Sawant: Performance Artist, Not a Wonky Policymaker, and The Stranger Loves Her

Very few people in town have noticed the odd behavior of socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant when it comes to the infeasible, inflationary, and illegal program of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) being inflicted on the city through the so called Grand Bargain — the notion that we can make housing more affordable by taxing the production of it. On the pro-housing (“mostly,” he says) side only Michael Eliason, a local architect, has consistently challenged Sawant on her passive support of protecting single-family zoning on Twitter. I have noted that Sawant got bored with the idea of using the City’s bonding authority to build publicly owned housing on City owned land. When that idea was shot down by eye-rolling City staff, she shrugged and went to another rally. Now the champion of no-growth Seattle, John Fox, is calling out Sawant as well in a recent post about her lack of enthusiasm for the no or slow-growth agenda calling that lack of support a “gaping hole.” 

The post is worth considering because many who support growth and more housing have been frustrated by Sawant’s mostly successful efforts to complicate the lives of landlords and make rental housing more expensive. I say that because that’s all her measures have done. The first in time legislation she passed accomplishes nothing for people who have less money to spend on housing, all it does is create a new protected class: people who show up first. That group now gets the same protection from discrimination as people of color or born in other countries or people who are gay. It’s a nonsensical requirement that was all about Sawant appearing to lead an effort that would smash the corporate monster and help the little guy. It does neither, adding more hassle for land lords and renters and virtually assuring that the brogrammer who Sawant and her friends think are snatching apartments, is likely to win since he’s sure to get to an apartment first since he has a smart phone, a car, and software. The single mom who teaches preschool who shows up second? Too bad!

Now, the no and slow growth crowd is growing impatient with Sawant because she has seemed to all at once embrace protection of single-family zoning but also supported the real corporate rip off, MIZ.

Sawant and SA have avoided challenging the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). While calling for an increase in the mandatory housing requirement–the number of units developers must set aside as ‘affordable’–she’s nevertheless praised HALA’s city-wide upzones even though areas slated for the greatest increased density also contain the city’s highest number of minorities and low-income people.

Fox also complains that when she could have opposed the upzones, “Sawant purposely did not show up for committee discussions” and points out that her “new renter effort sidesteps these critical structural issues that get at the heart of inequality in Seattle, and thus diverts attention from necessarily addressing them.” He goes on to suggest that her theatrical efforts like first in time, “then arguably she and her movement are making the problem worse.”

Now, Fox is wrong about growth and confused about builders and developers. We had a long talk after our radio appearance and I explained most builders and developers in town are not demanding more zoning or more FAR. What they want is certainty and to be able to build what they are already legally permitted to. Just look back at Gary Cobb’s heartfelt cry about being slowly permitted out of business. Cobb doesn’t want goofy increments in height that cost more and come with a fee attached. He simply wants to be able to build what the code says he can, but he’s being blocked by rules and neighbor inspired hang ups in process that make even that impossible. Forget about upzones.

But what Fox gets right about Sawant is this:

Ironically, Sawant is catering to development interests she rhetorically disavows. It’s hypocritical and hurts most low-income and working people and especially communities of color.

True. The MIZ scheme will do nothing but cause market rate housing to climb in price, putting out of reach of more and more people and that squeeze is worst for people with less money who are disproportionately people of color.

And I think he also gets right why: The Stranger. Fox points out that The Stranger has swallowed the Grand Bargain whole and gone back for seconds, a fact I pointed out in their Regrets issue.

I regret The Stranger abandoned its usual skepticism for back-room deals in its reporting of the “Grand Bargain,” a scheme in which large downtown developers pay a fee but provide no on-site affordable housing. (Meanwhile, small-scale builders elsewhere have to produce 6,000 units with extra construction costs and rent restrictions that are not offset by the value of the Grand Bargain’s proposed upzones.)

I’d note that I have received zero calls from The Stranger’s news department to comment on the issue since that was published. I think I may have hurt their feelings. Sad!

