Roger Valdez, former manager of the county’s anti-tobacco program, has gained prominence as a pugnacious voice for growth and urban density. “I believe it can solve people’s problems,” Valdez says, but some wonder if it’s more about the contributions he gets from developers.
In parts of Seattle, Roger Valdez is about as popular as Donald Trump’s hair.
Valdez, a lobbyist for developers, is an evangelist for growth and free-market economics. He has aggressively called out single-family neighborhoods as the enemy because of their resistance to duplexes and rooming houses in zoning changes proposed by Mayor Ed Murray, who since has reversed course after waves of protest.
Valdez has characterized homeowners as angry, entitled, immoral, classist and racist, as zoo animals and as bloodthirsty dinosaurs. That’s just in the past few days.
Hometown: Albuquerque, N.M.
Current residence: Capitol Hill
Education: University of Puget Sound, B.A., philosophy; University of California, Santa Barbara, M.A., religious studies
Occupation: Director and sole employee, Smart Growth Seattle, a nonprofit advocacy organization seeking more housing supply and choice through lobbying, research and communication.
By being more brazen and erudite than others in his camp, the scholarly Valdez — with his gray-flecked beard, long hair and ready references to religion, history and poetry — has become a civic treasure or enfant terrible, depending on your perspective.
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He was the only figure in the Seattle development community willing to debate City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata on rent control at a packed Town Hall, where he was booed like a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash. He’s one of the smartest people in Seattle politics, according to The Stranger newspaper. And Seattle Met magazine said he’s one of the 15 people who should be running the city.
“Roger has transformed himself from a minor character in the play to the No. 1 villain in some people’s theater,” Licata said. “The great thing about him is, like Bela Lugosi, he keeps coming back — and he loves the role.”
In a city known for passive-aggressiveness, Valdez is a different kind of cat, said longtime affordable-housing advocate John Fox. “You’ve got to give him credit. He’ll go into the lion’s den and he seems to thrive on it,” Fox said.
It’s this pugnacity and willingness to play provocateur that distinguishes Valdez from other urbanists who clamor for density and rip single-family homeowners.
Here’s his reaction to an urbanist who wrote that Murray’s single-family-neighborhood strategy failed because it didn’t reach out in friendlier terms. “You can’t go out to Jurassic Park,” Valdez sighed, “and sweet talk the raptors back into the cage.”
The other thing differentiating Valdez, 45, is his background. He managed preservationist Peter Steinbrueck’s first campaign for City Council and worked as a city liaison to neighborhoods. He managed King County’s anti-tobacco program, leading Seattle Weekly to call him “nannyism’s poster child.”
How did Seattle Weekly’s “tobacco czar” become known as a density pimp?
Rise of an advocate
Just a few years ago Valdez worked for Sea Mar, a nonprofit that provides health care and housing with an emphasis on serving Latinos. He started a wonky blog called Seattle Land-Use Code. He drafted an “urbanist creed” declaring that density “boosts our best human characteristics: creativity, compassion and conservation.” His writings spread with postings for Seattle Transit Blog, Crosscut and Publicola. He moved into a 220-square-foot “apodment” on Capitol Hill.
Zoning is outdated, Valdez likes to say, and its mission of keeping the slaughterhouse away from the schoolhouse now segregates us too much from others. Valdez partly blames homeowners, the “NIMBY mafia,” who while protecting their investments, stymie more diverse communities.
Valdez’s views began to stray from the Seattle orthodoxy as he preached supply-side solutions to housing scarcity and rising rents. Building more and regulating less is the best way to provide affordable housing, he argues.
Imposing rent control or fees to fund affordable housing is not. He served up this sound bite for the July 20 rent-control debate: “If we were running low on bread, we’d call for a program to bake more, not impose price limits on the few loaves we had.”
But he acknowledged in his blog that the word “deregulation” conjures Ronald Reagan for many in Seattle and is “sure to tighten up some liberal sphincters.”
