Category: Density

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.

Reality check: NO LEGIT CANDIDATE CHOSE TO RUN AGAINST THE COUNCIL’S AT-LARGE LEADER OF THESE AWESOME POLITICS, Position 8 Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.

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.

Josh@PubliCola.com

“Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift

1. On Friday afternoon, 63-year-old Raymond Ben became the fifth person from King County to be resentenced under a new state law intended to correct decades of harsh mandatory sentences by retroactively removing second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.”

The law requires prosecutors to request resentencing hearings by July 25 for anyone currently serving a life sentence for a “three-strikes” case involving a second-degree robbery—which, unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter, typically doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. The law made at least 114 people across Washington eligible for resentencing, including 29 people from King County—many of whom, like Ben, have spent a decade or more in prison.

In 2001, a King County judge sentenced Ben to life in prison after he stole a computer from a secure building at the University of Washington and punched three bystanders who tried to stop him; because of previous convictions for burglary and second-degree robbery, Ben fell into Washington’s “persistent offender” category.

Ben is one of a dozen inmates for whom the unit requested resentencing hearings before the July deadline. Two of those hearings—for 50-year-old Michael Peters and 59-year-old Rene Haydel—also took place on Friday.

Of the dozen inmates scheduled for resentencing before July 25, three—including Ben, who has cancer—received priority because of health concerns. Rickey Mahaney, the first person resentenced in King County under the new law, left the Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Franklin County on June 1 to move to hospice care.

Once the Washington Department of Corrections approves Ben’s re-entry plan, he has arranged to join his sister’s family after his release. But not everyone resentenced under the new law can turn to family members for support, which has forced the prosecutor’s office to rely on nonprofit organizations—the Seattle Clemency Project, among others—to organize housing, employment and other elements of re-entry plans for several inmates who would otherwise have no support system after their release.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit within the King County Prosecutor’s Office, told PubliCola that many other prosecutors’ offices in Washington won’t be able to provide backup options to those they resentence. “If someone in another county doesn’t have family to help them get back on their feet after their release,” she said, “there’s no guarantee that they’ll have another option.”

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2. PubliCola’s Erica C. Barnett moderated a mayoral forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition, Cascade Bicycle Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, and several other environmental groups last Wednesday.

The conversation, which featured five of the leading mayoral candidates (Colleen Echohawk and Casey Sixkiller were absent), highlighted substantive differences on issues that have flown under the radar during most debates this year, such as transit funding, the future of the Move Seattle levy, and the city’s contribution to climate change.

Some observations from the debate:

• Former council member Bruce Harrell, who’s leading (after “undecided”) in recent polls, has really embraced the idea that private donations will help solve the city’s biggest problems, including not just homelessness but transportation infrastructure.

In response to a question about the Move Seattle levy, which has failed to produce promised investments in sidewalks, bike infrastructure, and road and bridge maintenance, Harrell he would lean on large employers’ obligation “to give back to the community, to help us with the infrastructure. … So you’ll see not only a taxing mechanism, but you’ll see philanthropic efforts on my part.”

• Nearly every candidate supported the concept of making transit free—a huge endeavor that would have significant revenue impacts on both Sound Transit and King County Metro—although supporters varied in their responses to how they would like to see free transit happen. Continue reading ““Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift”

It’s Time for a Biden-Era Mandatory Housing Affordability Plan

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

It’s true, the numbers are impressive. MHA dollars accounted for 45 percent of the city’s affordable housing spending in 2020, or $52.3 million. (MHA actually brought in $68.3 million total last year, and the city will carry over the additional $16 million in MHA money for 2021 affordable housing projects.)

And while the longtime Seattle Housing Levy’s $56.7 million accounted for more of 2020’s affordable housing spending, 48 percent, MHA actually created 110 more rent-restricted units than the venerated levy—698 funded by MHA versus 588 funded by the levy.

In short, this brand-new inclusionary housing mechanism, which came online in 2019 after five years of old-school neighborhood lawsuits and challenges, more than matched the levy, a 40-year-old property tax program that cost homeowners a median of $122 a year in 2016.

MHA is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family areas while requiring developers to either pay a fee, which goes into an affordable housing fund, or build a percentage of affordable units on site. MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city. And it costs you nothing. Oh, and the $52.3 million for 698 units doesn’t even include the 104 on-site affordable housing units that MHA created; the city does not track on-site units as affordable housing dollars.

So, with such glowing stats, why “fail?”

