Tag: displacement

First Hill Fire Displaces Dozens of Very Low-Income Tenants, Shutters Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge

Image via Yelp

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of very low-income residents of a subsidized apartment building on First Hill, the Madison Apartments, have been displaced, possibly permanently, by a massive fire that broke out last Sunday night. The five-alarm fire badly damaged the third and fourth stories of the four-story 1902 brick building and forced residents of all 75 studio and one-bedroom units to leave their homes.

A relatively small number of residents have been staying at a temporary shelter run by the Red Cross at Garfield Community Center; the city had no information about where the rest of the residents, who are considered homeless until and unless they find new permanent housing, have gone.

According to Office of Housing (OH) spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco, 38 apartments on the top two floors of the building “sustained fire damage and are uninhabitable. …OH is working with the Seattle Housing Authority to identify new permanent housing options for residents of the third and fourth floors, as they will be unable to re-occupy those units in the near term.” At the moment, no one is supposed to return to their apartments (although some may be doing so against the advice of the city and building management).

Although Velasco said the “current target for [basement, first-, and second-floor] residents to re-occupy some parts of the building is early July,” that could be optimistic. Because of the building’s age, the fire may have exposed asbestos insulation, contaminating apartments with the airborne carcinogen. We’ve asked the city for more information about contamination from asbestos and other hazards.

Units at the Madison Apartments are subsidized through a number of programs, including federal Housing Choice (AKA) Section 8) vouchers, and are restricted to people making less than half the Seattle area median income, or around $45,000 for a single person.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Housing Authority, Kerry Coughlin, said SHA is helping displaced residents with Housing Choice vouchers holders to find new apartments through an expedited process.  However, Coughlin added, “That process is all we can ‘expedite.’ We can’t issue new vouchers to residents at the Madison building. If and when we can issue new general purpose vouchers (not restricted to special populations), we draw in order from our wait list.”

In Seattle, rent-restricted and affordable units can be extremely hard to come by; the “affordable” rent for a person making 50 percent of median ranges from $1,123 for a studio to $1,416 for a one-bedroom, including utilities, according to the Office of Housing. Meanwhile, the list to apply for Section 8 vouchers is closed due to excess demand, and people who have vouchers in hand often end up returning them because they can’t find an affordable apartment. Currently, the lottery to get on SHA’s wait list for vouchers is closed; the last time it was open, in 2015, 3,500 households were added to the list.

According to Velasco, SHA is “coordinating with American Red Cross to assist residents with Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers, with the intent to help expedite the process of voucher reissuance and relocation for residents needing relocation.” People without vouchers, or who can’t afford market-rate apartments, will have to seek shelter or temporary housing through already overburdened local nonprofits.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there. We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done… in order to reopen.”—Greg Lundgren, co-owner, Vito’s Lounge

Residents at the Madison Apartments were not required to have renters’ insurance.

On the first floor of the building, the longtime First Hill institution Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge is another temporary casualty of the fire. Co-owner Greg Lundgren said the business sustained major water damage from efforts to put out the fire and that it will probably be at least a month, if not longer, before Vito’s can reopen.

“Our electronics were fried, our hood ventilation was cooked in the fire (it runs up through the center of the building and was exposed to the fire on the fifth floor), our ceilings are water damaged and most likely need replacement, and everyday another issue is revealed,” Lundgren said. “We are also focused on our staff, the musicians that we have programmed and support, and try and get better clarity ourselves on the extent of the damage and the road back to operating.”

Vito’s first opened in 1953. It closed in 2009 after a shooting inside the restaurant. In 2010, Lundgren and his business partner, Jeff Scott, bought the bar and reopened it, leaving the interior—with its red vinyl banquettes and taxidermied back-room cougar—largely unchanged.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there,” Lundgren said. “We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done—while we did not see smoke or fire damage, there is extensive water damage, and we have a professional service cleaning, drying and addressing a long list of concerns and work that needs to happen in order to reopen.”

According to the Seattle Fire Department, the fire was “caused by an open flame that tipped over onto a mattress and ignited it. The fire spread to other combustible materials, then burned through the roof and void spaces.”

Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing”

 

Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of "naturally occurring affordable housing"
Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of “naturally occurring affordable housing”

By Erica C. Barnett

Until 2017, elected officials (and reporters) hoping to get a handle on the availability and cost of rental housing in Seattle relied on reports from a private company called Dupre+Scott, whose forecasts used cheeky videos and graphics to illustrate market predictions and trends. Since Dupre+Scott shut down, the city has relied on Census tract-level data to assess housing trends, including residential displacement—a blunt, high-level instrument that does not account for differences between adjacent neighborhoods that may be in the same Census tract.

