It’s Time for the Seattle Chamber to Stop Supporting the City Council

So Amazon is now making noises about moving. It’s no wonder, since we have a Council and a Mayor who have fallen all over themselves trying to appease lefties, progressives, socialists, and even communists who think all housing should be run by the government. Yet I read in Publicola that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce is now concerned about all this. That’s weird. They endorsed all these people. And they endorsed Jenny Durkan who is handing out money for free college. Where’s that money coming from? I think Chamber CEO Maud Daudon is about one of the smartest people in town. I even wanted HER to run for Mayor (see my post in Crosscut). It’s time for the Chamber to get real about what Daudon is saying: the Chamber should unendorse the Councilmembers it supported. Symbolic, I know. But it would send a real message. 

Hello Maud,

Ironic seems like the right word. Maybe sad? I don’t know. What do you think?

You were quoted as saying this by Publicola

Chamber of Commerce CEO Maud Daudon said the city has implemented policies that are “at best unfriendly, at worst, outright hostile toward the needs of our largest employers.”

It’s actually kind of funny, I guess, in a peculiar way. The Chamber has consistently supported this Council with the exception of O’Brien, Sawant, and Herbold.

However, all the members you endorsed fell over themselves to pass the scheduling legislation (and other “hostile” policies). What exactly do you say to Councilmember Bagshaw, for example, about that vote? How did you hold Councilmember Burgess accountable? What about Harrell? Is it working?

We tried a few years ago to work with the Chamber. I was more or less uninvited from the CASE meetings by George Allen.

I had members of our group get very upset about the fact that we were mixing with the “downtown people.” Our folks suspected that the Chamber was not supportive of their businesses and that it would abandon them when pressed.

I am pretty sure you’ve supported Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning(MIZ), which is going to have a devastating impact on small and medium sized builders, the builders who build the vast majority of housing in the city.

I wouldn’t be writing this if I had seen the Chamber make a much harsher and public critique of the total abandonment of good economic principles by the Council. And I wouldn’t be writing this if you hadn’t said anything or said that the business community shared the blame for the Amazon situation by coddling the Council and not acting sooner.

But you spoke as if these people were somehow completely out of your influence.

It’s not too late. We need to see the Chamber get more active in opposing these bad policies, including MIZ, a policy that make many projects infeasible, will have an inflationary affect on the housing economy, and, in the end, is completely illegal. We need your help!

Kshama Sawant isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of spine from her colleagues, a condition that has been helped along by the wider business community that has not heaped disapprobation on them for voting along with her, again, and again, and again.

I have to be blunt. We’re running out of time. And if this trend continues with the next Mayor, whoever she is, we’re doomed to have higher and higher housing prices and this group of Councilmembers will respond with even more inflationary policies. Our city is really teetering on the edge.

Roger–

Redmond Mayor Marchione Shows Us What Success Would Look Like

A week ago I was able to get over to the Master Builders Association mixer in Redmond. It had been a while since I had visited the city and the lure of Jack’s Bar-B-Que and connecting with some builders added to the reasons to take the trip over the bridge. I ended up being impressed with Redmond’s Mayor, John Marchione who spoke at the event. Here’s part of what he said:

We’re always trying to work with our customers and make things work well because you know if we’re going to have housing be anymore affordable we’ve got to make things predictable so you guys can predict, so the market can predict, and so we can have that dream. So, thank you all for being part of building the plans that us cities imagine and being a part of building that dream that vision that we keep out there.

You might remember I wrote about the things keeping us stuck when it comes to housing policy and also about what things we could as a community and industry to change the way people think about housing. Today in Seattle we’re still arguing over whether supply and demand is a real thing and how much “profit” people who build housing should make. In Seattle, developers are very much see as the problem. What we need is research and communications that will shift people’s conceptual framework: when prices go up that means we need more. And well meaning left leaning people would see that blocking growth is just as bad as Donald Trump repealing DACA.

