(Yet Another) Letter to the Seattle Times

IPeople might say that it’s a mistake to pick a fight with the region’s daily paper, the Seattle Times. But, at this point, I don’t think the coverage of growth and development could get any worse. My hope in communicated directly and bluntly is that the Times might try reporting and writing about growth in a different way. I’ve made suggestions before. I think the people at the Times are doing what they think is best, but I think their coverage is making the conversation about how we grow more difficult and not easier. 

Dear Mr. Blethen,

I am writing you to express an ongoing concern with your editorial choices about housing and growth. I’m also concerned that your staff is dismissive of legitimate criticism and overly defensive.

Last week you did a really great and important service by publishing Jade O’Neil’s first hand and emotionally devastating account of racism. I believe that her words about the event could have been a great opportunity to facilitate a dialogue about race and privilege.

I say, ‘could have’ because you chose to put a picture of a newly constructed house at the top of the article. First, this exposes the family in that home to potential derision and disapprobation. Are we to believe that this home is the one where the angry driver lives? The implication is a real one and you should have considered that before potentially exposing someone that may not have had anything to do with this incident.

More importantly, your paper has consistently demonstrated a sensationalistic approach to the housing and growth discussion. Again and again your real estate reporter, for example, writes stories about reports about increases in housing prices without explaining the basic fact that, new construction (like new clothes or a new car) is more expensive than older housing.

These stories never break down numbers based on room size and location. This matters since price is likely moving unevenly. Citing averages and putting the word “skyrocketing” in front of them do to shed light on what’s going on I the housing market. It is also a bit exploitative and unhelpful to pick tenants with problems and highlight their plight. In one notable story, the reporter cites numbers but fails to put them in context, giving a misimpression that likely proliferated throughout the discussion of housing prices.

These stories, with inflammatory headlines and photos, are confirmation that new jobs and growth are ruining the city and making life harder for poor people.

The fact that the stories don’t explicitly say those words (‘growth is ruining the city!’) doesn’t absolve you from being responsible for fanning the frustration of people who’ve made up their minds about the causes of “skyrocketing” prices: Amazon, brogrammers, and greedy developers and land lords. The stories are posted on social media with comments calling out anecdotes in them as further proof we need to clamp down on the production of new housing.

Worse, slapping a photo of a nice new house above O’Neil’s heartfelt expression stokes the issue of race then folds those flaming embers into the fire. It’s as if the implication is that the house did something wrong, and that’s exactly how many people upset about changes in the city and rising prices will feel. Had you used a picture of O’Neil in her car or something more relevant to her story, this might have inspired a different discussion. Had the headline used the word “privilege” and “public space” it could have provoked a dialogue.

These things matter. Please don’t issue the standard defense of “the stories don’t say that” or “pictures and headlines are chosen separately.” You are supposed to be professionals at the regions last daily paper. You can and must do better and recognize that content and form matter. Reporting and getting the facts correct are important, and I don’t dispute that your reporters work to do that. However, headlines and anecdotes and photos all contribute to angst about growth and stir up racial tensions rather than trying to facilitate dialogue to understand and heal them. This, inevitably, leads to bad policy.

We are happy, in fact I’m asking you, to work together on stirring up actual debate and discussion about why housing prices are what they are and how we can, as an industry, city, and government address them. Our city is at a tipping point; we either do the right thing now or watch our city enter an inflationary spiral that will make us the next San Francisco. I am not asking the Seattle Times to take our side, I’m asking for leadership of the kind that we have grown to expect in the past from journalism not just doing the equivalent of pointing at a burning building and saying, “Fire. Fire. Fire” over, and over, and over again.

Our members would be happy to talk about their work and the dramatic and onerous increase in regulation adding to costs (check out the long and growing list of costly regulations. This is news!). Talk to demographers that can explain that gentrification and displacement are very hard to define and measure. Check out the fact that Seattle’s black population in some census tracts really has dropped; but it has gone up substantially in others (I wrote a long post taking a closer look at Census numbers. It’s worth your effort to dig deeper here too). Also the numbers bear out that our city is rapidly becoming less white. Finally, your paper should take a deeper look into the exploding costs associated with subsidized, non-profit housing. Recently, two projects in Seattle built a combined total of 200 units at a cost of $92 million; almost $500,000 per unit, while in Eastern Washington 200 units of Farmworker housing was built for about $3 million. What’s going on? It’s worth investigating.

And I do appreciate the opportunity to respond to the City Council’s efforts to impose impact fees. Thank you!

