Saving the Showbox Just Took a Big Step Forward, But What’s Next?

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Efforts to “save the Showbox” theater moved forward Wednesday, though not in quite the way council member Kshama Sawant envisioned when she proposed legislation on Monday to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District on a two-year “interim” basis to include more than a dozen buildings on the east side of First Avenue, including the Showbox.

On Wednesday, council members Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw whittled down Sawant’s legislation to expand the historic district to encompass just one new property—the Showbox—and for just ten months, rather than two years. The amended legislation passed the committee unanimously, and could go before the full council on Monday.

The council got its first look at the plan to “Save the Showbox” by expanding the Market on Monday when Sawant introduced a proposal to increase the size of the Pike Place Market Historical District to include all the properties on the east side of First Avenue downtown between Virginia and Union Streets—the largest expansion in the history of the district, which was expanded twice in the 1980s.

Sawant said the council needed to pass her proposal quickly—just one week after it was introduced—in order to halt Vancouver, B.C.-based developer Onni from building a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

By Monday afternoon, dozens of Showbox supporters had mobilized at city hall, waving signs (distributed by Sawant’s staff) that read “Save the Showbox” and “Music for People, not Profits for Onni Group” and testifying about the importance of preserving the historic venue, which first opened as a dance hall in 1939. Since then, it has served as a bingo hall, a party room, an adult “amusement arcade,” a storage facility, and a live music venue with a rich history.

Supporters’ comments focused on the Showbox’s value as a music venue, but the legislation Sawant proposed would have had implications far beyond the Showbox property, rendering brand-new buildings like the Thompson Hotel on First and Stewart as well as vacant parking lots, a 1985 condo tower, and the Deja Vu strip club “historic” by virtue of their inclusion in the historical district.

Buildings in the district, which was established in 1971 to protect small farmers, artisans, and retail businesses that were threatened by plans to bulldoze the Market, are subject to a long list of restrictions that regulate everything from which tenants are allowed to the color of first-floor interior walls to the wattage of exterior lighting and signage. (More on what the new strictures would have meant for the buildings on the east side of First Avenue here.)

Sawant said it was urgent to rush her proposal through in just one week, without the usual process that a large expansion of a historic district would ordinarily require, because Onni was scheduled to vest the project “in about three weeks’ time,” which would make it subject only to current land use laws, which allow it to build an apartment building on First Avenue.

“I’m convinced that there’s a reason to rush,” Sawant said Monday. “I don’t think we should be misleading community members into thinking they have the time” to “save the Showbox” in a more deliberate way, she added. Historic designation would give “breathing room to the community and prevent Onni’s luxury project from becoming a fait accompli.”

Things moved quickly from there. Sawant’s office sent out emails calling on her supporters to “pack city hall” before a Wednesday meeting of the city council’s finance and neighborhoods committee to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

By Wednesday afternoon, when the committee met, city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Sally Bagshaw had countered with amendments to Sawant’s proposal that would reduce the size of the historical district expansion area to eliminate everything but only the Showbox property and reduce the amount of time the new controls would be in place from two years to ten months.

This amended legislation passed out of Bagshaw’s committee unanimously on Wednesday and headed to full council, where it could be heard on Monday.

On Wednesday, the timeline to pass the legislation was officially moved more than two months into the future, when Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, told council members that Onni will not submit its application for early design guidance, a necessary step in the approval process, until October 17, meaning the absolute earliest the project could vest is October 18.

That gives the council some breathing room to come up with some kind of agreement to preserve the Showbox as a music venue in a number of ways: 1) by permanently expanding the historic district to include the building, 2) by landmarking the building and arranging for a nonprofit to purchase and run it—possibly, as council member Lisa Herbold suggested, as part of the city’s existing historic theater district, or 3) by coming up with a compromise in which Onni agrees to reopen the Showbox in a new space on the ground floor of its new development, preserving any significant interior features of the current concert hall.

This proposed new expansion of the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the Showbox would give the Pike Place Market Historical Commission broad authority over both the physical building and its use, down to the choice of food and beverage vendors and any interior alterations or improvements. “If someone is selling bags in the market and they want to sell shoes instead, the commission reviews that,” Heather McAuliffe, the city’s coordinator for the historic district, told the council committee Wednesday.

Landmarking the building, in contrast, would preserve just the structure, without dictating how it could be used. Late on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that three historic preservation groups— Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown—had filed an application to landmark the venue, potentially circumventing a parallel application from Onni. The developer announced plans to seek landmark status for the building shortly after announcing plans to replace it with a 44-story apartment tower last month—a fairly routine practice for developers that want to expedite approval of their permits—but apparently had not yet filed its application with the city.

The third option—save the Showbox, demolish the building—would likely present the fewest legal issues for the city.

Landmarking the architecturally unremarkable two-story building where the Showbox is located or expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox would amount to a selective downzone in a part of town where the city just adopted new zoning guidelines designed to encourage more housing construction. Barring Onni from building its apartment tower would also mean foregoing the approximately $5 million the developer would be required to contribute to affordable housing under those new guidelines.

That would likely lead to a protracted legal battle involving the property owner, Roger Forbes, who also owns Deja Vu, and Onni, who could argue that taking away the value represented by 44 stories of development potential amounts to a taking of private property. A compromise that would allow the Showbox to stay on First Avenue but does not restrict the owner’s ability to sell to Onni or Onni’s ability to build apartments could circumvent that potential legal dispute.

Building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself likely isn’t an option. The building, which is made of unreinforced masonry and covers basically the entire property on which it sits, would have to undergo a massive seismic upgrade to support a 44-story tower, if such an upgrade is even possible. Developer Kevin Daniels did a less significant seismic upgrade to preserve the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church building on Fifth and Marion, which did not involve placing a building on top of the church, and that cost an estimated $40 million.

Of course, no historic district or landmark designation can force the Showbox to remain the Showbox. Forbes, the owner, could decide to sell the building. AEG Live, the subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group that operates the Showbox, could decide not to renew its lease, which expires in 2021. Forbes could also decline to renew AEG’s lease.

Neither Forbes nor AEG responded to requests for comment.