Earlier this week, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen rolled out legislation that would require landlords to submit detailed information about their rental units—including the size of each unit, the rent they charge, and whether a unit is occupied or vacant—to a research university, such as the University of Washington, twice a year and to certify under the city’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) that they have done so. The university would analyze the information and submit reports to the city, which would use them to “identify displacement risk” and “inform [the city’s] housing policy,” according to a staff report on the bill.

“My interest,” City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

The context for the proposal is the upcoming update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides the framework for all city decisions on land use and zoning. The comp plan, for example, could prescribe the creation of more neighborhood business districts, encourage zoning changes to add density in single-family areas, or require future land-use policies that encourage the use of nonmotorized transportation. Or it could encourage policies that protect existing rental units at the expense of new housing, preserve trees by maintaining Seattle’s ban on development in single-family areas, or require full infrastructure buildout (roads, sewers, transit service) before an area can be developed—a ’90s neighborhood planning concept known as “concurrency.”

Pedersen, who has been a vocal opponent of allowing more density outside existing urban villages, said the city needed more accurate rental information to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists and might be at risk of demolition if the city allows denser housing in more areas. “If additional land-use changes were pursued without first putting into effect displacement prevention laws,” Pedersen said, the city might end up adopting policies that lead to the demolition of “affordable, below-market rental housing on the Ave [in the University District] and throughout our city.” (Pedersen cited the Pacific Apartments, pictured above, as an example of naturally occurring affordable housing. Although the website for the building didn’t have any current listings, a 450-square-foot studio was listed at $1,200 last year).

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” generally refers to older units that cost less than newer housing nearby. Advocates for laws to protect this type of housing often refer to the “mom-and-pop landlords” who tend to own such older buildings, without regard for the specific challenges faced by renters who live in this kind of housing, which may be less well-maintained than professionally managed buildings.

Thanks to the rental registration ordinance, the city does have some general information about how many rental units are available each year. In 2020, according to the most recent RRIO report, the number of registered units in the city declined by about 14.4 percent, “but the total number of units stayed relatively stable with only a 0.65% decrease.”

“Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”—City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Although the report notes that registrations may have declined for any number of reasons, including landlords not bothering to update their renewals during the pandemic, Councilmember Sara Nelson said the decline in registrations, combined with the relatively small decline in apartments on the market, “indicates to me that it is the small mom-and-pop landlords that are basically taking properties off the market.

“My interest,” Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who said she supported Pedersen’s legislation, pushed back at the idea that landlords were going out of business because of renter protections. “That is a claim by landlords,” she said. “Nobody else is claiming that. The reality is that property values are skyrocketing. Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”

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

Tents on 4th Avenue, downtown Seattle

By Deborah Beckwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, the city council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would have required churches to build more deeply affordable housing in exchange for density bonuses (upzones) that could double the value of property they own. The legislation the council adopted will provide a financial incentive for religious institutions to build apartments for people and households earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle area median income—for a one-person household, about $65,000 a year.

The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. Back in 2019, the state legislature adopted legislation requiring cities to give religious institutions density bonuses—essentially, the right to build more housing—on property they own, if they agree to use it for affordable housing. Three months ago, the city council adopted, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, legislation stipulating that starting in July 2022, the housing that churches build on upzoned land must be, on average, affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income—about $49,000 for one person, or $70,000 for a family of four. 

After the legislation passed, several local churches asked Durkan and council members to change the law to increase the affordable threshold to 80 percent. At that affordability level, apartments are essentially market-rate—around $1,620 for a studio apartment, or $1,850 for a one-bedroom unit, no matter where they are located in the city. In contrast, the legislation the council and mayor approved in June required average rents of around $1,200 for a studio and $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Herbold’s amendment would have continued to allow religious institutions in neighborhoods the city has identified as having a high displacement risk, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill, and Lake City, to build housing affordable at the higher-income threshold, while retaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.

Nearly seven in ten Black households make less than half of the Seattle median income, and only 10 percent fall between the 50 percent and 80 percent income levels. In other words, fewer than 10 percent of all Black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new church-based housing at the higher income levels the council adopted.

Representatives from local churches argued that requiring deeper affordability anywhere in the city would make it difficult for them to build housing, resulting in the displacement of churches and their congregants, because housing affordable to people making lower incomes simply doesn’t “pencil out” on church property. 

