O’Brien proposed his backyard cottage legislation in May 2016. With any luck, he will be able to introduce new legislation sometime in the summer of 2018.

3. Bikesharing advocates will say goodbye to Pronto with a group ride tomorrow afternoon. Pronto riders will gather at 3rd Ave. and Broad Street at 5pm (there are two Pronto stations within two blocks, but the clunky green bikes are available all over downtown) and ride slowly up Capitol Hill, ending at a bar TBA. “Ed Murray’s house for bell ringing party optional.” Murray announced he was killing the money-losing bikeshare system in January.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Half a Loaf

sen-joe-fain

Sen. Joe Fain (R-47)

1. City council member Lorena Gonzalez reportedly hopes to introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would require businesses to provide paid family leave to their employees—a significant expansion of a new law, adopted on Monday after a months-long delay, guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid parental leave to city employees. (Employees who need time off to care for other family members can receive up to four weeks off).

Expanding family leave to private employees—as Gonzalez talked about doing when she ran for office in 2015—would likely be far more controversial, especially among small businesses and those that primarily employ service workers, than the city-employee-only law. But the real opposition may come from Olympia, where state legislators are considering a fairly toothless family leave bill that includes a preemption clause that prevents any city from adopting a family leave policy more generous than what the state requires.

The Republican-backed bill, sponsored by 47th District Sen. Joe Fain, would provide up to eight weeks of family leave, increasing up to a maximum of 12 weeks by 2023. Employees who took the time off would be paid just half of their regular wages (rising to a maximum of 67 percent in 2023), and the program would be funded entirely by employees’ own contributions, making it more of a self-insurance policy than an actual benefit. It also requires employees to work for 26 consecutive weeks for a single employer before they receive benefits—a requirement that Economic Opportunity Institute policy director Marilyn Watkins says doesn’t acknowledge the current economic reality, where many people work multiple jobs or switch employers frequently. “It just leaves a lot of people out who are going to end up paying the premium but are never going to meet the qualification to get leave,” Watkins says. “Why should we put things in there that we know are going to be problems—that we know are going to cause inequities?”

According to the bill, “Cities, towns, and counties or other municipalities may enact only those laws and ordinances relating to paid family leave that are specifically authorized by state law and are consistent with this chapter. Local laws and ordinances in existence on the effective date of this section that are inconsistent with this chapter are preempted and repealed.” That means that if the bill passes, any city law providing more leave (and it wouldn’t be hard) will be repealed.

Preemption bills like this aren’t uncommon; they pop up pretty much any time  Seattle passes or discusses progressive policies, such as rules allowing safe-injection sites, encampment sweeps policies that Republicans view as soft on homelessness, or a $15 minimum wage. What could be different this year is that Fain’s bill has bipartisan support; in addition to the usual Republican suspects like Michael Baumgartner (R-6) and Mark Miloscia (R-30), the bill is sponsored by Democrats like Steve Hobbs (D-44) and Guy Palumbo (D-1). A competing bill, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33), would provide more extensive benefits and does not include a preemption clause.

Fain said at a hearing last month that he hopes advocates recognize that “nobody ever went hungry on half a loaf”—meaning, some progress toward true paid family leave is better than none. But advocates may decide they want a full loaf after all, and take the family leave issue directly to voters if legislators offer them only crumbs.

2.  Miller Park Neighbors member Jonathan Swift, who emceed a Wednesday-night prep session for an upcoming city-sponsored meeting about proposed upzones in Northeast Capitol Hill—said he was interested in a balanced discussion. Then he characterized the two sides in the zoning debate as those who liked neighborhood character and those who didn’t. (A flyer distributed with anti-upzone talking points drove the point home, claiming that the  city’s proposal, part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), would “destroy the character of the neighborhood” and asserting that “family-sized housing is most appropriate.” )

Anti-HALA architect Greg Hill followed the soft-spoken Swit, telling the crowd of about 100 people that HALA was dominated by an unnamed “right-wing” group and insinuating that HALA, which calls for expanding the city’s urban villages and allowing more multifamily housing along transit corridors, is a sinister, profit-driven developer plot that will decimate Seattle’s environment by reducing the city’s tree canopy. In reality, building housing near transit is the definition of green urbanism, reducing reliance on cars, maximizing energy efficiency, and reducing water usage.

