Afternoon Jolt

Fizz made an attempt at critiquing state Sen. Andy Hill's (R-45, Redmond) bill to earmark two-thirds of all new revenue for education. Sen. Hill is the chair of the state senate ways and means committee.

But math brain Kim Justice, the policy analyst for the lefty Washington State Budget and Policy Center, did a much better job (go figure; Josh gave her lobbyist of the year way back in 2008 for her smarts.)

She's still at it.

Testifying against the legislation in front of Sen. Hill's committee meeting yesterday, Justice started out making one of the points we made in Fizz: Revenue growth for the next biennium isn't enough to even cover the status quo going forward—"much less make additional investments in education," as Justice put it.

The Washington State Supreme Court's McCleary decision puts the state on the hook for an additional $2 billion in K-12 funding for the next biennium and another $1.2 billion extra in the biennium after that—on top of the the roughly $15 billion per biennium that's needed to cover existing costs. Hill's legislation, Justice told Jolt, doesn't address the real budget problem because "he just rearranges the money without adding any."

Of course, the Republicans haven't said that Hill's two-thirds plan would fulfil the McCleary obligation. But that leads Justice to make another point, which reveals the legislation as more of a soundbite than a solution. "They haven't said that," Justice admits, "but you still have to fund McCleary."

And Justice goes on to make a more devastating point about Sen. Hill's current budgeting scheme in general (the house Democrats are guilty of this funny math as well, by the way.) Justice tells Hill that his supplemental budget falls $70 million short.

Sen. Andy Hill

Hill takes umbrage at Justice's point. "Well, I was interested." Hill begins skeptically. "You said you thought the senate's proposal was $70 million short and yet it balanced, it met the four-year balanced budget requirement."

Kim Justice

Cue up the math. And the Jolt: Justice points out to Hill that the balanced budget requirement puts a 4.5 percent floor on revenue growth for budgeting. That is: the budget can assume revenues based on 4.5 percent growth or actual projections, whichever is higher. Revenue growth over next four years is projected to be only about 4.3 percent, $104 million less than 4.5 percent growth in Hill's plan. Hill's budget leaves an ending balance of $35 million. So, "if you back out the additional revenue that's assumed [$104 million]," Justice tells Hill, "then you're facing a $70 million shortfall."

"Got it," Hill says. "OK."

Justice told Jolt that Hill's budget "was not based on reality."

Indeed, the actual increase for the fiscal biennium (2016 and 2017) is 4.3 percent (see page 71) and (see last page) Hill's senate budget is based on 4.5 percent growth which gives them $104 million that doesn't actually exist.

In addition to showing up Hill's two-thirds bill as pure messaging without any substance, Justice's entire testimony is worth watching because she hits another point: Prioritizing education funding  can't be done in isolation. Hill's proposal forces "deep and devastating cuts to other things kids need to be good learners such as access to food, health care, and a stable home," Justice says, clearly bullet-pointing the other mainstays of the general fund that are at risk.

To complete that point about holistic budgeting responsibilities, Justice hints at the McCleary logic that's lit a fire under education funding, telling the committee the state could be in danger of "violating federal and [state] constitutional requirements." Justice notes that additional cuts—on top of the recession era's $10 billion in hits—would put the state at risk of being unable to pay for debt service, prison costs, and the state's share of Medicaid. 

 This is Must See-TV(W). Go to the 39:45 mark.

 14. Affordable Housing

One Question

We talked to City Council member Mike O'Brien, the chair of the land use committee, today to get his reaction to the numbers we reported yesterday that raised red flags about the city's incentive zoning program.

The numbers—62 percent of eligible developments since 2001 did not use the building incentive, creating just 616 units of affordable housing over the past 13 years—indicate that the city's main program to create affordable housing isn't working.

The numbers also showed that the incentive zoning program's target market, those making between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income (about $45,000 for one person), already have access to housing they can afford—83 percent of rentals were available to people making 80 percent of AMI. The real need, the city's own study showed, is for people making below 50 percent of AMI (about $30,000 for one person), who can afford just 37 percent of units on the market.