If the building became an official part of the Market, the market historical commission could stipulate that it had to remain a music venue in perpetuity—and the building’s owners could fail to find a suitable tenant. There are many scenarios, in other words, in which the Showbox might close even after a successful effort to “save” it.

It was unclear after Wednesday’s vote whether the council would vote on the Showbox legislation on Monday, as Sawant originally proposed, or wait a few weeks to let discussions with Onni play out.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who initially supported Sawant’s proposal to move quickly because he believed the council only had three weeks to act, said he now believes “it would be prudent” to look at other models for saving the Showbox before going with the plan Sawant proposed. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that whatever happens, she plans to draft a resolution “that lays out in clearer form what we expect to occur over the next nine to 12 months.”

The Showbox isn’t “saved” just yet. But it might have just bought some time, and gained a few new routes to salvation.

The J Is for Judge: Trump Would Feel Right At Home In Anti-Amazon Seattle

If, as they say, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, Donald Trump is Seattle lefties’ besty.

Just as many Seattle progressives cast Amazon as a bogeyman during debates over affordability and the city’s “character,” Trump routinely directs his Twitter ire at Amazon and the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

Here’s a typical Trump tweet trashing Amazon from this spring:

Of course, like most of Trump’s Twitter testimony, these claims strain credulity.

But the crux of Trump’s sentiments are in sync with Seattle’s own animosity toward the the South Lake Union tech magnate. As the recent head tax debate showed, Seattle’s left—like Trump—doesn’t think Amazon pays enough in taxes. Seattle’s leftist City Council member Kshama Sawant has personally used Trumpian language to demonize Bezos, saying “Jeff Bezos is our enemy” at a city council meeting in June.  (That’s right—the Washington Post owner is an enemy of the people.) Activists in Seattle have taken up the anti-Amazon crusade. In fact ,the coffee shop where I’m writing this very column is currently selling anti-Bezos postcards that say “Rich Uncle Bezos” featuring a picture of the Amazon leader in a “Monopoly” top hat.

Echoing Trump’s line that the company is killing mom and pop businesses, conventional wisdom here in Seattle holds that Amazon, the engine of our hyper growth, is destroying Seattle’s homegrown culture and authenticity. For both Trump and Seattleites who believe the company is ruining the city, Amazon represents an existential threat. The fact that council member Sawant is now organizing rallies to save the Showbox from being replaced by a new housing and retail development is unmistakably part of the same reactionary sentiment that demonizes change, and Amazon transplants, as corrosive forces—these new Seattle residents aren’t neighbors but “Amazombies,” as I overheard someone quip at a bar last week.

I agree that Amazon should be a better corporate citizen; their resistance to paying higher taxes to help address the homelessness crisis displayed a callous lack of concern for a city that has invested heavily in their success. And their crass bad faith at the negotiating table during the head tax debate (turning around and making a $25,000 contribution to the campaign to kill the tax after apparently agreeing to a deal) was shameful. For the record, I supported the head tax. Without an income tax (something else I support), it’s our only option to mark the clear nexus that exists between Amazon’s growth and the housing crisis.

On the flip side: A report that Amazon pays an estimated $250 million in local and state taxes  highlights the real benefit of having a Top 10 Fortune 500 company (#8) based in downtown Seattle, with its 45,000 current Seattle employees, 50,000 new hires planned, and all the secondary and tertiary jobs they create.

The similarity between Seattle progressives who scapegoat Amazon as a corrupting influence and Trump’s populist tweet tantrums that accuse Amazon of cuckolding the feds (turning the Post Office into a mere “delivery boy” for the all-powerful Bezos) is worth calling out because it’s part a consistent, ugly defect we also see in Seattle populism.

As insightful Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson once pointed out: The intransigence of Seattle’s largely white, single-family homeowners who oppose allowing more access to their neighborhoods is similar to the heated provincialism of Trump’s pro-wall base. Johnson, an even-keeled mass transit and density advocate, is now on his heels against an onslaught from angry single-family neighborhood constituents. And so it goes in Seattle, where the current strain of parochial leftism isn’t out of place in Trump’s America.

What “Save the Showbox” Really Means

The effort to “Save the Showbox” moved deeper into the murky waters of historic preservation earlier today with the introduction of a proposal, sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant, to expand the Pike Place Market Historic District on an “interim,” two-year basis.  The proposal would effectively kill plans by the Vancouver-based developer Onni to replace the two-story building the Showbox occupies on First Avenue with 442 apartments, and force the city to forego roughly $5 million Onni would have had to pay to build affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability law—a law Sawant opposed.

“This is what the working people of Seattle want,” Sawant said today, pointing to a change.org petition to “Save the Showbox” that has garnered some 90,000 signatures from around the country. Sawant-branded red-and-white signs emphasized this point, as did an email from Sawant’s official list urging “our movement” to—per usual—”pack city hall” to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

If we buy the notion that “the working people of Seattle” are preoccupied with the desire to save a venue where tickets typically go for $30 , $40, or more (plus $10 a ticket in nonrefundable “convenience fees”), it’s still worth asking: What are the working people of Seattle getting in this bargain? What does Sawant’s proposal actually do?

In 2016, a parking garage in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved.

First, Sawant’s proposal would compress the typically months-long process of expanding the boundaries of a designated historic district (in this case, the one created to preserve Pike Place Market in 1971) into just one week in order to prevent the property from vesting to Onni, the Vancouver-based developer that wants to turn the property into a mixed-use apartment tower. “I’m convinced that there is a reason to rush,” Sawant said today, adding that the council rushed through a repeal of the head tax as a point of comparison. The council agreed to move the legislation through committee this week, for possible consideration next Monday afternoon. (The lone committee hearing on Sawant’s proposal will be in Sally Bagshaw’s finance and neighborhoods committee in council chambers on Wednesday at 2).

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Digging into the details, the legislation would roughly double the geographic area on First Avenue in which businesses and property owners are subject to strict, legally binding controls on what they can do in and to their properties. Most speakers this afternoon didn’t talk about historic preservation or landmark status or the implications of taking rules designed to protect small farmers and artisans and applying them to buildings that most people would never consider part of Pike Place Market. But the council needs to talk about those things before they move forward with Sawant’s sweeping legislation, because it will have implications far beyond the Showbox, and for long after the crowds that show up to “Save the Showbox” have moved on.