One of the few African-American people in the room—as HALA pointed out, single-family zoning tends to exclude people of color from “character”-filled neighborhoods like Northeast Capitol Hill—was Spencer Williams, a staffer for urbanist city council member Rob Johnson. Johnson has openly criticized Seattle’s brand of reactionary utopianism, which stars NPR-style liberals who denounce Trump for wanting to build a wall to keep newcomers out while defending zoning codes that have the same effect.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “We Are the Dakota Access [Pipe]line Tribe.”

Last night, the Mercer Island City Council voted unanimously to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), in part, to preserve the right of island residents to drive alone in the westbound I-90 HOV lanes.

The island has been fighting to preserve this highly unusual privilege for decades, despite the fact that the original agreement granting them special access to carpool lanes, signed in 1976, anticipates a future when transit lanes, or fixed-rail transit, will supplant some freeway lanes and require island residents to give up their access. (Mercer Island also wants its residents to be permanently exempt from tolls on I-90, to restrict parking at the Mercer Island park-and-ride serving light rail to Mercer Island residents only, and to prohibit bus transfers on the island, keeping the people who ride buses from deboarding in the wealthy enclave.) The lawsuit seeks to force the state and Sound Transit to grant all these privileges, which, as Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog has noted, would be “completely unique to Mercer Island.”

If you weren’t following along last night, I Storified all my tweets here.

2. Jan Angel, a conservative Republican legislator from Port Orchard, has introduced a bill that would prohibit cities from passing laws barring landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income—a proposal that would, if passed, slap down Seattle’s new law that says landlords can’t refuse to people because their income comes from sources like Social Security or unemployment, and requiring them to rent to the first qualified applicant. (The Seattle law also prohibits landlords from offering special deals to employees of specific companies, such as Amazon.)

That Angel has introduced such a bill is hardly news—in recent years, the conservative Republican has proposed drug testing for welfare recipients and business-friendly changes to the workers’ compensation system. What was surprising is who showed up to testify in favor of the anti-Seattle bill: Smart Growth Seattle lobbyist Roger Valdez, who once worked for a liberal environmentalist think tank, the Sightline Institute, and a liberal city council member, Peter Steinbrueck.

“At a time when demand for housing is outpacing supply, producers and operators of housing have faced an ever-expanding gauntlet of rules, regulations, fees, fines, inspections, infringements, and limitations that are confusing for both housing providers and consumers,” Valdez said. “It’s time for the state to take back the control. … What’s also important is that the mayor and council have pursued this improvisational regulatory spree with no consultation of housing developers, property managers, or anyone in the housing business whatsoever. None. That’s true. They have not talked with us at all. That’s why this was a problem.”

Sen. David Frockt (D-46) pointed out that developers were very much represented on the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee, which worked to create many of the rules Valdez was opposing so vociferously; in fact, supposed overrepresentation by developers is one reason many neighborhood groups and anti-development liberals oppose HALA. In a testy back and forth, Frockt challenged Valdez, who eventually allowed that the city did give developers a seat at the table, but that “sitting in the room on a large committee is not consultation.”

Historically, anti-discrimination laws have come from cities first before being adopted by the state; it is unprecedented for the state to adopt renter protection laws before they have first emerged at the municipal level.

3. Crank hears that another candidate may soon be jumping in the race for City Council Position 8, the citywide seat that Tim Burgess will vacate next year: Stephan Blanford, a Seattle Public School director who has focused on closing the achievement gap between black and white students in Seattle schools. Blanford, who was endorsed in his 2013 school board run by local Democratic groups and elected officials as well as the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce and former King County Executive Ron Sims, would join a crowded race that already includes 2015 Burgess challenger and tenant organizer Jon Grant and Washington State Labor Council policy director Teresa Mosqueda.