We asked O'Brien, an advocate of incentive zoning—he fought to raise the fee last year from then- mayor Mike McGinn's $15 to the council's $22—if the new data had changed his mind about the program. 

"It's really important that we dig into the numbers at a deeper level—because it's a little inconsistent. Actually it's really inconsistent with what I hear when I'm out every day in the community, which is, 'my rent's going up. I'm being kicked out. I can't find another place that I can afford.'"

O'Brien said it's "hard for me to characterize it as 'the program's not working.' It's certainly not as robust as one would hope."

He continued: "One thing that gets brought up all the time is 'why are you guys spending so much time  on incentive zoning?' That it should be a broader-based discussion. 'Don't make the development community responsible for all the affordability needs in this city.' And I don't disagree with that."

Of course, the city does have other programs to produce affordable housing—the voter-approved housing levy, for example, and the Multi-Family Tax Exemption credit for developers who build low-income units in mutli-family housing projects—programs that have produced about 4,000 units and 2,500 units, respectively over the same fallow period for incentive zoning. "We do have a housing levy," O'Brien said. "We do have a MFTE. [Incentive zoning] is a piece of that. We're going to need a variety of tools."

O'Brien, reminding me that he has an economics degree (he was the CFO at local law firm Stokes Lawrence) says he agrees that increasing supply in general is part of the answer (another troubling number in the city study is that a potential 4,000 residential units went unbuilt under the struggling incentive zoning program).

But O'Brien isn't placing his full faith in the free market. "The [thing] we hear all the time is: 'This is just increasing the cost of producing market rate units, and supply is really the answer.' I agree that supply is a big part of it, but I don't believe that 100 percent of our effort focused on supply is going to answer the problem."

O'Brien says he's tasked the city's consultants to seek out the developers who declined the incentive to find out exactly why. "Is it because the economics of the incentive program are so burdensome? I do believe that developers, at the end of the day, are going to make a decision that makes the most sense for their bottom line. And so if that's the case, we really need to understand that because then I don't think the program is getting us what we need."

But, and even though the data already seems to indicate the bottom line isn't working for developers,  O'Brien suspects it's not that simple. It could be, he says, "that these projects actually came on line a couple of years ago ... when the market was different and people just didn't want to build larger buildings. .. Or is it a developer that just doesn't do high-rise? I imagine it's a little bit of everything out there."

As for the apparent miscue on affordability—that the incentive zoning program is geared toward building "workforce housing" that's already available on the market—O'Brien also thinks the data is more nuanced than the top-lines indicate.  

First of all, he notes that there's a wide range between 51 percent and 79 percent of median income, and the policies may have to be "more surgical" so there aren't gaps between available housing. He worries, for example, that someone may be living in housing that's affordable at 50 percent when they could actually jump to 60 percent, but only housing at 80 percent is available. "They're taking up resources for lower-income people, and we need to find the right-size unit that they're ready to step into."

O'Brien also says, as a recent Seattle Planning Commission report about making housing more available to lower-income families pointed out, it's not just about income, it's about the type of housing.

O'Brien says: "If you're a single individual making making 80 percent of AMI, about $40,000, there are studios and one-bedroom apartments at market rate that seem to be available. But when you step up to two or three or four bedroom units, there's really hardly anything affordable to people making 80 percent AMI. It's not just about percent of AMI, it's the housing size. And maybe we want to start focusing our resources there."

And another subtlety O'Brien noted: People making, say, 120 percent of AMI may be choosing to live in cheaper apartments, which are then unavailable to people making less.

O'Brien acknowledged that the new data were challenging the conventional wisdom. "I'm definitely seeing stuff that's new to me, and that's great," he says. "And I need to make sure I'm willing to step back and reevaluate how we would design a program that's effective."

Maybe it's because the numbers are so startling, but in the end, O'Brien is reluctant to totally embrace the new findings. "One of things we saw, at least on the top line, was there's a lot of housing in Seattle today that's affordable to people making 80 percent of AMI. That starts to shift some of the thinking. But it's also really important that we dig into those numbers at a deeper level and really understand what's going on—because it's a little inconsistent. Actually it's really inconsistent with what I hear when I'm out every day in the community, which is, 'my rent's going up. I'm being kicked out. I can't find another place that I can afford.'"

