Category: zoning

The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 1 Incumbent Lisa Herbold

Image via Lisa Herbold campaign

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: District 1 City Council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and South Park.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Because so many council members are leaving, if you’re reelected, you’ll be one of the senior members of the city council. What are some of your top priorities for a second term?

Lisa Herbold (LH): I’m interested in working with council member [Teresa] Mosqueda on the work that she plans to do on the comprehensive plan—revisiting single-family neighborhood zoning, and looking at how we can do that in a way that brings people together and doesn’t become another big wedge issue for the city. And I think it’s important to figure out a way to have those conversations that doesn’t put people into camps—either NIMBYs or urbanists. So I want to play a role in that, because I think there’s a right way of having those conversations.

For instance, [Mandatory Housing Affordability], as it relates to single-family zoning, is focused on single-family zoning only within urban villages. The planning commission has made a set of recommendations for single-family zoning outside of urban villages, and I know that council member Mosqueda is very interested in the issue. I’m really concerned that the conversation won’t be held in a way that brings people together, because it hasn’t in the past. And then there’s the whole question of neighborhood planning around our urban village strategy. She has, for instance, asked for a [racial equity toolkit] on the urban village strategies. I imagine there’s going to be some recommendations that come out of that.

I think that we should have neighborhood-based input. I’m supportive of the direction that [the Department of Neighborhoods] has moved in [toward including communities that have been traditionally excluded from neighborhood planning], but not as a replacement for some sort of geographic-based engagement. In the efforts to involve people in these conversations that haven’t historically been at the table, I think that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

I think for instance, when you’re talking about neighborhood matching funds or the neighborhood street fund, these participatory budgeting-type programs that seek to empower community to make decisions about improvements in their communities, I’m just concerned that, in our efforts to model our values of equity, we’ve alienated people who have something to contribute to our city, who care deeply about their communities.

“I’m supportive of the direction that [the Department of Neighborhoods] has moved in, but not as a replacement for some sort of geographic-based engagement. In the efforts to involve people in these conversations that haven’t historically been at the table, I think that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”

ECB: The mayor’s budget continues the expansion of the Navigation Team [which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces, often with no notice or offers of services to their displaced residents.] Are you going to be pushing for changes to the team’s current model or way of doing things?

LH: I’ve been working on implementing the recommendations of the city auditor, particularly on hygiene and garbage pickup. So for instance, I helped pilot the purple bag program [which provides purple trash bags and trash pickup to some encampments], but [Seattle Public Utilities] only visits 12 sites at any given time. I believe that our need to prioritize sites for removal might be mitigated if we make it possible for people that are living unsheltered to pick up their own garbage. I know Seattle Public Utilities feels good about the work that they’re doing. And this program has been replicated in Austin.

One of the things that the city auditor is doing is mapping all of the removed encampments over the last year, to find out where people return. Maybe the locations where people return aren’t locations that are inherently dangerous. Maybe there’s some logic for why people return there. Maybe for those locations, rather than chasing them away from them, we should make it possible for people to clean them.

I’m going to be working with the campaign that Real Change is doing in March, called Everybody Poops. It comes out of the recommendations of the city auditor that we ought to have a mobile pit stop like other cities do. It’s a way of providing people with something that they need and also providing opportunities for engaging in case management services. There’s also a slate of recommendations related to hygiene that the city auditor made. We have some of our community centers that have showers that have made them available to all members of the public, whether or not you’re signed up for programs, and so one of the recommendations is to open all of them. Another recommendation is to staff a couple of the standalone bathrooms in parks. And then of course there’s making sure that our permanent Urban Rest Stops are able to find spaces.

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ECB: The mayor has proposed legislation that would crack down on people renting run-down RVs to people who would otherwise be unsheltered. What do you think of the legislation as proposed? [Editor’s note: After our conversation, the council dramatically revised the legislation to add tenant relocation funding and to limit the scope of the proposal; further amendments are expected when the council takes the proposal up again after budget deliberations, which end in November]

LH: We have a way to pay tenants of rental housing that the city is shutting down under emergency order because there are life safety issues that are so severe that somebody can’t continue to live there. The city advances the relocation assistance and then they work on pursuing the landlord later. But they pay first.

So I actually see this very similar to that, depending on how it’s administered. People could say about that rental housing, ‘Well, it’s better than living unsheltered.’ Okay, but nevertheless, it is the city’s policy to not let rental housing providers exploit tenants by collecting rent and forcing them to live in places that they have refused to fix and that have significant life safety violations. That is the city’s policy. So I see this as in many ways being very consistent with that. But the thing I’m worried about is whether or not the city is going to be looking for these instances as a way to accomplish a different objective [getting RVs off the street].

Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 1 Incumbent Lisa Herbold”

Showbox Building Owner Terminates Lease Amid Preservation Discussions

Earlier tonight, the city council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee voted to extend a temporary expansion of the Pike Place Market to include the Showbox, with new council member Abel Pacheco abstaining. Tomorrow afternoon, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board will hold a hearing on a proposal to designate the building—which was deemed inappropriate for landmarking back in 2007—as a historic landmark.

Perhaps more consequential for the future of the Showbox, however, is the fact—being reported for the first time here—that the owner of the Showbox building, Roger Forbes, has terminated the Showbox’s lease.  In a letter written in April and obtained exclusively by The C Is for Crank earlier today, Forbes’ representative, Eric Forbes, told the Showbox’s owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group, that he is “writing to advise you in advance that your lease of the Showbox at 1426 1st Ave. in Seattle will not be extended or renewed at the expiration of its term.”

AEG’s lease on the Showbox expires in January 2024, and includes a clause that allows the owners to end the lease early if they decide to develop the property. That was the plan until council member Kshama Sawant got wind of a proposal to build a 44-story apartment building on the property last year and launched an effort to “stop corporate developers” by “saving the Showbox.” In the months since, “Save the Showbox” has turned into a polarizing rallying cry, pitting a mostly white, middle-aged crowd of music fans and historic preservationists against urbanists who want more housing in dense neighborhoods (and downtown is the city’s densest). Those same urbanists point out that the council voted just two years ago to upzone the Showbox building for precisely the kind of development Forbes proposed, and is now trying to walk back that decision.

