Anxious About Durkan’s Decision, Council Members and Housing Advocates Scheduled Last-Minute Press Conference on Density Plan

Image via City of Seattle

For months, advocates for a denser, more affordable city have been waiting with gritted teeth to see how Mayor Jenny Durkan would put her imprint on the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which was developed under her predecessor, Ed Murray. The plan, which has already been implemented in a handful of neighborhoods, allows more types of housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings—in more parts of the city, including 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Given Durkan’s somewhat spotty record on key urbanist issues—stalling bike lanes downtown and in North Seattle, siding with housing opponents on the Showbox, and delaying the First Avenue streetcar—density advocates worried that any changes Durkan made would only water down the proposal.

Last week, it looked like the advocates were about to get the bad news they were expecting: Durkan, under pressure from the city attorney’s office, was reportedly poised to call for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to examine the plan’s potential impacts on historic resources (like the Admiral Theatre, above)—an additional layer of process that would have added months of delay and created new avenues for MHA opponents to appeal the plan, perhaps into oblivion. Instead, MHA advocates wanted the city to limit its additional historical-resources analysis—required by an otherwise favorable ruling by the city’s hearing examiner last November—to an addendum to the final environmental impact statement, which would require only a 14-day public comment period and could not be challenged. The ruling marked the conclusion of a yearlong appeal by single-family neighborhood activists, who argued that MHA should not go forward because of its supposed negative environmental impacts.

The city attorney, whose spokesman said he could not comment on any legal advice the office provides to the mayor, reportedly expressed concern that doing an addendum, rather than a full SEIS, could open the city up to legal liability.

Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about whether she initially leaned toward recommending the more arduous, time-consuming EIS process. But representatives from the Housing Development Consortium, Vulcan, the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority, and several city council members were apparently concerned enough about the potential for more delay that they planned a press conference this past Friday morning at Sound Transit’s Union Station to encourage the mayor to move forward quickly with the plan.

According to a planning email obtained by The C Is for Crank, pro-MHA city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office billed the event—officially a kickoff to Affordable Housing Month— as an opportunity for participating organizations “to speak directly with members of the press about the importance of moving MHA forward by March… and why you and/or your organization is excited to support this legislation that has been years in the making!” In addition to Mosqueda, council members Rob Johnson and Lorena Gonzalez were scheduled to speak.

Support

And then, without notice, the press conference was called off. One participant says they showed up to find no one there. Mosqueda would not comment on why the event was canceled; nor would Johnson, the chairman of the council’s land use committee and a longtime vocal MHA proponent.

However, sources inside and outside city hall who spoke on background say that Durkan met last week with a coalition of MHA advocates, including developers whose plans would be impacted by more delay, who strongly urged her to go with the less onerous addendum option. As, indeed, she ultimately did: The city’s Office of Planning and Development will publish the addendum on Thursday, eliminating one of the last potential roadblocks to MHA’s approval. At some point between now and March, the council will approve the plan (with amendments) and a companion resolution, which could call for mitigation plans to protect historical resources inside the MHA boundaries.

The mayor’s office provided a statement about the decision to move MHA forward:

Mayor Durkan believes the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements are critical to building more affordable housing while ensuring that our fastest-growing neighborhoods can be vibrant, livable places for the next generation. In November 2018, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled that the environmental analysis of MHA conducted by the City adequately addressed the impacts of the proposal with the exception of the analysis of historic resources. As required by the Hearing Examiner’s remand, the City has been working diligently to conduct a thorough environmental review of historic resources, and this week OPCD will publish the addendum in order to move forward on a path for the City Council to pass MHA this Spring. Understanding appellants have challenged MHA every step of the way, the City will continue to successfully work to increase development capacity and support affordable housing requirements.

If MHA does move forward in March, it will mark the end of delay tactics that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing, worth an estimated $87 million, over the year that MHA has been locked up in appeals. It will also represent a significant moment in the Durkan administration—a decision to move forward, rather than delay, a program that will create a significant amount of new housing despite the fact that it’s controversial with the single-family homeowners who helped the mayor get elected.

