Category: Guest Contributor

Don’t Believe the Seattle Times—Social Housing Will Play a Vital Role in Solving Our Affordability Crisis

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to the Seattle Times’ endorsement of a “no” vote on Initiative 135, a Seattle ballot measure that would create a new public development authority (PDA) to build, acquire, and operate publicly owned, permanently affordable mixed-income housing in Seattle. The PDA would be run by a majority-renter board, giving residents a direct influence over issues that impact their community.

The Times’ editorial made a number of bombastic, questionable statements in its argument against the initiative, including many PublICola found misleading. We offered advocates for the initiative an opportunity to respond to some of the factual claims the Times made in its editorial advocating a “no” vote on this measure.

Initiative 135 will be on the February 14, 2023 ballot in Seattle.

By House Our Neighbors! Coalition

The Seattle Times editorial board decided they were against Initiative 135 before the endorsement interview even started. It seems as though they simply worked backwards from their “no” position to find reasons that they were going to present to the public, including many they didn’t even ask about during the endorsement interview. The editorial board has yet again contradicted itself, holding I-135 to a completely different set of standards than past measures it has supported while flaunting the deeply flawed arguments we’ve highlighted here.

Yes on I-135I-135 has no funding and no accountability for public dollars.” When they raised this concern, we reminded the editorial board that they didn’t have concerns about the lack of funding in the proposal for Charter Amendment 29—the “Compassion Seattle” initiative, which would have required the city to add thousands of new housing or shelter beds with no additional funding—which they endorsed.

Unlike the CA29 campaign, we’ve been honest with the public from day one that state law prevented us from including a funding source for the Seattle Social Housing Developer in the language of the initiative. We made it clear to the editorial board that public development authorities do not have taxing authority. In fact, it would be illegal to give a PDA taxing authority. However, the new PDA would receive bonding authority, creating leverage to finance new housing without large infusions of funding.

While we couldn’t provide ongoing funding for the PDA, we wanted to secure some start-up funds so it wouldn’t start out with no financial support. This is why we included 18 months of in-kind support from the city, which the city’s own budget office has estimated at a cost of just $750,000— a sliver of the $7.4 billion annual budget the council recently passed. It is important to note that from day one, the PDA has the authority to seek out funding on its own from private foundations and all levels of government, including the state.

The Times also complains that Washington State already spends millions of taxpayer dollars on housing, which is precisely the point: Social housing, which includes housing affordable to people making between 0 and 120 percent of median income, is a model that leverages rental income to reduce the need for outside funding.

While the housing I-135 would create wouldn’t be considered “homelessness housing” in a legal sense, it would nonetheless be housing that would be available to people coming out of homelessness or transitioning out of the city’s limited supply of permanent supportive housing, including families with housing vouchers that many private landlords won’t accept.

Housing experts say it ultimately doesn’t pencil.” The editorial board makes this claim without saying who they consulted with, nor what numbers they used to reach this conclusion. There are no examples of social housing in Seattle, so it could not have been from here.

Furthermore, our research shows that the social housing model would indeed work in Seattle. Utilizing publicly accessible financial statements from an existing recently constructed housing development, affordable housing expert and PhD candidate Julie Howe, as well as economists Paul Williams and John Burbank, assisted in the creation of a pro forma that demonstrates the model remaining financially sustainable for more than 80 years.

The theory is that people would be willing to pay above market rates to subsidize the lower rents of their neighbors in the same building. Where did they get this from? Whose theory is this?

Let’s root this assertion in an actual pro forma, drafted from the financial statements and construction costs of a recently constructed apartment complex, the Station House.

If this were a social housing building, renters making 120 percent of the area median income would pay $2700 a month, compared to the current market rate of $2800 a month with utilities.  They would be living next to the light rail station in a high-quality Passivhaus building. Their building would have a resident governance board, and community spaces dedicated inside the building. They would be living in a space with no fear of retaliatory evictions or drastic rent increases, a place with inherent protections from the typical practices of predatory private property owners. Additionally, their rent would be going directly to the social housing developer to buy and build more housing (especially after the 30-year loan is paid off), not a private equity firm or for-profit rental corporation.