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In addition to the various efforts to landmark or otherwise designate the building as historic, the owners are also locked in a lawsuit against the city, which is scheduled for trial later this year. Late last month, the city and the building’s owners filed motions for summary judgment—the city seeking dismissal of the case, and the owners seeking to void the Market expansion ordinance. King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi will hear oral arguments from both sides on Friday, June 21.

Also last month, the nonprofit group Historic Seattle expressed their interest in buying the building from the current owners, asking them to put their lawsuit on hold for a year while the group cobbled together funding from philanthropists. In exchange, Historic Seattle offered to call off its efforts to landmark the Showbox. It appears that those conversations, too, are deadlocked.

If Forbes holds on to the property, the Showbox will have to close down or move by the beginning of 2024 at the latest. Two events could change that timeline. In the first scenario, the landmark effort and the effort to permanently expand Pike Place Market and subject the Showbox building to the Market’s restrictions on development could fail and Forbes could sell to a developer as originally planned, shortening the timeline. In the second, one or both of the preservation efforts could succeed and Forbes could decide to sell the property, either to Historic Seattle or another group that has not yet emerged. Both those scenarios involve a lot of hypotheticals. Forbes has said he’s open to a serious offer, but he has also made it clear what kind of offer he considers “serious”—something right around $40 million, the amount his ownership group was set to earn from the sale to Onni, the Vancouver developer that had planned to buy the building, and the amount for which he originally sued the city.

Another fact worth considering is that Forbes appears to be fired up at the idea that AEG is working against the owners of the Showbox building by working behind the scenes to support the “Save the Showbox” effort. “From discovery in the litigation to which the City is a party, it has come to light that the City in part became an advocate for the business interests of AEG, a major corporate entity,” the letter says. “Through various efforts, it also appears that Historic Seattle acted at the behest of AEG.” And every Showbox employee who shows up to public hearings in a Showbox shirt and talks about the need to save the Showbox is, of course, an AEG employee.

In a letter to committee chair and “Save the Showbox” advocate Lisa Herbold this past Monday,  Forbes’ attorney, John Tondini, wrote that every council member who has discussed the Showbox legislation with AEG, its employees, or Historic Seattle should recuse himself or herself from voting on the historical district extension, and that “any councilmember who has voiced support for retaining the current use of the property or met with local music group promoters, artists and the like, is not a neutral, unbiased decision maker and should step aside and not participate.”

Also today, Herbold mentioned that Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Department of Neighborhoods (which is overseeing the study of the Pike Place Market expansion, which was supposed to be complete in March) argued in public comment tonight that the city should add more properties besides the Showbox to the Market expansion—raising the specter of an earlier proposal that would have put most buildings along First Avenue from Virginia to Union Streets inside the Market. (I wrote about that proposal, which would have imposed strict controls on what kind of businesses would be allowed in buildings within the expansion boundary, whether they could be remodeled, and how and whether they could be redeveloped, last August). It’s unclear which specific properties the preservation advocates want to include in the Market.

The legislation to extend the Market expansion goes to the full council next Monday.

 

“We Have to Give Them Discipline,” and Other Things I Heard Moderating Three Council Candidate Forums

As I mentioned on Twitter last week, I wasn’t able to live tweet from three of the MASS Coalition-sponsored candidate forums (for city council districts 2, 4, and 7) because I was moderating them. However, I did make sure to record each forum so that folks who didn’t attend (and those who don’t have time to watch all three when the videos become available on Youtube) could catch some of the highlights.

This is absolutely not a definitive guide to where the 24 candidates who showed up for these three forums (out  stand on transportation and housing issues. Instead, it’s a selection of quotes that jumped out at me as I was moderating these forums, which give a flavor of where some of these candidates stand on a long list of questions that ranged from how they’ve tackled racial inequity to how they would address traffic violence, homelessness, and whether solowheels should be allowed in bike lanes (OK, that one was just District 4 candidate Frank Krueger).

The quotes I’ve chosen to highlight are ones that were unique in some way, either for their specificity, the fact that they made a candidate stand out in a group of candidates whose answers were all similar to one another’s, or because they suggested unique solutions to problems that every candidate in every race is grappling with. (In some cases, the answers that stood out did so because they were were off point or outrageous in some way, as you’ll see). The responses in these transcripts have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

For detailed information on each candidate, I suggest you visit their websites, which are all available on the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission website.

District 2 (Southeast Seattle)

“I oppose redevelopment or privatization of Jefferson Golf Course. It’s part of our fabric and we need to keep it.” – Mark Solomon, running in District 2

Ari Hoffman, in response to a question about how to house people with barriers to traditional housing, such as mental illness, disabilities, or substance use disorders:

“If you look at what happened with Licton Springs and a lot of the other low-barrier encampments,  the problem is that we weren’t treating the problems. We’re allowing them to come in, bringing their problems with them. We’re not assigning them social workers, we’re not making sure that treatment’s available. If you just just bring them into housing, you’re going to have the exact same problems that they had without housing. I know this from my own personal experience with my family: If you just give them everything, that’s enabling behavior. We need to make sure that they have the treatment they need, and that they have a support system they need.”

Tammy Morales, in response to the same question:

Image result for tammy morales seattle“For those who are chronically homeless,  providing treatment and services to those people is not giving them everything. It’s actually treating some of the issues that they have, and we need to do more of that i we’re really going to talk about transitioning folks into housing that they can stabilize in. And we do that by expanding the LEAD program, which is proven to be effective at helping people get into housing permanently. The navigation teams that we have are a waste of money. It’s unconstitutional, it’s not effective, and it wastes taxpayer dollars.”

