The J is for Judge: It Takes One to Know One

Critics of Seattle’s out-of-whack zoning scheme—two-thirds of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family housing—have been arguing for decades now that Seattle needs to grow up (or build up, actually) and function like an actual city, not a suburb.

This isn’t an argument about aesthetics. It’s an argument for housing affordability and environmental sustainability, both urgent issues given the homelessness crisis and the latest climate change data from the U.N., respectively.

The blunt argument from pro-city urbanists is this: The Magnolia First ideology that single-family zoning stalwarts adhere to  (or Laurelhurst First ideology or Wallingford First ideology or Phinney Ridge First ideology) selfishly defends an unsustainable lifestyle of privilege and exclusion (including the delusion that people have a constitutional right to free parking in front of their houses).

In short: The NIMBYs’ aesthetic position—that we must preserve the “character” of exclusionary neighborhoods—is undermining Seattle’s livability and affordability for the rest of us.

If you think the urbanist critique of single-family zoning lacks credibility because hipster urbanists supposedly don’t have kids or haven’t lived here long enough or are too young or don’t own houses (most people in Seattle are renters, by the way), let me introduce you to the latest critic of Seattle’s refusal to grow up and act like a city: An actual suburbanite, who lives in an actual suburb, state Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1, Maltby).

Palumbo is proposing a bill  that would make Seattle do something it refuses to do on its own: Upzone its suburban-style landscape to take on more density.

The 45-year-old state senator argues that Seattle’s failure to play its designated urban role in our region is undermining the state’s anti-sprawl Growth Management Act.  Palumbo’s point: Seattle’s refusal to accept more growth is causing sprawl, the very opposite of what smart cities are supposedly about. (Maltby is northeast of Kirkland and Woodinville, and due east of Lynnwood.)

Sen. Palumbo’s state legislative district (which largely overlaps with Snohomish County Council Districts 4 and 5 on the charts below) has, in fact, seen  growth on par with Seattle’s, at least as a percentage of population—around 14 percent, including 17.4 percent growth in portions of the district. It’d be one thing if that spike in growth simply represented small-town numbers growing to slightly bigger small-town numbers. But we’re talking an extra 40,000 people added to a population of 285,000. It’s as if everyone on Mercer Island picked up and moved to Palumbo’s district. And then a couple of years later, half of Mercer Island picked up and did it again.

Seattle itself has grown 17.2 percent over the same time (2010 to 2017). But Palumbo isn’t arguing Seattle hasn’t grown significantly; he’s pointing out that it should be growing a lot more than the suburbs if the region is going to grow sustainably.

“They are taking growth,” he says of Seattle. “The problem is the growth they aren’t taking is moving at too high a level to places that aren’t equipped to deal with it and service it. Snohomish is taking the growth that should be in Seattle,” he reasons. “If Seattle only built the types of housing people wanted and needed,” he adds, it would also increase housing supply, slowing the increase in housing prices that are nudging people out to the remote suburbs. Sprawl.

Palumbo condemns Seattle’s rigid zoning because, he says, it’s forcing families who would actually prefer to live in the city to move into his suburban southwest Snohomish County district instead. “Seattle is zoned low-density, single-family,” he says.  As a result, “people can’t even afford one of the few and overpriced houses there, and they have to move. And they move out to the suburbs. ”

Why, there oughta be a law!

Lucky thing Palumbo is a state senator.

According to Palumbo, his draft bill (which the Urbanist first reported earlier this month),  would require increased density within a mile of frequent transit service—areas near light rail stations or near bus stops where buses arrive at least every 15 minutes. Although the details of the bill could change, Palumbo envisions a mandatory density that slopes down as development fans out: 150 dwelling units per acre within a quarter-mile of frequent transit; 45 units per acre within half a mile of transit; and 14 units per acre within a 1 mile radius. (Asked whether cities could build more densely than the minimums required by his bill, Palumbo said he hadn’t thought of that.)

Palumbo tells me his legislation isn’t a one-size-fits-all bill, and those particular numbers are only intended for Seattle. Different numbers would apply to transit-friendly neighborhoods in smaller cities and towns where transit is less frequent and where target densities are lower. (He also acknowledged that his “units per acre” metric was a bit backwards—that is, you can’t logically prescribe units-per acre rules on an individual development without a universal picture of all the proposed developments in the upzoned area.)

He said his metric was simply meant to describe the ultimate density he envisions, and that Seattle could apply units per lot and floor area ratio metrics to achieve the 14 units per acre within his 1-mile radius performance standard, for example.

Seattle is already (sorta) moving in this direction, though as cautiously as a cat burglar tip-toeing up the stairs.