It’s not clear exactly why Durkan made this decision when she did—whether, for example, she was swayed by the specter of a big press conference starring three council members, Vulcan, and the county’s largest affordable housing coalition, or by direct appeals from developers themselves. But tensions were reportedly high at City Hall right up until Friday, after Durkan decided to support the fast-track option— if you can say that a process that has taken nearly two years is on a fast track.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Jon Grant

Former Tenants Union director Jon Grant first ran for City Council Position 8 back in 2015, when now-interim mayor Tim Burgess was running for reelection and the field consisted of four straight white guys, three of them named Jonathan. Back then, Grant beat out the other two Johns on the ballot by arguing that incumbent Burgess had failed to act boldly on police reform and was in the pocket of big developers. This time, Grant faced a diverse group of primary opponents, including two women of color, the city’s first transgender council candidate, a lesbian, and a gay Egyptian-American Muslim man. His general-election opponent is labor leader Teresa Mosqueda, a Latina and renter who works as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council. Grant says he considered dropping out of the race when it appeared that his frontrunning opponent would be a woman of color, but decided to stay in after he sat down with Mosqueda and realized they had different “theories of change” and visions for the city. A longtime advocate for public financing of local campaigns, Grant has raised $300,000 in democracy vouchers—publicly funded contributions from individual supporters.

I sat down with Grant at Eastern Cafe in the International District last week.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: What do you see as the biggest policy difference between you and your opponent?

Jon Grant [JG]: The obvious answer is housing. When the city developed the Grand Bargain, it was a committee comprised of 28 members, of which I was one. Half of the committee was comprised of representatives from private developers, and that was really reflected in the final proposal. [Ed: Only nine of the 28 HALA  committee members work for private, nonprofit, or mixed-income developers; Grant declined to clarify which of the other HALA members he considered developer representatives.] Folks forget about this, but the conversation before HALA was around a linkage fee [a proposed square-footage fee, to be paid by developers, that would fund affordable housing], and council member Mike O’Brien had a proposal to max out the linkage fee [at $22 a square foot]. At the time, [the city’s Department of Planning and Development] did an analysis and they found that over the next 10 years, it would have brought in about $1 billion for affordable housing. My point being this: When you compare that raw number to the raw value of the Grand Bargain, it’s around $640 million, and that’s a pretty big difference. That’s letting private developers off the hook for millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I felt that that was a problem.

My opponent has criticized me for walking away from the table on the HALA process. That’s a mischaracterization. I stuck with that process for 10 months, and at the end of it, I voted my conscience. [Ed.: Grant actually abstained from the final HALA vote.] I felt it was important that there be a community conversation about, are we actually acting in the public’s best interest by striking the deal, and I thought abstaining from the deal created a space to have that conversation. And back in 2015 [when Grant ran for council Position 8 the first time], I put forward my own proposal that would have brought back the linkage fee. That’s unfortunately not how things worked out. We now have the Grand Bargain, and there are now these citywide upzones without any real discussion of whether we are getting the best benefit or the most for the public good. I think that’s a real concern, and I think that’s what’s at stake in this election.

ECB: HALA and MHA are now largely the law of the land in Seattle, with full support from the council—would you propose revisiting the process and reconsidering zoning decisions that have already been approved?

JG: I think that question—’Well, would you walk back HALA?’—is actually a distraction. I think the question is, why aren’t we asking for more in terms of affordability? My opponent won’t say what she’s willing to do in that regard.

 

“If you just allow for a citywide elimination of single family zoning, what’s going to happen is that the first properties to go are going to be rental properties, because if you rezone that area, the landlord who owns those properties will be very quick to sell it off to a developer to build a million-dollar condo or whatever.”

 

ECB: In our conversation, your opponent said she would like to bump up the MHA requirement, but that she thinks your proposal to require developers to make 25 percent of their units affordable is too high.

JG: I have yet to hear what that amount is, and there are opportunities for her to weigh in on that debate today, and she has not.

