Outside City Hall Columns Written By Carolee Colter and John V. Fox reprinted from columns contained in the Beacon
Hill News and Capitol Hill Times which may be accessed at
In order chronologically, our columns include the
following (Click on the headline to jump to that article or scroll down this
Vol I July 2004:
South Lake Union Agenda Drains City Budget
Vol II August 2004: More market
rate housing development does not solve our housing shortage
- unless it's accompanied by tough regulations to steer growth
away from existing low income housing, it only causes displacement and
Vol III: Sept 2004: South Lake
Union Street Moves Forward
October 2004: City Budget This Year is Kinder and Gentler But Still Few Dollars
for SE Seattle
2004: Scattered Site Housing for Low income Housing Threatened by
SHA's Plan to Sell Off Units
2004: Neighborhood Groups and Environmentalists Pulled Apart Over Mayor's Call
for More Density in Seattle's Neighborhoods..... it
will only hurt both sides
Vol VII February 2005:
Help Wanted: A New
Mayor of the City of Seattle in 2005
Vol VIII March 2005:
whose Rainier Valley is
Vol IX April 2005:"Seattle's empty promise of preserving
affordable housing - and what we can do to change that"
Vol X: May 2005:
Plan to end homelessness
ignores root causes
June 2005: The
Travesty of the Lake Union Streetcar Outside City Hall
Vol XII July
2005: Strippergate Can't Hold A Corrupt Candle to Vulcangate
Vol. XIII August 2005:
Pitching the Vancouver Way in the Emerald City
XV: December 2005: Unsung Heroes Honored for their Community Advocacy
January 2006: Who Will Bell the SHA Cat?
February 2006: A Fishy Legislative Stew is Cooking Up at City Hall
Volume XVIII: Trees
Equal Good Health: We don't prevent sprawl by sacrificing trees:
Volume XIV: Seattle's Big Dig: Why we say 'NO' to a downtown tunnel
Volume XV: Mayor Ignores Community and
Supports Bailey Appointment to SHA Board
Volume XVI: Why you
must call 'Gov' and say NO to the Tunnel
Vol. XVII: Outside City Hall
(reprinted from November 22nd 2006 edition of Beacon Hill News-click
enforcing city codes would eliminate South End blight without enacting
Community Renewal Law
is Seattle's green reputation?
Vol XIX: Shoveling Sand Against a Rising Tide of Condo
Mayor's New Housing Agenda Downplays Low Income Needs
In Favor of Higher Income Groups
- future funding for low income housing programs would have to be
sacrificed to fund higher-
Vol. XXI: My
recollections of Charlie Chong and why he was so important to this city
Vol. XXII: A Father's Death Leaves A Legacy of Positive
July 26, 2007: Outside City Hall: About
the Council Races
- our look at the candidates
forest is falling victim to the relentless growth courted and
rewarded by city
government land-use policies
Mayor seeks to
subsidize developers and kill affordable housing
- city council seeks your input on multi-family tax break giveaway plan
- a windfall for developers with no public benefit
- plan will actually spur still more displacement and loss of physical character
in our nabe's
Vol. XXVI: The Transportation Package to No Where:
The Seattle City Council's 2008 budget follies overly
favor South Lake Union
XXVIII: A look at life after proposition 1 transportation levy failure - our
Vol. XXIX: Outside City Hall Vol. XXIX: reprinted from
Beacon Hill News: Zoned out: paying attention
to where the real power to change things sits in Seattle
It's a crime to be poor in Seattle (March 2008)
Vol. XXXI: What should a new parks levy look like?
Vol. XXXII: City Hall Considers
Lucrative Tax Breaks for Developers
Vol. XXXIII: Attack of the Townhouses
Outside City Hall
- A View of Issues Affecting Seattle’s Neighborhoods Vol I
- John V. Fox, Seattle Displacement
(This is the first in a series of monthly commentaries
featured in the Beacon Hill News from the Seattle Displacement Coalition. The
Coalition brings a 27-year history of advocacy around low income housing and
neighborhood issues here in Seattle.)
Inside sources at City Hall tell us that city revenues this
year are falling short and the neighborhoods can expect another round of deep
cuts in necessary services. We understand that the Mayor already has asked the
departments to lop 8% from their budgets for a total reduction of about $25
million in 2005. And that’s on top of $100 million in cuts made over the last
three years to $650 million budget. Community- based programs such as the
neighborhood matching fund, library hours, street maintenance, sidewalk repair,
and trash pick-up, already dramatically reduced, will be slashed again.
And it couldn’t come at a worse time. Just last week, the
city-appointed Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC) identified a
minimum $500 million backlog of deferred maintenance for streets, sidewalks,
traffic systems, and critical safety repairs on many of our city bridges. To
address some of these needs, CTAC called for greater use of "user fees" and
tolls as well as another voter approved city levy. The levy could raise about
$25 million per year with about half going for bridge repairs and the rest
towards basic maintenance needs. But even this would only be enough to prevent
further deterioration of neighborhood infrastructure, not make up for the entire
Against a backdrop of declining revenues and pressing
neighborhood needs, what's the Mayor doing with his time? Not long after he was
elected he created an interdepartmental team of over 25 staff including
department heads and gave them the task of working with Paul Allen’s development
company Vulcan Inc. on a plan to turn South Lake Union the biotech capitol of
the nation. Our public records requests show the Mayor’s team has met over 80
times since the Summer of 2002. While neighborhood folks have trouble finding
even one city planner and must compete for small grants that must be matched
with their “sweat equity”, quite literally as much as 40 percent of all city
staff time is now devoted to the redevelopment of South Lake Union.
Conservatively, plans call for an expenditure of over $800 million for brand new
infrastructure in South Lake Union – a 150 acre area where Paul Allen just
happens to own 40-50% of the developable land.
Here’s a quick rundown on only some of the Mayor’s
on-going plans in South Lake Union and what it will cost you in public dollars:
1. This year the Mayor will ask for Council to create a
“Local Improvement District” or “LID” to pay for $50 million dollar street car
in South Lake Union. According to a City Council staffer, even though area
property owners, basically Paul Allen and a few other large owners, could
realize as much as a $42 million dollar benefit, the Mayor will propose a
special "LID" assessment requiring them to pay only about $25 million of the
cost. We taxpayers will pay the rest for what is largely a frill meeting no
discernable city need.
2. The Mayor’s planners also want to spend another $200
million for changes to the Mercer Corridor and for improvements along Terry
Avenue and Westlake. A Council staffer reviewing these plans recently told
councilmembers they will not reduce congestion one iota in South Lake Union but
are designed to “improve the pedestrian environment” and “support development of
a biotech hub”. To pay for this, the mayor’s office has hidden $100 million of
the cost in the city’s regional transportation package calling it a “viaduct
improvement”. Yep… every time you hear the Mayor plead for federal or state
dollars for the Viaduct, he’s also asking for money to pay for cosmetic changes
to Mercer and other roads in South Lake Union. Even if state or federal dollars
are found, that still leaves nearly a 100 million funding gap that must be found
elsewhere. Fully 60 percent of new transportation planning and funding in the
Mayor's five year CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) is dedicated only to South Lake
Union projects including the street car.
3. The Mayor wants to build a new electrical
substation, create a “centralized energy district” to deliver steam, chilled and
hot water to the biotech companies, and underground all the wiring in South Lake
Union at a cost of over 300 million dollars. We found City Light documents
indicating that under the current rate structure, we would be asked to cover
much of these costs in the form of a 2-4% rate increase.
4. Millions more in our limited tax dollars will be
needed for other components of the Mayor’s South Lake Union Plan including an
experimental automated metering system, a new water and drainage system for the
area, a brand new $25 million dollar waterfront park, and still more just for
The Mayor’s office has attempted to justify these
expenditures by claiming redevelopment in South Lake Union will return jobs and
tax revenues to the City. But even if the Mayor’s biotech plans pan out down
there – a highly speculative assumption - the amount of tax payer subsidy spent
for each job is stratospheric. Imagine what we could do with these resources to
create jobs in neighborhoods like Southeast Seattle that truly need them.
At no time has the Mayor or anyone else at City Hall even
mentioned the possibility of using developer imposed impact fees either to cover
the cost in South Lake Union or as a primary tool that could be used when
meeting the city's backlog of neighborhood transportation needs. In fact,
cities across the region are making widespread use of impact fees as a way of
ensuring that big developers pay their fair share. The Growth Management Act
specifically authorizes and even encourages cities to use of this mechanism.
Why do our city leaders completely ignore use of these tools and pass an
inordinate share of the burden on to us? I guess the answer is obvious.... Big
business and Paul Allen in particular calls the shots down at City Hall all too
So...how does all this shape up? It means that unless our
neighborhoods speak up, our city leaders are first going to soak up a lot of
existing state, federal, and local tax dollars to pay for Paul Allen's grand
plans in South Lake Union - then sock the taxpayers with tolls, more user fees,
higher utility rates, and a massive voter approved bond to cover neighborhood
transportation needs that our leaders have neglected over the last decade.
Perhaps at the next Mayoral election we can all do something about this
misdirection of priorities.
John Fox is the longtime Coordinator of the Displacement
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reprinted from the Beacon Hill News/South District Journal
Outside City Hall
- A View of Issues Affecting Seattle’s Neighborhoods
- Carolee Colter & John V. Fox,
Seattle Displacement Coalition
(This column is the second of a series of
monthly commentaries from the Seattle Displacement Coalition. The Coalition
brings a 27-year history of advocacy for low income housing and neighborhoods in
The denser our city gets, the harder it is for
low income and working people to live here. Maybe that seems counterintuitive.
Certainly, the Mayor and his planners would have you believe that simply by
encouraging more development it will lead to lower housing prices. In fact,
Mayor Nickels right now is leading an effort to cram a lot more density into
every neighborhood in Seattle and he’s calling those of us who resist a bunch of
pro-sprawl “NIMBY”s out to scuttle his affordable housing efforts. Currently,
the city’s comprehensive plan is up for its scheduled ten-year review and he’s
using these attacks to generate community acceptance for his pro-density
But can the Mayor support his
case? Perhaps it would be true if housing simply followed the law of supply and
demand, but in fact it doesn’t work that way. New construction is much more
expensive than old. New units, even with some sort of public subsidy, cost so
much to build that they can never be rented or sold for the cost of the units
they replace. By contrast, preserving older apartment buildings and the kind of
small, humble single family homes that dot Rainier Valley is the most
cost-effective way to keep housing affordable in Seattle.
Economists talk about “market
failure” when poor people get priced out of the housing market as if it’s
inevitable. But the Mayor’s call for increased density means that these older,
smaller buildings get torn down and replaced with larger, more expensive ones.
That’s because we are a built up city with little vacant land. Most new
development often requires removal of existing truly affordable units. Each
year we lose 500 units of decent lower density affordable housing to demolition
to make way for expensive apartments and condominiums. Another 1000 units are
sold to speculators annually who immediately raise rents above affordable
levels. In most case these units sit on land zoned for higher density and the
new owners eventually plan to redevelop the sites. Consequently, housing never
does “trickle down” to the poor. The Mayor’s call for higher density zoning
just accelerates these trends.
If the affordability argument fails the Mayor,
you’ll also be told that your resistance to density will lead to sprawl. But
decisions about whether to refrain from building big housing developments, malls
and industrial parks in the suburbs are not the city of Seattle’s to make.
Those decisions are up to County Council and the various local jurisdictions.
Sacrificing the livability and affordability of our neighborhoods will not make
any difference in what those government bodies decide. It’s an article of faith
with city planners that if Seattle just absorbs enough growth that open space in
the county will be preserved. Perhaps these folks have not taken a drive out to
the ‘burbs’ lately. How many acres of open space have been spared out there
that would not have been saved without adding population to Seattle? It’s an
awfully low blow to the neighborhood movement to be accused of causing sprawl
and thwarting growth management just because these groups stand for preservation
of the intrinsic social and physical character of their communities.
Besides we would not even have a Growth Management Act, Shorelines Management
Law, or a State Environmental Policy Act were it not for the active support and
work of these grassroots organizations to get these through the legislature and
fend off yearly attempts to gut them.
If we allow the city’s growth to continue at
accelerated levels, more and more affordable housing will be torn down and the
steady exodus of low income and people of color will continue. The 2000 Census
documents the movement of people from all non-white ethnic groups out of Seattle
to Tukwila and Renton and Kent and other places in the south county where
housing is more affordable. This trend continues unabated today. Politicians
constantly praise our “diversity” but their decisions lead in the opposite
Until we implement
new mechanisms that steer growth away from our existing housing stock and
prevent demolition—or at least require developers to replace 100 percent of the
units they destroy at comparable price—and until we ensure that growth
reinforces rather than destroys the character of our neighborhoods, there’s
really only four words we should say to the Mayor and the planners who visit our
neighborhoods “NO to increased density”.
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reprinted from the Beacon Hill News/South District Journal
Outside City Hall
- A View of Issues Affecting Seattle’s Neighborhoods Vol.
- John V. Fox, Carolee Colter
Seattle Displacement Coalition
(This column is the 3rd of a series of monthly
commentaries from the Seattle Displacement Coalition. The Coalition brings a
27-year history of advocacy for low income housing and neighborhoods in
Although a final
council vote will come later, our City Council just approved legislation
allowing the Mayor to move ahead with planning for a streetcar in South Lake
Union. Despite a valiant attempt by City Councilmembers Richard Conlin, Nick
Licata, and Peter Steinbrueck to bar use of city funds for the streetcar, other
council members overrode them leaving the door open for a huge hit on the city
budget. What’s more, bus service to our neighborhoods is also at risk.
The full cost of the
streetcar is currently estimated at $50 million with an annual operating cost of
$1.5 million. If the Mayor has his way, abutting property owners would be
required to pay half the construction costs through creation a Local Assessment
District (LID), leaving taxpayers on the hook for the rest. As for annual
operating costs, the mayor likely will seek not only use of general fund dollars
but will propose trading away future bus service including any portion of the
20,000 new bus hours promised to the city by Metro through 2006 not yet put into
service. In return that agency would assume operation of the streetcar.
Council members Conlin
and Licata were able to secure a special benefits study that could raise amounts
SLU property owners will pay. And they restricted the Mayor to a plan that taps
only “new sources” of city funds and “new bus service” but these terms were not
defined and could mean anything the Council later decides.
Councilmember even questioned the wisdom of tapping millions in limited state
and federal dollars for the streetcar, despite quality research from the
Council's own staff clearly demonstrating that the streetcar serves no real
need, (there currently are 19 bus routes serving South Lake Union), costs
30 percent more than bus service to operate, and
would drain away millions of limited city, state and federal dollars away from a
huge backlog of transportation needs - estimated at four billion dollars
regionally and nearly a billion dollars city-wide.
While a final decision whether to build the streetcar and
who pays will be made later, the community lost a crucial opportunity up-front
to block use of public funds for the streetcar and ensure that benefiting
developers foot the bill. More importantly, we lost the chance to send a strong
signal to the Mayor concerning the rest of his SLU agenda.
The streetcar really is only the tip of the iceberg. The
Mayor also will soon ask the Council to approve his plans for a $170 million
re-working of Mercer Street to make South Lake Union more “pedestrian friendly”
and “conducive to biotech development.” And he wants to spend another $20-30
million for road improvements along Westlake and Terry Avenues. According to a
Council staff analysis and a transportation consultant’s report, none of these
changes will significantly reduce congestion or improve traffic flows through
the area. But they will divert traffic away from streets abutting Paul Allen’s
To pay for all of this, the Mayor already is exhausting
what few chips the City has with federal and state government to cover
significant portions of the cost, but he also will make a major assault on
general fund sources. There is a plan to raise parking meter fees at least in
South Lake Union and divert them from the general fund. We also have seen city
documents indicating the Mayor and Vulcan are discussing a plan to create a new
public development authority like Sound Transit or the Port just for South Lake
Union. This new agency could be empowered with the ability to raise taxes or
capture a share of existing amounts earmarked for the city’s general fund.
