Category: Guest Contributor

It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington

Historic fourplex in Seattle.
Sightline Institute: Missing Middle Homes Photo Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patience Malaba

Look around an older neighborhood in just about any city in Washington state. Hidden in plain sight is a century-old secret that can help us find our way out of today’s housing crisis.

Scattered among single-family houses, you’ll see old corner stores with homes tucked above or behind, Craftsman duplexes here and there, and maybe a small, brick apartment building.

But in most newer neighborhoods, that variety of homes is missing. Smaller-footprint, less-expensive housing is missing because about three-quarters of our cities’ residential areas now allow only the most expensive type of housing: big, detached houses on large lots. Everything else is prohibited by law.

Companion “middle housing near transit” bills in the Senate and House would empower Washington’s cities with a range of options for allowing more homes in established urban areas and lifting restrictions on homes that more people can afford.

From Bellingham to Walla Walla, and in cities all over Washington state, neighborhoods where working-class families can afford to live are vanishing. Week after week, year after year, we’ve all heard the news stories: home prices climbing ever further out of reach for Washingtonians who lack multigenerational wealth. Tenants facing the worst rental shortages in decades. Too many of our neighbors living unsheltered or just one paycheck or hardship away from homelessness.

This is the displacement that befalls our communities when there aren’t enough homes available. Bidding drives up prices, and escalating prices drive people with lower incomes further and further out, resulting in cities increasingly segregated by race and income.

Sadly, this zoning system is working exactly as originally intended. Starting in the 1920s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affordable home types, such as apartment buildings, were “mere parasites,” cities started to restrict what housing could be built. By the 1960s, most cities had banned even duplexes from half their residential areas.

I’m not typically nostalgic for the policies of the past. But to add the homes Washington families need today, it’s time to reverse that history of downzoning near our job centers and re-legalize a range of modest, mid-sized homes in our cities. The one-size zoning we’ve got now isn’t working.     Continue reading “It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington”

Washington Can’t Wait for Action on Equitable Housing and Climate Change

Tents on 4th Avenue, downtown Seattle

By Deborah Beckwin

Last January, I moved to Seattle from Florida and was disheartened by the lack of affordable housing—not only for me, but for unhoused folks.

A couple of weeks after my arrival, I was welcomed with about a foot of snow—an example of the kind of extreme weather that’s becoming more common in our region due to climate change. Although this was a temporary inconvenience and a little bit of fun for most of us, our unhoused neighbors were dealing with colder temps and a lot of snow, wet, and cold.

These two issues, climate change and a lack of affordable housing, collide and create unlivable conditions for everyone, but especially those experiencing homelessness.

As I started to venture out into Seattle, I started to see the tents and the RVs, as well as the places where unhoused folks called home, like downtown, SoDo, Ballard, and Belltown. As someone who has worked as a social worker with people who have a history of homelessness and severe mental health issues, I found it a very bewildering experience. Seattle is so wealthy and progressive. How is this happening? Why is it continuing to happen?

And then, a few months later, there was record heat in late June and wildfires. Choking smoke kept me indoors and had me purchasing an air filtration system. I was lucky to even have air conditioning.

But other people were not so lucky. Other people died—at least 13 people due to heat exposure. Our unhoused neighbors took the brunt of those unseasonably hot and smoky days.

And then, there was the recent deep freeze which brought Christmas snow and ice that didn’t melt for a week. Then the snow melted and there was yet another atmospheric river, bringing down inches of rain, causing flooding.

House Bill 1099, which came close to passing last year, would require local governments to address the impacts of climate change in their comprehensive plans by reducing vehicle miles traveled and cutting greenhouse gas emissions—offering local governments an array of options to help stem the tide of climate change.

You can look at all this and feel helpless and demoralized. It can be scary and overwhelming. But there is so much we can do to tackle our current climate emergency and to make sure that everyone is in safe and affordable housing.

One immediate thing we can do, right now, is support two pending bills in the Washington state legislature. We have a unique opportunity to shape the next 10 years and beyond and create a more equitable city and state by updating Washington’s Growth Management Act, which limits sprawl beyond city boundaries.

So let’s start with what’s already been accomplished.

