Category: Maybe Metropolis

One Thing We Learned During the Pandemic: Transit’s Not Dead

SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

There’s a stat in the latest report from Commute Seattle that offers a glimmer of hope for transit advocates. In a report that otherwise shows a stark drop in transit commutes between 2019 and 2021, coupled with a dramatic rise in telecommuting—arguably a double whammy of bad news for future transit investments—there is one finding that points toward a potential transit renaissance.

The survey showed that a key bloc of downtown workers, employees at small businesses (between 1 and 49 employees), represent the greatest untapped market for transit.

According to the City’s Office of Economic Development, small business—places with 50 employees or less—make up 95 percent of Seattle’s companies. Given small businesses’ big footprint, it’s time for the city to make policy that not only serves this important workforce, but also serves Seattle’s goal to be a sustainable, green city.

In its report, Commute Seattle, the local nonprofit that facilitates alternatives to solo car commuting, describes the encouraging news this way: “Unmet demand for employer-paid transit is higher among employees at smaller worksites than their counterparts in larger ones.” In other words, despite all the doom and gloom soothsaying about transit, the untapped demand is actually there.

At a time when some urbanists are anxious about a post-pandemic world that sidelines train and bus commuting, the news that employees at small businesses would like to ride transit, but aren’t, is particularly welcome because small businesses employ an outsized percentage of the downtown workforce. The most recent info on downtown employment comes from a November 2020 report from the Office of Economic Development, which, in addition to the 95 percent number noted above, also found that businesses with fewer than 50 employees make up provide nearly 200,000 jobs, about a third of all jobs in the city.

The numbers about transit demand tell the story: At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, more than 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use them” if they were. For companies with 10 to 49 employees, the number was 25 percent. Based on Commute Seattle’s outreach work, the people who work at small businesses citywide are overwhelmingly hospitality, restaurant, health care, and in-home health care workers, they say.

Just 23 percent of employees at the smallest companies and 32 percent of workers at larger small businesses report that subsidized transit programs are actually available and that they use them. This means that interest in transit at these small businesses totals 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, as the chart above indicates.

At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use ‘them'” if they were.

By the way, at the city’s largest companies, 100 or more employees, transit benefit usage is high, at 60 percent. This high use is easy to explain: State law requires large employers to make a “good faith effort” to use commute trip reduction plans to meet state environmental and traffic congestion goals. What jumps out about this number is that it’s about equal to the pro-transit number among employees at Seattle’s smallest businesses. This raises a question: Why is public policy only about getting white-collar workers to the job, but not employees at smaller businesses, including working-class people?

It’s worth pointing out that the high demand for transit benefits from workers at smaller businesses is coming from people who’ve yet to experience the practical benefits of transit—no gas bills, for one—at their current jobs. Just imagine how those numbers would climb if these employers offered to subsidize their ORCA cards and word spread among coworkers about the benefits. As Commute Seattle’s communication manager Madeline Feig puts it: “The best way to get people to know if transit will work for them is to get transit passes in their hands—it makes the decision easy. It is difficult for folks to know whether they would use that type of benefit if they have never had it.” In short, total interest in riding transit may be much higher than what Commute Seattle’s report suggests.

The data about the intense demand at small worksites overlaps with another reality that became clear during the pandemic: Ridership data for transit agencies nationally, including Sound Transit and Metro, showed that that people in working-class communities and communities with high BIPOC populations continued to ride, or returned more quickly to transit, during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m tying these two blocs of commuters together—those who work at small businesses and low-income and essential workers—because it reveals a strategy that could bring public transportation back to the forefront of our city vision, even as hybrid work models in the corporate world seem poised to undermine it. The strategy: Investing in public policy that brings transit to those who want it most.

“One of the most immediate actions we can take to address transportation inequities,” says Commute Seattle’s longtime program manager Nick Abel, “is offering transit opportunities to essential employees.”

Of course, subsidizing transit—or providing free transit— for 200,000 workers costs money. The good news is: Big employers are already paying. Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019.

Given that status quo, given the environmental and city planning pluses of getting more people on transit, and given the unmet demand, it would make sense to replace this private cost with a broader, progressive business tax (smaller businesses pay less) to cover both the current cost at big companies and the cost to bring in new riders from small businesses.

Josh@publicola.com

Editor’s note: Columnist Josh Feit is an employee of Sound Transit, the regional transit agency. His views do not represent the agency’s.

Density Begins at Home

by Josh Feit

The latest effort to loosen longstanding zoning rules that put force fields around single-family neighborhoods fell on its face in Olympia last week. As Leo reported, legislation sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) failed to muster enough support to clear the February 15 legislative deadline after it was watered down multiple times— first by single-family preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) and then by Bateman herself. Organized by the Association of Washington Cities, mid-sized cities across the state testified against the bill—arguing, in an incorrigible chorus of “local control,” that they shouldn’t have to take direction on density from Olympia.

