Category: Development

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

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”

Afternoon Fizz: “A Dictator Posturing As a Mayor,” Another Preventable Disease Outbreak, and CPC Challenges Cops’ Crowd Control Plans

Not a handwashing station.

1. The manager of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative, Ubax Gardheere, and EDI staffer Boting Zhang sent out an open letter today denouncing Mayor Jenny Durkan as “a dictator posturing as a Mayor” and leading a city in which “women and people of color step up inside the institution” to do emotional labor for others.

“We’re done working for a dictator posturing as a Mayor,” the letter says. “We’re done feeling increasingly out of touch with our communities and friends. And we’re done being women of color bearing a disproportionate emotional labor burden in our civilization’s collective reckoning with our mid-life (or is it end-of-life?) crisis.”

The Equitable Development Initiative exists within the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development, which answers directly to Mayor Durkan. The purpose of the EDI is to fund and promote projects that prevent displacement in communities of color.

However, in their letter, Gardheere and Zhang suggested their jobs had become more about taking on emotional labor and “producing” on deadline than helping the communities EDI is supposed to serve.

“When we each took our jobs, we were afraid that we’d get pulled away from the values and people we hold most dear,” the letter reads “To an extent, we have. Our bodies have been weaponized in an institution that historically and presently has actively fought against [community], and you have sensed this.”

“There is an ongoing joke about the Seattle Process, this notion that when you bring too many people together, we don’t get anything done. Fuck that. It’s not bringing together too many people that makes us slow. It’s bringing together so much trauma that gets us trapped in gridlock. And time and again, we have seen women and people of color step up inside the institution to massage at the knots.”

Contacted by email, Gardheere and Zhang declined to comment or elaborate on their letter, which says both are “taking some time off to regain our mental health” before deciding what’s next.

Prior to working at the city, Gardheere was a program manager for Puget Sound Sage, the Seattle-based race and social justice advocacy group. Zhang was named “one to watch” in Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the city’s most influential people.

The best way to prevent disease outbreaks, county public health officer Jeff Duchin emphasized, is to ensure that people have access to soap and running water so that they can actually wash, not just sanitize, their hands.

2. At a meeting of the Seattle/King County Board of Health last week, King County Public Health director Patty Hayes described new outbreaks of shigella (a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting) and cryptosporidiosis (a diarrheal disease caused by a parasite.) Both spread through fecal matter on unwashed hands. In the latest shigella outbreak, 84 percent of 142 cases were among people experiencing homelessness. (Sixty-three percent of those people had to be hospitalized, according to Hayes).Among 47 people with cryptosporidiosis, about half are homeless, Hayes said.

The best way to prevent the spread of such diseases, county public health officer Jeff Duchin emphasized, is to ensure that people have access to soap and running water so that they can actually wash, not just sanitize, their hands. “Handwashing is definitely superior to” hand sanitizer, Duchin added. The city of Seattle, under Durkan, is considering what multiple people familiar with the conversations called “Purell on a pole” as an alternative to the handwashing stations that the city council funded in its budget last November.

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Hayes did praise the city for turning on 12 water fountains in downtown Seattle, which the city had turned off in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the top priorities was to get potable water, drinking water, out there—that was a super concern,” Hayes said. “We’re exploring more safe water options with Seattle Public Utilities and Parks. In the coming weeks, we’ll make additional recommendations for high-priority areas and we’ll continue to talk to the city about these hygiene issues.”

PubliCola’s has asked SPU how many water fountains are still out of commission across the city.

The department is holding an online seminar for groups interested in submitting a proposal for its handwashing station pilot—now expanded to include food waste disposal and rebranded the “Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program”— tonight at 6.