Grant sent out two job announcements this week seeking a campaign manager and an organizer; his campaign will rely heavily on the city’s new Democracy Voucher program, which provides $100 in vouchers for Seattle residents to donate to the candidate or candidates of their choice.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery

mike-o-brien-feb-10

1. City council member Rob Johnson caught flak last week from anti-density activists like John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, after questioning self-identified liberals who say they welcome immigrants and refugees and oppose zoning changes that would create more housing. Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, which Johnson directed prior to his election in 2015, Johnson said, “[I]t’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then, in the next breath, disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.”

Fox, along with fellow activist Carolee Coulter, wrote that Johnson’s comments were “intensely insulting and polarizing, not to mention wrong. He should be ashamed of himself.” Fox and Coulter compared Johnson to Trump; others who emailed me or made comments on my original post have complained that Johnson is comparing them to Trump supporters, the kind of people who chant “Build the wall!” at his Nuremberg-style election rallies. One Johnson constituent who wrote me called his comments “outrageously inflammatory and insulting”; another called it “a divisive and totally clumsy comparison coming from a white man of considerable privilege.”

I called Johnson Friday to see if he wanted to elaborate or clarify what he said last week. Speaking from a crowded bus on his way home to Northeast Seattle, Johnson doubled down. “We are a city that wants to welcome people of all races, all different economic statuses, and all different immigration statuses,” Johnson said. “If we’re truly going to be welcoming to all those different folks, we need to create more housing.”

Does he regret using the metaphor of Trump’s border wall? Not at all: “When we talk about zoning, we need to recognize that zoning is a metaphorical wall around communities. We need to talk about that. We also need to make sure that we understand the ramifications of the decisions that we make—when we choose to either rezone areas or not rezone areas, both of those decisions have real impacts.”

2. The Seattle Department of Transportation came to week’s transportation committee meeting armed with charts and stats showing that the city has made huge strides toward increasing the number of people who bike, walk, and take the bus to jobs downtown; a report from Commute Seattle last week showed that while the city added 45,000 jobs downtown, the number of car trips only increased by about 2,400 per day.

But SDOT staffers were confronted, first, by a disturbing litany of pedestrian injuries and deaths from Johnson and committee chair Mike O’Brien, who noted that even as the city has reduced the number of people who drive to work alone, it has not made similar strides toward eliminating pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries. In the past five weeks, O’Brien noted, six pedestrians have been seriously injured or killed by drivers. If that many people had been killed in the same period by gunshots, O’Brien said, “we would be convening task forces and committees to figure out what we need to do. And yet somehow, when it’s folks walking across the street or biking between jobs, it gets kind of buried in the news and we just go on about life.”

Noting that the city has committed to “Vision Zero”—that is, zero pedestrian deaths or serious injuries—O’Brien said he was asking SDOT to come back to the council in early March with a list of specific short- and long-term recommendations to address the city’s lack of progress. “We should have a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.”

3. Another number that jumped out at Friday’s briefing: 11 percent. That’s the percentage of Seattle residents who are eligible for a low-income transit pass, known as ORCA Lift, who have actually taken advantage of the program. In our conversation Friday, Johnson said the city should consider enrolling people in the ORCA Lift program when they sign up for other income-limited programs, the way the Seattle Housing Authority now enrolls tenants in the city utility discount program when they rent SHA apartments—or the way King County signed people up for the program when they signed up for the Affordable Care Act last year. “It just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do, not just in our marketing program—as I’m staring the side of the bus, there’s a huge ad for ORCA Lift—but in making sure that that marketing is getting through to the folks that need it most.”

How Seattle’s Well-Intentioned Planning Experiment Went Wrong

This post originally appeared on Next City; learn more about Next City and its mission here.