But, over time, it’s becoming clear that Sawant is not a typical politician, not because she is a socialist, but because she doesn’t have a lot of interest in the nitty gritty details of policy. Neither do her colleagues when it comes down to it, but at least they make an effort to try and understand what they’re doing, even when specifically told that it won’t have the effect they think it will. Sawant, like Donald Trump, doesn’t make policy she gives performances. Once the rallies and speeches are done, the votes are taken, and she can hilariously call her colleagues corporate stooges (after they ALL vote for her legislation) then the episode is over, credits roll, and she moves on.

I can’t really explain The Stranger’s embrace of the deal struck between a few big time attorney’s and lobbyists for Vulcan, the Mayor, and the non-profit housing industry. Is it lack of curiosity? It’s hard to know. But The Stranger has a tremendous influence over a significant chuck of voters. As I pointed out, that influence caused, I think, Jenny Durkan to offer to pay for everyone’s college for two years. But when you put together Sawant’s general lack of interest in the details and her big time reliance on The Stranger to motivate votes, I think Fox more or less has spotted the signs and the symptoms and part of the cause.

Apparently, Sawant made a tactical decision not to tick off the well-heeled corporate-backed urbanists or the zealously pro-density Stranger and its readership, for fear of undercutting her reelection chances in her 3rd District. Doing so makes her look more like a typical Seattle politician than her actively cultivated persona as a principled advocate for racial and economic justice.

Yep. And oddly enough, what Vulcan and the Chamber of Commerce failed to do by throwing money at Sawant’s opponent in 2015, they have accomplished by getting The Stranger’s buy in to the Grand Bargain. Talk about strange bedfellows.

Tim Burgess: New Mayor Has Mixed Record on Housing

If you want to read a well written if really long article on our new Mayor, Tim Burgess, check out Hayat Norimine’s article on him, “Is Consensus Gone After Tim Burgess?” I’ve known Burgess for a decade. He spent a fair amount of time in the offices adjacent to the ones taken by The Great City Initiative run by Mike McGinn during the 2007 campaign. Burgess was at my wedding in 2009 at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, and I interviewed to be his legislative aid when my final stint with Councilmember Steinbrueck ended in 2007. We’ve had much correspondence over the years and as many agreements as disagreements. I believe that Burgess is a man who truly has dedicated himself to public service. However, I see him not so much as the conservative on the Council who graduated to Mayor but as the public servant transformed by his times.

I’ll never forget getting an e-mail in February in 2012 from Councilmember Burgess.

Hi, Roger. We haven’t spoken in a long time, but I just read your Publicola piece on election money. I think an equally significant factor is that people like you and others don’t affirm Council members when they do step out and lead on growth/density issues.

Where we’re you when I tried so hard last year to add just one more floor in Pioneer Square? We had the votes until the other side weighed in. When there was no counter argument offered my colleagues collapsed and I pulled back rather than suffer a defeat for the density position. Where we’re you when I led the Roosevelt effort which resulted in a strong win for concentrated density?

You and others need to point out the victories and those leading the way if you intend to strengthen the backbone of local officials. Make sense?

I responded.

C’mon Tim.

Really. Do you want me to go back and link to the several posts I did praising you?

Shall I go on. I am an admirer of your work on this issue. That I have not praised you lately is no indication of that admiration going away.

And if you feel lumped in I am sorry.

He wrote back soon after.

OK, you score one.  Of the three links you provided below I had only seen the one about Publicola’s winners and losers.  I just read the other two.  Thank you.

I guess I’m frustrated by the slowness of the massive land use bureaucracy which just keeps slogging away.  We may finally upzone North Beacon Hill in March or early February.  And I have failed again this year to persuade DPD to start corridor planning along Rainier Ave or Aurora; “we don’t have the funds for that.”

But I am working on getting an elementary school in South Lake Union as part of that upzone; schools being key place anchors.  Creating magnetic places is sooooo very important for all the reasons you know and I just wish we would get our butts in gear!  My apologies for pouting.

Later, on microhousing, I sat in the front row and gave dagger eyes to Burgess when he said something like, “some people say that what we’re passing will cause harm to microhousing. Those people would be wrong. This will help microhousing.” I was not happy, especially since a reporter showed me an email from Mayor Ed Murray threatening a veto because that’s exactly what the legislation would do. So I let the Councilmember know my thoughts.