The Mayor has more up his sleeve. His planners are working
on creation of a "growth fund" for South Lake Union that would operate like a
“tax increment” district wherein all or most future tax revenues generated in
South Lake Union, instead of going into the general fund, would be diverted to
pay for the streetcar and the rest of Mayor’s South Lake Union agenda.
Initially, the Mayor would ask the Council to approve use of councilmanic bonds
to finance these items and then earmark for 10 or 20 years all future tax
revenue generated in South Lake Union to repay the bonds.
A growth fund is nothing more than a stealth attack on the
general fund and the City’s tax base. High growth areas like South Lake Union
carry enormous spin-off impacts on the City’s infrastructure and make huge
demands on general city-wide services. Instead of helping cover these budget
requirements, all future tax revenues from SLU are diverted to pay for pet
projects on the Mayor’s plate for that one neighborhood. And what happens when
other developers able to curry favor with councilmembers and the Mayor also ask
for a growth fund to pay for their schemes in downtown or Pioneer Square?
Increasingly the burden of covering our city’s aggregate general fund
requirements will fall on fewer poorer communities like SE Seattle. It also
would mean even fewer city dollars would be left over for these areas that
already are last in line for services needed in their communities.
Over nine million in tax dollars have already been wasted
on planning for the streetcar and other South Lake Union street
"improvements”. Twenty five key staff from all departments and countless
consultants and analysts meeting weekly (100 times in the last 2 years) to
assist Vulcan realize their South Lake Union dreams. In the meantime, cuts in
public safety have led to increased gang activity in southend neighborhoods,
communities go without sidewalks, street lights, and crosswalks for their kids
or other basic services, unemployment skyrockets among youth and people of
color, and the homeless crowd our shelters.
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reprinted from the Beacon Hill News/South District Journal
Outside City Hall
(Issue #4 Oct. 2004)
- A View of Issues Affecting Seattle’s Neighborhoods
- John V. Fox, Carolee Colter, Seattle Displacement Coalition
(This is one of a series of monthly commentaries we are featuring from the
Seattle Displacement Coalition)
This year Mayor Nickels offered a kinder, gentler budget for Seattle residents.
In his annual address to the Council he promised to “spotlight Southeast
Seattle” and invest $159 million in 190 neighborhood projects over the next two
years. His budget speech was in stark contrast to the past two years when he
dramatically slashed or froze funding for the neighborhoods. While guaranteeing
that “no police officers or firefighters will be cut” this year, he also
promised that no direct services for the hungry or needy, or library services
would be sacrificed.
The Mayor is approaching an election year and a better economy affords him the
opportunity to be generous to the neighborhoods and Southeast Seattle. But are
his overtures truly substantive? A closer look at his proposed budget suggests
The Mayor calls for about $20 million in cuts to existing programs, compared to
$100 million in reductions made over the last two years. He actually projects an
increase in revenues at $679 million – up from $666 million last year. But to
reach this level, the Mayor has come up with some very unneighborly strategies
that include jacking up rental rates for athletic fields, raising swimming fees,
and charging folks to park at our city parks including Seward, Lincoln, and
Perhaps aware of the fact that the human services providers are a formidable
coalition at election time, the Mayor has proposed $2 million in funding for a
long requested downtown hygiene center. This addition, however, does not make up
for over $4 million in human service cuts the Mayor proposed over the past two
And despite the increased revenue, inflation and higher labor costs still
require some cuts. To account for $10 million in necessary reductions, the Mayor
has proposed elimination of 191 city positions spread evenly among the
departments. Most can be eliminated simply by not filling vacant
positions. As promised, no cuts are planned for police and fire, other than a
few administrative positions.
To reach the additional $10 million in cuts, the Mayor has
offered scant detail. We do know, however, that he will propose complete
elimination of the city’s 55 year-old bookmobile service saving the City about
$800,000. Remember that this comes on top of drastic cuts in library hours and a
million dollar reduction in the book-buying budget over the last two years,
which have not been restored.
And the Mayor’s plan does in fact cut funding -- $317,000 – for several human
service programs including those serving Southeast Seattle. Word is that the
Council will likely restore funding for these programs but bookmobiles as of now
don't have even one champion on the Council despite a growing outcry from
seniors and the disabled.
But what about the Mayor’s wild claim that he’s going to spend $150 million on
190 neighborhood projects over the next two years? Turns out that most of these
projects have long been in the pipeline and paid for out of voter-approved
special levies for parks, library, and community centers. He even called the
long planned undergrounding of the Beacon Hill reservoir a new initiative for
the area. In reality, we are not seeing some grand re-prioritization of general
fund dollars from downtown to neighborhood projects as the Mayor suggests. We’ve
had to ante up extra taxes to pay for them.
The Mayor has budgeted $3.5 million for the City’s neighborhood matching fund
for 2005 when in previous years he froze these dollars tying up dozens of long
awaited neighborhood projects. In 2001 our previous Mayor committed $4.5 million
for the matching fund.
And what about the Mayor’s new spotlight on Southeast Seattle? Just how real is
that? The Mayor offers these three new initiatives in Southeast Seattle:
1) $1 million over two years for development of a new facility and programs for
the Asian Counseling and Referral Center – a valuable jobs, counseling, and
referral program especially for first generation immigrants.
2) $75,000 to “implement a economic revitalization strategy for Southeast
3) $1 million to the Urban League for the Coleman School Black History Museum.
In total these new programs represent a shift of less than 1% of the Mayor’s
$677 million budget to Southeast Seattle. The other projects cited by the Mayor
-- repaving some arterials, the Sound Transit's Mitigation Fund, parks and
stream improvements -- were funded from past budgets, through special levies or
covered by other agencies.
Compare these commitments to what the Mayor already has spent in South Lake
Union (SLU)--over $9 million since 2001 to plan for a streetcar and changes to
the Mercer Corridor--and the millions more he plans to spend there. Of the $200
million in new transportation projects included in the City’s five year CIP
plan, the Mayor has earmarked $145 million of that for just two projects –
changes to the Mercer Corridor and the SLU Streetcar (neither of which,
according to a Council staff report, will do anything to relieve congestion but
merely are intended to make the area “more biotech friendly.”)
While our neighborhoods face an identified $500 million dollar backlog of needed
transportation improvements, the lion’s share of the city’s local, state, and
federal transportation dollars over the next five years already are earmarked
for SLU. That means the Mayor needs new sources of revenue to fix the
neighborhood backlog. For that he has indicated he’s going down to Olympia
seeking new taxing authority. In otherwords, Paul Allen grabs our general fund
dollars while we pay extra for the basics.
Recently, through a public disclosure request, we uncovered a two year-old city
document stating that over 290 staff meetings were budgeted at a cost of over
$400,000 just to make plans for changes to the Mercer Corridor. Now compare that
to the Mayor’s new $75,000 economic development strategy in Southeast Seattle.
A shift in city priorities? A “spotlight on Southeast Seattle?” Not this budget.
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Scattered Site Housing for Low income Housing Threatened by
SHA's Plan to See Off Units
A valuable housing resource for Seattle's low-income families is threatened by
the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and our city council seems poised to let
it happen without a peep.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a combination of federal and local
housing levy dollars, the city of Seattle oversaw the construction and
acquisition of over 700 units of "scattered site" public housing. Mayor
Charles Royer had a lot to do with initiating this program and securing those
Scattered site units include single-family homes, duplexes and a few larger
units, the vast majority located north of the Ship Canal with a lesser number
in West Seattle. With large public housing projects already at Holly Park and
Rainier Vista in South Seattle, the program was specifically designed to
expand opportunities in wealthier, largely white areas of the city where such
opportunities were largely denied.
In 1978 the city council passed a resolution handing over responsibility for
the program to the Seattle Housing Authority, with the stated purpose: "To
eliminate substandard...housing, to prevent over-concentration of low-income
persons in any neighborhood and to realize, as soon as feasible, the goal of a
decent home and a suitable living environment for all...citizens."
With each resolution the city imposed conditions including site selection
criteria, limits on numbers of units per site, and design requirements to
blend into the existing neighborhoods. Site selection was subject to several
criteria and required the concurrence of the Department of Community
Development (ancestor of our current Department of Planning and Development).
Now SHA wants to sell off up to 200 units of scattered site public housing.
The agency claims this housing is getting too expensive to operate. By selling
these assets, they hope to realize a $40 million return, then take $20 million
to replace these family units in places like South Seattle with cheaper, more
densely built small units. This will leave an additional $20 million they say
they need to meet their obligation to replace the housing destroyed by the
current makeover of Holly Park and Rainier Vista: plans that will turn these
formally low income units into densely concentrated mixed-income communities
with far fewer units of public housing.
Why is scattered site public housing, once considered so desirable, now deemed
too expensive to maintain? The answer to this question hinges on who primarily
occupies this type of housing-families with children, and people with
disabilities needing accommodation. There are more larger units (with more
than two bedrooms) in scattered site housing than in the rest of SHA's housing
stock. Children make up a little over 28 percent of the total of SHA public
housing residents, but they make up 46 percent of the population of scattered
Selling off scattered site units still leaves SHA with the dilemma of
replacing those units with others suitable for families and people with
disabilities, housing that would be expensive to acquire, build or maintain
anywhere in the city. What will happen to scattered site residents if their
homes are sold off? Will SHA be able to find or build replacement units at
lesser cost than maintaining current sites? Is SHA's focus on saving money
going to cause the agency to underserve poor families with children and people
These are questions that our elected officials should be asking. But they
appear to be asleep at the wheel. City Council has the authority, in fact the
duty, to scrutinize the sales of scattered site housing, built with our levy
money for the public good, before SHA liquidates these assets.
As with any property acquired, constructed or rehabilitated by the city or SHA
with the proceeds of housing levies, the scattered site housing should only be
sold if that sale would result in increasing the supply of housing for very
low-income households, and even then the approval of the city would be
required. Permission is needed from the Department of Housing and Urban
Development-a foregone conclusion from today's privatization ideologues in our
federal government. But before giving its stamp of approval, city council
should take a hard look at who is served and who is harmed.
The city has the authority to grant or withhold approval to SHA based on
legislation passed in 1939 and 1940. The problem is that the city refuses to
exercise its defined and legally enforceable authority over SHA. Time and
again we hear the mayor and councilmembers say in regards to SHA, "Our hands
are tied....they're an independent entity...we have no authority over them."
Over the last decade this approach has cost us over a thousand public housing
units at Holly Park, Rainier Vista, High Point and Roxbury, and threatened our
senior housing, built with our tax dollars, with conversion to expensive units
that low income seniors could not afford.
The failure on the part of the city to enforce these agreements places much of
what's left of our public housing and very low income housing in jeopardy. We
need leadership from the Council and in particular, Tom Rasmussen, chair of
the Housing Committee. Are you listening, Mr. Rasmussen?
(This column is one of a series of monthly commentaries featured in the
Beacon Hill News from the Seattle Displacement Coalition. The Coalition brings
a 27-year history of advocacy around low income housing and neighborhood
issues here in Seattle.)
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Outside City Hall (Dec. 2004 Vol VI)
- A View of Issues Affecting Seattle’s Neighborhoods
- John V. Fox & Carolee Colter Seattle Displacement
(This column is one of a series of monthly commentaries
reprinted from the Dec. issue of the Beacon Hill News and written by the Seattle
Displacement Coalition. The Coalition brings a 27-year history of advocacy
around low income housing and neighborhood issues here in Seattle. This
may also be accessed on the Beacon Hill News Website at
For over three decades neighborhood groups, low income
housing advocates, and environmental organizations have worked together. Their
collective efforts led to passage of the Growth Management Act, Shorelines Act,
and other environmental laws. They blocked the Bay Freeway, the I-90 and 520
expansions and a host of other bad auto-oriented projects. They worked
together, locally, to secure support for growth limits on downtown high-rise
expansion, controls on demolition of low income housing and helped preserve the
Pike Place Market.
Now it seems, in an attempt to advance aggressive
pro-density agenda, our Mayor and a few other elected officials are trying to
pull these natural allies apart. Unfortunately, they are having some success
with these efforts. After meeting behind closed doors in the Mayor’s office, a
few prominent leaders in the environmental movement as well as some low income
housing providers have come out in favor of elements of the Mayor’s plan to
upzone large areas of Seattle including Northgate, the U-District, and South
Lake Union. What’s worse, some of these folks are also leveling heavy criticism
at neighborhood groups. Anyone striving to preserve the unique social and
physical character of their community is automatically labeled a pro-sprawl
anti-mass transit “NIMBY.
The issue of density admittedly is divisive. In theory
increasing density along public transit will encourage ridership, making transit
more cost-effective, while preventing sprawl in rural areas outside the city.
In reality, increasing density leads to the loss of low-income housing, driving
poor people out of the city into the surrounding suburbs. In an earlier column,
(July 2004 edition- see above), we pointed out that new units, even with some
sort of public subsidy, cost so much to build that they can never be rented or
sold for close to the cost of the units they replace. Because Seattle is
built-up with little vacant land, most new development results in removal of
existing truly affordable units. Preserving older apartment buildings and small
single family homes is the most cost-effective way to keep housing affordable in
We’ve heard Manhattan held up as an ideal for the future of
Seattle. A recent check on the web showed the cost of buying a home in
Manhattan exceeds $1.2 million and rents even for a studio run above $2300 per
Perhaps when we think of sprawl, we envision wealthy people
living in McMansions on the Issaquah plateau, driving SUV’s to work in downtown
Seattle. Whether that stereotype is true or not, there is another type of
sprawl to consider—people who work as janitors, dry cleaners, wait staff and
retail clerks in all those little businesses expected to pop up at transit
stations, living out in Kent or Renton because they can’t afford the rents in
Seattle, driving their more humble cars to work.
While low-income people get forced out of Seattle by
economics, some at the other end of the scale might opt out in favor of more
trees, more open space, more breathing room. Are families with children going
to prefer to live in apartments in South Lake Union if they could afford to live
in a single-family neighborhood—or Issaquah? We can’t make them live near where
they work, so we have to think in terms of making it attractive to do so. We
would argue that one reason Seattle has attracted and kept people at the
higher-earning end of the spectrum is its single family neighborhoods with their
trees, gardens and other small natural spaces.
Moreover, single-family neighborhoods are not just for the
wealthy. About 20 to 25% of single family homes in Seattle are occupied by
lower income renters including many families.
People who put down roots in a neighborhood often get
attached to what makes it distinct, socially and physically. When housing
prices go steeply up, neighborhoods lose some of their human diversity. When
large hulking structures sprout up blocking sunlight and views, these places
lose some of their visual diversity, too. The sameness of architecture we’ve
seen going up lately along Seattle arterials is disheartening. If that is what
upzoning is going to mean for a neighborhood, you can see why people would fight
Ironically, the push for higher density at all costs and
without consideration for impacts on the physical or social character of our
city, has done more to erode affordability and contribute to sprawl than any
other single policy thrust by city government. Growth must proceed of course but
first we must insist on regulations that ensure:
* Design and siting criteria
respectful of the existing character of the neighborhood
Requirements that developers replace all affordable units they remove and at
* Promotion of in-fill over
demolition and redevelopment.