 Real Change has traditionally focused on advocating for those who are experiencing homelessness” and is straying from its mission. This is simply laughable and further cements the disdain the Seattle Times editorial Board has for Real Change. The board describes Real Change as “a social justice advocacy group that runs a newspaper.” The editorial board is well aware that Real Change has an Advocacy department and a separate Editorial department, and that journalists staff, and write, our paper. Real Change also served on the Times’ Project Homeless community advisory board, until the paper disbanded that board last year.

The editorial board takes umbrage with the fact the I-135 “ordinance does not concern homelessness housing” exclusively—instead, it would enable new housing for people making between 0 and 120 percent of the Seattle median income. This criticism shows how little they know about what is permissible in ballot initiatives and what isn’t. Housing for people experiencing homelessness is the direct purview of the City Council and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and cannot be superseded in a ballot initiative. Our lawyer advised us to make this point explicit so it couldn’t be seen “to interfere with or exercise the City Council’s powers” under state law, including the state law about homelessness housing.

And while the housing I-135 would create wouldn’t be considered “homelessness housing” in a legal sense, it would nonetheless be housing that would be available to people coming out of homelessness or transitioning out of the city’s limited supply of permanent supportive housing, including families with housing vouchers that many private landlords won’t accept. What’s more, it would help keep additional families from being pushed into homelessness by creating more affordable housing options for those struggling with unrelenting increases in housing costs.

We have to be honest with the public that our current affordable housing production levels will never meet the scale of our need. We need a new model.

We are deeply curious what the Seattle Times Editorial Board thinks the city should be doing to address the homelessness and housing crisis. They repeatedly push for the criminalization of homelessness. They speak out against increasing the housing levy so that affordable housing providers can do more. They don’t find it wise to increase our debt limit to build more affordable housing across the state. In spite of overwhelming evidence that homelessness is primarily an economic issue, they continue propping up the narrative that the homelessness crisis is actually a drug crisis. They take issue with the fact that I-135 would make it harder to evict people, in spite of clear evidence that evictions overwhelmingly lead to homelessness. They support the unlawful placement of eco-blocks in public rights-of-way, which make it harder and harder for our unhoused neighbors living in RVs to find a safe place to sleep.

Unlike the Seattle Times Editorial Board, here at Real Change we have the privilege of interacting with our unhoused, and low-income, neighbors and hearing directly from them. We know that they want deeply affordable, quality housing that won’t lose if they start making a little bit more money.

Here is what some of our Real Change vendors have to say about the need for social housing:

Darrell Wrenn, “The whole process is outdated. Housing needs to be reimagined and housing needs to be a human right. Things can’t change without social housing and Initiative 135.”

Susan McRoy: “It’s not something that is an experiment or a dream. It’s being put in place around the world. And Seattle can step up to the plate and say ‘We don’t need to be victims of gentrification. We can do something where we have stability in our community.”

Carl Nakajima: “We need to create more affordable housing for people at every income level, not only low-income, but all-income housing.”

At Real Change, we know that homelessness is a housing issue. While there are several non-profits and current public developers doing tremendous work to house our neighbors, we have to be honest with the public that our current affordable housing production levels will never meet the scale of our need. We need a new model. One that works in tandem with current affordable housing developers, to rapidly scale up housing outside the private market. Housing that is owned, and operated, as a public good. Housing that more Seattleites are eligible for. We can create a Seattle where all can afford to live and thrive. We can create this vision with social housing.

House Our Neighbors! is a political committee of Real Change.

For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further

Image via Phinneyflats.com
This four-story building, the Phinney Flats on busy Greenwood Avenue North, was delayed for years by design review meetings in which critics called it “Soviet-style” architecture and said renters would disrupt their peace and quiet with loud rooftop parties.

By Laura Loe

Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.

I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.

The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.

On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.

Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.

There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.

The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.

ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.

The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.

While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.

Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.

One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.

Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.

According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.

Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.

The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.

Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.

I’m the Mom of a Survivor at Ingraham. We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves “The Lucky Ones” and Start Demanding Action.

Ragesoss, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Paula Burke

Like hundreds of other Seattle parents, I dropped everything after Ingraham High School went into lockdown the morning of Nov. 8 following a shooting at the school.