“The [new] legislation, as originally developed, created a win-win scenario where these institutions—almost all of whom make significant contributions to service and justice in the city—can continue to thrive where they are in our neighborhoods and contribute to the crying lack of affordable housing,” Michael Ramos, head of the Greater Seattle Church Council, wrote in an email to Herbold’s office opposing her amendment.

“The ideal is that we have affordable housing at 60 percent area median income across the city, and we have so many policy mechanisms and funding mechanisms to do so,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored both bills.  “Churches need the flexibility to be able to have people [earning] up to 80 percent AMI in their buildings, so that they can either choose to have people move back into the community that have been displaced or to use that revenue to create the services that other residents are receiving to meet the needs of their community.” Continue reading “Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property”

Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?”

The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle

Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.

Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.

Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.

MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next  decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.

Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.

The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”

If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.

A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.

This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households  and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.

The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be  physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.

One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.

Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.

Morning Crank: Eliminating “Single-Family” Zoning Altogether

1. It’s been three years (and three mayors) since the city first adopted a plan to implement the affordable housing plan known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for greater density in some parts of the city. Although some aspects of the plan are now in place, the most controversial element—expanding the city’s urban villages and centers to incorporate 6 percent of the city’s vast swaths of single-family land—was locked up in appeals until late last month, when city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil ruled that the city had adequately addressed almost all of the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.

The fundamental debate about whether to upzone any of the city’s single-family neighborhoods, however, continues. On Monday, at a council committee meeting about next steps, city council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson (with assists from Sally Bagshaw and Teresa Mosqueda) played out a miniature version of that debate, with Herbold taking up the banner for activists who claim that allowing more types of housing will lead to massive displacement of low-income people living in single-family houses. “My concern is that we are grossly underestimating the number of affordable units that are being lost to development” by using eligibility for tenant relocation assistance as a proxy for displacement, Herbold said. (Tenant relocation assistance is available to people who make less than 50 percent of the Seattle median income. A subsequent analysis, based on American Community Survey data, included people making up to 80 percent of median income, although as Herbold pointed out, this still may not capture people who share houses with roommates, and thus have a collective household income well above 80 percent of median). Johnson countered that while the council has dithered on passing the MHA legislation, hundreds of new apartments have been built with no affordable housing requirement at all. “Would it be fair to say that the ‘no-action alternative’ results in a whole lot of displacement?” he asked Nick Welch, a senior planner with the Office of Housing and Community Development. “Yes,” Welch replied.

Herbold also suggested that the council should adopt separate resolutions dealing with each of the city’s seven “unique” districts that would include “individual urban village commitments” in those districts. Johnson said that was certainly something the council could discuss in the future, but noted that the city has already spent years learning about the issues various neighborhood groups have with the upzone proposal. “I think we have a pretty good sense of what community issues and concerns are out there,” Johnson said. “We want to outline a process that would allow us to address some of those issues.” Herbold also said she was considering amendments that would require developers to replace every unit for which a tenant received relocation assistance on a one-for-one basis, and suggested requiring developers building in areas with high displacement risk to build affordable units on site, rather than paying into the city’s affordable housing fund.

Under the city’s current timeline, the council would vote to approve the legislation, with amendments in late March of next year.

2. As the council debated the merits of modest density increases, the city’s Planning Commission suggested a far more significant rewrite of the city’s housing laws—one that would include doing away with city’s “single-family” zoning designation entirely. In the report, “Neighborhoods for All: Expanding Housing Opportunity in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones,” the advisory commission recommends reducing displacement and increasing economic and racial diversity in Seattle’s increasingly white single-family areas with “a return to the mix of housing and development patterns found in many of Seattle’s older and most walkable neighborhoods.” In other words: Backyard cottages and basement apartments aren’t enough; the city needs to allow small-scale apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes, and other types of housing in those areas as well. Crucially, the report notes that these changes wouldn’t represent a radical shift or a departure from single-family zones’ vaunted “neighborhood character”; in fact, both minimum lot-size requirements and “Seattle’s current single-family zoning code came into being in the 1950’s.”

