Afternoon Editorial

Just How Silly Has Seattle's Lefty Rhetoric Become?

Public testimony at yesterday's council hearing was out of sync with reality.

By Josh Feit August 3, 2016

After yet another parade of public testimony at city hall yesterday that demonized developers—who "buy off housing advocates," and whose "efforts have everything to do with making profits for themselves and their lawyers, and to hell with the rest of Seattle"—it's apparent Seattle's left-leaning orthodoxy has become unmoored. The comments above were punctuated with a righteous  "Amen" from the crowd.

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The public's piqued populist rhetoric, painting a Trump-like view of a rigged system (in this case, favoring developers) was hard to take seriously given that the council, over protests from developers, was actually getting ready to pass an amendment to create a brand new category of fees for developers. (It makes you wonder if people even know the council recently shut down pod apartment development, scaled back small lot development, and passed a linkage fee 7-2, two years ago.)

At yesterday's hearing, the council was considering an amendment to the mayor's housing affordability plan to trade upzones for affordable housing construction requirements. The amendment under consideration, sponsored by council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O'Brien, sought to add a potential new developer fee into the mix, making developers pay for units commensurate to the displacement of existing affordable housing.

It was a well-intentioned amendment (it ultimately passed 5-0) that got push back from developers, but seems reasonable if, as the amendment makes clear, developers don't get dinged when upzones actually prevent displacement as a city study suggests they might.

Sitting through a parade of name calling, I was particularly struck by testimony supporting the amendment yesterday from Washington Community Action Network organizer  who made the case for the new fee saying: "If you rely on a simplistic, supply-and-demand, laissez-faire economic policy to guide your decision making, then people will lose ... So please support these amendments."

Laissez-faire economic policy? Just how weird has Seattle become?

In its own right, without the Herbold amendment, the mayor's proposal is, in fact, the exact opposite of laissez-faire policy and is actually the height of government oversight. Murray wants to require developers to either build affordable housing or pay into an affordable housing fund in concert with all their projects. That heavy regulatory policy, a key component of the mayor's publicly funded plan to build 20,000 affordable housing units in the next ten years, is an innovative step left beyond traditional Seattle policy known as incentive zoning, that had simply encouraged affordable housing development with promises of upzones. The mayor's new idea, known as inclusionary zoning, does come with upzones for developers. But that aspect is yet another demonstration of Seattle's highly regulated marketplace, where already strict height regulations allow the city government to use bonuses as leverage.

The misleading testimony was also deeply ironic. The pre-existing affordable housing that Herbold's amendment seeks to protect, referred to as "naturally occurring" housing, was created by, well, the free market—the very "simplistic, supply-and-demand ideology"—that the testimony was condemning in the first place.

To be honest, Maykovich's testimony was measured and respectful in comparison to much of the sophomoric anger that was on display yesterday about developers who "don't contribute to the city."

The exaggerated rhetoric that now dominates public testimony at city hall is starting to resemble a Bernie Bro's twitter feed—and reads like a similar break with reality. The council itself, clearly led by a constructive compromise between Johnson and Herbold yesterday, is currently shining in contrast.

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In addition to passing the displacement amendment 5-0, the council also unanimously passed a Johnson amendment that addressed complaints from residents who say the fee in lieu option (the option to pay into a housing fund rather than building units on-site) is bad policy because it won't necessarily fund affordable housing near the development. Johnson's amendment, perhaps calling their "Yes, in my backyard" bluff, prioritizes using the money for "locating near developments that generate cash contributions."

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