Legislators passed HB 1220 in 2021, forging a way for creating more equitable housing by dismantling the racist and income-based discriminatory state housing policies that have caused people to become displaced, including our unhoused neighbors. The new law prohibits cities from banning shelter and housing for people experiencing homelessness and encourages the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as backyard cottages, in cities. It also requires cities with comprehensive plans, such as Seattle, to plan for more affordable housing for people at all income levels, establish anti-displacement policies, and address discriminatory and exclusionary housing rules and regulations. Continue reading “Washington Can’t Wait for Action on Equitable Housing and Climate Change”

St. Louis Made Their Elections More Equitable. Seattle Should Too

By Logan Bowers

In 2021, St. Louis—a majority-minority city—made history by electing its first Black female mayor, Tishaura Jones. How was she able to make history? Because in 2020, St. Louis voters reformed their elections to take back power from special interests and place it firmly in the hands of voters. This November, Seattle will get to choose whether we want the same election reform for our city.

Jones previously ran for mayor in 2017, and despite very strong support and endorsements, lost in a crowded primary by just 2 percentage points. Jones’s opponents included three other major candidates, two of whom were Black. In the end, the only white candidate in the race, Lyda Crewson, won with just 32 percent of the vote.

Far from an aberration in the city’s history, the election continued a trend where the city rarely elects a mayor who reflects the electorate, ideologically or demographically. St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren noted at the time that Jones almost certainly would have won handily if either of her fellow Black competitors were not in the race, since the three similar Black candidates split the vote.

St. Louis had long been dominated by machine politics, where a small number of insiders exert undemocratic influence over elections. In 2017, this manifested as a less representative candidate eking out victory without majority support because three of her challengers split the majority vote.

So, what did St. Louis do? Voters went to the ballot box in 2020 and passed a voting reform initiative with landslide 68 percent support. They adopted an open, non-partisan primary, like Seattle’s, but with one key enhancement: St. Louis voters aren’t forced to choose just one candidate. Instead, in the primary, voters can pick as many candidates as they want. If they like two candidates, they can pick two. If they like four, they can pick four. And, of course, it’s still okay to pick one. St. Louis adopted this change in November 2020, implemented it over the winter, and used it successfully in March 2021, leading to newfound representation for St. Louis voters.

This little change means that two similar candidates will never split the vote and both lose. It means that voters can pick all the candidates that will be good at the job, not just the one they think they have to pick to win. It means having two strong choices in the general election.

This voting method is called Approval Voting, and it is the most representative voting system currently used in America. It’s also the simplest. The ballot has only a tiny change to the instructions and tabulation works the same—just count the filled-in ovals for each candidate. The simplicity means the results are trusted, easy to understand, and immediately available on election night.

In 2022, Seattle voters will have the same opportunity to take power back from special interests, follow in St. Louis’ footsteps, and make our elections fairer, more equitable, and more representative.

Seattle needs this reform more than most cities, and sooner. Because of our previous election reforms, participation in our elections is off the charts. We have high voter turnout, and many great candidates to choose from. But our existing voting method works exceptionally poorly for our packed primary races, and we have exactly the same problem St. Louis faced. The more candidates, the less power voters have, and the more control special interests exert. We can see it in the results. When was the last time you felt like you had two strong choices in the general election, or even that both candidates were trying to serve your interests?

Many groups are working on proposals to make our elections better—and virtually all of them would be incredibly good for democracy. Approval voting is both one of the best changes we can make and the only one we can enact before the next election cycle. Indeed, the next closest reform proposal on the horizon, ranked choice voting, probably won’t be available in Seattle until 2029 at the earliest, and if history is any guide, likely not until the 2030s. There’s no reason to suffer through another decade of disappointing mayors and disappointing council members when we can repair the system today.

Seattle Approves is the grassroots, volunteer effort working to bring better elections to Seattle this year. Starting in mid-February, you will decide if you want to sign the initiative petition, and this November, you will get to decide if Seattle follows in St. Louis’ footsteps. With your help and your vote, we can ensure that Seattle voters always have two compelling candidates in our general elections.

Logan Bowers is a cannabis retailer, software engineer, and co-chair of Seattle Approves. In 2019, he ran for Seattle City Council in District 3 on a pro-housing and pro-transit platform, and his support for Seattle Approves is informed by his experience meeting more than 5,000 voters during the campaign. 