I hope Seattle YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard) have now learned their lesson about Olympia. Obstructionists like Rep. Pollet also flogged efforts last year to allow slightly more density in single-family neighborhoods—Rep. Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) backyard cottage bill. In fact, anti-growth legislators altered the bill to the point that the proponents  eventually implored Gov. Jay Inslee for a veto after it passed.

In short, the state legislature, still run by old-fashioned Democrats with knee-jerk anti-development mindsets, isn’t the best place to seek a density mandate for the place where increased density is most on point, will have the most impact, is most noticeably overdue, and makes the most sense to fight for it: Seattle.

The confluence of Seattle’s affordable housing crisis—we’re short hundreds of thousands of units —and the ongoing climate crisis, demands that we undo our outdated zoning laws that continue to exacerbate this dual trauma. Three-quarters of Seattle’s developable land is off-limits to the kind of smaller, denser housing options needed to support pedestrian-friendly, indie business-friendly neighborhoods connected by citywide mass transit. Density will also add a necessary dose of social justice by offering working-class people more options than living on exhaust-laden arterials and in car-dependent suburbs.

The confluence of Seattle’s affordable housing crisis and the ongoing climate crisis demands that we make policy changes in Seattle, where our outdated zoning laws are exacerbating this dual trauma.

Yes, pro-housing activists will also have a tough fight on their hands in Seattle. Despite the “Black Lives Matter” and “In this House…” signs dotting yards across the city, lots of homeowners aren’t actually interested in diversifying the housing stock in their exclusive neighborhoods. And their “back to basics” candidate won the recent mayor’s race. New mayor Bruce “Born and Raised Here” Harrell made it clear with his slow-growth, parochial campaign rhetoric that he’s attached to the single-family status quo.

And you can count on the Seattle Times to oppose citywide density; their editorial pages love to extol Seattle’s “neighborhood character.”  Meanwhile, their influential opinion columnist, Danny Westneat, who often writes about the density debate has a financial conflict of interest on the issue. As Erica first reported, Westneat co-owns a development company with high-end condos on MLK in Columbia City that will continue to appreciate handsomely as long as development in the adjacent neighborhoods is proscribed.

But obstacles like Seattle’s entrenched NIMBY contingent, Mayor Harrell, and the biased daily newspaper pale in comparison to the unfavorable odds in Olympia where the “local control” trope gives opponents of density an out every time. Despite the obstacles in Seattle, the pro-housing movement that’s already gained steam and charted some local wins should turn the tables, take the local control mantra to heart, and exert some here.

For starters, one of the two at-large Seattle city council members, Position 8 Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, who defied last year’s conservative backlash to win re-election with 60 percent of the vote, is an outspoken advocate for adding housing density citywide. Mosqueda’s longstanding pro-housing position is tied to a social justice critique: “Preserving” most of Seattle for detached single-family houses is modern day redlining posing as neighborhood charm.

And Mosqueda’s pro-density agenda has traction on the council itself. Council Members Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Dan Strauss all joined Mosqueda, proactively supporting Bateman’s original bill as the legislative session in Olympia began this year and signed on as supporters when the House Local Government Committee first took it up.

It’s perfect timing for this pro-density bloc to turn their attention back to Seattle: As part of the city’s 2024 Seattle Comprehensive Plan update, the city council is about to start formally debating and establishing local growth management policy. And this time, a Seattle public process once dominated by single-family homeowner NIMBYS is notably balanced out by an organized and energetic YIMBY movement starring groups like Share the Cities, Seattle for Everyone, the Urbanist, Sightline, and Seattle Greenways. Continue reading “Density Begins at Home”

2021 in Review: New KEXP DJ Signals Emergent Seattle

by Josh Feit

In order to gauge whether you live in a successful city, there are a few key questions to ask yourself. Is there: affordable housing and a strong job market, ubiquitous public transit, mixed use zoning, economic and cultural diversity, a local economy defined by successful independent businesses, a rich arts scene, and lots of parks, sidewalks, benches, greenways, and other human scale infrastructure?

An overlooked, but equally important question to ask is this: Is there anything to do in your town late at night? As with the other urbanist measures—affordable housing, please?—Seattle has an iffy record on the night-owl front. Before Amazon lures another early 20-something tech worker to town, they might want be honest and tell them there’s a dearth of food and drink options in South Lake Union after 10 pm.

Due to Seattle’s notably slim late-night pickings, this post-midnight litmus test inadvertently put the spotlight on one of Seattle’s new treasures in 2021: KEXP’s Overnight Afrobeats with DJ Lace Cadence, which comes on at 1:00 am every Saturday morning.

You could file Overnight Afrobeats, which debuted in August 2020, under the arts category, and more specifically, under the great local radio category—traditionally another astute metric for sizing up worthy cities; though not as much so in the internet age. But relegating Lace Cadence’s show to the arts scene misses the point.