This year, the council is taking up a plan that’s been in play since 2015 to upzone a tiny percentage of the city’s vast single-family neighborhoods. Focusing on the edges of single family zones that are near designated residential urban villages, the city proposal, known as  Mandatory Housing Affordability (it simultaneously makes developers fund affordable housing), would upzone six percent of single family zoned land into slightly denser residential small lot zones, low-rise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones. The changes would help create  what pro-housing urbanists call the “Missing Middle.”

The density increase Palumbo’s proposing within a half and quarter mile of frequent transit service—45 and 150 units per acre, respectively—would already be allowed (though not required) under both current Seattle zoning and under MHA changes to Lowrise zones and Neighborhood Commercial zones.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the MHA rezone area  in strict single-family zones (so about four percent of that current zoning)—the   Residential Small Lot upzone—would permit density of about 20 units per acre, according to some back-of-the-envelope math city staffers did after they read about Sen. Palumbo’s proposal for comparison’s sake.

Again, while not required (as it is in Palumbo’s formula), that would actually be slightly more permissive than the density Palumbo is proposing a mile away from transit stops (his 14 units per acre). But that’s only in the sliver of single family areas rezoned under MHA; under Palumbo’s mandate, the larger swath of single family areas left untouched by MHA would face a significant upzone.

In other words, when it comes to the majority of Seattle’s single family zones, Mr. Palumbo of Maltby is far more woke about requiring dense, sustainable land use than Seattle and its leaders—even though today’s leading climate scientists are demanding dramatic action to address pending environmental calamity.

Seattle leaders do not have a good track record when it comes to standing up to the Magnolia First faction and making this change. Back in 2009, former Mayor Greg Nickels initially backed  a Futurewise/Transportation Choices Coalition state bill that would have promoted more density around transit hubs. But when traditional neighborhood activists said the proposal would turn Seattle into Mumbai, intimidating Nickels’ wary deputy mayor Tim Ceis, Nickels stepped away from the bill as his reelection loomed. (The legislation failed.)

And, of course, former Mayor Ed Murray folded on his original proposal to upzone all single family zones in 2015, watering his proposal down to the current six percent plan when the NIMBYs at the Seattle Times protested on behalf of their home-owning readers.

I contacted the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to see if they supported Palumbo’s urgent push for more density. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said she hadn’t seen the bill, which is still in early draft form.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson, who’s leading the city’s limited MHA upzone effort, responded. Johnson, who was the director of TCC back in 2009 when the pro-transit  group went to the mat for the state upzone legislation, cautioned: “Been there done that.” He did note, though, that Palumbo was starting “an interesting conversation.”

Ultimately, Johnson argued that Palumbo’s statewide approach isn’t likely to succeed, pointing out that some suburban cities, such as Sammamish, Issaquah, and Federal Way, have gone so far as to impose moratoria on new development. (After a year, the Sammamish City Council effectively lifted the moratorium  as did the Issaquah City Council. )

However, Johnson has a point. Several Puget Sound cities have enacted development bans, making it clear that A) they’re queasy about more density and B) they’re not going to take kindly to some dude from the state legislature telling them how to manage growth.

Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Johnson says the local approach he’s now heading up as a Seattle City Council member is more likely to work, although—recalling how Nickels backed away from the Futurewise/TCC bill—he acknowledged there’s dedicated resistance to new development in Seattle as well.  For example, he lamented the fact that single-family home owners are currently funding a legal effort to tie up the MHA upzone in a  battle in front of the City Hearing Examiner.

Resistance to development in Seattle has already undermined the rezones Johnson passed in 2016 and 2017 as part of MHA Part 1, when the city upzoned five (already) densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers,  including downtown, plus one Residential Urban Village at 23rd & Union-Jackson.

To wit: After unanimously passing the downtown upzone, the city council halted one of the first proposed developments proposed under the new zoning (even drafting talking points for the opposition) when a developer wanted to tear down the talismanic  Showbox music venue to build more housing.

Johnson does have a point about state legislation: The merits of Palumbo’s bill are likely to be overshadowed by a meta question of governance that could stall the state senate legislation: Should the state have the right to micromanage local land use issues?

But Palumbo has a point too. When local policies spill over legislators’ borders to threaten a green and progressive state law like the Growth Management Act, which was intended to combat regional problems like sprawl, then yes, the state has a role to play.

It takes one to know one. Suburbanite Palumbo is telling it like it is: Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

The City Studied the Impact of Easing Rules on Garage Apartments. What They Uncovered Was an Indictment of Single-Family Zoning.