Mark Solomon, responding to a question about protecting and expanding green spaces in the South End:

“The last thing we should be doing is removing the green space that we have in our community already. I oppose redevelopment or privatization of Jefferson Golf Course. There are a lot of trees, a lot of open space. and it’s community asset. It’s part of our fabric and we need to keep it.”

Chris Peguero, on the need for safe and accessible bike facilities:

We have a Bike Master Plan, and we need to build it. I [am concerned about] the expense of building protected lanes. I think we need them, but how do we build them? There was a dramatic number that came out about how expensive it was per mile. But if there’s a better way to do that is less expensive [we should do that]..The other concern that I have is making sure that bikes are accessible to all families. I think for the most part, communities of color oftentimes don’t think of bikes as an option. Bike cultures are often very white and male. So how do we build that access?”

District 4

“[Queen Anne and Wallingford] are what they are today because of the zoning that it existed before the mandatory downzone in 1957.” – Sasha Anderson, running in District 4

Cathy Tuttle, on strategic sidewalk construction:

Image result for cathy tuttle seattle city council“About 27 percent of Seattle streets do not have sidewalks. And the reason that we can only afford to put in about 10 blocks of sidewalks a year is that they cost so much. They cost about $300,000 per block face. That means close to half a million or sometimes $1 million per block. I think that there’s a role for home zones— streets without sidewalks where we can slow streets down, where cars are guests. I see sidewalks is having a lot of embedded carbon and a lot of stormwater impact. I don’t think we need sidewalks everywhere. We need them some places. Certainly with safe routes to school, safe routes for seniors. But  there are a lot of places where sidewalks are not the answer.”

Sasha Anderson, on the need to upzone single-family neighborhoods:

“In 1957, there was a mandatory downzone in Seattle. Before that, some of our most desirable and livable neighborhoods —Queen Anne and Wallingford, which are spoken about in the Neighborhoods for All report, were a beautiful mix of single-family houses, triplexes, duplexes, multiple houses on one lot, and it worked. Those neighborhoods are what they are today because of the zoning that it existed before the mandatory downzone in 1957. I think this is so important to bring up because it just shows that we already know this type of zoning works. It is not something that is scary. It is something that makes neighborhood livable, affordable, and provides easy access to transit, and it’s something that we should return to.”

Shaun Scott, on the need for progressive taxes at the city level:

Image result for shaun scott seattle

“I’d like to see a retooled employee head tax. I would like to see the city use a real estate speculation tax, I would like to see congestion pricing. I would like to see the city dip into its bonding capacity, because long-term fiscal solvency is not really going to be worth much where we’re headed at this rate, and I’d rather have a planet that we can live on in 40 years as opposed to a credit rating that we cannot use it because the world is literally on fire.”

Joshua Newman, on the city’s policy of moving encampments from place to place:

“Fundamentally, people are living in tent encampments because they have nowhere else to go, and chasing them around to somewhere else  is just throwing good money after bad. But it’s also not compassionate to just allow our neighbors to continue to live under the freeway and people’s porches and on the side of the road. So in the near term, we need to establish FEMA- style tent camps like we do after natural disasters. And I think we need to establish them in each of the seven [council] districts around the city. After that we can start working on more permanent solutions such as the tiny homes, additional mental support, etc.”

District 7

“When I drive, nothing infuriates me more than when there’s a biker in front of me and they’re not in the bike lane.”—Daniela Lipscomb-Eng, running in District 7

Andrew Lewis, on the need to replace the Magnolia Bridge at a cost of up to $420 million (which all nine candidates who showed up for the District 7 debate supported):

“A big part of shaping the neighborhood of Magnolia is going to be maintaining that essential connection to the rest of the city. The Magnolia Bridge serves 265 Metro buses every day, it’s the biggest mass transit connection that Magnolia has to the rest of the city. As I doorbell in Magnolia, I meet a lot of renters, and in some areas, including Magnolia, they are completely dependent on the bridge. They’re the ones who would be impacted most by removing it. And I think as we start tackling these conversations about densifying Magnolia Village, densifying at 34th and Government, it makes a lot of sense to replace the bridge.”

Michael George, same question:

“We should’ve been reserving for the Magnolia Bridge for a long time. We didn’t do it. That’s on city government, not on the people of Magnolia. So we have to replace that bridge. I think the biggest opportunity to add affordable housing in the city, definitely in our district, is Interbay. We’re going to have the light rail system running through there. We can not continue to put more traffic through 15th. We are also going to need to move cars through there.  I am going to do everything I can to replace that bridge and I’m also going to do everything. I can to connect it to density in Magnolia as well as developing Interbay the way it should be, which is with a lot of affordable housing.”

Daniela Lipscomb-Eng, in response to a question about how to make biking safer and accessible to everyone:

“When I’m in my car—because I do drive, I have four young boys under the age of five—nothing infuriates me more than when there’s a biker in front of me and they’re not in the bike lane. So I’ve went to the Cascade Bike Club and I asked them why, why do people do this? And they said to me that the street cleaners do not fit on these protected bike lanes, and so they’re full of garbage, full of glass, full of needles, and they’re dirty. So let’s work with the bike clubs and let’s work with these new bike lanes that we’re putting in to ensure that the city can clean them so that if bikers are going to use them, that they’re safe.”

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Jim Pugel, same question:

“We promised the Move Seattle levy voters that we were going to get ‘X’ amount of money to advance the bike use program, and they say now that it’s too expensive, so we have to cut some. [If we’re going to do that], then we have to take the same rate or the same amount of cuts to the Rapid Rides, to the sidewalk improvements, to the bridge improvements, to everything else, at the same percentage. It’s only fair. If we don’t, then we lose trust with our voters.”

Don Harper, on how he would deal with encampments in District 1:

“I would remove them. One thing that’s happened is that we have lost contro of our city and we had an opportunity to start to correct this years ago and we just played around and we’ve been playing around with it for since Murray was elected. What I think we have to do is we’ve got to get our city back, because just in the same way we treat our children, we have to give them discipline, the same thing has to happen with [the homeless population.]”

