Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery


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.”

14 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery”

  1. Building more mid- or high-end housing is not “trickle down” when there is existing demand for it.

    Rather, it takes the people who can afford it off the market for lower-cost housing. It more or less directly frees up a less expensive unit for people with lower budgets most of the time.

    To use a specific example, we live in split lot infill. The new house is much bigger than the original and much older house. If the lot couldn’t have been split and our house couldn’t have been built, we would have renovated the old house into something bigger and wound up with a big yard – because we can, and this is the area we wanted to live in.

  2. Yes, restricting multifamily development is absolutely exclusionary, but so are the vast, vast majority of multifamily projects being built in this town. Building luxury and “market rate” apartments might enable more well-paid tech workers to find housing, but it’s not going to make Seattle a place that is accessible to people of all income levels. (And yes, I’ve heard the argument that we should just let greedy developers overbuild, and eventually, at some distant future point, the prices will drop. I don’t buy it.) I agree that the impulse to exclude, to keep a place to yourself is dangerous, but I also believe that a lot (not all — I know about the folks who want to preserve “character” and views) of the resistance to development in general comes from a deep fear of displacement/gentrification.

    1. Building luxury and “market rate” apartments might enable more well-paid tech workers to find housing, but it’s not going to make Seattle a place that is accessible to people of all income levels

      Here’s the thing–if fewer high-end luxury housing is built for the influx of highly paid tech workers, they’re going to move here anyway! “I would love to take a great, high-paying job in my field, but they didn’t build enough new housing, so rather than buy a slightly older home, I guess I won’t come to Seattle” isn’t a thing anyone ever said.

      I live in a boring, small, older, uncharming house with no fancy hi-end finishes that my partner bought in 2009 for around 300K. It’s the kind of house SF zoning exclusionists talk about as “naturally affordable housing.” But, of course, it’s only as affordable if people don’t bid up the price. A house like ours on our street would now cost around 475-500K–more than she/we could have afforded. That’s because people richer than us are now interested in boring houses like ours, because they’re being priced out of nicer homes in better locations. Building fewer new units will also screw over future people like us, because it’ll lead to richer people bidding on the homes. If there hadn’t been a lot of new construction, it’s scary to think what houses like ours would cost today.

      1. I have heard and understand that argument, but I don’t agree that the best approach to our current problem is to build more expensive housing so that affordability can “trickle down” to regular folks. Sure, we can build more “market rate” apartments, but we also need to be aggressively building affordable units, and we need to be asking more of developers. If not now, when developers are dying to get in to this market, then when?

      2. We need more housing of all kinds. “Market rate” and affordable aren’t generally in direct competition, except for setting IZ requirements at optimal rates.

        Using the phrase “trickle down” in quotes, invoking a discredited economic theory that has absolutely nothing to do with this topic, is a poor substitute for an actual argument.

    2. Actually, economists have find that in the long run, letting developers build and requiring that they provide low-income access drops prices a lot.

  3. Thanks for covering this. Rob is exactly right in his point although he could have softened the words. It always baffles me when people say they want to welcome refugees and immigrants but don’t want Seattle to have more people. Urban areas with plenty of opportunities for new jobs and housing are exactly where new immigrants should be — not to mention the environmental benefits of low carbon urban living and making growth management work.

    1. Yes, we need more housing in Seattle, but I’m unconvinced that the only way to obtain it is to abolish single-family zoning. Yes, upzone urban centers and urban villages. Yes, expand the boundaries of urban villages and expand low-rise zoning to include the 10-minute walkshed around rail transit stations. Yes, ease the rules for backyard cottages and basement apartments.

      All these strategies are under way in one way or another, and I’ve just not seen any evidence that, taken collectively, they won’t yield enough properly zoned land to accommodate current growth trends.

      1. RDPence,

        Even if you are correct that we can meet all new demand without any change to SF zoning (and it’s far from clear that you are) we still have to ask ourselves what the right thing to do it.

        On my block, in an increasingly desirable part of North Seattle a few blocks out of the urban village, there was a derelict house. Last year it was finally torn down and replaced with a giant (nearly 4000 square foot) mansion. Sold for 1.4 million. If the builders weren’t restricted by the limits of SF zoning, they could have built, with the exact same footprint, a building with 4 1000 square foot units.

        That’s (1) Better for the environment–people would use less energy per home, and people would be close to frequent bus service with under 30 minute commutes by bus to downtown and the U-district. As it stands, three of those four households now probably have much longer commutes, with is terrible for those people and for the environment. It would be better for affordability, overall, as it would decrease scarcity, and the units would have been, while not affordable to poor of even median households, affordable to a much wider swath of the city. The local businesses on the fringe of the urban village would have more foot traffic and customers. The impact on the build environment would have been identical; same size and scale as the ridiculous McMansion, but with less waste.

        The only downside is less on-street parking, but the vast majority of houses on this block have driveways they don’t even use for car storage because on-street parking isn’t that hard to find–only maybe 1 out of 40 times can we not find a spot within half a block (we’re one of the only houses without a driveway or garage). Making free, taxpayer subsidized car-storage extra-convenient for those with good timing isn’t a public good, and doesn’t justify chasing three households out of the city. The idea that maintaining the legal status quo that incentivizes giant, luxury housing construction for very rich people, rather than modest-sized homes, on valuable real estate needs to be affirmatively justified. It’s producing some outcomes that are clearly bad for sprawl and bad for affordability, and for what? Cheap houses on extremely valuable land are going to get redeveloped eventually, single family zoning won’t protect old small cheap homes when the land itself is worth half a million. Insofar as retaining SF zoning “protects” slightly cheaper housing in this kind of area, it’s only for a few years at best. What’s the justification? I’ve never seen or heard anything remotely compelling in the abstract. Attempting to cram all new housing in the tiny sliver of land they can currently go is a long shot that is almost certain to result in continually rising prices (as it has for the last six years, despite your repeated assurances that there is plenty of capacity under current zoning), and more and more people will be priced out. I have yet to hear a remotely compelling justification for it.

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