In 2016, a group of homeowners, led by one especially ardent anti-density activist named Marty Kaplan, sued the city to stall proposed rules that would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units—basement apartments and backyard cottages—on their property.  (The rules, which would apply in single-family areas outside urban villages, would have eliminated parking requirements for accessory units; allowed homeowners to have both a basement unit and a backyard cottage, as long as they kept development under preexisting size limits; and eliminated owner-occupancy requirements, among other tweaks.) A city hearing examiner, Sue Tanner, found in favor of Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council later that same year, delaying the rule changes and forcing the city to do a full environmental impact statement to determine whether allowing several hundred more basement and backyard apartments across the city would have a detrimental environmental impact. (Environmental impact statements do not, as yet, consider the beneficial environmental impacts of making it possible for people to live near where they work or go to school, instead of driving in to the city every day on exhaust-choked freeways).

Nearly two years later, that document is finally here, and its 364 pages are a strong rebuke to anyone who has ever argued that single-family zoning is a natural feature of the landscape in Seattle, and that legalizing apartments in single-family areas will lead to displacement, environmental degradation, and drive up housing costs for low-income renters. The document places Seattle’s current zoning debates squarely in the context of history—not just redlining, which has been documented elsewhere, but post-redlining decisions that made apartments illegal on two-thirds of the city’s land and shut non-white, non-wealthy residents out of those areas almost as effectively as formal redlining did in the middle of the 20th century.

The DEIS begins by outlining the city’s zoning history, which began in the 1920s, when the city created two zoning designations: First Residence District (the equivalent of today’s single-family zoning) and Second Residence District (the equivalent of Seattle’s current multifamily zones). Over time, and through a series of zoning ordinance overhauls, the areas where apartments were legal in Seattle shrunk and shrunk again, until the city arrived at the zoning it has today. Single-family zoning, in other words, is hardly a sacred designation that has existed since time immemorial, as many neighborhood activists argue today, but a special protection for certain areas of the city that has grown dramatically over time, as these side-by-side maps of Ballard attest:

Today, when you see apartment buildings in areas designated single-family, know that those are relics of a time when apartments were legal in that area.

The DEIS goes on to trace population changes in Seattle over time. Somewhat surprisingly, given the dramatic population growth in Seattle between the 1960s and the 2010s, some parts of town actually lost population between 1970 and 2010, the period when zoning rule changes slowly made it impossible to build duplexes, triplexes, and apartments; the vast majority (81 percent) were in single-family-only neighborhoods. The areas with the most notable population loss were in North Seattle and certain parts of West Seattle.

Between 1990 and 2010 alone, while Seattle’s population grew 18 percent, the population in single-family-zoned areas outside urban villages, which “compris[e] 60 percent of Seattle’s total land area,” grew just three percent. (Those areas, again, are the parts of town where the proposed zoning changes would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to add an additional unit or two to their property.) Single-family areas, in other words, have not only failed to absorb an equitable proportion of the city’s growth, but they have managed this feat through the adoption of ever more restrictive zoning laws in Seattle’s relatively recent history.

Excluding new residents from single-family areas has had class and racial implications. According to the DEIS, people of color have become disproportionately more likely to live in areas zoned for multifamily use—that is, areas outside the single-family zones that Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council are suing to “protect”—with a few exceptions, including Southeast Seattle and the Central District. “Non-Hispanic White people are, by contrast, disproportionately likely to live in areas where single-family housing predominates.” Meanwhile, people of color are dramatically more likely to be renters rather than homeowners and more likely to spend more than 30 percent (or even 50 percent) of their income on housing than the non-Hispanic white folks who dominate single-family areas. Less than a third of all households of color, and fewer than 30 percent of Black and Hispanic/Latinx households, live in detached single-family houses, while more white people live in houses than any other housing type. According to the city’s analysis, “[T]hese citywide statistics illustrate that housing type varies along racial lines and are suggestive of patterns in single- family zones, where detached one-unit structures are the only housing type allowed.”

The DEIS also demolishes the notion—common among both wealthy homeowners like Kaplan and anti-displacement activists on the left—that allowing more housing in single-family areas will result in greater displacement of low-income people from those areas. (This theory was recently articulated by former Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, who claimed that “one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes.”) According to the city’s analysis, although 54 percent of homes citywide are renter-occupied, just 27 percent of homes in the “study area” (single-family areas outside urban villages) are. Since the study area includes many apartments built before apartments were made illegal in those areas, it’s safe to assume that those rental units are mostly those apartments, not single-family houses.

Looking at the data another way, it’s clear that the people who do live in detached single-family houses are mostly well above Seattle’s area median income, which was around $75,000 in 2015 (and is closer to $80,000 now). The disparity is perhaps best illustrated with a couple of charts:

The report also spells it out: Most poor people don’t live in detached single-family houses, rental or otherwise, because they simply can’t afford them. “Only 14 percent of households in detached one-unit structures are below 200 percent of the poverty level, a common threshold to be eligible for certain assistance programs, while for most other housing types about one-third of households are below 200 percent of the poverty level,” the report concludes. Given that 81 percent of single-family homes are occupied by homeowners, not renters, that means that just 2.66 percent of all single-family houses are occupied by people making twice the poverty level or less. That doesn’t mean those renters can actually afford the houses they are renting; in fact, the city’s analysis found that a renter would have to make 123 percent of the Seattle area median income to afford an average single-family rental house, and that even the very rare low-rent houses are unaffordable to people making twice the federal poverty rate, or about $33,000 for family of two.

