1. In a letter sent on Tuesday to members of the city council’s select committee on Mandatory Housing Affordability, the Seattle Coalition for Livability, Affordability, and Equity (SCALE) urged council members to adopt a raft of amendments scaling back the (already watered-down) citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow duplexes, townhomes, and some small apartment buildings on six percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas.
SCALE’s letter encourages the council to adopt all “neighborhood self-determined amendments and resolutions,” which I wrote about last week, and zeroes in on a few specific amendments, including:
• An amendment reverting the MHA zoning back to whatever it was before the council adopted the plan, “should the courts find the affordability housing requirement sections (e.g. requirements to build on site or in-lieu fees) not legal.” MHA requires developers to fund or build affordable housing in exchange for the higher densities allowed by the plan.
• An amendment requiring “one-for-one replacement” of any housing removed as the result of development under MHA. The city has argued that mandatory one-for-one replacement discourages new development and does not accomplish the broader goal of producing more affordable housing throughout the city than is lost directly to development through physical displacement.
• Another, similar amendment requiring that any new development that results from developers paying a fee into an affordable housing fund be inside the same urban village as, or no more than 10 minutes’ walking distance from, the new development. This would also have the impact of reducing development, and thereby lowering the number of new affordable housing units built under MHA.
• Amendments mandating large new setbacks (15 feet in the front and rear, and between 5 and10 feet on the sides) and yards for new development, including small, low-rise apartment buildings, which would be required to have “at least one 20′ x 20′ area at grade for landscape and a large tree planted in natural soil.”
• An amendment changing the definition of “family-sized housing,” which is required in some affordable-housing developments, to three bedrooms (from the current two). The letter justifies this change, which would likely prevent some development because larger apartments are both more expensive and less lucrative, by arguing that “[f]amily sizes for low income, immigrants and refugees and people of color tend to be larger.” The average household size in Seattle, as of the 2017 American Community Survey, was 2.11—1.85 for renters.
The city council took up the first set of district-specific MHA amendments, including some proposed by residents and some from council members themselves, on Monday; on Wednesday, they’ll consider the second batch. I wrote about all those amendments here.
2. As the longest (by one week) Seattle highway closure in history enters its third weekday, predictions of “viadoom” and “carpocalypse” haven’t come to fruition. But as city, state, and county leaders reminded the city at a press event last week, the “period of maximum constraint” is a long-term issue, which is one reason, Mayor Jenny Durkan explained, that the city needed to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, one of the two finalists for the Seattle Department of Transportation director job that was ultimately filled by Washington, D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe, to oversee the city’s “mobility operations.”
It didn’t get coverage at the time (most of the assembled press were focused, understandably, on the coming permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct), but Durkan offered her most detailed explanation yet of why she believes the city needs not only a new SDOT director and a director of downtown mobility, but a “director of citywide mobility operations coordination,” which is Worden’s full, official title.
“Both Sam and the General came up through the SDOT search, and both of them were enthusiastically supported by the search committee, who said, ‘Either one, you’re going to get a winner.’ And I said, ‘Why does it have to be an or? Why can’t it be an and?'”
Durkan went on to joke that Worden would benefit from his past experience under “enemy fire” and reiterated that Worden’s job wasn’t just monitoring traffic, but coordinating responses from “29 city departments” (which is, incidentally, all of the city departments). For example, “When a tree comes down and blocks a road, that’s not necessarily a Seattle Department of Transportation issue; it could be a City Light issue because it could take wires with it. It could be a Parks Department issue, because the tree was originally in a park.”
Worden also cited his military experience as something that uniquely prepared him for his new job as, effectively, the city’s traffic czar. “My experience with coming together on the eve of a crisis with a bunch of strangers who are arriving from different locations, different countries, facing a crisis, and the ability to work with them to build relationships, to get everyone on a common frame of reference, to achieve the objectives, may come into play … as we transform like a butterfly into the city that everybody wants to be,” Worden said.
1. As the city council begins what could—could—be the final round of discussions about the Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal (the plan, in the works for two years now, would upzone 6 percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas and require developers to fund new affordable housing), density opponents are sharpening their pencils.
The Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), which blocked the plan for a year with environmental appeals, produced a list of proposed amendments to the plan that would effectively gut the proposal, by forcing the city to charge developers to pay new “impact fees” to offset the perceived negative impacts of new housing, instituting minimum parking requirements for new developments, quadrupling the fees developers would pay toward affordable housing under the ordinance, and rolling back many of the zoning changes entirely.
The proposed amendments include things like increasing tree canopy requirements (thereby reducing development capacity) in low-income neighborhoods; changing the definition of “family-sized” housing to exclude two-bedroom apartments; requiring large open spaces or even yards for new multifamily developments; and reducing the MHA rezones to reflect the affordable housing targets in existing neighborhood plans, which did not contemplate the massive population growth nor the rise in inequality that Seattle has experienced over the last ten years.