When the city of Seattle began drafting a proposal to increase density and improve housing affordability across the city, known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, city officials knew the plan would be controversial.

They also knew that if they didn’t have buy-in from residents, it would be difficult to pass the many interlocking pieces of legislation needed to implement the plan — legislation that includes citywide density and height increases, affordability requirements for new apartment buildings, and the expansion of areas where multifamily housing is allowed in this predominantly single-family city.

Finally, they knew current community involvement efforts weren’t working — meetings and public comment periods were dominated by homeowners from the city’s more affluent areas. Often, they came to the meetings because they opposed the HALA changes — and the city was well aware of their opposition. Now decision makers wanted to hear from everyone else — renters, immigrants and refugees, and people who live in lower-income neighborhoods.

So they decided to do something different. Instead of sending out meeting notices by email and postcard and hoping a diverse group of people show up, the city’s Department of Neighborhoods proposed a series of focus groups to help shape and provide feedback on the HALA proposal over a period of months, rather than in two-minute bursts at public comment periods. After meeting for nine months, the focus groups would come back to the city with recommendations to improve the HALA proposals, and those recommendations would be incorporated, in some form, into the final legislation.

From the beginning, the process was bumpy. After an initial call for applicants produced a pile of applications from the same activists from wealthier parts of the city who already dominate neighborhood meetings, DON broadened its outreach, enlisting community groups that work in marginalized and underrepresented communities and offering translation services, child care and financial incentives for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate.

They even recruited a local social justice organization, Puget Sound Sage, to recruit focus group members and provide support like education and transportation throughout the process. “It’s a core principle of Sage that the communities most impacted [by development shifts] need to be part of decision making, so it was clear that we need to have more people representing communities of color” involved in the process, says Giulia Pascuito, a research and policy analyst with Sage.

Of the initial group of more than 600 applicants, the city selected 181 — many of them renters, people of color and immigrants — to serve on the focus groups. Eight were recruited by Sage; the rest responded to the city’s expanded outreach efforts.

What happened next shows that it isn’t enough to just recruit marginalized people to participate in a process that has traditionally excluded them; you have to keep them engaged, and that requires sustained, ongoing effort. Since the focus groups began meeting in April 2016, attendance has fallen off a cliff — from 76 percent at the initial meeting to 41 percent in September, the last month for which attendance records were available.

And although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, monthly attendance sheets, along with anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants and residents of the city’s less-affluent, more racially diverse South End — the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the process.

Jesseca Brand, the DON staffer who headed the city’s outreach and recruitment for the focus groups, says that although she expected some drop off in attendance during the months-long focus group process, she had hoped that by the end of the process, “we would have close to the same demographic split that we started with and we wouldn’t be losing any one set of people … but the numbers tell me that I was not totally correct in that [hope].”

The one clear exception to the pattern is the eight focus group members who were recruited by Sage. Pascuito says that sustaining those long-term commitments required long-term investment from her organization. Sage didn’t just make sure their members could afford to attend the focus groups; they also held a “meeting after the meeting” each month, for members to ask questions and get up to speed on the technical details of the zoning and affordable housing proposals.

“This is really complicated, and this is why people go to planning school. You can spend years learning about the intricacies of land use decisions, and it’s hard to mash it all into a six-meeting process where you’re meeting once a month,” Pascuito says.

That sort of intervention may have proven useful for Laura Bernstein, a community activist from Seattle’s University District who resigned from her focus group in September. She says she got frustrated when she saw her group being dominated by longtime neighborhood activists who were far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of local land-use law and asserted their authority as “experts” over newcomers who struggled to just get up to speed. “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?],” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded. “This is what fake equity looks like.”

In a survey of 46 focus group members conducted in August, 34.9 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the process. About 20 percent said it was too soon to say. In written comments, many participants said they were “confused” by the process and the content of the presentations (“so much is above my head,” one complained) or didn’t get enough help getting up to speed (“Does not feel like we are getting the true knowledge base we need to understand the choices we are being asked to comment on,” another said.)