At a time when arguments about development often center on the need to protect the “historic character” of Seattle’s neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes and laws restricting housing to one house per lot, this bears repeating. “Small lot houses, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments built prior to 1957 remain in single-family zones, but building them is illegal today.” Rules restricting development in single-family areas effectively concentrate all growth into narrow bands of land along busy arterials known as urban centers and urban villages; since 2006, according to the report, “over 80% of Seattle’s growth has occurred in urban villages and centers that make up less than a quarter of Seattle’s land. Urban villages have seen significant change and new construction, while most areas of the city have seen little physical change. Overall, multifamily housing is only allowed in 12 percent of the city’s residential land—a constriction of opportunity that perpetuates the historical impacts of redlining, racial covenants, and other discriminatory housing policies by “excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes,” the report says.And Seattle’s restrictive policies don’t even work to preserve “neighborhood character,” the report points out. Instead, they encourage homeowners and builders to tear down existing houses and build McMansions in their place. “Even under current zoning, the physical character of neighborhoods is changing as existing houses are replaced with larger, more expensive ones, as allowed by today’s land use code,” the report notes. “The average size of newly constructed detached houses in 2016 was 3,487 square feet, more than 1,000 square feet larger than the average for the first two-thirds of the last century.”

The planning commission offers a number of suggested policy changes, including:

• Expanding urban village boundaries to include all areas within a 15-minute walk of frequent transit lines. Currently, the report points out, many urban villages are extremely narrow—the Greenwood/Phinney urban village, pictured below, is an extreme but not unique example—dramatically limiting housing choices for people who can’t afford to buy single-family homes. At the same time, the report recommends getting rid of frequent transit service as a requirement to expand urban villages, pointing out that this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem, where lack of transit justifies keeping density low, and low density justifies a lack of investment in transit.

• Renaming “single-family” zoning as “neighborhood residential,” with various levels of density (from backyard cottages to small apartment buildings) to reflect lot size and neighborhood amenities. Areas near parks and schools, which the report identifies as amenities that tend to be most accessible to people in single-family areas, would get more density so that more people would have access to those resources.

• Eliminating or reducing parking requirements—not just in urban villages, but everywhere. Single-family-housing activists have long argued that if the city allows more housing without requiring new parking, they will have no place to park their cars. Though the planning commission report doesn’t explicitly mention a recent study that found that Seattle already has more than five parking spaces per household, they do point out that prioritizing cars over people conflicts with the city’s stated climate goals. “Requiring parking on site takes away space that could be used for additional housing or open space,” the report says. Under their proposal, “While driveways and garages could still be allowed, people would not be required to provide space for cars over housing or space for trees–especially if they choose not to own a car.”

3. The J Is for Judge himself stepped up to the mic at city hall yesterday to explain why he wants to see more of every kind of housing in every neighborhood. At yesterday’s MHA briefing, after the authors of this piece (one of whom lives in Bellevue) claimed that the council was withholding information about displacement from the public,  Josh Feit got up to speak. Here, in slightly abridged form, is what he had to say.

My name is Josh Feit, and I am not originally from Seattle.

I did not grow up here.

I’m am not a 7th-generation Seattleite.

I was not born and raised in Ballard.

I did not go to Roosevelt High School.

I am not a lifelong member of my community.

To those of us who choose to move here, Seattle stands out as an exciting 21st Century landmark that’s taking up a brave experiment in progressive city building.

I’m excited to live here.

I have a public sector job.

I am a renter.

Please stop letting some residents of Seattle’s Single Family zones play Seattle First politics by mythologizing neighborhood “character” and stigmatizing renters.

That kind of dog whistling has no place in Seattle.

Please stop letting quarter-century-old neighborhood plans that were developed without a Race and Social Justice analysis be the blueprint for Seattle’s future. (Thank you, Council Member Mosqueda, for challenging the anti-growth narrative by taking a closer look at that vaunted 1994 plan.)

As you know, the Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation and upzones in front of you today did go through a displacement analysis by income and race.

Thank you for passing the six MHA Urban Center and Urban Village rezones last year.

But to make MHA work, to address the housing affordability crisis, all of Seattle needs to be neighborly.

Please pass this small but significant first step in taking down the walls that keep too many of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods–off limits for too many residents.

I am not proud that I’m from here. I’m proud that I moved here. I hope I can continue to feel that way.

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please visit my Patreon page and become a monthly patron! 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, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support. 