The Pike Place Market Historical District, and the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, were established by ordinance in 1971 to “promote the educational, cultural, farming, marketing, other economic resources, and the general welfare; and to assure the harmonious, orderly, and efficient growth and development of the municipality.” The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage. (A full list of requirements and processes for approving changes within the district is available on the city’s website.)

The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage.

And, of course, any new development within a historical district is subject to a far more intense level of scrutiny than an existing business that wants to sell to a different owner (which requires the prospective new business owner to get a whole new certificate of approval after convincing the commission that they will abide by all the prior restrictions)  or add an awning (which falls under “Major Structures and Architectural Elements” and involves an approval process). In recent years, at least one building—a parking garage near the waterfront, in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District—was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners in a building across the street who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved. As it happens, Sawant’s proposed expansion area includes two parking lots, one right next to the Showbox, where any development would block the view of people who live at the Newmark Tower, a luxury condo building. If the parking lot, which currently serves the Showbox and the Showgirls Deja Vu strip club, is “preserved” as part of the district, count on the residents of the Newmark to object to any building that blocks their “historic” waterfront views.

The Newmark condos rise behind what could become a “historic” parking lot. Historic district status would give residents an opportunity to object to development that blocks their views.

Some other buildings and businesses that would fall into the newly expanded Pike Place Market Historical District include:

The Showgirls strip club and Fantasy Unltd. store, whose front windows advertise “low-price DVDs” and whose presence on First Ave. is itself a historical artifact—a holdover from the time when First Avenue was known for adult theaters, flop houses, and peep shows, not high-end jewelry designers and fancy tchotchke shops.

Smoke Plus Inc., which shares the First Avenue frontage of the three-story Hahn Building with a a 2-for-$10 t-shirt shop. This building, which also houses the Green Tortoise Hostel, is already slated for redevelopment as a hotel, but that proposal is controversial and remains under review. Opponents of the development have argued that demolishing the building would destroy the “market entrance.” Historic designation could give hotel opponents another tool to protest that development.

The 98 Union condo building, built in 1985 at the south end of the market:

Another parking lot, this one backing up to the Chase Bank tower on Second Avenue.

This Starbucks, which would potentially run into restrictions the historical commission places on duplicate businesses and chain stores within the market, where there is already a Starbucks. The Pike Place Market Historical District bars “multiple ownership” of more than one business in the Market district and does not allow any chains or franchises, and carves out an explicit exemption for businesses (like Starbucks and Sur La Table) “that originated in the Market and whose owners or controllers later opened another location or locations outside the Market.” (The original Starbucks was located at 2000 Western and “re”-opened at its current location in 1976).

And the brand-new Thompson Hotel at the north end of the Market expansion area—a gleaming 12-story hotel designed by Olson Kundig that the New York Times called a “stylish … hotel whose location can’t be beat.”

Designation as part of the Pike Place Market Historical District wouldn’t prevent any of the businesses in these newly “historic” buildings from closing down or changing their business model, nor would it prohibit new businesses from opening up. But the designation would impose strict controls on how the buildings can be used in the future, whether they can be remodeled, and how and whether they can be redeveloped. If the Thompson Hotel, which just opened last year, wanted to update its signage, for example, it would have to abide by five detailed rules imposed on all businesses in the district, the first of which is “Signs should be simple, clear, of modest size, and painted with plain lettering styles.” Adding a sidewalk cafe, modifying the facade, or painting an interior wall that happens to be visible from the sidewalk would all require approval from the commission.

As for the Showbox itself: “Saving” the building—even stipulating that the interior of the building be preserved in its current form, which would effectively require any future owners to keep it open as a concert venue or let it sit empty in perpetuity—won’t necessarily save the Showbox itself. As my colleague Josh Feit pointed out last week, it’s the nature of thriving cities to change, not stay the same. If people my age, or the age of most of the people who testified in favor of Sawant’s legislation today, use the strong arm of government to “save” our favorite institutions (and make no mistake, the Showbox is no longer a place you can go to pay a $5 cover to see an up-and-coming band, if it ever was), the unintended consequences may go beyond forcing a bunch of other businesses to learn to live under a newly restrictive historic-preservation regime. It can also turn the city into a museum commemorating the youth of people who are in their 40s and 50s, at the expense of people in their 20s and 30s who may want to start new businesses—future beloved institutions—of their own. Worst case, Showbox operator AEG Live—whose lease for the venue runs out in two years—shuts the place down on their own, leaving a very expensive empty room for some other company to try to fill with a business that meets all of the historic district’s stringent requirements. There may be a way to “save the Showbox”—some have suggested buying it from AEG and running it as a Vera Project-style nonprofit, or striking a deal with Onni to reopen the venue in its new tower—but historic preservation is the bluntest possible instrument, and inevitably leads to some collateral damage.

 

Scratching Your Head Over Today’s Head Tax Defeat? Here Are Some Answers.

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After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?

Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.

So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.

Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?

Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.

Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.

Is this really all about Amazon? 

No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.

But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.

This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.

So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?

Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.

So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed? 

Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.

If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.

Head Tax Heads for Repeal. What Happened, and What Happens Now?

The city council will hold a special meeting at noon tomorrow—just two days before the deadline for head tax opponents to turn in 17,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to overturn a tax on big businesses to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis—to preemptively repeal the tax. The decision came just weeks after a bruising battle that resulted in the unanimous passage of a “compromise” head tax plan—$275, instead of the original $500—that was supported by all nine council members and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Much like that proposal, today’s surprise repeal announcement emerged after a round of secret weekend negotiations, in which council members who supported the tax just weeks ago concluded that it was time to concede the fight. Polling on the referendum to repeal the tax reportedly spurred council members to reverse their support.