Even under existing zoning and even with some vacant land
locked up in single family areas, we still have substantial capacity to
accommodate new development that does not require tearing down existing housing
or historic structures. We can meet and even exceed our growth requirements
without a lot of demolition.
Ultimately, the long-term solution for growth in our region
is to relocate some employment now planned for downtown to suburban areas closer
to where many are going to choose to live anyway. The greatest cost of a
transportation system is the cost of energy and infrastructure needed to move
people longer and longer distances to work whether its by road or rail or HOV or
vanpool. Instead of the Manhattanization of Seattle, let’s work toward this
polycentered approach to growth, making more effective use of areas already
zoned commercial/industrial but currently underutilized.
Environmental and pro-mass transit goals, historical
preservation, and housing affordability are not advanced by trashing the
neighborhood movement. The only beneficiaries are large development interests
that put profits ahead of a quality of life in our communities.
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Hall Volume VII: reprinted from February 2005 issue of Beacon Hill News
Help Wanted: A New
Mayor of the City of Seattle in 2005
(This is one of a series of monthly commentaries we are
featuring from the Seattle Displacement Coalition)
Help Wanted ad that needs to be posted in every newspaper in Seattle. That ad
would read something like this:
Someone with name familiarity, lots of dollars or ability to raise them, and
proven leadership experience, willing to take on Greg Nickels for Mayor in
2005. A large coalition of community leader seeks strong leader who will give
first priority to our neighborhoods and small businesses, with the goal of
ensuring equity, jobs, and affordable housing for low income people,
communities of color, and others now marginalized by the policies of our current
Mayor. The successful candidate will in the past have distinguished herself or
himself as a strong advocate for these values central to the well-being and soul
of our city…”
four-year tenure of Greg Nickels, these core city values have been pushed aside
in favor of an agenda that overtly favors downtown and large corporate interests
like no other time in this city’s history. Mayor Nickels has slashed programs
for the poor and failed to even begin to address the nearly one billion dollar
backlog of transportation and other basic infrastructure needs in our
neighborhoods. Nor has he chosen in any way to stem the gentrification and
displacement that is driving housing prices up and many longtime residents out
of Seattle. In fact, Nickels’ policies aimed at promoting runaway growth have
only served to accelerate these trends, driving a deeper wedge between rich and
poor, and white and non-white in our city.
While many of
our neighborhoods, especially communities of color, go without economic
development, or even sidewalks, crosswalks or critical bridge repairs, Mayor
Nickels has already made tens of millions of dollars available for his
pro-downtown and South Lake Union biotech agenda. If he is re-elected, he plans
to spend nearly one billion more just in these two concentrated areas of the
directing only a fraction of those dollars into our neighborhoods like Southeast
Seattle would do far more to generate tax revenues and jobs. And the jobs we
would generate would assist low- income people, communities of color, the
unemployed and underemployed – those who really need them.
current Mayor has also tread heavily on public involvement processes established
over a 30-year period that used to precede all critical land use and other
policy decisions affecting neighborhoods and small businesses across the
city. Despite the fact that Mayor Nickels repeatedly expressed his devotion to
the “Seattle Way” four years ago when he campaigned for the job, his staff now
speaks derisively of those processes. Nearly every community group in the city
in fact has a horror story to tell about how city planners defied the goals and
policies in their neighborhood plans painstakingly developed under previous
Mayors after countless hours of community participation. To Mayor Nickels and
his staff, the neighborhoods and their planning efforts are simply obstacles in
the way of his plan to substantially upzone large tracts of our city. Virtually
every Seattle community is affected by his pro-density agenda.
polls of the electorate indicate that Mayor Nickels is not invincible. There is
still a great deal of anti-incumbency fervor out there, sentiment that two years
ago led voters to un-elect three incumbent councilmembers. Those feelings have
only been reinforced by the shameless way the Mayor and his departmental staff
cater to downtown and special interests. Mayor Nickels cannot pursue his
superfluous tunnel alternative for the Viaduct, Paul Allen’s streetcar, a Mercer
reconfiguration (that only makes traffic worse in that area), on top of the
monorail and light rail – not without indefinitely postponing long overdue work
on our city’s neighborhood infrastructure. Nickels solution to this dilemma -
drain away our limited existing city, state, and federal dollars for these
mega-glamour projects, then for the basics - go to Olympia for authority to
impose more regressive taxes – tolls, higher gas taxes, utility taxes - and
float more voter approved bonds. This is exactly the kind of recipe that
produces a Tim Eyman-like anti-tax backlash, something so far we’ve avoided in
Seattle. A candidate running on a platform of fiscal prudence, putting
neighborhoods first, combined with social justice could offer a real alternative
decisions fundamentally affecting the distribution of wealth and the future of
this city will be made this coming year and before the 2005 fall elections.
Without any opponent, the Nickels team will interpret that as a mandate to
impose their agenda with no consideration for how it will affect the city
budget, affordability, historic structures, neighborhood quality/livability and
the displacement of low-income people from Seattle. As it is, most of our
current councilmembers have little backbone and often cave-in to the Mayor’s
steamrolling tactics. And, if Greg Nickels is elected and serves out a second
four-year term, it could be too late for any future elected official – or any of
us – to restore justice and fairness to the governance of our community.
of that Help Wanted ad would go something like this:
job of candidate for Mayor is just waiting to be filled by someone committed to
helping ensure a brighter and more equitable future for all of the residents of
our great city - someone up to the task of re-setting our course and returning
to the values that have made Seattle so livable. As activists working on a
broad range of critical issues affecting the future of this city, we urge you to
strongly consider mounting a campaign for Mayor of Seattle in 2005. We’ll work
nights and weekends to help you get elected. Submit resume to the general
public on or before March 1st.”
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Rainier Valley is
Outside City Hall
A view of issues affecting Seattle's neighborhoods By CAROLEE COLTER &
JOHN V. FOX 03/02/2005
reprinted from the March 2nd edition of the Beacon Hill News
The controversy around the plans for the old
Chubby & Tubby site on
reveals the outlines of a struggle for the soul of Rainier Valley. At first
glance, it would seem that CASA Latina, a non-profit with the mission of
"empowering Latino immigrants by providing educational and economic
opportunities," would fit nicely into the loudly praised diversity of the
Valley. The organization must soon leave its Belltown location at Western and
Battery where it has leased space from the city since 1998. With the aid of a
city grant, CASA Latina would purchase the Chubby & Tubby site and consolidate
its programs into a permanent home.
Currently CASA Latina dispatches between 25 and 100 people each day into
temporary jobs. But it is much more than a job referral agency. CASA Latina also
has placed over 400 homeless people into permanent well-paying work and helped
countless others recover back wages. Through its women's leadership training,
adult ESL (English as a Second Language), counseling and other educational
programs, CASA Latina also gives people "the tools they need to raise their
standard of living and become productive members of the Seattle community."
Opposition to the Chubby & Tubby site falls into two camps. In one camp we find
the immediate neighbors who fear a recreation of the current day labor
free-for-all at their site in Belltown. With the loss of thousands of downtown
housing units and hundreds of blue collar waterfront-related jobs and a
corresponding increase in homeless shelters, soup kitchens and hygiene centers
plus the free-ride bus zone, Belltown has a high concentration of truly
destitute homeless people including some with alcohol and drug disabilities in
desperate need of services and housing.
For over 60 years
the intersection of Western and Battery has been an open-air labor market where
prospective employers drive by and pick up workers for everything from unskilled
yard work to temporary construction jobs. The Millionaire Club's labor-ready
program two blocks away from CASA Latina's Belltown site responds to this
phenomenon. Latino immigrants who themselves are not necessarily homeless have
come to this location, too, looking for work. CASA Latina started its day labor
program in order to organize Latino workers and provide for safe and dignified
interactions between employers and workers. However, other day laborers that are
not part of CASA Latina, compete by undercutting wages. A few sometimes are
drunk and disorderly. Even though these folks are not part of CASA Latina's
program and would not follow it to a new location in Southeast Seattle, this is
what the neighborhood residents fear.
In the other camp are the leaders of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce. Their
vision for the Valley, first articulated by chamber president Darryl Smith,
calls for upscale retail stores, offices and high-end apartments in 4-to-6 story
buildings, where a wealthier population will supposedly live and work without
use of cars, due to proximity to the light rail station at McClellan. The Chubby
& Tubby site would be a grand gateway aimed at counteracting the Valley's
alleged downscale image in the eyes of potential investors.
Despite the fact that Casa Latina provides jobs, counseling and other services
to a population of Latinos that make up a significant percentage of the
Southeast Seattle population (about 8 percent), the scions of the business
community were outraged that the city was willing to provide funds for CASA
Latina at this location. Given that 40 percent of all
Valley residents are foreign-born, one wonders why the Chamber would cast such a
negative light on a program that serves immigrants.
At a highly charged community meeting on February 15th at the Mt. Baker
Community Club, neighbors of the proposed site, organized into South McClellan
Action Committee (SOMAC), shouted down supporters of CASA Latina and charged
that the facility would bring increased traffic, public drunkenness, more crime,
and predation on children waiting for school buses near the site. We certainly
can empathize with citizens who might have felt blindsided by Casa Latina's
plans. No prior notice was given either by the city or CASA Latina.
However, to suggest that Latino men are prone to drunkenness, disorderly conduct
and more likely to attack children or women waiting for the bus, tips perilously
close to racism. Statistically speaking rich white men perpetrate more sex
crimes and drink excessively more than any other group. One speaker for SOMAC
claimed that CASA Latina is "dumping their garbage on us."
Despite the overt hostility of some surrounding neighbors, opposition from area
business leaders is more troubling to us. They seem to believe that Rainier
Valley's best interests lie with development that replaces rather than
reinforces the existing character of the community. Yes,
Southeast Seattle needs economic development but it must be
tailored to the interests, needs, and skills of the folks who live here. Lacking
that, any reinvestment by the city or private investors can only translate into
gentrification and displacement. We're already losing long-time residents,
especially people of color, due to impacts from Seattle Housing Authority's HOPE
VI projects and Sound Transit. More of that and the diversity we all profess to
value will be nothing but a memory.
As long as we go on demolishing low-cost housing right here in the Valley for
another condo or shopping center, there will be more homeless on our streets -
not castaways from Belltown but growing numbers dispossessed from our own
neighborhood including families with children. As long as we lack
community-based drug and alcohol treatment for those in need here in the Valley,
there will be more folks acting out on our streets.
CASA Latina provides jobs, services and educational opportunities to help new
immigrants get off the streets. But it also is aimed at empowering the Latino
community and developing and implementing larger strategies to overcome poverty
As such, Casa Latina could do a lot for the Valley to help retain and bring in a
broad array of services and housing this community desperately needs. In
contrast to high-end retail shops that don't cater to the broad spectrum of our
community, (and that pay notoriously low wages), CASA Latina represents
precisely the kind of "economic development" we need.
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"Seattle's empty promise of preserving
affordable housing - and what we can do to change that"
OUTSIDE CITY HALL by CAROLEE COLTER & JOHN V. FOX Volume IX
04/28/2005 (Reprinted from the Beacon Hill News)
Every year we lose about 2,000-4,000 low-income units to demolition, speculative
sale, abandonment, conversion and increased rents. For every one unit we build
with limited public funds, we lose three to four times that amount to the forces
of redevelopment and gentrification. As we write this column, the land use
committee of the Seattle City Council is entertaining changes to the downtown
land use plan and zoning changes elsewhere around town proposed by the mayor.
This will translate directly into the loss of even more low-income housing in
Tearing down existing apartment buildings and replacing them with new, larger
ones always results in increased rents in the new units. The inflation in
building, land costs over time, and the desire of developers to maximize their
profits all work against replacing older units with newer ones for the same
That's why the mayor's rezones aimed at adding increased density in our
neighborhoods will only exacerbate our city's shortage of low-income housing,
unless the council intervenes to either prevent demolition or guarantee 100
percent replacement of the destroyed units.
Seattle has a long-standing commitment to preserve existing, affordable housing
in neighborhoods where those opportunities now exist. Such a policy, in one form
or another, has been part of the city's comprehensive plan for over two decades.
However, without adopting specific mechanisms to either prevent this loss or
ensure replacement of units at comparable price, this commitment remains a
From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, housing preservation was an integral and
well-publicized component of all housing assistance plans adopted annually
during that period.
The key mechanisms for preserving low-cost units were as follows: 1) an
anti-abandonment law requiring developers to keep habitable units open and
occupied, 2) a demolition control law that required developers to replace the
low-income units they destroyed, and 3), a mandatory code-inspection program
ensuring regular inspection of all lower priced rental housing and tenant
housing in the city.
The anti-abandonment law remains on the books but is not enforced in the wake of
a federal court decision from over a decade ago. There are additional provisions
of Seattle's law that could still be enforced, but they are simply ignored by
Department of Planning and Development (DPD).
These unenforced provisions allow the city to order repairs, and even condemn
and obtain residential properties, when they are not maintained.
Two court decisions struck down our old demolition control law, excepting a
provision barring developers from tearing down low-income housing for parking or
empty lots. But even that vestige of the original law is not enforced by, or
it's just circumvented by, the DPD. A good example is the case of Paul Allen's
Vulcan Company demolishing the Lillian Apartments in the Cascade community.
In the wake of the second court decision in 1987 which struck down the
demolition control law, city leaders passed an
18-month moratorium on housing demolition in downtown and on the removal of
low-income mobile home parks city-wide. They also committed themselves to
replacing that law with a legally defensible alternative, but there was no
follow-up when the moratorium expired.
The city did continue enforcing a section of that law requiring developers
tearing down housing to provide relocation assistance to displaced low-income
tenants, although the mayor and council unilaterally withdrew enforcement of it
while a court case was pending over protests from activists.
However, courts eventually upheld the right of cities to require relocation
assistance, and in the mid-1990s, thanks to
Councilmember Nick Licata, the city passed a new law requiring developers to
provide up to $2,000 in relocation assistance to low-income tenants who are
displaced due to demolition.
The mandatory code inspection program per se was not struck down, only the
method of raising revenue to pay for the
program by charging fees to owners. In a court settlement with property owners,
however, the city gave away its right to adopt a new mandatory program with
differing methods of financing until 2004. That year has come and gone with no
action by city officials.
What's left of the city's preservation laws are some minimal provisions
obligating Harborview Medical Center and the
University of Washington to replace housing they demolish for expansion. We also
have a toothless condominium conversion law adopted in the late 1970s that
requires early notice and limited relocation assistance to displaced tenants,
but it doesn't prevent actual conversion of low rent apartments to condos
To fulfill Seattle's promise of preserving
affordable housing, we believe the upcoming council decisions on rezones must be
accompanied by passage of a resolution committing the city to a six-month
process culminating in the identification and adoption of new housing
These mechanisms would either help prevent removal of units in neighborhoods
where they now exist, or ensure one-for-one replacement at a comparable price.
The resolution should also commit the city to adopt such measures as a
prerequisite to the approval of new neighborhood plans and any future land use
and zoning changes that add residential or commercial density in our
As part of this resolution we envision the creation of a citizen task force to
be appointed by the chair of the city council's housing committee and consisting
of housing and tenant advocates, non-profit housing developers, and
representatives of the development industry, with support staff's time allocated
from the office of housing.
The task force would be charged with assessing the loss of low-income units,
quantifying the problem, studying practices in other cities, and then reporting
back to the council with a set of recommendations for adoption.
If council simply approves the rezones proposed by the mayor, it will be
business as usual. Our leaders will continue to bewail the rising costs of
housing. We will be urged to upzone more and more areas of the city as if that
would make housing more affordable.
