“I Believe I Can Fly,” and Other Fantasies About MIZ

In case you missed it, the slow motion car crash called Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) just moved a few frames forward. The Seattle City Council passed it’s framework for downtown upzones in it’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) scheme to wring cash out of developers to buy pricey subsidized units from non-profit housing developers. I won’t bother to link the long chain of posts I’ve already written on this topic. It kind of feels like that was all a waste of time. It’s bad enough that the City is still moving forward with this in spite of our data driven pleas and Sightline’s analysis that corroborates our work. But the other thing that is disturbing is the degree to which players in this drama seem to have divorced themselves from reality. Most of this post comes from my reaction to a Facebook post on City Builders that started with this quote from City Council Candidate John Grant:

It’s a disappointing day for Seattle when the City Council can’t raise the affordable housing requirements for the wealthiest Downtown/SLU developers from 2 to 5%, when other cities with Mandatory Incentive Zoning programs set aside 10-30% of their units as affordable. In a time when a record number of people are sleeping on the streets, most of the City Council votes to make the 1% wealthiest of developers more wealthy. Only Sawant supported Herbold’s amendment to raise the requirement to a measly 5%. It’s clear the rest of the Council is bought and paid for by Vulcan and other wealthy developers.

I guess I have to either laugh or cry and how confused and confounded the public discussion of this whole topic has become. People see what they want to see. Proponents of the disastrous MIZ policy are either non-profit housers who get a fire hose of cash taken out of the market, something that will RAISE over all housing prices or people who like to talk about housing. And who cares about the math! We get a few more “affordable” units. Big downtown developers like it because they pay some ransom to the non-profits and walk away with their permits. And we say we have a compromise solution. And we confuse HALA with the Bargain and walk around saying that we’ve made progress on housing. Some people get a unit years from now and developers “pay their fair share.” Yay.

The lefty opponents think this is a “developer give away” when it’s nothing of the sort. With the exception of Vulcan, and other big developers, every other builder and developer in town is either pushed into infeasibility until prices rise enough to rationalize the additional costs or they build somewhere else. Again, prices go up over all real people suffer, and then to “solve the problem” the Council will dial up the fees and inclusion rate to combat their own self imposed inflationary intervention.

All of this was bargained for between Vulcan’s lobbyist and attorney and the non-profits with zero involvement of anyone else. It was foisted on the city without very much thought as to the broader impact on the housing community. It was a political solution not a housing solution.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s what happened and what’s unfolding in front of us. So the rhetoric is amusing and sad because it corresponds to the politics and not reality. I’ve never, in two decades, ever seen such a profound disconnect between people who talk and people who build, between political reality and political theater. And yet it just goes on and on and on. People talk as if none of these things has been surfaced and as if there are “sides” of the issue. There isn’t. It’s simple: add costs and mandates to housing production and prices will climb to absorb those costs and mandates.

I’ve learned a lot about how people decide what they want first, then order the “facts” underneath that. It’s amusing and disturbing to hear Rob Johnson, without a hint of irony, stand up and opposed Herbold’s amendment saying “if the fee is too high, nothing gets built.” And yet he turns around and will impose a higher inclusion rate and thus a higher fee everywhere else with his support of the MHA framework as it’s designed. It’s beyond my understanding how such an intelligent and well meaning person could be either so self deceived or simply willful in their resistance to the simple math and facts. I know that most politicians go through the same bargaining process most of us do when we’re about to do something we shouldn’t. But this isn’t splurging on an impulse buy or extra calories in the cheesecake: it’s people’s lives and well being who work to build housing and those that need housing.

The human brain is a miracle of evolution, and it’s ability to hold two opposing perceptions of reality and mathematics at the same time without any concern is astonishing. It’s like watching a person standing on a ledge flapping their arms as hard as they can preparing to “fly” off the ledge. As a student of philosophy and religion I guess the difference between flying and falling is merely a conceptual one. If we believe adding costs to housing will reduce it’s price, maybe it will.

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