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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Developer Prevails in Lawsuit Challenging Anti-Density Rule

townhouses

Via PubliCola

In a rare win for dense “infill” housing in single-family neighborhoods, developer Bendare Dundat and the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties prevailed today in a lawsuit challenging a city ordinance that requires developers who want to build on small, “substandard” lots adjacent to existing developments to submit their proposals to design review, even though the original development was not subject to the same requirement. The ruling means that developers will be able to build small multifamily buildings on lots adjacent to other small developments without going through a time-consuming public process that could add thousands of dollars and months of delay to projects.

Last year, the city council decided to change the city’s land use code to require that if two unrelated but adjacent projects have a combined total of eight units or more, the second project–even if it’s smaller than the first–must go through design review, which takes months and can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a project.

In a declaration included in the lawsuit, Seattle developer Graham Black said the rules had added between $70,000 and $100,000 to the cost of his six-unit townhome development in the Central District, which had to go through design review because he got his development application in to the city later than an adjacent developer. Because of “random chance,” Black says in the statement, “I am at a significant competitive disadvantage so intend to re-design my project” to allow larger townhomes that can sell for more, so that he can “recoup at least a small portion of the financial costs of delay and involved design review.” This, of course, is exactly the scenario opponents of the new law predicted when they decided to challenge the new rules in court.

The law, King County Superior Court  justice Barbara Mack wrote in her decision, “requires design review by the second applicant approved for a permit, even if the second project is smaller than the first. It imposes direct and indirect costs that are neither reasonably necessary nor a direct result of the proposed development. It is hard to fathom how costs and fees could be reasonable and necessary for the smaller project, but not for the first, more impactful project on the adjacent property. The city appears to agree that the ordinance is designed to mitigate collective impacts, not the impact of any individual project.”

Developer lobbyist Roger Valdez, whose clients include the Master Builders, says he believes developers will be able to use today’s ruling in a future lawsuit to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability-Residential program, which requires developers to make a percentage of new units they build affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income, or pay into an affordable housing fund. In exchange, the city is allowing taller buildings across the city.

“Our argument is going to basically that [the city’s] creating an extraction [of money from developers], because even though you’re giving me this extra density, I lose the rent revenue from the units that I have to rent-restrict or pay a fee,” Valdez says. “I’ll make it up by raising rents, but if the tolerance level of the rents [is lower than] what I have to charge, and projects start to go negative, or the lender says ‘Those rents are too high,’ then the project becomes infeasible and we’ve got a case.”

Assistant City Attorney John Schocet said today that his office had not looked at the ruling in detail, and has about a month to decide if they want to appeal.

Are New Tenant Protections Anti-Urbanist?

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 10.46.26 PM

Is the “Carl Haglund law” anti-urbanist?

The new Seattle regulation,  which forbids landlords from raising rents if their buildings violate city building codes designed to protect life and safety, is named for the notorious Southeast Seattle landlord who bought a Rainier Valley apartment complex and tried to double his new tenants’ rents, despite the fact that the complex was infested with roaches, rats, and mold and had dozens of other housing code violations. Council member Kshama Sawant pushed for the new rules, which tenant advocates argue will provide another layer of protection for tenants who currently lack much recourse when landlords refuse to do repairs or try to force tenants out with unjustified rent increases.

But there’s another perspective on the law, one raised by self-described urbanists and landlords who say the regulations could force them to sell their properties to developers, leaving low-income tenants with fewer places to live in the city. Their argument goes like this: Small landlords who rent out “naturally affordable” housing keep their prices low by deferring maintenance on the small stuff—painting exteriors less frequently, or putting off energy upgrades, for example. If they’re forced to suddenly comply with every bit of minutia in the building code, there’s no way they can afford it—and without hundreds of thousands in reserves, they’ll have to raise their rents to pay for the repairs. Backed into a corner by the city, some will be forced to sell—most likely to developers who will build luxury new housing, displacing the low-income people who were living there.

Charlie Cunniff, a retired city Office of Economic Development staffer and former head of the Seattle Climate Partnership, rents out five units—a duplex and a triplex. He says he keeps the two buildings in good repair, and raises rents a little bit every year to cover basic maintenance and inflation, but wonders, “What will happen if our boiler blows up?”

Or, “Let’s say that you buy a new building and unbeknownst to you, there’s been years and years and years of deferred maintenance. … You’ve already paid $200,000 for the down payment and [taken out] another loan for $800,000 and the previous landlord has deferred the maintenance and you need to fix the windows, the boiler, and all these other things. Where do you get the cash? If the place is moribund and all the windows are broken, that’s  one thing. But if it’s just substandard and people are okay with living there…”

Cunniff says he has no problem with the law, although he does think enforcing existing rules, like the rental housing inspection law that passed in 2010, would be more effective than adding new regulations without the funding to enforce them. Developer lobbyist Roger Valdez, in contrast, argues that the new rules will lead to unintended consequences, like the destruction of existing affordable housing.

Valdez, who in addition to his work on behalf of small developers is a professional contrarian, says Sawant and others who support the Haglund law “want to declare a war on landlords, which is sort of like, in a time of food crisis, declaring war on supermarkets. … Make more bread. That’s the solution. Make more housing.”

Former Tenants Union director Jon Grant has an analogy of his own for landlords who say they can’t afford to make unanticipated repairs: They’re “like a small restaurant owner not cooking their chicken all the way through and letting all their customers get sick, and when the health department comes and says, ‘You need to make sure your chicken isn’t hurting people,”  the small business owner saying, ‘That’s unreasonable—I’d have to fix my rotisserie, and that’s expensive!’ The cost of doing business is that you make sure you’re maintaining your properties and keeping them safe.”

Valdez counters that the city already has a “sufficient mechanism” for making sure landlords aren’t cutting corners—the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, which passed in 2010. “In cases where people are deliberately letting buildings run down and intimidating tenants, then hold those people accountable, but we already have the resources to do that,” Valdez says. 

But that inspection ordinance didn’t manage to catch Haglund’s dozens of code violations—a sign to tenant advocates like Grant that the city needs to do more to counter bad actors. Valdez and Grant actually agree that rental inspection ordinance lacks funding and teeth, but to Valdez, that’s a reason to focus on improving that program (“If buildings like Carl’s can pass the city inspection, why isn’t the city saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s fix that program”), and to Grant, it’s a sign that the program isn’t doing enough on its own. “He’s trying to say [the rental inspection law is] a reason we don’t need this ordinance, but I would say we need this ordinance and we also need to fix RRIO, because it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do,” Grant says.

Obviously, the council is sympathetic to Grant’s position, voting 8-0 (Bruce Harrell, who abstained on the original rental housing inspection ordinance, was excused) to pass it. Lisa Herbold, a former aide to lefty council stalwart Nick Licata, who retired this year, said Monday that any “reliance on rent increases in order to finance basic life safety repairs is completely unfair.” The Rental Housing Association, the group the Stranger reports has “hinted at a lawsuit” opposing the law, did not return a call for comment.