3. A blog post the Seattle Police Department published Monday announcing reforms to the department’s crowd control and use-of-force policies caught the Community Police Commission off guard, according to a letter from commission’s co-chairs. SPD’s post said the CPC’s “feedback” had contributed to the reforms. In a public response to SPD posted on the CPC’s website, co-chairs LaRond Baker and Erin Goodman wrote that the new policy changes largely do not reflect their recommendations and will “not do enough to keep protesters and other members of the community safe.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: “A Dictator Posturing As a Mayor,” Another Preventable Disease Outbreak, and CPC Challenges Cops’ Crowd Control Plans”

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?”

Participatory Budgeting Plan Is Heavy on Overhead, Seattle Rep. Macri Schools Suburban Cities, and Emails Confirm Durkan Audit Directive

[REDACTED]: Emails confirm Durkan directive.
1. In what may be a final act before the wheels of the citywide participatory budgeting process begin to turn, the Black Brilliance Research Project’s (BBRP) team—specifically, longtime research leads Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe—are working with the Seattle City Council to develop a spending plan for the participatory budgeting rollout. The city plans to use participatory budgeting to select programs that will replace some functions of the Seattle Police Department.

Any money the city spends on staffing and infrastructure for participatory budgeting will come out of the $30 million set aside in the city’s 2021 budget for PB; that means it will reduce the dollar amount available to finance the projects for which Seattle residents will eventually be able to vote.

A draft spending plan written by the BBRP team outlines $8.3 million in overhead costs—roughly 28 percent of the project’s total budget, and 40 percent more than the entire budget of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. The BBRP’s final report to council also suggested setting aside another 20 percent of the budget to cover any unexpected future costs, which would leave just under $16 million to pay for project proposals.

The largest portion of that spending would go to 35 staff members, all identified as “Strategic Advisor 2″-level employees (a city employment tier that comes with a six-figure salary), including a seven-person steering committee to set the rules and procedures for participatory budgeting as well as 25 full-time members of five “work groups” who will provide administrative support to the steering committee.

The draft spending plan also outlines plans to address inequitable access to the internet that might hinder efforts to give BIPOC and low-income residents a voice in the participatory budgeting process. Some digital access-related budget items fit within the current $8.3 million spending plan, but others don’t, including a $2.75 million program called the “Digital Navigator Program” that would involve hiring 50 people to provide one-on-one “assistance in getting to and using online resources, low-income internet [and] device programs, and developing digital skills” to BIPOC residents.

The BBRP and its supporters are still advocating for the city to spend additional dollars to the participatory budgeting process. At the moment, their focus is on a proposal before the council’s Public Safety Committee to cut $5.4 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget to account for an equivalent amount that the department overspent in 2020. In an email sent on Monday, supporters of the participatory budgeting process suggested that the dollars taken from SPD’s budget could enable the city to hire the team of digital navigators, among other expenses. 

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. Representative Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) is working to pass legislation (HB 1220) that updates the Growth Management Act with rules that would require more affordable housing stock. The bill says Washington cities should plan for upcoming growth by requiring cities to incorporate affordable housing into their comprehensive plans.

However, representatives from several suburban cities, including Renton and Auburn, testified against sections of the bill that would prohibit jurisdictions from banning homeless shelters and transitional housing, as the city of Renton effectively did earlier this year. The bill would prohibit such bans in any area where other types of short-term housing, such as motels, is allowed. Critics argue that the bill is an overreach of state authority, and cities should be able to deal with homelessness as they see fit.

Macri doesn’t buy it. “It seems like local control hasn’t led to inclusive zoning in the last 50 years, so why would I think that it would [now]?” she said, adding that while planning for more housing to accommodate growth is “good policy,” the proposed affordable housing mandates make the policy “real.”

Even though the bill passed the House on March 3 with unanimous Democratic support, Rep. Macri says she’s still worried about how the bill will fare in the Senate. Rep. Macri is currently trying to have conversations with cities, trying to find out what resources they need to “be inclusive to all people in all the zones where [cities] currently allow some people.” She says those conversations are not going great.

