The mayor is blaming the media for the failure of part of his big housing and zoning plan. He should have let the sun shine in from the beginning.
Now that a big part of Mayor Ed Murray’s housing and zoning plan has blown up, it’s worth asking: What went wrong?
The mayor is blaming the media. For whipping up a frenzy that he feels wasn’t based on facts.
“We’ve had a false discussion that we are going to plow down your single-family home,” Murray told KUOW radio on Friday.
He feels that when I reported a few weeks ago that his housing committee wanted to do away with single-family zoning to allow duplexes and triplexes, the implication was that the city would come out and tear down your house.
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But Seattle’s homeowners are savvier than this. They get that zoning is a guide, not a mandate. A change to it doesn’t mean construction is imminent. In the thousands of comments and emails I’ve gotten on this subject in the past few weeks, no one has expressed worry that the city was going to start plowing under their homes.
So not surprisingly, I have a different take. The real source of the trouble was baked into this cake nearly a year ago.
Last September when the mayor formed the Housing and Housing Affordability & Livability Advisory Committee, he also decided its meetings wouldn’t be open to the public.
Legally, he is in his rights to do this. An advisory committee made up of volunteers is allowed to meet in private. Most government committees with elected officials are required to abide by the state’s Open Meetings Act.
But this advisory committee ended up recommending land-use policy changes affecting the entire city. I admire and respect the people I know who worked on it. But the issue was much too sweeping to be hashed out in private.
“When you’re talking about rezoning, you’re talking about peoples’ properties,” says former Mayor Mike McGinn. “That’s a lot of intensely-interested stakeholders who aren’t at the negotiating table.”
I called McGinn because he had his own battles over private advisory committees. One played out similarly: It recommended easing some development rules, but it blew up into some controversy because people felt the changes had been crafted in secret without their input.
“Those were small changes compared to this,” McGinn said. “I think the bigger question here is that some issues just don’t lend themselves to delivering a set of recommendations from on high. They require major public buy-in and organizing. Land use is definitely one of those.”
Murray’s approach worked with the minimum wage. His committee met privately to hash out a plan that, once released, made it into law relatively intact.
But the minimum wage mostly affects businesses and a small slice of the workforce. The zoning plan touches every square inch of the city (or did before Murray pulled the plug on the single-family parts).
State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who has been working on land-use issues for decades, said what happened was a textbook case for how meeting in private can subvert a policy goal.
“Had Murray set this up in a public fashion, it never would have imploded on him like this,” Pollet said. “You would have had people watching and commenting throughout. The policy would have been vetted, so it would have been better. And people wouldn’t have been totally blindsided by it.”
Extra bonus feature: There would have been nothing to leak.
Pollet had a bill in the last legislative session to require advisory committees to be open to the public. It didn’t get voted on.
What would have happened if the mayor had gone out to the neighborhoods and asked them how they could grow and make room for more housing?
Some may have resisted any change, it’s true. But I bet most would have risen to the challenge — including making some of the kinds of shifts in single-family areas that now are apparently off the table.
“Everyone is talking about it, from all angles,” McGinn says. “It’s clear that people in Seattle are fully willing to engage in this debate.”
It’s not even too late. Take it to the streets, Mr. Mayor. You might be surprised what you find.