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal. Or you can click on the box that says “Make this a monthly donation” and set up a recurring contribution there.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Jon Grant

Former Tenants Union director Jon Grant first ran for City Council Position 8 back in 2015, when now-interim mayor Tim Burgess was running for reelection and the field consisted of four straight white guys, three of them named Jonathan. Back then, Grant beat out the other two Johns on the ballot by arguing that incumbent Burgess had failed to act boldly on police reform and was in the pocket of big developers. This time, Grant faced a diverse group of primary opponents, including two women of color, the city’s first transgender council candidate, a lesbian, and a gay Egyptian-American Muslim man. His general-election opponent is labor leader Teresa Mosqueda, a Latina and renter who works as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council. Grant says he considered dropping out of the race when it appeared that his frontrunning opponent would be a woman of color, but decided to stay in after he sat down with Mosqueda and realized they had different “theories of change” and visions for the city. A longtime advocate for public financing of local campaigns, Grant has raised $300,000 in democracy vouchers—publicly funded contributions from individual supporters.

I sat down with Grant at Eastern Cafe in the International District last week.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: What do you see as the biggest policy difference between you and your opponent?

Jon Grant [JG]: The obvious answer is housing. When the city developed the Grand Bargain, it was a committee comprised of 28 members, of which I was one. Half of the committee was comprised of representatives from private developers, and that was really reflected in the final proposal. [Ed: Only nine of the 28 HALA  committee members work for private, nonprofit, or mixed-income developers; Grant declined to clarify which of the other HALA members he considered developer representatives.] Folks forget about this, but the conversation before HALA was around a linkage fee [a proposed square-footage fee, to be paid by developers, that would fund affordable housing], and council member Mike O’Brien had a proposal to max out the linkage fee [at $22 a square foot]. At the time, [the city’s Department of Planning and Development] did an analysis and they found that over the next 10 years, it would have brought in about $1 billion for affordable housing. My point being this: When you compare that raw number to the raw value of the Grand Bargain, it’s around $640 million, and that’s a pretty big difference. That’s letting private developers off the hook for millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I felt that that was a problem.

My opponent has criticized me for walking away from the table on the HALA process. That’s a mischaracterization. I stuck with that process for 10 months, and at the end of it, I voted my conscience. [Ed.: Grant actually abstained from the final HALA vote.] I felt it was important that there be a community conversation about, are we actually acting in the public’s best interest by striking the deal, and I thought abstaining from the deal created a space to have that conversation. And back in 2015 [when Grant ran for council Position 8 the first time], I put forward my own proposal that would have brought back the linkage fee. That’s unfortunately not how things worked out. We now have the Grand Bargain, and there are now these citywide upzones without any real discussion of whether we are getting the best benefit or the most for the public good. I think that’s a real concern, and I think that’s what’s at stake in this election.

ECB: HALA and MHA are now largely the law of the land in Seattle, with full support from the council—would you propose revisiting the process and reconsidering zoning decisions that have already been approved?

JG: I think that question—’Well, would you walk back HALA?’—is actually a distraction. I think the question is, why aren’t we asking for more in terms of affordability? My opponent won’t say what she’s willing to do in that regard.

 

“If you just allow for a citywide elimination of single family zoning, what’s going to happen is that the first properties to go are going to be rental properties, because if you rezone that area, the landlord who owns those properties will be very quick to sell it off to a developer to build a million-dollar condo or whatever.”

 

ECB: In our conversation, your opponent said she would like to bump up the MHA requirement, but that she thinks your proposal to require developers to make 25 percent of their units affordable is too high.

JG: I have yet to hear what that amount is, and there are opportunities for her to weigh in on that debate today, and she has not.

To me, there are signals that a candidate can give to voters about where they stand on these things, and not being vocal about this when the community has had real concerns about how these upzones are moving forward, and that the affordability levels are at the minimum—when you’re a candidate who’s had opportunities to be vocal and stand in solidarity with the community and you don’t do that, I think that’s a signal to voters. I think it’s also important to note that my opponent accepted a maxed-out donation from Maria Barrientos, who was a developer who was an architect of the Grand Bargain itself.

ECB: You mentioned this at a forum recently, and I have to point out that it was $250—hardly enough money to buy influence. [Ed: Barrientos is also one of the only prominent women of color in Seattle’s development community, and she has long incorporated below-market housing into all her buildings.]

JG: I think it really matters where your money comes from. It matters for voters to know who you’re listening to, who you’re accountable to, and for my part, I think taking a stance of not taking money from developers—it sends a clear signal to voters that you’re going to stand with them. When developers are having so much influence at city hall, what we really need is not another lobbyist at city hall that’s going to be cozy to developers but a community advocate that’s going to fight against the forces of displacement. I understand that when you’re talking about very complex policy issues, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. What I would really like to see is for the city to do an economic analysis of every upzone to determine what was the amount that the developer could afford before that tipping point where the developer walks away from the project.