SCALE’s Toby Thaler, who argued the group’s case against MHA before the city hearing examiner, did not respond to an email with questions about the document. While some of the amendments the group is proposing are obviously fanciful—no one is seriously talking, for example, about blowing up the “Grand Bargain” with developers by requiring them to fulfill 50 percent of their affordability requirements with on-site housing—they could serve as a kind of Overton window (or, if you prefer, opening gambit) for the upcoming discussion about neighborhood-specific changes to the plan, which begins next week.
Housing advocates will want to keep an eye out for what citywide and block-by-block changes council members (and Mayor Jenny Durkan) propose, and whether those changes track with the proposals put forward by SCALE. (The amendments aren’t available yet, but I’ll post about them as soon as they are.) Durkan has said in the past that she believes “neighborhoods” should have more input into the city’s development decisions; whether that means acceding to homeowner advocates’ demands during the final stretch of the MHA debate will become clear in the coming weeks.
2. The city will spend $75,000 this year (of $100,000 allocated in last year’s budget) on a contractor who will advise the mayor and council on whether the Showbox should become a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. According to the scope of work for the contract, obtained through a public records request, the contractor will “Review the historic significance of the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the PPMHD Design Guidelines related to the Showbox theater, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” According to a spokeswoman with the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, DON has not chosen a consultant yet, but remains on the schedule outlined in the work plan.
The contractor will have to get all that work done quickly; the city’s schedule calls for any SEPA findings to be published in March, with all the work wrapping up in April, and a council vote to permanently expand the historical district in June. Two to three months is a remarkably short time frame for a single contractor to conduct a full public outreach process, do a thorough environmental review, and draft legislation for the council to consider and pass. To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.
Under the city’s current schedule, the Showbox building would become a permanent part of Pike Place Market three months before a trial is scheduled to begin in a lawsuit the property owners filed against the city; that suit charges that the city violated the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires council members to remain neutral on so-called quasi-judicial decisions like historic district boundary expansions, as well as the owners’ First Amendment and due process rights.
The debate over the Showbox’s fate began when a developer, Vancouver-based Onni, filed plans to build a 44-story apartment building on the property, which the council had recently rezoned to allow just such a development. The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building, which is owned by strip club magnate Roger Forbes; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.
3. After pushback over the fact that its original “service area” was confined almost exclusively to neighborhoods north of I-90 (including many north of the Ship Canal), Uber announced today that its JUMP bikes will be available in South and West Seattle. The company, which launched its bikesharing service in Seattle late last year, got some bad press last week when the Seattle Times reported that riders who left bikes outside the service area could be charged $25. (An Uber spokesman says the company has not imposed the fee on any riders.) Lime Bikes, Uber’s competitor, launched citywide in the summer of 2017.
The red outline on this map shows the new service area, which includes three of four “equity areas” (low-income communities and communities of color) designated by the city. The original, blue-outlined area included just one of the equity areas, which includes the Central District and a sliver of South Seattle that extends down to the Mount Baker light rail station.
This is hardly the first time a “sharing economy” company has decided to serve the wealthier, whiter areas of the city first. Six years ago, Car2Go launched with a service area that excluded the entire South End and West Seattle while serving areas as far north as Bitter Lake.
SCALE, a group made up primarily of activist North End homeowners, is suing the city to prevent the implementation of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which—in addition to allowing increased density in multifamily areas around the city—would allow duplexes, townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings to be built on six percent of the land currently zoned for exclusive single-family use. In exchange for the right to build about one story higher than what’s currently allowed in these areas, developers would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into a fund to build affordable apartments elsewhere. The city has already implemented MHA in a number of areas, including the University District, South Lake Union, and downtown, where Showbox fans are trying to stop one of the first developments proposed under the new rules.
Since the beginning of its drawn-out attempt to kill MHA, SCALE has mischaracterized the plan as a citywide upzone, which it is not; currently, two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land is reserved exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, and MHA would only remove a tiny sliver of land at the edges of those areas, adjacent to “urban villages” and “urban centers” that are already dense and well-served by transit. As council member Debora Juarez said last week, “with that six percent, what we’re trying to do is right a historical wrong”—that is, racist redlining—”because we know that for people of color, marginalized communities, refugees, and immigrants, in order for us to build wealth, we need to have a home.”
Historically, SCALE and its leaders—who include Toby Thaler, head of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, Bill Bradburd, a onetime city council candidate who called the city’s entire Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda “dumb,” and Sarajane Siegfriedt, a longtime Lake City neighborhood activist —have argued that townhouses and small apartment buildings violate the “historic character” of single-family areas. But last month, they switched tactics, portraying themselves as social justice advocates and defenders of low-income communities. Making their case to hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, SCALE argued that the city failed to consider feedback about the impacts of expanding urban villages on low-income people and people of color in conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) about the proposal, and then tried to bury that feedback.
In fact, the city spent the better part of a year doing outreach to nontraditional neighborhood groups and marginalized communities to find out their concerns about the potential impacts of MHA and wrote a final EIS that responded explicitly to those concerns, changing the zoning mix in neighborhoods with a high risk of displacement in an effort to help people stay in those communities.
SCALE’s evidence for the supposed coverup: A single letter from a group of city employees, known as the Race and Social Equity Team, who were charged with reviewing the city’s draft environmental impact statement for the MHA plan through a race and social justice lens. Their report (pages 9-18), which was submitted several months after the end of the public comment period for the draft version of the plan, suggested that the city needed to go further than it did in the draft EIS to address the race and social justice impacts of upzoning low-income neighborhoods where people of color are concentrated.