To me, there are signals that a candidate can give to voters about where they stand on these things, and not being vocal about this when the community has had real concerns about how these upzones are moving forward, and that the affordability levels are at the minimum—when you’re a candidate who’s had opportunities to be vocal and stand in solidarity with the community and you don’t do that, I think that’s a signal to voters. I think it’s also important to note that my opponent accepted a maxed-out donation from Maria Barrientos, who was a developer who was an architect of the Grand Bargain itself.

ECB: You mentioned this at a forum recently, and I have to point out that it was $250—hardly enough money to buy influence. [Ed: Barrientos is also one of the only prominent women of color in Seattle’s development community, and she has long incorporated below-market housing into all her buildings.]

JG: I think it really matters where your money comes from. It matters for voters to know who you’re listening to, who you’re accountable to, and for my part, I think taking a stance of not taking money from developers—it sends a clear signal to voters that you’re going to stand with them. When developers are having so much influence at city hall, what we really need is not another lobbyist at city hall that’s going to be cozy to developers but a community advocate that’s going to fight against the forces of displacement. I understand that when you’re talking about very complex policy issues, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. What I would really like to see is for the city to do an economic analysis of every upzone to determine what was the amount that the developer could afford before that tipping point where the developer walks away from the project.

ECB: Would you be open to allowing more density in Seattle’s single-family-only areas?

JG: If you just allow for a citywide elimination of single family zoning, what’s going to happen is that the first properties to go are going to be rental properties. It’s not really widely known, but one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes. Now those are also the homes that are most at risk, because if you rezone that area the landlord who owns those properties will be very quick to sell it off to a developer to build a million-dollar condo or whatever. When we talk about changing the zoning, we have to acknowledge the fact that there’s 100,000 people moving to our city and they have to go somewhere, so we have to accommodate that growth, but I am very nervous and very cautious about the idea of eliminating rental housing that is currently affordable. If we don’t manage that we’re going to see widespread displacement of low-income people and people of color.

ECB: Do you have actual data to indicate that there are a huge number of people renting affordable single-family houses in places like the Central District who would be at risk of losing their housing if the city got rid of single-family zoning?

JG: Anecdotally, from my time at the Tenants Union, yes—the calls we would get from people in the Rainier Valley in particular and also in the Central District. I went to a forum recently and I asked people, ‘How many of you know someone who lives in a single-family home that rents?’ Like half the room raised their hand. So I think that it’s an issue that’s not really talked about.

[Ed: I searched Craigslist for houses to rent in both the Rainier Valley and the Central District and found none that would meet most definitions of “affordable.” A few representative listings included a four-bedroom house for $3,600 in Rainier Beach; a $2,500 two-bedroom in Hillman City; and a $2,000 two-bedroom in the Central District. In contrast, there were plenty of relatively cheap single-family homes near the University of Washington, including a $2,000 five-bedroom, a $5,000 seven-bedroom, and a $3,800 six-bedroom. Those rental listings, however, are obviously aimed at students, not families, and the University District is not a gentrifying, historically African-American area.]

“Police, as employees, stand apart from any other employees, in that they’re the only employees that have a license to kill. And for that reason, they need to be held to a different standard.”

 

ECB: You’ve criticized your opponent, including in this interview, for being a lobbyist. Teresa has pointed out that her clients are unionized workers, not big corporations. How do you respond to that, and are there any specific examples where she’s taken a position that’s out of step with working people?

JG: For my part, I stand in solidarity with rank-and-file workers. When we talk about labor leadership, I think it’s a different conversation. We’re in a moment right now where there is tremendous opportunity in Seattle politics to really push the envelope and get really progressive people elected, and [yet], the [Martin Luther King Central] Labor Council endorsed the same person for mayor [Jenny Durkan] that the Chamber of Commerce endorsed. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars being thrown into the race against me, even though I have a track record of being very pro-labor. I used to be a union member [at the Office of Professional Employees International Local 8]. I worked alongside Teresa on initiative 1433 to raise the statewide minimum wage. [UPDATE: Mosqueda says Grant did not “work alongside” her; rather, she ran the campaign and “I hired him for a few months.”] I’m very pro-worker, I’m very pro-union, but I just call into question these decisions that are happening at the higher levels. I think we have more than enough insider people at city hall who are more accustomed to making deals in back rooms than being out in the community and pushing the envelope.

