Tag: NIMBYism

Put Westneat’s “Little Kabul” in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones

Photo by Lauri Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

How sweet: Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat supports ghettos. In a flawless example of peak Seattle—i.e., a middle-aged white guy explaining how great Seattle was back in the Dan Evans 1970s and ’80s—Westneat wrote: “Go ahead, Republican Governors Association. Send us your buses. Previous migrants started Little Saigon in Seattle; maybe these will start Little Caracas or Little Kabul. Both the question and the answer repeat through history: Do you want these people? Yes, we do.”

Do we? Maybe we should answer another question first: Where do we want “Little Kabul” or “Little Caracas” to be located? Can it be built in Seattle’s segregated single-family areas, which make up about 75% of the city?

This defining fact about our city—which studies show drive up housing prices, and which I’ve been grousing about since 2004—is what makes Westneat’s column so unconvincing. It’s the editorial embodiment of one of those “in this house” signs that claim to be all about inclusion, but dot yards in exclusive neighborhoods that don’t allow multi-family housing.

This petulant housing lockout is particularly problematic in a city like Seattle that’s facing a pressing housing shortage while still growing by tens of thousands annually; despite the pandemic, we added a stunning 20,100 residents between April 2021 and April 2022.

Westneat was writing about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent gross political stunt; DeSantis chartered two planes—from Texas, weirdly—to fly about fifty undocumented migrants to that metonym for liberal elitism, Martha’s Vineyard. Westneat makes the case that Seattle would proudly accept migrants. I guess, judging from the 1970s scenario he lovingly conjures, we’d show that evil Ron DeSantis by cordoning these migrants into tiny quadrants of Seattle that, among other things, lack parks and good schools. Confined to arterial streets, multi-family housing zones in Seattle also expose their residents to more pollution.

Tell you what. I’ll second Westneat’s idea, but on one condition: We upzone neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Madrona, and Laurelhurst for multifamily housing and build “Little Kabuls” throughout our leafy city. Seattle actually tried to upzone its single-family zones (now called “neighborhood residential” zones)—back in 2015, but we inelegantly backed off when Seattle’s core NIMBY values rose up, and, championed by the anti-upzone Seattle Times editorial board, stopped the idea in its tracks. It was, in fact, a Westneat column— alerting the public to the fact that a task force was poised to recommend upzoning Seattle’s residential zones—that unleashed public animosity against adding density to our sacred neighborhoods.

I’ll second Westneat’s “Little Kabul” idea, but on one condition: We upzone neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Madrona, and Laurelhurst for multifamily housing and build “Little Kabuls” throughout our leafy city.

Indeed, the problem with Westneat’s liberal posturing is that existing Seattle housing policy won’t back it up. In short, his “Little Kabul” column reads more like white virtue signaling than like a workable idea.

For the last two legislative sessions in Olympia, a promising new alliance of pro-development and social justice legislators and advocates have proposed reforms to land use police policy that would make Seattle actually embrace the mantra of inclusion. The YIMBY legislation would allow multifamily housing deep inside neighborhoods near transit stops, not just at the edges—a vision of transit-oriented development that goes beyond the timid status quo, which only allows density immediately next to transit hubs. Facing opposition from old-fashioned liberals like longtime local government committee chair, Seattle’s own Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle), and lacking a champion in the mayor’s office (former mayor Jenny Durkan and current Mayor Bruce Harrell are standard, Lesser-Seattle politicians), the legislation hasn’t been a priority for Seattle.

Thankfully, the diverse and progressive Seattle Planning Commission has an ambitious pro-housing blueprint cued up for the pending Seattle Comprehensive Plan update, coming in 2024. Their agenda, backed by progressive council members like at-large Council member Teresa Mosqueda, includes “expanding and adding more urban villages.” I say, put Blue Ridge and Madrona and Laurelhurst on the list. And add Magnolia and Phinney Ridge while we’re at it.

