Over the Top Again? We Need a Better Plan.

One of my favorite comedies ever is the Blackadder series, a BBC sit com that ran in the 1980s. The series is named after the lead character, a acerbic, sarcastic, set upon, but relentlessly funny bit player in English history who is surrounded by people who are either not that bright or not that bright and somewhat sadistic. I have always found myself in his character, especially the final episodes of the series which are set in the English trenches of World War I. Blackadder Goes Forth is set in the darkest period of the war, when everyone knew what a hopeless killing machine the war had become; but there was no way and nobody willing to stop it. It’s kind of the way I feel about land use and housing policy in Seattle. The Seattle City Council keeps making bad housing policy. There is some hope, however, if we start now to stop the supply killing machine we’ve unleashed through overregulation and resisting growth.

My favorite episode of the Blackadder Goes Forth set kind of sums up my feelings about where we are, it’s called Captain Cook and here’s a key scene.

In the clip, Blackadder cynically asks about the big plan to win the war:

Melchett:       Good man. Now, Field Marshal Haig has formulated a
                brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the
                field. [they gather around a model of the battlefield]

Blackadder:     Now, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of
                our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy sir?

Darling:        How can you possibly know that Blackadder? It's classified
                information.

Blackadder:     It's the same plan that we used last time, and the
                seventeen times before that.

Often I feel as though we haven’t learned our lesson as advocates for more housing and we keep repeating the same mistakes.

Over at the Facebook page, City Builders, I’ve been getting kind of surly with folks over a number of issues, including a new found obsession among “Urbanists (I still don’t know what this term means)” with abolishing single-family zoning in Seattle in favor of a more flexible code that would allow more density in single-family. I have tried to explain that we’ve already pushed for that and in fact, this notion was the basis of the founding of Smart Growth Seattle (hence our “Fresh Code” language at the top of the web site). I wrote about this years ago, and we battled to make it easier to build single-family homes in single family zones on smaller lots. And that’s my point to the new comers: the Council killed our efforts to make it easier to build single-family homes in single-family zones! See my many posts on this topic starting with the one I wrote about Councilmember Tim Burgess’ comments on the legislation that he supported killing small-lot development.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t drastically reform our land use code to allow more density in single-family, but the Council has made it hard to build single-family in single-family. Why would they suddenly turn a corner and allow courtyard housing and other types of housing that fits the description of the Missing Middle. We’ve got to talk to the people who are the most worried about changes in our city brought by growth. Why do they dislike developers and landlord? Why do they think that greed is why housing prices are going up rather than the lack of housing supply in the face of rising demand? What messages and messengers would help people in Seattle get that people who build housing are part of the solution to rising prices, not the cause of them?

No, I’m not “bitter” and I am, at heart, an optimist. But what I also think is that if we’re going to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, we need to invest in a broader, more sustainable approach. Here’s my proposal. It’s a start.

Research and Apply Findings to Communication, Legal, and Regulatory Engagement

  • Why are basic economic concepts held by most people (e.g. that scarcity leads to higher prices) not applied to discussions about housing?
  • How would more information about the details of housing financing and production influence people to modify their views about why housing is expensive?
  • What language would be most persuasive in public discourse to shift people’s views about why housing is expensive (i.e. housing is expensive because it is scarce, not because of greed or gaming of the economy by large corporations, developers, or foreign speculators)?
  • What is the Total Development Cost (TDC) for building housing in Seattle for all types of housing, in all parts of the city? What are those costs by the square feet and by unit?
  • What Total Development Benefit (TBD) created by housing production in addition to housing itself (i.e. jobs, tax revenue, etc.)?
  • What are the Total Regulatory Costs (TRC) for housing (i.e. all costs that are directly related to rules, fees, and codes)?

Apply research in the following domains:

Communication: Design a sustained program of communication and engagement across multiple platforms to persuade the public that developers, builders, and operators of rental housing can be part of the solution to rising housing prices.

Legal: Initiate both broad and narrow legal challenges to areas of regulation and policy that are contributing to rising prices by adding costs to and limiting the production of housing.

Regulatory Engagement: Maintain effort to ameliorate and limit costly non-legislative intervention and action by local government that increases the costs and limits the production of housing.

Outcome

  • Improved legislation and policy in 2018 and 2019
  • Better footing for pro-growth and housing candidates in 2019 election
  • Recruit and elect at least one strong pro-growth and housing candidate to the Seattle City Council
  • Developers, builders, and operators of rental housing are included in making housing policy.

A Message from Weld Seattle

Note: I’m sharing this message on behalf of Amy King with Weld Seattle. If you aren’t familiar with Weld take a minute to read this email and check out the attachments. Together with other programs and organizations, Weld Seattle is helping people with criminal records transition into life and work here in Seattle. 