Oh, and just one more to turn '14 into '15:

15. File this under the picayune obsession category that I noted up top: Urban Planning. Make that: Bad Urban Planning.

You would think the Stadium light rail station at South Royal Brougham Way between 4th and 6th Aves.—presumably designed with light rail commuters in mind—would be easily accessible by foot to and from the stadium from many directions.

My dangerous, circuitous, and inhospitable walk between Safeco Field and the light rail station last night taught me otherwise. There is, evidently, a single defined path on game day. But make one false move—like missing the unmarked doubleback loop off Royal Brougham—and suddenly you're in a concrete no-man's land that offers no out for pedestrians.

This major flaw makes it clear the station area planning was done without concern for people who are walking.

A light rail station design that only offers one access point—to and from the stadium—in the map of surrounding streets, demonstrates botched planning.   

A light rail station design that only has one access point from the map of surrounding streets is botched planning. 

I was at a fundraiser last night—the Chocolate for Choice event for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington at the Terrace Club, a large room on the concourse level of Safeco. As I was heading out, a few friends announced drinks at the Elysian, the bar-food joint across the street from Safeco and Century Link on 1st.

Sounded great, but Erica, who'd been a judge at the event, was crashing from all the chocolate and asked if I'd walk her to the light rail first.

I told my pals I'd meet them in 20 minutes, and headed out to the Stadium light rail station with ECB. 

Stepping out of Safeco heading east toward the station, we were promptly funnelled onto Royal Brougham Way with no other option but to take the overpass south out onto 3rd. We continued south on 3rd, evidently missing the loop back and around, and were making the fatal mistake of walking out into the streets around the stadium district and expecting to walk to the Stadium station.

There was no formal way to cross over to 4th, so we dashed across the street after walking a few frustrating blocks south.

There was also no way to walk safely north along 4th, nor did 4th appear to lead to any cross streets that would take us the block east to the light rail stop, so we headed south hoping for a cross street to take over and double back—all the while being dragged further south instead of north to the station.

We eventually hit Massachusetts, but one block in, we hit a dead end. So we walked along a weird access road down to Holgate where we cut east again, trying to find a route north back to the light rail. At this point, Google maps indicated we were equidistant from the Stadium station and the SoDo stop further south.

We were intent on getting to the Stadium station and looked north trying to find a ped-friendly route. There wasn't one, so (after watching a transit cop pass in his car), we headed north up the E3 busway. And were eventually met with "Pedestrians and Bikes Prohibited" sign a few blocks in.

In a defiant teenage mood at this point—the street grid as laid out wasn't working for us—we ignored the sign and walked along the intimidating road 10 minutes north to the light rail stop. Although, in a final F-U from whoever designed this anti-ped maze, the light rail station was chained off from the path. In a triumphant act of defiance, we hopped over the chain.

The train came, and I started back toward the stadium district, thinking, "Okay, maybe the route from the stadium to the Stadium station isn't clear, but surely, the route from the Stadium stop to the stadiums must be spelled out clearly."


From the station, I crossed the street to the west at Royal Brougham Way and was immediately blocked by a highway on-ramp and a fence by the train tracks. I ended up walking on a worn dirt path on the west side of 4th where I eventually came upon an elevated unmarked ped breezeway.

Should I take the unmarked elevator somewhere? I came across a hall that led out onto some stairs, and—in an evening of cartoonish visual metaphors ("Dead-End" signs, chains in front of light rail stops, barbed-wire fences), I finally had to give in and break out laughing as I came upon the gigantic, empty parking lot on the north side of CenturyLink field.

The symbolism that I had been losing ground all night in a stadium district designed exclusively for cars couldn't have been clearer.

I crossed the massive lot, passing a lone woman (the second pedestrian I'd seen all night) going the other way, and crossed the street to meet my friends an hour after setting out.