Earlier this afternoon, seven council members signed off on a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office supporting the repeal measure; only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, who denounced the “backroom legislation” during Monday’s full council meeting, did not signal their support for repealing the tax. The statement from the other seven council members said, in part:

“In recent months, we worked with a range of businesses, community groups, advocates, and working families to enact a bill that struck the right balance between meaningful progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis while protecting good, family-wage jobs. Over the last few weeks, these conversations and much public dialogue has continued.  It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. 

“We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”

The $275-per-employee annual tax, which would have applied to the 585 highest-grossing businesses in Seattle,  would have funded $47 million a year in services, shelter, and housing for Seattle’s homeless population. Without the tax, hundreds of new apartments will not be built, hundreds of new shelter beds will not open up at night, and thousands of people who would have received rental assistance, case management, or mental health care through the levy proceeds will continue to go without those services.

Opposition to the tax came not just from the usual suspects in the business community—Amazon, which threatened to pull employees from the city over an earlier version of the tax, pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the repeal effort, as did Starbucks, Kroger, and representatives of the hotel and grocery industries—but from groups with names like Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle, whose members gathered signatures on their own time to repeal a tax on giant corporations. The tax, which was the product of five months of meetings by a 17-member task force, was chosen specifically because it would not directly impact ordinary citizens (unlike a property tax or sales tax), but enough ordinary citizens opposed it to convince at least some council members that their voices represented the majority of Seattle.

“I think it reflects majority sentiment,” council member Sally Bagshaw says. “I do, and I’m sad. … Everywhere I went, clearly businesses were unhappy, but half of labor was unhappy.  Neighborhoods and communities were saying, ‘We don’t see tents being moved off the street. We still see needles. We still see garbage. We’re not happy with this.'” Bagshaw did not mention polling on the head tax, nor did any of her colleagues.

Council member Rob Johnson, who was not directly involved in the weekend negotiations, says his primary concern in supporting a repeal of the head tax is the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds pre-K through college education and is on the ballot in November. A referendum to repeal the head tax, he worried, might have put voters in an anti-tax mood and swept preschool funding away with it.

“As the person trying to get the [FEPP] levy across the finish line in November, I’m obviously excited about the opportunity to have a laser-like focus on that, as opposed to a potential referendum and the  [FEPP] levy at the same time,” Johnson says. “I signed on because I think it gives us a much clearer pathway for success in November.” The last time the families and education levy was on the ballot, in 2011, it passed by more than 63 percent.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been targeted with an outsized share of the criticism from activists who oppose spending more money on homelessness (including a “town hall” in Ballard that immediately devolved into a profane one-way screaming match), says it became “increasingly clear” over the past couple of months “that the public is aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” which has run a well-funded campaign to reframe the employee hours tax, which would be paid by employers, as a “tax on jobs,” which would harm employees and the city as a whole.

In a statement, council member Lisa Herbold—who signed the joint statement supporting repeal—denounced the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which she said “has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites 1) of the tired, old conservative trope that increased levels of human suffering we see in our city is caused by government inefficiency rather than by the Gilded Age level income inequality in Seattle and elsewhere, and 2) that leading first with a regional funding approach, reliant on higher property or sales taxes for all taxpayers, is preferable to resources from those most benefiting from income inequality in Seattle paying their fair share.” Asked why she issued such a scathing statement after signing off on the joint statement supporting repeal, Herbold said, “I’m acting based on what I’m hearing” about the lack of support for the tax, but “I don’t agree with” repealing the tax.

Had Durkan brought the Chamber into the head tax negotiations earlier this year, instead of focusing on getting Amazon to stand down, the campaign might have looked much different, or not existed in the first place. But as things played out, “don’t tax jobs” became a rallying cry for both businesses and, importantly, citizen activists, who also glommed on to the idea that the city could get by without additional revenues by auditing its homelessness programs  and “spending our existing dollars more efficiently.”

O’Brien says that with thousands of people sleeping outside and in shelters and transitional housing across Seattle and King County, “finding efficiencies” isn’t enough to make a dent in the crisis. “We absolutely need more funding for housing and  services. We would have to make devastating cuts to other programs that everyone cares about to fund what we need to do with existing resources, so that’s just not possible,” he says. With the head tax, which the task force chose after rejecting other options as impractical or open to legal challenge, off the table, “there’s nothing that stands out that’s remotely promising, and that’s discouraging.” A city income tax is locked up in court, sales and property taxes are regressive and unpopular, and other options—like a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, or a tax on corporate profits—are prohibited by law. There really just aren’t many options that aren’t either political suicide or downright illegal.

For months, the mayor and council have talked about the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness—that is, a tax that would not be borne solely by Seattle. But the region has shown little interest, so far, in coming up with such solutions. Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a countywide sales tax as a replacement for a Seattle-only property tax measure floated by then-mayor Ed Murray, but that proposal has not been seen or heard from since. Meanwhile, a regional task force called One Table, which was supposed to come up with recommendations for funding homelessness services earlier this year, has canceled several meetings and is reportedly stalled. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed an earlier, larger version of the head tax and signed the council’s legislation for the “compromise” that will be repealed tomorrow, but has never come forward with an alternative proposal of her own, leaving the council in the driver’s seat on spending, for better or worse.

Mosqueda, one of the two council members who did not sign off on the statement advocating repeal, said today that the head tax the council approved was “the best idea at the time”—better, at least, than nothing, which is what the city is left with now. “I am happy to support an alternative strategy, but I need to know that there’s a proposal, so that folks have light at the end of the tunnel, so that there is housing on the horizon, so people can get off the streets and not continue to suffer and live outside.”

O’Brien expressed a sentiment that has been bubbling for weeks at city hall, on homelessness and other issues: “We need leadership from the mayor. We can’t say we’re not going to do anything. If there’s not a regional solution, we have to do something else. She’s been here six months now, and she needs to make this her top priority.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment beyond the joint statement. But she did not present a plan to deal with the defeat of the head tax, which would have funded her proposal to add 1,000 new beds at shelters around the city, announced last week. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Durkan joked at the time. And here we are.