I mean it the same way Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package was a failure and Democrats are now applauding Biden for going big on his $4.1 trillion infrastructure plan. In other words, if we’re getting a nearly-$70 million-a-year bang for our buck on affordable housing dollars from the polite MHA upzones the council passed in 2019, it’s time to do a Biden and go bigger.

If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing.

MHA only upzoned 6 percent of the city’s single-family zones, which make up around 65 percent of the city’s developable land. Under MHA, the city also did some earlier upzones between 2017 and 2019 in parts of six  neighborhoods where some density was already allowed, such as downtown, the University District, South Lake Union, and 23rd Avenue in the Central District

Back when the council passed the final pieces of MHA two years ago, the city’s two at-large council members, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were already playing Elizabeth Warren to the mayor’s Larry Summers. Caving to pressure from the slow-growth Seattle Times, former mayor Ed Murray scrapped his initial MHA upzone proposal, which would have raised the ceiling on height regulations in single family zones at large.

“For some, this housing affordability legislation goes too far,” González said from the council dais when the council passed MHA in March 2019, “for others it does not go far enough.” It was clear which side González was on. “So, let’s chat a little bit about that dynamic,” she said. “Contrary to the name of the Select Committee on Citywide MHA, this legislation is not even close to citywide. This legislation impacts a total of only 6 percent of existing areas currently and strictly zoned as single family home zones. That means even with the passage of MHA legislation, approximately 60 percent of the city of Seattle is still under the cloud of exclusionary zoning laws.” She went on to give a history lesson of racist housing covenants in Seattle.

Councilmember Mosqueda sounded the same note. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes,” she said. “I think that’s the next conversation to have. Larger changes that create a more inclusive Seattle. Again, this is just an effort to look at 6 percent of the single family zoning in our city.”

González is running for mayor this year, and Mosqueda is backing her. Here’s hoping González is actually committed to doing something about “the cloud of exclusionary zoning.” Not only because it will help create a more inclusive city, but according to the numbers, it would be good affordable housing policy.

Think about it. If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing. While we created 1,300 units last year, we should be building a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, or about 12,000 a year.

Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

Upzoning the rest of the city—the part that remains exclusively single-family—would certainly help. Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

This is noteworthy. Here’s why. There are three main streams of MHA money: first, payments from developments in selected multifamily hubs that became subject to MHA in 2017, including parts of 23rd Ave. in the Central District, the University District, and Uptown; next, payments from developments in all multifamily zones, from the new MHA legislation that took effect in 2019; and also payments from developments in the upzoned sliver of former single-family zones.

Over the four years between 2016 and 2020, the hub upzones, which went into effect earlier, have generated about 60 percent of the money from MHA, most of that in 2020. But since 2019, when MHA dollars started flowing in from the multifamily areas and the former single-family areas, nearly a third of the additional money from those new revenue sources—$10 million of $36 million remaining total—has been from development in the sliver that used to be single-family.

That outsized stat indicates just how attractive these formerly verboten zones, which sit on the edges of existing urban centers and urban villages, are for new housing. If we actually upzoned all of the city’s exclusive single-family areas, instead of just six percent, we’d have a better chance at generating the money to build the affordable housing stock this city needs.

While the upzoned former single-family zones did generate $10 million for affordable housing, there is another MHA fail. None of the on-site MHA housing was built in those areas. That needs to change. Opening up the entire city to multifamily housing, as opposed to the begrudging 6 percent allotted in MHA, would create more options for on-site multifamily development in these zones themselves. Hopefully, the next conversation about upzones will address how to actually put multifamily housing in amenity-rich SFZs.

The name of this column is Maybe Metropolis. My verdict on MHA?  Emphasis remains on “maybe” until we do mandatory housing affordability right and make it actually citywide.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Olympia Fizz: More Calls for Inslee to Reject Weakened ADU Bill; State Rejects Eyman’s Anti-Capital Gains Tax Efforts

1. A pro-renter outcry against watered-down state legislation emerged this week when two dozen organizations and businesses signed on to a letter, originally drafted by the progressive Sightline think tank; the Sightline letter, which we reported on last week, asks Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a partial veto of accessory dwelling unit legislation that state representatives amended with anti-renter provisions.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? The AARP of Washington, Climate Solutions, 350 Seattle, Amazon, the Washington State Labor Council, SEIU 775, and the Sierra Club, among others.