A Functional Democracy Requires A Challenge to New Redistricting Maps

Washington State Redistricting Commission adopted state legislative boundaries
Washington State Redistricting Commission-adopted state legislative boundaries

By Andrew Hong and Margot Spindola

Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court declined an opportunity to fix a gross miscarriage of democracy, declining to redraw the state’s political boundaries after the Washington State Redistricting Commission abdicated its authority by submitting their maps a day after the constitutional deadline. With this decision, the supreme court effectively endorsed maps that violate the voting rights of communities of color, turning a blind eye to a process that prioritized partisan advantage over communities’ interest.

Every decade, state and local governments redraw their legislative districts to reflect population shifts revealed by the US Census. The process has the power to reshape the political landscape—granting outsize power to one party, for example—and increase or reduce the power of communities, such as Washington state’s Latino population. This year, the redistricting commission—a hyperpartisan group made up of two Democrats and two Republicans—failed, after hours of closed-door meetings, to reach consensus on new political maps by the November 15 constitutional deadline. Despite this failure, the state supreme court swiftly announced that the maps were fine, disregarding both the contours of the maps themselves and the deeply flawed process that produced them.

This redistricting commission and the courts had a unique opportunity to take in community input and set the boundaries of our democracy in a way that ensures communities’ voices are heard. By that measure, they failed spectacularly.

The court didn’t consider, for example, whether the Commission violated the Open Public Meetings Act when they conducted eleventh-hour negotiations, off camera, to make a decision on a final map plan. Perhaps, they would have considered otherwise if they had seen a memo written by commission staff leaked last week that revealed the commissioners prioritized naked partisan advantage over equitable representation.

Most importantly, the court did not consider how the maps likely violate both state law and the federal Voting Rights Act, by diluting the Latino vote in Yakima County. Amid all the process drama, both the commission and the court failed to consider the impact of these maps on the actual people who live and vote in those districts.

In its effort to remain apolitical, the court gave this two-party commission a political victory: Partisan-driven incumbent protection by way of a voting rights violations for which taxpayers may end up footing the bill in a legal challenge. Throughout this broken process, commissioners ignored requests from communities of color in Western and Central Washington to be kept together to right the wrongs of previous districting failures. And yet the commissioners claimed victory in the name of diversity and representation. When they were called on it, they refused to listen to community input and public testimony.

District maps, as with all government services and entities, should serve the people, not the political establishment. This redistricting commission and the courts had a unique opportunity to take in community input and set the boundaries of our democracy in a way that ensures communities’ voices are heard. By that measure, they failed spectacularly.

In many ways, this is nothing new. Communities of color all across our state, at every level of government, have always been tossed around like a political football. In Seattle, I-5 splits the Chinatown-International District in half. And after its construction, the city zoned the historically Asian-American and Pacific Islander neighborhood with downtown and Pioneer Square—not accounting for the fact that our residential and industry interests more closely align with Beacon Hill and South Seattle. Continue reading “A Functional Democracy Requires A Challenge to New Redistricting Maps”

Crosscut’s Opinion Section is Shutting Down. That’s Bad News.

Crosscut logoBy Katie Wilson

At the end of this month, Crosscut Opinion will be no more. Under new leadership, the news site where I’ve been a columnist for over two years is shutting down the section entirely. At some point next year, newsroom staff have been told, it will be replaced with a still undefined “new process of engaging community voices.”

I’m happy to be proved wrong (it’s happened before!), but to me, this looks like a bleak turn in our local media landscape.

The opinion essay is an irreplaceable element of healthy political discourse. Unlike a traditional news story, it does not pretend to represent an unbiased version of reality. It presents a perspective, drags you through an argument, invites you to think critically: Do you agree, or don’t you? Why or why not? Ideally, it’s read by a large number of people of varying beliefs. People discuss it and argue over it. It becomes common property, a tool that empowers readers to better articulate their own positions and orient their actions.

Over the past two years, I’ve received many emails from readers, ranging from adulatory to enraged. Some of my favorites are from people who reached out to say that they found my writing thought-provoking even though they don’t share my politics or my worldview. Good opinion writing makes you pause and ponder even if you disagree.

Crosscut now hopes to “retool” and develop a “new feature” that aims to “bring more community voices into our newsroom and our storytelling,” according to the memo from management. I’m not opposed to media trying new things. But I struggle to imagine a replacement for the good old fashioned opinion essay that fills its function and doesn’t leave a gaping hole in civic life.