A little tightening seems just fine with Valdez. He admits to a mischievous youth and cops to a contrarian streak. He’s skeptical about anything wildly popular, including the Seahawks. In an interview, he referenced Galileo, Ptolemy, Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher’s mentor Sir Keith Joseph, Cassandra and John the Baptist, likening himself to the last three.
Valdez said he now despises the term “urbanist.” Too many who call themselves that, he said, are afflicted “with the disease of Seattle progressives.” By that he means they want to be both “groovy” urbanists and socialists extracting more fees from developers.
“They want to jack up the price of housing to make it affordable,” he said.
They can’t have it both ways, he insists. “This is an issue of right and wrong, not a difference of opinion.”
He finds them almost as annoying as liberal homeowners who espouse diversity but protest duplexes because of the people they might house.
Valdez became “too hot” in the eyes of some allies, he said, after he created Smart Growth Seattle in 2012, his one-man advocacy group sponsored by the building industry. He received $138,000 last year, according to a report filed with the city, from sponsors listed on his website. The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties is his single biggest contributor, he said.
He registered as a lobbyist, a term he considers a misnomer for his work. Lobbying is just a part of what he does. He also researches, testifies before public agencies, gives interviews and talks and makes rare campaign contributions.
He can’t be hired, he said, to support someone’s work if he doesn’t believe in it. If the builders association asked him to testify against the Urban Growth Boundary, a regulation he supports because it steers growth into cities, he said he wouldn’t do it.
But he said he agreed with the Master Builders’ opposition to a statewide $12 minimum wage because he favors market solutions, not price and wage controls.
Vulcan, Paul Allen’s development company, was initially a sponsor of Smart Growth Seattle. But it’s not now. A representative of Vulcan said it’s shifted its funding to a new coalition with a “broad base of community-stakeholder involvement.”
An edgier voice
Steinbrueck, who said he spent many nights in 1997 planting campaign signs with Valdez, isn’t sure how to explain his former aide’s transformation. “People need work. Roger is a philosopher,” Steinbrueck said. “He always believed in urban density. He wasn’t as edgy in the past.”
Steinbrueck believes Valdez’s supply-side argument is “overly simplistic and not very convincing in Seattle,” which has seen a dramatic increase in housing production, though it’s not been enough to keep rents from climbing.
Licata and Fox wonder if Valdez believes what he’s saying or if he’s just found a good gig.
“What we’ve seen over the last decade is the emergence of the pseudo-environmental view that to prevent climate change we have to pour as much concrete and destroy as many carbon-sequestering trees as possible to save polar bears,” Fox said. “Along the way, Roger created a website, got strokes and developer groups started funneling money to him. That’s how he’s gotten this cachet and why you’re doing this story.”
Valdez says he respects Fox’s principled stands, but that he’s often wrong. “My biggest reason for doing this stuff is that I believe it can solve people’s problems,” Valdez said.
Some see Valdez as having a meaningful impact.
“Both Roger’s development allies and his lefty opponents think he’s obnoxious and wish he’d just go away,” said Josh Feit, founder of the politics blog Publicola and politics editor at Seattle Met magazine. “But he won’t go away. And he typically defines what both sides end up talking about.”
Valdez wanted to showcase a small victory, a beachhead won in the density battles.
He introduced Scott Brown, who lives in an odd bit of Ballard where his side of Northwest Market Street is zoned for single-family homes, but the other side of the street allows multifamily dwellings. A “four-pack” of sleek new town houses is being built on the lot directly across from Brown’s.
Brown and some of his neighbors want the city to rezone their single-family lots to allow more density.
“This is the world I live for,” Valdez says about homeowners who want more housing variety, more people on their block.
But it’s not quite the eureka moment Valdez envisioned. Brown wants to increase the value of his property, sell it and move to a quieter single-family street with less traffic perilous to his young daughter. In other words, he wants to live in the kind of enclave Valdez has criticized as immoral.
Valdez acknowledges that progress may be slow on his quest. “It takes time for change,” he said.