(This is an opinion piece by a neighborhood member. Wallyhood welcomes everyone in our community to contribute their perspectives on the issues that impact our community. Please contact us at [email protected] if you would like to add your voice.)
It is time for Mayor Durkan and City Council to restore communication between our 27 neighborhoods and our city government by providing funding to our neighborhood councils for outreach and operations. Contrary to statements by naïve critics, neighborhood councils have been all-volunteer and self-funded since they began 60 years ago. Folks showed up because they loved their neighborhood.
One could argue that the current disconnect began in 2002 when newly elected Mayor Greg Nickels unceremoniously fired world-recognized Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers, following the successful 1990s neighborhood planning process.
Disenfranchisement of neighborhoods continued in 2016 when ex-Mayor Murray defunded our 13 District Councils and ceased recognizing our 27 neighborhood councils. The councils represented the primary feedback mechanism from ordinary citizens to City Council. It is no coincidence that Murray cut funding after receiving pushback on the backroom deal of HALA and the flawed Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation.
Murray substituted dubious, truth-challenged, social media as equivalent to live meetings, even though doing so discriminated against less tech-savvy and older residents. The illogical pretext was that renters somehow find it more difficult to attend evening meetings than everyone else. It is noteworthy that renters have had no problem attending evening meetings for MHA.
Councilmembers and the Mayor used corporate real estate developers like Vulcan and its lobbying arm, Seattle for Everyone with its 25 neighborhood subgroups, to pay political consultants and troll social media to obfuscate what MHA proposed. Apparently MHA could not stand on its merits.
The well-finance campaign by the City and Vulcan manipulated data and used focus groups to identify buzz-words and marketing tactics to convince some residents that existing homeowners were somehow responsible for all their housing woes, and that the well-financed, corporate real estate investment firms, the same folks responsible for cratering the economy ten years ago, were now looking out for their best interests.
Councilmembers continue to falsely state that MHA will address red-lining and covenants adopted by some neighborhoods 90 years ago. The truth is that NONE of the neighborhoods targeted with upzones under MHA resorted to such discriminatory practices. However, neighborhoods that DID discriminate, are let off the hook under MHA and many still make use of restrictive covenants. This map by King County and the City places a green dot on parcels that resorted to covenants or redlining.
The urban villages subject to MHA upzones have absorbed 70-percent of Seattle’s growth over the last 20 years. Seattle is currently the third densest city west of the Mississippi. The model used by city staff underestimated existing zoning capacity in Seattle by 30-percent. Without any change to zoning, Seattle could accommodate nearly 360,000 new units. There was no need to upzone single-family (SF).
Last year, City Council waived the parking requirement in the urban villages, asking for nothing in return from developers, donating the $1.8 million in savings on a 30-unit apartment building to developers as increased profit. Other cities, such as Portland, asked developers to share the savings of a waiver to create more affordable housing. MHA, by comparison, will generate only $330,000 for a 30-unit building – a giveaway to developers.
These giveaways to developers and the apparent need to misinform the public should alone make MHA legislation suspect. Rather than closing its eyes and slashing design review under MHA, City government should strive to ascertain how development interests will abuse legislation and protect its citizens from profiteers.
Contrary to the constant repetition by the City and its trolls, MHA is NOT about creating “a few duplexes or triplexes in single-family zones”. Some areas are being upzoned three levels. Wallingford is particularly hard hit because we have 700 SF homes in our urban village and nearly all are being upzoned to LR1 or LR2. MHA allows towering, 18-unit SEDU (small efficiency dwelling unit) projects with zero parking to replace one modest single-family home, even though there is already plenty of capacity without resorting to impacting owners of SF homes.
MHA will do little to create affordable ownership opportunity, our much-needed starter homes, and will, instead, use profit-motive to incentivize their destruction. It is entirely possible to create infill density that is sensitive to the surrounding environment without the adverse impacts of MHA, but Council and the Mayor did not listen to alternatives.
A lovely four-square Craftsman home could easily be repurposed as a modest and affordable 3-flat rental or condo rather than incur the toxic waste, excess energy to create new materials and their transport, and labor costs of building new. Instead of encouraging more ownership opportunity, City government uses MHA to create more, tiny, market-rate rentals.
A one-person 240-sq-ft SEDU rents for about $50/sq ft/yr/person, or $25/sq ft/yr/person if a couple gets cozy. Compare this to an older fixer home that rents for $20/sq/ft/yr total; or $5/sq ft/yr/pp if housing a family of four. The City distorts the MHA discussion by focusing on “units created” rather than “people housed”. Seattle has the smallest average apartment size in the nation. MHA will drive that smaller as developers strive for ever greater profit.
Councilmember Johnson blames citizen appeals for delaying MHA. However, had our officials elected to adopt a partnership with neighborhoods rather an adversarial approach, housing legislation would have been finished long ago and with much less angst and far fewer adverse impacts. The 1990s planning process was very successful, despite the propaganda from Vulcan.
Mayor Durkan ran for office on a pledge to include neighborhoods in the planning process for MHA. Current councilmembers and their corporate allies misinformed the public about MHA via social media. The process that the City used was a cynical shadow of sound governance. Yes, it succeeded in passing MHA against the wishes of constituents, but at what social cost?
We need to restore the chain of communication between the real public and city government. We cannot allow the process used to manipulate the public on MHA to be repeated. Ask your councilmember to reinstate funding to the District Council system and expand the funding to assist our 27 community councils in performing outreach. If your councilmember refuses to hear you or refuses to respond to your concerns, vote them out by voting for someone that chooses to be responsive to their constituents.