Whether it’s explicitly understanding nighttime as a discrete ecosystem, or realizing that different times create different civic opportunities, our city planners need to start incorporating time of day into their analysis of what makes a city tick. This is why I like to think of Overnight Afrobeats as specifically part of Seattle’s after-hours environment. In 2021, Overnight Afrobeats, which features ridiculously catchy, contemporary African pop music, became valuable Seattle infrastructure. It also helped me fall just a little bit more in love with our emergent city.

Be prepared. When you tune in Overnight Afrobeats (you can also listen to it on KEXP’s archives), you’re not going to get the standard KEXP DJ mumbling like a teen wallflower or casually surprising you with a set list update and a few pearls of deep wisdom every 20 minutes. DJ Lace Cadence, real name Isaac Porter, is a mischievous presence, giggling, singing along with the jams, blaring sound effects like lasers, airhorns, and bombs, and even stopping records midstream because he wants to run the jam back from the top for you. “Oh my goodness!” he says in his giddy and infectious patter as he cues it back up, “I love this song.” Lace—the nickname comes from his teenage graffiti tag—also segues from song to song without playing the whole thing sometimes. He’s in a race, it seems, to share everything he can with you. “Let’s go!!” he hollers over the sound of an explosion. “You know the vibe.”

City planners need to start incorporating time of day into their analysis of what makes a city tick. In 2021, Overnight Afrobeats, which features ridiculously catchy, contemporary African pop music, became valuable Seattle infrastructure.

The first time I heard Lace Cadence on KEXP was a year ago. He was subbing on Positive Vibrations, KEXP’s regular Saturday morning dub and reggae show, gleefully defending himself to startled regulars who were emailing and texting to tell him to mellow out. With disarming grace, Lace schooled everybody, explaining that his style was actually in sync with the Jamaican turntable DJ clashes from the 1950s and early 1960s that created reggae and dub in the first place. And I’d add: his DJ persona falls in the tradition of DJs such as Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc, who took the mic in the Bronx to invent hip-hop in the 1970s.

Asked about his style—unorthodox for KEXP—Cadence said: “I have to find the balance of doing my thing and respecting some of the guidelines that were in place long before my arrival. I’m never told how to host my show. But I do have reviews where things are pointed out that I should be aware of because I talk like 100 times more than other shows.” His mysterious, reticent sidekick Moh, who always seems to join the chaotic show late—and from another part of the country (D.C.) or the world (Côte d’Ivoire)—assists Lace with the track info that streams live. “[He] allows me to mix live, and focus on the music while he handles the playlist and comms,” Lace says, when asked who the heck Moh is. “He is one of my best friends and first people I met in the scene here.”

Cadence landed the show after Gabriel Teodros, a veteran Seattle hip-hop artist who recently (2020) started doing a morning show on KEXP, caught Lace’s all-African DJ set at a Hollis gig; Hollis Wong-Wear is a local pop success in her own right who has done four electronic R&B LPs with Lace over the years in their trio the Flavr Blue. According to Lace, his Afrobeats set “sparked a conversation with Gabe,” and Teodros “suggested I submit a demo to KEXP because he felt changes were needed and coming in programming.”

Continue reading “2021 in Review: New KEXP DJ Signals Emergent Seattle”

Maybe Metropolis: Sorry Gen Xers, Capitol Hill is Cooler Than It Used To Be. And Less White.

Capitol Hill's Neumo's on a Wednesday night in October.
Lines around the block are political wins; Capitol Hill’s Neumos on a Wednesday night in October.

by Josh Feit

With additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett

Many of my Gen X peers like to wax about Capitol Hill circa the late ’90s, as they long for the golden years when the central Seattle neighborhood was so much cooler. When I think about Capitol Hill, I like to cast my mind back decades as well. But not to pine for the past. Rather, to remember the aspirational crystal ball renderings of city visionary Liz Dunn, who laid out a plan in the early 2000s to revitalize the neighborhood. Honestly, Capitol Hill was a predictable white hipster zone at the time. Nowadays, I like marveling at how Dunn’s vision for an energized, vital city neighborhood came true.

Sorry to burst your nostalgic bubble fellow Gen Xers, but Capitol Hill is far cooler today than it was in the past. I’ve lived on Capitol Hill for 20-plus years, and it’s never been a more exciting place to be than it is right now.

I was the news editor at The Stranger 20 years ago and, jealous that my colleagues on the arts side of the paper had established the Genius Awards for arts and culture trailblazers, the news team managed (in 2007) to give out “Political Genius” awards. The news staff picked developer Liz Dunn as “one to watch” for her “pro-development and pro-density” plan to “bring more life to the street” on Capitol Hill.