As we reported, the initial proposal, by state Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), would have banned owner-occupancy for secondary units, such as backyard cottages, allowing renters to live in both single-family houses and their accessory units—opening up exclusive single-family neighborhoods to more people. However, state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) kicked off a House process that led to a radical rewrite, allowing owner occupancy mandates and imposing new restrictions designed to prevent homeowners from renting out their secondary units as Airbnbs.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? 350 Seattle, AARP Washington, Climate Solutions, the Washington State Labor Council, and the Sierra Club, among many others.

“ADUs alone will not solve the state’s housing shortage,” the letter says. “But they are the gentlest way communities can add relatively affordable homes that offer lower income families more choices and allow seniors to age in place.”

2. Coming off yet another major legal loss, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman has stumbled again. The Republican Washington Secretary of State’s office threw out all four of Eyman’s anti-capital gains tax (SB 5096) referendum proposals.

The capital gains tax bill, which passed this year, would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains of $250,000 or more, but conservatives are already champing at the bit to stop it from taking effect. Earlier this week, two conservative groups filed lawsuits against the bill, arguing that it constitutes an unconstitutional income tax.

Rejecting the measures, Washington State Director of Elections Lori Augino cited the bill’s necessity clause, an amendment added by Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), which says that the tax is “is necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions.” This places it outside the scope of citizens’ referendum power, Augino wrote.

Eyman’s referendum method would have been the safest option for conservatives to stop the bill. The other options are a lawsuit or a voter initiative, which requires twice as many signatures—about 325,000, or 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

While the lawsuits could also upend the Democrats’ plans, they may also backfire on the conservatives. The Washington State Supreme Court could uphold the tax by ruling that it’s an excise tax, not an income tax. Or they could overturn a 1933 decision that defined income as property, which, under the state constitution, must be taxed at a 1 percent uniform tax rate. If the court overturns that ruling, Democratic lawmakers would finally have the opportunity to pass a graduated income tax in the state.

Community Groups Support Equitable Development Staffers; Sidran Opposes “Compassion Seattle”

1. Members of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative board, along with dozens of community organizations, signed a letter of support for two EDI leaders at the city’s Office of Community Planning and Development who wrote a scathing letter late month accusing Mayor Jenny Durkan and OCPD of emotionally abusing EDI staff while sowing division among the communities EDI is supposed to support.

“As community stakeholders and EDI Board members, we… have witnessed the emotional labor required of EDI staff, valued for their deep ties to community, but directed to lead this program in a way that has perpetuated inequities for those it purports to serve,” the letter of support says. “The City of Seattle, OPCD, and the EDI must do better by BIPOC staff and community organizations.”

EDI manager Ubax Gardheere and EDI strategist Boting Zhang wrote an open letter last week saying they were taking a “mental health break” from the city. “Our bodies have been weaponized in an institution that historically and presently has actively fought against you, and you have sensed this,” they wrote.

The Equitable Development Initiative began in 2015 under then-mayor Ed Murray as a revolving fund intended to advance community-led projects in areas of the city with a high risk of displacement and low access to opportunity. None of four demonstration projects that were chosen to launch the initiative have been built.

By saying “it is city policy” to avoid dispersing people unless they’re impeding the use of public spaces, the former city attorney argues, the amendment will make it impossible for the city to sweep anyone, including, potentially, someone who is “blocking traffic by pitching a tent in the middle of 5th Ave. downtown.”

During last year’s budget process, Durkan proposed eliminating a long-promised $30 million fund to pay for EDI projects out of the proceeds of the Mercer Megablock sale, citing the pandemic; the council restored the funds, but EDI proponents saw Durkan’s willingness to defund the initiative as a betrayal.

Since then, the mayor has appointed her own Equitable Communities task force to recommend spending priorities for $100 million in investments in BIPOC communities, which includes the $30 million; some advocates have criticized the makeup of the task force, saying it is composed largely of Durkan allies and groups that are seeking a slice of the money.

“When she set up the task force, a lot of people didn’t want to join,” Yordanos Teferi, of the Multicultural Community Center, recalled. “And then we learned that those who did join the task force were not coming into the process trying to advocate for communities at large—they were just advocating for their own projects or their own organizations.” The MCC, along with Africatown, the Ethiopian Community in Seattle, Puget Sound Sage, Friends of Little Saigon, and more than two dozen other groups, signed the letter of support.