Or we could make a public commitment to stem the loss of the valuable resource
right under our noses: our existing low-cost unsubsidized housing units.
©Pacific Publishing Company 2005
"Outside City Hall" is a monthly commentary from the
Displacement Coalition reprinted from the Beacon Hill News and can be accessed
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Plan to end homelessness
ignores root causes
OUTSIDE CITY HALL Vol X: JOHN V. FOX & CAROLEE COLTER - A view of issues
affecting Seattle's neighborhoods reprinted from Beacon Hill News and Capitol
Hill Times 05/25/2005
Every day in King County over 50 social service agencies provide shelter and/or
counseling to 2,500-3,000 homeless people. City and county governments fund
these programs to the tune of over $20 million a year, not counting additional
funding from United Way, churches and the private sector.
Nevertheless, the number of homeless on our streets has continued its relentless
upward climb, greatly outpacing the capacity of this expanding service delivery
system. Where 25 years ago there were few programs and a few hundred homeless on
our streets (mostly in downtown Seattle), today estimates run as high as 8,000
homeless people county-wide on any given day.
A new effort, however, has recently emerged, boldly calling itself the committee
to End Homelessness. Over two dozen social service agencies, church
organizations, King County, the City of Seattle and United Way have combined
forces and promised to guarantee "a roof over every bed" by 2014. The Committee
has set up a website while the city and county have committed over $200,000 to
staff the effort.
Countless meetings over the last two years have brought together dozens of human
service providers, agency officials and community leaders. The list of
participants reads like a Who's Who of local electeds and agency heads.
The committee recently released a 52-page report calling for improved
cooperation and better linkages between homeless programs and the public and
private sector. The plan also calls for better data collection and tracking of
homeless needs. It emphasizes the regional scope of homelessness, and calls on
municipalities county-wide and private donors to do more.
A key provision of the plan urges the region to add 4,500 new low income housing
units and acquire another 5,000 existing low-income units over the next decade.
These components of the committee's plan are laudable. But in spite of its goal
to "end homelessness, not manage it," the plan is conspicuously lacking in
programs and strategies that would attack the problem at its roots.
The committee to End Homelessness has not indicated where we are going to get
the additional funding needed to secure 9,500 additional low-income units over
the next 10 years. The report should have called on elected leaders county-wide
to immediately identify new funding sources such as a region-wide housing levy,
creation of a housing "growth fund" earmarking a portion of future county-wide
tax revenues for housing, or better yet, use of impact fees so that developers
share in the cost. Such sources are needed if only to compensate for planned
deep cuts in federal housing programs, a threat the report fails to adequately
highlight as well.
But even if these 9,500 units are created, unless we put controls on the loss of
existing housing, for every one of those units that are secured, we will
continue to lose three to four times that amount to the forces of gentrification
Every year in Seattle alone, developers demolish over 500 low-income apartments
to make way for office buildings, expensive condominiums and parking lots.
Another 1,000 are sold to speculators who immediately raise rents above what
low-income people can afford.
Our mayor and most of our city councilmembers have actively encouraged these
trends by approving rezones and other land use changes that concentrate more
growth precisely in the areas where our remaining low-income stock is located.
This only accelerates the loss of existing units serving the poorest of the
poor, with more homelessness the inevitable result.
While not directly involved in this current effort - call it task force fatigue
- the Displacement Coalition has participated in numerous homeless and housing
task forces and blue ribbon committees over the last 25 years. Most of these
earlier efforts at least recognized the causal relationship between growing
numbers of homeless on our streets and the continuing loss of low-income housing
due to demolition, abandonment, conversion, and increased rents.
In contrast, perhaps to avoid treading on the feet of big corporate donors and
those elected officials who might commit funding for its programs, the
committee's 10-year plan offers no solutions aimed at curbing developer actions
that cause displacement.
Even more troubling, as we read through the lengthy report, is that it begins to
look like a plan to institutionalize and further bureaucratize our response to
homelessness. The emphasis of this report clearly is on adding new layers of
ever more complex service delivery systems and identifying ever more
sophisticated ways to track, categorize and process the homeless and to move
them "seamlessly through a continuum of care," whatever that means.
One would think that since this was a plan to end homelessness, it also would
come with a timetable for phasing out the vast system of shelters and services
only needed so long as the homeless remain a ubiquitous part of our landscape.
Quite the contrary, the plan only refines and entrenches the system of service
For those immersed in the overwhelming task of delivering programs to the
homeless, and inundated with more people than they are capable of serving, we
can understand why they would want to focus so heavily on how to maintain,
manage, and expand their programs. Indeed, until our elected leaders are willing
to aggressively respond to the forces of gentrification and displacement in our
community and other root causes like the absence of decent paying jobs or a
progressive tax structure, this may be our only alternative.
Despite the well-intentioned efforts of a lot of good folks on the Committee to
End Homelessness, they are caught in a Sisyphian quest - rolling that rock up a
hill only to see it fall back down- where our only choice is to convene one more
task force, revamp that system of service delivery one more time, and if
possible expand it yet again, in an attempt to meet a need that always outpaces
our ability to address it.
We can do better but it must start with a greater willingness on the part of all
of us, including the service providers themselves, to demand real accountability
from our leaders.
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Last week Seattle City Council's Transportation Committee voted 5 - 2 to go
ahead with the South Lake Union streetcar - at a cost of more than $50
million. Unless there is an outcry from the public, full council approval on
Monday, June 27, seems assured. Millions in limited city transportation
dollars will be siphoned off to underwrite the construction of the 2.6-mile
line designed to shuttle office workers, tourists and residents into and out
of billionaire Paul Allen's glitzy new South Lake Union neighborhood.
What's worse, the City Council also signed off on the mayor's plan to take
funds earmarked for new Metro bus service hours in Seattle and divert those
monies to help cover the streetcar's estimated $1.5 million annual operating
cost. Literally half of all new Metro bus service (9,000 annual hours)
committed to Seattle's neighborhoods for the years 2002-2007 will be taken
away. And when the streetcar's operating expenses rise above projections or
when fare box revenues don't bring in expected revenues, the streetcar plan
approved by the council would allow even more neighborhood bus service to be
reduced to cover the shortfalls.
a small contribution
Councilmember Richard Conlin developed this streetcar proposal working closely
with Paul Allen's development company, Vulcan Inc., and the mayor's office.
Property owners in South Lake Union (including Vulcan) will be asked to pay
only $25 million of the streetcar's construction costs through creation of a
Local Improvement District (LID) plus an estimated $4 million to set up and
administer the LID. These property owners have flatly refused to pay more even
though a recent appraiser's "special benefits study" showed they stand to
realize a $70 million increase in property values due to the streetcar. As the
principal owner, Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. will likely realize as much as a
10-percent increase in property values due to the streetcar and will reap the
lion's share of that $70 million benefit.
That leaves the public to foot the bill for the remainder of the $50 million
price tag. The public's portion would be covered by tapping limited federal,
state, county and local transportation funding sources.
Despite the backlog of more than $500 million in neighborhood transportation
needs enumerated in a recent city study - including 39 bridges that are
seriously deteriorated - our mayor and City Council have prioritized this
streetcar and other South Lake Union street improvements.
One of these is the reworking of the Mercer Corridor at a cost of more than
$200 million, a plan that city studies show will do nothing to reduce traffic
congestion in that area. Since virtually all major public improvements of this
kind come with enormous cost overruns, those costs too are likely to be passed
on to the taxpayers. The Conlin/Nickels/Vulcan streetcar ordinance certainly
does nothing to insulate the taxpayers from covering extra streetcar costs.
Councilmembers Rasmussen, Godden, Drago and McIver supported this streetcar
plan. Councilmembers Licata and Steinbrueck first proposed amendments that
would have limited the use of our city's transportation funds and curtailed
the taking of neighborhood bus service hours for the streetcar. At one point
Councilmember Licata almost begged his colleagues to consider the needs of the
rest of Seattle "before we commit so much of our city's future transit service
hours for this streetcar....
"Shouldn't our neighborhoods first be given an equal say over how these
resources are used?" Councilmembers Godden and McIver looked at him as if he
was from another planet. After Steinbrueck and Licata's amendments were voted
down, both of them outright opposed going ahead with the streetcar.
There are 19 bus routes now serving South Lake Union. Currently, those bus
routes have a frequency and ridership that exceed the frequency and ridership
projected for the streetcar. Moreover, those buses operate at 30 percent less
cost per hour of service than a streetcar. The streetcar will putt along at an
average speed of 6 mph while buses will travel nearly twice as fast through
Many say 'no'
Last year, more than 130 community leaders called on the City Council and the
mayor to say 'No' to use of the city's limited transportation dollars to pay
for the streetcar. Businesses benefiting from this frill should pay for it
themselves. As The Seattle Times said in a recent editorial, the streetcar is
not a transportation improvement. Rather it is designed to "jazz up the area
We agree. The South Lake Union streetcar is an ornament provided to enhance
the value primarily of Paul Allen's properties. That our limited public
transportation dollars should be spent for the benefit of one of the world's
richest men is a travesty. That the mayor and most of the City Council would
even consider raiding promised bus service hours to pay for streetcar
operating expenses when so many of Seattle's neighborhood needs are going
unmet, that, too, is a travesty.
Beneath its liberal façade, Seattle City Hall operates a lot like the U.S.
Congress. Corporate development interests pay for election campaigns and then
collect on their investment when elected officials make decisions. These
interests are dominating the city as in no other time during the previous
three mayoralties. This streetcar decision highlights the growing disconnect
between what is needed for our neighborhoods and what routinely now prevails
at City Hall.
The full council will take a final vote on the streetcar measure Monday, June
27, at 2 p.m. Call or write your councilmembers to let them know what you
think of their plan. Four councilmembers are up for re-election this fall.
Will they listen to the voters or to their campaign donors?
John Fox and Carolee Colter are members of the Seattle Displacement
Coalition. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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©Pacific Publishing Company 2005
Outside City Hall by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox,
Seattle Displacement Coalition (July '05)
can't hold a corrupt candle to Vulcangate
“Strippergate” is back in the news. Glaring front page
headlines announced last week that the county prosecutor will pursue criminal
charges against the owners of Rick's Strip Club, Frank Colacurcio and his son,
for allegedly funneling illegal campaign contributions to City Council
incumbents Wills, Nicastro and Compton two years ago. The three had voted in
favor of a controversial rezone benefiting the club.
The City has a $650 dollar lid on individuals’
contributions to any candidate in each election. The Colacurcios are accused of
dodging that limit by slipping cash to friends, relatives, and associates who
then gave that money to the three incumbents. Relentless coverage of these
illegal donations dominated the news during the 2003 election and contributed to
the defeat of Wills and Nicastro. Just for good measure voters also kicked
Margaret Pageler out of office even though she had nothing to do with the
scandal. Lacking a credible challenger at the time, Compton was narrowly
While too much has been said about “Strippergate," little
or nothing has been said or done about more important and far-reaching examples
of how special interests shape city decision-making.
In the fall of 2003, the Seattle Displacement Coalition
filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission that was subsequently upheld,
charging Councilmember Compton for failing to disclose at least one free trip he
took on Paul Allen’s Vulcan Company private jet with free admission to a
Portland Trailblazer game, refreshments, and seating in Allen’s private box.
Compton then joined in critical votes favoring Vulcan’s agenda, including
co-sponsorship of a resolution committing the city to the promotion of biotech
development in South Lake Union. Compton only acknowledged these ethics
violations after they were discovered and made public by the press.
In the wake of this clear case of influence peddling,
neither the Ethics Commission nor County Prosecutor further investigated
Vulcan’s or Compton’s conduct. Compton was only required to abstain for one
year from a narrow set of “quasi-judicial” matters directly affecting Vulcan’s
interests. Conveniently, the bulk of council actions related to Vulcan would
not come up again until that year had expired. Today, Compton again is
championing Vulcan’s plans in South Lake Union.
Last year the Coalition also filed a complaint with the
Seattle Ethics Commission charging the Mayor with accepting illegal
contributions to his office fund in 2002 and 2003 from Vulcan, Inc.. At the
time of these contributions, Vulcan was under contract to the city and actively
negotiating other lucrative contracts. City ethics laws bar parties from making
donations to the office fund while under contract or pursuing contracts with the
city. While Vulcan refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, the Mayor returned
over $500 in contributions from Vulcan. The Ethics Commission did not question
the veracity of the Coalition's charges and affirmed the appropriateness of
returning the funds to Vulcan. But it did not choose to seek charges or fines
against either party.
These breaches of ethics involving the largest player right
now in city politics, should have at least suggested the need for a deeper
investigation of Vulcan’s role. This year, Vulcan and its employees already
have given $3100 to the Mayor’s re-election. Companies and their employees with
interests directly tied to Vulcan’s agenda in South Lake Union have given
another $9000 to the Mayor. City Council President Jan Drago has received from
Vulcan and its employees alone over $2500 for her re-election campaign.
Last year in August, Jan Drago sponsored a fundraiser for
the Vulcan-backed “Build the Streetcar” campaign. Vulcan and other benefiting
property owners used this campaign to promote council approval of the street
car. The campaign also lobbied councilmembers for creation of a local
improvement district (LID) that would restrict their contribution to only $25
million of the streetcar’s $50 million cost. By sponsoring or even attending
this fundraiser, Drago likely violated state “appearance of fairness” rules,
because she knew at the time that she soon would be voting on the LID. Such
Council votes are considered “quasi-judicial” and require councilmembers to
abstain from giving prior support or even meeting with potential beneficiaries
of pending actions. Yet Vulcan representatives met numerous times with Drago,
the Mayor, and other councilmembers prior to this vote and surely must have
discussed how much they would pay under the LID.
In the Council elections of 2003, an investigation by the
Stranger showed that Compton received $13,000 in contributions from
Vulcan, its employees and related interests. It was during that campaign that
Compton took his airplane ride on a Vulcan jet. In January 2004 the Stranger
also broke the news that Mayor Nickels hosted a fundraiser the previous month
for two incoming city councilmembers, Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen. Many in
attendance, according to the Stranger, were affiliated with Vulcan, Inc.
According to records filed with the Ethics Commission, that fundraiser brought
in $4,575 for Rasmussen and a similar amount for Godden.
Two days earlier, on December 8th of that year, Vulcan,
Inc. threw its own fundraiser for Rasmussen at Allen’s Experience Music
Project. Later in the month one was planned for Godden. A source quoted in the
Stranger said, “Vulcan higher-ups spent the weeks before the Rasmussen
fundraiser making phone calls to low-level Vulcan contractors and suppliers,
none-too-subtly encouraging them to join the party.” A check of election
records for the month following Vulcan’s events shows that together Godden and
Rasmussen received over $60,000 in contributions during that period.
“Strippergate” is a tawdry soap opera about an aging former
area porn kingpin and his son bundling contributions from friends and families
to skirt campaign finance limits. Their goal was a rezone to expand a parking
lot. Vulcan and its lobbyists are seeking over a half billion dollars in city
subsidies along with rezones. And we’ve got a Mayor and key councilmembers
falling over themselves to support the entirety of the Vulcan agenda – an agenda
that casts a long shadow over the future of this city. If “Strippergate” can
continue to dominate the attention of the Ethics Commission and now the County
Prosecutor’s office, when will we see the Vulcan connection get the attention it
return to top
Outside City Hall by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox
Seattle officials like to tell us we’re too provincial. When they want
us to swallow some grand scheme, they’ll point to Copenhagen, Singapore,
Manhattan, even Portland and tell us we’ve got to emulate them and “grow
up”. Now we’re being urged to look north to Vancouver. In particular
Mayor Nickels has used Vancouver to justify his new downtown plan – a
plan designed to raise building heights and double the amount of office
space. And at the request of developers, he’s trying to fast-track City
Council approval of that plan before the year is out.
