What’s a YIMBY To Do? Part 2

Mayoral Candidate Lorena González Photo credit: Steve Dipaola

by Josh Feit

Historically, Seattle mayoral campaigns have been frustrating for voters like me. Pro-city YIMBYs are usually stuck picking between two disappointing choices. There’s the establishment candidate who stands by Seattle’s formula of sequestering development downtown and into select hubs, while obediently keeping density out of exclusionary single-family neighborhoods. Or there’s the populist candidate for whom development is a dirty word that only means one thing—gentrification.

Fortunately, with a wide-open field this year, there’s room for an urbanist to defy Seattle’s traditional, binary script and step in with a progressive third way that calls for transit-oriented neighborhoods, where density and mixed-use zoning can remake our city for equity. (The pandemic has certainly provided breathing room to this new vision by letting voters actually experience their neighborhoods as more than just bedroom communities for downtown.)

In March, when the race first got underway, I flagged two potentially promising candidates, Jessyn Farrell and Andrew Grant Houston, who could step in and rally the long-overlooked pro-city constituency—Farrell due to her record of transit advocacy or Houston with his exciting to-do list.

Last week, however, at a mayoral candidate forum co-sponsored by the MASS Coalition and other key urbanist groups (moderated by PubliCola’s own Erica C. Barnett), a different candidate emerged as the unflinching, outspoken leader of the pro-urban cause: Seattle City Council president Lorena González. González is an at-large city council member who was first elected in 2015 as a police accountability activist and attorney.

Here’s what I wrote about González in March, explaining why I chose to highlight Farrell and Houston: “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.” However, when Barnett pressed the candidates to articulate their pro-city agenda during last week’s forum, González flew the urbanist flag more unapologetically and forcefully than anyone else in the crowded field. It’s also worth noting that González has already won two citywide races—she was re-elected in 2017—and has a history of supporting progressive legislation at City Hall.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by González’s righteous edge on urbanism; when the city deigned to modestly increase density on the fringes of Seattle’s single-family zones back in 2019, González was all in, saying let’s do this already, and also saying it wasn’t nearly enough. She used the occasion to school the NIMBYs about the city’s “cloud of exclusionary zoning.” 

The fight to rid the city of exclusionary zoning as a front-and-center-policy choice seems to define González’s agenda. Asked to name the single most important thing she could do as mayor to fight climate change, González, unlike any of the other candidates at the forum, went right after single-family zoning.

Listen to her connect the dots: “We have to build a city that gives people incentive to get out of cars and stay in their neighborhoods. We can build that kind of city across every single neighborhood. I think the most important thing we can do is dismantle exclusionary zoning laws that create the most expensive and the least climate-friendly buildings for living. Those are single-family homes.”

“I think the most important thing we can do is dismantle exclusionary zoning laws.”—City Council President Lorena González

The once-radical belief that single-family zones are exclusionary, and that easing Seattle’s affordable housing crisis will require eliminating them, is finally widely accepted. And as we pointed out earlier this week, most candidates generically support the concept. González, however, goes beyond just checking that box; she connects all her dots to the issue, making equitable and complete neighborhoods the centerpiece of her city planning vision. (Newcomer Houston is adamant about getting rid of single-family zoning too.)

Several of González’s answers to questions during the forum were defined by remaking Seattle’s neighborhoods.

In her opening statement, she rushed right to the comprehensive plan, the city’s governing neighborhood planning document, saying city hall needed to take the pending 2024 Comp Plan update as a chance to “build a 15-minute city”—a guiding urbanist principle that means every household citywide should have 15-minute access, “without relying on a single-occupant vehicle,” to goods and services.

And when asked during the “Yes or No” lightning round whether she supported making SDOT’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-friendly streets permanent, González not only said Yes, duh, but felt compelled to add: “Already working on it. And I would also make sure that they are not mixed modality.” In fact, earlier in the forum, she brought this issue up on her own, segueing into an anti-car tirade: “I love the [pandemic-era pedestrian streets], but they are still mixed modalities. We need to eliminate cars on those streets to make sure they continue to be safe, and will be safe for those of us who are not in a steel machine.”

González’s star turn at the MASS Coalition forum also featured this refreshing bit of impatience with Seattle’s car-centric status quo. Asked if she would take action (where the current mayor has not) to set up an enforcement-camera pilot to protect bus-only lanes and bike lanes, she said: “Yes, and yes. And I would just do it. I don’t think we need a pilot project to know that this is something that is effective.”

Lest you think former police accountability attorney González, with her history of taking on biased policing, has subbed out her racial justice lens for a pro-transit lens—nope. She added: “I will also say, it’s really important to make sure we are not creating any disproportionate or disparate impacts on low income or people of color who might be targeted through the automated enforcement.”

Urbanism and social justice have been inching toward each other for nearly a decade, but the over-simplistic dynamics of Seattle’s mayoral elections have thwarted the smart combo by forcing pro-city voters to choose one or the other. No longer.