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2. Former Seattle city attorney Mark Sidran—best known for defending the Teen Dance Ordinance, impounding people’s cars over expired driver’s licenses, and, oh yeah, supporting a zillion laws aimed at criminalizing homelessness—opposes the Compassion Seattle Charter initiative. Continue reading “Community Groups Support Equitable Development Staffers; Sidran Opposes “Compassion Seattle””

Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle

Image via Rail House Apartments.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has long been a hero to the NIMBY crowd. His columns about density and gentrification have created heroes and villains in Seattle’s growth wars: Little old ladies versus greedy developers; “unfettered growth” versus homeowners calling for a little restraint; “some of the biggest zoning changes in our lifetimes” versus bungalows.

In 2015, a Westneat column warned darkly about secret plans to “do away with single-family zoning — which for a hundred-plus years has been the defining feature of Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.” The column galvanized a rebellion among the city’s slow-growthers that gutted then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, reducing new density to a tiny slice of land on the edges of existing urban villages and ensuring that Seattle’s single-family areas will remain unaffordable enclaves for the foreseeable future.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

So I was surprised to learn recently that while Westneat preaches the gospel of slow growth and “concurrency”—a buzz word for anti-density groups that argue the city shouldn’t accommodate new people until it has built sidewalks, roads, and other infrastructure “concurrent” with population growth—he and his wife own a development company that bulldozed a bungalow in Seattle’s historically Black south end and replaced it with a 13-unit apartment complex. Westneat’s wife developed the property.

Rents at the Rail House apartments, located about a block from the Columbia City light rail station, start at around $1,400 for a studio and go up from there; prospective renters must have three references from previous landlords and a minimum credit score of 650 (until recently 660). Activists for racial equality have called credit requirements a form of modern-day redlining that has no relationship to tenant quality. Westneat said the credit and reference requirements were a response to a city law requiring landlords to accept the first applicant who qualifies; that law was designed to prevent discrimination by landlords.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

Contacted about this seeming contradiction between the views he expresses in his columns and his family’s business, Westneat responded that he’s never had a problem with transit-oriented development; his issue is with places “where growth is overwhelming the infrastructure.”

“I think all transit corridors and the light rail corridors in particular are no-brainers for higher-density development, Westneat told me in an email. “I do have issues with the way Seattle has gentrified so quickly (but who doesn’t?).” Rail House, he continued, “is a classic transit-oriented development, 13 units with no parking. It works because it is right next to Columbia City light rail station, but it might not be appropriate in parts of the city that lack robust transit.”

What’s insidious about Westneat’s columns isn’t that they make a moderate case—it costs homeowners nothing to say that density is acceptable where they don’t live—but that they are an argument against the kind of density Seattle actually needs.

You won’t get any argument from me that transit-oriented development is a no-brainer. But even the most dyed-in-the-wool slow-growther would probably agree with this view today, now that battles over transit and development near transit stops have been mostly settled. (Of course, both Westneat and I have been around long enough to recall when transit itself was considered not just a gentrifying factor but one that would promote out-of-control growth in historically single-family areas like Columbia City!)

As an example of his support for appropriate density, Westneat said that he was all for Mike O’Brien’s 2016 legislation that would have “upzoned most of the city to three units.” (In reality, the city projected that the plan would result in fewer than 4,000 new units across the entire city over 20 years).

“I don’t have a longstanding editorial opposition to density or upzoning,” Westneat told me. 

I’d say that’s debatable—the cumulative effect of column after column condemning specific examples of density is an editorial opposition to density, even if those columns are tempered by general statements supporting the idea of density where “appropriate.” By opposing specific examples of density again and again, Westneat’s columns have poured gasoline on the movement against density of all kinds, including modest density (such as row houses and triplexes) in single-family areas.

Continue reading “Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle”

House Democrats Gut Pro-Renter Backyard Cottage Bill

by Leo Brine

As the legislative session in Olympia ended this week, Democratic lawmakers celebrated the list of historic, progressive bills they passed, such as a capital gains tax, a new clean fuels standard, and police reform.

But as usual, legislators’ attempt to increase access to affordable housing by changing outdated zoning rules  ended in disappointment.

Earlier this year, Sen. Marko Liias proposed legislation (SB 5235) to loosen restrictions on accessory dwelling units—secondary units, such as backyard cottages, that are “accessory” to single-family homes— in cities and counties that are required to plan under the state Growth Management Act. The bill would have banned local governments from imposing owner occupancy requirements for ADUs, except in limited circumstances.

Many cities and counties require property owners to live on site order to rent an accessory unit, effectively prohibiting situations in which renters occupy both the primary house and its secondary apartment. Allowing property owners to live elsewhere would have expanded opportunities for renters to live in cities, including in single-family areas that are often prohibitively expensive.