In response, Peter Steinbrueck, chairing Council’s review of the Mayor’s
plan, has called for a much more thoughtful review with approval of any
changes coming no earlier than next spring. And he’s taking a more
careful look at Vancouver's downtown planning process compared to
Seattle’s. Just last week, he brought in two highly regarded Vancouver
planners to critique the Mayor’s plan.
Speaking to a crowd of over 200 at a forum on August 15, Ray Spaxman and
Larry Beasley questioned whether the Mayor’s plan was adequate to
generate enough additional housing in the downtown core to balance the
amount of new office space called for. Today in downtown Seattle there
are about 17,000 housing units but nearly 170,000 jobs, a ratio of 1 to
10. By contrast Vancouver has at last count 70,000 housing units in
their downtown area while moving at a more measured pace with respect to
office expansion, with a ratio of 1 to 2.
Although the consultants couched their words in polite terms, the
implication of their concerns was clear. Without changes, the Mayor’s
plan would greatly increase the existing housing/jobs imbalance and we’d
be facing the mother of all traffic jams -- far worse than today --and
even higher housing costs throughout Seattle. Without measures to
promote enough additional housing downtown, all those new office workers
will seek homes in our neighborhoods, driving up costs, or live in the
suburbs and clog roads into town as they commute to their jobs.
The Mayor’s plan would attempt to cure this sprawl-inducing imbalance by
upzoning areas like Belltown for more housing. However, as Spaxman and
Beasely point out, our downtown area already has considerable capacity
for more housing. The problem is getting more downtown office workers to
live there, especially families. As they wrote in their report, family
households “will only be attracted to communities that have good
schools, parks, child care facilities, services and community centers.
These are the very households that make up most of the demand for urban
It will take careful planning and control over how each block is
developed. Land must be set aside for schools, grocery stores, parks,
and open space. More importantly, the consultants say we must expect
more from each developer in the way of impact fees and an improved bonus
system to help us pay for these amenities. While Mayor Nickels will ask
downtown developers to contribute impact fees to pay for open space,
more should be expected from them if in return they get to max out
downtown with office space.
While the Mayor's plan calls for large massed residential towers 60 feet
apart, Vancouver’s codes require tall narrow towers to be set back from
the street and limited in floor area so as not to block views, while
mandating street-level row houses, historic preservation and abundant
landscaping on the rest of the block. If we want to attract people to
live downtown, we shouldn’t create a set of deep canyons lined with
expensive retail shops that close at 5 PM.
One thing Spaxman and Beasley, and Steinbruek, too, fail to do -- they
don't face up to the fact that we could never build enough housing for a
downtown work force double its current size. We should instead be
limiting the amount of new downtown office jobs while we pursue a
"polycentered" regional growth model that relocates many of our
downtown’s office jobs to other fast-growing but still underutilized
commercially-zoned areas in the county so that people who already live
in Lynnwood, Bothell, Kent and Renton can work closer to their homes
instead of commuting into downtown Seattle. Regardless of what we do to
make our downtown more livable, a large portion of the workforce will
continue to choose to live in the suburbs.
Another concern largely overlooked by the consultants is the impact of
the Mayor's plan on our city's dwindling stock of low income housing.
Downtown Seattle was once home to over 20,000 people of modest means,
many of them retired blue-collar laborers who lived in Single Room
Occupancy (SRO) hotels. Despite a 1985 Council pledge to preserve and
expand low-income housing in downtown and despite expenditures of over
$100 million for replacement housing since then, the number of low
income units downtown today is less than 6000.
To overcome anticipated additional losses of low income housing
resulting from even more office density encouraged under his plan, the
Mayor is gambling on a bonus system for developers that would allow them
extra height and office density if they pay into a fund for low income
replacement units. Even if successful, this mechanism cannot raise
enough funds to replace what was lost over the last 20 years, let alone
compensate for future housing losses resulting from the excessive office
densities given away under that bonus system.
By contrast, Vancouver has a one for one replacement requirement for
their old low income SRO hotels in three downtown neighborhoods, plus a
form of rent control, city-wide, and site by site and block by block
controls over development to guarantee no net loss in many other
neighborhoods. Like Seattle, they too made a pledge over a decade ago to
preserve all of their downtown low-income housing stock. But Vancouver
fulfilled that promise, preserving all 13,000 low income units in their
This is how to emulate Vancouver—in livability, jobs/housing balance,
social justice and limiting runaway office development. Now that’s
For an interesting detailed demographic comparison of
Seattle and Vancouver click here:
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Unsung Heroes Recognized for their Community Advocacy
OUTSIDE CITY HALL
Since the holidays are a time of good cheer, the two of us
thought we would shift the attention of this column away from our usual focus on
our city leader’s hapless misadventures. The viaduct’s future, the Mayor and
City Council’s plan to fill our city with more street-clogging density,
expensive condo’s and 700 foot tall office buildings while pouring all our tax
dollars into South Lake Union - as important as it will be for us to respond to
these issues in the coming year - they can at least wait until the Christmas
lights are back in the closet and all the eggnog in the fridge is spoiled. In
the spirit of the season let’s turn from our city’s dismal lack of leadership at
the top and the pessimism it engenders to look instead down into our communities
where real leadership is always found. There are many unsung heroes out there
working away at the grassroots and for this column what we want to do is feature
some of them who because of their tireless efforts actually give us hope for our
In most cases, when civic awards are passed out, it is the
people who do essential charity work that are recognized or the accolades are
doled out to the famous people who fund those charities. Such recognition is of
course deserved but what about the contributions of those whose efforts are
aimed at redefining those structures of power that give rise to the need for
charity in the first place. For a change we want to recognize those who are
willing to challenge the status quo and who give of their time and energy to
work for economic justice and democratic participation in our neighborhoods. And
don’t tell us that Seattle no longer has visionary leaders like we did 30 years
ago…we’ve heard this bogus elitist refrain too many times from columnists who
only take their que from what they hear at the monthly downtown chamber
luncheon. As 2005 nears its end we’d like to take this opportunity to
recognize five citizens of Seattle who have made a difference in effecting real
social change in Seattle.
If anyone ever exemplified the
maxim to think globally, act locally, it would be Juan in his 30 years of
activism in Seattle. For Native Americans struggling for their fishing rights,
migrant farm workers organizing a union for better working conditions and
homeless and mentally disabled people trying to live with dignity on the streets
of Seattle, Juan has been a powerful advocate.
His efforts on behalf of
immigrant laborers led to a trenchant analysis of globalization and how it
degrades the quality of life for people in the Third World and here at home. At
the same time, he is personally involved in local efforts of communities of
color to hold police accountable, preserve low-income housing and form effective
Juan has led and participated
in many organizations, including the Downtown Human Services Council, A
Territory Resources (now called the Social Justice Foundation), Labor and
Employment Law Offices (LELO), and many more than we can mention in this short
space. In everything he does, he maintains the interconnectedness of all
struggles for racial, economic and social justice.
In this column we’ve often decried the corrupting influence
of big money on our political process. Katy is doing something about that. She
heads Washington Public Campaigns, whose mission is to pass legislation in
Washington akin to the clean elections laws in Maine and Arizona. Through
public funding of election campaigns, these states are already realizing
increased candidate diversity and voter turnout.
Katy also coordinates classes for young democrats
considering running for public office, with presentations by high-powered
elected officials and grassroots activists. As an active member of the 43rd
District Democrats, she represents the best of what the Democratic Party can be,
the voice of working people instead of corporate lobbyists.
We first knew Katy as an aide to former Councilmember Heidi
Wills. In that position she helped us in our efforts to hold Seattle Housing
Authority accountable and preserve low-income housing.
Back in the early ‘90’s Sinan was a UW grad student working
toward his doctorate in sociology, studying homelessness. But he wasn’t content
to just observe the problem. He launched one of the most successful meal
programs in Seattle.
From there he went on to found and direct Rising Out Of The
Shadows, (R.O.O.T.S.), the only shelter program in the city specifically
addressing the needs of homeless young adults. These young people are too old to
access youth shelter programs but often feel unwelcome or threatened in
emergency programs serving mostly older single adults.
Based in the University District, the ROOTS shelter
involves a cadre of trained volunteers and features a Friday Night Feast with
restaurant quality food. But Sinan goes beyond these important forms of giving
– he is an agent for social change too – regularly on the front lines at
meetings and in forums challenging elected leaders to do more for his clients
and to redirect city resources their rather than to the wealthy. Sinan is known
by his friends as a fantastic cook and organizer of tours to observe the best
and oddest of Christmas lights and topiary in Seattle.
Laurelhurst is one of Seattle’s most affluent communities.
You might expect the Laurelhurst Community Club to be a bastion of privilege,
remote from the needs of low-income neighborhoods. However, under the
leadership of Jeannie Hale, the LCC not only represents the immediate needs of
that community, this group regularly gives it’s support to larger city wide
causes on behalf of low income people. Jeannie and the LCC recognize that
ultimately their communities well being is linked to our city’s ability to
address these larger social issues. We regard the LCC as a stanch ally of the
Also for the past several years Jeannie has chaired the
Seattle Community Council Federation, a citywide coalition of community councils
that grew out of a 1960’s movement in response to urban renewal and redlining in
Seattle. Completely outside of city government, the Federation represents
genuine grassroots activism.
From both her roles with the Federation and Laurelhurst
Community Club Jeannie has steadfastly worked for neighborhood control, physical
preservation of neighborhoods and limited growth, but while critiquing the
inequitable distribution of resources in the Mayor’s South Lake Union agenda.
Using the provisions of the Growth Management Act, the
Laurelhurst Community Club sued the University of Washington to limit its
expansionist plans. As part of their settlement they won preservation of green
space, citizen review mechanisms and other mitigations of the impacts of the
University’s expansion into Laurelhurst.
Like Sinan, Rachael came to advocacy as a college student.
Throughout the ‘90’s she maintained a network of youth shelters and recruited
student volunteers to work in them. Through the Coalition for the Homeless and
the Human Services Coalition, she coordinates large turnouts at public hearings
with testimony about the effect of city budget cuts on homeless people and
writes grants for funding.
Now Rachael is the associate director of Real Change.
She’s gone down to Olympia to coordinate Homeless Lobby Day where state
legislators learn about the impact of their own budget cuts.
Like the other people we’ve recognized here, Rachael is
content to work behind the scenes. Wen someone says, “We need something done,”
Rachael is the fist to volunteer.
Thank you, Juan, Katy, Sinan, Jeannie and Rachael. And
thanks also to the dozens of others out there who we could have named and should
also be recognized for their tireless efforts in this community Because of you,
Seattle is a better place to live for ALL its citizens.
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HALL 1/12/06: "Who Will Bell the SHA Cat"
(reprinted from Jan
Beacon Hill News) by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox
Much is said about the need for accountability in
government spending, but when it comes to action, we’re like the mice in Aesop’s
fable asking, “Who will bell the cat?” A provision in a bill from state
representative Mark Miloscia might just put a bell on the cat’s collar when it
comes to Seattle Housing Authority’s continued destruction of low-income housing
and the use of state money to pay for it.
Rep. Miloscia, fourth-term Democrat from Federal Way,
chairs the Housing Committee. In the last session he championed bills for
performance audits of state programs and a plan to end homelessness. The latter
bill created a new state and local funding source by a $10 surcharge on real
estate transaction documents, generating close to $20 million a year for cities
and counties to serve their homeless populations. In order to access this
money, local governments must provide hard data and put in place plans for
While we have criticized King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End
Homelessness, we admire Miloscia’s bill because it requires jurisdictions that
were formerly doing nothing to start addressing the needs of their homeless
citizens, and because it demands accountability in how the funds are spent.
For this session, Rep. Miloscia is introducing a housing
bill HB 2649 that will set policy, goals and performance measures for cities and
counties statewide to ensure they are making effective use of any state dollars
they receive for low-income housing. For the first time it will demand
accountability from local governments to maximize the number of low-income units
they produce with those limited dollars.
Already an amendment to this bill is generating
controversy, an amendment that would apply only Seattle Housing Authority (SHA)
and its Yesler Terrace housing project.
Since 1997 there has been special language in the state of
Washington’s enabling legislation for housing authorities, that applies only to
“housing authorities in cities with a population of over 400,000.” Only SHA is
affected by this provision. Our state legislature adopted this special section
because of the unique and enormous impact that this one housing authority has
not only on Seattle and King County but on all of Washington.
SHA owns and manages over 10,000 low-income housing units
and dispenses about 7000 Section 8 vouchers to the needy. If SHA takes actions
that reduce its stock of units, that translates directly into more low-income
households seeking shelter in every community across the state. Further, SHA
each year makes enormous demands on the state’s limited housing funds. Millions
of state trust fund dollars, “bond cap”, and low-income housing “tax credits”
have been tapped (directly or indirectly) by SHA – far more than any other
housing authority since the inception of these programs.
Since 1997, SHA has gradually transformed itself into a
major developer. No longer just builders of low-income housing, the authority
now competes with the private sector and dedicates increasing portions of its
budget towards high-end redevelopment. Unlike private developers, however, SHA
has considerable tax advantages and access to limited city, federal, and state
SHA has accepted state money dedicated to serve very
low-income households and used it to fund its move into the private sector,
selling market-rate housing. For example, tens of millions of state funds went
into SHA’s redevelopment of High Point, Roxbury Village, Holly Park, and Rainier
Vista. At these four projects, over 2100 units of public housing serving those
in most desperate need, were torn down. These sites are now being redeveloped
as “mixed income” communities, which include high-end homes selling for over
$450,000, but many fewer units of public housing.
Of the 2100 public housing units demolished, only about
half are slated to be replaced on site. The rest are to be built at other
locations. To build these replacement units, SHA has sucked up still more
limited state housing funds –money that was supposed to be used for expansion of
our state’s low-income housing stock.
Currently a similar fate hangs over the 540 units at Yesler
Terrace and the more than 1000 high-rise public housing units in Seattle, most
of them for seniors. Without further state oversight and restrictions, SHA will
once again seek millions in state funding to convert these units to higher end
With the help of over a dozen church, labor, and community
groups across King County, an amendment to Representative Miloscia’s housing
bill was drawn up and is now being circulated to area legislators for their
support. It would bar “housing authorities in cities of over 400,000
population” (which would apply only to the Seattle Housing Authority) from
tearing down any low-income housing units anywhere in the city without first
replacing those units - all of them - and at comparable rent. For larger SHA
housing complexes of 100 units or more, such as Yesler Terrace, 100 percent of
any public housing units SHA removes would have to be replaced on site.
Further, this amendment would bar SHA from tapping existing
limited state housing funds for any projects that result in a net loss of
low-income and public housing units. Nor would the state in the future pay for
replacement housing units should SHA choose to go forward with demolition of
their existing low-income and public housing inventory. In effect, this would
mean "no more robbing Peter to Pay Paul" for SHA.
Needless to say, Seattle Housing Authority is resisting any
limitations on its prerogatives and demanding withdrawal of this amendment. A
coalition of Yesler Terrace residents, seniors, labor groups and low-income
housing advocates is forming to go to Olympia to fight for preserving our public
housing and for accountability for our public money. Call or write your state
representatives and senators. (Go to
http://apps.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/Default.aspx for help.) Tell them to
support HB 2649 and amendments to that bill to save Yesler Terrace and require
SHA to provide one for one replacement of any housing they destroy.