DON director Kathy Nyland says the focus groups have been a learning experience for the city, one that she vows to learn from. “We did all this work up front, and I think the lesson was, we need to continue that work until the end [of the process] and beyond. We knew [participating in] the focus groups was a big ask, and a long ask. The work doesn’t end when the recruitment process is over.”

And she says DON will do much more in the future to get people who are new to the city’s sometimes byzantine processes up to speed before throwing them into dense debates about land use and zoning. “We have to acknowledge that everyone has different starting points, and everyone has a different knowledge base, and craft our plans [in the future] so everyone feels comfortable participating,” Nyland says.It’s probably too late to apply those lessons to HALA — the final focus group meetings were held in December — but Nyland says that next time DON manages a major outreach and engagement process like the focus groups, she hopes to make it easier for people to participate in planning processes on their own terms and time, whether that means making sure translators are always available, holding meetings in neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle, or holding virtual meetings online. (After all, when Nyland first got involved in her own neighborhood council years ago, she did most of her work “at 1 in the morning, in my pajamas,” she says.)

Diminishing Returns at HALA Focus Groups

When the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) first put out the call for citizens to apply as neighborhood representatives serving on one of four new community focus groups that would advise the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development on the mayor’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), residents of mostly white North End neighborhoods—many of them vocal opponents of the plan—applied en masse. With just two weeks before the application deadline, fully half of the applicants came from only three North Seattle neighborhoods.

DON staffers, sensing that without more geographically diverse neighborhood representation, the focus groups would be dominated by white, north-end homeowners, put out a second call. DON solicited applications from other parts of the city, including West and Southeast Seattle, and got them—eventually, after I published a story on the demographic disparity and DON ramped up its outreach to community organizations, 661 applications poured in from across the city.

Of that initial group, 181 applicants, many of them renters, people of color, community activists, and members of other groups that have traditionally been excluded from city planning processes, were chosen to serve on the four HALA focus groups that have been meeting monthly since last April. The focus groups are organized based not on geography, but by type of neighborhood—low-density urban villages, medium-density urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban villages expansion areas. According to DON Director Kathy Nyland, the idea was to bring together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city”. At the meetings, the groups typically have received a presentation on some aspect of the HALA plan, followed by opportunities to ask questions, provide input, and engage in small-group discussions. The goal is to use feedback from the focus groups to help shape the zoning legislation that is the heart of HALA.

Attendance logs, obtained from OPCD through a records request, show that 137 focus group members showed up for that first meeting in April—a not-bad 76 percent attendance rate. Since then, though, attendance has curved downward sharply: from 60 percent in May to just 41 percent in September. The numbers for October aren’t available yet, but based on anecdotal reports from group members and my observations at the medium-density focus group I attended near the end of the month, with only 15 of 40 original members present, October attendance was probably lower still.

As important as the sheer numbers is who is no longer showing up. Although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, as well as a survey of monthly attendance sheets, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants, and residents of South Seattle  neighborhoods—the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the planning process. The one clear exception to this rule is eight focus group members who were recruited by Puget Sound Sage, which provided them with ongoing technical support and follow-up meetings on the fundamentals of zoning and land use law.

Laura Bernstein, a University District community activist who resigned from her focus group in September, says she got discouraged when she saw her group being dominated by the “observers” who were supposed to watch quietly and not participate. (Observers are members of the public who watch the meetings and receive a block of time to comment at the end; their names are recorded and included in official meeting attendance records). She says, “there were a lot of really angry outbursts and a lot of whispering form the observers. So you’re trying to get OPCD to answer your question and there’s someone whispering behind you. It was very disruptive and intimidating.” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded: “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?] This is what fake equity looks like.”

