Diminishing Returns at HALA Focus Groups

When the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) first put out the call for citizens to apply as neighborhood representatives serving on one of four new community focus groups that would advise the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development on the mayor’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), residents of mostly white North End neighborhoods—many of them vocal opponents of the plan—applied en masse. With just two weeks before the application deadline, fully half of the applicants came from only three North Seattle neighborhoods.

DON staffers, sensing that without more geographically diverse neighborhood representation, the focus groups would be dominated by white, north-end homeowners, put out a second call. DON solicited applications from other parts of the city, including West and Southeast Seattle, and got them—eventually, after I published a story on the demographic disparity and DON ramped up its outreach to community organizations, 661 applications poured in from across the city.

Of that initial group, 181 applicants, many of them renters, people of color, community activists, and members of other groups that have traditionally been excluded from city planning processes, were chosen to serve on the four HALA focus groups that have been meeting monthly since last April. The focus groups are organized based not on geography, but by type of neighborhood—low-density urban villages, medium-density urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban villages expansion areas. According to DON Director Kathy Nyland, the idea was to bring together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city”. At the meetings, the groups typically have received a presentation on some aspect of the HALA plan, followed by opportunities to ask questions, provide input, and engage in small-group discussions. The goal is to use feedback from the focus groups to help shape the zoning legislation that is the heart of HALA.

Attendance logs, obtained from OPCD through a records request, show that 137 focus group members showed up for that first meeting in April—a not-bad 76 percent attendance rate. Since then, though, attendance has curved downward sharply: from 60 percent in May to just 41 percent in September. The numbers for October aren’t available yet, but based on anecdotal reports from group members and my observations at the medium-density focus group I attended near the end of the month, with only 15 of 40 original members present, October attendance was probably lower still.

As important as the sheer numbers is who is no longer showing up. Although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, as well as a survey of monthly attendance sheets, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants, and residents of South Seattle  neighborhoods—the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the planning process. The one clear exception to this rule is eight focus group members who were recruited by Puget Sound Sage, which provided them with ongoing technical support and follow-up meetings on the fundamentals of zoning and land use law.

Laura Bernstein, a University District community activist who resigned from her focus group in September, says she got discouraged when she saw her group being dominated by the “observers” who were supposed to watch quietly and not participate. (Observers are members of the public who watch the meetings and receive a block of time to comment at the end; their names are recorded and included in official meeting attendance records). She says, “there were a lot of really angry outbursts and a lot of whispering form the observers. So you’re trying to get OPCD to answer your question and there’s someone whispering behind you. It was very disruptive and intimidating.” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded: “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?] This is what fake equity looks like.”

Observers at an October focus group meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

The medium-density focus group meeting I attended in late October ostensibly included multiple representatives from the Central Area and North Rainier neighborhoods, two areas that are generally more diverse than, say, Phinney Ridge. Nonetheless, for the first half-hour, there was just one person of color, David Osaki from Aurora-Licton Springs, in the meeting room in the basement of city hall.When Rokea Jones, from the Central District, arrived after finishing a meeting of the Seattle Women’s Commission upstairs, she noticed immediately that the wall-size map of her neighborhood had no “dots” (green stickers representing areas or spots participants wanted the full group to discuss further) in her neighborhood. Jones slapped one down on 23rd Ave. S and waited to speak.

Waited, that is, for longtime Fremont neighborhood activist Toby Thaler–a homeowner steeped for decades in the jargon and minutia of land-use decisions—to finish delivering a lengthy jeremiad about how the city “has abandoned neighborhood planning.” Standing up and jabbing his finger down at the seated audience, Thaler denounced the whole focus group process, suggested that the city chose people for the focus groups based on “some other criteria” than aptitude to serve, and lamented how far neighborhood planning had fallen since the 1980s, allowing “horrendous…ugly crap” in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.

Toby Thaler passionately voices his opinion about the focus group process during an October meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

When Jones finally got a word in edgewise (thanks in large part to aggressive hand-waving by OPCD senior planner Geoff Wendlandt, who struggled to get the attention of facilitator Susan Hayman, a consultant for EnviroIssues hired by the city), she talked about the need to prevent displacement in the Central Area. One way to do that, Jones, suggested, was by increasing the amount developers have to pay into an affordable housing fund before they can to build in gentrifying areas. “There’s a vast amount of displacement with this neighborhood,” Jones said. “I understand that there’s developers and a great deal of concern about them losing money, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about them losing money.” It was the first time the issue of displacement had come up all night.

Read more at the South Seattle Emerald.