ECB: Would you be open to allowing more density in Seattle’s single-family-only areas?

JG: If you just allow for a citywide elimination of single family zoning, what’s going to happen is that the first properties to go are going to be rental properties. It’s not really widely known, but one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes. Now those are also the homes that are most at risk, because if you rezone that area the landlord who owns those properties will be very quick to sell it off to a developer to build a million-dollar condo or whatever. When we talk about changing the zoning, we have to acknowledge the fact that there’s 100,000 people moving to our city and they have to go somewhere, so we have to accommodate that growth, but I am very nervous and very cautious about the idea of eliminating rental housing that is currently affordable. If we don’t manage that we’re going to see widespread displacement of low-income people and people of color.

ECB: Do you have actual data to indicate that there are a huge number of people renting affordable single-family houses in places like the Central District who would be at risk of losing their housing if the city got rid of single-family zoning?

JG: Anecdotally, from my time at the Tenants Union, yes—the calls we would get from people in the Rainier Valley in particular and also in the Central District. I went to a forum recently and I asked people, ‘How many of you know someone who lives in a single-family home that rents?’ Like half the room raised their hand. So I think that it’s an issue that’s not really talked about.

[Ed: I searched Craigslist for houses to rent in both the Rainier Valley and the Central District and found none that would meet most definitions of “affordable.” A few representative listings included a four-bedroom house for $3,600 in Rainier Beach; a $2,500 two-bedroom in Hillman City; and a $2,000 two-bedroom in the Central District. In contrast, there were plenty of relatively cheap single-family homes near the University of Washington, including a $2,000 five-bedroom, a $5,000 seven-bedroom, and a $3,800 six-bedroom. Those rental listings, however, are obviously aimed at students, not families, and the University District is not a gentrifying, historically African-American area.]

“Police, as employees, stand apart from any other employees, in that they’re the only employees that have a license to kill. And for that reason, they need to be held to a different standard.”

 

ECB: You’ve criticized your opponent, including in this interview, for being a lobbyist. Teresa has pointed out that her clients are unionized workers, not big corporations. How do you respond to that, and are there any specific examples where she’s taken a position that’s out of step with working people?

JG: For my part, I stand in solidarity with rank-and-file workers. When we talk about labor leadership, I think it’s a different conversation. We’re in a moment right now where there is tremendous opportunity in Seattle politics to really push the envelope and get really progressive people elected, and [yet], the [Martin Luther King Central] Labor Council endorsed the same person for mayor [Jenny Durkan] that the Chamber of Commerce endorsed. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars being thrown into the race against me, even though I have a track record of being very pro-labor. I used to be a union member [at the Office of Professional Employees International Local 8]. I worked alongside Teresa on initiative 1433 to raise the statewide minimum wage. [UPDATE: Mosqueda says Grant did not “work alongside” her; rather, she ran the campaign and “I hired him for a few months.”] I’m very pro-worker, I’m very pro-union, but I just call into question these decisions that are happening at the higher levels. I think we have more than enough insider people at city hall who are more accustomed to making deals in back rooms than being out in the community and pushing the envelope.

ECB: One reason labor might not like you is that you’ve called for opening up police union contract negotiations to the public, which labor advocates worry will open the door to eliminating confidential negotiations for other public workers.

JG: Yeah, I don’t see that.

ECB: Why not?

JG: I think that what’s important to remember is that the police, as employees, stand apart from any other employees, in that they’re the only employees that have a license to kill. And for that reason, they need to be held to a different standard. And what I have seen through the negotiating processes with the union is that a lack of transparency in that process has led the public not to understand what is being bargained away, in terms of the right to have constitutional policing. I am 100 percent pro-union. I don’t think that the police labor contract should be completely open to the public. I think the provisions around discipline, especially, should be, because we’ve seen too many times where officers have been let of the hook. I think that if the city doesn’t take bold stances to actually address this culture of impunity that exists in our police department, we are going to continue to see more racial profiling, we’re going to continue to see more excessive force, and I’ve just got to call into question my opponent, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same groups [unions] that are supportive of [the Seattle Police Officers Guild], and would call into question whether she’s going to hold them accountable.

ECB: How would you avoid opening that Pandora’s box and having all city union negotiations open to the public?

JG: If the city were to pursue this, we would craft legislation so that it’s specific to the police union. We have a reality where there is, every year now, a person of color getting shot by the police, and the idea that it’s not worth going out on a legal limb to try to save a life is not compelling argument to me.

