Murray: “I Did Give In to Single-Family Pressure.”

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Last week, Mayor Ed Murray reversed his position on a key portion of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee’s recommendations, which would have allowed a small amount of housing diversity (duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes) inside the 65 percent of Seattle’s land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Citing significant “blowback” from the same neighborhood activists who had opposed HALA and portrayed it as a conspiracy between developers and the political elite since its inception, Murray said he was abandoning both the recommendation to allow more housing forms (not density) in single-family areas and a separate proposal that would have made it easier for homeowners to build secondary units (detached or attached apartments) on their property.

Single-family exclusionists–those who argue that all of Seattle’s non-property-owning class should be segregated into a small portion of the city’s developable land area and live in towers there–like Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times–applauded the decision. Westneat, who owns a $700,000 house in Madrona and was one of the most prominent voices against the 28-member committee’s recommendations, crowed disingenuously that the real reason Murray had lost is that he didn’t open HALA’s heated and lengthy negotiations up to the public (a process that would have likely sunk another large, closed-door committee compromise, the $15 minimum wage), like Danny Westneat had told him to in the first place.  (Not to dwell on one smug, self-interested writer, but it’s worth pointing that Westneat smirks, dishonestly and with zero evidence, that if only Murray had played nice and given him and the single-family protectionists what they wanted–apparently, transparency–then maybe they wouldn’t have forced him to throw his committee under the bus.)

Westneat and the Times, in a separate editorial praising Murray’s cave on Sunday, claim that Murray blamed the media for killing his plan. That strikes me as the kind of self-centered echo chamber that happens in hidebound editorial boards that don’t know much about the majority of Seattle that doesn’t match the Times’ white, wealthy, land-owning demographic. My sense was that Murray has been caught in the headlights, with no clear idea of who to blame. At times, he did blame the media;  at others, it was that (totally, 100% predictable) NIMBY “blowback”; at  other times, it was erstwhile HALA allies like city council president (and current candidate) Tim Burgess. And sometimes, as it was when I talked to him last week, Murray blamed himself. (He did also kinda blame the media.)

I talked to Murray on Thursday night, and at that point, he was taking the line that he didn’t do enough to promote the single-family changes as a positive development and soothe neighborhood activists’ fears. Once he saw how much opposition there was to housing diversity, he had to abandon it, essentially, to save the rest of HALA from a similar fate. Losing mandatory inclusionary zoning for the sake of a few duplexes and townhomes would be a far worse fate than jettisoning that political ballast and keeping the rest of the plan intact.

I’m not sure I buy that. For one thing, there’s always the possibility that single-family changes were an intentional distraction in the first place. For another, Murray is usually very careful about how he rolls out plans like this “grand bargain.” Even if a disgruntled committee member (and at this point, I think which member that was is an open secret) hadn’t leaked the document to Westneat before it was ready for release, Murray’s a savvy enough guy to know that the self-appointed “neighborhood representatives” (those with the time and money and motivation to spend hours crafting battle plans and showing up at daytime meetings and lodging their complaints via letter-writing campaigns) would have a fit. For now, though, that’s his line and he’s sticking to it.

Here’s what Murray had to say late last week.

I don’t disagree with what you’ve written.  [I wrote: “Murray Gives In to Bullying, Abandons Housing Diversity Plan.”] I did give in to single-family pressure. [Single-family] isn’t where the numbers are for creating affordable housing and low-income housing. It helps, but the numbers aren’t there. It helps provide what we we’re talking about. Look at Portland or Vancouver. It does provide a lot of options for people who are buying their first home, or for people who are elderly and looking to downsize.

But I didn’t want to see [mandatory inclusionary zoning] lose over a proposal we weren’t even proposing. We weren’t going to turn every single-family house into a duplex or a triplex, but that’s what people were saying. We weren’t making the case. Perhaps if we were not in the middle of the first district elections in the city’s history, we would have had the time to explain to people who were saying we were proposing something we were not proposing. But unfortunately, there are a lot of council members running for election who are flipping on what they said they supported.