Ultimately, this is the power of González’s urbanism. Just as her call for multifamily housing in Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods is fueled by her visceral sense of racism (go to the 2:06:18 mark for  her 2019 history lesson about redlining), so are her calls for transit access.

Urbanism and social justice have been inching toward each other for nearly a decade, but the over-simplistic dynamics of Seattle’s mayoral elections have thwarted the smart combo by forcing pro-city voters to choose one or the other. No longer. Judging from her momentum at the MASS Coalition forum, González is the right woman at the right time to press the Jane Jacobs agenda.

Two important footnotes.

1) Houston, who is young,  BIPOC, and queer, also runs urbanism through a smart social justice lens. For example, he stood out during the MASS Coalition forum lightning round by coming out against congestion pricing, saying simply, “No, it’s inequitable.” Everyone—even the unimpressive Bruce Harrell—gets that congestion pricing will hit poorer people harder because housing prices force poor people into far-flung, car-dependent suburban living. I respect Houston’s hard-line stance (as did ECB!), but the ultimate wisdom of charging people to drive downtown (González said yes) can easily be designed to exempt poor people. As mayor, there’s no question Latinx González will craft a just congestion pricing program.

Yeah yeah, they’ve got their spoiled-brat campaign against Sawant (which reads like a Brett Kavanaugh temper tantrum)

And, here’s a thought about the council election:

2) If you believe the Seattle Times, establishment polling firms, and conventional wisdom, Seattle voters are fed up with the City Council—their woke politics, their YIMBY POV, their commitment to organized labor, their “permissive” (harm reduction) approach to homelessness, and the fact that they had the nerve to hold Carmen Best accountable for the SPD.


Probably because the establishment is gaslighting you, and they actually know there’s no way to beat Mosqueda, because people actually agree with her progressive, YIMBY agenda. Meanwhile, the establishment’s former bestie, the mayor, dropped out of her bid for reelection. Hmmm.

Yeah, yeah, they’ve got their spoiled-brat campaign against Sawant (which reads like a Brett Kavanaugh temper tantrum), but that’s a longstanding obsession, and it’s unrelated to Mosqueda’s specific, get-shit done, agenda.


22 thoughts on “What’s a YIMBY To Do? Part 2”

  1. I’m all for her stance on urbanism but calling Gonzales the police accountability candidate is bizarre. She voted to approve the SPOG contract and completely reversed all the gains made in 2017. She ignored the CPC and 30 community orgs who knew the contract gutted accountability. We need someone with real courage to hold SPD accountable. Colleen Echohawk has a more developed plan for upzoning, transit, climate justice and particular police accountability than anyone in the race. Echohawk was on the Community Police Commission that begged the Mayor and CC to not approve the contract.

  2. Zoning isn’t “exclusionary” it’s Necessary and Practical. If you didn’t have zoning you could have factories spewing belch next to single family homes. Zoning was partially created to prevent problems like that. You would also have freeways and busy streets right in the middle of neighborhoods. And there would be no regulations on how fire stations or police stations should be located to be able to respond to calls. Or where schools should be located. Zoning is needed. Furthermore ALL housing types are Needed INCLUDING Single Family Housing.

    1. “You would have freeways and busy streets right in the middle of neighborhoods”

      Seriously? You aren’t aware of the fact that freeways cut through existing neighborhoods? Or that people live next to busy streets?

      You are also missing the point. No is arguing that we should allow factories in every neighborhood. What we are arguing is that we should get rid of single family zoning. You would still have limits on height (and on use) but not the number of unrelated people who can live in a place. You would also get rid of the parking requirement.

      Oh, and ” Exclusionary zoning was introduced in the early 1900s, typically to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from moving into middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclusionary_zoning). https://www.kqed.org/news/11840548/the-racist-history-of-single-family-home-zoning, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/09/25/snob-zoning-is-racial-housing-segregation-by-another-name/, etc.

      1. Since when are their limits on unrelated people living in a place? There are thousands of apartments and houses shared by multiple unrelated roommates in this city. That has never been illegal and isn’t affected by zoning.

  3. Thank you, Josh, for the informative update on which candidates are pushing pro-urban density policies. Via the US Census in 2020, Seattle was the fastest growing large city and it sorely needs to expand housing supply to accommodate. I plan to vote for Jessyn Farrell in the primary, but I would but also be happy with Lorena González as mayor.

  4. So, did the 2019 upzones work? Are we in a hurry to upzone more, because the outcome of the 2019 upzones show that it’s the answer to affordable housing? Or are we in a hurry because in another year or two, it will be all too obvious to the voters that is isn’t?

    1. What upzones? I live in a single-family zoned neighborhood and nothing changes. Do you mean the ADU changes?

      1. There was a wee bit of single family and low rise upzoning as part of the MHA thing – this is from the director’s report:

        about 297 acres of land currently zoned single-family would be converted to the proposed LR1 zone
        about 152 acres of land with single-family zoning and nine acres of land with Lowrise 1 zoning would also be converted to then proposed LR2 zone
        about 23 acres of land with single-family zoning, eight acres of land with Lowrise 1 zoning, and 38 acres of land with Lowrise 2 zoning would also be converted to the proposed LR3 zone

        (Of course the fact this is within the urban villages is the tell on the big lie of the urban village strategy. Supposedly it was good and important to increase the number people living near neighborhood business districts and within frequent transit catchments….In fact neighborhood plans as actually implemented *restricted* how many people could live close to neighborhood business districts and within frequent transit catchments by preserving single family large lot zoning in lots of places that fit the definition of both.)