On March 11, the Sound Cities Association, which represents suburban cities, sent a letter opposing the bill signed by the mayors of Vancouver, Renton, Sammamish and 21 other mid-sized cities. The Sound Cities Association is a major player in the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to devise a region-wide approach to homelessness.

Conversations with the mid-size cities started out fine, Macri said, but as the legislation continued to move, cities kept coming up with new objections to the bill, before finally acknowledging their real beef, which Macri paraphrases as: “We don’t want certain kinds of people in certain kinds of neighborhoods because they can’t meet those people’s needs.”

Seattle’s City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan both sent letters to Seattle’s legislative delegation last week expressing their support for the bill. “All cities play a part in establishing affordable housing and remedying the homelessness crisis that is gripping our county, our region, and our state, and appreciate your support for HB 1220,” the council wrote.

3. Records obtained through a public disclosure request, though heavily redacted, appear to confirm that it was Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, not Department of Finance and Administrative Services director Calvin Goings or finance director Glen Lee, who decided to pressure the state auditor’s office to expand the scope of its performance audit of the city council’s contract with the Freedom Project, which served as the “fiscal agent” for the initial $3 million participatory budgeting research project. Continue reading “Participatory Budgeting Plan Is Heavy on Overhead, Seattle Rep. Macri Schools Suburban Cities, and Emails Confirm Durkan Audit Directive”

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.

Former SRO Gets Landmark Status, Council Considers Cell-Phone Tracking Tech

1. Plans to build a 14-story hotel across the street from the north First Avenue entrance to Pike Place Market are now in limbo after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-1 to designate the three-story Hahn Building a historic landmark last week. The board previously rejected applications to landmark the building twice, in 1999 and 2014, and commission staff recommended against a landmark designation this time, “as it does not appear to have the integrity or the ability to convey its significance as required.”

The Hahn Building, which served as a single-room occupancy hotel for low-income workers, was completed in its current, three-story form in 1907, making it one of the older buildings in the area and one of dozens of SROs that used to operate downtown. (The original one-story building was finished in 1897.) One At last week’s landmarks board meeting, landmarking proponents argued that its history and proximity to Pike Place Market qualified it for historic status.

Photographer and writer Jean Sherrard called the building a “vital hinge in the market’s front door” and “a transitional step down from the tall buildings that fill the downtown core behind it.” Landmarks commissioner Jordan Kiel, who cast the lone vote against landmark status, countered that “being landmark-adjacent does not make you a landmark,” calling the heavily altered Hahn a “background” without “a significant impact to the city as an SRO.”

Residents of the Newmark condo tower, which sits directly to the east of the Hahn, have heavily supported the landmark effort, creating an online petition and GoFundMe to support their efforts. If the hotel is built, many of these condo owners would lose their views of Puget Sound to the west. Newmark residents also supported efforts to “save the Showbox,” which sits on the same block and was going to be developed as an even taller condo building.

Landmark status does not prevent a building from being demolished, but it’s one factor that a city hearing examiner will consider when deciding whether to approve a master use permit for the proposed new hotel. The developer can also appeal the landmark’s board decision to the hearing examiner.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. Over the next year, the Seattle Department of Transportation plans to replace all its license-plate readers—cameras that track cars and buses through traffic, producing data that SDOT uses to determine real-time travel times and improve things like signal timing—with cell-phone-tracking censors made by a company called Acyclica. The sensors, which will be embedded in utility cabinets along a handful of major arterial streets, track people’s location by identifying a specific code, or address, associated with their cell phones.