Dueling Motions Filed as Both Sides Prepare for Preliminary Hearing in Showbox Case Next Month

The owners of the Showbox building on First Ave. downtown filed a motion for partial summary judgment in its ongoing case against the city today, seeking to void an ordinance passed last year expanding the boundaries of Pike Place Market to include the two-story, unreinforced masonry building, which also houses a pawn shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a pub.

The motion argues that the ordinance, which halted the owners’ plans to sell the land to the Canadian apartment developer Onni,  violates the land owners’ due process and equal protection rights and constitutes an illegal spot rezone of a single property, and seeks to have the ordinance overturned immediately, whether or not the case goes to trial.

Back in 2017, as part of the pro-density Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the city council upzoned the Showbox property, along with others on First Ave, to encourage housing development downtown. The original plan for the property—a $40 million, 40-story apartment building—was exactly the kind of building the new zoning on First Avenue was meant to facilitate. When the plans became public, however, music fans—joined by council member Kshama Sawant and her supporters, who tagged Onni as a “greedy corporate developer”—rallied to “Save the Showbox” and the city council adopted legislation that prohibited the owners and Onni from moving forward with their plans.

The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building. AEG’s lease expires in 2021, and the company is under no mandate to renew.

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Also today, the city of Seattle filed its own motion asking a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the city council was within its rights to call “a brief time-out to preserve the status quo in light of news of the Showbox’s potential destruction” last August. That “time-out,” which was supposed to expire in July ,has since been extended another six months. Among other claims, the city’s motion argues that because the Pike Place Market extension doesn’t change the underlying 440-foot-high zoning (it just prohibits any changes to the existing, two-story building and the use of the building as a live-music venue  without the approval of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission), it doesn’t constitute an illegal spot rezone.

Neither the city’s nor the Showbox owners’ motion includes much that’s substantively new, but they do lay out some of the arguments that both sides are likely to raise if the case goes to trial.

One point that has not come up in previous court arguments is that if the reason people want to “Save the Showbox” is to preserve live-music venues (as opposed to, say, preserving a nostalgic set piece for people who miss how Seattle used to be in the ’90s), then they ought to be arguing to “save” the Triple Door, or Tula’s, or El Corazon—the latter two already threatened by redevelopment, and the former at risk by virtue of its prime downtown location.

For its part, the city is now arguing that the ordinance—which effectively prohibits the development of the prime downtown site as housing and preserves it as a two-story music venue in perpetuity—”is beneficial, not detrimental to the community and is consistent with comprehensive planning goals and policies.”

King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi will hear oral arguments from both sides at 10am on Friday, June 21.

 

Morning Crank: “As a Seattle Native”

If we allow backyard cottages, it could open the door to neighborhood character-destroying duplexes like this

1. The city’s hearing examiner heard final arguments late last month in the latest effort by Queen Anne activist Marty Kaplan to prevent homeowners from building mother-in-law units and backyard cottages (accessory dwelling units, or ADUs) on their property. (Kaplan has been filing legal challenges “as a Seattle native” since 2016, arguing that allowing two ADUs—e.g., a backyard cottage plus a basement apartment—will destroy the character of Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods and lead to rampant speculation by developers). The preferred alternative (there’s no actual legislation yet, since the proposal has been locked up in litigation) would also remove the existing parking mandate; establish restrictions on the size of new single-family houses in an effort to thwart McMansion-style developments; and lift the current owner-occupancy requirement in favor of a new rule requiring that a homeowner who has one ADU and wants to build a second must own the property for at least a year before beginning to build.

If the hearing examiner rules that the environmental review of the ADU proposal, sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, was adequate, the council can move forward with actual legislation as early as next month. Their goal is to finalize and vote on the legislation no later than August.

But hold up. Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly hopes to negotiate with the council to get some amendments to the legislation, starting with the owner-occupancy requirement. ADU opponents, including Kaplan, have argued that allowing up to two secondary units on a lot will open single-family neighborhoods up to “speculative development,” unless the city mandates that any homeowner who wants to build an ADU has to live on that property in perpetuity. The specter of developers descending greedily upon single-family property for the privilege of building a secondary unit (and then, after owning the property for a full year after that, building a third) might strike anyone familiar with Seattle’s existing real-estate market as absurd, but to spell it out: There’s no evidence of a speculative boom in backyard apartments in other cities, like Portland and Vancouver, where they’re easier to build; the scenario in which developers build backyard apartments, then sit on those properties for the year before building another unit, makes little financial sense; and fans of missing-middle housing for middle-class people who can no longer afford to buy anything in Seattle might consider a little development a good thing. Nonetheless, Durkan reportedly wants to put owner-occupancy requirements back on the table, and to reopen the discussion about parking requirements. Council sources say the parking idea in particular is probably a nonstarter.

The hearing examiner is expected to make his ruling by mid-May.

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2. The city’s Human Services Department found itself on the defensive in late February, after Mayor Durkan claimed in her state of the city speech that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing.” As I first reported, that number was misleading at best—the city actually counted 7,400 exits from programs, a number that almost certainly overstates the number of actual people who have gotten out of homelessness because it counts every program as an exit (so that, for example, a household of two who stopped using five homelessness programs would count as five “exits.”)

At the time, HSD officials and the mayor’s office expressed frustration to reporters who asked questions about the discrepancy, insisting that they should have “known all along” that when the city said “households,” they really meant “exits from programs,” and that reporters should focus not on what the numbers specifically represent, but on the fact that they’re going up.  “No matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said. Nonetheless, several other reporters considered it newsworthy that the city did not know how many people it was actually helping, despite the city’s insistence that it was not a revelation.

