Morning Fizz

On Housing Affordability, Seattle Times Has a Sudden Case of Slow Down–ism

Caffeinated news featuring the Seattle Process, chamber money, and the poison pill

By Josh Feit July 20, 2015

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1. In late 2013, shortly before mayor Ed Murray took office, the Seattle Times editorial page gave him some advice about the housing affordability crisis.  The editorial began, “The question is whether there’s enough will to find innovative solutions,” and it landed here:

 “Change is difficult, but the city cannot cling to the past. A housing supply problem persists.

“To fix this, Seattle’s next mayor and City Council must fearlessly champion high-density, mixed-use developments near transit routes, schools, parks and grocery stores. Revise incentives so developers actually use them. Balance regulations and enforcement so more homeowners can rent out existing accessory dwelling units and cottage housing.”

That call for action is a far cry from the slow down-ism the Times editorial board is advocating now. Late last week, after mayor Murray’s 28-member task force of developers and affordable housing advocates issued 65 recommendations, including specifics on the very suggestions (above) that the Times called for back in November 2013—the task force recommended rezoning for density near transit corridors in single family zones, incentivizing developers with more height, and getting rid of red tape on mother-in-law apartments—the Times editorial page told the mayor to “slow down” and cling to the Seattle process by holding neighborhood meetings.

More startling than the Times about face, though, was that they led with a dose of name calling, saying the group that wrote the new recommendations and is now trying to “rush” the plan through are “fringe activists.”

It’s hard to figure out who on the mayor’s housing affordability task force  qualifies as a “fringe activist.” HALA committee member David Neiman, for example, is an architect who has taken to the media to promote the plan. Neiman, was quoted at length in Times’ writer Danny Westneat’s skeptical column last week explaining the plan’s call for code changes in single family zones; and we quoted Neiman at length on Friday pushing the committee recommendations to undo the council’s restrictions on pod apartments.

Neiman tells me: "I don’t think the Times summary description of this group as 'Developers and Activists' stands up to scrutiny."

Neiman's firm just finished developing Marion Green, "our first project acting as developer, for which we received a Puget Sound Regional Council 'Vision 2040' award."

He adds:

The HALA was composed primarily of people with a deep expertise in housing. Six members are from organizations who run and/or develop subsidized affordable housing. Five members are from for-profit developers, all with experience in market-rate affordable development using programs like the Multi-Family Tax Exemption and voluntary incentive zoning. Three members are from organizations that advocate for low-income residents. The remainder are from all over the map: Neighborhood Council, Student Representative, Hospital Administrator, Government Administrator, General Contractor, Architect, Landscape Architect, Public Policy Think Tank, DSA, Labor Union, Education, Philanthropy, Non-Profit Legal Services.

Here’s the list of the 28 people that were on the committee, including people such as Jon Scholes, the head of the Downtown Seattle Association, Marty Kooistra, the head of the Housing Development Consortium, and Betsy Braun of Virginia Mason.

Mayor Murray told me the “fringe activist” tag “verges on defamatory” and said “the co-chairs” [Pacifica Law Group attorney Faith Li Pettis and David Wertheimer, deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation]  “have been deeply involved in the community for years.”

Hilariously, the only potential "activist" on the HALA committee is former tenants' union leader Jon Grant, a Position Eight city council candidate who wasn't even mentioned by name in the Times' Position Eight endorsement. Grant, an ally of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant (who the Times, in their endorsement of Sawant’s opponent earlier this month, dismissed as an “ideologue”) came out as  the lone critic of the committee recommendations. 

In its discombobulated fit to stall Murray's recommendations, the Times seems to have lost its bearings of Seattle's political landscape.

2. The Seattle chamber and the Washington Restaurant Association kicked in a combined $108,000 to city council races last week for cable TV ads. The chamber’s political PAC, CASE, Citizens for a Sound Economy, contributed $44,000 to an independent committee called Citizens for Shannon (Shannon Braddock, running in West Seattle’s District One race) and $44,000 to a committee called Citizens for Rob (Rob Johnson in Central Northeast Seattle’s District Four race.) The Washington Restaurant Association, which was against the $15 minimum wage law, added $20,000 to the Johnson IE.

Independent Expenditures are legally separate from candidates’ formal campaigns. While last week’s IEs indicate who Seattle’s business bloc is supporting (the ads went up this weekend), there’s a bigger story here. District elections were supposed to decrease the influence of money in local politics by allowing candidates to doorbell and raise cash a rate proportionate to a smaller electorate. However, downsizing to districts has simply amplified the power of groups that have the cash to spend on IEs. Johnson, for example, is now poised to knock out incumbent Jean Godden.

The Northwest Tribal PAC also kicked in $15,000 last week to Debora Juarez, a frontrunner in North Seattle’s District One race; Juarez, a former King County Superior Court judge is half Native American.

3. According to governor Jay Inslee’s spokesman David Postman, Governor Inslee, following up on what he announced when he signed the $16 billion transportation package last week, is now “meeting with stakeholders” and “reviewing options” about enacting low carbon fuel standards—despite a GOP "Poison Pill" provision in the package that allows the legislature to “reapportion” the $900 million in multimodal dollars to roads if Inslee enacts the green standards.

One stakeholder, Washington Bikes, which originally cheered the package for dedicating nearly a billion to multimodal projects is antsy now.

"When the Governor signed the transportation package last week, Washingtonians were told historic investments had been made in creating safe streets, new sidewalks and bike pathways for our school kids and communities,” Washington Bikes policy director Blake Trask tells Fizz. “Now those investments are in jeopardy because of potential Governor action on a low carbon fuel standard. There doesn't have to be a choice between safer and healthier communities and climate change”

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