I am one of the lucky ones: I knew my son was safe. I knew he had been far away from the shooting. I knew I would see him soon by the table for kids with last names A-B.

I waited at the reunification site with hundreds of other people. We were united by the deep desire to see our kids again. It didn’t matter what language we speak at home, whether we were sending prayers to saints or lucky stars, whether we were wearing business suits or flannel pajamas or uniforms. Because we all had done the same thing: dropped everything to come gather our children. We had everything in common in that moment.

There have been 1,105 shootings at K-12 schools in the United States since the start of 2013—essentially since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The numbers are escalating: Almost 80% of those have been in the past five years. Nearly a quarter of the shootings at K-12 schools since the start of 2013 have happened this year.

We don’t have to have been the most severely impacted to say enough is enough.

Standing at the reunification site, I didn’t know these statistics. But since Tuesday I have been thinking: If 1,105 shootings at K-12 schools since 2013 means there have been 1,105 reunification sites, then there are hundreds of thousands of people like me, who stood in a crowd knowing my kid was coming home with me.

Now add in the grandparents, the neighbors, the cousins, the family friends, the coworkers who were waiting for word from the person at the reunification site. That’s hundreds of thousands who have been touched by gun violence at schools, but can say “we were lucky.”

It’s time for us to make the most of our fortune. We don’t have to have been the most severely impacted to say enough is enough. We don’t have to leave it to the people who have suffered the unthinkable loss of a family member to pressure our elected officials to find the political will to reduce gun violence in schools. We need to stop minimizing, stop saying “it could have been worse, stop accepting this as the norm. Gun violence at schools has impacted far too many lives.

Locally, we could start by using our voices to bolster efforts to repeal a state law that prevents cities like Seattle from passing local gun regulations—something Mayor Bruce Harrell has said he supports. Last year, legislators managed to pass a suite of statewide gun safety bills despite opposition from the powerful gun lobby, include a ban on untraceable “ghost guns” and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

We—the “lucky ones”— must keep pushing. Drop everything. Speak out. Use your second chance.

Paula Burke is a Seattle resident and parent.

Passing Ranked Choice Voting Requires a “Yes” Vote on Question 1

By George Cheung

The ballots of Seattle voters will pose a very important question: Do we want to change our democracy? To put it simply: Yes. Of course. Unequivocally. American democracy is falling apart. To save it—at least here at home, which would create a domino effect—we have to vote yes on this first question.

Public trust in our government and institutions has never been lower. And it’s no surprise. Just look at the other Washington, mired in January 6th insurrectionist hearings, bipartisan gridlock, and Russian interference. Things aren’t looking good.

Here in our Washington, though, everyday people have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference to improve and strengthen our democracy. The stakes have never been higher. Right now, the winner-take-all system always leads to voter dissatisfaction writ large. How many times have you been excited about a primary candidate only to be completely deflated with your options during the general election?

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a simple, effective, and proven alternative. It’s the only viable path forward, and it is the logical next step to our democracy’s evolution. But for Seattle to see the benefits of RCV—which voters and endorsers alike clearly favor—then we must also vote yes on the first question that asks for change. RCV will not happen without both yes votes. It’s silly to vote “yes” on 1B, or RCV, and then prevent it from happening in the first place by saying no to the first half of the question. It’s like saying you want to eat cereal but refuse to use a bowl. If we want RCV, we do in fact want to change our democracy.

Ranked-choice voting is a necessary step in the unsexy but critical work of crash-proofing our democracy.

At the end of the day, RCV is a straightforward voting system that would ensure the Pacific Northwest becomes a stronghold against the rapid crumbling of our nation’s democracy. We can be a bulwark against fascism and eroding social cohesion. And as we’ve done with marriage equality, minimum wage, and marijuana legalization, we can lead the country toward a better path.

Ranked-choice voting delivers accurate voter representation even before a necessary, separate-but-connected movement gets to tackling campaign finance issues. There are critics of RCV who suggest lax campaign finance laws are the real issue. But let’s use a parallel analogy for a second: Reducing the risk of dying while operating a vehicle. When drivers’ deaths were at an all-time high, we passed a whole slate of laws, policies, and standards that made driving safer. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t now, to oppose airbags because you think steering wheels need to look the same, or because you think seat belts got it covered.