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Sawant’s City Printer Usage: 26 Hours, One “Tax Amazon” Rally, 4,000 Copies

A little over a week ago, during the council debate over the head tax, council member Sally Bagshaw called out her colleague, council member Kshama Sawant, for using the legislative department’s shared printer to print out a huge number of bright red posters advertising a rally Sawant was holding over the weekend to protest Amazon and create public pressure on the council to support the highest possible tax. “I just don’t think it is right for us to be using city resources or the copy machines to promote something that not all of us agree to,” Bagshaw said.

I wondered just what kind of resources Bagshaw was talking about, so I filed a records request to find out how Sawant’s printer usage compared to other council offices’. (Each office has its own printer, but big jobs—like, say, 11-by-17 color posters for political rallies—must be done on a large color printer in the second-floor printer room).

Unfortunately, the city wasn’t able to provide the most recent month’s invoice to its printer company, Ricoh, because that invoice wasn’t available yet. Printer costs have accelerated steadily through the year, however, growing from $493.86 in January to $1,231.46 in February to about $1,300 in March (the exact total is hard to extrapolate because the March bill includes rent for the copier itself, plus various taxes whose rates are unspecified).

Fortunately, the printer itself does save records for the most recent several days, broken down by document name and the name of the staffer requesting the print job. I made my request on May 14, the day  Bagshaw chided Sawant for using the council’s shared, city-funded printer to create her rally posters, and got records showing all print jobs between 11:02 am on May 10 and 10:19 am on May 14. (According to the council’s public disclosure officer, the printer does not store print records long-term.) Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” rally was on Saturday, May 12.

The documents show that Sawant’s office—specifically, her legislative assistants Ted Virdone and Adam Ziemkowski—printed several thousand posters and other documents related to the rally, including hundreds of chant sheets to guide rally participants during the “March on Amazon.” The printing jobs dwarf other council office’s print requests; moreover, the council offices that did relatively large print jobs during the time when Sawant’s office was using the city printer to produce her rally posters were printing presentations, copies of studies, and agendas for council meetings—not posters for weekend demonstrations against Amazon aimed at pressuring council members to adopt a larger tax.

Between around 2:00 in the afternoon on May 10 and 4:00 in the afternoon on May 11, the day before the rally, Sawant’s office printed:

  • 1,004 copies of a document called “March On Amazon.doc.”
  • 50 copies of a document called “fight bezos bullying.pdf”
  • 75 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no loopholes, no sunset.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon – fund housing and services.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, 75 million, no extortion2.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “150m EHT.pdf” (Sawant was pushing for a head tax, or Employee Hours Tax, that would raise $150 million a year)
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no bezos durkan deal.pdf”
  • 400 copies of a document called “Tax Amazon chantsheet2.doc”
  • 2,198 copies of a document called “may 11 (two sided).pdf.

It’s unclear, given the limited period of time the records cover, whether Sawant’s office printed other posters and rally-related before 11am on May 10, the earliest time for which printer records are available. It’s unclear from the records which documents were large 11-by-17 posters and which were in full color. However, demonstrators at last Monday’s council meetings on the head tax held signs bearing the same slogans as those in the file names Sawant’s office printed out the previous Friday, and Sawant herself defended her use of the city’s official printer to produce anti-Amazon materials, telling Bagshaw, “You can choose not to use your office for really fighting for the interests of working people and to build movements. I strongly believe that council resources absolutely should be used to further social movements and not for the protection of the interests of the chamber of commerce.”

Overall, Sawant’s office printed out more than 4,000 copies in the approximately 24 hours between the afternoon of May 10 and the afternoon of May 11. (After the rally, their printing needs returned to a normal level—about 40 pages between May 12 and May 14).  No other office came close. Council member Rob Johnson’s office was in second place, with just over 600 copies in the same period (none of them posters), but that was skewed by a single 465-page printout—copies of a PowerPoint presentation on the Families and Education Levy for council members.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett told me that he considered Sawant’s use of the city’s printer to produce her rally signs acceptable under city ethics rules, because she was using the posters “to pass legislation.”

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.

Employee Hours Tax Passes Over Durkan, Amazon Objections, But Veto Looms

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

With the city council poised to pass a proposed $500-per-employee “head tax” on Seattle’s 600 largest businesses, and Mayor Jenny Durkan equally prepared to veto the proposal in its current form, the question now is: What’s next?

With council members heading into a weekend of negotiations, it’s possible that both sides could emerge on Monday with a compromise solution that splits the difference between the tax that passed on Friday and the “compromise” version that Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell support, which would cut the council’s proposal in half. However, if the two sides fail to reach a compromise, the larger version of the head tax will almost certainly pass on Monday by a 5-4 majority, which is one vote shy of the 6-3 margin supporters need to override a mayoral veto.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Durkan made it clear that she would veto the tax in its current form, but said she still held out hope that the council “will pass a bill that I can sign.” However, Durkan’s ally Harrell, also made it clear on Friday that he would not support a compromise floated by council member Lisa Herbold to lower the tax to $350 per employee, indicating that he and Durkan may not be open to a proposal that merely closes the gap between what Durkan and the council majority want. It’s possible, in other words, that when Durkan says “a bill that I can sign,” she merely means a bill that cuts the tax to $250 per employee—the amount Amazon, which has threatened to stop construction on its Seattle headquarters if the tax passes in its original form, has said they are willing to accept. Amazon contributed $350,000 to a pro-Durkan PAC in last year’s mayoral election.

A quick backgrounder on the tax: Last year, at the end of its annual budget process, the council formed a task force to come up with a progressive tax to pay for housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population. After several months of meetings, and numerous compromises in response to objections from small and low-margin businesses, the task force came up with a plan that would generate about $75 million a year—a $500-per-employee annual tax on businesses with gross revenues above $20 million, a threshold that excludes companies with high gross revenues but tight margins, such as restaurants. The proposal also came with a spending plan that emphasized long-term affordable housing over short-term emergency shelter services, and a provision that would convert the head tax into a business payroll tax starting in 2021, with no sunset date.

On Thursday night, Mayor Durkan released her own “compromise” head-tax proposal, which would cut the recommended head tax in half, to $250 per employee, ditch the provision transitioning the head tax into a business payroll tax, and sunset the whole thing in five years unless the council voted proactively to renew it. On Friday, Harrell introduced a proposal identical to the Durkan plan, along with a spending plan that emphasizes shelter over permanent housing and would pay for just 250 new rental units over five years. The Durkan/Harrell plan also includes a four percent wage increase for social service workers (many of whom make just over $15 an hour) and funding for a second Navigation Team to remove tent encampments and refer their residents to services.