In a lovely case of “how it’s going,” fast forward 14 years to Dunn’s premier project, Chophouse Row, which is located at the epicenter of Capitol Hill between Pike and Union on 11th Ave. With its winding indoor-outdoor arcade, its restaurants, housing, shops, landscaped punch-throughs, and a lively public fire-pit courtyard where local jazz legend Evan Flory-Barnes regularly takes the stage, Chophouse Row has become Exhibit A for the new, action-packed Capitol Hill. Just across the street from Dunn’s bourgeois garden of delights? A plebian pizza joint that serves stiff drinks. And right around the corner from that: another grungy pizza joint, a lesbian dive bar, a coffee shop that’s been around since 1995, a punk rock burrito joint, a perfectly cheesy Mexican place, a late-nite diner, and a loud tavern.

In fact, Capitol Hill itself is Exhibit A in my counter-narrative to the notion that Seattle is dying. Capitol Hill has always been billed as a one of Seattle’s destination neighborhoods, and—as someone who regularly frequents the jumping Pike/Pine Corridor—I can tell you, anecdotally, it has never been more popular and crowded. The crowd has never been more diverse either.

Driven by an increase in people identifying as Asian and mixed-race, Capitol Hill’s white population dropped nearly 10% as a percentage of the neighborhood overall.

Standing in line for a veggie dog from one of the many street vendors lining Capitol Hill’s drag, watching a weirdo electronic show at Vermillion Gallery, or grabbing a drink at your pick of taverns and dives on the weekend, it’s impossible not to notice the sea change that’s taken place on Capitol Hill in recent years. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, you were likely to see sparser foot traffic and mostly white faces, these days the crowds appear much more diverse.

Certainly, Friday and Saturday nights mean “bridge and tunnel” crowds, which doesn’t say anything about Capitol Hill’s internal demographics, but it does indicate that BIPOC people see the neighborhood as a much friendlier destination these days. Additionally, I tested my anecdotal experience and looked at the American Community Survey stats from the four census tracts that make up Capitol Hill—from 15th Ave. E to I-5, and from Madison St. to Roy St.—and, yup, the neighborhood is less white than it used to be, according to ACS data comparing 2010 and 2019.

The African American population grew in raw numbers, but with such small numbers to begin with in the area (around 6 percent of the population in 2010), the increase in the Black population could not keep pace with Capitol Hill’s stunning 36 percent population growth overall and declined to about 5 percent of the population in 2019. Nonetheless, driven by an increase in people identifying as Asian and mixed-race, the white population declined from around 78 percent to 71 percent of the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, there’s been no real change in the average age over the past decade: 31.6 now compared to 31.8 a decade ago, according to the ACS data. In short, Capitol Hill is still youth-centric.

Of course, there’s no denying that Capitol Hill has become a more expensive place to live. The average income has climbed from $32,765 in 2010 to $51,041 in 2019 (all in 2019 dollars) and average rent for a one-bedroom has gone from about $1,000 to as much as $2,400—or around $1,700 for a smaller one-bedroom. Capitol Hill is not in the top ten most expensive neighborhoods, but certainly, like every neighborhood in the city, it needs more publicly funded, affordable housing.

As for the ubiquitous related criticism that “artists” can no longer afford to live on Capitol Hill, I say this: With the bevy of venues and spaces, there are more opportunities for artists to actually work in the neighborhood now. According to the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s cultural space inventory, there are 50 cultural spaces on Capitol Hill, including music venues, art galleries, performance spaces, and dance clubs—not to mention a potpourri of dining options, versus, what, chains like Taco Bell and Jack in the Box in the ’90s? And, oh, there was Café Septieme for stepping out!

Only Pioneer Square, with its concentration of art galleries, and the University District, amped by UW arts programming, comes even close to supporting as many arts and culture hives. The city didn’t catalog cultural spaces 10 or 20 years ago, but I can tell you from experience, there weren’t as many venues to see artists perform “back in the day.”

You know what else Capitol Hill has today that it didn’t in its supposed heyday? A light rail station—a busy one too. The Capitol Hill station is the third most crowded stop in Sound Transit’s system, with nearly 8,500 daily pre-pandemic weekday riders. That 2019 number represents a 12 percent jump from just two years earlier, indicating the increasing momentum Capitol Hill’s got right now. And soon, as the pandemic recedes, it will be even more crowded as college students discover the new light rail route between the U District and Capitol Hill, just a seven-minute ride.

The successful Capitol Hill station may help explain Capitol Hill’s “walker’s paradise” Walkscore designation and also the neighborhood’s increase in non-single-occupant-vehicle commuting. The share of commuters who drove to work alone declined from 35 to 27 percent, according to the ACS. Indeed, with no more parking minimums required for development on Capitol Hill, biking and walking to work also increased, helping make the neighborhood far more green and sustainable than it used to be.


Protected bike lanes now criss-cross Pike/Pine and Broadway. There's a farmer's market. And there's an activated park—Cal Anderson—for skateboarding, basketball, soccer, gleeful dog owners, or just reading a book on one of the benches by the reservoir.

None of this existed 10 or 20 years ago. And, don't worry, you can still slip into the nondescript door on 11th and climb the stairs to see a play at Capitol Hill's Annex Theater—the longest-running fringe theater in town.