The original bill passed the senate easily 43-6. However, by the time the bill made it out back to the state senate from the house, it included new changes that effectively gutted the legislation. The bill that eventually passed includes a loophole allowing cities to opt out of the new restrictions and impose owner occupancy requirements on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, simply by going through a brief public feedback process. The changes prompted Liias to remark sarcastically, “Sometimes when we pass a bill out of the Senate and send it over to the House, they really transform it into something even better and stronger than it was before. … This is not one of those cases.”

In fact, one of the original supporters of the bill, the progressive Sightline think tank, sent a letter to Governor Jay Inslee this week asking him to veto several sections the House added to Liias’ bill, writing that the original bill “would have lifted local prohibitions on renters residing in properties with accessory dwelling units. These rules not only discriminate against renters, but are a major impediment to the addition of ADUs. The final version as amended by the House would solve neither problem, and all told, would likely amount to a step backward on ADU policy for the state.”

“The final version as amended by the House would …would likely amount to a step backward on ADU policy for the state.”

The changes to the bill began in the House Local Government Committee, whose chair, Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) told PubliCola the original bill was “a technical nightmare,” and “needed dramatic revision.” Calling the bill his committee passed a work-in-progress, Pollet said he expected other legislators to make further amendments before passing the bill.

Pollet’s amendments, however, did not seem technical. Nor was the House able to restore the bill to anything resembling its former self before sending it back to the senate for final passage. In his committee, Pollet scaled back Liias’ pro-renter mandate by allowing cities and counties to keep owner occupancy rules as long as they allowed property owners to apply for exemptions, leaving it up to cities to decide whether claims for exemptions were legitimate.

Pollet’s version would have also given cities two years after their next required GMA comprehensive plan update to implement the regulations. Washington cities and counties must update their comprehensive plans every eight years; under the current schedule, some jurisdictions would not have to update their owner occupancy rules until 2027.

Reflecting on the committee’s amendments, Sen. Liias said: “Cities don’t like being told what to do. A lot of cities are deeply suspicious of renters—they treat renters with disdain. I think ultimately the language in the house committee amendment reflected that anti-renter sentiment from cities.”

Continue reading “House Democrats Gut Pro-Renter Backyard Cottage Bill”

Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia

Despite his old-school, anti-development environmentalism, Accessory Dwelling Units fit right into Rep. Pollet’s North Seattle district. He should stop stalling them in cities statewide.

By Josh Feit

Back in 2017, the environmental group Futurewise had an “OK Boomer” moment when it came to light that two of their board members, Jeffrey Eustis and Dave Bricklin, were independently suing the city of Seattle to stop two affordable housing initiatives: The city wanted to increase the production of accessory dwelling units (also known as granny flats) and upzone a small portion of Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones to accommodate more density.

The old-school, anti-development environmentalists (Eustis against ADUs and Bricklin against zoning increases) didn’t grok that Futurewise’s up-to-date vision of environmentalism now prioritized urban density as a component of equity and sustainability. After years of process monkeywrenching, Eustis, representing the Queen Anne Community Council, and Bricklin, representing the Wallingford Community Council, failed to stop Seattle’s zoning changes. In an appropriate denouement that signaled its shift forward, Futurewise replaced the anti-development pair (who were both founding board members) with new faces, including Angela Compton, the young woman who actually led the grassroots campaign to pass the city’s upzone agenda. Ouch.

Futurewise, currently advocating for a slate of pro-density bills in the state legislature, may be experiencing yet another “OK Boomer” moment, as longtime North Seattle State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) has already tabled a Futurewise-backed bill that would have encouraged more ADUs in cities statewide.

Clinging to outdated anti-development tropes, Pollet (who got some naive positive press last week for denouncing a boneheaded Building Industry Association of Washington propaganda video) has been the number-one opponent of the inclusive, pro-housing agenda in Olympia over the last several legislative sessions.

For three years straight, Pollet, the chair of the pivotal House Local Government Committee, has sabotaged a series of pro-housing bills that would have reformed ADU laws in urban areas by prohibiting owner occupancy requirements, eliminating parking mandates, loosening minimum lot size and square footage requirements, and getting rid of street improvement mandates. The urban planning nerds at Sightline get into the weeds of the latest ADU bills here.

By the way, I understand that cities need to do something more dramatic than add ADUs to housing stock if they want to successfully address the affordable housing crisis, but it’s a necessary first step to dismantling exclusionary zoning rules.