Hi Tim,

I think in all my years (about 20 now) of watching politics and politicians talk about legislation they’ve passed, your statement at the end of the microhousing hearing last week is right at the top in terms of it’s studied denial of what you actually did.
It would have been one thing to have acknowledged that this legislation would change things, perhaps resulting in fewer units (which is what the Chair and your central staff would affirm), but quite another to bet even more of the Council’s credibility by saying, as you did, that this will “allow more.”
You said that you hoped that a there wouldn’t be “a few [that] characterize our actions as somehow limiting options” for housing. I think you know that this DOES exactly that. To state publicly the opposite is truly disappointing and I think doesn’t reflect well on you, your role as Council President, as an elected official, and frankly as a community leader.
We spent many hours explaining why this legislation limits options and choices not just for our members, but for future residents of our city. You weren’t listening. And to try to get in front of what is sure to be lots of criticism by many people, you attempt to inoculate yourself by simply denying the facts (and repeating over and over that “this is good legislation.”)
Apparently, however, one of the “few” you mentioned, is the Mayor. He obviously has been listening.
I’m actually embarrassed by the familiar tone. I never refer to elected officials by their first name. But I felt familiar enough with Burgess to convey that message to him using his first name. I shouldn’t have done that. But the Councilmember responded in a good natured but disdainful way.
Sorry, Roger, we disagree completely on this issue and I’m very comfortable with that. Remember last year, everyone told us that if we changed incentive zoning in SLU we would cripple development. Right.
I had to point out that..
Well, I don’t mind disagreement either. It’s at the heart of our process. But when you cite SLU and IZ the facts tell a different story.
“Given the historic low participation rate in IZ under its existing encumbrances, it would seem obvious that increasing the requirements for affordable housing will only tip the scales further toward non-participation, in which case zero affordable housing is produced. When the toll is raised, the gains made from the projects that still opt in to the Program will be offset by the increasing portion of projects that decline. And this inherent “diminishing returns” aspect of IZ is why it should never be expected to have a consequential impact on Seattle’s affordable housing needs.”
What I don’t feel comfortable with is ignoring the facts for political expediency.
Minimums sizes on micros, downzones of the low-rise capacity, and more and more fees won’t hurt profits –that’s not the point– it does hurt the person with less money to spend on housing because of each of things means higher rents and less supply and choice.
Perhaps you’ll take a different approach on the impact/linkage fee.
Glad to make our case there if we can.
I could go on. However, my point is that Burgess has always been engaged at the heart of housing issues and he has taken the time to respond to me honestly and seriously and with candor. He’s a good man and a worthy public servant who I believe takes his job very seriously.
But we’ve hardly seen eye to eye on housing. And I don’t think that he was as strong as he could and should have been in opposing — not just politely balancing — the wacky and out of sync performances of his colleague Councilmember Sawant. I know that I tried working with Sawant, offering to partner with her to push for edgy legislation to find a way to free up surplus City owned land to build housing. She listened, but it didn’t fit her narrative to work with a capitalist. And, in the end, I think she got bored of the wonkiness of the issue.
I can imagine the frustration Councilmember Burgess must have felt trying to deal with the emotional intensity of Sawant’s followers. But owed it to all of us people actually trying to make policy to do more. I feel like in the end, he was changed more by the tide than he shaped that tide. We needed consensus builders for more rational housing policy but it seemed like Burgess caved to many of the proposals offered by Sawant, even, at one point, passing a resolution in favor of rent control handing Sawant a victory.
I think Burgess was made for this moment, however. It’s almost as if this is his moment. I absolutely trust that he’ll put the city’s interests first, not his own legacy, during his 71 days as Mayor; and this I think will assure that he’ll legacy will end up being one of integrity and public service. I hope he doesn’t prove me wrong.

On Public Housing, Food, and Why We Need a Housing Market

I got this question recently in an e-mail: I was wondering what your opinion on public housing is, and if you’ve written a piece on it. I think your insight is very good to have, and I appreciate knowing what you think on the issues. Here’s my answer. 