Hello Smart Growth Seattle,

Stephen and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to listen to our presentation at last month’s Smart Growth breakfast. We greatly appreciated the opportunity to share our mission with you and we are very grateful for the generous property donations we have already received! I have attached an electronic copy of our Housing Concept Note and Executive Summary, for your reference. Please feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested in our programs or helping to promote our mission.

Our member wait list continues to grow and we are forging a strategic partnership with one of Seattle’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations to provide transitional housing for individuals leaving their shelter programs.

We continue to need donations, mostly of monetary and property value, in order to further expand our programs. Additionally, we are looking for household items: beds, furniture, appliances, and linens for use in the houses. To make donations or suggest potential donor groups we should reach out to, please contact stephen@weldseattle.org.

We are also looking for a few companies to sponsor our launch event in the fall. All sponsors will be named on the invitation. in media briefings, and at the event.

We will be in attendance at the breakfast this week and would love to tell you more about how we’re growing and how you can help! Please feel free to ask us any questions you may have.

Thank you for your support of our work!

Amy
President, Board of Directors
Weld Seattle
www.weldseattle.org

Owner
Square Peg Development
PO Box 77570
Seattle, WA 98177
Cell: (503) 803-0457
www.squarepegseattle.com

 

Frequent Transit Service: One Man, Two Words

The most well known quote by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” But the inverse of Clausewitz’s formulation is no less true, that “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” There is little relationship between the tactics of winning political battles and making good policy. In Seattle, angry neighbors resisting growth have often distorted public process with brute force, creating outcomes that thwart the creation of more housing. A great example of how this is playing out in Seattle housing policy is the City Council’s inaction on problems with parking exemptions for housing built in areas with frequent transit service.

In 2011, then Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn started a process of regulatory reform that explicitly acknowledged the negative impact that many regulations have on new housing and sustainable growth. I had the honor of being on a panel that had wide representation to look at how we might reduce and redirect regulation to make more housing easier and less expensive to build. One proposal was a change in the land use code to exempt new housing projects from having to build parking. The memo supporting this shift said,

This proposal represents a continuation of trends in the City’s code development promoting smart growth, which include allowing the amount of parking provided in new development to be tailored to the needs of the intended residents or workers where dense infill growth is especially encouraged by the City’s growth management efforts, and similarly in other parts of the city where frequent transit service is within a 1⁄4 mile walking distance. This would help avoid parking oversupply and associated consumption of space that would be better used to accommodate new residential or non-residential uses in more efficient patterns. Because parking is expensive to build and can be an impediment to pedestrian-oriented design, this proposal will improve the financial feasibility of development and encourage new growth to occur sooner, including new housing resources and space for new employment opportunities.

So the Council passed this change and many new projects built in dense urban villages with lots of transit service were built, allowing more people to live in those neighborhoods more affordably. The elimination of parking requirements was a huge benefit toward sustainable and affordable growth because it allowed more density (a positive all by itself), and since parking is so expensive to build, reduced the costs of building new housing, meaning lower prices. The exemption worked exactly like it was supposed to. And of course, this irked neighbors opposed to change and growth near their homes.

It all comes down to two words, “average scheduled.”

As a result, in 2014, neighbors appealed a parking exemption to the Hearing Examiner. Their appeal was based on the strict definitions – or lack thereof – in the legislation enacted 3 years before. The way that the City implemented the new exemption was to take Metro schedules which are set about every thee months, and simply take the average headways of those schedules to create an easy to use map identifying areas covered by the exemption. That way, anyone whether a developer or homeowners or someone proposing a policy change could see, easily, exactly where the exemption applied.

However, the appeal was successful because it correctly pointed out that the law doesn’t say “average” headways – anywhere. The maps and the method of calculating frequent transit service using the average scheduled buses could no longer be used. The designation “frequent transit service” could only apply in areas where buses were actually scheduled 15 minutes or less during the entire 12-hour period established as the threshold in the code. If the schedule had gaps during that time, then the designation wouldn’t apply, and projects would have to build parking.

What would fix this? The Hearing Examiner made it abundantly clear in her decision:

Neither the director nor the Examiner has the authority via statutory construction to add the word “average” to the term “headway” in the definition of frequent transit service. Doing so would change the clearly stated meaning and the impact of the definition. This can only be accomplished through legislation (emphasis mine).

In what seems like something right out of an episode of “Yes, Minister,” the City bureaucracy was mobilized to figure out how to write legislation that would correct the problem but without using the word “average.” Seriously. For three years the housing community has been waiting for a proposal that would create the outcome the legislation intended, exemption from having to build parking where there is lots of transit service. We already know a Directors Rule won’t help the situation (it didn’t last time) and the Hearing Examiner couldn’t have been more clear.