Although the city has been using Acyclica’s technology on a smaller scale since 2014, the 2017 surveillance ordinance requires the city to periodically review surveillance technologies for compliance with the ordinance. Last week, the city council’s transportation and utilities committee discussed Acyclica in the context of a city audit on license-plate readers. Several council members brought up concerns about the new technology, including the possibility that it can be used to track individual Seattle residents or by law enforcement. Continue reading “Former SRO Gets Landmark Status, Council Considers Cell-Phone Tracking Tech”

Downtown Condo Owners Seek View Preservation Via Landmark Designation

Top to bottom: The one-story Hahn Building in 1902; present (pre-COVID) day; a rendering of the proposed 14-story hotel.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday, the Seattle landmarks board will hold its final hearing on the latest proposal to grant landmark status to the three-story Hahn Building on First and Pike Street, a former single-room occupancy hotel across the street from the Pike Place Market and just outside the market boundaries. The board has already rejected landmark status for the building, which now houses the Green Tortoise Hostel, a coffee shop, and a T-shirt store, twice—in 1999 and again in 2014—but that hasn’t stopped efforts to preserve the building, which stands just to the west of the 240-foot tall Newmark Tower condo building and its expansive views of Elliott Bay.

Unsurprisingly, owners of condos at the Newmark are behind the latest petition, which seeks to prevent the construction of a 14-story hotel that would block their views. And although the petition is couched in the language of historic preservation—it claims the Hahn building meets two criteria for landmark status, cultural heritage and neighborhood prominence—the effect of landmark status would be preserving the views of condo owners who have repeatedly dipped into their pockets to challenge the construction of any building to their west.

If the name of the building seems familiar, that’s because the owners also sought to “save the Showbox” building on the same block. The city zoned the block for a 145-story tower more than 20 years ago.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

One of the debates that emerges in the competing narratives from landmarking proponents and opponents is whether the Hahn building contributes to the overall “feeling” of the Market. The landmark application features an image of the building at sunset, taken from some point several stories above the street, that highlights Elliott Bay, rooftops, and the neon Pike Place Market sign below. The competing narrative, from landmark opponents, presents the experience most actual Market visitors would have of the area—photos taken at street level, showing the Market sign and wide, cobbled streets, along with more recent additions like the City Target and the 55-story Russell Investment Building, constructed in 1988. (The Newmark Tower itself wasn’t built until 1991.)

Historic Seattle and a number of other preservation groups, including Vanishing Seattle, have bolstered the condo owners’ status as concerned, historically-minded citizens, promoting both a Change.org petition and a nonprofit, Save the Market Entrance, that were created by residents of the Newmark. Save the Market Entrance even has the Newmark listed as its address. Eric Lacitis of the Seattle Times first reported on the Astroturf petition.

The board meets tomorrow at 3:30pm to consider the landmark nomination. According to the “do not landmark” recommendation, “staff does not recommend designation of Hahn Building/Hotel Elliot at 103 Pike Street as it does not appear to have the integrity or the ability to convey its significance as required” by the landmarks preservation code.

Tunnel Option Back on the Table? Plus: Updates on Homeless Authority and Vaccinating Unsheltered People

An example of a lot in West Seattle that went up dramatically in value after a developer built a 300-unit apartment complex on site.

1. At Sound Transit’s system expansion committee meeting today, agency staff will present new numbers showing a greatly reduced cost differential between the elevated and tunnel options for light rail between Ballard and West Seattle, according to multiple sources. Previous cost estimates indicated that any tunnel would be far more expensive than the agency’s preferred elevated options, adding well over a billion dollars to the cost of the project; if the difference turns out to be negligible, a tunnel alignment would start looking better and better.

Sound Transit’s preferred alternatives for the Ballard-to-West Seattle segment include both elevated and tunnel options, but the tunnel has always come with an asterisk: The agency will only consider building it if tunnel supporters can find third-party funding to pay the difference.

Last week, Sound Transit released new cost estimates showing that the Ballard-downtown-West Seattle alignment will cost between 53 and 59 percent more than the agency estimated in 2019, due primarily to increased property acquisition costs. As PubliCola reported, the most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment.

Joe Gray, Sound Transit’s director of real property, said in an interview Wednesday that Sound Transit based its new property value estimates on the past several years of property sales in the neighborhoods along the alignment, without regard to the development potential of individual properties. For example, a vacant parking lot that is zoned for nine stories of residential development would be assessed not at the potential value of the future apartment building, but on the actual sales price of comparably zoned parking lots in the area over the past five years. If someone buys that parking lot and puts a 300-unit apartment complex on it (see image above), the difference in value becomes an unanticipated cost.