Capitol Hill is certainly not the gay enclave it was in the post-Bowers v. Hardwick, pre-Obergefell v. Hodges era of the mid-1980s and 1990s. But with Gay City and Lifelong maintaining prominent footprints in the Pike/Pine Corridor, including Gay City's library, plus hangouts such as the Wild Rose, Queer Bar, the Madison Pub, and Pony among the bounty of gay bars in the neighborhood, queer-centric establishments and services are alive and well on Capitol Hill. In fact, GenPride, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ seniors, just broke ground at Broadway between Pike and Pine on its 1,800-unit affordable housing development, Pride Place, with a 4,400-square-foot community and health services center. It opens in 2023—just in time for Gen Xers to be eligible! Continue reading "Maybe Metropolis: Sorry Gen Xers, Capitol Hill is Cooler Than It Used To Be. And Less White."

Maybe Metropolis: Flatten the City

By Josh Feit 

With additional reporting by Maryam Noor

“There’s something I want you to try,” my friend said after we finished our burritos and stepped onto Pike St. to grab our bikes for the uphill ride home.

My pal, who used to write a bike blog in San Francisco and work at a bike shop there too, unlocked his Orbea Katu, a boutique Spanish brand, and nudged it toward me. “Let’s trade,” he said slyly—like we were 14, and he was offering me my first hit of pot. He took my banged-up 2009 Marin Kentfield, and I got on his $2,700 e-bike.

Minutes later, it seemed I actually had taken that imaginary puff of pot. I was giggling with glee as I coasted through Capitol Hill, cruising along at 18 miles an hour with the electric-assist motor doing just the right amount of work.

I was hooked. Less than a month later, I bought an e-bike. Not a fancy one like my friend’s—I’m not a bike dude like he is. I bought a basic model that replicated my pal’s ride well enough for an aging Gen-Xer like me who simply relies on bikes for commuting and meeting friends. It’s not, god forbid, for those nutso bike trips people seem to take all over the Pacific Northwest. I bought the bike from Rad Power Bikes, a budget-friendly Ballard-based all e-bike company, where prices average about $1,500, but go as low as $1,000.

Rad Bikes, with its friendly superstore in Ballard, may be on the cusp of bringing e-biking to the masses; described as “the largest e-bike in the US,” they already have 1,000 commercial customers, including Domino’s Pizza, and claim 200,000 Rad bikers worldwide.

Geared up from a $150 million investment in February, and planning to double its 325-person staff this year, Rad Bikes’ sales spiked nearly 300 percent year-over-year as of April 2020, according to a report from Geekwire.

Local bike shops that sell a mix of e-bikes and pedal bikes are seeing the e-bike spike too. Thomas Swann, a technician at Greenlake’s Gregg’s Cycle, a nearly century-old Seattle shop, said, “There definitely is a boom. [E-bike sales] are way up.” Swann estimates that just five years ago, Gregg’s sold about one e-bike for every 20 pedal bikes; now, he said, that ratio is more like one to five.

“More people biking, whether with electric motors or not, means more people who might be noticing how all the bike lanes seem to end whenever you get to a busy street.” —Seattle Bike Blog Editor Tom Fucoloro

Swann attributes the jump in sales to new technology, namely improvements to lithium-ion batteries.  “We’ve got batteries pretty much figured out to the point that is financially available to people. Batteries are only going to get better. It’s gonna skyrocket,” he said.

The drop in prices over the last decade has put a number of more-affordable e-bikes on the market. Recent COVID-era market factors stalled the price decline earlier this year, but companies like Rad are nudging the price-point trajectory down again.

Some Seattle bike snobs might look at Rad Bikes the same way coffee snobs viewed Starbucks in the early ‘90s—like it’s besmirching a secret handshake culture. But thankfully, not all longtime bike enthusiasts scoff at the booming user-friendly e-bike trend. In fact, it was my bike buddy who eagerly steered me to Rad Power bikes because he shares my pro-city, YIMBY philosophy that human-scale cities are better for the environment and the economy. And he realizes: City Hall is more likely to get serious about building that model city when biking is a central component of life here.

Noting how giddy I was after zooming up Capitol Hill that first night trying an e-bike, my non-bike-snob-bike-snob-friend said, “Yeah, it’s amazing. They flatten the city.”

That’s the perfect way to think about electric bikes—and not just because they magically negate the hills that intrude on so many Seattle rides (including every conceivable route to my Capitol Hill apartment). They help equalize transportation, flattening out the inequities that often complicate people’s access to work, childcare, groceries, and other daily to-dos. Much sturdier and heavier than traditional bikes, e-bikes don’t flinch at additional passengers and grocery bags. “When someone says, ‘Oh, you know, cycling is great for people who don’t have children,’” Davey Oil, owner of G & O Family Cyclery in Greenwood, quipped, “I’m just like, ‘Hold my juice box, I have three kids on this bike.’”

