The deadline for applications to serve on one of the “community focus groups” that will help guide the implementation of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) is in less than two weeks, and so far, city sources who have seen the applications say the majority of the applicants so far appear to be white North End homeowners–precisely the sort of people most inclined, if numerous heated HALA presentations over the past few months are any indication, to oppose the plan altogether.
A breakdown of applications provided by the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development indicates that as of last Friday, half (49%) of all applications for the focus groups come from just three North End neighborhoods: Wallingford (22%), Greenwood-Phinney (17%) and Ballard (10%). The other neighborhoods with more than one applicant are the University District, 23rd and Union-Jackson, Capitol Hill, Uptown, Belltown, Fremont, and North Rainier; the vast majority of neighborhoods, including most of the South End and West Seattle, have no applicants so far.
Why does it matter where the HALA focus groups come from, or whether they’re renters or homeowners? For one thing, the HALA groups are supposed to represent the wishes of the city as a whole, including all geographic areas, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and income levels. If wealthy, white homeowners from richer parts of town like Magnolia and Ballard are overrepresented in the focus groups, the policies those focus groups will advocate are likely to be those that protect single-family zoning, long-time residents, and homeowners’ interests at the expense of renters, recent transplants, and lower-income people who are priced out of Seattle by artificial constraints on new housing supply.
As I’ve reported here many times, there is a very loud, very vocal contingent of homeowners from north end single-family neighborhoods who oppose HALA because they believe it will bring more “density” (AKA renters) into their single-family areas, reducing their property values, destroying the midcentury “character” of their neighborhoods, making it impossible to find on-street parking in front of their houses, and eliminating their light, air and access to nature. Those voices have a seat at every table in City Hall, and they’re hard at work shaping the city’s housing and land use policies to be hostile to the homeless and inhospitable to everyone else who doesn’t already own property in the city.
For the city’s neighborhoods to be truly represented, these voices must be counterbalanced by an equally vocal, equally committed contingent of renters, low-income families, newcomers, would-be first-time homebuyers, and residents of neighborhoods that aren’t wealthy, white, and north of the ship canal. The only way urbanists and their allies will get land use that isn’t hostile to density, newcomers, and the poor is if they claim their seat at the table.
The focus groups do require a commitment of between five and 10 hours a month, which is obviously much easier for retirees and professionals with flexible schedules and cars than for people who work nights, get paid by the hour, and use public transit. But if those people don’t get heard, the city may assume they just don’t care. And if that happens, the city could continue on its current path to being a place where the people making six figures a year determine whether those of us making five figures or less can afford to live here. So I strongly encourage anyone who thinks they can find the time for this temporary (nine-month) assignment to fill out an application, especially if you don’t see your neighborhood represented in the applications the city has received so far.
The deadline is February 26. To find out more about the focus groups, attend one of two upcoming meetings. The first, focusing on how renters can get involved with HALA, is at 12th Avenue Arts (1620 12th Ave.) this Thursday, Feb. 18; the second is at the New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Ave. S) on Thursday, Feb. 25.