“It’s an estimate, because we only have the data that’s out there,” Gray said. This could be one reason the West Seattle estimates went up more dramatically than those for Ballard—”it’s a hot market,” Gray said, and the large number of property sales is reflected in Sound Transit’s higher estimates for that area. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that the difference between the cost increases in West Seattle and Ballard “is due to the property development currently underway in the area.”)

An alternative approach would be to pick a different cost escalator—one based on the likelihood that West Seattle and Ballard will continue to grow, particularly along the light rail alignment—and come up with new, higher estimates based on that assumption. But Gray said that would require assumptions Sound Transit is not prepared to make; after all, “the bottom could fall out” of the real estate market. “We wish we had that crystal ball to say that growth is going to continue in the commercial and in the industrial [sectors], but we just can’t,” he said. “We have to go to on what the property is [worth] today. We don’t guess.”

That approach—basing cost estimates on recent sales—is conservative in the sense that it doesn’t assume huge spikes in property values without direct evidence. In another sense, though, it could actually be risky: By assuming that property values will basically stay on their current trajectory into the indefinite future, even if their underlying zoning is designed specifically to encourage development that will dramatically increase its value, Sound Transit may be ensuring that it will have to come back with new, higher estimates year after year.

For now, the Sound Transit board and staff will consider a more immediate question: What will happen to the West Seattle-Ballard line? One possibility is that the new line (which is actually three separate segments, any of which could be built on its own) could be truncated or delayed. Another is that Sound Transit will give the tunnel options a closer look. Property values have less of an impact on tunnels because they just don’t require as much property acquisition. But tunnels can go over budget, too—and some of the new costs revealed last week have nothing to do with property values.

2. After numerous delays, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to hire a director—which the agency calls a “CEO”—and is interviewing four finalists for the job this week. As part of that process, the candidates will be meeting separately with members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people that has three representatives on the regional authority’s implementation board. The idea, board member and Lived Experience Coalition founder Sara Rankin said, was to bring these marginalized people closer to power, in this case by giving them a chance to sit down with the potential leaders of the new agency.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

On Wednesday, the board approved another informal meeting—this one with representatives of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban cities that are members of the authority. The SCA, which includes Renton, Kent, and other cities that are often at odds with Seattle and King County’s approach to homelessness, reached out to ask for the “informal meet and greet,” as former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak put it. “If this body is going to be successful, there has to be some sharing and some building of trust, so I would be in favor of finding a way to do this,” Chelminiak said.

Board member Simha Reddy, a doctor who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness, supported the motion for a different reason. “It’s important for the candidates to know what they’re getting into.”

3. During a press conference announcing a city-led effort to vaccinate people living in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities on Tuesday, PubliCola asked Mayor Jenny Durkan whether the city had any plans for reaching the thousands of unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people experiencing homelessness during later vaccination phases. Homeless people who “live in or access services in congregate settings” won’t get their turn in line until Phase B4 unless they’re over 70 (Phase A2), and the current list of phases does not include any guidance at all about people living unsheltered, who may spend little or no time in congregate settings at all.

Durkan’s response was nonspecific. “That is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the county and the state,” she said, adding that “that phase is in robust planning” by city and county officials. “Some of those people live in congregate settings, like permanent supportive housing, and so setting up systems to get them vaccinated will be easier than those who are unsheltered.”

This is probably an understatement. Because the vaccine must be administered in two doses, unsheltered people who receive the first shot must “keep a record of their vaccination status and when they need to follow up for a second dose,” according to the CDC. Then, after hanging on to that piece of paper for nearly a month, they have to follow through on schedule. How Seattle and King County will track down unsheltered people who fail to show up for their second vaccination appointments remains unclear.