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Legislative Stew is Cooking Up at City Hall
Outside City Hall Volume XVI:
Things are heating up down at city hall. Our column this time is an attempt to
give readers a heads-up on key issues our city leaders will be addressing over
the coming year. Call it our hit parade of what really matters to the
neighborhoods, particularly communities often left out when city resources are
Renovation of Key Arena
Only a decade ago the city floated $74 million in bonds to renovate Key Arena,
at the request of the Seattle Sonics. One official boosting the deal was a guy
named Terry McLaughlin, then Seattle Center deputy director. The Sonics
promised to cover half the cost of the bonds while McLaughlin assured city
leaders this arrangement would return revenues to an ailing Seattle Center.
Despite loud warnings from community watchdogs, the city bowed to the Sonics'
threat of leaving town.
Now, after several years of sagging ticket sales, a dismal win-loss record,
soaring player salaries and a looming arena deficit that in future years could
tear a hole in the city budget, the Sonics are again threatening to leave
unless the city coughs up more public subsidies: over $200 million that, with
interest, could climb to as much as $400 million. The dollars would be used
for a still fancier renovation the team insists will solve both its, and the
arena's, economic woes.
If rationality reigned at city hall, our leaders would tell Sonics owner
Howard Schultz to take a hike. A just-released city study shows that for $20
million, Key Arena could be renovated for concerts and other sports events and
turn a good profit for the city.
But rationality in this town too often gives way to the clout of special
interests, especially when it comes to professional sports. And guess who's
back to assure us the deal is OK? Terry McLaughlin. No longer a city official,
he's now a Sonics vice president.
Paul Allen and the mayor's South Lake Union agenda
In the coming months, the council must give final approval for a streetcar at
a cost of $47.5 million. While about half of the cost will be covered by South
Lake Union property owners, taxpayers will foot the rest. However, our just
completed review of city planning documents obtained through public disclosure
requests indicates the project may now be at least $5 million over budget.
This casts to the winds promises that no more city general funds, or our
limited transportation dollars, will go for this boondoggle.
Later this spring, the council will decide whether to move ahead with Mayor
Greg Nickels' Mercer Corridor plan. The mayor's office insists the cost of
redoing Mercer would run about $200 million and ease traffic woes in South
Lake Union. But according to documents available through King County Metro,
the price tag for the Mercer plans has skyrocketed to over $350 million.
It's hard to find these budget numbers, though, because city planners have
buried much of Mercer's costs in the mayor's preferred option for the viaduct.
The costs are now called "north portal improvements."
Also, city studies released last year show that the mayor's Mercer plan
actually will increase traffic congestion in the area when compared to a "do
The Alaskan Way Viaduct
Right now the city has enough money from state, federal, and regional sources
- about $2 billion - to rebuild the ailing viaduct.
What stands in the way of such a fix is a mayor determined to replace the
structure with a tunnel under Elliott Bay. Driven both by a need to leave his
mark on Seattle's physical landscape and by downtown developers' desires to
reopen the waterfront, the mayor has held up this solution in hopes of
scraping together the extra $2 billion needed for his tunnel.
In effect, the safety of thousands of commuters must wait along with the rest
of the region's transportation needs. Critics of the mayor's tunnel compare it
to Boston's "Big Dig," where cost overruns exceeded $10 billion.
Revisions to the Downtown Land Use Plan and the call for more density in
The mayor is proposing rezones in downtown to accommodate the equivalent of
another 12 Columbia Towers over the next 20 years in the urban core - another
17 million square feet of office space. His plan lacks adequate measures to
ensure close-in residential development for all those new downtown workers.
Therefore, many of these workers will live on the eastside, clogging our
freeways with more cars and commuters, while most of the remainder will seek
housing in our neighborhoods, driving up housing costs and accelerating the
demolition of existing lower-density affordable housing.
The mayor's idea of mitigating these impacts is to up-zone many of Seattle's
neighborhoods, which will only accelerate gentrification, displacement, and
the loss of our neighborhoods' traditional character. Councilmember Peter
Steinbrueck is seeking additional measures that would require developers to
pay more into a housing fund in exchange for the right to build taller
buildings. But even this effort is running into stiff opposition from an
unholy alliance of non-profit housing developers and downtown interests.
Right now, there is an identified backlog of over $600 million in deferred
street maintenance projects in our neighborhoods. By the city's last count,
there are 39 bridges in Seattle deemed in poor condition, with several
bordering on unsafe. Over the last year, housing costs skyrocketed while real
wages for the average worker fell in Seattle. Just last week, housing and
homeless advocates held a "die-in" at City Hall to protest pending cuts in
funding for area shelters, despite campaign promises to the contrary from the
Somehow those of us who are still rational have to figure out a way to
redirect the attention of our city leaders away from downtown and special
interests. Failing that, we must find new leaders who will help us find
solutions to these real problems in this city rather than simply making them
worse. How our elected officials respond over the coming year will
dramatically affect the distribution of wealth and resources in our community
and play a large role in determining the future character of our city.
Carolee Colter and John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may be
contacted through the address and e-dresses below.
©Pacific Publishing Company 2006
City Hall Column: Trees Equal Good Health - We don't prevent sprawl by
sacrificing Seattle's Trees and Greenery
Peering into Rainier Valley's secret world of feathers and leaves
When we're not busy uncovering the high jinks of our mayor and his wealthy
backers, or striving to save low-income housing from destruction by
developers, or urging the city council to hold Seattle Authority accountable
for its use of public funds, we both have a pastime for relaxation and renewal
- watching birds.
John likes to do his birding at the Montlake Fill, observing pheasant chicks
hiding in the grass, ducks in their breeding plumage glory and killdeer faking
broken wings to distract from their young. Carolee has been known to go
farther a field, most recently to Alaska, but she loves to watch birds in her
yard here in Rainier Valley.
Right here in the city a secret world unfolds to those who know how and where
to look. Anna's hummingbirds, the males with shining magenta heads, guard
their favorite flower patches. Flickers drum on light poles and hollow trees
and even gutters in the spring to announce their courtship. Sharp-shinned
hawks swoop down to seize an unsuspecting chickadee. In migration, flocks of
warblers flit through treetops heading north. In June the downy woodpeckers
bring their young to the suet feeder in Carolee's yard - like taking the kids
Making space for nature
To live with nature in the city is a profound experience. It lifts us out of
our immediate concerns to realize we are part of something larger, a network
of living beings. But this is an experience that has little or no value in our
urban planning decisions. As Seattle grows denser, and as trees are removed to
make room for bigger buildings, there is less and less room for any other
species besides us-and those rats of the avian world, starlings, pigeons and
house sparrows, are all foreign invaders.
"Laws shielding trees from the chain saw are limited in some cases,
non-existent in others. A growing push to squeeze larger homes, apartment
buildings and businesses onto every inch of city property is increasingly
putting trees at risk, " wrote Lisa Stiffler in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
last year. She quotes city arborist Liz Ellis, "The city is not known for
denying a project in order to save a tree."
In Rainier Valley we have lost hundreds of large mature trees to light rail
construction and the redevelopment of Rainier Vista and New Holly - 350 trees
at Rainier Vista alone. True, saplings are promised to replace these trees.
But birds can't wait 30 years for saplings to grow up.
Trees equal health
Even if you can't tell a robin from a crow, it matters that we're losing
mature trees. Because an environment that is good for birds is good for
people, too - particularly people living in poverty. The Human-Environment
Research Laboratory at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has
conducted studies on the positive impacts of trees and greenery on poorer city
Living in crowded, noisy, barren settings contributes to chronic mental
fatigue. The Human-Environment Research Laboratory concludes that green views
and access to green spaces in urban areas can help people cope with daily
stresses associated with poverty. "Green spaces also contribute to a healthier
environment and foster a sense of community, making them particularly valuable
in inner-city neighborhoods."
Another project found that "apartment buildings surrounded by trees and
greenery are dramatically safer than buildings devoid of green. The greener
the surroundings, the fewer crimes occur against people and property. Compared
with apartment buildings that had little or no vegetation, buildings with high
levels of greenery had 52 percent fewer total crimes, including 48 percent
fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes."
The report goes on to say that "a large body of research indicates that time
spent in nature lessens mental fatigue, inattentiveness, irritability and
impulsivity - behaviors that psychologists recognize as precursors to
violence. Greenery helps people to relax and renew, reducing aggression.
It's a bitter irony that our leaders sell us on the necessity of making
Seattle a more crowded, paved and de-natured place in the name of
environmental preservation. We are told that by sacrificing our green spaces
in the city, we can prevent sprawl, and that land will be saved "out in the
county" that might otherwise have gone to building more homes. There's a
segment of the environmental community that buys this line.
However, take a drive in the Snohomish Valley and see what's happening to all
the open space out there. It pains us to see those farmlands, (great wintering
habitat for raptors and swans, by the way) turn into subdivisions. But losing
our urban forest in Seattle does nothing to stop that conversion, and it may
actually make it worse.
When you crowd too much of the region's job growth into Seattle, some of those
new workers will compete for city homes, driving up housing prices. Others
will live in the suburbs and commute longer and longer distances in their
cars, polluting our air and clogging our freeways. This calculus won't change
no matter how many condos and $2,000-a-month apartments get built downtown; no
matter how many lower-density Seattle neighborhoods get up-zoned.
It's better to locate some of those jobs in existing underutilized commercial
areas around the region and closer to where those job-holders are going to
live anyway. Right now we're pouring our transportation dollars into systems
largely serving downtown Seattle, leaving the rest of the region underserved.
This only fuels auto dependence and further sprawl.
The immediate solution to the loss of green space in the city would be to
build in more protections for our existing tree canopy into the land use code.
Add more trees to the city's "heritage list" and bar their removal even if
they're on private land. Require developers to leave more green on sites they
do develop, ensure adequate buffers, and don't let the issue of views take
precedence over tree protection, as is often the case.
But in the long run we simply cannot allow so much growth to overwhelm the
natural and human-made character of our city - upzoning and ripping down and
sawing down our physical heritage under the guise of "preventing sprawl".
For more information on the benefits of nature in urban settings, visit the
Human-Environment Research Laboratory web site at www.herl.uiuc.edu.
Outside City Hall is a monthly commentary from the Seattle Displacement
Carolee Colter and John V. Fox may be reached via email@example.com.
©Pacific Publishing Company 2006
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SEATTLE’S “BIG DIG”: Why we say 'NO' to the Mayor's Tunnel Proposal
Ever since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake cracked and weakened the Alaskan Way
Viaduct, we as a city have faced a serious problem which will take serious money
to solve. Serious as in billions of dollars.
Mayor Nickels knew what he wanted right away—tear down the viaduct, replace it
with a tunnel, repair the seawall, open up waterfront property to new
development, and fold in improvements for Mercer and Aurora north of the Battery
Street Tunnel to enhance South Lake Union. Eventually given
the $5 billion price tag, the tunnel was shortened and plans
for South Lake Union put on hold, bringing the cost down to a mere $3.6 Billion.
That is, if you don’t think cost overruns will happen here, as they did
in Boston’s “Big Dig” which mushroomed from $5 to $14 billion.
Meanwhile, citizens groups have come up with
alternatives: the rebuild, the retrofit and the surface-only
The rebuild means replacing the current
viaduct with a better-engineered structure in the same “footprint” along Alaskan
Way at a cost of about $2.1 Billion.
Like the tunnel, the rebuild involves shutting down State Route 99 for anywhere
from 3 ˝ to 7 years, while displacing some 110,000 cars that
regularly drive the viaduct each day. But it’s a lot less expensive and
the state legislature has put cash on the barrelhead for the rebuild.
The retrofit is the least expensive
alternative and the least disruptive to freight movement, to commuter traffic
from Ballard and West Seattle and to current businesses located on the
waterfront. In spite of eight reputable engineers who have
made the case for the retrofit at a cost of under $1 billion, WSDOT (Washington
State Department of Transportation) has cold-shouldered this option.
The surface-only plan
makes the radical proposal to tear down the viaduct and not replace it at all
while making various improvements to the street grid to absorb spillover and
expanding bus and rail service. By not building it, they believe that many of
the car trips will simply disappear as has occurred in other cities eliminating
major thruways. This alternative is not as cheap as it might seem - $1.6
billion by proponents’ estimates.
Right now, key state legislators and our
governor favor the rebuild with as many of six of our City Council members once
again dutifully lining up behind the Mayor’s tunnel alternative. Our
ethics-challenged Mayor is so gung ho for a tunnel, he took a direct hand in
creating a lobbying group - Citizens for a Better Waterfront - tapping his
office and other city resources to assist it.
That $3 billion extra in cost for the
tunnel over the price of a retrofit is a lot to spend just to open up the view
for privileged condo owners and corporate offices, with a nice sidewalk and
bikeway running along the waterfront for the rest of us now and again to enjoy.
We would rather see that $3 billion go for sidewalks in every neighborhood
that now have none, lace the city with separate bikeways, build a truly
effective bus system (a prerequisite to ever getting significant numbers out of
their cars), fix the maintenance backlog on aging roads and bridges, and create
parks and open space with vistas currently in short supply in low-income
Even with the rebuild option, we’d still save $1.5
billion, almost exactly the amount the Mayor is now asking us to pay
in the form of a special levy to repair our neighborhood streets and bridges.
With the tunnel and even the rebuild
there will be years of construction and rerouted traffic, particularly harmful
to tourism. It’s likely many of the funky, older, and even historic businesses
will close giving way to an up-scaled waterfront - a sterile clone of every
other redeveloped and gentrified waterfront around the country.
It’s interesting to us that some of the support for the
tunnel—and opposition to a rebuild or retrofit—is accompanied by jeremiads
against the automobile. We hear how a retrofit or rebuild would be one more sign
of how we are too dependent upon cars. True enough, but if
we are going to oppose rebuilding the viaduct for environmental reasons, why not
oppose the tunnel, too?
Two trends are looming over the horizon—massive,
destructive climate change and the end of cheap, accessible oil.
Scientists differ on predictions for when the full impact of these twin
tsunamis will hit. Some say we are seeing the first effects
Despite Mayor Nickels’ grandstanding on the climate change
issue, so far no one in city government seems to willing to ask the question:
Is it a good investment of our public funds to build a “hundred year”
tunnel if the entrance could be vulnerable to storm surges, not to mention
possibly underwater, in, say, 50 years? The retrofit and the
surface-only plan both begin to look like better bargains in this light.
Nevertheless the Mayor and most councilmembers want
the tunnel and only an outcry from the public seems likely to deter them.
Councilmember Nick Licata has proposed a resolution to Council for a public vote
on the question: "Should
Seattle construct a tunnel to replace the
existing Alaskan Way Viaduct?"
Licata says, “I proposed this because we don't have
enough funding to pay for a tunnel. I believe we need to consult the public
before moving ahead….After studying the issue in depth, I believe it’s likely
that if the City pursues a tunnel, City residents will have to make up the …cost
between a tunnel and a rebuild. In essence, the question is: do you want to pay
that cost difference?”
But we, the taxpayers, won’t get the opportunity to even
explore other less expensive options or any others if City Council goes ahead
and makes the decision for us on September 22.
If you want a voice in the future of your city, go to
www.notunnelalliance.com and sign
the petition calling for a public vote.