I’m taking a chance that you’ll listen and respond constructively. Or perhaps, like Gene Balk, you’ll agree that it would be better to be rid of me, a phrase posted by Balk in a comment thread that sound strangely Henrician for a journalist. Instead, I hope it opens up a longer conversation.

Sincerely,

 

Roger

Seattle Times Wants to “Get Rid” of Critics; But We’re Not Going Anywhere!

The Seattle Times has once again demonstrated it’s breathtaking tone deafness to issues of growth in the city. Recently they published a guest editorial by Jade O’Neil who was born and raised in Seattle’s Central District. In the editorial, O’Neil describes an incident between her and a resident of the neighborhood in which the neighbor tells her, “You need to leave!” In the editorial, O’Neil ascribes this to her being black and the victim of what I would call a privilege issue: occupying public space depends on how you look, your race, and your standing in the economy. It’s a real thing. I spoke about it with Brice Maryman in the interview I did with him. But O’Neil’s heartfelt expression of her own experience gets twisted by the Seattle Times; the Times slaps a picture of a new house above O’Neil’s writing. The message is unmistakable: the source of the problem is new housing.

When I criticized this, Gene Balk the Seattle Times’ FYI Guy said, “There’s just no getting rid of you, is there?” I think that’s what he said, but I’m not sure because Balk came back and deleted the comment along with my response. Someone was fast enough to get a screen shot though.

The right thing for Balk to do would be to apologize in the thread or at least acknowledge that he crossed a line. He could have rephrased or whatever. I would have accepted that. But for a journalist or someone claiming that designation to imply that he’d like to be rid of me is truly disturbing. I wish I had a screen shot of the exchange. I don’t. But I wanted to post this here, and express my genuine concern about what O’Neil experienced on the street. I know exactly what she’s talking about, and it is true that racism is alive and well in Seattle. But it isn’t caused by housing. And I think the person who lives in that house should be outraged that their home would be used that way by the Times. I’d demand they take the picture down. The implication might be that the person who owns this home is the one who profiled O’Neil. That’s unacceptable.

And if anything happens to me, well….

Durkan, Moon: Please Focus on Real Housing Solutions!

I realized last week that both candidates for Mayor are pursuing policies that are out of the scope of the job of Mayor and distractions from the pressing needs we have for more housing and a better approach to growth. Jenny Durkan has decided to pay for two years of college for high school graduates in the city and Cary Moon is toying with a tax on “speculation” on real estate to pursue money laundering.  Of the two, Durkan’s proposal is the most irresponsible and harmful while Moon’s is more of a waste of time. Taken together, they show how outliers and pandering to political factions are going to imperil any chance we have from sliding down the San Francisco death spiral.

Durkan calls her scheme for free tuition, Seattle Promise, and she will guarantee that “every Seattle kid graduating from high school will know they have a debt-free route to enter the workforce career-ready or to pursue further studies at four-year colleges and universities.” She goes on to say, that “the Seattle Promise will benefit around 700 young people a year who otherwise might not continue their education, but fully funding this effort will cost around $7 million per year”

I think this is an indicator of what must be internal data showing that Durkan is failing among the strong and very real “Stranger Voter,” a younger demographic that skewed strongly toward Bernie Sanders and is highly influenced by and influential on local weekly paper The Stranger. It might be annoying, but it’s hard to argue with the power of the Stranger Voter. Durkan has the dollars to spend on getting a good read on where those voters will go, and she doesn’t have them. She even cites Bernie Sanders in her roll out of the program. It’s hard not to see this as $7 million bribe to younger voters.

Meanwhile, Cary Moon hasn’t repudiated her support for a real estate speculator tax on people from outside the country or outside the city. After Councilmember Lisa Herbold clumsily asked King County Assessor for data on foreign buyers, she faced a burst of criticism from people concerned about the xenophobic and hypocritical proposal to tax anyone buying property from outside the country or city. In my own criticism of Herbold I did mention Moon in passing, and Tweeted to her directly to just drop the whole idea or risk embarrassing herself. She has gone silent on this issue from what I can tell.

The problem with Moon’s use of “speculation” in her campaign is obvious and is pointed out perfectly in Assessor John Wilson’s response to Herbold’s weird request for data on foreign buyers in the pursuit of taxing them. Wilson wrote,

I don’t believe this proposal addresses the problem we are collectively seeking to fix: affordable housing. The luxury home market is not driving our affordability crisis. It is simple supply and demand of housing priced for working people and seniors that is driving skyrocketing prices.

