Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?

by Josh Feit

It’s mayoral election season. And once again, Seattle’s intransigent ideological factions are seeking the candidate who most aligns with their agenda. As candidates vie to consolidate support, this makes for entertaining political contortions.

On the candidate side in recent races, this has been embarrassing (Tim Burgess trying to be cool by setting up headquarters on Capitol Hill in 2013); disingenuous (Mike McGinn assuring people he wasn’t going to fight the tunnel in 2009); or awkward (Cary Moon trying to woo Nikkita Oliver supporters in 2017.)

On the voter side, things can be even rougher. For example, who the heck is a YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) voter supposed to support when Seattle’s dominant factions—KUOW yuppies turned Make-Seattle-Great-Again stalwarts, KEXP Gen-Xers turned provincial populists,  and “Seattle is Dying” KOMO voters—frame the debate.

I wrote a YIMBY manifesto last week (short version: Build multi-family housing in single family zones, support small business in every neighborhood, preserve cultural spaces citywide, and establish civic services across Seattle, all overlaid with an accessible, seamless transit and pedestrian network.)

But since urbanist Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda isn’t running for mayor, things are a bit tricky for upzone-infill-Green Metropolis nerds like me, who want a departure from the same old “downtown” vs. “neighborhood” mayoral campaign season script. (And p.s., the Seattle Times vs. Stranger divide isn’t much of a guide anymore; their standoff lost meaning when both publications went for testosterone socialist Jon Grant over Mosqueda in 2017’s citywide council contest.)

Race is going to be a major factor in 2021, which you’d think would help the YIMBY cause. After all, YIMBYs have put exclusive single-family zoning on notice; allowing more affordable multi-family housing in single-family zones is the number one YIMBY agenda item, if not obsession.

But nope. Both the KEXP and KUOW factions (which include Millennials too, by the way) think developers are akin to Trumpists (um, aren’t the anti-development voters the ones with the keep-people-out pathology?) That contradiction aside, thanks to widespread anti-developer sentiment, the pro-housing position that’s central to the Yes-in-My-Back-Yard voter will undoubtedly get suffocated by easy anti-gentrification soundbites.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this: Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods. The NIMBY fear-mongering argument reminds me of Trump showing video of riots that happened during Trump’s presidency and saying: “This is Joe Biden’s America!”

Since the contours of Seattle politics make it hard for candidates to run on the pro-neighborhood-housing, pro-neighborhood-business, pro-transit, pro-rights-of-way (plural), pro-nightlife, and pro-harm reduction agenda, what’s a YIMBY to do?

If there’s one thing establishment and populist candidates always agree on, it’s that allowing development in single family zones is inimical to Seattle’s character. This is your moment YIMBY. Step in and step up for a pro-housing agenda.

Well, there’s conceptual apartment buildings architect Andrew Grant Houston, aka “Ace the Architect,” a young, Black and Latino, queer, 100% YIMBY candidate, who has stunned everyone with his early fundraising ($60K raised, according the most recent Seattle Ethics and Elections reports).

Some of Seattle’s most visible bright lights, big city advocates have contributed (at least nominally) to Houston’s campaign, including: former mayoral candidate Moon, Futurewise executive director Alex Brennan, Share the Cities activist Laura Bernstein, Urbanist blog writers Ryan Packer and Doug Trumm, Seattle disabilities/transit advocate Anna Zivarts, and Mosqueda herself, though Mosqueda donated much more to council colleague and mayoral candidate Lorena González. (Houston is currently Mosqueda’s interim policy manager at City Hall.)

Houston, whose campaign website vision page says Seattle should operate on a 24/7 basis (I agree!) and that personal vehicles should no longer exist in Seattle by 2030 (I want to agree?), is on the board of a revamped Futurewise, the environmental nonprofit that’s leading the cause of urban density in the state legislature right now.

Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

There is also recently announced candidate Jessyn Farrell, a former progressive state rep from North Seattle who used to head up Transportation Choices Coalition, the premier pro-transit advocacy non-profit in the state. She currently works for Nick Hanauer’s left-progressive think tank, Civic Ventures (which, full disclosure, is a contributor to this site). As a legislator in Olympia, from 2013 to 2017, Farrell was vice chair of the House Transportation Committee and led the 2015 legislative fight for Sound Transit 3’s authorizing legislation.

For Farrell, an urban planning progressive, transit goes hand in hand with housing. She was instrumental in adding amendments that A) tied the authorizing legislation to a commitment from Sound Transit to contribute $20 million to an affordable housing fund and B) helped activate the agency’s transit-oriented  development policy; the TOD legislation has helped create, or put into the housing pipeline, 1,500 affordable units near transit stations to date.

On the YIMBY scorecard, Houston and Farrell are the winners among the current crowded field (15 candidates) of mayoral hopefuls that includes instant frontrunners Colleen Echohawk, the executive director of Chief Seattle Club, Bruce Harrell, a longtime former city council member, and Lorena González, the current city council president. That’s not to say police accountability superstar González hasn’t voted for YIMBY legislation, but it’s far from the focus of her agenda. Certainly, police accountability needs to be top-of-mind for voters, but when it comes to what’s prompting this year’s candidates to run: Farrell (who wants to do “Sound Transit for housing“) and Houston (who wants to “build 33,000 homes a year“) are the two candidates flying the urbanist flag.