Why not just draft up legislation that would add the word average?

Fear.

Councilmembers, including the Chair of the Council’s Planning Land Use and Zoning (PLUZ) Committee won’t touch the word “average” with a ten-foot pole. The politics are bad and the Council is terrified of the back lash it would get if it simply did what the Hearing Examiner said would work: insert the word average!

The situation has gotten even worse. Recently more angry neighbors emerged and appealed another project on similar grounds. This time the ruling even further attenuated the exemption. Not only does the transit schedule have to meet the 15 minute headway requirement, it has to do so in real time, that is actual bus service has to be measured to demonstrate there is no lag is service. Again, the appeal is yet another wily exploitation of the weakness in the underlying language of the application. As the Hearing Examiner points out,

While analysis of bus schedules might be sufficient in most circumstances, when presented with reliable data showing that bus service does not meet the definition of frequent transit service well over a third of the time over a period of months, the [City] cannot simply ignore such information

I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment. Now what’s needed is another word, “scheduled.” Together, the words “average scheduled” would clearly convey the intent of the original legislation and it would make it easy to calculate consistently and predictably, avoiding having to count actual headways.

Am I angry at the angry neighbors. Not really. They’re  just protecting the equity in their homes which will rise as supply fails to keep up with demand. Am I annoyed that Futurewise board member Jeff Eustis keeps filing these actions on behalf of angry neighbors? Livid. But each of these players is just acting rationally given the circumstances.

There is one guy in town that can start fixing this: Councilmember Rob Johnson. But he simply won’t do it.

Back to Clausewitz.

Johnson knows the right thing to do is to simply draft the legislation and get it done. Let the angry neighbors make their noise. He should walk down the hallway on the second floor and work on his colleagues to persuade them using data and using whatever else is needed. Maybe he can read the opening chapter of Robert Caro’s brilliant Master of the Senate about how Lyndon Johnson passed civil rights legislation. Or maybe read about how Earl Warren managed to get a 9 to 0 vote on Brown v. Board of Education. In each case, the outcome was uncertain but decisive. In each case there were many reasons to fear angry mobs.

It’s called leadership. And it means standing up to the fear in yourself and in your colleagues. It means doing the right thing and bringing others along. Otherwise the brute force of angry neighbors wins the day; housing prices keep going up, more people drive and our City loses. It all comes down to two words, “average scheduled.”

Our Comments on Seattle’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement on MIZ

The following is our comments on the City’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) Program.

In testimony before the Seattle City Council the City’s planning staff have said that 120,000 people will be moving into the city of Seattle in the next two decades, creating a demand for at least 75,000 new units of housing. Other versions of this the story of growth suggest that about 1,000 people are moving to the city every week. No matter the source or the number it is clear that every measure points to job growth (unemployment is at a historically low 3 percent) and high demand for housing. People want to live in Seattle.

The City of Seattle should be developing policy that supports the building of a supply of housing that can accommodate new people moving here. The City’s version of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ), the MHA program will render many new housing projects infeasible, will increase prices to rationalize fees and mandated inclusion of rent restricted housing, and is illegal based on the State’s prohibition of taxing new housing construction (see RCW 82.02.020).

The impact of this proposal will result in new significant adverse environmental impacts as to transportation, as more new regional residents are forced to find housing further from, and commute longer distances, to their jobs. Some of this transportation and transit impact will fall inside the City of Seattle and some will fall outside the City borders. The City must meet its obligation and identify and evaluate these internal or extra-jurisdictional impacts on the environment.

The DEIS states

Housing costs will continue to be a burden for a segment of the Seattle’s population due to high demand and competition for housing generated by a strong job market and attractive natural and cultural amenities. Therefore, even with implementation of MHA in the study area, Seattle will continue to face a significant challenge in the area of housing affordability. This condition is a result of market and economic forces, however, and not an impact of MHA (emphasis mine).

This last statement is false.

On the contrary, an analysis done by our own builders and by the Sightline Institute has found that the fee structures for the program will harm housing production in areas best suited to accommodate new growth, the city’s low-rise zones. Fees from MHA will make many projects infeasible and thus reduce supply or the price will increase to absorb the additional costs. And by its previous actions, the Seattle City Council has already lowered capacity in those zones in legislation it passed in 2015. And it is currently considering imposing impact fees, a move that would add even more costs to the production of market rate housing.

The City is creating both an economic and environmental disaster, and the DEIS fails to assess this damage. The City needs to take responsibility for the its continued actions to thwart the production of housing even while its elected officials and staff say publically that rising prices are created a “crisis.”