Even as the city was telling reporters that they shouldn’t have been surprised that “households” does not mean “households,” internal communications between mayoral and HSD staffers, which I obtained through a records request, show that prior to the mayor’s press conference to discuss the numbers the Monday after my story ran, the city decided to remove all references to “households” in a talking-points memo bound for the mayor’s desk.

The shift was fairly abrupt. On Thursday, February 21, for example, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding wrote in an internal email that one of the department’s top speaking points was “30% More Households Exit (Maintain) to Permanent Housing.” One day later, and several hours after my initial story on the “households” vs. “exits” discrepancy, the mayor’s homelessness advisor, Tess Colby, emailed the mayor’s office and HSD staff to say that she had “revised the memo to Mayor to replace ‘HHs’ with ‘exits’ solely in the interest of precision.”

In all, 12 references to “households” were removed from the memo. For example, the top bullet point, which referred to “the 7,400-goal … for exiting households from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients” was changed to “exits from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients.” A sentence that originally read, “In 2018 431 Native American/Alaska Native households exited  homeless services programs …and 2,979 Black/African Americans households exited homeless services programs” was changed to read, “In 2018 there were 431 exits among Native Americans/Alaska Natives from homeless services programs …  and exits of Black/African Americans increased to 2,979.” And a reference to enhanced shelters “exiting nearly twice as many households” in 2018 than the previous year was changed to say, “Exits to permanent housing increased nearly two-fold.”

These changes may seem minor, but they (and their timing) are significant. The mayor’s office got called out for overstating its success in responding to homelessness. Publicly, they went on the defensive, telling reporters they were making a big deal out of nothing. Privately, though, the mayor’s office appeared to realize the confusion was warranted.

3. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites,  held a forum for District 2 council candidates Thursday night, although only four of the seven declared candidates decided to attend. (Two, Tammy Morales and Christopher Peguero, had previously stated their intent to boycott the forum). The remaining candidates were bounce-house rental company owner Ari Hoffman, Socialist Workers Party Henry Dennison, Seattle Police Department crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon, and Rainier Valley community organizer Phyllis Porter.

I live-tweeted the event, which was attended by an incongruously white audience given that D2 is the least-white district in the city. I’ve included a few key moments below, and collected all my tweets in a Twitter moment here.

Morning Crank: “We Have Zoned Our City Backwards”

“I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of …  housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history.”

After nearly five years of public hearings, open houses, legal challenges, amendments, and debate, the city council adopted the “citywide” Mandatory Housing Affordability plan on Monday by a 9-0 vote. The legislation (which does not actually apply citywide) will allow developers to build more housing in parts of the city where density is already allowed, and will allow additional housing, ranging from a second house to small apartment buildings, on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay a fee to build housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. The amount developers will pay to build will be higher in areas where the city has determined the risk of displacement is high and access to opportunities is low, and lower in areas with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes.

Public comment on Monday was dominated, as usual, by homeowners who argued that the proposed changes will “destroy” neighborhoods, rob property owners of their views, and—a perennial favorite—”ghettoize” places like Rainier Beach by forcing low-income people of color to live there.

The specter of “ghettos” was both explicit—two white speakers mentioned “ghettos” or “ghettoization” in their comments—and implicit, in comments from several white homeowners who expressed concern that their (unnamed, absent) friends and family of color would be displaced from their current neighborhoods. “I want to provide affordable housing to my children and grandchildren, who are of all colors, but I want to protect her [Seattle’s] natural beauty,” one speaker said, after inveighing against the potential loss of views from North Capitol Hill. Another speaker (also white) invoked her “many… friends and family of color [who] have been displaced from the Central District and particularly from Columbia City… to the Rainier Beach area, and now it s up for upzoning.” Where, she wondered, would these anonymous friends and family be forced to move next?

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After listening to more than an hour of such comments—including one white speaker who claimed that “upzoning is the new redlining”—the council’s women of color were eager to correct the record. Lorena González, whose own Mexican-American family would have been excluded from much of the city under both the formal racial covenants that ended in the 1940s and the unofficial redlining that replaced them, noted first that “this legislation is not even close to citywide—there are approximately 127 neighborhoods in the city, and this legislation only relates to 27 of them.” The remaining 100 neighborhoods, she said, are still “currently and strictly zoned exclusively single-family.”

She continued: “I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am, however, calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of implementing and preserving housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history and to support legislation to begin the process of dismantling… laws that are intended to exclude people who look like me from owning or living in a single-family home.”

Teresa Mosqueda added more historical context. “What we have done over the last few decades is we have zoned our city backwards,” she said, referring to the fact that as recently as the middle of the last century, multifamily housing was allowed on much of the land Seattle now preserves for exclusive single-family use. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes. That is the next conversation we need to have.”

“The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.” – Council member Rob Johnson

Today’s vote served as a bit of a swan song for council member Rob Johnson, who is widely expected to step down after the end of April to start his new job as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL. Johnson, who spent much of his single term shepherding the legislation, sounded a bit wistful as he closed out debate and called for a vote. After thanking city staffers, other council members, and his wife Katie, Johnson  noted the signs all over Seattle that oppose “build the wall” rhetoric. “Well, zoning is building a metaphorical wall around our city.” By adopting MHA, he said, “We’re starting the process of dismantling walls around our neighborhoods that have given exclusive groups sole access to the resource-rich communities around our city. … The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.”

The battle over MHA is not over, of course. SCALE, the group that spent much of the last year and a half appealing the plan in front of the city’s hearing examiner, said in a statement Monday that they were “considering appealing the inadequately considered impacts of the MHA legislation to the [state] Growth Management Hearings Board.”

2. González and Mosqueda weren’t the only ones feeling salty before Monday’s big vote. Sally Bagshaw, who is also leaving the council after this year, took the opportunity to correct an op/ed by Queen Anne homeowner and anti-density activist Marty Kaplan that ran in this Sunday’s Seattle Times. Kaplan has spent much of the last several years appealing a city proposal that would allow homeowners to add up to two accessory dwelling units (one attached, one in the backyard) to their properties. The Times ran Kaplan’s factually challenged rant alongside a pro-MHA piece by Johnson, suggesting that an elected city council member and a neighborhood activist who spends his time fighting people’s right to build garage apartments are on roughly the same level.