 

ECB: As a white guy, how do you sit here and say, ‘Vote for me—I will represent the interests of women and women of color better than a woman of color’?

JG: I think this comes down to values and theory of change. Very early on in this race, I sat down with my opponent, and it was really clear to me that we represented different visions for the city.

 

ECB: Can you talk a little bit about what you’d do on as a city council member to promote gender equity, in terms of pay and opportunities?

JG: We’ve made some tremendous gains with the paid family leave legislation that got passed at the state level. The next thing I would work on is ensuring pay transparency. It’s kind of remarkable that we don’t already have this on the books. As I’m sure you know, women are paid 73 cents for every dollar a man makes. [Ed: 80 cents, and 78.6 cents in Seattle], and even less for  women of color. One of the big perpetuators of that is the fact that when you get a job, you have no idea if you’re getting paid as much as your male counterparts. And part of that is because when you get offered a job, they  ask for your salary history, but because of the existing gender pay gap, it just perpetuates that cycle into the next job that you get. So I would support putting penalties on employers [who penalize] employees who ask what their colleagues’ salary is so that they can see if they’re getting paid at same level, and prohibiting the disclosure of your salary when you apply for a job.

And then, secondly, I think that we really need to take into account child care. Right now, you have to pay as much as a college tuition for just getting basic child care services for your family, and that disproportionally impacts women. I agree [with Mosqueda] that we shouldn’t have families paying more than 10 percent of their income toward child care. We need to do some investigation into how it gets paid for, whether it’s borne by employees or a more progressive tax. I haven’t heard from my opponent about how she plans on financing it.

ECB: She’s talked about paying for it out of the next Families and Education Levy.

JG: Again, it’s a regressive tax. So I think to the extent that we can actually get more progressive revenue sources to pay for these programs—seeing whether or not the [city] income tax pulls through in court, imposing a progressive corporate tax, or implementing impact fees—I think that’s another thing we haven’t talked about enough.

ECB: You’re describing to me what it’s like to be a working woman, and I’m sitting here going, ‘Yeah, I know what it’s like to be a working woman.’ Isn’t it important to have more women, more people with that lived experience, on the council?  As a white guy, how do you sit here and say, ‘Vote for me—I will represent the interests of women and women of color better than a woman of color’?

JG: I think this comes down to values and theory of change. Very early on in this race, I sat down with my opponent. I talked about the concerns that I was hearing from the community, from women, from women of color, around police accountability, around housing affordability. And we had a conversation about our policy differences and how far we were willing to go to achieve the most robust outcomes for many different communities of our city, and it was really clear to me that we represented different visions for the city. I decided to stay in the race because I think that for those communities that are impacted, we have a platform that’s going to do more to advance social equity and to advance social justice.

 

 

Morning Crank: Endless Appeals Are a Common Tactic

1. Depending on your perspective, a meeting tomorrow night to discuss efforts to prevent displacement and gentrification in light of a proposed upzone in the Chinatown/International District is either: a) A “special meeting” of the city council’s planning and land use committee, with a “focus on Chinatown/International District” (the city’s version) or b) a “town hall” to “Save the Chinatown – ID—Stop Displacement Now” (the Interim Community Development Association’s version). “WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED! Come and make your voice heard to City Council!” Interim’s announcement urges—and if that use of a Civil Rights-era slogan didn’t put a fine enough point on what the activists think is at stake in the upzone, these flyers, which appeared around the neighborhood in the past week, certainly did:

And here’s the source material:

The second poster is a notice posted during World War II, when the US rounded up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and sent them to internment camps. The (very slightly) coded message is that if the city upzones the Chinatown/ID, the gentrification and displacement that result will have a similar impact on its residents as the forced removal of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.

2. The Chinatown/ID meeting will actually be the second contentious meeting in one day for the land use committee. Tuesday morning, they’ll take up a proposal related to the design review process—ostensibly a process to consider the design of proposed new buildings; in reality an opportunity for anti-density activists to stall projects they don’t like—that could make it easier for development opponents to file appeals. (In August, the council will consider more sweeping changes to design review that could streamline the process for developers.)

The proposed change would remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward. According to a council staff analysis, removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” According to the Livable Phinney website, the group “with other activists in West Seattle and Council member Lisa Herbold” to eliminate the interpretation requirement.