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Outside City Hall is a monthly commentary from the Seattle Displacement
John V. Fox and Carolee Colter may be reached at
©Pacific Publishing Company 2005
Sept. '06 Outside City Hall:
Holding SHA Accountable: Mayor ignores community and appoints Sybil
Bailey to the SHA Board
As landlord to over 24,000 low-income residents, steward of our public
housing stock, and recipient of much of our housing levy funds, Seattle
Housing Authority plays a major role in our community. But to whom is SHA
As a public corporation, SHA is governed by a seven-member board of
commissioners, which approves the budget, sets policy and chooses the
executive director. But who chooses the commissioners?
After years of trying in vain to get our elected officials on city council to
exercise effective oversight of SHA, the Seattle Displacement Coalition joined
other housing, labor and social service organizations in Olympia in 1998. We
succeeded in getting a new law passed expanding the board from five to seven
members and shifting final authority for board appointments from the mayor to
the city council. The mayor would nominate but the council would have final
say. The law also shortened the term of commissioners and reserved two seats
for residents of SHA properties.
The idea was to create greater accountability, but SHA immediately acted to
protect the status quo. At the request of SHA, Mayor Paul Schell proposed to
fill one of the newly created resident board positions with Sybil Bailey, a
loyal foot soldier for the housing authority who had even joined SHA in
Olympia in efforts to kill the bill that led to the position she would now
fill. From her previous performance on the Denny Terrace Resident Action
Council, there was no reason to think she would be anything other than a
rubber stamp. There were also complaints about the transparency and fairness
of the nominating process. Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, chair of the
housing committee at that time, sent the nomination back to the mayor.
Eventually a new candidate was approved.
Since then several board candidates have been nominated by the mayor's office
- after getting their seal of approval from SHA - then quickly approved by the
council. Objections by a few activists simply were dismissed or met with
Starting in late 2005, a group of representatives from labor, church, housing,
senior and resident organizations came together in an attempt to ensure that
future board appointments reflected a higher degree of input and honest
consideration of stakeholder concerns especially those of SHA residents.
Calling itself SHABAG (Seattle Housing Authority Board Accountability Group),
this coalition (which included people of color) came up with a list of
After giving assurances to SHABAG of his willingness to meet to hear their
recommendations, Mayor Greg Nickels backed out, leaving them completely out of
the selection process. And then when he did recommend a candidate for council
approval the mayor proposed none other than Sybil Bailey.
When Councilmember Tom Rasmussen's housing committee met to consider Bailey's
nomination, SHA residents and community activists raised the issue of her past
rejection. Further, at potential risk to their tenancy, SHA residents with
direct experience working with Bailey testified before the committee, citing
specific examples of a counterproductive role she continued to play as recent
president of the Residents Action Council (RAC).
They pointed out that Bailey had changed bylaws without a vote or proper
notice, excluded tenants of certain buildings from the RAC, ran up a $4,000
debt, suspended RAC meetings for three years without any apparent authority to
do so, and promoted an unpopular policy against signs on tenant doors that was
later struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement on the
tenants' right to free speech.
One would think these concerns might prompt outright rejection of her
candidacy as Steinbrueck did in 1998. Yet councilmembers Rasmussen, Richard
McIver and Sally Clark blindly cast their support with Bailey without even
investigating tenants' charges.
Even more disturbing, in a tactic out of the Karl Rove playbook, committee
members deflected the debate from the issue of Bailey's qualifications by
lashing out at those who opposed her nomination. SHA tenants and community
advocates were accused of "sour grapes," mounting "personal attacks" and
"smearing her good name." As for our concern about the lack of a fair process
from the mayor, Rasmussen dismissed it out of hand: he simply ignored the fact
that the mayor had never met with us.
At one point, Clark suggested that "race and gender" were behind our criticism
of Bailey, who is a black woman. Talk about personal attacks and smearing good
names! Here was a group of citizens representing significant constituencies
with long track records of speaking out against discrimination and for
diversity, affirmative action, equality, and economic justice in all its
However, because we dared to raise - and support SHA residents in raising -
legitimate concerns about the mayor's choice, we got accused of racism and
Our colleague KL Shannon - a longtime activist, community leader, and herself
a woman of color - reflected that, "I think when people are trying to do the
'right thing' and making attempts to hold those in power accountable, somehow
those in power manipulate, twist, and divert what the real issues are. In this
case, the mayor and city council members Rasmussen, Clark, and McIver did just
that by throwing the 'race card' into the mix."
In the end, the council approved the Bailey nomination, with just two
dissenting votes, Steinbrueck and Licata, the only councilmembers who took
time to examine and reference SHA residents' concerns about the person who
would be representing them.
The council continues to treat SHA board nominations as if they were simply
ratifying one more of the mayor's many patronage appointments to a
non-essential advisory board with no real power.
On the contrary, the SHA Board of Commissioners has authority over nearly all
that's left of this city's low-income housing stock. It's more akin to the
School Board or the Port Authority with its enormous influence over the future
of this city, especially for people of color and low-income residents.
Any candidate for these positions should be the subject of close scrutiny. The
citizens of Seattle deserve better from our mayor and council than the charade
that just occurred.
"Outside City Hall" Column October 2006 :
you must call the "Gov" and tell her to say "NO" to the tunnel
- what was the Sierra Club doing when they bought
off on the Mayor's tunnel project - the most gas guzzling pro car option to
replace the viaduct?
- why you must call the Governor now - she's scheduled to decide by mid to
late November - on whether to cast her lot with the $5 billion plus tunnel or
go with other options - only your calls will make the difference (see her
- and why we urge all of you to vote an emphatic "NO" on the City's $360
million Bridging the Gap Transportation Package
On September 22, the Seattle City Council said yes to Mayor Greg Nickel's $5
billion-plus tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In the process, the
council denied Seattle residents the right to vote on what easily will be
the single largest, most expensive, most complex project ever built in this
city. The mayor and most council members withdrew their support for a vote
only when they learned tunnel costs had risen $1.5 billion above the earlier
$3.6 billion estimate and when polling indicated overwhelming opposition to
Now it's up to Governor Gregoire to decide whether to support or, in effect,
veto the council's decision. While holding her cards close to the vest,
she's promised a decision before the end of November.
A tunnel is not the only option for our ailing Viaduct. There is:
The rebuild ($2.8 Billion) - replacing the current viaduct with a
better-engineered structure in the same "footprint" along Alaskan Way.
The retrofit ($1 Billion) - fixing the existing structure without
disrupting traffic and waterfront businesses.
The surface-only plan ($2 Billion) - not replacing the Viaduct at all
but instead improving the street grid and expanding the bus system.
To underscore their support for the tunnel, the council also passed a
measure stating opposition to any above ground (elevated) option, i.e. the
rebuild or retrofit, if money is not found to go forward with the tunnel.
They also committed to an investigation of the surface only plan.
Apparently representatives of the Sierra Club had a hand in crafting this
fall back position and were among those urging support for the tunnel while
opposing the public's right to vote. Odd behavior coming from an
environmental group with populist origins that routinely declares its
opposition to the automobile.
The tunnel is the most pro-car, gas-guzzling, air-polluting alternative and
would take billions away from creating effective non-car transit solutions
for Seattle and the region. It's also aimed at opening up the downtown to
still more runaway growth with all its attendant impacts on our urban
What the Sierra Club and some, not all, of the surface-only supporters did
was cast their lot with pro-tunnel interests in exchange for a promise that
their preferred, more environmentally friendly option would be next in line
should the governor say no to the tunnel, or if money ultimately is not
found for the tunnel. Councilmembers Peter Steinbrueck and Richard Conlin
championed this position.
Do these folks really believe that skyrocketing tunnel costs will force the
mayor and downtown interests to eventually back away from their tunnel
alternative? When have the mayor and the corporate establishment ever been
deterred by cost overruns on big-ticket projects? These surface-only
supporters have only served to move the tunnel project forward by giving it
a "green" patina and helping fracture a loose-knit coalition opposed to the
tunnel. They've also naively reinforced the cynical strategy now being
employed by our mayor and several councilmembers, such as Jan Drago.
The council's surface-only second choice is obviously calculated to make the
tunnel look like a more attractive choice for the governor. Gregoire has
already indicated she will support only those alternatives that ensure
current levels of traffic flow - something that the surface-only option will
never achieve. With the mayor and downtown corporate interests that include
many of Gregoire's own loyalists and campaign contributors lobbying her like
crazy, and now the council on record as opposing any elevated solutions,
what's a governor to do?
Unless Seattleites flood her office with phone calls, letters and e-mails,
we bet the "guv" is going to go with the tunnel. She'll stand on her promise
to limit the state's contribution, but she'll support the mayor's request
for state legislation granting the city broad authority, including creation
of a new local taxing district (like the Port of Seattle), tolls, impact
fees and utility taxes.
Meanwhile, does anyone care about what the people want? In mid-October, The
Seattle Times released numbers showing that by a 2-1 margin voters supported
a rebuild of the viaduct over the tunnel option. Only 15 percent of all
voters said they would support the surface only option.
That brings to mind Councilember Drago's decision to deny the public a vote
on the tunnel after learning of its soaring costs.
"This is why I was elected," she suddenly announced. "To make the tough
choices." Funny, earlier in the month, Drago and other councilmembers could
have made the "tough decision" to spare us a vote on lap dancing and repeal
the "four-foot rule." Instead they did the opposite, punting this one to the
Only a stake
through its heart will kill the tunnel, and right now it's the governor
holding the stake. You can call Governor Gregoire at (360) 902-4111, fax her
a letter at (360) 753-4110, or send her an e-mail from her website at
John V. Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may be
reached at the above e-mail address
XVII: Outside City Hall (reprinted from November 22nd 2006 edition of
Beacon Hill News-click
Enforcing current city codes would eliminate South End
blight without enacting the troubled Community Renewal Law
In the spring of 2005, the Mayor's office released a
23-page "action agenda" containing several dozen recommendations for
revitalization of Southeast Seattle. Developed with the help of the Rainier
Valley Chamber, Southeast Effective Development (SEED), Homesite, and
prominent area banking institutions, the agenda included a seemingly innocuous
recommendation for a “community renewal plan” for Southeast Seattle.
Leaping ahead to the fall of 2006, a firestorm in
Southeast Seattle has been ignited over the Mayor's attempt to implement that
plan. It calls for the City Council to designate a special "community renewal
area" or CRA with boundaries stretching from I-90 to the south city line and
encompassing nearly every block between Martin Luther King Way and Rainier
Despite some of our city’s most rapidly rising land
values located within these boundaries, the Mayor’s staff has made selective
use of census and crime data to justify a definition of “blight” for the area
– a description required for creation of the CRA under the state’s “community
Once the city designates a CRA, a five-member board would
be appointed with enormously broad power to buy, assemble, develop, and sell
any property within the CRA’s boundaries. The board’s formal powers would
include the right to enter and inspect any property within the CRA without
owner permission and a right to condemn that property if needed to meet
renewal plan goals.
Boardmembers would be nominated by the Mayor and approved
by the City Council. In reality this means that only big shots from the
banking and development sectors and the Chamber, with close ties to the Mayor,
are likely to be selected—with perhaps a token private citizen from the
Normally municipalities in Washington must prove to a
judge they are condemning property for strictly defined “public uses,” such as
a street right of way, utility substation, sewer plant or reservoir. But
under the state’s community renewal law, once a CRA is designated, a simple
decision by the five-member board to acquire property for any purpose even
vaguely related to the board’s “renewal” plans is, by definition, a “public
In practice this would mean whole blocks targeted for
assembly by the CRA board, acquired through condemnation or the threat of it,
and then put out to bid to large private developers. The winning bidder –
likely a pal of the Mayor, City Council or CRA boardmember - would develop
those sites to higher densities for commercial and residential use—at a price
beyond the reach of many current small business owners and renters.
Much of this activity would be aimed at securing and
developing properties near the Sound Transit corridor. But no area between
MLK Way and Rainier would be exempt from possible redevelopment, including
single family homeowner areas within CRA boundaries. Despite lip service to
preventing gentrification, the net result would be hundreds of
existing lower-density lower-priced rental housing and older homeowner units
removed to make way for the Mayor’s pro-density agenda.
Little wonder there is a growing outcry from Southeast
Seattle residents – at least those who’ve gotten wind of the plan. But there
is another less visible reason to fear what the city has up its sleeve. Under
state law the five member board also would be given broad authority to divert
increases in property and sales taxes generated within the renewal area to pay
for their redevelopment schemes. It's called "tax increment financing" but
in reality it's a raid on the City, County, and perhaps even the School
Without interference, rising land values generate more
property tax revenues for state, county and city coffers to pay for schools,
sidewalks, bridges and other basic infrastructure. However, once the CRA is
created, the CRA board is allowed under the state law to skim off all future
increases in these taxes above what is now being collected within the area of
the CRA. Instead of going back to the city’s general fund to pay for the
basics, these new tax revenues can be used to help finance pet renewal
projects implemented by the CRA board.
Some denizens of Rainier Valley may look at the Community Renewal Agency
concept as an opportunity to improve the neighborhood. A well-intentioned CRA
board would clean up unsightly properties, kick some slumlords into shape, and
promote infill development on vacant land sprinkled around Southeast Seattle.
But where is the basis for believing our Mayor and City Council will do
anything other than hand-pick the board to promote its larger redevelopment
and pro-density agenda in Southeast Seattle? This is a policy of
gentrification in effect, if not in name.
Instead of city government acting to carry out the
neighborhood plans designed to preserve affordability and diversity – plans
developed by hundreds of citizens over the course of several years - we get a
government that picks and chooses which plan elements to follow and which to
ignore. Low-income people, working people, people of color, senior citizens
are leaving this city in droves not because of blight but because they have
been forced out by runaway growth and skyrocketing prices actively promoted by
The city signs memorandums of agreement with developers
such as the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), and then makes no move to enforce
them. A property owner at a recent hearing on the CRA said that if the city
was so concerned about blight, officials should simply start enforcing
Somehow there never seems to be enough funding for that.
Complaints about abandoned vehicles, dumping and rat infestations of abandoned
property go unattended. The city and school district and Seattle Housing
Authority pass the buck back and forth to each other about who should pick up
the trash dumped along the chain link fences around the Rainier Vista
Meanwhile, the garbage blows down the street. And for
these problems left untended by the city, though they violate the city's own
codes, Rainier Valley is dubbed "blighted," a designation the city will use
simply to replace the old and affordable with the new and expensive.
Outside City Hall is a monthly commentary from the Seattle Displacement
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Carolee Colter and John V. Fox may be contacted through
©Pacific Publishing Company 2006
Outside City Hall
How deserved is
Seattle's green reputation?
JOHN V. FOX & CAROLEE COLTER reprinted from front page
of the Beacon Hill News (12/29/06)
After years of the Bush administration with its "Clear Skies" and "Healthy
Forests" Initiatives, we've learned to be skeptical of Orwellian
pronouncements from the federal government. But when it comes to local
government, it seems that the citizens of Seattle, especially those who
consider themselves environmentalists, are all too ready to believe the fine
words of our mayor and city council. Unfortunately it is "greenwashing" that
too often passes for sound environmental policy in this city.
Seattle does indeed have a national reputation for environmental
responsibility, but how deserved is it? To be sure, during droughts, we heed
the call to save water. We have a higher recycling rate than most other
cities, and we hit a new record this year with more than 50 percent of our
garbage kept out of landfills.
When voting for bond issues to preserve farmland or against
developer-sponsored initiatives that gut environmental regulations, we
routinely "outgreen" the rest of the county and state. And let's not forget
Mayor Greg Nickel's splash in the national press in 2005 when he challenged
other cities to join in reducing greenhouse gases to meet targets set by the
But when you look below the surface at critical land use and transportation
decisions fundamentally affecting our city's future, you'll find that our
elected officials are more responsive to a different kind of green - that
being the demands of cold hard cash. Take, for example, current plans for
replacement of the SR 520 Bridge.
