In his state of the city speech yesterday—pointing to pros and cons of Seattle’s booming economy (new jobs and low unemployment coupled with traffic congestion and homelessness)—mayor Ed Murray delivered good news and bad news.
Appropriately enough, the mayor himself got hit with good news and bad news yesterday.
1. First, the bad news for Murray: the city council put Murray’s Office of Economic Development, his transportation department, and his deputy mayor Kate Joncas in the hot seat, publicly challenging the city’s policy on 23rd Avenue in the Central Area, where local, minority owned, small businesses are being crippled by SDOT’s road redesign project. (Yesterday, I pointed out that council themselves greenlighted the project, but you’ve got to now credit council, and District Three council member Kshama Sawant in particular, for trying to remedy the situation.)
Sawant kicked off yesterday’s special 23rd Avenue briefing (go to the 47 minute mark to watch the riveting hearing) by saying she wasn’t against new infrastructure, she just wanted “development without displacement.”
The city council heard several stories from minority-owned business owners along 23rd Avenue such as a beauty salon and a jeweler who have been on the street for 25 and 50 years respectively that are being “devastated” and “destroyed” by the road redesign construction project that is “completely blocking sidewalks.”
The owners said sales are down between 70 and 80 percent in the seven months since construction began, noted that electricity and water has been turned off due to unpaid bills, and one owner, Sara Mae Brereton of 701 Coffee, saying her business “is being bankrupt by an effective closure,” told council her family was now “on the brink of homelessness.”
NAACP head Gerald Hankerson, who was also at the table, called the Central Area “ground zero for gentrification,” and accused the city of perusing a program to intentionally drive out minority businesses for a “New CD.”
“It’s clear to us that the city has no intention of supporting these minority locally owned businesses,” he said juxtaposing the Central Area business plight to the support for “One percenter” businesses along the waterfront that got help during seawall reconstruction. “It actually should be considered criminal,” Hankerson said, ridiculing the “exceptions” that were made for compensating white businesses, saying, “it seems like there are so many exceptions, the exceptions have become the rule.” (The city has said it’s against official policy to provide direct business mitigation money.)
“The city has actually orchestrated this plan,” Hankerson said, “to be able to gentrify this community, because the intention is for these businesses to be gone for the new CD to come into place. We know the Vulcans and the corporations want this central area. We know the new CD…what it’s supposed to look like.” Hankerson said the city had an “overall strategy to push black and minority and small business out of Seattle because they don’t want us here, and they definitely don’t want us in the Central Area.”
“The only thing they’ve been offered is advertising,” he said in disbelief referring to the OED’s $102,000 marketing aid. “What’s advertising going to do when someone can’t even walk up to your shop?”
Ridiculing Seattle’s claim to being a progressive city, Hankerson said: “When it comes to black and small, minority owned businesses, there’s nothing there.”
Finally, he pointed out that he doesn’t see any minority or local construction workers doing the job on 23rd. “You don’t see any of the people employed in the community doing this job.”
UPDATE: The city's finance and administrative services office says 32.3 percent of the work hours on the 23rd Avenue project have been done by people of color versus 25.4 percent on similar construction projects. They also report that 22.4 percent of the workforce on the 23rd project are from low-income zip codes versus 12 percent on similar projects.
Council member Sawant, who represents 23rd as part of her District Three seat, highlighted Hankerson’s point about the “double standard” pointing to the waterfront project where the city agreed to pay $15 million in compensation money after business owners agreed to drop a lawsuit.
Sawant said: “Don’t get lost in the wonky details, the subtext is clear. Businesses that are big enough and influential enough to hire a team of lawyers and make sure —the mayor knows exactly which side his bread is buttered on—they get not only mitigation but enormous funds to relocate.” She specifically cited Ivar’s, which reopened with a $20 million remodel.
OED head Surratt, who’s African American, and deputy mayor Kate Joncas, struggled to address the concerns when council called them up to to ask about immediate rent assistance and the city policy against mitigation. (Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess asked those questions respectively.)
Surratt said simply the city "did not have the resources" to help with rent. And Joncas, addressing the double standard question, said it’s city policy not to compensate businesses during construction. She explained that in the case of the waterfront, the city could not provide any legitimate access to the businesses there (in part because they are bound by water on the west and also due to a forty-foot-wide trench that was dug out in front of the affected businesses.) As a result, she said, the city had to close those businesses and that triggered the $15 million compensation. Joncas noted that it was not just Ivar’s “but it was also the hot dog stand” that was compensated. “It had nothing to do with the lawsuit,” she said.
Council member Lisa Herbold followed up, asking Joncas if the city took a similar look at the 23rd businesses in advance of the project to determine how the construction would affect access to the businesses there “because folks feel like there’s no access to their businesses, that’s the bottom line, legal interpretations aside.”
Joncas said the city determined the construction on 23rd “did not meet the test that you couldn’t get access” saying the “size of the construction” along the waterfront was more dramatic. She simply referred council to the legal department.
The council pledged to the business owners that they would take up the issue of mitigation ASAP.
2. On the good news front for Murray, he scored a big victory in Olympia yesterday: the Republican dominated senate voted 36-13 to pass his affordable housing legislation.
The bill, sposored by state senator Joe Fain (R-47, Auburn) and state senator David Frockt (D-46, Seattle), would allow a city or a county to provide a tax break for a multiple-unit apartment building if at least 25 percent of the units serve households below 50 percent of the median household income for that area.
“There is a crisis in affordable housing. This is one small piece in that puzzle. It is certainly not a silver bullet,” Fain said. Frockt noted the House’s Democratic leadership—which will take up the senate legislation now—has been supportive of this bill.
Fain, Frockt and state senator Karen Keiser (D-33, Kent) said suburban and rural cities and counties statewide face a major problem finding affordable homes for low-income families, citing the bill as a way to help landlords who use the tax break to keep rents down. “This extends beyond Seattle,” Keiser said.
A senate staff report accompanying the bill said 36 percent—936,260—of Washington’s households pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing. Meanwhile, 15.2 percent—at least 390,000—of the state’s households earn less than 30 percent of the state median family income. And out of every 100 extremely-low-income household in the state, there are only 51 affordable housing units available, the senate staff report said.
To become eligible for such a local break, a landlord would be required to meet several minimum standard pertaining to the quality of the units and occupancy rates in the building.
State representative Noel Frame (D-36, Ballard) sponsored a companion bill that died in the house finance committee. She did not know why it stalled there. (There are critics on the left who believe the bill will actually incentivize developers to build expensive units and offset the gains in affordable housing.) However, Frame noted that the house knew Fain's and Frockt's bill appeared on track to pass the senate. "I will do what I can to make sure this bill passes the house," Frame said.
Murray has a goal of creating 20,000 affordable units in the next decade; 6,000 are supposed to come from so-called grand bargain between housing advocates and developers to give developers an upzone in exchange for a percentage of guaranteed affordable units. The housing levy, which the mayor has proposed doubling this year, is supposed to create another 2,100. Murray’s legislation in Olympia, the city says, will create about 3,000 units.