The League of American Bicyclists ranks “Washington state, particularly the Seattle area”  No. 1  for the E-bike market.

It’s no wonder. There’s a range of options, including:

Homegrown, single-brand shops such as  Hilltopper Electric Bike Company (which also does conversions) and Rad Power Bikes.

Local retailers that simply carry different brands of E-bikes such as G & O Family Cyclery, Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest, Seattle Electric Bike, and Seattle E-Bike.

National & International single-brand outlets such as EVELO and Pedego, and VanMoof

Custom shops that’ll convert your current bike to an E-Bike such as Bike Swift.

While $1,500 for a bike still might seem Team Bourgeois as opposed to Team Budweiser, “it’s also a lot less expensive than a car,” said Anna Zivarts, local bike advocate and Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. “And,” she added, “it is my car.”

Zivarts, who recently swapped her traditional cargo bike for the motorized version, said her new e-bike is perfect for her and her kid. “The main reason I like it compared to a non-e-bike is that it allows me and the kid to take routes that have less car traffic, even if they’re really hilly,” she said. “There’s no flat routes from South Seattle to downtown that aren’t MLK Blvd., Beacon Ave., Rainier Ave., or Lake Washington Boulevard, all of which have pretty fast cars.” Zivarts said she avoids those intimidating streets now by biking right up the hilly Beacon Hill greenway or through Mt. Baker. “When I was tired before the e-bike,” she said,  “I’d often risk our safety by riding one of the flatter, busier streets. Now I don’t have to make that tradeoff.”

When G & O Family Cyclery opened its doors eight years ago with a consumer-friendly focus on catering to families, it mostly sold traditional cargo bikes and kids’ bikes. Electric assist bikes made up only about 10% of their sales. “Now,” G & O owner Oil said, “it’s become 100% of the bikes we sell.”

Meanwhile, Seattle’s bike share system, those red e-bikes you see everywhere, is up by 50,000 daily rides, a near 20% increase, compared to this time last year.

It’s worth noting: E-bikes outsold electric cars 2-to-1 in the U.S. in 2020. Despite the e-bike “throttle” option, which you can use to take a break from pedaling up a particularly rough hill, they’re still great for your health, and as opposed to electric cars, e-bikes are actually green because they don’t require highways and suburban-style infrastructure.

And p.s. to the macho road warrior crowd who say riding an e-bike is “cheating”: E-bikers like me are likely to get more exercise than they do on analog bikes. The fact that biking across town is no longer so daunting means I’m going to bike a lot more.

Longtime local bike advocate Tom Fucoloro, who has been writing Seattle Bike Blog since 2010, thinks the popularity of e-bikes is good news politically.

“It’s more people,” Fucoloro said about the current spike in e-bikes. “And more people biking, whether with electric motors or not, means more people who might be noticing how all the bike lanes seem to end whenever you get to a busy street. More people asking ‘Well, that neighborhood has bikes lanes, why doesn’t this one?’ When there’s more people asking those questions, within a couple days, they are knocking on the doors of City Hall.”

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Flatten the City”

Maybe Metropolis: Time Share

Instead of letting new spaces languish during “off hours,” let’s time share the public right-of-way throughout the day.

by Josh Feit

All summer, I’ve been setting up my computer and working afternoons at a picnic table under one of those outdoor dining canopies—one of the approximately 230 that have sprung up during the pandemic. My impromptu afternoon office is at E. Harrison St. on Capitol Hill next to Rione XIII, an Italian spot that seats diners outside under the plywood and plastic roofing all evening. When I settle in there, the restaurant is closed. Typically, I’m the only one using the space at that time of day. I did walk by on Tuesday night last week—the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday nights—and notice that a singer-songwriter with a PA, microphone, and guitar had commandeered the place for a performance; a small audience had gathered.

Turning city right-of-way into curbside seating instead of parking spots is one of the ways we’ve reconfigured city space during the pandemic—and not just for sanctioned dining it seems, but also for DIY uses such as music performances and potential co-working spots.

This amorphous moment has created an opportunity for the city to harness a relatively untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times—like applying the concept of “adult swim” to city spaces— could remake Seattle, particularly if we apply the time-share concept with sustainability and social justice in mind. I’m definitely not talking about Ping-Pong in the Park.

We saw some examples of businesses using time creatively during the pandemic—senior-only shopping hours at grocery stores, for example. But pre-pandemic, with only a handful of exceptions, the city has never truly (or formally) explored the tactic of reserving the same space for different uses at different times. Closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on summer Sundays—and opening it for people to walk, bike, and roll—is perhaps the most notable, and coolest, example, along with (briefly) making a few blocks of Capitol Hill’s nightlife district pedestrian-only on weekend evenings, and turning Ballard Ave. over to a farmers’ market on Sundays.

We have an opportunity to harness an untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times could remake the city for the better.

Generally speaking, Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development Interim Director Rico Quirindongo is excited about the way the pandemic has upended traditionally designated uses.