Put still another way: “For households with incomes of 80 percent of AMI, even two- or three-bedroom single-family homes with rents at the 25th percentile, a common marker of rent for the least expensive homes on the market, are out of reach.” In Seattle, in other words, essentially no single-family rental homes are affordable to very low-income renters.

The DEIS also, of course, looked into the specific environmental claims that are being made by the homeowners who want to ensure that backyard cottages remain effectively illegal in their neighborhoods. They found, not surprisingly, that neither of the two alternatives the city considered, which the city estimates would produce between 1,210 and 1,440 more attached and detached accessory dwelling units, combined, across the city in the next 10 years—would have a significant impact on tree canopy, overall density, parking availability, or neighborhood aesthetics. (Alternative 3, which includes more size restrictions on detached units and would require homeowners building a second accessory unit to contribute to the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, would have slightly lower impacts in some areas, but the impact of 121 to 144 new units spread across the city would be generally negligible.) The report did note, however, that “removing the off-street parking requirement could reduce the amount of vegetation and tree removal otherwise needed to accommodate a parking space when creating an ADU.”

The city has been debating whether to allow more homeowners to build extra units for decades, and this specific proposal has been on the table since 2014, when the council adopted a resolution calling for a plan to “promot[e] workforce housing” by exploring ways to make building backyard cottages easier. This latest round will inevitably result in another challenge and more delays, illustrating just how hard it is to make even incremental zoning changes in Seattle. As long as homeowners believe sharing their prosperous neighborhoods with even a few newcomers will impact their property values, which continue to skyrocket year over year, even the most modest request that they participate in solving our affordability crisis will continue to be met with a barrage of legal challenges. By the time this legislation actually starts producing new housing for non-wealthy Seattle residents, it seems more likely than not that the median home in Seattle will have risen from its current high, around $820,000, to well over than a million dollars.

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.

Morning Crank: To Think Otherwise is Really Idealistic

1. Council members expressed concern and some skepticism Wednesday at a committee discussion of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to spend around $7 million in proceeds from the sale of a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on “tiny house” encampments and housing vouchers—so much concern and skepticism, in fact, that they decided to put off a decision on the tiny houses until mid-March, and could end up tabling the voucher program  as well.

Durkan’s proposal, called “Building a Bridge to Housing for All,” includes two one-time expenditures on homeless shelters and homeless prevention. The shelter funding, about $5.25 million, will initially be used to open a single “tiny house village” for chronically homeless women, but could ultimately be used to add as many as 10 new authorized encampments with a total of 500 tiny houses, across the city. According to city council staffer Alan Lee, each tiny house would cost about $10,500, a number that includes on-site security and 24/7 case management for residents (according to council staff, case management and other operating expenses for 500 tiny houses would cost the city about $500,000 a year.) Durkan has convened an “interdepartmental housing strategy” group to come up with a final proposal in June; Lee said at yesterday’s meeting that the numbers were intended to “give a very rough framework of what direction this money could go… whether or not that’s the strategy that comes out in June.” But it’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest that the strategy that comes out in June will include a heavy emphasis on tiny-house encampments;  Durkan even held her press conference announcing the Bridge to Housing program at the Seattle Vocational Institute, with two under-construction tiny housesas her backdrop.

The council’s finance committee agreed to hold off on the $5 million for a few weeks and vote on it, at the earliest, at the full council meeting on March 12. Meanwhile, they decided to move forward with the plan to spend $2 million on short-term housing assistance vouchers for a small number of people on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which recipients use to rent housing on the private market. (Or not—although landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against people who use Section 8 vouchers to pay their rent, it can be hard to find housing that fits the program criteria, including a maximum monthly rent of around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment in the Seattle area.) The assistance, which staffers estimated would work out to about $7,300 per household per year (about half that $1,200 maximum), would help just 150 of the 3,500 or so on the SHA waiting list for vouchers—those who make less than half the area median income and are at high risk of becoming homeless. (My earlier estimate, which worked out to a much lower per-month subsidy, was based on the assumption that the city planned to help 15 percent of those on the SHA waiting list, rather than 15 percent of a smaller subset of 1,000 wait-listed people in need of housing. The fact that the city’s estimates for monthly subsidies are higher reflects the fact that the $2 million it plans to spend will only help a relatively small number of people.)