When a council vote is 5 to 4 and a veto hangs in the balance, talk inevitably turns to “swing votes”—that is, who can be swayed to join the council majority to make the bill veto-proof?

Right now, it appears unlikely that anyone in the council’s four-person minority will budge over the weekend to support the full $500 tax, or even Lisa Herbold’s proffered $350 compromise, but a lot can change in the course of two days. So perhaps there will be a compromise that convinces one of the council members who opposes the larger tax to join the council majority. (The opposite scenario—that one of the five members who voted for the original $500 tax will join the four-member minority that wants to cut it in half—seems highly unlikely, since all five council members have consistently supported the proposal that came out of the task force, and since they stand to gain more, politically speaking, by forcing Durkan into a veto fight than by switching sides and handing the mayor a bloodless victory.)

However: If, as seems more likely as of Friday afternoon, the vote remains 5-4, the question becomes what will happen in the 30 days after Durkan vetoes it.

Judging from council members’ past positions and their comments Friday, the most likely “swing vote” when the decision comes down to passing something or doing nothing appears to be council member Rob Johnson, who seemed more tentative in his position than either Debora Juarez (“If we tax jobs to build houses and the jobs leave because of the tax, then no houses get built”) or Sally Bagshaw, who said virtually nothing at Friday’s meeting but is typically not the first council member to make dramatic vote switches.

Last year, when the council was debating whether to include the head tax in the budget, Johnson argued that proponents needed to come up with a more detailed spending plan to justify such a substantial tax. They did exactly that—and Johnson voted instead for a hastily sketched-out proposal that some council members didn’t see for the first time until this morning. On Friday, the most enthusiastic comment Johnson managed to muster about Durkan’s proposal was that it “allows for us to continue that pay-as-you-go process that has been a hallmark of most of the affordable housing investments that we’ve made as a city.”  If tax proponents are looking for a swing vote to help them override Durkan’s veto (and there is precedent for this kind of vote-switching), Johnson may be their best bet.

The council will be in discussions all this weekend, and will meet again on Monday morning to discuss the proposal (and any compromises reached over the next two days). A final vote on the head tax is scheduled for 2:00 Monday in council chambers.

 

Morning Crank: A Proposal to Bar Renters from Parking on City Streets

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 (and much more). Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

1. This morning at 9:30, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) committee will hold a public hearing on a proposal that would reform parking requirements to allow more housing to be built without parking in dense, transit-rich neighborhoods. The parking update would also require developers who do build parking to charge separately for rent and parking, so that people who don’t own cars wouldn’t have to pay for parking spaces they don’t use. (A 2012 study of 95 Seattle apartment buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, meaning that developers are building more parking than they need. On-site parking, according to a 2013 report from the Sightline Institute, inflates the cost of rent by around 15 percent. Essentially, many renters are paying for an extra 200 square feet of housing for cars they don’t have.)

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes, a change that would effectively expand the areas where new apartments can be built without parking. Currently, the city allows developers to construct buildings without parking if they’re located within a quarter mile of frequent transit service, defined as service that arrives every 15 minutes or less. The problem is that if this rule is interpreted in the most literal possible way—by standing at the bus stop and measuring when each bus arrives—even one late bus per hour can disqualify a whole neighborhood. Since this is obviously ridiculous, the new rules propose to redefine “frequency” by measuring average arrivals over an hour and ten minutes; if buses arrive every 15 minutes, on average, then the service counts as frequent.

Despite the fact that the city has a longstanding official goal of reducing car ownership and solo car trips in the city,  the idea of allowing—not requiring, but allowing—new apartments that don’t come with “free” parking on site remains intensely controversial. (About half of all apartments in Seattle include parking in the cost of rent, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections). Council member Lisa Herbold, who recently questioned the city’s conclusion that much of the new parking that’s being built goes unused, wrote a blog post last Friday arguing that despite the fact that many renters don’t own cars (about 40 percent of those who live in the quarter of Seattle’s Census tracts with the largest percentage of renters), plenty of residents in other parts of town still have cars, and shouldn’t have to fight for on-street parking with tenants in apartment buildings that lack garages. Specifically, Herbold said she still has “concerns” about changing the definition of frequent transit service to a more flexible standard that acknowledges factors like traffic. “I still have to analyze the impacts of the proposed changes, but my fundamental concern is still that I question whether the case has been made to demonstrate a correlation between transit ridership and a reduction in car ownership, and therefore not needing a place to park a vehicle,” Herbold wrote.

Herbold’s blog post includes several maps that do, in fact, indicate that some areas in Herbold’s district—where, she notes pointedly, 82 percent of people own cars—will newly qualify as having “frequent transit service” under the new rules. This, she suggests, could indicate that the council is being too hasty in expanding the areas of the city where developers can build without parking based on access to frequent bus service. However, what Herbold doesn’t note is that most of the areas where the definition of “frequent” service will be expanded are inside urban villages or future urban villages, where developers can already build without parking, and where the percentage of renters is already high—in her own district, for example, the neighborhoods where transit will be considered “frequent” under the new rule include Highland Park and South Park, where, according to Herbold’s maps, between 50 and 68 percent of residents rent, and where far fewer households (37 percent and 29 percent of renters and homeowners, respectively), don’t own cars.

2. Anti-development activist Chris Leman circulated an email last week urging recipients to testify or write letters condemning the proposed new “frequent transit” definition. “On-street parking is no frill or luxury,” Leman writes. “It’s central to neighborhood safety and livability; to business success; and to mobility for children, seniors, the disabled, everyone.” (The entire concept behind Safe Routes to School, by the way, is that kids should be able to get to school safely without being driven there in a car). “Without on-street parking,” the email continues, “our residents could not go about their lives, and our restaurants and other small businesses would suffer or fail.” It goes on to suggest several policy “solutions,” including new rules barring renters from parking on city streets once they get above 85 percent capacity.