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Observers at an October focus group meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

The medium-density focus group meeting I attended in late October ostensibly included multiple representatives from the Central Area and North Rainier neighborhoods, two areas that are generally more diverse than, say, Phinney Ridge. Nonetheless, for the first half-hour, there was just one person of color, David Osaki from Aurora-Licton Springs, in the meeting room in the basement of city hall.When Rokea Jones, from the Central District, arrived after finishing a meeting of the Seattle Women’s Commission upstairs, she noticed immediately that the wall-size map of her neighborhood had no “dots” (green stickers representing areas or spots participants wanted the full group to discuss further) in her neighborhood. Jones slapped one down on 23rd Ave. S and waited to speak.

Waited, that is, for longtime Fremont neighborhood activist Toby Thaler–a homeowner steeped for decades in the jargon and minutia of land-use decisions—to finish delivering a lengthy jeremiad about how the city “has abandoned neighborhood planning.” Standing up and jabbing his finger down at the seated audience, Thaler denounced the whole focus group process, suggested that the city chose people for the focus groups based on “some other criteria” than aptitude to serve, and lamented how far neighborhood planning had fallen since the 1980s, allowing “horrendous…ugly crap” in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.

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Toby Thaler passionately voices his opinion about the focus group process during an October meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

When Jones finally got a word in edgewise (thanks in large part to aggressive hand-waving by OPCD senior planner Geoff Wendlandt, who struggled to get the attention of facilitator Susan Hayman, a consultant for EnviroIssues hired by the city), she talked about the need to prevent displacement in the Central Area. One way to do that, Jones, suggested, was by increasing the amount developers have to pay into an affordable housing fund before they can to build in gentrifying areas. “There’s a vast amount of displacement with this neighborhood,” Jones said. “I understand that there’s developers and a great deal of concern about them losing money, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about them losing money.” It was the first time the issue of displacement had come up all night.

Read more at the South Seattle Emerald.

Grand Bargain Preserved, with New Barriers to Development in “At-Risk” Neighborhoods

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Last of its kind? Vulcan’s proposed project at 23rd and Jackson.

Weeks of heated behind-the-scenes negotiations ended in compromise over the affordable-housing provisions of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) late Monday afternoon, as Murray announced an agreement that will maintain the current affordability requirements in South Lake Union and downtown, impose affordability mandates (also known as mandatory housing affordability, or MHA) that vary based on how much additional development capacity is being added, and create additional hurdles for developers looking to add housing in moderate-income, racially diverse areas like the Central District.

I wrote about the variable affordability requirements a couple of weeks ago. Basically, the new rules say that in areas where zoning capacity (potential density) is being increased more than in other areas (say, a single-family block where three-story buildings are now permitted), developers have to provide more affordable housing or pay more into an affordable-housing fund. The logic is obvious—developers who take advantage of greater height increases should pay more for that privilege—but also flawed: Penalizing developers for building density in densifying areas arguably discourages development in those areas.  At any rate, developers at the negotiating table these past few weeks clearly decided they could live with the higher fees, and agreed to the new formula.

More contentious were the fees and performance requirements (the amount of housing that has to be affordable, and at what level) in downtown and South Lake Union, which were negotiated as part of a separate process than the rest of HALA back in July, and are generally lower than what the fees and performance requirements will be in other parts of the city. (The Grand Bargain stipulated that the requirements downtown and in South Lake Union under MHA would be no greater than what was already required under the previous affordability program, known as incentive zoning. It was considered a Grand Bargain, in part, because social-justice advocates agreed to leave the downtown and South Lake Union requirements untouched).

Despite the signed agreement, Sage and other advocates reportedly wanted to increase the fees in those two neighborhoods significantly, to as much as double the rates both sides agreed to, which could have ended the Grand Bargain and blown up the coalition that came up with the agreement over a year ago. (Opponents of the Grand Bargain, and of MHA in general, have predicted this would happen all along.) After weeks of discussions, the two sides came to an agreement, and the fees will remain the same.

