A Wednesday-Morning Editorial

Last night’s standing-room-only meeting in city hall’s Bertha Knight Landes Room rang out with catcalls.

Wallingford single-family homeowners were shouting out complaints that mayor Ed Murray, who was officially unveiling his housing affordability and livability agenda (HALA), didn't give anyone one from their side—they’re against Murray’s HALA plan—the chance to be on stage to speak during his presentation.

“How about hearing from the other side?” the catcalls went out as the cochair of last year’s HALA task force, Faith Pettis, along with Ballard neighbor Sara Maxana, Sierra Club leader Jesse Piedfort, and the mayor himself spoke in favor of the plan.

This complaint is rich coming from a group that held a community council meeting of their own just last week to condemn HALA and excluded proponents of the plan. Wallingford Community Council president Carl Slater wouldn’t allow District Four city council member Rob Johnson (who supports HALA) to join the panel, Johnson says. In fact, no city officials were invited to the meeting. Johnson showed up anyway and explicitly asked Slater if he could join in and describe HALA. (The moderators did call on Johnson twice, but only so he could answer technical questions about the timing of council votes; his pro-HALA POV was not allowed on the agenda.)

In addition to being a cute gotcha, there’s actually a serious point to be made here about the anti-HALA group. It's revealing that single-family homeowners (who've been favored by long-standing city policy giving them control of 65 percent of city land) think they’re being snubbed when city leaders finally present a policy on behalf of a disenfranchised group. It shows an outsize sense of entitlement—one that features their supposed constitutional right to be on stage with the mayor. (I guess this goes along with their constitutional right to a free parking space?)

Should President Obama have to turn the microphone over to the Republicans (yes, Wallingford, you’re the Republicans in this analogy) when he unveils policy at the White House?

No. There’s this thing called democracy, where we vote and elect leaders and give them a chance to lead. Yes, leaders are accountable to a public process that involves—in the president’s case, trying to pass his agenda through congress, and in the mayor’s case sending HALA legislation to council for upcoming public hearings and votes. But that doesn’t mean Murray is required to give in to the “My turn, my turn!” mentality that puts every decision through the Seattle Process so that every policy (and every discussion) is required to make everybody happy. I imagine some people are going to be unhappy when their unsustainable lifestyle gets a reality check.

Speaking of how democracy works: We just had an election, and all the candidates who ran as HALA critics, Bill Bradburd and Jon Grant (who both ran citywide) and District Six candidate Catherine Weatbrook (who facilitated last week’s Wallingford Community Council HALA meeting), lost by wide margins. The other candidate who made a big deal about his opposition to HALA, Tony Provine (his flyers featured bulldozers), didn’t even make it through the primary; pro-HALA Johnson did, and then went on to win in the general.

In that context, the complaint about not getting equal time last night shows just how self-centered some Seattleites are. Election results be damned. And as for you people who can’t afford housing in the city and finally have leaders on stage presenting public policy that represents you, how dare you exclude us from your turn at the mike.

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The opponents of Murray’s plan (and the council’s too, by the way) actually did get their chance to speak last night. The mayor concluded his official program with a public Q&A where he fielded questions, calling on several people from, the frankly much smaller, anti-HALA contingent. (After being startled by last week's Wallingford meeting, where 150 showed up to denounce HALA, the pro-HALA coalition of social justice groups, affordable housing advocates, urbanists, and, gasp!, developers packed city hall last night with hundreds of supporters—and their “HALA Yes!” stickers.)

Murray called on one anti-HALA Wallingford resident—she was hard to miss with her bushel of balloons—who was dressed like a character from the children’s movie Up. (It was also hard not to conflate her precious Disney movie sensibility with the spoiled “My turn, my turn” POV.)

Sporting a sign that said “Mayor Murray, Don’t turn my neighborhood into a scene from Up [where new construction ousts longtime residents], support Wallingford families, protect Wallingford’s single family zones], she said: “More housing does not equal affordable housing. A lot of the housing we’ve seen go up in neighborhoods like Ballard is not affordable. And we feel like, in Wallingford—and what we’ve seen happen in neighborhoods like Ballard—is that we as families are being pushed out of our houses so that the developers can make more money and build houses that aren’t affordable. And parking is an issue,” she added, “many of these buildings go up with no parking.”

Referring to the HALA bargain between affordable housing groups and developers where an upzone in urban villages citywide comes with a linkage fee on all new commercial development that goes into an affordable housing fund and a requirement that all new multifamily housing include 5 to 7 percent of units affordable at 60 percent of the median income, Murray said: “The heart of HALA is—you don’t get to develop [multifamily] housing in this city unless you build affordable housing as part of it. That is the key piece to it. We have grown as a city, but we have not grown affordably. What we are saying is if you are going to build a multifamily unit in an urban village, you are going to build affordable housing or you are going to pay penalties that will go into a fund for building affordable housing.”

The anti-HALA group wasn’t satisfied with the answer, complaining that the fee wasn’t high enough.

The fees are vary among neighborhoods, but the math works out so that the $5-to-$17-per-square- foot fees translate into 6,000 affordable units (60 percent of the area median income works out to about $54,000 for a family of four). The mayor, who reframed the traditional complaint that new housing changes the character of the neighborhood by saying the “incredible characteristic” Seattle is actually losing is affordability, has a goal of building 20,000 affordable units in the next 10 years. The  remainder of the units, he says,  will from other programs such as the affordable housing levy and legislation Seattle is moving through the legislature this year that preserves existing affordable housing by giving property owners a tax break for setting aside 25 percent of their buildings for affordable housing at 60 percent of median income.  

One of the people Murray did allow to share the stage with him last night was a single-mom, single-family homeowner who supports HALA—Ballard resident Sara Maxana. Maxana told the crowd that her block could be upzoned for multifamily housing as part of HALA, and added: “Here’s why I’m okay with that.”

Explaining that her house has increased in value 20 percent in just the last 15 months, she said: “It’s value has skyrocketed because the housing shortage in this city is driving up the value of all of our existing homes. And while that benefits me as a homeowner, it’s hurting others. It’s pushing up rents across the city and pricing people out of ownership. And I don’t see why one class of people, homeowners, should be getting a windfall from the same phenomenon that is causing other people in Seattle to struggle.”

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