Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee has reached consensus on a two-sentence problem statement. But the panel’s members have a long way to go in accomplishing their mission.
When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray created a blue-ribbon panel on housing affordability in September, he used the word “urgency.”
“Housing affordability is the next major policy area we must tackle to close the income inequality gap, and we must act with as great a sense of urgency as we did with the minimum wage,” Murray said at the time, in a statement.
More than four months later, the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee has hammered out an agreement — but only on a “problem statement.”
“Seattle seeks to be a diverse, prosperous and equitable community where individuals and families can build good lives in vibrant neighborhoods. Rising housing costs threaten to make that aspiration unattainable,” the statement reads.
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They aren’t all that different from what Murray observed back in September.
“Too many low- and middle-income families find it increasingly difficult to live and work in Seattle,” the mayor said.
But Faith Li Pettis, a Seattle attorney with the Pacifica Law Group who co-chairs the committee, says drawing up the problem statement was no easy task.
“It was difficult,” Pettis said last week. “Many of us are, by habit, wordsmiths.”
The committee’s 28 volunteer members initially struggled to reach consensus on a vision for their work, she said. It wasn’t until one member suggested a new approach that the statement took shape and the committee was able to finally move on.
“That person said, ‘We know there are huge points of disagreement in this room with regard to solutions. Let’s just agree on what we can agree on,’ ” Pettis recalled.
The committee began meeting in November. There were three public meetings to gather input from community members in different Seattle neighborhoods.
There have been four meetings of the entire committee.
The problem statement came together during the committee’s meeting last week. The same day, members heard from the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. They discussed how to incorporate the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative into their work.
The committee has split up into seven work groups focused on specific issues, such as financing and zoning. Members are digging into those topics, Pettis said, adding that it took some time to decide what issue each work group would explore.
The committee has until May 30 to complete its work and issue its recommendations to Murray, meaning it has plenty of time, she said, striking a hopeful tone.
“The engagement that’s happening is what we hoped for,” said Pettis, who was designated by the mayor’s office as a spokeswoman for the committee.
Some members declined to talk to The Seattle Times, saying they were instructed to not discuss their work with the media until after issuing their recommendations.
“The members have very different views,” Pettis went on. “But we have a representative for tenants and a representative for landlords sitting next to each other, working hard to find mutual ground.”
Jonathan Grant, a committee member and executive director of Tenants Union of Washington State, is less optimistic.
“There is a real lack of urgency within the committee and from the mayor’s office to address the housing crisis,” he said. “We need bold policy proposals if we are going to move the dial on this issue to help low-income people live in this city.”
Murray attended the committee’s first meeting and Robert Feldstein, head of the city’s Office of Policy and Innovation, has been a constant presence, said Viet Shelton, the mayor’s communications director.
The housing panel is modeled on Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which struck a deal last April to gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Murray played an important role in that process, breaking into the committee’s negotiations to reprimand intractable members and apply political pressure.
Meanwhile, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s election and a nationwide push by workers and labor unions on minimum wages lent momentum to the work.
The housing affordability committee may prove a tougher egg for the mayor to crack.
While the clear goal last year was $15 an hour, and a new law could mandate it, the current committee has been told that Seattle needs to add over the next 20 years more than 28,000 new housing units that are affordable for low-income households.
No single law, on its own, is likely to make that happen, and there is no grass-roots activism on par with the minimum wage push.
The committee is taking a look at dozens of potential policies. In the end, its members probably will recommend a package of ideas.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 2, 2015 was corrected Feb. 5, 2015 A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the dates of the panel’s first four meetings.