Of course, there are ample opportunities these days to share opinions online. There’s Twitter and Facebook, Medium and Substack. But discourse on these platforms is deeply fragmented or reaches only a niche audience. News outlets with a wide reach are pretty much the only actors positioned to transcend the echo chambers. They’re one of few forums in which people with reasoned opinions can pipe up and be heard across an entire city or region. That’s a responsibility.

Having shut down its “traditional” opinion section, Crosscut now hopes to “retool” and develop a “new feature” that aims to “bring more community voices into our newsroom and our storytelling,” according to the memo from management. I’m not opposed to media trying new things. But I struggle to imagine a replacement for the good old fashioned opinion essay that fills its function and doesn’t leave a gaping hole in civic life.

Last week, Erica Barnett wrote that Cascade Public Media “board members have reportedly raised concerns over the years that the opinion page slants left.” If that is what’s behind this decision, then I’m certainly part of the problem, as the section’s most frequent contributor and someone who often writes from a candidly left perspective.

I do know from past conversations with my editor that Crosscut Opinion has consistently welcomed and even sought out more moderate and conservative  voices, with mixed success. Do Seattle’s centrists not have interesting opinions, or do they simply not care to share them in the virtual pages of Crosscut? I don’t know, but squelching all opinions doesn’t seem to me like much of a solution.

Shutting down the whole section only serves to further diminish an already diminished local media landscape. It cements The Seattle Times’ dominance as pretty much the only game in town when it comes to outlets that publish guest opinions and reach a large regional audience. And that publication skews politically conservative, couldn’t care less about political balance, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered about fact-checking, either.

To be clear, I’m not angling for my job back. I know the coincidence strains credulity, but the day I learned of the opinion section’s demise I had just mustered the nerve to inform Crosscut that I had to stop writing. In my columns I sometimes talk about what the left needs to do. Writing is time-consuming, and time spent writing about doing things is time not spent actually doing them. For now, I need to refocus on my primary work running campaigns for the Transit Riders Union.

Good local media is worth fighting for. I’m sure that Crosscut’s new leadership, so keen on “listening to the communities that we serve,” would love to hear from readers about the decision to end the opinion section and the question of what should replace it. Maybe tell them what you think.

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a Seattle-based organization advocating for improved public transit and other progressive urban issues. 

The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City

Sound Transit Roosevelt Station facade
Image via Sound Transit.

By Katie Wilson

Anyone who’s ever been carless in Seattle knows the feeling that your city wasn’t really built for you. Cars whiz by, spewing exhaust and, if it’s especially wet, plowing up great sprays of dirty water that don’t respect the boundaries of the sidewalk. Biking on most streets is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes so long to cobble together a bus trip from here to there, it’s almost faster to walk. Seattle has been making progress on its multimodal infrastructure, and some streets are safe, beautiful and well-designed — but take a wrong turn, and very quickly you can feel like an unwelcome stranger in your own city.

That’s what made the opening of three new light rail stations earlier this month so thrilling. An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I biked and walked past that construction site at NE 43rd St. in the University District so many times over the past few years, it began to feel like a permanent feature of the neighborhood. I almost forgot it was ever going to open. Then, suddenly, it was October 2 .

Now I could leave my Capitol Hill apartment, walk for ten minutes, board the train and be whisked away to the heart of U District in what felt like a heartbeat — no bus transfer, no hike through campus. Wandering the streets around the U District station that afternoon, you could feel the neighborhood being transformed. What had been a dead end was now a hub, a portal. People streamed in and out of the station. They bought lunch, sat at picnic tables, conversed. A new place had been created.

An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I probably wouldn’t have ridden the train on that first day if it weren’t for Pauline Van Senus, also known as the Transit Fairy. While the rest of the Transit Riders Union floated off into the Zoom-o-sphere during the pandemic, Pauline doubled down on the physical world, pulling weeds and picking up trash around transit stops. She wasn’t about to let such a momentous transit occasion slide by without TRU members marking the occasion, so a group of us met at the Capitol Hill station that morning and rode up to Northgate together.

“It’s like 14 minutes to get to Northgate from downtown,” said Pauline. “Even if I-5 was wide open, that would be hard to top. And it very seldom is wide open; it’s usually backed up.”

Train speeds that beat the pants off driving—that’s the kind of transit system that entices people out of their cars. In our era of climate crisis, it’s what we desperately need.