Prior to COVID-19, he said, “the public realm was owned by single-occupancy vehicles,” and “parking was king. What has happened in a time of COVID is a transformation of that, where [the public realm] was assessed differently. The necessity was around public health. We couldn’t gather indoors. So there was a land grab, if you will, where we the people took it back. We took it back for gathering, we took it back for protest, we took it back for celebrating, we took it back for retail. Are all those things that we want to keep? Hell to the yes.”

As the former chair of the Pike Place Market PDA Council, Quirindongo says he sees the potential for divvying uses up by time. The idea is already afoot organically in the Market, he says. “With Pike Place Market, the lines have been blurred between around to whom does the space belong, and when does it belong to whom. Sometimes it is a marketplace, sometimes it is closed. Sometimes people are walking down the middle the streets, sometimes it is a loading zone. Sometimes it is single-occupancy vehicles. And when and how that happens, is just left up to the organic nature of people and time.” He notes, though, whenever the PDA broached the idea of formally closing the the block to cars in favor of pedestrians, the businesses told them no. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Time Share”

What’s a YIMBY To Do? Part 2

Mayoral Candidate Lorena González Photo credit: Steve Dipaola

by Josh Feit

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I wrote about González in March, explaining why I chose to highlight Farrell and Houston: “That’s not to say police accountability superstar González hasn’t voted for YIMBY legislation, but it’s far from the focus of her agenda.” However, when Barnett pressed the candidates to articulate their pro-city agenda during last week’s forum, González flew the urbanist flag more unapologetically and forcefully than anyone else in the crowded field. It’s also worth noting that González has already won two citywide races—she was re-elected in 2017—and has a history of supporting progressive legislation at City Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two important footnotes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh@PubliCola.com

Maybe Metropolis: Launching Seattle’s New “Neighborhood Character”

District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss’ legislation is an acknowledgment that Seattle’s neighborhood character is changing.

by Josh Feit

City Council member Dan Strauss passed legislation this week that extends the city’s sidewalk and curbside permitting program for Seattle businesses for another year. Standing next to one of the semi-permanent “pergolas” that now line Ballard Avenue, Strauss said, “we want them here forever.” Mike Stewart, head of the Ballard Alliance, noted the “great symbiotic relationship between restaurants, retailers, and the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market. By supporting any one of those,” Stewart said, customers help support the neighborhood’s whole urban core.

It’s a good start. In fact, I inaugurated the “Maybe Metropolis” column during the tumult of the pandemic last Fall by seizing on the street seating program as a promising sign that the COVID-19 crisis was unlocking Seattle’s larger urbanist sensibility.

But…

Strauss’ legislation doesn’t fully capitalize on this pivotal moment. Public momentum is currently pushing Seattle in an urban direction. In just one year, the city has now issued 233 outdoor restaurant permits, compared to about 384 outdoor dining permits issued over the previous 12 years combined.

Obviously, part of that increase is related to that fact that the permits were free this year; ordinarily there’s a square footage charge and a $232 up-front free. Nonetheless, this year’s permits represent an increase of more than 700 percent over the previous years’ average—a tremendous spike.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that Seattle’s “neighborhood character” has a different personality type than we thought. Long a coded excuse against everything from more mother-in-law apartments, to triplexes, to nighttime lights in parks, it turns out Seattle’s “neighborhood character” is far more malleable and exciting than Seattle’s reactionary reflex suggests.

If we miss this opportunity to transform Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods on a grander scale than simply allowing outdoor seating while failing to make our local communities places that actually support our lives—as opposed to supporting Stepford lives—we will have squandered 2021’s urban revelation.

Certainly, some of the pent-up energy is specific to the pandemic, but given that trends like working from home were already in play prior to 2020—teleworking in Seattle increased 113 percent between 2010 and 2019—it seems the pandemic has actually revealed, rather than invented, neighborhood needs and preferences.

For example, the jump in working from home was not a function of Seattle’s simultaneous population boom, as it dramatically outpaced other modes like driving (which actually decreased) and walking. The need for more neighborhood options to do business, shop, and go out nearby isn’t going away if people continue to work in greater numbers at home.

The pandemic has actually revealed, rather than invented, neighborhood needs and preferences..

The change in mood that has coincided with the need for more activated neighborhoods has certainly nudged the city to already relax some rigid rules this past year. In addition to making it easier for businesses to set up sidewalk and street dining, the council has also eased restrictions on small home businesses and made some streets pedestrian and bike only zones.

It’s a good look. But rather than taking a piecemeal approach, council members need to think comprehensively about making all our city neighborhoods more neighbor-friendly. This means recalibrating zoning (more density and uses), restriping existing pavement (more bus and bike lanes), and retaking the public right of way (with bioswales, bike racks, P-Patches, microparks, and closing streets to cars.)