Farrell bests Houston on experience by miles. But if you’re looking for a candidate that represents more marginalized voices, Houston bests Farrell: POC, young, and queer.

I won’t recommend either candidate at the moment, and I see both as long shots right now, particularly newcomer Houston, but I will say this: With Durkan bowing out and community organizer Oliver going for González’s citywide seat instead of mayor, the classic Seattle establishment vs. populist contest that typically crowds out full-fledged YIMBYs, has been momentarily set aside, allowing breathing room for an urbanist alternative candidate to emerge.

If there’s one thing establishment and populist mayoral candidates have always agreed on, it’s that allowing development in single-family zones is inimical to Seattle’s character. The establishment candidates don’t want to piss off wealthy outer-tier neighborhood voters, and populists like to give stump speeches against godless development. Quick, this is your moment YIMBY! Step in and step up for a pro-housing  agenda while the traditional left and right narrative of keeping Seattle’s character intact is momentarily off guard. It’s time to dismantle Seattle’s “character.”

Josh@publicola.com. For his day job, Feit works at Sound Transit.

8 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?”

  1. “And p.s., the Seattle Times vs. Stranger divide isn’t much of a guide anymore; their standoff lost meaning when both publications went for testosterone socialist Jon Grant over Mosqueda in 2017’s citywide council contest.”

    Yeah, for a while The Stranger had an excellent editorial staff. Not only was it left leaning, but it was practical. They had an excellent handle of the people best suited for the job, instead of the seemingly random endorsements they give out for bullshit reasons. Barnett and Feit were part of that, and I’m glad they are still doing great work, even if it isn’t for The Stranger.

  2. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether a candidate “flies the urbanist flag”. What matters is whether they can get the job done, and are interested in doing it. Biden didn’t focus on child poverty as a candidate. Yet the first major bill he signs did more to alleviate child poverty than any president since LBJ, if not FDR. It helps if you know what you are doing.

    It also helps if you can get elected. As much as I like Farrell, she didn’t win last time (with much weaker candidates). I don’t see how she wins this time. She really should run for the city council, then run for mayor. Sorry, but Houston is ridiculous. He might win in the primary, but would get crushed in the general, just like Moon did. Run for city council. Prove that you are practical, even if you lean far to the left. Then run for mayor.

    The obvious candidate is González. She knows how the city runs (unlike most candidates) and is a YIMBY, even if she doesn’t campaign on it*. González assumes (for good reason) that she doesn’t need to. There is little to be gained by staking out a position in the primaries, when she doesn’t even know who she will run against in the general. If she runs against someone who has a less YIMBY friendly record, then she will get all the endorsements, and there will be no need to emphasize it. The only big political mistake is if she underestimates the stupidity of Seattle voters, who split their vote once again.

    * I think it is telling that Mosqueda (someone you consider a YIMBY) gave more money to González than her aid. The money to Houston is an “attaboy”, the money to González is because she thinks she would be a good mayor.

  3. Maybe worth adding (since you note who’s contributed to who) that CM Mosqueda has not only donated to González’s campaign but also officially endorsed her?

  4. Um, you report this person has raised around $$60,000. I just went on the official Ethics and Election site, and his contributions are listed as $49,071.43. Great candidate, and fun to read your take on him, but how about some accuracy?

  5. Nice piece with good questions. the 2021 campaign could be robust. Consider the objective “seamless” in transit; transit has seams; it cannot be seamless; seams are of time, distance, or information (complexity in network or fare structure; the best cities and agencies can do is minimize the seams subject to budget and right of way constraints. Please note the passage of the O’Brien ADU ordinance; it has opened up the single family zone quite a bit. More is needed on frequent transit arterials. Consider the TCC work on the 2015 ST3 enabling legislation; was it part of a grand bargain that funded the statewide highway expansion package? How was Metro funding not included? Did ST3 include significant parking; are not the funds needed for garages better used for service frequency and the land for garages better used for apartments? The ST3 capital needs a reset.

  6. We all appreciate the convenience of the advancing Sound Transit train stations and the improvements in our bus services, but over night they aren’t going to cause most or even many of Seattle’s 81% who own cars to stop owning and housing them.
    We would do well to note that in NYC only 45% own cars, but even so, the streets are jammed, and parking costs are steep.
    With the increased density we hope for, we need to become much more creative and proactive in coping with private transportation than we have been so far.
    On the other hand, we should not lose sight of the fact that the gig economy runs on the backs of poor people with cars.

  7. Transit-served, higher density is an essential component of YIMBY. (Based on your definition, I’m a 64-year old, home-owning YIMBY.) However, let’s not make Seattle monotonous. Diversity is certainly core to YIMBY and that should apply to neighborhoods/living arrangements, as well. People have diverse needs and preferences: young singles, older singles, smaller and larger families, outdoor types and gardeners, indoor urban, elderly mobile, elderly not-so-mobile. People looking for quiet, people looking for energy. A comprehensive city plan must make spaces that maintain unique qualities so that people can choose to relocate to areas that are appropriate to them at different times of their life. Note: multiple zoning types can exist in each “village”.

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