I feel like we’ve made our job to get to a grand bargain much harder. Because people have conflated this proposal with a plan to destroy single family [zones]. The blame lies with me. We didn’t do a good job of explaining the plan. I don’t believe we would get inclusionary zoning if we continued to have a confusing argument about a proposal we actually didn’t make, because we couldn’t explain to people about Portland or other models. The only thing we were able to talk about was the issue of single-family.

Murray also noted that, in Portland, just 3 percent of the land area is zoned the same way as Seattle’s single-family zones, which cover two-thirds of the city’s land mass. What that tells me is that we’ve got a long way to go.

8 thoughts on “Murray: “I Did Give In to Single-Family Pressure.””

  1. The LR “downzone” was so trivial (in terms of actual volume of housing) as to be not worth discussing. But of course it’s a great flag to wave for folks who believe that more is always better, and less is always bad, no matter how small the margins.

    At the risk of overusing a tired phrase, The devil is in the details. Modest increases in density in areas where it can be reasonably accommodated, yes, some people would still oppose it, but most folks would accept it. But blanket upzones like HALA called for? No, that gets and deserves rejection.

    Let’s restore Neighborhood Planning and involve the local folks in designing the future of their neighborhoods. The outcomes won’t be the blanket abolition of SF zoning that you demand, but in most cases they would allow even more development — making room for even more than the 224,000K new units current zoning allows.

  2. Neither the HALA report nor its defenders could explain how adding new MF units in SF zones would improve social equity. Under housing law, no property can be restricted to people of color.

    And there was no mechanism proposed to keep those units affordable. For-profit developers are profit maximizers by definition, and most of their MF units would end up costing more than the SF house that got demolished to make room. Nobody could do the math to disprove that assertion.

    But the goal of making room for more housing can still be had. Few people would object to modest increases in allowed density inside urban villages and urban centers. And the boundaries of these centers can be extended somewhat to embrace areas of future higher density. City data show that Seattle already has room for about 224,000 new housing units under existing zoning, and adding capacity to urban centers and urban villages can grow that number significantly. There is simply no good reason to target SF neighborhoods, other than the pursuit of a certain urbanist orthodoxy.

    1. “Few people would object to modest increases in allowed density inside urban villages and urban centers. ”

      This comment appears to be posted from another Universe. Here in this universe, the council recently downzoned LR1, LR2, and LR3 under pressure from residents of those zones, who find the efforts to pack virtually all of the cities growth into their neighborhoods highly disruptive. That, more than anything, demosntrates the failure of the inorganic, pandering, “pack it all in and leave 2/3 of the city preserved in amber” approach to growth.

      I live in a single family neighborhood, RDPence, across the street from an old, grandfathered triplex. The people who live there, who would otherwise be unable to afford the neighborhood, are lovely and excellent neighbors. I expect you’d think they were pretty good neighbors if you got to know them. I can’t fathom why anyone would think it should be ilegal for their homes to exist, and why people like you think there’s something wrong with living near them.

      1. There are many neighborhood activists who accept growth in our neighborhoods when it’s in the right places and appropriately sized. And when it looks reasonable attractive — that lovely grandfathered triplex in your neighborhood wouldn’t look that way if it were built today. If the City would create a Neighborhood Planning program and truly collaborate with neighborhood leadership, we could accommodate a lot of growth with much less land use warfare.

        I testified in favor of the urban village concept 20+ years ago when the Comp Plan was first adopted, and I got booed for it by NIMBYs. You argue for spreading growth around, not concentrating it into urban centers and villages — virtually identical to arguments we still hear against the Urban Growth Boundary.

      2. Single family homes built today don’t look much like ones built 80 years ago, either, but that would be a pretty silly reason to make it illegal to build them, wouldn’t it?

        At any rate, since you changed the subject rather than addressed the LR resident revolt that lead to a downzone in the midst of a housing shortage, is it safe to assume you’re no longer standing by the obviously and objectively false claim that ” Few people would object to modest increases in allowed density inside urban villages and urban centers”?

  3. To be clear, the second to last paragraph belongs in the block quote, correct? Because hey, you could blame yourself as a member of the media for not explaining this to the people, but that would be unfair as you tried harder than any other journalist.

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