In March, I published a list of seven neighborhood Must Dos for meeting this moment, which mostly focused on increasing housing density in non-downtown neighborhoods (end single family zoning, please!) and increasing the density of indie businesses as well. Along those lines, I wrote: “With hundreds of businesses getting street (or sidewalk) seating permits … it needs to be a permanent option.” Since the council seems to be responding to the zeitgeist, I’d like to take advantage of the momentum and offer some more necessary fixes for Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Because District 6 Councilmember Strauss is showing such leadership on this issue, I’m proposing Ballard, which makes up the bulk of District 6, as the first neighborhood to implement the following recommendations for acknowledging and activating our new neighborhood character.

We can call it the Ballard Action District, or BAD.

Ballard Ave.

First, while allowing multifamily housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones must be central to any plan to reinvent our neighborhoods, let’s start by upzoning the real estate that’s adjacent to our neighborhood parks and schools, creating Parks Oriented Development (POD) and Schools Oriented Development (SOD).

Eighty-nine percent of the city’s parks and open spaces are in single family zones. Similarly, the vast majority of the city’s top-performing elementary schools are in single-family areas. Let’s give more people access. In order to redistribute these assets, let’s start undoing those single-family enclaves, which make up 65 percent of the city’s developable land, by prioritizing real estate around parks and schools for multi-family and affordable housing.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Launching Seattle’s New “Neighborhood Character””

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

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh@PubliCola.com

The Urbanist Case Against the Homelessness Charter Amendment

by Josh Feit

Last week, I channeled the progressive opposition to what I’m calling the sweeps and shelter initiative—a proposed charter amendment that couples spending on homelessness with a trigger for sweeps.

Short version: Combining these divergent approaches in one initiative is an attempt by pro-sweeps liberals to rationalize a law-and-order crackdown on homeless people by co-opting “compassion.” The amendment literally codifies the “Of course we’re compassionate, but…” mantra into the city charter. The tell: There’s no funding for the housing part of the initiative.

This week, I’ll channel the urbanist argument against the charter amendment, which begins, actually, with the one pro-urbanist element of the proposal: It says “to accelerate the production of emergency and permanent housing” the city “shall, to the full extent permitted by state law, waive land use code and regulation requirements as necessary to urgently site [emergency and permanent housing]…”

It goes on to say the city must waive permitting fees, put projects first in line to expedite permitting, and refund city-imposed project costs. Hear, hear!

This nod to YIMBYism correctly identifies that Seattle’s land use and zoning codes squash housing development.

Unfortunately, this promising language ends up highlighting the limited scope of the charter amendment. The rules are only waived for “housing serving homeless individuals.”

The urbanist approach to homelessness understands that the problem is larger than its symptoms—homelessness—by identifying the cause of homelessness: A dearth of affordable housing.

But the charter amendment misses this larger, systematic problem and then exacerbates it by opting for liberal tinkering. The amendment calls for 12 percent of the city’s general fund (about $190 million) to go to shelter and services through a new human services fund, or about one percent higher than what the city will spend this year. Slightly recalibrating the city budget this way to dedicate money to homelessness, creating the illusion of action, will unwittingly promote this type of spending as the solution, and take political pressure off the city to do what actually needs to be done: Change the city’s zoning rules, so we can meet housing demand with housing supply. For example, 75 percent of the city’s residential land is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. If you haven’t heard, prohibiting multifamily housing is class war from above.

Spending more dollars on the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes of the actual problem: Housing scarcity.

Spending more dollars to address the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes off the actual problem: Housing scarcity. As I said, Seattle currently spends about $190 million on programs for people experiencing homelessness, including shelter. While I’m all for increasing those dollars to help people in crisis, I don’t harbor any illusions that it’s the way to end the crisis.

The only way to do that is to understand that the real crisis is the affordable housing crisis and the real solution is to build more affordable housing stock. All told, through the Housing Levy, the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, incentive zoning, the Multi-Family Housing Tax Exemption program, and other funds, Seattle spent around $115 million on affordable housing in 2020.

It’s clearly not enough. The money translated into about 1,300 affordable units, or about 11,000 units shy of what we need to be creating annually. In order to reset our housing economy so more people can actually afford to live here, we need a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force. Our current spending doesn’t come close.

Talking in regional numbers brings up another urbanist critique of the charter amendment proposal: An isolated Seattle response to homelessness will be about as successful as a climate action policy that caps carbon emissions in New York, but not in Texas. Urbanism is about community: creating sustainable metro regions that are connected by sympatico transit, land use, environmental, and housing policy. It’s why we created the King County Regional Homelessness Authority last year, and recently hired a CEO. Seattle shouldn’t undermine this approach, particularly not with a charter amendment that awkwardly justifies a crackdown policy.

Our homelessness policy needs to be about building more affordable housing. An affordable housing approach will check poverty and the downward spiral into homelessness. The cruelty of the sweeps and shelter initiative is that it blames homeless people for the homelessness crisis. It’s like addressing police murders of African Americans by telling African Americans to stop getting pulled over.

Josh@PubliCola.com