This, then, is the logical conclusion of some property owners’ (incorrect) belief that they have a “right” to park in front of their house: A two-tiered system in which only property owners have the right to access public spaces. I’m sure it won’t be long before we hear this argument applied to other public spaces, such as parks and libraries, too: If we’re willing to ban people without assets from using public streets, why wouldn’t we be willing to ban them from using other public assets? A truly fair system, of course, would be one in which everyone pays equally for parking (instead of getting subsidized parking on the street in front of their house for free), but I won’t hold my breath waiting for anti-development activists to advocate for that one.

3. After holding a typically boisterous committee hearing to protest cuts to hygiene centers and to shelters run by SHARE/WHEEL (I called it a “rally,” she called it a “town hall”), council member Kshama Sawant got her wish: The council restored $1 million in funding for SHARE/WHEEL and Urban Rest Stops, ensuring that they will be funded for another year. (The money was restored as part of legislation approving the sale of city-owned land in South Lake Union, which I’ve covered in more detail here and here.) According to a Human Services Department document explaining why the group didn’t receive funding, SHARE and WHEEL’s shelter proposals cost too much per bed and did not address racial equity goals; SHARE’s application, in particular, was “the lowest scoring application among shelters serving single adults, and had poor performance data; lack of specific examples; lack of specificity about actions/policies in cultural competency; high barriers to entry; more focus on chemical dependency compliance than on housing; concerns about fiscal capacity.” (The Seattle Times covered some of the controversies surrounding SHARE back in 2013).

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the council came up with that $1 million: They found the money lying around in last year’s real estate excise tax (REET) revenues, which, according to the city’s calculations, came in $1 million higher than originally estimated.  That allowed them to reallocate $1 million that was supposed to go to a new fire facility to the programs that were cut last year.  All this new funding comes from one-time expenditures, meaning that the city will have to find long-term funding sources in future years if they want to keep them going—a proposition that, like everything else that relies on tax dollars, is easier to do in boom times than in bad.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan hit many of the themes she’s been talking about during her first three months in office in her first State of the City speech yesterday at Rainier Beach High School (which also happened to be the first State of the City speech by a female mayor in Seattle’s history.) The speech, which I livetweeted from the auditorium, was generally sunny and full of promises, like free college for every Seattle high school graduate and free ORCA transit passes for every high school student —typical in years when the economy is booming. Durkan also touched on the homelessness crisis, the possibility of an NHL franchise (put deposits down for your season tickets starting March 1, she said), and her campaign promise to pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights. And she alluded briefly to the fact that the economy can’t stay on an upswing forever—an unusual admission in such a speech, although one that was somewhat contradicted by her promises to put more money into education, homeless shelters, and transportation. And, as I noted on Twitter,  Durkan also said she supported building new middle- and low-income housing across the city: “We need to speed up permitting, add density, and expand our housing options in every part of this city,” she said. But that, too, was somewhat undercut by a comment later in Durkan’s speech, when she said—citing a sentiment that has become conventional wisdom, fairly or not—that “growth” itself “has made it hard for the middle class” to get by.

 

Morning Crank: “This Is Our Dakota Access Pipeline Moment”

1. Environmental activists and tribal leaders have been waging a quixotic battle against Puget Sound Energy’s proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at the Port of Tacoma for months, but many Seattle residents just took notice in the past couple of weeks, after socialist council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution that would have condemned the plant as “an unacceptable risk” to the region.

Sawant had hoped to move the resolution through the council without sending it through the usual committee process, arguing that it it was urgent to take a position on the plant as quickly as possible. Last week, at the urging of council member Debora Juarez—an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation who once lived on the Puyallup Reservation—Sawant agreed to add language noting that numerous Northwest tribal groups, including the Puyallup tribe, have expressed their strong opposition to the LNG plant but have not been included in the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s environmental review process. Last week’s amended resolution also noted the need for intergovernmental partnerships between the PSCAA and the tribes, as required, according to the resolution, by “local, state, and federal permitting and other approval processes.”

But several council members, including Juarez, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw, still felt the resolution needed work, and they spent the weekend, starting last Thursday, drafting a version that eliminated some of Sawant’s more incendiary (pun intended) references, including two “whereas” clauses about the 2016 fire that claimed several businesses in Greenwood and sections urging both the public and Mayor Jenny Durkan to actively oppose the facility. Sawant protested that she had not been included in the process of drafting the latest version of her resolution—”I just want everyone to know that I’m not responsible for those changes,” she said Monday morning—but council members reportedly reached out to her by phone throughout the weekend and never heard back.

The basic question at issue, Juarez argued, isn’t really whether Seattle should meddle in “Tacoma’s business,” or labor versus tribes or labor versus environmentalists. It’s about the fact that climate change has a disproportionate impact on low-income people and people of color, particularly the nine tribes whose land is located in the four-county Puget Sound region, and that those tribes were not consulted in the siting or permitting process. “This is an issue that transcends any political, legal, or jurisdictional lines that people have drawn,” Juarez said. “This is our Dakota Access Pipeline moment, except that we are on the front end of this.”

Whatever the merits of that argument (some members of the labor community, for example, have argued that environmental  protection and tribal sovereignty shouldn’t trump the potential for job creation at the plant), the debate quickly pitted Sawant against other council members who supported, as Sawant put it, “postponing” the resolution. Juarez, in particular, seemed perturbed by the crowd of (largely white) activists who showed up to express their support for Sawant’s amendment and to cheer loudly throughout Sawant’s speeches, which took up nearly 20 minutes of the two-hour meeting. “I mean no disrespect to the advocates, activists, environmentalists, and other groups that align themselves with native people,” Juarez said, but “we’re not a club. We’re not a political base. We’re not a grassroots organization. We are a government. … We will not stay in our lane.” To that, Sawant responded, “This is not about government-to-government relations. This is about the lives of ordinary people, many of whom are native, but others who are not. … I don’t’ think that we should in any way accept this kind of divisive language that native people are the only real speakers and others don’t get to speak. No, all of us have a stake in this.”

