McGinn Lobbied Against Incentives for Affordable Housing

By Erica C. Barnett December 2, 2009

[This was originally published at 4:00 pm.]

Late last year, Mike McGinn, now Seattle's mayor-elect, alongside at least one representative from South Lake Union developer Vulcan, lobbied the city against legislation that implemented incentive zoning, a law that allows developers to build taller buildings only if they build a certain amount of affordable units on-site.

[caption id="attachment_20054" align="alignleft" width="291" caption="Mike McGinn and Phil Fujii/Photo by Teo "]Mike McGinn and Phil Fujii[/caption]

Vulcan and other developers argued that the additional height in the legislation wasn't enough incentive for them to build the affordable housing required by the legislation. (Some low-income housing advocates, like Puget Sound Sage also opposed the proposal, but for different reasons: They felt it didn't provide enough housing for low-income people). Under the bill the council adopted last December, developers can build taller buildings in Seattle's neighborhoods, but they have to devote 17.5 percent of the additional space to housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of Seattle's median income, then $43,000).

Earlier this week, as first reported on PubliCola, McGinn appointed Vulcan community relations manager Phil Fujii as one of his two deputy mayors. (We also broke the news that Vulcan spokesman David Postman is doing volunteer communications work for McGinn's transition team.)

Vulcan's relationship with McGinn goes back to his days at the green-urbanism group Great City, which McGinn founded (with the help of Vulcan money) in 2007. Vulcan representatives held four seats on Great City's 38-member Leadership for Great Neighborhoods group—three more than any of the other developers on the committee, which is "dedicated to affecting change and achieving the greatest possible social, economic, and environmental benefits from proposed zoning changes in Seattle neighborhoods."

Zoning changes will continue to be a  major issue in the coming months, as the city council actually applies the incentive zoning rules it adopted last year to the city's neighborhoods.

McGinn says his issue was with the specific legislation passed last year, not with incentive zoning per se. "I support incentive zoning. ... My concern was that it was not flexible enough, on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis," he says.

Last October, McGinn personally testified against the proposal before the council at a meeting of the council's planning and land use committee.

"I think everyone is coming to the council, saying, 'We want to hold you accountable for these community needs,' and I guess what I’m suggesting is ...  are we asking too much of a relatively thin resource?" McGinn told the council. "The idea that we’re going to finance everything out of somebody else’s profits in a world in which a lot of profits are disappearing doesn’t seem to be a really realistic strategy."

McGinn, along with Fujii, El Centro de la Raza founder and social-justice activist Roberto Maestas, and others, also urged council members privately to hold off on the legislation.

McGinn tells PubliCola: "We were asking them to slow down and look at different alternatives," like reducing fees in certain neighborhoods or allowing improvements other than affordable housing (like sidewalks or parks). A message left on Fujii's machine at Vulcan was returned via email by Postman, who said Fujii "doesn't usually talk to reporters."

In a separate email, Postman said, "Vulcan was very open and public about its opposition to Sally Clark’s proposal. Phil, as well as every member of government and community relations team, spoke with council members and others about our concerns. ... It was no secret that Vulcan had specific objections to that legislation."

Maestas has not yet returned a call.

Great City executive director Joshua Curtis says 13 of Leadership for Great Neighborhoods' members were active in the incentive zoning debate; two of those, Fujii and Dan McGrady, were from Vulcan.

The legislation passed 6-3, with Nick Licata, Jan Drago, and Bruce Harrell dissenting, last December.
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