Quite a few council members questioned the wisdom of moving forward with a housing assistance program without identifying a long-term funding source (the $2 million is a one-time windfall from the sale of city property), and some wondered whether the city should be spending its limited resources on people who aren’t actually homeless, instead of, say, the 536 people on SHA’s waiting list who are either actually homeless or unstably housed.

“What I’m concerned about,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said, addressing staff for the mayor’s office and SHA, “is that we’ve identified a gap in the system and are proposing to address that gap in the system in a short-term fashion with a finite amount of resources. … I guess I don’t have a level of confidence that in two years, we will have patched the gap in the system that you have identified. So if that gap still exists, then there will be an expectation created” that the city will continue to fund the program, even though the money has all been spent. To think otherwise, Gonzalez added pointedly, is “really idealistic.”

It’s unclear what the council will do next Tuesday. Of seven council members at the table, four—Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Mike O’Brien—abstained from voting to move the allocation of the $2 million (part of an ordinance meant to accompany a separate bill authorizing the sale of the property for a total of $11 million) onto next Tuesday’s full council agenda. Because abstentions aren’t “no” votes, the measure passed, with Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, and Rob Johnson voting “yes.”

2. The progressive revenue task force, which has been meeting for the past two months after the failure of a proposed employee hours tax, or “head tax,” last year, will hold its final meeting at 9am on March 1 in the Bertha Knight Landes Room at City Hall. The group is expected to propose a new version of the EHT rejected by the council during last year’s budget process, which would have required businesses with more than $10 million in gross receipts to pay an annual tax of $125 per employee. The task force held its penultimate meeting yesterday morning.

3. ICYMI: Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I was able to watch two simultaneous committee hearings—a meeting of the council’s planning, land use, and zoning (PLUZ) committee, to take comment on the city’s plans to upzone and require affordable housing in Northeast Seattle’s District Four, and a public hearing/rally against cuts to homeless shelters the city made last year—online. For about three hours, I whiplashed between a barrage of testimony against shelter cuts by council member Sawant’s army of invited supporters (as usual, she advertised her hearing with a “PACK CITY HALL!” invitation, turning what was ostensibly a council committee hearing into a standard Sawant protest rally) and public comments on zoning changes that ranged from earnest (the upzone, one speaker said, will allow “more neighbors to share the amenities” she already enjoys) to entitled (“I choose to live in Seattle,” a Wallingford homeowner said. “I like it. Other people want to live in Seattle too, and they want to take my spot”) to ridiculous (“It seems the department of planning has specifically targeted Wallingford for destruction of neighborhood character.”) If you missed the opportunity to follow along in real time (or if you just want to relive the whiplash) I’ve gathered my tweets in a Twitter Moment.

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.

Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Airport Conference Center (steps from the light rail station!), attending the Washington State Wire’s first-ever Re–Wire conference, where I was on a panel with WSW founder Jim Boldt, TVW president Renee Radcliffe Sinclair, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. The topic: Polarization, fake news, and the future of media. The topic was way too big for four people to handle in 45 minutes, obviously, so I spent my 10 minutes or so (gently) pushing back against the notion that newspapers are going to save us (they aren’t) and the idea that local news consumers can’t tell the difference between “real” news and “fake” news. Boldt, in particular, seemed sold on this notion, claiming that nearly 9 in 10 news stories we read are generated by artificial intelligence. I find that number highly implausible, simply because local coverage is obviously generated by human beings; you can follow their bylines and see them in the flesh if you go to a community meeting or hang out at city hall. It could be that what he  meant is that nearly 9 out of 10 things that are posted online, or 9 out of 10 things that are posted on Facebook are AI-generated, but that’s a different problem than “why there isn’t much reliable local news.”

At the local level, I argued, the problem isn’t so much that there’s “fake news” (Nextdoor and your neighborhood Facebook group excepted), but that the interpretations of the news that does get reported are increasingly polarized. (Maybe this happens more in Seattle, where an army of newly minted socialists swarms my Twitter feed every time I sound too skeptical about a policy they support, than it does in, say, Tacoma or Kent). A neutral headline like “Rents increase for fourth quarter” will be spun as “excessive regulations force landlords to avoid poverty by increasing rents” by those on one end of the spectrum and as “greedy landlords bleed tenants dry” by those on the other. The problem arises, I said, when media who are deeply invested in one perspective being true dispense with fact-checking and rely on anecdata and alternative facts (or seem to eschew fact-checking altogether) to support their preordained conclusions.* For example, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon insisted, in the Stranger, that “hot money” flowing “out of China” was one of the main reasons housing prices have been going up in Seattle, and the paper, whose endorsement undoubtedly helped push Moon through the primary, did not dispute those claims.