Endless appeals are a common tactic used by neighborhood groups to prevent new housing near single-family areas. For example, a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners has successfully stalled a four-story, 57-unit studio apartment building on a commercial stretch of Greenwood Avenue for more than a year by filing appeal after appeal; although previous complaints have involved everything from the lack of air conditioning and washer/dryer units in the apartments to the size of the units, they’re now arguing that Metro’s Route 5, which runs along Greenwood, is inadequate to serve the 57 new residents. Ultimately, like many such battles, this argument comes down to parking—the opponents believe the new residents will all own cars, which will make it harder for existing Phinney Ridge homeowners to park their cars on the street.

3. Just weeks after issuing a statement denouncing “the politics of personal destruction” after a man who had accused Mayor Ed Murray of sexual abuse in the 1980s withdrew his lawsuit, mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell reversed course, saying last night that the mayor should resign instead of serving out his term. Farrell said newly disclosed information in a separate sexual abuse case “severely undermines our confidence in his ability to carry out the duties of his office,” according to Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman. On Sunday, the Times reported that an investigator with Oregon’s Child Protective Services concluded that Murray had sexually abused his foster son in the early 1980s. Murray denied the allegations, noting that the case was withdrawn and no charges were ever filed.

Farrell’s dramatic reversal (dramatic in part because there was no reason she had to weigh in at all) makes more sense in light of events that transpired after she defended Murray the first time. Back then, Farrell was still seeking the mayor’s endorsement, and believed she had a real shot at getting it. Since then, Murray has endorsed Jenny Durkan, saying the former federal prosecutor “has the best chance of winning.” While Farrell may be relieved that she lost Murray’s endorsement to Durkan, the snub had to sting—and it’s hardly a stretch to see Farrell’s denunciation as payback.

4. If you still aren’t sure which mayoral candidate you prefer, there are at least two more chances to see the candidates debate before you fill out your ballot. The first, a live debate sponsored by CityClub, KING 5, GeekWire, and KUOW, is sold out, but a viewing party from 6:30 to 9pm at the nearby Flatstick Pub will also offer a post-debate opportunity to meet the candidates. And on Tuesday, LGBTQ Allyship will sponsor its own debate, featuring candidates for mayor and council positions 8 and 9, focusing on LGBTQ issues. That forum will be held at the Southside Commons in Columbia City from 6 to 9 pm.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please considerbecoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Africatown, Forterra Part of Partnership to Redevelop Midtown Center

Midtown Center—the property at 23rd and Union that has been the subject of an on-again, off-again debate about how to provide new housing in the Central District without economically displacing its remaining African American residents—has been sold to Lake Union Partners for $23.25 million. LUP, in turn, will sell 20 percent of the block to the conservation nonprofit Forterra, which will then work with Africatown to transfer the property into a community development partnership.

The Lake Union Partners-owned portion of the property will include between 400 and 420 apartments, including around 125 apartments that will be affordable to people making between 60 and 85 percent of area median income, or about $40,000 to $65,000 a year, under the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption program, which provides developers a 12-year tax break in exchange for building affordable housing, and the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which will require that 10 percent of the units be affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the area median. (The city council has not yet approved MHA for the Central District.) The rest of the site will be developed by Forterra and Africatown, and will include between 120 and 135 apartments affordable to people making 40 percent or more of median income, or about $26,880.

As I reported back in March, the original deal for the current owners of the Midtown Center block, the Bangasser family partnership, fell apart after a dispute between the Bangassers and Africatown, which led protests against the family when it changed the locks on a space occupied (though not formally leased) by the business incubator Black Dot and, in a separate action, evicted Omari Tahir Garrett, father of Africatown leader K. Wyking Garrett, from the house where he had been living without paying rent since at least 2012.

The increasingly heated dispute makes it appear highly unlikely that Africatown will be successful in its efforts to partner in the redevelopment of Midtown Center, which requires cooperation from the Bangasser family members who control Midtown Center. (Tom Bangasser was removed as controlling partner on the family partnership last year). The latest clash between the Garretts and the Bangassers comes just two weeks after Africatown and Forterra announced plans to buy the Midtown Center property, and just a month after a deal to redevelop the property involving Africatown, Miami-based multifamily housing developer Lennar Communities, and Regency Centers, which was planning to purchase the property from the Bangassers, fell through.

The original plan for the site would have included 475 apartments, some of them affordable, along space for small retail businesses.

In a statement, Mayor Ed Murray said the development “will ensure that 23rd and Union remains connected to Seattle’s cultural heritage and ongoing struggle for racial justice and equity of opportunity.”

The proposal now enters the long approval process, starting with design review, which will begin this fall.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support!