Just allow us to build more housing, please! 

Add to this obvious point that nobody has shown how exactly the foreign cabal would be able to buy the requisite hundreds and hundreds (about 1400 estimated by Mike Scott) of apartment units and empty them out to have a 1 percent impact on overall prices. What’s bizarre about the conspiracy theory adhered to by Moon and her constituents is that it is about as credible as the contention that Bigfoot is wandering in volunteer park and that the Loch Ness monster got a job at Amazon and is now living in the reservoir. Total bunk.

But at least Moon’s bizarre conspiracy theory is about housing in Seattle, and the Mayor of Seattle has some responsibility for policy that has an impact on housing prices. Durkan’s proposal is pure pandering to a demographic that is highly suspicious of her and her motives using taxpayer dollars. It seems desperate and off topic, especially while tonight we’ll have hundreds of people sleeping outside and in their cars. Sure, paying everyone’s tuition is great, but is that really the responsibility of the City of Seattle? And once again, Durkan is trying to bash Trump rather than paying attention to the unraveling of our own housing market.

Sadly, I’m the only one in town that will call this out. However, this could be a defining moment for the city, and the campaign for Mayor. Durkan is walking around town with the blessing of big shot lawyers from downtown, Vulcan, and the Chamber of Commerce and handing out entitlements to get elected. That is not something that bodes well for the hardworking people with family owned business producing housing. Durkan cares more about funneling cash to constituencies that will get and keep her in office rather than engaging with the real people at the front who are trying to keep up with housing demand. The non-profit housing industrial complex supports her candidacy as well. They know who’ll take care of their interests and provide them more capital.

When it comes to Durkan, at least, “equō nē crēdite, Teucrī! Quidquid id est, timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentīs.” Consider yourselves warned.

The featured image is a drawing by Cesare Nebbia an artist of the Italian school, 1536-1614, titled, “Laocoön Hurling a Spear at the Wooden Horse. The reference is to Virgil’s Aeneid 2:40-60 when Laocoön, a priest, warns the Trojans about the gift they are about to receive from the Greeks crying out, “”Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.” Immediately after Laocoön says this, he throws a spear at the horse. There are groans from within from the hidden Greek soldiers. But it’s too late, and two huge snakes come out of the sea and devour Laocoön and his sons. Sad!

 

 

Mayor and Council: It’s Time to Assess How Much You’ve Pushed Up Housing Costs

We’ve been here before. The Council and Mayor have been on a regulatory spree over the last several years, killing small-lot development, mircohousing, downzoning the low-rise zones, imposing unhelpful laws affecting tenants and landlords, and they are poised to do more. Meanwhile, they can’t muster up enough courage to fix the problems with the definition of Frequent Transit Service. So, while staff at Seattle Public Utilities consider expanding the kinds of infrastructure new housing will have to pay for, we sent this letter urging all of this to stop so we can at least get a sense of how all these costs are going to impact housing prices. It’s likely that this will just get a hand wave from the Council, but perhaps the wider community will agree and at least urge the City to consider whether and how much all these new rules and regulations are going to impact housing production and prices. 

Here’s a link to the PDF of the letter

August 18, 2017

Dear Mayor Murray and Councilmembers,

A key section of Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee Report (pages 37-39) called “Reform the Review Processes,” says:

Construction of housing requires permits from a range of different agencies within the City of Seattle – Department of Planning and Development (DPD), Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), and Seattle City Light (SCL). Long permitting processes and unpredictable timelines make housing projects difficult to develop and add to the cost of new housing. It is estimated that if significant reforms were made to Design Review and Historic Review, and improvements were made to the predictability of permitting within and between departments, total timelines for a complex multifamily development could be reduced by up to 2 months, and cost savings could total up to $4,000 per housing unit.

We’re very concerned that rather than cost saving reforms, the City is in the process of actively adding costs to housing production. Below are examples of new requirements and changes to policies that all add to the cost of housing.  The point of this letter is not to debate the wisdom of any of any of these: some we think are ill conceived and other may have some merit.