Noting that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recently ordered further environmental review of the project, council president Bruce Harrell argued yesterday that there was no real risk in delay, telling Juarez, “I think that your advocacy that the native communities have not been consulted properly or even legally is a great point… We haven’t really had any public process on this issue.” Several council members, saying that they hadn’t seen the latest version of the legislation by late yesterday morning, just hours before they were supposed to vote on it, agreed, and the council sent the measure to Juarez’s Civic Development, Public Assets & Native Communities committee for a rewrite.

2. Public comment was mostly muted during the first council meeting on the proposed citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal, which will allow small density increases in six percent of the nearly 26,000 acres zoned exclusively for single-family housing in Seattle. (That number includes parks and open space, but not rights-of-way, such as streets; when green space is excluded, single-family houses and their yards cover nearly 22,000 acres of the city, or nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land.)  One speaker said that residents of her neighborhood come “unglued” when they find out about new buildings that don’t have parking; another called the Grand Bargain that authorized MHA a “sham bargain,” which probably sounded more clever on paper. And then there was this lady, from a group called Seattle Fair Growth:

Don’t expect density opponents to accept what they’re (misleadingly) calling a “citywide rezone” without a fight. The first public open house on the proposal is at 6:00 tonight at Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford; District 4 rep Rob Johnson, who heads up the council’s land use committee, said he’ll be there at 7.

3. I somehow missed this when it happened, but Elaine Rose, the longtime president of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, left the organization at the end of December with little fanfare and, as far as I can tell, no public announcement. Rose’s departure leaves a major agency without a permanent leader going into a short legislative session with several key bills under consideration*; an ad announcing the open position went out on a local employment listserv last week. (Planned Parenthood also listed a fundraising position earlier this month.) I’ve contacted Planned Parenthood and will update this post if I get more information about Rose’s departure.

*Full disclosure: I was communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, a reproductive rights advocacy group, until April 2017, and I do communications consulting for NARAL for approximately 3.5 hours a week. NARAL often partners with Planned Parenthood on advocacy efforts, but I found out Rose had left PPVNH through the WHOW list, which is not connected to either group.

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.

How Effective Is Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Law?

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald

Later this year, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant plans to introduce legislation that would require landlords who raise their rent more than 10 percent to pay lower-income tenants the equivalent of three months’ rent should they move out because of the resulting increase. The proposal, based on a similar law in Portland, is aimed at addressing “economic eviction,” when tenants are forced to move by rising rents.

The city already has a tenant relocation law on the books, although you may not have heard about it, because it only applies to certain renters in a limited number of situations. In anticipation of Sawant’s proposal, which her office says she plans to introduce later this spring, here’s a primer on the current law and what to expect from the proposal to expand it.

What is tenant relocation assistance and who currently qualifies?

Back in 1990, the Seattle City Council adopted a tenant relocation assistance ordinance (TRAO) to help low-income renters who have to move because of housing demolition, major renovations, or land use changes (for example, if an apartment building is converted into condos or a hotel). Tenants must make less than 50 percent of area median income (currently $33,600 for one person, or $48,000 for a family of four) to qualify for assistance; those who do receive a payment of $3,658 to help them move to a new location. Half that amount is paid by the city, and half is paid directly by landlords.

Property owners who are demolishing or converting a building have to get a tenant relocation license from the city, and are required to give tenants 90 days’ notice before demolishing a building or making other major changes.

The legislation has been amended periodically over the years—most recently in 2015, when the city council added a provision barring landlords from raising rent more than 10 percent in an effort to get tenants to move out so they can avoid paying relocation assistance before demolishing or renovating their building. The 2015 amendments also prohibit landlords from evicting tenants, except for good cause, after filing for a tenant relocation license.

How often does the city pay out rental relocation assistance, and how much does it cost the city?

Since 2004, the earliest year for which payout records are available, the city has paid more than $5.5 million to 1,881 tenants. In 2017, according to records from the Department of Construction and Inspections, the city provided relocation assistance to 235 households, for a total of $380,000 (landlords paid the other half).

What would Sawant’s proposal do?

Council member Sawant’s proposal would require landlords to pay three months’ rent to tenants who make less than 80 percent of the area median income ($48,500 for a single person or $72,000 for a family of four) and have to move as a result of a rent increase of more than 10 percent. Unlike the existing relocation ordinance, Sawant’s proposal would make landlords pay the full amount of assistance; Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone argues that the higher obligation is more than fair, given that it would only apply in cases where “the landlord has raised the rent substantially without having even the expense of a remodel or reconstruction.”

Couldn’t landlords just get around the law by raising rent by 9.9 percent?

Yes, although Virdone says the intent of the proposal is to address landlords who raise rents by an unreasonable amount, and 10 percent seemed like a reasonable floor. “People who have lived the majority of their lives here in Seattle should have a choice to stay,” Virdone says. “If we don’t put in place ordinances like this, there will be even more people moving out of the city.” Reliable information about individual rent increases in Seattle isn’t readily available, although rents went up 7.2 percent, on average, in 2016.

What do advocates for landlords say about the proposal?

Not surprisingly, groups like the Rental Housing Association, which represents about 5,500 landlords in Seattle, oppose the legislation, calling it another burdensome rule that will cause small “mom and pop” landlords to sell their properties to larger apartment management companies. “The biggest concern we should all have is that the more burden you put on landlords, the more risk you throw on them, the more likely they are to sell, and that property’s not going to be on the affordable end any longer,” says Sean Martin, external affairs director for the RHA. “We’re already seeing an uptick in folks that are selling.”

Isn’t imposing a penalty for rent increases over 10 percent a form of rent control, which is banned under state law? 

Sawant’s office says no—“This is just about what the tenant needs; it isn’t about trying to impact landlord behavior,” Virdone says—and the RHA, unsurprisingly, says yes. “If you’re making it economically unfeasible to raise the rent by whatever percentage is appropriate, that’s a restriction on rent,” Martin says. In either case, if it passes, the bill is certain to be challenged in court. In Portland, where rent control is also illegal, two local landlords sued the city over its almost identical. Although a federal judge upheld the ordinance, the landlords have appealed, and the case is currently working its way through the federal courts.