Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined to sit down with me) over the next few weeks. Today’s interview: Former Tenants Union director Jon Grant, who’s running against council incumbent Tim Burgess for citywide Position 8.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: In the primary, you were running against a well-known incumbent and a prominent musician with strong name recognition [Long Winters singer John Roderick]. Were you surprised that you made it through?
Jon Grant [JG]: I felt fairly confident we would. We were obviously pleased that things came out the way they did. I think there was a real question about money between me and my two opponents [Burgess and Roderick]. They spent, like, $275,000 to my $40,000. [Combined, Roderick and Burgess spent about $265,000 to Grant’s $37,000.] I think it speaks to whether this is going to be a campaign about money or message. The choice is between a candidate representing the Chamber of Commerce and a candidate representing the community. That was what made the difference. I think the Stranger endorsement helped, but it wasn’t the deciding factor.
ECB: You say that Burgess is backed by the Chamber of Commerce, but it’s worth noting that their PAC, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, didn’t spend any money supporting him in the primary. Why, specifically, do you call him the Chamber’s candidate?
JG: Follow the money. There’s lots of examples. Look at South Lake Union and the incentive zoning proposal. The city hired a consultant to figure out what kind of fee South Lake Union could support and they figured out that it was around $85 a square foot. And the proposal that was put forward by Tim Burgess was closer to $22 a square foot. It was a real clear example of deferring to developers on what they were willing to pay they. He left tens of millions of dollars for workforce housing on the table. There is a direct line from downtown developers to his policy decisions.
Another example is the anti-panhandling ordinance. That was a clear nod to the Chamber of Commerce ‘s interest in clearing out homeless folks downtown. It was found to be in violation of human rights standards by the Seattle Human Rights Commission and it was eventually [vetoed]. That was his initiative.
He also repealed the employee hours tax, which is one of the only progressive taxes available to the city council.
ECB: Minutes after Mayor Murray announced that his 28-member Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee had reached a “Grand Bargain” that would not only mandate new affordable housing in exchange for upzones but avoid a lawsuit developers had promised to file if the deal included residential linkage fees, you announced an alternative plan that not only included a maximum residential linkage fee but called for rent control, which was never realistically on the table for HALA. Why did you do that, knowing that your plan would incite a lawsuit and blow up the Grand Bargain?
JG: The only time the city has ever tried to push for progressive legislation, it’s been greeted by a lawsuit. If we decided whether to move forward based on that threat, we would end up with no progressive laws. We don’t win for not trying. We’re going to have a totally new city council that’s going to make some hard decisions about how we’re going to provide more affordable housing.
If you zoom out to the bigger picture, the question is, what is the best way to provide affordable housing? The goal [of providing 20,000 new affordable units in the next ten years) is good, but the financing mechanisms in HALA wouldn’t direct enough money toward the lowest end, [people making] zero to 30 [percent of area median income.] What I would like to see considered is, what do we do to address those folks? We just ended the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness with more homelessness than ever. When are we going to get our act together? What can we do to be bold as a city, to bring in as much revenue as possible to help the folks who need it most?
What I would do is build 5,000 housing units for the homeless in five years. That is ambitious, but if we don’t set high goals, we’ll never achieve them. I think it’s reasonable to ask the private sector to do more for affordable housing, That’s why I’m in favor of having a linkage fee both on commercial and residential and in working with [the Seattle Housing Authority].
ECB: What are some of the ideas you think the council could consider independent of HALA, and why do you think you’ll have more luck getting consensus around those ideas given that the HALA committee rejected them?
JG: It was easier for something to get killed in HALA than it is on the council. We’ve got a kind of moderate council right now, but it is very hard for council members to side with the minority property owners who are also landlords.
ECB: How do you respond to the argument that taxing all new development discourages developers from building here? A linkage fee won’t bring in much money for affordable housing if it deters new development.
JG: You don’t just pick [the fee] out of the air. You need to hire a consultant to do the economic analysis to see what’s the tipping point where you start to discourage development. What else would you do–take developers at their word? I think that is a meme that is put out there by developers to deter debate about government intervention, or regulation, or any type of effort to direct the market to be more affordable. “I don’t support linkage fees because they deter development.” They don’t deter development. I think a linkage fee will work, and it will actually create affordable housing. It’s the difference between social justice urbanism vs. libertarian urbanism that just says, let the free market decide what happens. I would go the route of taking the advice of an economist to advise me when that tipping point is, rather than relying on popular opinion. I think we need to have density. I think we need height. But it’s an opportunity cost [to do nothing].
ECB: You’ve talked a lot about the need to reduce displacement of low-income tenants, preserve existing affordable housing stock, and require one for one replacement of affordable housing torn down for development. The HALA plan already includes a lot of proposals that get at those same goals. Why do you support these more aggressive interventions?
JG: I’ve seen it firsthand at the Tenants Union. Developers will choose the most affordable building, because it’s the most affordable land, and buy it, demolish it, and develop there.
There are two markets: New construction with premium rents, and older housing stock with more affordable rents. The question is, which drives the other? High-cost housing creates an incentive for developers to go after the second-tier housing stock so they can redevelop it. If you have a vacant lot and you build $3,000-a-month apartments, does that lower the cost of rent for the premium rent apartments elsewhere? If you build more, will other rents go down? Time will tell, but over ten years, it’s a drop in the bucket.
ECB: The major cities that have rent control, including New York, LA, and San Francisco, are also the most expensive cities in the US. That says to me that rent control doesn’t work, and it’s not just me—virtually all economists agree with that assessment. Why do you support rent control?
JG: The question we need to ask ourselves is, are rents affordable compared to people’s wages? In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle, you need to earn $27 an hour. If you compare rents to inflation, rents increased at four times the rate of inflation in the last five years. That is an astronomical amount. [Average rents in King and Snohomish Counties increased by 8 percent between 2013 and 2014, which was four times the inflation rate, but rent increases were lower in previous years]. I would tie rents to inflation and if there were operating costs above or beyond that, the owner would be able to get approval to take those on.
ECB: Given the extremely critical tone you’ve taken in your race against both Roderick and Burgess, if you win, should your new colleagues expect to have a hard time working with you?
JG: I don’t think people understand to what extent I am able to work collaboratively with other people. At Solid Ground and at the Tenants Union, I worked with landlords and tenants on state legislation. I’ve pushed a lot of pieces of state legislation that have become law. I worked on the [Seattle] rental inspection ordinance. That was a fight to get that done, but I participated in a two-year stakeholder process and we got where we needed to collaboratively.
It’s been my experience that advocates don’t think of everything, and [the industry will] find legitimate flaws, and we’ll have to correct them, but there is a line where you ask, does that input detract from the original goal of the legislation? Can I work with other folks? I’ve demonstrated time and time again that I can. But other times, I put my foot in the ground.
Previously: Tim Burgess, Position 8