Ultimately, Moon was never able to present evidence supporting her assertion that “hot money” was to blame for high housing prices, and brushed off evidence that refuted it with statements like, “We need to look at the data” and “Something’s going on.” But her supporters had already taken her initial sweeping claim—that foreign capital is a major reason housing prices are high in Seattle—and run with it. Foreign buyers snatching up property and leaving it vacant, creating an artificial market shortage? Feels true. And it’s certainly easier to blame “wealthy foreign investors” than have a complex and heated debate about Seattle’s restrictive zoning codes.

Recently, I’ve encountered the same resistance to numbers and reliance on anecdata in the debate over Airbnb regulations. (This week, the council passed new rules restricting most short-term rental operators, except those already operating in the downtown core, to two units total.) Opponents of services like Airbnb argue that they obviously increase housing prices by taking units off the market. And it feels true, especially when you happen to live near an Airbnb that used to be a long-term rental.  (As, it so happens, I do.) But when you confront them with facts, they often respond with anecdotes or observations, which are data points but are not the same thing as data.

Fact: There are, according to the website Inside Airbnb, a total of 426 units that meet the definition typically used by advocates who argue that short-term rentals are removing apartments from the long-term rental market. These units are whole units (that is, not rooms in someone’s house) that are frequently booked (too often to allow a long-term renter to live there), highly available (meaning they are listed as available to rent most or all of the time) and owned by people with more than one listing (meaning that they aren’t someone’s primary residence.) Even assuming that every single one of those Airbnb hosts would switch to being a full-time landlord (unlikely, given that, according to occupancy numbers, most hosts rent their units out only part-time), 426 units simply isn’t enough to influence rents one way or another in a city with hundreds of thousands of apartments and thousands more people moving here every month.

And yet anecdotes seem to win the day. “I know two people who have Airbnbs that they could be renting out as full-time units.” “We live in an era of landlords sitting on vacant properties.” “I watched two neighboring buildings get converted to full-time Airbnbs [in San Francisco] It’s a thing.” I mean—no one said it wasn’t “a thing.” There’s an important argument we should be having right now about revisiting ex-mayor Ed Murray’s decision to preserve restrictive single-family zoning across the city, but that’s such a difficult, fraught conversation. Easier to blame foreigners and rich people making a killing off their Airbnb empires. It feels true.

This is not to condemn people for basing their policy views on anecdotes from people they know, or their gut feelings. Everybody does that sometimes, especially when they lack full information. Instead, it’s a lament that there aren’t enough local media sources with the time or inclination to challenge assumptions that feel true—rent control will lower rents citywide because my rent won’t go up anymore; offering homeless people a bed in a crowded shelter will work because a shelter is obviously better than a tent—by presenting facts that are true.

* I should say here that I have my own biases—I’m pro-housing,  favor moving people over moving cars, and oppose punitive approaches to crimes of poverty and addiction—but I’ve changed my mind on issues plenty of times when the facts have pointed in a different direction than I thought they did. But this is usually in favor of a more nuanced position (it turns out some kinds of involuntary treatment do work) rather than a polar opposite extreme view (addicted people should be dragged off the streets and thrown into hospitals against their will.)

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Jenny Durkan

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Former US attorney Jenny Durkan has been pigeonholed—unfairly, she says—as the “conservative” candidate in the race for mayor, where “conservative” is a term broad enough to include a longtime activist for LGBT causes, former Obama appointee, and advocate for supervised drug consumption sites. She’s caught flak for her style (too stiff and inauthentic, some say), her views on homelessness (more conservative than ex-mayor Ed Murray’s, by some measures) and her tendency to respond to questions in elliptical, lawyerly soundbites (many of which have been edited out of this interview, because nobody wants to read those.) As the candidate with the support of Seattle’s business establishment (as well as most of the local labor groups), she’s also widely considered the frontrunner in the race, and has enjoyed a large spending advantage over her opponent Cary Moon—in addition to outraising Moon in absolute dollars ($727,689 to Moon’s $231,331, of which $111,521 is Moon’s own money), a business backed political action committee, People for Jenny Durkan, has raised $124,600 so far for an independent-expenditure campaign on Durkan’s behalf.

I sat down with Durkan in September.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: There has been a lot of talk by candidates this year about revisiting the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, particularly the amount of affordable housing developers should have to provide and whether single-family areas should be opened up to other types of development, like duplexes and row houses. Would you revisit any part of the HALA agreement?

JD: I never use the word ‘revisit.’ I think it is absolutely clear that we cannot bring on board the number of affordable housing units we need without the private sector participating strongly, and the only way you’re to do that is through a series of incentives. So I think we have to keep the part of HALA that is going to give us the ability to bring on more affordable housing, and as we roll it out, we have to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences—that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.