“Here’s what makes me grumpy,” Bagshaw began. “There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make  something so.” Kaplan’s piece, Bagshaw continued, said that the city was “railroading” neighborhoods and would “eliminate all single-family zoning,” and “nothing could be further from the truth. We are going to be retaining 94 percent of the single-family zones,” Bagshaw said.

“Here’s what makes me grumpy. There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make  something so.” – Council member Sally Bagshaw

Bagshaw didn’t get around to demolishing all of the false and absurd claims in Kaplan’s editorial one by one, so I’ll add a couple more. Kaplan claims in his piece that allowing homeowners to build backyard or mother-in-law apartments on their own property will “eliminate single-family housing regulations citywide, erasing 150 years of our history.” Single-family zoning didn’t even exist 100 years ago, much less in 1869, 15 years after the Denny Party landed at Alki. Moreover, allowing people to retrofit their basements to produce rental income or add an apartment for an aging relative does not constitute a “threat to single-family neighborhoods”; rather, it’s a way for homeowners to stay in the neighborhoods where they live, and provide new people with access to those neighborhoods—a rare commodity in a city where the typical single-family house costs more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Kaplan even  suggested that “lame-duck politicians, who know they can’t get reelected” (four of the nine council members who voted for MHA are not running again) should not be “allowed” to vote on zoning policy, as if only universally popular politicians who plan to keep their seats forever should be allowed to vote in a democracy.

Kaplan isn’t done with his own fight against density. In an email to supporters last week, he vowed to continue appealing the environmental impact statement on the accessory dwelling unit proposal. Unlike some of Monday’s public commenters, Kaplan didn’t couch his opposition to density in concern for low-income homeowners or renters at risk for displacement. Instead, he was straightforward (not for the first time) about whose interests he cared about (emphasis mine): “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners,” Kaplan wrote. “Representing every Seattle neighborhood, our team of volunteers, professional consultants, and attorneys continue to advance our appeal to prove that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is deficient and inadequate in studying and transparently revealing the true impacts to every Seattle property owner.

3. Right at the beginning of yesterday’s meeting, council members voted to move the nomination of interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson as permanent director out of Kshama Sawant’s human services committee and into the select committee on homelessness and housing, which is chaired by Bagshaw and includes the entire city council. Sawant has opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan did not institute a “transparent and inclusive process” for choosing an HSD director, and has held multiple hearings to give Johnson’s opponents opportunities to denounce him publicly. On Monday, she cited the results of a survey of HSD employees that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with management, particularly among workers in the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Sawant said the council was “stabbing [communities] in the back” with the “shameful” decision to move the appointment out of her committee. Bagshaw’s proposal passed 7-2, with Mike O’Brien joining Sawant in opposition to the move.

After Five Years, Seattle’s Scaled-Back Density Plan Moves Forward

Seattle's density plan gets a green light
Image credit: iStock

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

After almost five years, dozens of hearings, hundreds of public comments, multiple legal challenges, and enough environmental and legal analysis to fill a small apartment, the Seattle City Council is finally poised to pass the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan, which has been in the works, as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, since 2014.

The city council passed the plan out of committee on a unanimous 8-0 vote last Monday, February 25, a fact that is remarkable in itself. The council spent hours debating some final nuances of the legislation (and ultimately rolled back upzones in some areas), but all nine council members fundamentally agreed on the overall goal of building more housing, including affordable housing, throughout the city—a notable turnaround from just four and a half years ago, when Seattle Times story on a leaked draft of the plan sparked so much backlash that then-mayor Ed Murray decided to scale back the proposal.

MHA allows developers to build taller, denser residential and commercial buildings in the city’s multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages—neighborhood centers, typically located along major arterial streets, that have long been designated for future growth because of their proximity to transit, jobs, and services. It also expands some of those urban villages to allow second houses, townhomes, duplexes, and small apartment buildings on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes. This was a major point of contention during the MHA deliberations. Urbanists pointed to Seattle’s history of redlining and studies showing that exclusive single-family zoning perpetuates racial and income inequality to argue that the city should get rid of single-family zoning altogether.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay into a fund to build housing that is affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income—currently $48,150 for a family of two. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago. The legislation the council has been considering for much of the last year concerns the rest of the city.

The plan, on the whole, is modest, and its impacts won’t be visible right away. In most places, it bumps land up just one or two zoning designations—allowing two-story stacked flats, for example, in areas where only townhouses are allowed today, or raising the maximum height for apartment buildings from 30 feet to 40. It also restricts most of the biggest changes to major arterials, which already tend to be pretty dense. And since many of the changes in MHA are subtle (houses built under a new type of zoning called Residential Small Lot, for example, may be virtually indistinguishable from houses built under the previous zoning), people living in single-family areas that get upzoned might not even notice the difference.

The city has prevailed against legal challenges to the plan so far. The most recent of these was in November, when a city hearing examiner ruled against neighborhood activists who claimed the city didn’t do a sufficient environmental analysis of the proposal. But the final legislation does include a “clawback” provision, supported by MHA opponents and sponsored by West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold. It states the council’s intent to invalidate any upzones implemented under the plan if a court finds MHA’s affordability requirements invalid in the future.

This was another point of contention. Opponents said including the clawback provision in the bill was an invitation to lawsuits, while proponents argued that the provision ensured that developers wouldn’t get “something for nothing”—that is, if a court ruled against the city’s affordable-housing requirement, they wouldn’t be allowed to build denser housing anyway.

The full council is expected to approve the final MHA plan on March 18.