Here’s a link to one post that might help:
My view is that whatever approach we take to housing, we need more supply when demand goes up. In the big picture, it matters less who or what produces that housing than it gets made and delivered to those who need it.
The problem with non-market approaches is that they inevitably lead to rationing and the decisions about who gets the housing end up falling into the hands and minds of bureaucrats making decisions. The market, through prices, rations housing as well, but does so in a blind way, that is nobody can get ahead in line because of politics etc.
But in both approaches, if housing supply meets demand, the problems of rationing and escalating prices matter less and less. Unfortunately, public officials and bureaucrats complicate the production of housing, both public and private, with way too many rules and regulations. We don’t treat other necessities, say food for example, in the same way. We do regulate food safety, but because the federal government has prioritized affordability, farmers and producers actually get benefits, subsidies, and regulatory relief to make food cheaper. When was the last time you heard that “food prices are skyrocketing!”
Yes, there are a myriad of issues with the way we manage the food market, but high prices are not one of them. Imagine if we payed private developers to produce more housing, subsidized their purchases of land, allowed them to pay less for labor, and even passed legislation protecting the industry from libel and defamation. Again, there are issues with all of these (see the settlement of the ‘pink slime’ lawsuit or the many issues associated with farm labor).
Still, the point is that our priorities around food favor its affordable production. Farmers are generally sympathetic figures, and though there are many social justice, legal, and other issues associated with food production, the system has delivered affordability. In contrast, housing production and operation is seen as a scourge and a profiteering racket. Housing, however, is like any other business and housing producers are human beings like any other set of human beings working in an industry. As I always say, greed is a character trait, not a business model.
Finally, I think we need smart subsidies. Although to make the lager point about supply I sometimes concede that it is a “right” or that the government could produce it and manage it, I think that is a terrible idea. Government is best when it is a referee in the market, not a participant. Government should write the rule book, revise it, and set priorities based on good science and data. But because housing is perhaps the biggest single monthly expense for a household, paid out all at once, it can make people very angry when that expense increases. And at times of population growth, increases in prices are coupled with other issues, problems, and discomfort that are all attributed, often, to the production of housing rather than it’s scarcity. The rule book then just gets longer and longer.
This is a long answer to a simple question, but I think it’s always worth reflecting on why the market should be allowed to produce as much housing as it possibly can. When and where it fails, mostly for people who have less money and a myriad of other challenges, housing should be subsidized, even produced and managed by government. But even for people struggling to get out of poverty, we ought to be considering guaranteed income and vouchers when we can rather than turning over their housing to a system we wouldn’t trust ourselves.
Thanks for the question.

Smart Growth Seattle on the Radio: It’s Not a Housing Crisis, it’s a Housing Shortage

I went on the airwaves to talk housing with Bill Radke of KUOW’s The Record and John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. My main point is not that we are having a housing crisis but that we are having a housing shortage, and that we don’t need to make more affordable housing, we need to make more housing so it will be affordable. Here’s the rundown from the show’s website:

For Fox, keeping affordable housing means halting teardowns of buildings that are already affordable, even if that means losing out on potential new units in the city.

For Valdez, making affordable housing means building a lot more buildings, even if that means tearing down buildings that are currently affordable. The idea is that if more units are available for everyone across the income spectrum, then low-income people won’t have to compete with the middle-class for a paltry number of affordable homes.

In the past, Fox and Valdez have been called arch-nemeses for their differing views on how to address Seattle’s growth. In this conversation, they at least agree that the ultimate goal is to have affordable housing in Seattle for those who need it (even if they can’t agree about how to do it).

I have always thought Fox to be a principled opponent on the housing issue. We don’t agree on many things but we do agree that the priority for housing subsidies should be on people who are truly struggling in our economy. The City’s emphasis on so called “work force housing,” that is housing for people earning around $60,000 is, in my view, an indication that their policies that constraining housing supply are just pushing prices to the point that people with higher earnings now qualify for subsidy.

I think you’ll hear me make that point frequently during our segment: the more we limit and constrain market rate housing, the more pain spreads through the economy, and the fewer dollars we’ll have in subsidies to help people with the fewest dollars. You can listen to the whole exchange below.


Blank Ballot: As Mayor Murray Exits Will Things Get Better for Housing in Seattle?

