Afternoon Jolt

Friday LIKES (Challenging the Status Quo) & DISLIKES (Mayor Murray's Cop-Out)

Mayor Murray's affordable housing committee fail

By Josh Feit July 31, 2015

Jolt axth2t


1. I LIKE (sarcasm alert) how mayor Ed Murry's unctuous press release this week reneging on his proposal to pursue code changes in Seattle's single family zones (a comically enormous 65 percent of Seattle is zoned exclusively for single families, by the way, while Portland only zones three percent of its land the same way) started by making a big to do about the racist "legacy" in our land use policy that "keeps people of color south of Madison Street." And after hand wringing some more on that point—"I have always believed that Seattle can step up and have a difficult conversation about our history of racial discrimination and economic inequality"—Murray finally got the reason for the press release: He was yanking the very piece of his proposal that directly challenged that legacy. 

His statement ended with this bewildering To Do List item: "To advance the broader conversation about affordable housing and equity, I will no longer pursue changes that could allow more types of housing in 94 percent of single-family zones."

Wait, it gets even sillier: "Instead, we will refocus the discussion on designing denser urban centers, urban villages and along transit corridors that include more affordable housing.” In other words: Hey, low-income people, you're still excluded from 65 percent of the city, while we shuttle you into designated "urban" zones.

2. I DISLIKE that Murray's jittery decision forced Seattle Met to stop the presses this week on a HALA feature story I had just written.

After Murray pulled his daring proposal, my editor rightly decided that the story was no longer accurate.

Now, on the cutting room floor:

Seattle, of course, is famously liberal. See: The $15 minimum wage. Universal pre-K. Legal pot. Gay marriage long before it was cool—or SCOTUS approved. But in mid-July, a 28-member citizen committee appointed by the mayor released perhaps the most radical document in city history.

What did mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee say in its 70-plus-page report that was so radical? What made its political prescription more far reaching than, say, the minimum wage law brought to us by our socialist city council member? Rather than rocking national norms like our other progressive policies, the HALA recommendations did something more daring: They challenged Seattle’s own DNA-deep traditions.

It would have been easy in liberal Seattle to levy a blanket tax on developers to pay for affordable housing, as the aforementioned socialist council member, Kshama Sawant, along with the majority of her council colleagues (and just about everyone else in town) wanted to do. But that solution would have preserved Seattle’s status quo by letting a key factor in the affordability crisis go unaddressed: Seattle property owners, who live on the 65 percent of city land that’s zoned exclusively for single families. (Only 3 percent of Portland is zoned with comparable guidelines.)

But the HALA report went for it and identified sacrosanct single family neighborhoods—such as Ballard and Green Lake—as “constraining” housing supply and went on to condemn the “exclusivity” for “limiting…access for those with less income,” saying, “the historic level of single family zoning is no longer…realistic or sustainable.” The report concluded that Ozzie and Harriet zoning, which they also tied to a history of racially based redlining, “remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability.”

Ubax Gardheere, program director at Seattle social justice group Puget Sound Sage, and a member of the HALA committee, says Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods aren’t helping counteract the segregationist history of segregated neighborhoods. “Normally less restrictive land use [code] allows a more diverse group of citizens to live in desirable areas,” Gardheere says. “But since 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single family, it doesn’t give low-income folks, immigrants [access]. It gives more affluent homeowners better access.”

Oh, well.

 3. Speaking of Gardheere, I DISLIKE that having taken the conversation about single family zones off the table, Murray undid the unprecedented alliance that came together during the HALA committee—developers and social justice groups. Having bailed on a new alliance that was challenging Seattle's status quo, Murray has allowed the old-school alliance of single family homeowners and social justice advocates to reemerge around the issue of a blanket linkage fee. (This longstanding, convenient alliance for developer fees between single family homeowners and social justice advocates exists because both groups have a shared interest in demonizing developers. Rather than forcing supply in exclusive single family zones and messing up neighborhood “character,” taxes on developers are a politically easy way to create affordable housing.)

By taking privileged property owners off the defensive now, Murray has allowed them to go back on the offensive and push for a straight up developers fee as opposed to the pro-density idea that HALA had recommended—inclusionary zoning with upzones.

4. I DISLIKE that there's no urbanist counterweight anymore to the city's donut hole paper, the Seattle Times; even though the Times is headquartered in the city, they serve surrounding suburban interests. And more to the point, their non-urban agenda ran the table on the single family zoning issue during the last two weeks, forcing the mayor to give up on an inspired and daring proposal. 

Explicitly urbanist publications like Seattle Transit Blog, Seattle Bike Blog, the Urbanist, The C is for Crank, City Tank, and even glossy mag-owned PubliCola, can't match the Times in reach and sway. (And sadly, apparent uber-urbanist Morgan Beach doesn't have a publication of her own; check out her must-read rant about Murray's decision in this morning's Fizz LIKES & DISLIKES.)

Which brings up something I'm totally bummed about. I DISLIKE that the Stranger, which does have the clout, to be a counterweight to the Times, has not been an urbanist champion lately. Stranger writer Ansel Herz ran a great article knocking Murray for bailing on density  after Murray succumbed to the Times. But where was the Stranger when Murray first proposed the radical idea? The alt weekly has been so focused on cheering their hero Kshama Sawant these days and bashing Murray, that when Murray released perhaps the most radical urbanist proposal this city has ever seen, they twisted themselves in knots to credit another one of their pets, Mike O'Brien (who was actually denouncing the SFZ changes long before Murray was). Meanwhile, they were spending most of their energy supporting Sawant's trite campaign season call for rent control. As for the Times, they focused on the relevant, big news in the city, defended the 65 percenters, and controlled the debate.

Murray had nowhere to turn.

5. And that brings me to one thing I LIKE about all this. I LIKE that ever since that heady week when Murray first released his bad ass urbanist proposal (as a nerdy and wowed Evans School city green quipped about the HALA recs when they first dropped, "those HALA recs are HELLA good"), the scattered crew of Jane Jacobs fans out there started looking for, and quickly finding, one another.

The cat's out of the bag, and as much as Murray wants to take it back, he can't. Mixed-use zones and multi-family zones are neighborhoods too. And while people living in those neighborhoods may still be excluded from single family zones, they will no longer be excluded from the debate.

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