For Jim MacIntosh, who lives in Magnolia with his family, the new light rail extension shaves a good twenty minutes off the trip up to Northgate to visit his mother. That trip used to require traveling all the way downtown. “Now I can take the 31 right to the U-district station, and then just hop on the light rail, and it’s two stops and five minutes later we’re at Northgate,” he said.

We need more funding for transit, and we need changes to zoning and land use regulations that encourage greater housing density, so that neighborhoods near the light rail line can accommodate more people who will actually use late-night runs.

Jim says he’s thrilled that our transit system is starting to feel more and more like a real metropolitan subway system, the kind he remembers from visits to London and Vienna, Washington D.C. and New York City.

“What we have is maybe not quite the level of New York, but it’s a start,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to add mobility, especially for those that choose not to drive or don’t drive for whatever reason.”

Jim doesn’t drive because he’s visually impaired. He predicts he’ll be making the trip north more often now — and it’s not only about the time savings.

“It’s just a more pleasant run,” he said. “The light rail trains are smooth. You don’t have the up and down motion that you have in a bus, and the swerving where buses have to get around cars or every time they pull into a bus stop. When the bus moves, a person standing there is thrown off balance, so they have to grab onto a pole or something. On the light rail you don’t have the sudden motions back and forth.” Continue reading “The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City”

“Compassion Seattle” Is Dead. Now What?

By Katie Wilson

Two years ago, Seattle’s corporate set learned that money can’t buy you the Seattle City Council. Now they’re finding out it can’t even buy a measly amendment to the city charter.

I’ve written before about how Charter Amendment 29, promoted by the business-backed group “Compassion Seattle,” was an expensive unfunded mandate with troublingly unclear implications for the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness. Last month, a King County Superior Court judge struck it from the ballot for wholly different reasons: It’s a misuse of the initiative process, conflicting with state law and usurping the city’s legislative prerogatives. The state Court of Appeals denied Compassion Seattle’s appeal of the ruling on Friday.

To be clear, I wasn’t an impassive observer in this process. The organization I work for, the Transit Riders Union, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. TRU is also a part of House Our Neighbors!, the grassroots coalition convened by Real Change to oppose Compassion Seattle.

So yeah, I feel like running some victory laps. But going in circles, even metaphorically, is the last thing to be doing right now. There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.

So, what now? Here are four ways forward.

1. The city should make it easier, faster and cheaper to site and build shelter and permanent housing. CA 29 promised to do this by expediting project applications and waiving land use code requirements and permitting fees. This is one part of the measure that was actually good policy, but it also illustrates why the whole enterprise was so wrongheaded. Land use and zoning falls under the purview of the city’s legislative process and can’t be decided by initiative.

There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.

Siting shelter and housing for homeless people is often controversial. Suppose CA 29 passed and the city began fast-tracking projects; if disgruntled neighbors sued, they’d probably win. The Seattle City Council already took action in early 2021 to make it easier to site and build permanent supportive housing. The Urbanist reported on that effort here. Next year, Seattle’s new mayor and council should work together to make more changes like these the right way, by developing and passing legislation to allow projects to move forward faster.

2. The city should make smart use of new revenue flowing in from the JumpStart tax—a payroll tax paid by Seattle’s largest corporations—as well as the remainder of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which will be budgeted this fall. JumpStart’s first year was focused on economic relief from the COVID-19 crisis. But that’s about to change. “Starting next year, two-thirds of the JumpStart funds are for housing and homelessness,” Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “That’s about $135 million annually for emergency housing, long-term housing solutions and everything in between.”

In July, Mosqueda and her council colleagues passed legislation creating a dedicated fund for revenues from the new tax, to help ensure they’re funneled to their intended uses.

This by itself won’t be enough to create 2,000 units of “emergency or permanent housing” in a single year, as CA 29 arbitrarily stipulated, let alone all the permanent supportive housing and deeply affordable housing that’s needed, but it’s a great start.

3. To go further, the city will need to explore new sources of progressive revenue. Last fall, King County enacted the Health Through Housing Initiative, funded by a one percent sales tax, to scale up its efforts on chronic homelessness; that’s not a progressive tax, but it is buying a lot of hotels. Seattle can do its part without further taxing poor people. Should it raise the JumpStart tax? Design a city income tax? Siphon off some unearned wealth? Push for other new options from the state legislature? City leaders should create a task force made up of policy experts and community stakeholders to research what’s possible and report back on the options.