Takeaways From Seattle’s Upzoning Endgame

After another epic committee meeting—lengthened, this time, not by public comment but by a barrage of amendments intended to chip away at modest density increases on the edges of urban villages—the city council moved one big step closer yesterday to finalizing the remaining citywide portion of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which has been in the works for the past four years. (MHA has already been implemented in several neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and parts of the University District).

City of Seattle

The plan, on the whole, is modest. It allows developers to build taller, denser buildings inside multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages, and expands some urban villages (areas where, under the neighborhood plans first adopted in the 1990s, density is intensely concentrated as a way of “protecting” single-family areas) to include about 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family use. One reason the plan is modest is that the upzones are small, generally increasing density by one zoning step (from Neighborhood Commercial-65, for example, to NC-75, a height increase of 10 feet) in exchange for various affordability contributions. The second reason is that by continuing to concentrate density along arterial slivers instead of legalizing condos, townhouses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings in the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential area that’s preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses, the changes can’t be anything but modest: 6 percent of 65 percent is still just a sliver.

Most of the amendments the council passed yesterday—generally with opposition from the two at-large council members, Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda, and District 5 (North Seattle) member Debora Juarez—were aimed at decreasing the size of even that tiny concession.

For example: All of the amendments proposed by District 6 representative Mike O’Brien in the Crown Hill neighborhood, as well as his proposal to create a new, entirely speculative protection for a strip of houses in Fremont’s tech center that some people feel might have historic potential, were downzones from the MHA proposal. O’Brien, who was unable to attend yesterday’s meeting, has said that the proposals to shrink MHA in Crown Hill and Fremont came at the behest of “the community,” and that they were all offset by increased density along 15th Ave. NW, making them a win-win for density proponents and the Crown Hill community. (Lisa Herbold, in District 1, made a similar argument for her own proposal to downzone parts of the Morgan Junction neighborhood from the MHA proposal, saying that “I feel really strongly that the work, not just that I’ve done with the community, but that community leaders have done with other folks that have engaged with this effort, should be honored.”)

O’Brien’s Crown Hill downzones all passed, along with corresponding upzones that will further concentrate density (to put a human point on it, apartment buildings occupied by renters) on the noisy, dirty quasi-highway that is 15th Ave. NW, where it intersects with NW 85th St.:

The intersection where “the Crown Hill community” says they will allow renters to live.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda—who told me before the vote that the revelation that 56 affordable units would be lost if all the downzones passed increased her resolve to vote against all of them—pointed out the environmental justice implications of banning renters in the heart of a neighborhood and restricting them to large buildings on busy arterials: “When we look at neighborhood changes that would squish the zoning changes to an area along 15th, which we know to be a high traffic area with noise and pollution… it doesn’t feel like an equitable way to best serve our community. … I think it’s important that we take the opportunity to create not just access to housing along 15th, but really talk about how we equitably spread housing throughout the neighborhood.”

District 5 council member Debora Juarez added, “Of course [residents of a neighborhood] can organize, and of course they’re going to find a way to opt out or reduce their responsibility or their role or how they would like to see their neighborhoods grow. I know what happens when you do that, because then the burden shifts to those neighborhoods that we are trying to protect particularly from displacement.” Although District 3 council member Kshama Sawant countered that the people in Crown Hill are largely “working-class homeowners” at high risk for displacement, citywide council member Lorena Gonzalez quickly put that notion to rest, pointing out that the city’s own analysis found that Crown Hill is a neighborhood with high access to opportunity and a low displacement risk.

O’Brien’s amendments passed 5-3.

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.

For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Other amendments that came up yesterday:

Although several of District 4 council member Rob Johnson’s amendments to reduce density in the Roosevelt and Ravenna-Cowen neighborhoods passed, a proposal to preserve a single-family designation for a single block of houses in Roosevelt failed, sparking some pointed comments from both Mosqueda and Gonzalez about the need to build housing near transit corridors and future light rail stations like the one four blocks from the block Johnson proposed keeping single-family. “We have to, as a city, either be committed to the urban village growth model or not, and to me this is an example where we need to be committed to that urban village growth strategy,” Gonzalez said.

• A proposal by O’Brien to reduce the proposed zoning along N 36th Street near the Fremont Troll statue by two full stops (from Low-Rise 3, which allows apartments, to Low-Rise 1, which allows townhouses), lost on a unanimous vote. Council members pointed out that not only is the street O’Brien wanted to downzone within spitting distance of high-tech companies like Google and Tableau, making it a prime location for new housing, the houses on it do not have any historic designation, which was one of O’Brien’s primary justifications for the amendment. “This is quite literally a dense area,” an exasperated Mosqueda said.

• A suite of Herbold amendments to reduces some of the proposed upzones near the West Seattle Junction, and the site of the future Link Light Rail station, from low-rise (1 through 3, depending on the lot) to residential small lot all passed. Herbold justified the downzones from the MHA proposal by noting that Sound Transit hasn’t finalized its alignment through West Seattle yet, and expressing her “commitment” to come back and adopt some kind of upzone in the area once they do. As she has before, Herbold suggested that not upzoning would be a cost-saving measure, because Sound Transit will have to purchase some land in the area for station construction, and land zoned for higher density typically costs more. When Juarez, whose district includes two future light rail stations (at Northgate and N. 130th St.), noted that her district clamored for more density around the stations, not less, Herbold said that Sound Transit currently has “three different options, and they’re spread across about 10 different blocks.” Mosqueda chimed in, saying that her “argument would be that it’s precisely because we have a new [light rail] line… that we should be doing everything we can now to raise the bar, so that when a decision is made [any new density] would be in addition to that baseline.

The committee declined to reduce a proposed height increase in southwest Delridge, in an area that, Herbold said, “provides a very wonderful view of Mount Rainier… in a low-income neighborhood in an area that doesn’t see a lot of city investment.” Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda pointed out that the downzone from MHA that Herbold was requesting wouldn’t actually reduce heights at all—the only difference would be how much low-rise housing property owners could build on private property—and District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw said she had been swayed by Mosqueda’s argument that the point of MHA is “build back in the opportunity for people to live in areas that they were excluded form living in.” However, Bagshaw added, she had already committed to supporting the amendment, which ultimately failed on a 4-4 vote.

