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Comprehensive Housing Affordability Agenda Takes Center Stage at City Hall in Murray Organizing Coup

Murray's housing levy and HALA plan sync up in evident organizing effort.

By Josh Feit April 5, 2016

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The city council held a public hearing last night on the housing levy. City hall plans to send the $290 million property tax proposal to voters in August to create 2,500 affordable housing units; 60 percent of the money will go to people making just 30 percent of the median income, which is about $22,000 for a family of two.

Public testimony was overwhelmingly supportive. If anything, people seemed to believe the mayor’s plan—it’s a $5 property tax increase per month for a median value homeowner that doubles the previous levy—wasn’t big enough.

For example, one criticism from Urban League leader Pamela Banks was that the portion of money going to promote home ownership had been scaled back by $3 million. Other than that kind of tinkering, though, the supportive testimony demonstrated a coup for mayor Ed Murray as representatives from Seattle’s progressive, low-income and homeless advocacy groups—the Downtown Emergency Services Center, Solid Ground, the Low Income Housing Institute, and Banks’s Urban League too—gave shout outs to the mayor as they urged council to pass the proposal.

In fact, it was clear that Murray had done some organizing. Supporters of his concomitant inclusionary zoning plan—his housing affordability and livability agenda (HALA), with its goal of creating another 6,000 affordable units—spoke during the testimony too. Members of the pro-HALA group, known as Seattle for Everyone (set up to counter the neighborhood backlash against HALA upzones), took the microphone— identifying themselves as reps from “Ballard for Everyone” or “Downtown for Everyone,” for example—and linked the housing levy with the inclusionary zoning plan, hyping a comprehensive strategy.

Speaking of a comprehensive strategy, there were also calls for more housing preservation through city backed bonds; something council member Lisa Herbold is working on to fill in the specifics of the HALA recommendation to preserve existing affordable housing.

The idea that a comprehensive plan is necessary to address the affordable housing crisis highlighted perhaps the one irony of the evening. Solid Ground’s executive director Gordon McHenry testified in favor the mayor’s plan. But another key piece of Murray’s housing plan, state legislation to give tax breaks to landlords who preserve 25 percent of their buildings for low-income housing, was rejected by speaker of the house, state representative Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford) during this year’s legislative session. A super majority of Seattle’s delegation in Olympia supported the idea, but  Chopp—a longtime Solid Ground ally—wouldn't budge.

Other noteworthy moments: longtime Seattle activist Dick Falkenbury—the cab driver who led the Quixotic monorail efforts during the late 1990s and 2000s—testified and laid out arguably the most interesting (and surprising) commentary of the night. Falkenbury, while presenting a couple of oversized maps to the council, made the case that the real roadblock to building more housing was a supposed lack of land. But then, making a provocative case for hyper mixed-used density, he walked council through all the parking lots in the city that he said should support housing development built above them.

Speaking of HALA and how it dovetails with the housing levy: As people were testifying about the levy in council chambers, neighborhood representatives from the newly created HALA focus groups were meeting downstairs in the Bertha Knight Landes room. And in another coup for the mayor, the group wasn’t so much meeting to debate the HALA plan—which also includes neighborhood upzones, a commercial development linkage fee for affordable housing, urban village boundary changes, and the inclusionary housing requirement—but rather, they were tasked with how to make it all work.

A parade of Murray staffers and department chiefs such as department of neighborhoods head Kathy Nyland, deputy mayor Hyeok Kim, and HALA point person Jesseca Brand gave an overview of HALA, rebranded mandatory inclusionary zoning as "Mandatory Housing Affordability," and put the group to work.

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