One thing that will change, at the behest of lefty activists and their allies on the city council, is the affordability requirement in neighborhoods whose residents are supposedly at a “higher risk of displacement” from new development—that is, areas with more black and brown people, fewer job opportunities, and lower housing costs. In those areas, developers will have to preserve as much as 11 percent of new units for housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of Seattle median income, or pay as much as $32.75 a square foot into a city-run affordable housing fund—the same fee as areas of the city that are being upzoned the most.

The change is supposed to “increase affordability in areas at higher risk of displacement,” according to Murray’s proposal. But developer advocates have argued that by making it much more expensive to build in areas like the Central District, the Rainier Valley, and the International District, the city will make it much less likely that new projects like Vulcan’s 570-unit, 6-acre development at 23rd and Jackson, which is vested under pre-Grand Bargain standards, get built. (Another large development, at 23rd and Union, has also been permitted under the current rules.)

That means not just less “gentrification” (another term for providing amenities like shops, modern grocery stores, and cafes in low-income neighborhoods). It also could mean less low-income housing. Vulcan plans to make 20 percent of the units in that project affordable for people making up to 65 percent of median income, under the Multifamily Tax Exemption program that keeps units affordable for 12 years. An 11-percent, 75-year affordability requirement—what could be required under the new plan Murray proposed yesterday—will be a much tougher sell.

Vulcan, of course, was the developer heavyweight at the Grand Bargain table. The fate of another proposed project, at 23rd and Union, is unclear.

Seven members of the council—all but Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant—have signed off on the mayor’s proposal.

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Do Latest HALA Plans Penalize Developers for Density?

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Earlier this week, the city released maps showing what the proposed upzones under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan could look like. Dan Beekman at the Seattle Times has a good summary of the changes that could come to multifamily and commercial areas, which could see buildings that are one, two, or three stories higher than what’s currently allowed.
One aspect of the upzone proposal that hasn’t gotten much coverage, though, is a change that would require developers to build (or pay a fee in lieu of building) more affordable housing in new buildings in neighborhoods where upzones are greater; so that, for example, someone building in a Lowrise-2 area that used to be single-family, a substantial jump in zoning capacity, would have to provide more affordable housing or pay a larger fee than a developer building in an area that got just a one-story zoning jump. “When more value is given, there would be a larger affordable housing requirement associated with that,” Nick Welch, a senior planner at the Office of Planning and Community Development, explains.
The result is that developers who are adding substantial density to an area would pay a larger penalty for doing so. The exact percentages haven’t been worked out yet, but the percentage that has consistently been discussed for a “typical increase” in zoning capacity is between 5 and 7 percent, so anything above a “typical increase” would presumably be more than that. On the map above, and the three new designations–M, M1, and M2–identify increasingly large jumps in density.
The new three-tiered set of designations would be in addition to another aspect of HALA, which HAS gotten some coverage, that would discourage density in areas (like Southeast Seattle) where people are at a higher risk of economic and physical displacement.
It’s easy to see the city’s logic–that developers who take advantage of greater increases in density should pay more in exchange for the higher profits that come from taller buildings–but another conclusion might be that the higher affordable housing requirements will discourage building in the areas with the most capacity for future growth.  If HALA makes a seven-story building possible in an area where only three stories are currently allowed, but requires developers to pay an extra penalty to build in that area, will developers just stay away? Given that our affordable housing crisis is largely a housing shortage, that seems like a question well worth asking.

Committees Ask: What Will Affordable Housing Look Like, and Are We Willing to Sacrifice for It?

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Why won’t the city add more density in single-family areas?

Why is the city violating the sanctity of single-family areas?

Those were the two contradictory questions in play at the first meeting of the five focus groups that will help determine the shape of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a plan to build 50,000 new housing units, including 20,000 affordable units, over the next 10 years through a combination of incentives, zoning changes, and additional affordable housing dollars.