5 thoughts on “Diminishing Returns at HALA Focus Groups”

  1. Erica: I am disappointed at your repeated vilification of my perspective on City land use issues. “lengthy jeremiad,” “Thaler denounced the whole focus group process,” “allowing ‘horrendous…ugly crap’ in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.”

    The last is a particularly egregious misstatement. Rather, I have frequently noted on the record that during the land use fights of the 1980s—which led into the neighborhood planning of the 1990s—Fremont agreed to significant up zones in multi-family zoned areas. In exchange we did not get affordable housing. Market rate developers build to make profits, and in many cases, yes, they built “ugly crap” because it is cheaper to build. But none of this was in “once-protected single-family neighborhoods.” Please do not put words into peoples’ mouths when you don’t know the facts.

    Your implication seems to be that I am oblivious to displacement issues. At previous focus group sessions, I have consistently brought up displacement as a major ongoing problem, including referring to the seminal study of how the Black community in the Central District was largely displaced starting in the 1980s. As the author of that study (Seattle University Law Professor Emeritus Henry McGee) states, the main reason for displacement is clear: “Follow the money.”

    In the 1990s, in good part as a result of political activism by North End homeowners, along with a push by the Growth Management Act, the City instituted a planning process that was far more inclusive of all communities of interest than the HALA focus groups. Neighborhood plans were prepared over a multi-year period, with broad community engagement on specific desired land use changes and capital investments needed to accommodate increased density. Each plan included extensive “validation” to ensure that diverse community voices had not only been heard, but accommodated as much as possible.

    Almost none of that 1990s inclusiveness is happening under HALA. The HALA focus group process is a failure because it is the opposite of what happened then: HALA is a top down process—initiated by the Mayor behind closed doors—designed to achieve up zones City wide, with little real say in how, let alone whether, it should occur. And forget about capital investments needed to maintain “livability.”

    Yes, I have criticized the focus group process, with good reason. Like all the others, the Fremont urban village had only five people selected to represent a neighborhood of thousands. One, an Amazon employee who expressed “YIMBY”ish sentiments a year ago, is now on the Fremont Neighborhood Council board—and expresses far more nuanced opinions about the City’s proposals as a result of being open minded and willing to listen and learn. The other three Fremont UV focus group representatives disappeared: one moved out of Fremont shortly after being selected, and the other two simply stopped coming to focus group meetings early on. These facts, along with similar diminishing participation by many other UV representatives, and the copious amount of time wasted on delaying and irrelevant presentations by OPCD, are key reasons for my criticism of the City’s HALA focus group process.

    Here are a few more facts I bring up at many meetings, including at the HALA focus group:

    • HALA was initiated purportedly to solve the City’s housing affordability crisis brought on by rapid economic growth. It is admirable that the City intends to construct more affordable housing for low income households; this is an essential need. Nevertheless, as the City acknowledges, displacement is inevitable when the economy brings in so many new jobs that pay substantially more than the AMI (area medium income).

    • MHA (“inclusionary” housing fees) cannot solve the displacement problem because MHA relies on the private market to provide a public good. Not only is the amount of revenue produced for low income housing woefully inadequate for that need, but it does nothing for the middle class. Or for the many people and small businesses displaced from rapidly gentrifying communities.

    • Many “urbanists” claim that increasing density through market mechanisms can solve housing affordability and environmental problems. Increasing density does neither—no one has yet produced evidence that facilitating more profit taking and inequity in our capitalist political-economy can do so.

    Erica, it’s bad enough that you (and the trolls your writing encourages) appear to desire to maintain a studied ignorance of all of the above. It’s worse that you repeatedly descend into personal insult and inaccuracies to make your points. Please stop. Our challenges cannot be reduced to a simplistic and artificially imposed “us versus them” plot line. We all need to work together to have any chance of real solutions.

  2. Actually I was impressed by how much the proceedings were not dominated by the NYMBY types. Many people were not just welcoming more affordably housing but asking for it – people from all neighborhoods who are serious about addressing our housing crisis. But I think that the scale of the problem versus limited government resources still eludes many people.

    As I see it we need vastly more housing of all types, though especially for our burgeoning low income population. But even for more affluent people, because if they can’t find sufficient housing, they buy up and refurbish cheaper housing, driving up prices and removing that housing from the affordable stock, as is happening right now. I’d like to see the “residential small lot” zoning (or something similar) extended city wide, combined with city efforts to prevent displacement by helping people become landlords in their own homes – remodeling and renting out rooms or small apartments. Then takeover the state and national governments so that we can do it the right way – like the Scandinavian countries.

Comments are closed.