The answer is, I think, no. In case you missed it, Mayor Murray resigned from office leaving today at 5PM. Last night Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon both gave horrible debate performances. Moon, in my opinion “won” the debate, having a better and more confidant command of the issues than Durkan. I can tell that Moon really likes to talk about housing even though she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. Durkan, on the other hand, speaks the I would about soccer; with pain and a deep sense that it’s really hard to understand how people can get excited about a sport that has scores like 1 to 0. Durkan doesn’t care, but she is more favorable to business. Moon really cares, but favors really bad and silly ideas like taxing speculators. We’re doomed. I’m already sort of missing Mayor Murray.

If Moon won the “debate” (the quotes indicate that it was more of a colloquia) then The Seattle Times’ Vernal Coleman won the moderator contest. The socialists and communists gave that win to The Stranger’s Heidi Groover who did her job, asking questions that Stranger readers would ask (how will you approach housing from a social services perspective etc). Coleman asked about the high costs of non-profit housing citing the figure of $350,000. I had hoped he’d cite my figure of $500,000 but still, he pressed the issue with the question. The answer? I don’t remember. Neither candidate answered it.

Durkan’s total failure came with two phrases, “housing is a human right” and that she would “tap developers” for money to subsidized non-profit housing. She and Moon repeatedly referenced “HALA” as the new tax on housing that would be charged under the City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) scheme it calls Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA. That’s bad enough, but Durkan who is supposed to be “pro-business” said numerous times that builders would be paying for subsidized housing. And while she said “housing is a human right” she also supported sweeps. I don’t think that Durkan knows what that phrase even means. And if she does, I know she won’t do anything to make it happen. It’s what we call pablum.

Durkan further goofed when she tried to call out Moon for not having run a big organization. It was supposed to be a knock out moment, like “you don’t know how to run a City.” Instead Moon beautifully pivoted and pointed out that she’d run a business with just as many people as Durkan managed when she was a prosecutor. “Have I ever run a $6 billion organization?” parried Moon. “No. But neither have you.” Total win. Moon wasn’t able to shed her weird idea of taxing foreign investors and came across as defensive. She also said, more or less, that market rate builders were part of the problem not part of the solution. She wanted to convey she was with the Oliver, Hasegawa, and Stranger voters.

Based on last night’s debate, Durkan does not deserve the vote of hard working builders. Neither does moon. Knute Berger had as fine a take on the end of Ed Murray as anyone. He said of Murray,

He seemed to embody the strongman-type mayor many Seattleites have yearned for — he used his office to drive agendas, whether the HALA housing plan or raising the level of urgency on homelessness. He wasn’t at constant war with the City Council. He yanked the reins of control on the neighborhood councils to show who was boss.

Not really. He wasn’t so much a strong man as a stubborn man. But he was effective at confounding his technique of putting antagonists in a room and bullying them into a solution. And the outcome was a thing called HALA which was confused with a tax on new development, MIZ. I always said Murray was like the dad driving the car who threatened the kids in the back who were making too much noise. “Don’t make me stop this car and come back there!” Did that technique solve any problems. Of course not. But it shut everyone up except those of us who had nothing to hear from the Mayor.

Murray failed, in the end, to resolve the housing issue. He shut almost everyone up, including even the contentious and skeptical Stranger who dutifully supported his MIZ scheme. That’s something. But that isn’t consensus. And it isn’t policy. It’s just shutting everyone up until the next bathroom stop. But Durkan and Moon seem like they’re auditioning to host a low wattage pod cast rather than running a government and solving a pressing and urgent problem which is more about ending abusive ideology and looking more at data. We don’t have a housing crisis (as Durkan repeatedly mouthed over and over) we have a housing shortage.

Our next Mayor doesn’t have a clue about the distinction between those two concepts. Today, my advice to builders is that we have more leverage if we leave our ballots blank. If one of these candidates wins by 500 votes, we can at least say we made up the difference. That might mean something. Durkan thinks she’s entitled to your vote because she thinks we’re afraid of Moon. I’m not. You shouldn’t be either. Neither one seems to understand the business of building or the economics of housing. Why vote for either one when a vote for Durkan means voting against Moon if she wins, and if Durkan wins, it means a vote for someone who has said she’ll make you pay for non-profit housing. I don’t see the benefit of voting for either. I’ll probably leave my ballot blank.