This includes, as PubliCola’s editorial board rightfully points out, stronger campaign finance laws. But more importantly, it will require many policy changes. To pull American democracy back from the brink of pseudo-fascist authoritarianism is a daunting task that requires every tool in our toolbox. That starts with the choices we have right now: Voting yes on Question 1 to improve our democracy and voting yes on 1b, RCV.

RCV is a necessary step in the unsexy but critical work of crash-proofing our democracy. We know it’s simple because voters themselves have said so in overwhelming majorities. We know that RCV is effective at preventing democratic manipulation because it delivers the actual will of voters, making elected officials truly representative of the votes cast. We know that RCV is proven thanks to the more than 50 jurisdictions where it has reduced polarization and attack ads, allowing third-party candidates to run competitive races.

RCV makes voters feel heard by making every vote count. In crowded races, much like Seattle’s mayoral elections, candidates who advance to the general election often have as little as 32-34 percent of voter support. RCV allows voters to designate a first, second, and third choice for run-off rounds, ensuring that the candidates who advance actually have a majority of votes behind them—not just a plurality of die-hard, uncompromising supporters. This, in turn, improves voter satisfaction and boosts participation. Time and time again, RCV has led to increased voter turnout! And of course it did: When people know their vote matters, they show up.

This is precisely why RCV has the endorsements of every Democratic Party legislative district in Seattle, the King County Democrats, the League of Women Voters, and nearly 30 more grassroots organizations. These organizations include those who represent workers, communities of color, and advocates from all sorts of backgrounds and issue areas. It’s the same ecosystem of partners who advocated for mail-in ballots, democracy vouchers, and campaign finance laws that voters have overwhelmingly supported over the years. I know, because I’ve been working on these solutions to our weakening democracy since they were simply ideas.

I’m proud of the democracy we’ve built here in Seattle. But the work is far from done. Read the news. Our democracy can be better. And we have a moral obligation to make it better.

Democracy only works if we all agree to it. Protecting our local democracy against the ugly patterns to demolish it nationwide and improving our local voting system, too, only happen if we all agree to it. When you’re filling out your ballot: make sure you vote yes to the first question, yes to improving our democracy, if you want your yes on 1B to go into action.

George Cheung is the Director of More Equitable Democracy and the former Program Director for the Joyce Foundation’s Democracy Program and Co-Chair of the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation. Cheung was also executive director of the Win/Win Network and founder/executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization.

It’s Time to Ditch Design Review

Years of controversy over the design of this Safeway-anchored building on Queen Anne galvanized opposition to Seattle’s design review process.

By Laura Loe, Wes Mills, and Mike Eliason

Seattle is preparing to update its Comprehensive Plan, which governs growth and development in the city. Between now and 2024, there will be a staggering number of public input and listening tours and community open houses, all aimed at shaping equitable development and coming to some kind of consensus about where new neighbors should be allowed to live. 

Simultaneously, the city convened an advisory stakeholder group to evaluate Seattle’s Design Review program, as required by a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) the City Council passed in spring of 2022. We question whether this advisory group, which has met three times so far, is effective or empowered to make necessary changes to this harmful program. We oppose Seattle’s Design Review program and would like it to be reduced to a routine checklist, if not eliminated altogether. We want changes to this program to be in place before the comprehensive plan update in 2024.

The intent of Seattle’s Design Review program is to “consider a broad set of design considerations and apply design guidelines that the architect must use to design the exterior of the building (and to) promote designs that fit into and relate to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately, the impact of design review goes far beyond aesthetics and neighborhood character. It leads to a less affordable city. According to a 2021 BERK report, Seattle needs at least 21,000 more homes for families and individuals making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income, about $95,000 for a family of four. Design reviewers are not allowed to consider the needs of lower- income people in their decision making, to say nothing of evaluating the needs of an estimated 5.8 million residents our city and region will need to house by 2050. 

Right now, Seattle planning staff coordinate community energy toward evaluating a building’s appearance—a classist and subjective process that prioritizes subjective aesthetics over equity.. Our city is not more beautiful because of Seattle’s design review process. It adds cost and limits needed homes during dual climate and housing emergencies. There is an abject futility in witnessing multiple rounds of hours-long meetings debating minuscule architectural points that would make Frank Lloyd Wright stomp out in frustration.

