Could the most divisive man in Seattle be about to redeem himself?
“I don’t know if there’s any saving my reputation at this point,” the most divisive man told me Tuesday. “I still get a lot of ‘shut up and go home, you’re just a lame duck.’ “
The Most Divisive Man is Mike O’Brien, who is now in his last months on the Seattle City Council. If you Google “Mike O’Brien Seattle,” that’s what pops up at the top, right below his council web page: An article from Crosscut last year about how viscerally hated he is, to the point he had become the symbol for all the city’s divisions and failures.
“So you’re telling me the veneer of the smiley bike guy is gone?” O’Brien joked, when I told him about his Google search profile.
The short story of what happened to O’Brien, who really is a smiley bike guy, is that in his 10 years on the council he had a penchant for making himself the tip of the spear of our most contentious issues. Often with disastrous political results.
To name a few: His crusade against the waterfront tunnel, his plan to allow the homeless to camp in parks, the drive for a head tax, his yearslong work to establish a homeless car-parking program, the effort to unionize Uber — all got defeated or delayed or even blew up in his face.
And I haven’t even mentioned the bike lanes. That hacked off some Ballard fishermen so much they once tossed him from a party.
So it’s notable that, near the end, O’Brien appears set to reverse all that discord and score a big political win.
The upcoming vote on the “backyard cottages and basement units” ordinance, possibly later this month, is almost certain to pass. It marks the end of 10 years of effort by O’Brien, and, if it works, should create nearly as many units of lower-cost housing in the city as that complex plan that upzoned 27 neighborhoods.
It also happens to be a great idea. First, it’s an organic way of sprinkling truly affordable living such as basement apartments throughout the city, without any subsidy or much development impact.
But my favorite part is that it can double as a preservation program of sorts for Seattle’s classic old stock of bungalows.
Instead of incentivizing developers to raze our old bungalows and build triplexes — what the city was originally proposing in its Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda four years ago — O’Brien’s plan seeks to get the same level of density while saving the bungalows.
It does this by putting a cap on the size of new single-family homes. It means there will be less room in the zoning code to tear down a 1,500-square-foot bungalow and replace it with a monster McMansion. But the code will make it easier than it is now to add a basement apartment or maybe a backyard cottage, or both, thereby preserving the bungalow.
The city’s study said O’Brien’s policy would lead to 22% fewer teardowns of homes than the pace we’re on. Over 10 years that means saving about 500 old homes from the bulldozer, even as those homes and others get repurposed to add more than 4,000 units of modestly priced apartments or cottages.
That’s reduce, reuse, recycle — except with housing. No tower cranes required.
Some worry that speculators will raze the bungalow and put up a new house with an apartment and a cottage — effectively a triplex. They might, but O’Brien is proposing to stop them with a one-year waiting period between the construction of a first in-home unit and a second. The goal is for the ordinance to be used mostly by homeowners.
Converting a dingy basement into an apartment is what allowed me to buy my first house. That was in Washington, D.C., where they call them “English basements.” That basement provided supercheap housing for young renters, and at the same time paid about a third of my first mortgage each month. It made the difference, for me, between owning and renting.
“I think it’s going to be broadly popular in Seattle,” O’Brien said.
“I don’t think the people who have been screaming to recall Mike O’Brien for the past three years are going to pause and say ‘oh, actually, maybe here he’s done something pretty good.’ ”
They should. If they aren’t at least open to it, then is it really he that’s the divisive one?