What was powerful about Marchione’s comments was they were delivered matter of factly to a crowd of housing builders. He highlighted predictability and how builders actually make the city happen. Builders aren’t just building housing, they are helping other people build their own dreams whether it is a new home, a job, or a city trying to fulfill its planning objectives.

The fact that Marchione would even show up and say these words out loud is shocking when compared to his elected counterparts in Seattle that want builders to “pay their share” and are making things more unpredictable every day with haphazard rule making, fees, and trying to tax new housing.

My dream is not so much that builders and developers be lauded as the solution to the challenges of housing policy but as part of the solution. The Seattle City Council and Mayor don’t seem to recognize the value of new housing; instead they see it as an impact, something that makes no sense considering housing is scarce in Seattle.

When I heard Marchione’s words I had to imagine how different and better things would be in our city if we had leadership that could be collaborative with us rather than ignoring the expertise builders have at best, and at worst making them out to be villains. When elected officials in Seattle sound like Marchione, I will know our housing “crisis” is over.

Photo is of what I call the Tipsy Cow Building in Downtown Redmond. 

The Seattle Times Responds

I sent a critical letter on a recent op-ed in the Seattle Times challenging the use of a picture. As I say in my follow up to this response, maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I’ve been doing this too long. But the Times’ Mark Higgins responded in a very complete manner and I followed up with him. I think we do need a full and more in depth dialogue on these topics to move things in a better direction. 

Hi Roger,

Thanks for writing to us and sharing your feelings about our coverage of real estate and your concern about a recent Op-Ed.  You raise some legitimate points and questions, and I appreciated your ideas and openness on future coverage.

I can only speak to your concern about how we illustrated the Op-Ed and not to your larger issue about overall newsroom coverage. I hear what you’re saying and would urge you to reach out to City Editor Matt Kreamer or Business Editor Rami Grunbaum (who edits our real estate coverage). And as you mentioned in your email, you and I did just recently work to publish an Op-Ed that you wrote. I look forward to working with you again.

You’re right, too, that it would have been ideal had we sent a photographer out to Jade O’Neil’s house. However, given our time and limited staffing, that was not possible. When situations like that occur, we look for options to illustrate our work. Ms. O’Neil sent me a photo of her and her daughter, at my request, but the image was not quite right. By way of background, so that you know we don’t take these matters lightly, before we use any staff photo we turn to our Photo Editor(s) to discuss the appropriateness of pairing an image with our opinion pieces. In this case, the Photo Editor agreed with me that, in this case, it was fine to do so.

Respectfully, I disagree with your statements regarding the use of the photo we ran with O’Neil’s Op-Ed. In the 500 or so comments on the piece, I don’t recall seeing a single honest expression of confusion as to whether the house pictured was tied to the incident Ms. O’Neil described. The cutline made that clear.

Your statement that including the photo of the new homes going up in the CD is somehow an indictment of all such housing is, well, ludicrous. As Ms. O’Neil wrote in her Op-Ed, it’s the pace of change that has so rattled Seattle residents. Just read the comment stream. As older homes are bulldozed and new, often larger homes erected, the fabric of our neighborhoods are changing and that is certainly true of the CD, where many long-time families have chosen to move farther south, as this newspaper has documented in multiple stories. As Ms. O’Neil wrote, “Today, it’s different. I’m raising my family here, but sometimes it’s hard to feel at home.”

With tens of thousands of new housing units going up, and as house builders seek new opportunities across the city, this topic of growth and change will be debated and analyzed for months if not years to come. I’m happy to work with you and your clients as we document that profound change and the issues and opportunities that accompany it.

