Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s housing affordability plan needs to go on a road show.
SEATTLE Mayor Ed Murray presented the city with a brokered deal to increase affordable housing over the next decade. The deal was cut by a 28-member committee mostly consisting of developers and advocates. Just one neighborhood representative was in the room when the plan was cooked up.
No such deal has been cut with city residents, who are being asked to accept many concessions in pursuit of the mayor’s goal of lower housing prices and rents.
On behalf of their interests, City Hall needs to hear a clear message: Slow down. Resist boiler-room pressure from the city’s activist fringe to rush this plan into law. No vote should take place on this proposal until the next City Council — with members elected from newly created districts — is seated. Remember, voters embraced district elections to increase the voice of the city’s neighborhoods.
The purported fix to the city’s housing affordability problem, as presented by Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee, would add a historic 50,000 new housing units to Seattle within a decade. An estimated 20,000 of them would be reserved for low-income tenants (at the high end, that means affordable for a family of four earning $65,800 annually). Among the proposed 65 specific recommendations are vigorous building requirements, more contributions from developers and fatter public subsidies.
Restoring some semblance of affordability is a crucial goal, or else the city will lose its working class roots. And the growth is coming regardless because Seattle is a winner in the global jobs market.
Restoring some semblance of affordability is a crucial goal, or else the city will lose its working class roots.”
But the mayor’s focus has been on expanding affordable housing, and not on the broader consequences to Seattle embracing more tower cranes with a bear hug. The HALA committee proposes bigger, denser neighborhood cores, less parking in new buildings and more fees by developers.
On the most contentious issue — changing development rules in single-family zones — Murray engages in thick spin. The mayor said Tuesday that 94 percent of those areas won’t be upzoned — or allowed to grow more dense — suggesting no change in housing density. But the HALA report recommends code changes that would, in fact, open lots in single-family neighborhoods citywide to duplexes, triplexes, row houses and town homes. If Murray is actually going to convince the city homeowners to accept this change, he needs to be straight with the facts.
In isolation, many of HALA’s recommendations make sense. Seattle, however, is already spasming with years of blind growth. Development has not been tightly linked to amenities and services needed to make growth palatable. About 6,000 Seattle public-school students are housed in portables today, due to overcrowding. How prepared is the city and its government partners for many, many more people?
Inside City Hall, these kind of questions are dismissed as NIMBY protectionism — or, as the Planning and Development Department Director Diane Sugimura said this week, it’s simply “opposition to change.” Actually, neighborhoods often merely want design standards to protect against ugly or poorly constructed town homes popping up like pimples.
Murray and the City Council should take the HALA report on the road. Hold a hearing in each of the new Seattle City Council districts. The council must recognize that it is a lame-duck council. Representatives of the seven new city districts will be seated in January, and will be better positioned to reflect neighborhoods’ perspectives.
The housing crunch in Seattle is a whale of a problem, years in the making. But if city leaders rush a plan unvetted by their constituents, they risk squeezing out the unique character and way of life that make Seattle a place worth living in.
Slow down. And make the case.