• Two other Herbold amendments—one sweeping, the other potentially precedent-setting—are worth noting. The first, which supporters referred to as “the claw-back provision,” would nullify all the MHA upzones if a court overturns MHA’s affordability requirements at any point in the future. Mosqueda argued forcefully against the provision, saying, “I am not interested in sending a message that we would have some sort of moratorium [on development]. I think that could have adverse impacts on our ability to build affordable housing.” Johnson, who said that he “philosophically agreed” with Mosqueda, argued nonetheless that the amendment was “purely intent language”; it would only go into effect if a court overturned MHA’s affordability requirements in the future. That amendment passed.

The second, an amendment that triggers a new neighborhood planning process whenever “more than 25 percent of the [Morgan Junction] urban village could be affected by proposed zoning changes,” impacts a small area but could set a precedent for throwing MHA zoning changes (or other future zoning changes) back to community groups whenever they start to appreciably change the way an area looks and feels (which is, some might argue, the entire point of zoning changes). “I’m not hearing a rational basis for the establishment of a 25 percent benchmark,” Gonzalez said. “I’m worried about the establishment of a benchmark … based on a feeling or a sense that that that seems to be the right place to engage in the conversation. I’m not sure that’s wise policy. I’m not really sure how we even quantify what 25 percent” means.

That amendment passed 6-2, with Juarez and Mosqueda voting against.

The full MHA package passed the committee unanimously, with O’Brien absent. It now heads to the full council for a vote on March 18.

Bonus Crank: “Why Can’t It Be an ‘And’?”

1. In a letter sent on Tuesday to members of the city council’s select committee on Mandatory Housing Affordability, the Seattle Coalition for Livability, Affordability, and Equity (SCALE) urged council members to adopt a raft of amendments scaling back the (already watered-down) citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow duplexes, townhomes, and some small apartment buildings on six percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas.

SCALE’s letter encourages the council to adopt all “neighborhood self-determined amendments and resolutions,” which I wrote about last week, and zeroes in on a few specific amendments, including:

• An amendment reverting the MHA zoning back to whatever it was before the council adopted the plan, “should the courts find the affordability housing requirement sections (e.g. requirements to build on site or in-lieu fees) not legal.” MHA requires developers to fund or build affordable housing in exchange for the higher densities allowed by the plan.

• An amendment requiring “one-for-one replacement” of any housing removed as the result of development under MHA. The city has argued that mandatory one-for-one replacement discourages new development and does not accomplish the broader goal of producing more affordable housing throughout the city than is lost directly to development through physical displacement.

• Another, similar amendment requiring that any new development that results from developers paying a fee into an affordable housing fund be inside the same urban village as, or no more than 10 minutes’ walking distance from, the new development. This would also have the impact of reducing development, and thereby lowering the number of new affordable housing units built under MHA.

• Amendments mandating large new setbacks (15 feet in the front and rear, and between 5 and10 feet on the sides) and yards for new development, including small, low-rise apartment buildings, which would be required to have “at least one 20′ x 20′ area at grade for landscape and a large tree planted in natural soil.”

• An amendment changing the definition of “family-sized housing,” which is required in some affordable-housing developments, to three bedrooms (from the current two). The letter justifies this change, which would likely prevent some development because larger apartments are both more expensive and less lucrative, by arguing that “[f]amily sizes for low income, immigrants and refugees and people of color tend to be larger.” The average household size in Seattle, as of the 2017 American Community Survey, was 2.11—1.85 for renters.

The city council took up the first set of district-specific MHA amendments, including some proposed by residents and some from council members themselves, on Monday; on Wednesday, they’ll consider the second batch. I wrote about all those amendments here.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and citywide mobility director Mike Worden

2. As the longest (by one week) Seattle highway closure in history enters its third weekday, predictions of “viadoom” and “carpocalypse” haven’t come to fruition. But as city, state, and county leaders reminded the city at a press event last week, the “period of maximum constraint” is a long-term issue, which is one reason, Mayor Jenny Durkan explained, that the city needed to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, one of the two finalists for the Seattle Department of Transportation director job that was ultimately filled by Washington, D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe, to oversee the city’s “mobility operations.”

It didn’t get coverage at the time (most of the assembled press were focused, understandably, on the coming permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct), but Durkan offered her most detailed explanation yet of why she believes the city needs not only a new SDOT director and a director of downtown mobility, but a “director of citywide mobility operations coordination,” which is Worden’s full, official title.

“Both Sam and the General came up through the SDOT search, and both of them were enthusiastically supported by the search committee, who said, ‘Either one, you’re going to get a winner.’ And I said, ‘Why does it have to be an or? Why can’t it be an and?'”

Durkan went on to joke that Worden would benefit from his past experience under “enemy fire” and reiterated that Worden’s job wasn’t just monitoring traffic, but coordinating responses from “29 city departments” (which is, incidentally, all of the city departments). For example, “When a tree comes down and blocks a road, that’s not necessarily a Seattle Department of Transportation issue; it could be a City Light issue because it could take wires with it. It could be a Parks Department issue, because the tree was originally in a park.”

Worden also cited his military experience as something that uniquely prepared him for his new job as, effectively, the city’s traffic czar. “My experience with coming together on the eve of a crisis with a bunch of strangers who are arriving from different locations, different countries, facing a crisis, and the ability to work with them to build relationships, to get everyone on a common frame of reference, to achieve the objectives, may come into play … as we transform like a butterfly into the city that everybody wants to be,” Worden said.

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Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

Image result for futurewise logo

1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.

Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in  7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.

To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.

Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”

Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

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2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s]  an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.

The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.

ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.

The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”

Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”

The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.

This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data.  Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.