    2. What 2019 upzones? I live in a single-family zoned area, and nothing changed. It is that way for *most* of the city.

      1. (Sorry for the double post. My original comment didn’t seem to go through — I hate Word Press comments)

      2. HALA increased the size of most urban villages; the low rise areas are larger; a new RSL area was developed. The ADU ordinance allows more ADU and DADU in single family areas. But HALA missed the chance to convert the single family areas served by frequent transit that lay in between urban villages; they remain single family.

    3. The Urbanists (developers in disguise) are in a hurry to get all the money they can out of the building boom that allows them to put four to 8 luxury townhomes on a single family home lot. The townhomes will cost upwards of $700K each. Or an apodment on a single family lot. That could bring in millions! All lots denuded of any trees and greenery creating an urban heatsink. Its the Urbanist’s Dream.

  5. Josh: Go ahead and finish wrecking Seattle with Progressive policies. It has been very entertaining so far. I don’t live there and the smart people are already moving out so its OK with me. I am standing back laughing at you idiots right now. More violence, thefts, vandalism, burning, looting, needles, piles of trash, human excrement in public spaces…. its all good. However, at some point even you will be forced to admit that things got much worse after your policies were fully implemented (which hopefully they will be, just for fun). I am going to tell you exactly what your excuses will be at that point: Reagan and Trump caused it, capitalism and greed caused it, global warming caused it, scary assault rifles caused it, etc. etc. I pretty much nailed it, didn’t I? You are so predictable. Put June 24, 2031 on your calendar right now. I’ve essentially already won this argument but it will take you ten years or more and you still won’t get it. This is an experiment to prove that fact. Ten years time will prove you were wrong. With Progressives, its always someone else’s fault. Progressives will never take responsibility for their own repeated failures. Let the fun in Seattle continue. Steve Willie.

    1. It’s somewhat true. The areas that were upzoned per all the rules that Urbanists wanted – and which they said would create tons of affordable housing – are not creating the affordable housing that was promised. The only affordable things are the apodments – one room that can be as small as 500 sq. ft. to live in that might include bike parking if your lucky for $900/month. No family could live in a place that small. All the townhomes being built are selling for upwards of $750 K. And when the developers build them – they raze all the plants and trees and leave a plot of houses denuded of vegetation. This is the urbanist dream.

      A better idea would be to get together with the cities around us and help them recruit some of the business with large amounts of employees to prop up their cities and in that way create several cities with green space between. Every city could benefit from the boom and we could end up with a much nicer result if the growth is taken in little bits by all.

      1. You obviously don’t understand economics. There is tremendous demand for housing. There is limited supply. This explains why prices went up. They increased the supply by a tiny amount. It didn’t do much, because the demand is so high. But the prices are still lower than they would be if the city did nothing. If they did more — i. e. allowed more housing on the huge amount of land that is zoned single-family — then it would have a bigger effect. Whether it actually reduces housing costs, or makes them lower than they would be otherwise depends on the demand, as well as other factors (i. e. the cost of construction).

      2. To echo Ross Bleakney with my personal experience. Each year my rent had increased by about $100/mo. In 2018 a lot of new apartments opened. In 2019 I did not get a rent increase. In 2020 the rent increased again by $100/mo. The next year with Covid there was the same supply but suddenly greatly reduced demand as renters moved out of Seattle. My rent went down $200/mo. Elementary economics, simple supply and demand. With increased supply, prices stabilize. With greatly increased supply, prices would almost certainly go down. The upzoning was minor, thus the impact was minor.

      3. “The only affordable things are the apodments – one room that can be as small as 500 sq. ft. to live in that might include bike parking if your lucky for $900/month. No family could live in a place that small. ”

        Maybe, but a single large company full time minimum wage worker ($16.69/hr) can afford this, and if the market would build, without subsidy, that janitors and dishwashers and retail clerks and so on can afford without subsidy that’s fantastic. (Especially if it means that they can live close enough to work and/or transit so they get the financial benefit of not needing a car.)

    2. I never understand why lookie loos from other parts internalize Seattle so deeply. So you didn’t like the city and moved away would be a better ending then you moved and continued to troll Internet forums of people who actually live here.

      You moved but you didn’t move on.

      1. I love Seattle. I didn’t move away. I was displaced due to becoming disabled. And no BS Charter Amendment or build, baby build YIYBY nonsense is ever going to make it any easier for me to return.

        Because that is what happens when YIMBY idealism hits reality. It’s never their backyard that is practical to build in/near. Always yours. They will talk a good talk, but make sure you have to walk their walk.

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