Rather, we want to point out the cumulative impact these changes have and the apparent fact that no one in City government is aware of, let alone evaluating, the total impact of these issues.  Some changes are legislative, and one might assume that City Council is aware of the financial implications of those enactments.  Others changes are purely administrative and we see no sign that anyone in the individual departments is looking at the impacts of these changes, individually or cumulatively on housing prices. Here is a PARTIAL list of the issues:

  • Water Main Extensions – Seattle Public Utilities is already requiring new and costly water main extensions for new housing based on sub divided lots rather than parent lots. This means that although water service is feasible from existing mains, new mains are being required. The effect is either fewer, more expensive units to avoid the additional costs or increasing the price of existing units to absorb the costs of the new water main.  We understand that SPU may be in the process of increasing the circumstances where water main extensions will be required.
  • New Drainage Requirements – Seattle Public Utilities is in the process of reviewing drainage requirements as well, and we’re concerned that new housing projects that can already handle drainage without new and expensive infrastructure are going to be required now to build storm water main extensions, another significant and we believe unnecessary added cost to housing production.
  • System Capacity (or similar) Charges – It is our understanding that Seattle Public Utilities, or perhaps other instrumentalities of the City, are exploring implementing this type of charge to help build out the water/sewer infrastructure of the City.
  • Impact fees – The Council is moving ahead with considering impact fees. We’re highly skeptical of this. While potentially legal if done properly, it’s hard to see how this would be implemented in Seattle. Again, this is yet another additional and still unknown cost to housing production and will increase housing prices.
  • Separation from Electrical Wires – Recently Seattle City Light implemented a new policy that requires more separation between new construction and the SCL service lines.  This has made some projects financially infeasible, has requires significant redesign to others and has necessitated costly and time-consuming relocation other SCL facilities, at the property owner’s expense.
  • Definition of Frequent Transit Service – Currently there are dozens of projects currently in permitting with as many as 100 units and perhaps many more at risk because the City has not enacted legislation to clarify the definition of frequent transit service. Projects will be stopped or forced to add parking that will reduce supply and boost the price.
  • Design review – New public meeting requirements are being added to design review, and while new square footage thresholds are an improvement, there are sure to be some additional costs for new meeting requirements and possible extensions of building timelines.
  • Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning/Mandatory Housing Affordability – We know this program makes many projects infeasible because the cost of fees, inclusion, and additional construction to realize the benefits of additional floor area out weigh the value of that square footage. Again, this is an as yet unknown but significant cost and slowing of production, not to mention that many sellers of land in areas potentially impacted by upzones are beginning to demand more money for their property.
  • New registry for vacant buildings – If a proposal goes forward to create an inspection and registration regime more complications will be added to many projects in low-rise zones.

Taken together with other initiatives, like a speculator tax, first in time leasing requirements and limits on screening new tenants, we are seeing more and more costs being added not taken away. This means higher prices at a time when everyone seems to be repeating that, “we are in a housing crisis.”

We urge you to first, stop these efforts or slow them until we get a better accounting of how much cost these and other requirements are adding to overall costs of production. This would give everyone a chance to determine the relative value of these changes compared to the value of increasing the production and lowering the price of new housing.

Second, the new Mayor would likely benefit from this information and it would allow her to work with stakeholders to make these decision in 2018 rather than having to reverse course on efforts begun in the 4th quarter of this year.

Currently, the most urgent of all these are Seattle Public Utilities work on changing water access and drainage requirements. This, along with possible changes to tap fees to offset higher bills for ratepayers, is an issue that needs a higher-level conversation with stakeholders before decisions are made.

Sincerely,

 

Roger Valdez

Jesus, Hayek, and Friedman Walk Into a Homeless Encampment….

I’ve known Brice Maryman for a decade now. Maryman emerged as a leader both in the field of landscape architecture but also as a community leader for parks in Seattle. Sometimes Maryman and I would even have good natured banter about whether a particular parcel ought to be a park or housing. But Maryman gets the bigger issues associated with all of the issues of public space, parks, density, housing, price, and affordability. He was also a leader in the community driven 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy which passed overwhelmingly and raised $146 million over 6 years for parks.

Now, Maryman, a senior landscape architect with MIG|SvR in Seattle, is the recipient of a Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership. Maryman’s Fellowship project is called HomeLand.

With compassion, respect and empathy, the HomeLand project intends to present proactive strategies that respect each individual’s “right to housing” and “right to the city,” while also enhancing public spaces that are significantly impacted by our current, haphazard strategies for managing homelessness. The project will explore the spatial manifestations of homelessness on the urban landscape, document current management approaches, and offer comprehensive, community‐based spatial strategies at the region, city and neighborhood scales to create better, more successful public spaces for all.