I think we just have to make sure that we are looking at it how we implement it and make sure it makes sense. We’re getting two, three, four, five years away from when the deal was made and the marketplace is growing. So have we gotten that ratio of required housing and public benefit for housing right, or is there more room there? Should we have transportation impact fees? Should we have park impact fees? We  don’t want to kill the development, because there’s no question that we’re going to get more dense, but as we do that, can we squeeze out of that growth the benefits we need [such as] affordable housing [and] transit-oriented development?

ECB: Do you think Murray made the wrong decision by taking a proposal to allow duplexes and other modest density in single-family areas off the table, and would you revisit that decision?

JD: I think it was the smart thing politically to pull that off the table, because I think the whole thing would have collapsed if the mandatory [affordable housing] fees collapsed. We would not have the resources to bring on anywhere near the affordable housing we need. To pull the rug out from under the deal and be left with nothing—it would have crushed us as city.

ECB: Murray also cut ties with the neighborhood district councils, which prompted quite a backlash from single-family homeowners who say their views are no longer being heard at City Hall. Would you restore city funding and support for those groups?

JD: I would have neighborhood councils. They’d be configured differently, but I think we suffer way too much from top-down right now, and part of the reason there is so much anxiety in neighborhoods and communities is the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs. I’ll give you an example. I was down in Rainier Beach the other day and I spent several hours with the community and youth down there, because when I was US Attorney, I’d helped them get a grant for youth violence prevention, and I wanted to get updated on what’s working and  what’s not working. And they’ve done amazing things. Even with the huge amount of displacement, the increased violence, the deaths they’d seen, the community is fighting to maintain its place.

“What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.”

 

But they’re not getting the help they need from the city, because the city has quit listening to them. From the activists to the kids, you will hear, ‘We think we’ve figured out a path out for youth violence prevention, for activating our corners, for having corner greeters, for empowering businesses, for helping bring business back here. I think that the support the city had historically given them has eroded. You can’t do neighborhood work from city hall. While you have to have a vision and policy that works for the whole city and move people beyond some of their own vested interests, you also have to listen to what they think the solutions are for their own communities and neighborhoods.

ECB: So did Murray’s decision to take some power away from the neighborhood councils make that harder?

JD: No, again, I really want to make clear that I don’t want to talk in terms of, ‘Do you agree with what Ed did?’ I’m telling you what I would do. I think you have to have a very vibrant Department of Neighborhoods that works with people in communities and listens to people and talks to people. As I understand it, in some neighborhoods, it became the same people showing up all the time, so it was a very limited spectrum of voices. My view is, the answer is not to shut down those voices—the answer is to bring more people in. Maybe not at the same room at the same time, but you can have more meetings at different times. You can have virtual meetings. You reach out in all the ways you can to get more voices in. What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.

ECB: Opponents of supervised drug consumption sites have filed an initiative to ban the sites throughout King County. What’s your take on that lawsuit, and do you think Seattle will ever actually get a supervised-consumption site?

JD: I think the city of Seattle should consider joining that suit and challenge it in their own right. [Ed: Since our conversation, the city has expressed its intent to join the lawsuit.]

[Beyond that,] I don’t think they have the ability to stop the city from doing what it wants. If I’m mayor, we’re going to go ahead [with a supervised consumption site] and we’ll take the legal challenge, because the city of Seattle does not depend on King County for its rights. It has its own statutory rights, and one of those is to decide what it needs to do for the public health and safety of its people.

There’s no question in my mind that consumption sites are something we need to have as part of the health care response to a health crisis on our streets. Right now, we’re in a place where we give clean needles to people and tell them, ‘Go use it in the car, in the doorways, in the parks.’ It makes no sense. And for me, what’s most important is, if you read the task force recommendations, it’s not just a place where people can go and use drugs. It is a place where there will be health care workers, where they may get hooked up with addiction services and counseling and treatment. It may not ‘take’ the first time, the third time, the fifth time, the tenth time, but for somebody, it might eventually work, and that’s what we have to provide them, is that option. And they will never get it if they’re in the doorway or on the street corner.

 

“I think it was the smart thing politically to pull [allowing duplexes and row houses in single-family areas] off the table, because I think [HALA] would have collapsed.”

 

Right now, it’s being portrayed in such an unfair way. People might be surprised that a former federal prosecutor would say we should do this, but what is the alternative? I live downtown right now. My partner and I went out to dinner the night before last. In a three-block walk, we saw three different homeless people shooting up heroin, three who probably just had, and a couple of people looking to score. That’s in three blocks! What we’re doing right now is not working, and what we did in the ’90s didn’t work. I was in the front row. I was a criminal defense lawyer and saw that the war on drugs was really a war on addicts, and that’s who we locked up. And if we don’t have public health response to this crisis, we will end up in the same bad place. So we have to try things that are different. Will it work perfectly? Absolutely not. Is one site enough? Of course it’s not. But we have to show that there can be a different response that might work for some people some of the time.