4.  One of the most unrealistic pieces of CA 29 was the suggestion that the city should suddenly (and with no new funding) start playing a major role in providing mental health and substance use disorder treatment, services that are currently managed mainly through county and state agencies. The city should acknowledge that behavioral health services are a county and state responsibility and work in partnership with King County and state legislators to fund behavioral health care for people experiencing homelessness.

One promising idea comes from 43rd District Rep. Frank Chopp, who points out that health care is the proper responsibility of state government . He’s developing a proposal called “a prescription for a home,” which he hopes to advance in next year’s legislative session. It begins from the recognition that chronic homelessness is usually related to chronic health conditions, which are nearly impossible to heal or treat successfully without housing. Just as the state now funds health care through Apple Health for qualifying individuals, people experiencing chronic homelessness would have a right to a home and wraparound services.

“The core of the program would be funded right out of the state general fund,” Chopp said. Phased in over time, “it would be part of the state Medicaid budget, like nursing homes, like home care, like prescription drugs.” With the state taking on more responsibility for addressing chronic homelessness, local governments could focus on building housing for the rest of the homeless population and for low-wage workers.

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So much for what I think; with CA 29 off the ballot, what are its backers and opponents up to?

“We need to start treating housing as a human right, not an exploitative venture,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change. “For-profit housing will never be the answer to our housing needs. We need to immediately start shifting housing away from the private, for profit sector and into the public sphere. We need social housing now.” The House Our Neighbors! coalition, she says, isn’t going away — it’s planning its next steps.

Compassion Seattle, meanwhile, is urging supporters to pay attention to the city elections.

“We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney,” the campaign said in a statement. “In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

Continue reading ““Compassion Seattle” Is Dead. Now What?”

Is It Time for Free Transit?

Image of Metro’s Route 99, a free waterfront bus that ran until 2018, by Atomic Taco

By Katie Wilson

Last week, PubliCola reported a “surprising consensus” among Seattle mayoral candidates on the subject of free public transit. Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González and Andrew Grant Houston have all displayed enthusiasm for pursuing this vision, while Colleen Echohawk and Bruce Harrell have expressed more cautious interest.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when local transit agencies stopped charging fare and implemented back-door boarding, transit riders who kept on riding got a taste of what a fare-free system might be like. No more fumbling for change, no tapping a card, just hop on the bus or the train. But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

On January 1, 2020, Intercity Transit, which serves Olympia and the rest of Thurston County, went fare-free. In the first month, ridership jumped up 20 percent. Bobby Karleton, a community organizer and daily bus rider in Olympia, noticed the change: “More people of color, elderly and disabled people and families with small children appear to be using the system,” he said. “For IT’s most impoverished riders—many who are homeless—free service means saving $1.25 every bus ride. That may not sound much, but it adds up.”

But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

Olympia wasn’t alone. In December 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major U.S. city to dispense with fares. A few months earlier, Lawrence, Massachusetts began a two-year pilot. It was starting to look like a trend, but it wasn’t entirely new—in fact, the Pacific Northwest has long been something of a quiet national leader on free transit. A number of smaller cities and rural areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have operated fare-free systems for decades. Visiting Whidbey Island? Put away that wallet. Traveling around Mason County? Welcome aboard.

For Seattle, a city accustomed to being on the leading edge of progressive policy, this is all a little embarrassing. How could we let other parts of our own state—including some that vote Republican!—get so far out ahead? Why are many of us still paying $2.75 to stand, crammed in like sardines, on buses crawling down car-choked streets? Why do we submit to the indignity of fare inspections, with steep fines that punish poverty and disproportionately harm Black riders? In a global climate crisis, why are we still erecting barriers to choosing sustainable transportation? In short, when is fare-free transit coming to Seattle and King County?

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple — but it’s not an impossible dream, either. Let’s take a look.

The transit agencies that have recently hopped on the fare-free bandwagon all have one thing in common: They’re smaller systems, and their revenue from fares is small both absolutely and as a portion of their total budget. Kansas City had to scrape together a modest $9 million per year. In the case of Intercity Transit, fares covered less than 2 percent of operating costs, and the agency was facing an expensive upgrade to the ORCA card system. For some rural systems the calculus is even more extreme: The ancillary costs of collecting fares exceed the fare revenue itself. In both cities, fare-free just makes sense.