Hopefully, the Seattle Times won’t repeat the anti-housing crusade they waged against Seattle’s last attempt to upzone Seattle’s extensive single family zones. But given that Westneat, who likes to warn against “unfettered growth,”  owns a multi-family rental property that benefits from keeping the vast majority of the rest of the city off-limits to new multi-family housing (can you believe this conflict of interest at the Seattle Times?), I wouldn’t be surprised if my version of the “Little Kabul” idea doesn’t win his support.

josh@publicola.com

Morning Crank: Half a Loaf

sen-joe-fain
Sen. Joe Fain (R-47)

1. City council member Lorena Gonzalez reportedly hopes to introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would require businesses to provide paid family leave to their employees—a significant expansion of a new law, adopted on Monday after a months-long delay, guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid parental leave to city employees. (Employees who need time off to care for other family members can receive up to four weeks off).

Expanding family leave to private employees—as Gonzalez talked about doing when she ran for office in 2015—would likely be far more controversial, especially among small businesses and those that primarily employ service workers, than the city-employee-only law. But the real opposition may come from Olympia, where state legislators are considering a fairly toothless family leave bill that includes a preemption clause that prevents any city from adopting a family leave policy more generous than what the state requires.

The Republican-backed bill, sponsored by 47th District Sen. Joe Fain, would provide up to eight weeks of family leave, increasing up to a maximum of 12 weeks by 2023. Employees who took the time off would be paid just half of their regular wages (rising to a maximum of 67 percent in 2023), and the program would be funded entirely by employees’ own contributions, making it more of a self-insurance policy than an actual benefit. It also requires employees to work for 26 consecutive weeks for a single employer before they receive benefits—a requirement that Economic Opportunity Institute policy director Marilyn Watkins says doesn’t acknowledge the current economic reality, where many people work multiple jobs or switch employers frequently. “It just leaves a lot of people out who are going to end up paying the premium but are never going to meet the qualification to get leave,” Watkins says. “Why should we put things in there that we know are going to be problems—that we know are going to cause inequities?”

According to the bill, “Cities, towns, and counties or other municipalities may enact only those laws and ordinances relating to paid family leave that are specifically authorized by state law and are consistent with this chapter. Local laws and ordinances in existence on the effective date of this section that are inconsistent with this chapter are preempted and repealed.” That means that if the bill passes, any city law providing more leave (and it wouldn’t be hard) will be repealed.

Preemption bills like this aren’t uncommon; they pop up pretty much any time  Seattle passes or discusses progressive policies, such as rules allowing safe-injection sites, encampment sweeps policies that Republicans view as soft on homelessness, or a $15 minimum wage. What could be different this year is that Fain’s bill has bipartisan support; in addition to the usual Republican suspects like Michael Baumgartner (R-6) and Mark Miloscia (R-30), the bill is sponsored by Democrats like Steve Hobbs (D-44) and Guy Palumbo (D-1). A competing bill, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33), would provide more extensive benefits and does not include a preemption clause.

Fain said at a hearing last month that he hopes advocates recognize that “nobody ever went hungry on half a loaf”—meaning, some progress toward true paid family leave is better than none. But advocates may decide they want a full loaf after all, and take the family leave issue directly to voters if legislators offer them only crumbs.

2.  Miller Park Neighbors member Jonathan Swift, who emceed a Wednesday-night prep session for an upcoming city-sponsored meeting about proposed upzones in Northeast Capitol Hill—said he was interested in a balanced discussion. Then he characterized the two sides in the zoning debate as those who liked neighborhood character and those who didn’t. (A flyer distributed with anti-upzone talking points drove the point home, claiming that the  city’s proposal, part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), would “destroy the character of the neighborhood” and asserting that “family-sized housing is most appropriate.” )

Anti-HALA architect Greg Hill followed the soft-spoken Swit, telling the crowd of about 100 people that HALA was dominated by an unnamed “right-wing” group and insinuating that HALA, which calls for expanding the city’s urban villages and allowing more multifamily housing along transit corridors, is a sinister, profit-driven developer plot that will decimate Seattle’s environment by reducing the city’s tree canopy. In reality, building housing near transit is the definition of green urbanism, reducing reliance on cars, maximizing energy efficiency, and reducing water usage.

One of the few African-American people in the room—as HALA pointed out, single-family zoning tends to exclude people of color from “character”-filled neighborhoods like Northeast Capitol Hill—was Spencer Williams, a staffer for urbanist city council member Rob Johnson. Johnson has openly criticized Seattle’s brand of reactionary utopianism, which stars NPR-style liberals who denounce Trump for wanting to build a wall to keep newcomers out while defending zoning codes that have the same effect.

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