HomeLand includes a podcast series and Maryman has included me as one of his interviewees. You can listen to the whole podcast but I’ve also pulled out some of my key comments on homelessness that draw from what some might consider incompatible intellectual sources, like Jesus, Fredrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman and many others I didn’t necessarily name. These are some highlights from our discussion and at the 35 minute time mark, we have a lengthy discussion about my experience with Farmworker housing and how that’s influenced some of my views about this issue. I’m appreciative to Maryman for his time, his great contributions to our city so far, and for his efforts to add something thoughtful and useful to a so far mostly contentious discussion of homelessness and public space.

——————————–

On the History of Smart Growth Seattle

“We do a lot of pushing back because right now in this environment there are a lot of efforts to attenuate the housing supply by well intentioned people and by people that also just don’t want anymore housing. But, so, our job, a lot of it, is pushing back. We also try to have some more forward looking ideas about, you know, what sorts of things could we do to promote more innovation both on the financing side and on the construction side, you know, just broadly, you know, how do we improve the conversation about growth. We don’t get to do a lot of that. We end up doing a lot of hassling over rules and regulations.”

On Homelessness and the Concept of Home

“I think people have a strong sense of home that is different than shelter, and different than housing, and different than housing units, and I think that those of us who are, who come from a standard issue perspective on housing sometimes think of this as a unit issue, or a construction issue, or this-is-what-its-supposed-to-look-like issue, and I think that that prevents us from seeing innovative solutions and ideas for meeting people where they are at and recognizing that not everybody just wants a unit.”

On the Ways Regulation Makes Homelessness Worse

“There’s a baseline of health and safety that needs to be built into our solutions to housing. But that has become a mechanism by which to exclude innovative solutions. And so, the same arguments that are used against tents, improvised shelters, the encampments were used against microhosuing, against small single-family houses, and it was like, “Well, that’s too small!” or “People shouldn’t have to live like that.”

Because there is an expectation that home and housing is either an apartment or a single-family home or something that looks like where I live, “I” being a hypothetical “I.” And so, what ends up happening is that the building code becomes a kind of a class, a tool for class identification, and it’s no longer just purely a health and safety measure or intervention, it becomes a litmus test for, “Have you earned enough money to live in ‘real housing?’”

On Car Shelter and Encampments as an Example of Hayek’s Spontaneous Order

“Human beings, when kind of left to their own devices, will solve their problems individually and collectively in innovative and unique ways all the time, whether it’s on a desert island, or whether it’s under a bridge, or whether it’s building microhousing, or sending somebody to the moon. Human beings inherently have this kind of spontaneous quality about them that when they see something going wrong they rally around and try to fix it. Or they organize themselves to make money at it. Or they figure out, “Hey, nobody is building things like this, let’s build that.” And I see the use of public space for shelter, for housing, as completely consistent with that whole concept of, look, let’s let people solve the problem.”

On Public and Private Space for Shelter

“The notion that someone is using a part of the park space as shelter is not controversial. Now what is controversial to me, is when the City wants to take private space, and dictate what happens in private space in the same way.”

On Loving Our Neighbors

“Ultimately, we’re all in this together. We’re gonna make mistakes. And what I think you’re going to find, consistently, in all these questions is, there are going to be things that are really going to push your buttons, and it’s going to make you really upset and angry or afraid. Homelessness is a terrifying thing, because it hits at some real core thins that human beings have around family, safety, survival, and when you are confronted with the manifestation of that in your face, in the public realm, it forces, it causes you to make it want to go away. For me, the principle, I think, that I think as a Christian, that forces me to confront is, “Well, that’s probably a place where I need to go.” You know, if I’m disturbed or concerned, I need to go there. And I think that we need to push ourselves to ask these questions of, ‘Is that person a homeless person, or is that my neighbor?’”

On “What Are We Going to Do About It?”

“I think it comes down to a pretty simple question of talking to the people, figuring out what it is they need and want, and then working it out to so we can accommodate them. And I’m not really that concerned about the anxiety that it creates in the surrounding community, except to say that, “I get it. I understand why this is disturbing. But what are we going to do about it?”

On What Jesus, Hayek, and Friedman Would Do

“ We need to stop freaking out about this, wade into that community, ask questions, and support it as a leverage, because I think that’s what Jesus would do, I think that’s what Hayek would say, I think that’s would Milton Friedman would say, is he’s say, “These people have figured out a solution.” The last thing you want to do go in there and crack heads and start tearing it apart. It took them a long time to build this solution up, maybe there’s something there we can build off of.”

This is a really useful explanation by Fredrich Hayek on why the pricing system is so important and why, arguably, it is not a system of individual greed, but rather one of broader benefit that truly combines individuals into collaborative communities.