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power

In contrast, there’s no process to examine whether our city’s stated values around equity, affordability and sustainability are being met. Design Review has hobbled Seattle’s ability to provide essential housing, while undermining the needs of both current and future neighbors. This process prioritizes things like the color of brick, the modulation of the back side of a building, and whether a trash pickup should be done by a 30-foot truck or a 25-foot one. It leads to complex studies of the impact of shadows on vegetable gardens. It does not support equitable development. 

In September 2021, Seattle For Everyone released a statement that made clear that Seattle’s Design Review program was failing. We agree. We have found Design Review to be one of the most anti-renter, gate-kept, exclusionary and jargon-laden of all Seattle Processes. Infuriatingly, the all-volunteer Design Review Board has been loaded with industry insider architects and process “experts.” This shuts out many people whose communities need representation, including people who are experiencing housing instability, like us. 

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power. These locations tend to have much higher levels of air and noise pollution than the neighborhoods whose “residential character” design review aims to protect, and are considerably less safe due to traffic volumes, than residential neighborhoods. It is a public health crisis exacerbated by our bifurcated development regime. Renters deserve quiet, leafy neighborhoods where our kids can feel safe playing on the sidewalk.

The most famous example of design review’s costly and anti-renter outcomes is at the top of Queen Anne. Because of the great reporting from The Urbanist (West Design Review Board Withholds Approval for 323 Homes Atop Queen Anne Safeway), and the fantastic live-tweets by QAGreenways, dozens of people were inspired to give public comment in favor of housing on top of a grocery store. The momentum and movement to end design review has even caught the attention of Real Change advocates who specifically called out eliminating design review in their recent comprehensive plan vision

We ask the City of Seattle to remove Design Review from the building and permitting process, before we complete the Comprehensive Plan updates in Spring of 2024.   Because of the concerns raised by Seattle For Everyone, we are worried that any reforms recommended through the stakeholder group process will be worth little more than the cost of the ink used to print the very nice bound version that will be placed in the stacks of our beautiful Central Library (that probably couldn’t pass Design Review today).

The stakeholder group plans to perform “[a]n analysis of whether the program increases housing costs”. We don’t need that analysis. We already know it does—through increased processes, permitting delays, and more complex buildings. We don’t need more analysis to tell us Design Review is broken. Additionally, the council’s directive does nothing to own up to Seattle’s massive role in exporting our housing crisis to the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest. 

While we advocate for ending design review, we don’t yet have a framework for fixing our neighborhood design guidelines. One acceptable option would be to make adherence to design guidelines a low-stakes checklist-style administrative step. A few of Seattle’s design guidelines are functional and fairly useful, but others are purely aesthetic and highly questionable.  

Upcoming Meetings: September 28, October 26, November 16, December 14

Comment on these meetings here.

Watch upcoming meetings here.

Stakeholders

The stakeholder group includes affordable housing developers, market rate developers, design professionals, neighborhood organizations, and previous Design Review Board members. Stakeholders representing specific organizations are indicated here.

Additionally, the Design Review process works differently in the Department of Neighborhoods for Special Review Districts. The International Special Review District (ISRD) has taken some steps to increase participation and influence by those who have been actively marginalized and underrepresented in Seattle. For example, the ISRD Board recently expanded their language access with translation and interpretation for meetings. We need to evaluate if community members have felt that these reforms in Department of Neighborhoods have worked, to inform the SLI driven stakeholder advisory meetings  in the Department of Construction and Inspection.  

We do not support more process, more reports, or more rounds of public debate and discussion. After viewing the first few meetings of the stakeholder group reform process, it is clear that the members are disempowered to make reforms. Design review eradication should be under consideration, too. The city must study the impacts of eliminating design review and this stakeholder group is meaningless without studying that option. 

Laura is a renter, musician and gardener in Queen Anne who founded Share The Cities. Wes is a local housing and transit advocacy volunteer who rents with his family in Northgate, where they can live without a car. Mike is the founder of Larch Lab, an architecture studio and think tank – as well as renter and livable cities activist living with his family in Fremont.

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.