The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

By contrast, in a large, dense urban system like ours, fares bring in real money. Pre-pandemic, farebox revenue covered about a quarter of the operating costs for King County Metro’s bus system. Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. Sound Transit, which operates Link light rail, regional Express buses and the Sounder line, brought in another $100 million. While it’s true that collecting and enforcing fares also costs money—a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement, for example—the amounts simply aren’t comparable. The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

That’s not the only challenge for fare-free transit. While it’s undeniable that the cost of fares is a hardship for many and a disincentive for many more, the bigger problem for most people—including those with low incomes—is the service itself. Public transit doesn’t come frequently enough or get people where they need to go fast enough. Buses and trains are overcrowded and don’t run at all times of the day and night. So even if the transit agencies found a quarter billion dollars on the doorstep every year, eliminating fares might not be the highest and best use of those funds—especially since people would respond to this change by riding still more, further increasing the demand for service.

Recognizing these realities, over the past decade community organizers, advocates and transit riders have taken a needs-based approach to fare-free transit. Through pressure and work with elected officials and agency staff, they’ve won and expanded a suite of reduced- or no-cost transit programs serving specific populations: the Human Services Ticket program, ORCA LIFT reduced fare program, Seattle Youth ORCA program, and, as of last fall, a no-cost annual transit pass program for people below 80 percent of the federal poverty level. I have been involved in all these efforts through my work with the Transit Riders Union. Continue reading “Is It Time for Free Transit?”

Guest Post: New Affordable Housing Dashboard Promotes Transparency and Accountability 

by Claudia Balducci

It’s no secret we have a dramatic housing shortage in King County. This has real human consequences, leaving too many with insecure housing and contributing to an unacceptably high level of homelessness. Many people and organizations – public and private – have been working hard to tackle the problem. We’ve seen increased investment at all levels of government and from private companies, partnerships to provide affordable housing near transit, new funding sources to support subsidized housing, zoning changes to allow more housing in some areas, new regional collaborations, and much more.

But the headlines keep coming: housing costs continue to rise and COVID times have brought job loss and the risk of housing loss for many more people than before. Many thousands of families spend more than half their income on housing, leaving them just one extra expense away from homelessness. Questions should be asked:  Are our efforts enough? What more must we do to ensure that people have access to the housing that they need and deserve? To understand the answers to those questions and to be sure our efforts are working, we needed to know more.

That’s why I’m excited to share that this week the Growth Management Planning Council’s Affordable Housing Committee, which I chair, released a Regional Affordable Housing Dashboard to track our county’s progress toward our goals. This new tool will help hold us all accountable to the bold and ambitious goals set by the Regional Affordable Housing Taskforce to build or preserve 44,000 affordable homes by 2024 and 244,000 homes by 2040.

The dashboard will help jurisdictions track their progress, arm housing advocates with data to make their cases, and provide the public with information to hold elected leaders accountable.

To our knowledge, no dashboard like this has ever been built. The dashboard will help jurisdictions track their respective progress, arm housing advocates with data to make their cases, and provide the public with information to hold elected leaders accountable. The dashboard’s “Jurisdictional Snapshots” section offers information about housing affordability and policy enactment by city. Additionally, a wide variety of affordable housing data— from housing policies to transit-oriented development and displacement—are available for download either as raw data or charts.

The tool itself illustrates the power, and challenge, of working together. The Affordable Housing Committee, which is composed of 19 elected, nonprofit and business leaders, provided an umbrella for the hard work it took to identify data sets, analyze the data and reach agreement on how to interpret the data.  This collaboration across our county is something to celebrate.

Here’s what the dashboard tells us already:

• King County lacks an adequate supply of affordable homes for the lowest-income renters who must compete for the limited number of rental homes affordable to them in the private market. Only 27 units are affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income households (those making between 0 and 30 percent of Area Median Income, or AMI).

  • Black households are severely cost-burdened (defined as paying more than half of one’s salary for housing) at twice the rate of white households. Twenty-six percent of Black households are severely cost-burdened, as compared to 13 percent of white households.
  • Our region established a goal to build or preserve 44,000 homes affordable to households with incomes at or below 50 percent of AMI between 2019 and 2024. To meet this goal, we need to create 8,800 affordable units per year; but in 2019, only 1,595 affordable units were created.