The HALA meeting, held in the Bertha Knight Landes room at City Hall while a separate meeting on the housing levy was wrapping up in council chambers upstairs, brought all the focus group members together for an initial overview of their work plan for the coming year. The focus groups, made up largely of people who aren’t well-represented on the vocal, historically influential neighborhood community councils and citizen interest groups, are divided not by geographic region but by neighborhood type–hub urban villages with hub urban villages, urban village expansion areas with urban village expansion areas, and so on. (Downtown and South Lake Union are part of a separate rezoning process, as is the University District.)

Most of the meeting was procedural–a lineup of city staffers extolled HALA’s virtues using catchphrases like “placing without displacing” and explained the history of HALA and the “Grand Bargain,” a deal struck between developers and affordable-housing advocates like Puget Sound Sage to build more affordable housing while providing upzones that benefit builders’ bottom lines.

But the main focus of the city’s reassurances, and the audience’s questions, was how HALA–which would expand the boundaries of some urban villages, making up a total of about 1 percent of city land, into what are now single-family areas–will impact Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Although HALA staffer Michelle Chen told the crowd preemptively, “The mayor is not proposing any changes to single-family zones that are outside the urban villages,” the very first (and majority of) questions were about how the proposals will impact single-family areas; specifically: Does HALA go too far in allowing more development in historically single-family areas, or does it fail to do enough?

The very first question–“Why don’t single-family zones have to contribute to housing?”–got to the heart of this debate. “The mayor has taken a position that outside of the urban village areas we are not changing single-family zones,” Chen said. “That is the direction from the mayor, taken after a big outcry from the neighborhoods, from the communities that are changing.” Diane Sugimura, interim director of the new Office of Planning and Community Development, jumped in, adding that the city’s comprehensive plan (which guides all macro-level development in Seattle) “has directed the majority of growth to urban villages.”

But will growth in urban villages be enough? In addition to the 120,000 people expected to move here in the next 20 years, Seattle has a growing affordability crisis that impacts the people already here, and no one is more impacted than the very lowest-income residents, those who are homeless or in transitional or marginal housing. Upstairs in council chambers, council members heard testimony from dozens of folks who supported the housing levy, and none who didn’t–a unanimity rarely present at public meetings about tax increases. (The $290 million levy would double homeowners’ annual contribution to low-income housing, to $122 a year for a median-value home.)

Organizations that provide or support low-income housing–Solid Ground, the Housing Development Consortium, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the Low-Income Housing Alliance–showed up armed with damning statistics. “If Seattle wanted to hold a public meeting and invite everyone who is homeless or severely rent-burdened, we would not be able to fit everybody into CenturyLink stadium,” Keri Williams of Enterprise Community Partners said. But it was the recently homeless speakers, who made the case as plainly and indisputably as possible that without housing levy-funded programs, they would still be on the streets, who made the greatest impact.

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Linda Pritz*, a formerly homeless woman who lived at the YWCA’s Opportunity Place in downtown Seattle, told the council that “as a resident of affordable housing for the past 12 years, I know firsthand how important it is to have sustainable housing.” After years of spending 80 percent of her income on rent an utilities, eating ramen and neglecting her diabetes, she said that “when I moved into the building in 2004, I was so relieved that I had found a place that I could afford that I sat down on the bed and cried. Pritz now spends just 30 percent of her income on housing.

Another speaker, Hope Green, said she had been homeless for years, dealing with a failed relationship and “an addiction that was spiraling out of control” and moving all over the state before she found affordable housing in Seattle. “I counted 112 places that I slept until I landed in the [Catholic Community Services’] Referral Center … where I received a hot meal, a shower, and referral to a safe and comfortable nightly shelter at the Noel House,” a shelter for single women.” Since then, Green said she has been able to work on her recovery, start paying off her debts, and recovered some of the self-esteem she lost living on the streets.

The housing levy and HALA are inextricably connected, because the city won’t meet its goal of 20,000 new affordable units without levy funding. The levy election is in August, and the HALA focus groups will meet for the rest of this year and into 2017.

* My apologies if I mispelled Linda’s name, which I wrote down as she spoke.