When taken together with numerous other mandates, fees, taxes, and restrictions (e.g. decisions to impose building code standards that push up the size of small apartments, mandates to extend unnecessary water mains and drainage, a failure to clarify existing exemptions for parking in areas with frequent transit etc.), the City Council is already engaged in what might appear to be a wide ranging strategy to actually suppress housing supply in the face of rising demand.

At the same time the City appears to be imposing more costs and constraints on the production of market rate housing, it is also engaged in an effort to channel more and more capital to subsidized non-profit housing, a needed product in a time of high demand; however, the costs to develop these units is climbing as land and labor costs along with the many transaction costs associated with Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) consume more and more subsidies.

The City, whether intentionally or blindly, is constraining the production of market rate housing, pushing up its price, then rationalizing the imposition of more constraints through the illegal extraction of value from new construction to pay for subsidies because of rising prices. The City is rigging the system in a way that ensures higher prices and thus a swelling demand for subsidies that it will wring from market rate housing, a recipe for perpetual increases in housing prices and thus more and more pressure on people with fewer resources to find housing elsewhere.

The City is creating both an economic and environmental disaster, and the DEIS fails to assess this damage. The City needs to take responsibility for the its continued actions to thwart the production of housing even while its elected officials and staff say publically that rising prices have created a “crisis.” The crisis, to the extent there is one, is entirely self imposed, and the DEIS should assess the quantitative impact of its actions on housing prices and how that will contribute to environmental impacts.

Election 2017: Women Ascend, McGinn Fades, and Angry Seattle is Confused

Well the first numbers are in, and because of the goofy way we run elections in Washington (votes aren’t reported out all night like in the old days, just once a day for weeks) we have some very preliminary results in the Mayor’s race that tell an interesting story already. 

First, Seattle wants a woman to run the City. Women candidates got a staggering 74 percent of the vote. Regardless of one’s opinion about it, voters were enthusiastic about having a woman as mayor and voted accordingly. I’m almost positive if asked voters would say this mattered to them. 

Second, former Mayor Mike McGinn failed to show up to the fight, getting single digits. He finished dead last out of the big six. That’s going to leave a mark. Ouch! This was both a rejection of the notion that his name  familiarity was enough to carry him through the primary and his veiled appeal to angry neighbors (and unintentionally to me) to bring a halt to Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, the damaging scheme to charge a per square foot tax on all new housing to fuel reckless spending on non-profit subsidized housing. 

Third, Angry Seattle doesn’t quite agree on what it’s angry about. Are they angry at homeless encampments which Jenny Durkan has promised to keep sweeping, or the police, which Nikkita Oliver has hinted she’d abolish? Are they mad about extortionary upzones because of the density or because the rate of inclusion is not high enough? Are they mad at non-existent shadowy syndicates of foreigners buying up all the housing and leaving it vacant that Cary Moon has promised to tax to death?

Durkan will have to reach out to a lot of people that voted against her to win. The question is will she face the scary story telling Moon or the socialist Oliver. Both Moon and Oliver are dangerously unqualified to take over the City bureaucracy. Neither has the kind of significant and high level experience Durkan does. But Durkan is too much in the thrall of big shot developers like Vulcan. Vulcan will have walk in privileges to the Mayor’s office and their pro formas will dictate the rest of city’s fees for builders and developers. And Durkan has outrageously said she doesn’t want to “leave any money on the table” when she said she’d consider supporting impact fees.

Moon or Oliver will have to deftly focus all the melt downs and anxiety about growth and its discontents into a single and clear message for Angry Seattle to come together. Durkan herself is the perfect target, dripping with the approval of the Chamber of Commerce and the so called “establishment” (whatever that is). This is the so called group of power brokers that has been a door mat to communists and socialists and labor unions rallied by Sawant to impost a growing catalog of inflationary and damaging interventions in the city’s economy. Does Durkan have the courage to look out for all businesses in the city, even the small ones? Can she make a strong case that socialism won’t work? Will she stand on principle or appeal to what will be the voters growing realization the Moon and Oliver would likely spend four years in on the job training?

We’ll see. The right thing to do would be for Durkan to run a strong and aggressive campaign on getting the city back on track, focused not on Donald Trump or socialist nonsense, but an expansion of the housing market by scaling back rules and regulation, ending MIZ, and staying away from popular but self-defeating proposals like impact fees. She has the kind of strength to do that, but will she.

The City Council race looks to be coming down to union organizer Teresa Mosqueda and rent control fanatic Jon Grant. Both will further damage the city with backwards housing policies. Maybe Sara Nelson will make a come back; she’s not that far behind. More on that race later.