1. Seattle council member-elect Alex Pedersen, whose campaign received about $70,000 in independent backing from the Seattle Metro Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, has reportedly made his first hire—neighborhood activist and longtime anti-density crusader Toby Thaler. Thaler, a fixture on the Fremont Neighborhood Council, was a leader of SCALE, a group that spent two years appealing the Mandatory Housing Affordability on the grounds that increased density in the city’s urban villages would destroy neighborhood character, trample the neighborhood plans of the ’90s, and harm the environment.
Thaler has also argued against density on the grounds that development only benefits wealthy interests. Neither Thaler nor Pedersen returned emails seeking confirmation and comment.
The hire confirms the sheer magnitude of CASE’s defeat in the November 5 election. Not only did all but one other Chamber-backed candidate lose to a more progressive opponent (Debora Juarez, an incumbent whose opponent was a firebrand conservative, was the highly unusual exception), the one winner they backed, Pedersen, is more likely to align with the dread socialist Sawant on anti-development measures like impact fees than to vote the Chamber’s interests.
Pedersen is also opposed to the downtown streetcar, which CASE supports, referred to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones,” and opposed the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure on the grounds that the “biggest businesses” should pay their “fair share.” Sound familiar?
2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent out a press release Thursday touting a new “Affordable Seattle” portal that will “Help Residents Easily Determine If They Qualify for City of Seattle Discount Programs.” (Believe it or not, that’s less wordy than a typical Durkan press release subject line). The portal, which replaces a website Durkan rolled out in 2018 in at the same URL, is the first project to come out of the mayor’s much-touted Innovation Advisory Council, a group of local tech leaders brought together the summer before last to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic.
I went to the portal (created by Expedia), plugged in my income (above the qualifying income for any assistance programs other than homeownership help), my household size (one) and a Southeast Seattle ZIP code and pressed the button marked “find services.”
My children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program, which isn’t available where I live anyway. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.
As a household of one, my children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program. If I had qualified, additional links provided on internal pages inside the portal (one of which is broken) would have reminded me that the permits are limited to specific areas, and that my neighborhood is not among them. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.
I asked mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower why this portal—the very first deliverable from the IAC since it was announced to great fanfare well over a year ago—produced such unhelpful results.
Hightower says the system is programmed to tell everyone about all four of the programs recommended to me on the grounds that they might be eligible, and that it’s up to users to then follow the links to read more about the eligibility requirements for each individual program. Put a different way, it sounds like Expedia didn’t include income-based exclusions from certain programs, didn’t account for people who live alone (about 40 percent of all Seattle residents, as of the most recent American Community Survey), and didn’t bother linking services to the ZIP codes, much less street addresses, where they are actually available. They also don’t ask if users own a car, although several of the potential benefits are linked to car ownership.
“It is worth mentioning,” Hightower says, “that once you click through on any specific program, there is a clear breakdown of eligibility requirements. The IAC is continuing work on Affordable Seattle, and it is possible that some changes will be made over time to the internal logic of the site to more clearly identify programs and ensure that residents are seeing only the most relevant programs for them and their families.”
Okay—but why roll out a search portal that effectively functions as a list of low-income programs that can only be sorted (despite appearances) based on a couple of variables, and how is that an improvement on the more straightforward portal Durkan rolled out a year and a half ago? (When I asked the portal to find programs available to my $2,000-a-month household of seven and entered the ages of my fictitious kids, the portal suggested a few new programs, all of which were included on the 1.0 version of the site.) The promise of the Innovation Advisory Council was that it would produce brand-new “data-driven technological approaches to addressing our priority areas of homelessness, affordability, mobility, and delivery of basic services.” So far, it appears that they’ve just produced a website with a somewhat sortable list of programs.
3. Sound Transit put out an online survey on fare enforcement that suffers from omissions of a different kind—the survey does not offer riders the option of opposing the practice of fare enforcement outright, instead steering respondents to endorse minor changes such as lower fines, less “intimidating” uniforms for fare enforcement officers, not enforcing fare when there is “major construction” or during severe weather, or forgiving fines if a person enrolls in a low-income pass program or completes community service.
The survey also includes the graphic Sound Transit trots out every time they face public criticism of their fare enforcement policies, which is supposed to demonstrate that fare enforcement is done systematically, and therefore cannot be biased. The graphic is not related to any specific survey question. Critics have pointed out that whatever the intent of this practice, fare enforcement falls disproportionately on African-American riders, an indication of bias in practice if not intent. Moreover, heavy-handed enforcement doesn’t generally lead to higher revenues, since—as a King County Metro survey revealed last year—the reason most people fail to pay their fare is that they don’t have the money.