And the numbers in Seattle, Tacoma, California, and Oregon show that reforms like these  do increase ADU production. For example, after Seattle adopted new rules in 2019 to allow two ADUs per lot and eliminate parking and owner occupancy mandates, the numbers soared. In fact, ADU production grew 69 percent in Seattle in 2020 compared to 2018. The fact that this swift growth represents an increase from 227 new ADUs to 566 just illustrates the need for more far-reaching pro-density policies.

A quick history lesson: In 2019, Pollet watered down a pro-ADU bill proposed by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Kent) and supported by Reps. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), and Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle, Vashon Island)—to the point that the policy architects behind the bill, Sightline, pulled their support. After that, the legislation died.

In 2020, after Gregerson passed another sweeping pro-ADU bill through Fitzgibbon’s Environment and Energy Committee, Pollet voted against it in the Appropriations Committee (even though it was watered down), and it eventually died in the Rules committee.

The legislature did pass another pro-ADU bill that year. However, it was dramatically watered down; the original bill would have gotten rid of owner occupancy requirements, allowed two ADUs per lot, and eliminated parking requirements for ADUs within a half mile of transit. The final bill got rid of the first two reforms and sliced down the new parking rule to a quarter mile.

This year, Pollet’s committee tabled yet another best-practices ADU bill that was proposed by Gregerson and supported by Seattle progressives like Macri and Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37, Seattle). And then, last week,  Pollet and his committee gutted SB 5235, an additional pro-housing bill, this one sponsored by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo); Liias passed the legislation out of the senate 46-3 with support from Seattle progressives such as Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) and Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle).

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia”

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.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?”

Queen Anne Project Approval, Delayed for Years, Illustrates Issues with Seattle’s Design Review Process

By Erica C. Barnett

In a three-hour meeting Wednesday night, Seattle’s West Design Review Board approved the design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment building in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood, capping off several years of debate over virtually every element of the project, from the placement of flower pots to brick colors to the number of doorways that will open into the 50,000-square-foot urban grocery store.

The process for approving the development has dragged on for more than three years, as Queen Anne Greenways’ Mark Ostrow has meticulously documented on Twitter. Barrientos Ryan is the third developer to take a crack at the site, after community groups rejected plans by two previous developers.

Delaying the project, which will replace an outdated one-story Safeway and a large surface parking lot, has added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the cost of the project so far, an amount that accounts only for the cost of redesigns, sketches, and studies of changes suggested by the DRB. Delay typically adds significant costs to projects themselves, as the cost of labor and materials tends to go up, not down. This makes housing more expensive, and contributes to the city’s ongoing lack of affordability, as Seattle’s ongoing population growth forces renters to compete for a limited number of apartments.

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The building, which will replace an existing Safeway with a large surface parking lot, will add more than 320 new apartments to the neighborhood, including 30 that will be affordable under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation. (Barrientos Ryan will contribute another $6 million to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.) It will also include a 2,000-square-foot public plaza, outdoor seating, a mural, and four additional pedestrian entrances to mimic the appearance of many small sidewalk-facing storefronts.

At Wednesday’s public hearing and at previous meetings, neighborhood residents pleaded with the board to move forward with the project. “I have thoughts about the design elements that have just been discussed in the last 70 minutes, but I’m not going to offer them because the only thing I want is for the Design Review Board to move forward,” Queen Anne Community Council member Justin Allegro said. “Design review shouldn’t be about appeasing a few neighbors who show up but about the whole neighborhood,” another commenter, Joshua Whitney, added.

SO MUCH BRICK

Design review was not originally intended to give neighborhood residents effective veto power over every element of a project. Over the years, though, it has turned into a tortuous process, one where individual preferences for Juliet balconies or garage-style rolling windows can hold up an entire project for months or years. Design review is frequently used as a cudgel to prevent projects or impose personal preferences that aren’t really about design at all—such as mandatory parking and whether people living in apartments have air conditioning or washers and dryers in their units.

Seattle’s design review process, it’s important to know, isn’t inevitable or—as public commenter Whitney put it—”a natural law.” And we don’t have to abandon all community control over building design to prevent development from being hijacked by individual residents who oppose housing or just have strong personal opinions about design.

In Portland, design review is done by a single, seven-person commission, made up primarily of professionals with experience in design, engineering, construction, and development, along with one representative of the general public. In contrast, Seattle’s eight neighborhood design review boards have five members each, all from the neighborhoods surrounding the projects they review.