“A number of honorable city employees conducted a thorough review of the race and social justice equity aspects of the EIS, but the city executive administration ignored their work,” Thaler said at a special city council meeting on the plan last week. “There is no explicit reference in the EIS to [race and social justice at all.. … Read the record! This is a coverup!”
The letter, submitted by Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections staffer Dan Nelson on behalf of staffers at several city departments, says the draft EIS “did not consider race as deeply” as other factors related to housing affordability, and suggests that the city should collect “qualitative information” from community residents about what historic resources and cultural assets they consider most important and vulnerable to displacement as MHA moves forward, and to continue doing so on an ongoing basis as MHA proceeds.
There is ample reason to do this kind of analysis. Historically, zoning (both official and unofficial, through policies that redlined people of color out of the most desirable areas of Seattle and cities across the country) has been used as a tool of discrimination against people of color in cities. In order to avoid perpetuating that legacy, race and social justice must be considered carefully as part of every land-use decision the city makes. The city also, it must be said, has not made this a top priority until relatively recently; Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, an effort to programmatically eliminate institutional racism within the city itself and in city policies, still has not been fully implemented 13 years after it was adopted in 2005. Many of the recommendations in the race and social equity team’s letter involve addressing race and social justice proactively in the future, not just with MHA but with other policy initiatives that impact communities of color. Undeniably, this is an area where the city still has work to do.
Looking only at MHA, however, it’s important to note that contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released. The letter, which reflects concerns about the draft version of the document—namely, that it did not adequately consider the plan’s potential for driving people and institutions out of their neighborhoods through physical and economic displacement—was just one of dozens of responses from community groups, committees, and interest groups across the city, whose extensive feedback is summarized here.
The MHA process included many new kinds of community outreach—led by former neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland—aimed at reaching communities that have been poorly served by traditional neighborhood groups like the neighborhood councils that make up most of the SCALE “coalition”. I covered a number of these, including the city’s new community liaison program and Community Involvement Commission, last year.
Contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released.
Taking all that feedback into consideration, the city then changed the proposal between the draft and final versions to explicitly discourage high-intensity development in areas that were determined, through a separate process called the Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis, to have both a high risk of displacement and low access to economic opportunity, which tend to be neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income people and people of color. (“Displacement risk” was determined by factors such as race, ethnicity, and “linguistic isolation,” according to the city.) At the same time, the final EIS emphasized development in areas with a low risk of displacement and high access to opportunity—the same north-of-I-90 neighborhoods, in other words, where most of SCALE’s members own houses.
The changes the city made between the draft and final EIS came response to direct community feedback, independent of the letter from city employees that SCALE considers its smoking gun. Those changes include:
• Reducing the amount of new housing that can be built in several areas where community members raised concerns about displacement, including the 23rd and Jackson-Union, Othello, and Rainier Beach residential urban villages;
• Increasing the zoning capacity in areas that have historically excluded low-income people and people of color—defined in MHA as places with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity—such as the Admiral residential urban village in West Seattle and the Ballard hub urban village, to encourage more development in those areas; and
• Amending the EIS between the final and draft version to explicitly direct the city’s office of housing to spend payments collected for affordable housing from developments in high-displacement risk neighborhoods into affordable housing in those neighborhoods.
Last month, SCALE rested its case before hearing examiner Ryan Vancil with testimony from, among others, Maria Batayola, a former Beacon Hill resident who testified that she has lived in Bellevue for four years but who still chairs the Beacon Hill Community Council’s land use committee. Batayola testified that her group joined SCALE in its lawsuit because they believed the city had failed to consider race and social justice in deciding which areas would receive upzones under MHA. But on cross-examination from an attorney with the city, Batayola said that she thought Nelson’s letter, and the Race and Social Equity Team’s report, were in response to the final document, not the (substantively different) draft. (Under questioning, Batayola reversed herself. She did not discuss the changes the city had made since the first version of the EIS.)
The hearing on SCALE’s lawsuit will continue later this month, and will likely last well into September; MHA can’t move forward until the lawsuit is resolved. Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues. Every day that MHA is not in place, the city loses out not only on opportunities to address the ongoing shortage of market-rate housing, it loses out on funding for affordable housing as well—a slow drip-drip-drip that adds up to millions of dollars in lost housing opportunities.
Whether restricting the creation of housing—any type of housing—will work as a long-time anti-displacement strategy is, of course, another question—one that city council member Teresa Mosqueda posed at last week’s meeting. “I still struggle with the terminology that if we were to do more development—again, through the community lens, led by community organizations and neighborhood leaders who who can talk about the type of housing that they’d like to see—we can actually benefit by seeing increased housing and density requirements in some of these areas that are being called at risk of displacement.
“If they are at risk of displacement, then [it seems like] we would like to see more opportunities for folks to live in those areas and not get pushed out,” Mosqueda concluded.
Note: This post originally identified the Fremont Neighborhood Council as the Fremont Neighborhood Association.