ECB: One reason labor might not like you is that you’ve called for opening up police union contract negotiations to the public, which labor advocates worry will open the door to eliminating confidential negotiations for other public workers.

JG: Yeah, I don’t see that.

ECB: Why not?

JG: I think that what’s important to remember is that the police, as employees, stand apart from any other employees, in that they’re the only employees that have a license to kill. And for that reason, they need to be held to a different standard. And what I have seen through the negotiating processes with the union is that a lack of transparency in that process has led the public not to understand what is being bargained away, in terms of the right to have constitutional policing. I am 100 percent pro-union. I don’t think that the police labor contract should be completely open to the public. I think the provisions around discipline, especially, should be, because we’ve seen too many times where officers have been let of the hook. I think that if the city doesn’t take bold stances to actually address this culture of impunity that exists in our police department, we are going to continue to see more racial profiling, we’re going to continue to see more excessive force, and I’ve just got to call into question my opponent, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same groups [unions] that are supportive of [the Seattle Police Officers Guild], and would call into question whether she’s going to hold them accountable.

ECB: How would you avoid opening that Pandora’s box and having all city union negotiations open to the public?

JG: If the city were to pursue this, we would craft legislation so that it’s specific to the police union. We have a reality where there is, every year now, a person of color getting shot by the police, and the idea that it’s not worth going out on a legal limb to try to save a life is not compelling argument to me.

 

ECB: As a white guy, how do you sit here and say, ‘Vote for me—I will represent the interests of women and women of color better than a woman of color’?

JG: I think this comes down to values and theory of change. Very early on in this race, I sat down with my opponent, and it was really clear to me that we represented different visions for the city.

 

ECB: Can you talk a little bit about what you’d do on as a city council member to promote gender equity, in terms of pay and opportunities?

JG: We’ve made some tremendous gains with the paid family leave legislation that got passed at the state level. The next thing I would work on is ensuring pay transparency. It’s kind of remarkable that we don’t already have this on the books. As I’m sure you know, women are paid 73 cents for every dollar a man makes. [Ed: 80 cents, and 78.6 cents in Seattle], and even less for  women of color. One of the big perpetuators of that is the fact that when you get a job, you have no idea if you’re getting paid as much as your male counterparts. And part of that is because when you get offered a job, they  ask for your salary history, but because of the existing gender pay gap, it just perpetuates that cycle into the next job that you get. So I would support putting penalties on employers [who penalize] employees who ask what their colleagues’ salary is so that they can see if they’re getting paid at same level, and prohibiting the disclosure of your salary when you apply for a job.

And then, secondly, I think that we really need to take into account child care. Right now, you have to pay as much as a college tuition for just getting basic child care services for your family, and that disproportionally impacts women. I agree [with Mosqueda] that we shouldn’t have families paying more than 10 percent of their income toward child care. We need to do some investigation into how it gets paid for, whether it’s borne by employees or a more progressive tax. I haven’t heard from my opponent about how she plans on financing it.

ECB: She’s talked about paying for it out of the next Families and Education Levy.

JG: Again, it’s a regressive tax. So I think to the extent that we can actually get more progressive revenue sources to pay for these programs—seeing whether or not the [city] income tax pulls through in court, imposing a progressive corporate tax, or implementing impact fees—I think that’s another thing we haven’t talked about enough.

ECB: You’re describing to me what it’s like to be a working woman, and I’m sitting here going, ‘Yeah, I know what it’s like to be a working woman.’ Isn’t it important to have more women, more people with that lived experience, on the council?  As a white guy, how do you sit here and say, ‘Vote for me—I will represent the interests of women and women of color better than a woman of color’?

JG: I think this comes down to values and theory of change. Very early on in this race, I sat down with my opponent. I talked about the concerns that I was hearing from the community, from women, from women of color, around police accountability, around housing affordability. And we had a conversation about our policy differences and how far we were willing to go to achieve the most robust outcomes for many different communities of our city, and it was really clear to me that we represented different visions for the city. I decided to stay in the race because I think that for those communities that are impacted, we have a platform that’s going to do more to advance social equity and to advance social justice.