ECB: Do you think the city has been moving in the right direction on homelessness, in terms of both encampment sweeps and the way the city spends its service dollars?

JD: I think what we’ve been doing on homelessness isn’t working. I think we have not done some of the really hard things we have to do to really move the dial. Number one is, we have to get real and we have to get forward-leaning on addiction services and mental health services.

I think the Navigation Teams are a mechanism for trying something different, and I think that from all the reports I’ve heard, from people who’ve been working with them, they’ve had some good successes. In my view, we have to get people out of tents and into treatment. When I talk to the various providers and the people working with the homeless, their estimates are that a significant majority of the hard-core chronic homeless are suffering either from mental illness, drug problems, or a combination of the two.

 

ECB: You’ve opposed opening up the police union contracts to observation and participation by the public. Given that the police department is still under a federal consent decree and the police union has been reluctant to institute reforms, why do you oppose opening up the contracts, and what would you do to increase transparency at SPD?

 

JD: There is no question, with Trump as president and the Janus decision coming down, that the right-to-work forces are going to be emboldened and they’re going to be coming after workers’ rights. In that context, I think it is irresponsible for anyone to say, ‘Let’s do their work for them and open up collective bargaining.’

Second, I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective. Going into police reform, we had a list of things we had to do, and so it wasn’t a question about, were they going to do them? A judge was ordering them to do it. So then the only part we aren’t seeing is what are we going to pay them to do it. And that all comes out when the city council has to vote on it, so there is more transparency than people think there is. My question would be, what things do people feel they don’t know?

 

“I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective.”

 

ECB: One thing we don’t know might be whether the city is going to pay cops a huge bonus just for wearing body cameras, for example.

JD: But we will know that when the contract gets presented and has to be voted on. We’re not in the room, but we set out the guiding principles—which I think the public has a right to do—and we see things that are going to be in the contract. Once we have the inspector general stood up, once we have the [Community Police Commission] more fully staffed, part of their function is going to be setting what those goals and policies are going to be. There will be transparency into that, because their job is to bring in the voices of the community and to report back. So we have built in already, I think, the ability to have more transparency, and I think some people just aren’t aware of it.

ECB: If the issue isn’t the police contract, then why do you think we’re stalled on police reform?

JD: I actually don’t think we’re stalled on police reform. I think we’re stalled on implementing some of the ordinances that I think will give greater civilian accountability. [Ed: The city can’t implement police-reform legislation until Judge James Robart signs off on the proposed reforms.] In terms of what’s actually happening on the ground—de-escalation policies, crisis intervention training, body cams—it’s all moving forward.

ECB: If that’s true, then how do you explain incidents where de-escalation training clearly didn’t work, like the shooting of Charleena Lyles?

JD: The Charleena Lyles thing shows us that reform is never done. Since the changes [requiring SPD officers to go through crisis intervention training], significant uses of force are down 60 percent in three years. That’s amazing. Charleena Lyles was a horrible, horrible crisis. I think we failed her as a society in so many ways even before the police got to the door. She had been living on the street, and she got into housing, but clearly still had issues with domestic violence, mental health issues, a single mom, and from what I can tell from the public record, about the only time she got provided services was when she was arrested and in jail. That’s the only time we as a society did anything for her. And so we have to change that equation where, if we are going to get people off the street and into housing, we also have to provide them the social services, the network, the support that they need day to day.

 

ECB: Your opponent has said she’ll expedite Sound Transit delivery to Ballard and West Seattle by loaning Sound Transit funds to build those segments more quickly. What would you do to help Seattle get its final two segments of light rail faster?

JD: The way we can best speed up ST3 is through accelerating the siting process. That’s the longest lead time that you have in these megaprojects, and we unfortunately tend to do those things very sequentially—environmental impact statement, community input, three different site alternatives, then SDOT weighs in… We can’t afford to do that. If I’m mayor, we’re going to try to do things, instead of sequentially, in collaboration. We know where the lines are going and there’s only so many locations that the transit stations can go. Let’s start doing the process now. Let’s not wait for all the alternatives. Let’s start engaging the noisy neighborhoods and the community voices now, and start having that robust dialogue. If you wait for two years, three years to engage, then you getting those intractable fights that seem to delay things forever. With these big projects, if you let them get away from you, they will get away from you. If you deal them at the beginning, you can impact how long they take.

 

 

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.

 

 

Morning Crank: Half a Loaf

sen-joe-fain

Sen. Joe Fain (R-47)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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