Best,

 

Mark

Mark Higgins | Deputy Opinion Page Editor | THE SEATTLE T I M ES

206.464.2094 |@markhiggins | mhiggins@seattletimes.com

 

Hello Mark,

Thank you very much for the thoughtful and complete response. I know you get lots of helpful advice about how to do your job, so I also appreciate your patience.
I think you addressed the concerns and I will concede that as a person who spends just about my whole life immersed in this issue, the economics and politics of housing and growth in Seattle, I have a very high level of sensitivity to the relationship between what is covered as news, what local papers and writers say as opinion, and how these things interact with policy. So maybe I am just paranoid.
I think we’ll just have to disagree about the picture’s importance in terms of the broad generalization that new housing is the problem. You said,

it’s the pace of change that has so rattled Seattle residents. Just read the comment stream. As older homes are bulldozed and new, often larger homes erected, the fabric of our neighborhoods are changing and that is certainly true of the CD, where many long-time families have chosen to move farther south, as this newspaper has documented in multiple stories.

But let’s consider climate change for a minute as an analogy. Many doubters will point to a weather event (e.g. snow in June in Wyoming) as proof positive that there is no climate change or global warming. It sure does feel cold and I can see the snow, but wider trends indicate something different. Small shifts and aberrations in weather outside my window will confirm my bias. But what is going on beyond what I see and feel.
My issue with coverage broadly is that to write stories about a family that moved, even when placed in the context of data, tends to reenforce the idea that massive numbers of black people are being “forced out” of neighborhoods because we’re building more housing. I can just about assure you that that contention is false. If you read my Forbes article our city is changing, but there is zero quantitative data to support the statement “black people are being forced out of Seattle because white people are moving in.”
Framing matters in these issues. What’s really going on is that populations are, indeed, redistributing themselves as many factors change.  What I’d like to do is engage with your ed board and reporters in a discussion, perhaps a series of meetings, with people who research and build housing  (not just me) on the following issues.
  • Gentrification and displacement — I have yet to see a sustained and peer reviewed definition of these terms, and I have yet to see a way to measure them quantitatively. It is simply irresponsible to use these terms in the discussion without first asking what they are and how to measure them. Something is going on, but what? Are these terms about the feelings about the disutility of change versus an actual consequence of policy? Is it appropriate or even ethical to create a normative standard of racial mix in a set of census tracts? What is the correct racial mix and ratio of white people to other people?
  • It’s too hard to build — I am sure you believe in supply and demand. Again, I don’t want the Seattle Times to agree with our point of view, but each aspect of this issue and story would greatly benefit if you could hear from actual builders about the hassles and difficulty of getting their product to market. If we were talking about a food shortage, the front page of your paper would be frequented by stories about the many hurdles, mostly political and bureaucratic, that a slowing down the production of and thus boosting the price of food in grocery stores.
  • The high costs of non-profit subsidized housing — As I pointed out, this is worthy of investigation. And as I have only partially joked with reporters, it’s an award winning story. I want to point out, that the Chair of the Mayor’s HALA Committee, Faith Pettis is an attorney that make millions of dollars from transactions related to tax credit non-profit housing, the very thing that her committee advised needed more money from our builders to sustain. That’s a big story. If Jack McCullough had been chair of that committee, you would have written about the conflict. We need to shine a light on how the non-profit industry is driving policy in a very unhelpful way. Again, that’s my opinion, but it’s worth a story or two or three.
  • What are the solutions? — Obviously we all want to answer these questions. And I have appreciated the Seattle Times’ efforts over the last several years to create a dialogue on this topic. We need more. And frankly we need help. Today, the dialogue is taking place in a largely unmediated and unfacilitated political arena dominated by Kshama Sawant and her allies. People in the community concerned about this issue are being offered demagoguery and promises about lowering their rent and policies are being considered and implemented without any consideration or consultation with people who build and operate housing. We must widen the menu options for the community to consider.
I’ll repeat: I’m not trying to make the Seattle Times “pro-developer.” The truth is that the person on the street likely already believes you, the City, and the elected officials already are “pro-developer.” This makes our job much more difficult and frustrating because we are in a cycle in which we are blamed for high prices, displacement, and anecdotal stories of pain while at the same time we have almost no influence over the process, media, or the larger public discussion. We’ve got the worst of both worlds.
Let me know if you’re interested in a get together on any of the topics I mentioned.
Roger–

(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….