Continue reading “Guest Post: New Affordable Housing Dashboard Promotes Transparency and Accountability “

Rachel Smith: The Chamber’s Recovery Agenda (And Why We Aren’t Endorsing Candidates This Year)

Seattle Metro Chamber President & CEO Rachel Smith. Photo by Alabastro Photography

By Rachel Smith

Global pandemic. Racial reckoning. Economic recession. Capital insurrection. Massive joblessness. Vaccine shortage. Unprecedented times.

This is the backdrop of the moment when I optimistically started in my new role as President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. And yes, I say optimism; optimism that comes from our region’s demonstrated ability to rebound and reimagine itself, as well as optimism about how the Chamber can play a central role in the work ahead. Today, we’re starting to see more signs of hope – and I’m even more excited to help lead one of our region’s civic voices as we begin to slowly emerge from these incredibly challenging times.

In 2021, the Chamber will not make candidate endorsements, nor will we engage in candidate spending through the Chamber PAC. Instead, we will focus on elevating – and pushing for – serious civic dialogue on the most pressing issues in our region.

First and foremost on my to-do list is driving a robust and inclusive regional economic recovery, and that starts with helping struggling small businesses secure federal PPP loans – including pro bono CPA services and connection to lenders; handing out PPE, helping business with Public Health guidance, standing up partnerships to distribute vaccines, and advocating for continued state and federal relief for employers.

Equity and inclusion are also core pillars of that recovery agenda, and we need to focus our economic tools and resources to create a change in outcomes. The Chamber will work to build wealth in historically excluded communities by investing in the retention and expansion of BIPOC-owned businesses, as well as providing all of our members with resources and guidance on becoming more anti-racist institutions.

Emerging from this pandemic in a position of strength also requires partnership with public officials and leaders throughout our region. I believe strongly that we accomplish the biggest things and make the most transformative change for the most people when we work in coalition – government, business, labor, and community. This moment does not call for small-ball victories; it calls for working together in common purpose to ensure that employers survive, people stay employed, the region is prosperous, and everyone has access to that prosperity.

That is the way I intend to lead at the Chamber—working in partnership to accomplish big things. And as with any new leader, you’ll see some changes. One of the first is a new approach to local and regional elections this year. In 2021, the Chamber will not make candidate endorsements, nor will we engage in candidate spending through the Chamber PAC. Instead, we will focus on elevating – and pushing for – serious civic dialogue on the most pressing issues in our region.

These issues include:

  • Specific economic recovery actions to ensure that large employers are able to bring employees back to safe and welcoming business districts, including downtown Seattle, and that small businesses can keep their doors open and attract the volume of customers they need.
  • Working toward racial justice to address longstanding and ongoing inequities
  • Utilizing strategies to address affordability issues so that people of all income levels can afford to live in our region.
  • Making real and sustained progress on homelessness, to bring people inside and provide access to services they need.
  • Implementing police reform and building trust in communities of color, in tandem with a robust plan to keep people and businesses safe.
  • Maintaining our aging infrastructure and a long-range vision for the future of transit and mobility.
  • Delivering on local government basics: light and power, garbage and recycling, potholes and sidewalks, parks and neighborhoods, employees and administration.

Why this switch from endorsements? We believe everyone who gains the trust of the voters and is elected to office has the responsibility to lay out their approach and commit to specific actions to solve our greatest challenges.

Especially in a time of economic crisis, helping all employers and their employees recover and thrive isn’t just a “business” issue.

Especially in a time of economic crisis, helping all employers and their employees recover and thrive isn’t just a “business” issue. Every candidate elected should have a plan to keep and grow jobs – not just candidates looking for the Chamber’s endorsement. Every candidate needs to share their plan for how they will address homelessness – plans measured not just in taxes raised and dollars spent, but in outcomes achieved and how many fewer people are spending their nights outside. Every candidate needs to talk about how they plan to deliver on the things we count on local government to provide – like dependable city services, community safety, and reliable transportation options.

And the Chamber can play a role in informing and educating the business community and the public about the issues, the candidates, and their plans. Continue reading “Rachel Smith: The Chamber’s Recovery Agenda (And Why We Aren’t Endorsing Candidates This Year)”