Housing and growth may fire up primary voters

By Knute Berger
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By Knute Berger

The mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda just might be a gift to the new city council district elections. It has highlighted splits in Seattle's broad-consensus, liberal ideology and added fuel to debates that gave rise to the new district system we’re putting into place this election cycle.

The new hybrid district system won voter approval in 2013 with support from advocates on both sides of the current housing debate. And yes, the housing debate is more complex than simply two-sided, but in general it comes down to whether people trust the housing market to mostly solve the problem of affordable housing, or whether greater interventions, regulation and incentives are needed to make the city more affordable.

Do we embrace growth, or wrestle with it? Will growth improve the quality of life, or degrade it? Are developers solving our problems or making them worse?

Neighborhood activists had long seen the appeal of moving the council to a more district-oriented system drawn around the neighborhoods. (By the way, if our neighborhoods are rooted in racism, as the HALA authors suggested, isn’t then, too, the new district system, which is based on it? Just asking.) In any case, the pro-district vote consisted of a coalition of neighborhood advocates joined by urbanists who wanted to shake-up City Hall and downtown’s grip on the city agenda. Think of it as the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition types joining with The Stranger’s pro-density editorial board in common cause. These are not usual bedmates.

The HALA report skews heavily toward the urbanist-developer agenda. Even some who largely support its recommendations agree that the neighborhoods were under-represented in its drafting. And they understand that it reads like a field manual for developers: boost housing supply, deregulate development where possible, cut back on design review, and effectively upzone single-family neighborhoods, creating a market incentive for redevelopment.

These are not the only ideas in the report, which includes linkage fees and more publicly funded housing, but they are recommendations that thrust at the heart of the protective nature many people feel toward the neighborhoods — just at the time people will be able to go to the polls and express their neighborhood solidarity.

It underscores campaigns like that of Bill Bradburd, running for one of the two at-large seats, who from the get-go has been talking about getting development under control and whose campaign slogan is “Take Back Seattle.” You can also hear concerns from Jean Godden running in the 4th District who has said she is skeptical of the HALA recommendations, despite being one of Mayor Ed Murray’s most reliable council supporters. It's fired up one of Godden's opponents, Tony Provine, president of the Ravenna-Bryant Community Association, who says the HALA report is unnecessarily divisive in its approach, creating more shock waves than affordable housing.

Even Mike O’Brien, one of the council’s most ardent urbanists and someone who spoke at the mayor’s housing announcement, has said he will scrutinize HALA’s assumptions and is not necessarily willing to support it entire, in part because the neighborhoods were marginalized in the process. “I’ve known from day one that the committee the mayor appointed did not have fair representation from neighborhoods,” O’Brien told Publicola. “What I told everyone was, if you’re going to do anything on there that affects the neighborhoods, just know that you don’t get to roll out a recommendation and it’s going to be blessed. It’s got come through a council process.”

In short, HALA has handed ammunition to some of the forces that believe they have the most to gain under the new district council system.

But it has also given some encouragement to urbanists. Most people in Seattle want greater affordability. Most know we need to respond to the demand for more housing. Most people want to mitigate the effects of higher prices and fewer housing options. Most people want better transit. Support for these is strong among young people who are suffering from the current insanity of rising rents. HALA creates an opportunity to speak to these issues and embrace a planning process for how to address them.

Not everyone is on the same page with HALA’s market solutions. Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, for example, is hardly known as a neighborhood candidate — she serves with a larger, even global, political agenda. She’s not known for community council schmoozing. Still, along with some neighborhood advocates, she shares skepticism in the free market and the goodwill of developers, and she speaks to the concerns of young renters. Along with lame-duck Councilmember Nick Licata, Sawant is pushing for more regulation — including getting the state to allow the city to impose rent control — and to get a handle on affordability. She wants more public housing too. She’s not a free-market, supply-side urbanist. If you wander around the 3rd District, you’ll see lots of visible Sawant messaging on Capitol Hill utility poles, but in single family neighborhoods you’ll also find a surprising number of Sawant signs in the yards.

The August primary will cull the herd of 47 council candidates to a more followable field. I expect many incumbent council members to survive the first cut based on experience, political organization and name familiarity. The large number of candidates could produce some surprises, however, as smaller vote percentages are needed to get into the top two.

It will take more than one election cycle of the new system to get a handle on the longer term political dynamics. Still, in a city that largely agrees on broad ideas of social justice, sustainability, transit and paying taxes, the HALA report has the potential to boost the campaign in the direction at least some of its backers intended: a red meat issue with the neighborhoods at its center.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.