While the city council's
draft resolution on bridge replacement cites important environmental
considerations, their preferred option calls for expanding lanes on the 520
bridge from four to six, and building a high-level bridge on massive concrete
piers across the wetlands of Foster and Marsh Islands. No matter that the $5-6
billion price tag denies the rest of the region dollars we need for a truly
effective mass transit system.
Despite all this, Councilmember Richard Conlin, who virtually drapes himself
in a mantle of environmentalism, can still argue that this is the "true green
By contrast, a broad coalition of neighborhood and public interest groups
offer an alternative that is "sustainable" and would cost billions less.
Features of their plan include:
* Retain the current route of 520 across Lake Washington with no detours
across Union Bay and no added lanes where the span crosses the lake. Instead
there would be wider lanes improving the flow and effectively accommodating
* From Montlake across Portage Bay to I-5, expand the new bridge to five or
six lanes, but with three set aside exclusively for mass transit and high
occupancy vehicles (HOV), one of the three being reversible to the I-5 express
* Widen the shoulders along the bridge, but these shoulders would be
intermittent, ensuring that they couldn't be converted to additional car
traffic lanes in future.
* Priority access to on- and off-ramps for bus and HOVs.
* Permanently close ramps in the Arboretum.
* No widening of Montlake Blvd., Pacific St., 25th NE or Sand Point Way.
* Retain current HOV lanes on Pacific and the bus "flyer" stops on SR520, now
proposed for elimination.
The city council's six-lane 520 expansion plan, a waterfront tunnel, Mercer
Street reconfiguration... all these so-called improvements in reality are
designed for one purpose - to funnel more cars and commuters into and out of
downtown and to feed the corporate establishment's high-rise growth machine.
It's simply not sustainable without enormous unavoidable impacts on
affordability of our housing and the region's physical environment.
Ironically, these goals are being pursued under a green cover as a plan to
Studies show that at least half the new downtown office workers will choose to
live on the Eastside - perhaps more in future years as Seattle's neighborhoods
become less affordable, more congested and less livable. The cost of moving
increasing numbers of commuters who live farther and farther outside the city
to and from downtown jobs is staggering.
By contrast, we should long ago have pursued a poly-centered approach to
growth that would more evenly distribute growth among all commercial centers
in the region. Such an approach obviates the need for more freeway lanes and
dovetails with more cost-effective and environmentally sensitive approaches
Let's also examine Mayor Nickels recently launched an Environmental Action
Agenda, which he claims will guide the city to "restore its urban forest,
protect water quality and build healthy communities." That plan includes a
draft Urban Forest Management Plan with ambitious goals to reverse the
precipitous decline in the percentage of city land covered by trees.
But Nickels' emphasis on planting new trees, and giving away trees for
citizens to plant, fails to address the loss of mature trees. A group calling
itself the Seattle's Urban Forest Stakeholders issued a manifesto this summer
calling for "protection of what we already have. Our first goal should be, as
it is in San Francisco's 2006 Urban Forest Plan, to maintain and conserve the
existing urban forest." Local landscape consultants also have pointed out that
the mayor's plan is undermined by an absence of adequate staffing.
But what makes Nickel's Urban Forest Management Plan the worst sort of
greenwashing is that his own policies aggravate the loss of tree cover in
Seattle. Upzoning the city - trumpeted as a way of preventing urban sprawl -
in reality creates irresistible pressures to cover every square foot of lots
with buildings. Much of our urban forest exists in the back yards of
single-family residential zones, which are coming increasingly under attack
for occupying land that could go to denser development.
Our "leaders" must stop hiding behind a green veneer and get down to the
business of implementing truly green and affordable growth alternatives for
this city, or the voters must replace them.
You still have time to weigh-in on the 520 debate by calling or writing the
city council, mayor, your legislators and Governor. For information on the
citizen's 520 alternative http://www.noexpansionofsr520.org/index.html.
For information on Urban Forest Stakeholders,
Columnists John V. Fox and Carolee Colter, both of the Seattle Displacement
Coalition, may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Pacific Publishing Company 2007
Condominiums are part of the mix in urban housing. They provide options for
first-time homebuyers who can't afford a detached dwelling, empty nesters
ready to downscale, and busy single professionals with no time for home
However, when condos are created by converting existing apartment buildings
into units for sale, tenants are displaced with 90 days notice and $500 in
relocation assistance - hardly enough time or money to find a new home in
Seattle's tight rental market.
While condos can be a boon to people making 80 percent of the area median
income or more (median income is $52,010 for a single person, $74,300 for a
family of four), there is no shortage of condos available for them. It's
those making less than 60 percent of median income who are most likely to
lose their homes due to condo conversions.
Here's s typical scenario: A developer buys an apartment building for
$150,000 a unit, holds onto the building for a year or so while raising
rents to cover loan payments, then makes some superficial improvements,
kicks out the tenants (many of whom are longtime elderly residents on fixed
incomes), and sells the units to buyers for over $250,000 (the median price
of one-bedroom condos converted since 2004). The elderly are particularly
vulnerable because they tend to be concentrated in the city center where
most of the condo conversions are happening.
Taken one by one, these small human tragedies may not catch our attention
unless they happen to people we know. But they are occurring on a staggering
scale: 3,903 apartments converted in the last two years. That's three
percent of Seattle's rental housing stock.
Although the rate of condo conversions has slowed in other cities, in
Seattle the tide is still rising: 430 in 2004; 1,551 in 2005 and 2,352 last
When you combine these losses with about 1,000 units of low-income housing
lost in the last two years to demolition and another 2,000 or so lost to
speculative sale - where the new owner jacks prices above low-income levels
- it translates directly into more homelessness and longer waiting lists for
public housing and Section 8 vouchers. It also means more low-income people
are forced to leave Seattle altogether.
We spend $10-15 million to produce 300 to 500 new subsidized units each year
in Seattle. But it's shoveling sand against the tide when a handful of
developers can wipe out several times that amount of low-income units each
year in this city.
In response to the rising tide of condo conversions, State Senators Ed
Murray, Ken Jacobsen and Adam Kline have proposed SB 5031 which would
increase tenant notification to 120 days and lift the lid of $500 on
relocation assistance to allow local jurisdictions to set higher amounts, up
to as much as $2,000.
More notice and more assistance for the people displaced from their homes
are certainly called for. So is the construction of new low-income housing.
But before we build an expensive plant to treat the water pollution
downstream, why not keep the pigs out of the water upstream?
Other cities limit condo conversions. For example, San Francisco only allows
200 a year. San Diego requires developers that convert condos to set aside a
percentage of units for low-income households. In Washington, D.C., a
majority of tenants in buildings offering rentals at or below 80 percent of
median must first give their approval to any proposed conversion.
Back in 1978 when condo conversions were booming, Mayor Royer and Seattle's
city council actually passed a moratorium on them. But Seattle lost the
power to regulate condo conversions during the 90s when apartment owners and
developers successfully lobbied a Republican-controlled legislature to pass
a law pre-empting the authority of local jurisdictions.
The time is ripe to change that law. Here's what we can do to halt the
rising tide of condo conversions and ensure affordable rental units for all
income levels in Seattle.
On the state level:
* Amend the state condominium conversion law to enable cities to limit the
number of conversions each year, and allow cities broader discretion to try
solutions like those cited above that work for cities in other states.
click here to go to the state's
website then search for HB 2014 and SB 5031 for status of bills and to read
* Amend state law to give cities broader discretion to require developers to
replace housing they tear down and at comparable price.
* Re-establish the right of cities to implement rent control at their
* Amend housing authority legislation to require Seattle Housing Authority
to guarantee one-for-one replacement of any housing it removes, and replace
it on-site at its larger sites like Yesler Terrace.
On the city level:
* Alter the multi-family tax abatement program so that, to earn the tax
breaks, developers must they replace low-income units one-for-one on site.
Also amend the program to encourage more very low-income units and withhold
tax breaks on units priced above the average rent in that part of the city.
* Pass a right of first refusal law that would: 1) Require owners of
apartment buildings above a certain number of units to notify non-profit
housing developers, Seattle Housing Authority and the city prior to sale.
The notification period would give these agencies time to make an offer or
match a market offer. 2) Create a board to recommend use of the city's
condemnation powers - in cooperation with SHA - to acquire key low-income
apartment buildings vulnerable to speculative sale, demolition or
conversion. click here for our draft of a right of
first refusal law we'd like the city to approve - all or part of it
* Deny the use of bonuses or other incentives for developers unless there is
one-for-one replacement of low-income units at a comparable price or payment
of an in-lieu of fee.
* Create special review districts in areas where there are high
concentrations of existing low-income units. Within these districts, the
city would have broader power to monitor and review each development and set
conditions when a development may cause loss of existing low-income housing.
Our elected officials can do more than show compassion for the casualties of
our rampant housing market. They can actually prevent some of those
casualties in the first place.
John V. Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may
be reached via email@example.com.
©Pacific Publishing Company 2007
Reprinted from this issue of the Beacon Hill News
(also accessed at
Beacon Hill News
Mayor's New Housing Agenda Downplays Low Income Needs In Favor of Higher
- future funding for low income housing programs would
have to be sacrificed to fund higher-end development
- the Mayor's proposed tax breaks for new high end development passes added
taxes onto existing lower priced rentals
- the Mayor's pro-density agenda threatens hundreds and hundreds of low
income units in our city!
- and makes a mockery of Seattle's 10-year plan to end
homelessness by emphasizing higher income over low income
Last week Seattle's Office of Housing released its long awaited inventory of
low-income housing. There were some startling findings including a dramatic
and continuing loss of low-income housing in our city. In just the past two
years we lost 800 units to demolition and over 3,200 units to condominium
conversions, helping to drive vacancy rates down and rents up. More
homelessness and even longer waiting lists for our city's limited supply of
subsidized housing are the consequences.
For all the lip service given to affordable housing and ending homelessness
we hear from our city government, one might expect the Office of Housing to
sound the alarm and issue a call for immediate action to stem this loss: not
Last week at a meeting of the Seattle City Council's Housing Committee,
Adrienne Quinn, director of the Office of Housing, was asked by
councilmember Rasmussen what she'd learned "that was new" from the
Low-income Housing Inventory Report. Ignoring the growing crisis for those
with incomes at or below 40 percent of median income (about $25,000 per
year), Quinn stated that it was a "surprise" to her that "people at 80
percent of median income (about $50,000 a year) can't afford to live in
Seattle" and are "leaving the city."
Percent of Seattle Workers Who Live in Seattle (2000 census data)
Earn less than $15,000
$100,000 or more
Percent Living In
Quinn provided the above chart ("Percent of Seattle workers who live in
Seattle"), purporting to prove a shortfall of units in our city that are
affordable to those around, or slightly above, 80 percent of median income.
Of course this would justify Mayor Greg Nickel's often-stated agenda - to
eliminate obstacles to more density while providing more incentives and
subsidies/tax breaks for housing priced at these higher income levels the
mayor euphemistically calls "workforce housing."
A DEEPER LOOK
When viewing the Office of Housing's chart, try as we might, we find no
basis for Quinn's conclusion of a flight of households at 80 percent of
median or of her assertion of a housing shortfall for this group.
In the first place, the data in this chart is drawn from the 2000 U.S.
Census and represents a snapshot in time rather than a trend. When we
compared the updated 2005 census to 2000, it showed no such out-migration of
households at 80 percent of median. The percentage of Seattle households at
this income level dropped slightly by about one or two percentage points
since 2000, but so has the percentage of households with incomes between 30
and 40 percent of median. On the other hand, the percentage of households
with incomes above median increased significantly.
For a more accurate picture of who can or cannot afford to live in Seattle
and the rest of King County, take a look at the chart from the 2006 King
County Housing Benchmarks Report entitled "Supply and demand for affordable
rental housing: 2006."
Supply and Demand for Affordable Rental Housing: 2006
Income of Household
Units to Income Group
Households in Income Group
Cumulative Deficit or Surplus of Supply to Demand
For 99.5 percent of households county-wide with incomes at or below 30
percent of median, there is a shortfall of affordable units. What this means
is that those 73,390 households are paying more - in most cases much more -
than 30 percent of their income on housing
For the 25,800 households in King County between 30 and 40 percent of
median, there are 30,730 units priced at their income level. However, they
must compete for that supply with the 73,700 households in the lowest-income
category. So that leaves a cumulative total deficit for this income group of
68,460 affordable units. (Note also that even if you add 25,000 subsidized
low cost units to the equation - roughly the amount now available regionally
serving low income folks - the shortfall remains huge for this group.)
SURPLUS OF HIGH RENTALS
On the other hand, note that there are huge surpluses of housing affordable
to people with incomes above 60 percent of median, including a surplus of
101,020 units for those at 60-80 percent of median.
So please, Ms. Quinn, don't state there is a shortage of housing for folks
in the 80 percent income category or that they are leaving our city in
droves. It's just not true.
We know, given the rising home prices, that it's difficult for anyone below
100 percent of median to buy a house, or even a condominium, in Seattle. But
as the county's chart shows, there is an ample supply of rentals for this
group. Not so for those below 40 percent of median. (Note, we are not saying
the City shouldn't look for new and innovative ways of promoting
homeownership opportunities for middle income and potential first-time
homebuyers. Indeed we are not doing enough to actively promote land trusts,
cooperatives, and other forms of "low-moderate" income homeownership. These
kinds of solutions are far removed however from the Mayor's trickle down
notions of subsidizing or "incentivizing" still more market rate condos.
Regardless, we must put first things first. Above all, whatever we do for
those in the middle, it cannot be at the expense of resources and
commitments we must continue to make and and prioritize for those at the
It was bad enough that Quinn downplayed, and even overlooked, a growing
crisis for those at lower income levels - especially in light of a net loss
of about 2,000 rentals city-wide since 2005, as noted in the Low-income
Housing Inventory Report. But then to hear Quinn lament the hardships of the
moderate-income category when a tsunami is breaking over the heads of our
low-income residents is galling. This selective focus on the data reveals
Quinn's intent to promote the mayor's agenda.
THE MAYOR'S COURSE
If Nickels has his way, we'll give away even more of our public funds in tax
breaks for developers and subsidies for the less poor at the expense of the
truly poor. The council will gladly enact more up-zones aimed at promoting
still more high-end and mixed-income development regardless of its
irrevocable impact on the physical and social character of our communities.
No matter that - as this housing inventory indicates - such development has
set in motion speculative forces that have caused the loss of several
thousand low-income units due to conversion, speculative sale, and
We'll be told we're sacrificing our lower-density neighborhoods for the
social good. But note that it's never higher-end, single-family
neighborhoods that get up-zoned or luxury apartment buildings that get torn
down so that bigger, taller buildings with more units can be put in their
The people displaced by increased density are the very people in whose name
the density is promoted. And it will be even worse if the poorest are kicked
out so that the less-poor can have publicly subsidized homes in their place.
Of course accelerating levels of growth - without mitigation or measures to
steer it or control it - will make this city less livable and less
desirable. But by displacing the poorest of the poor, this growth means more
homelessness as well. It makes a mockery of this city's "Ten Year Plan to
The city's housing agenda should first be directed toward preserving what
remains of our low-income stock. Otherwise we'll continue to spend tens of
millions to add low-income subsidized units - taking one step forward, but
then three steps back.
John V. Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition
may be reached by writing to
My recollections of Charlie
and why he was so important for our city:
(Charlie's funeral was held Saturday
May 12th, 2007 at Holy Rosary Church in West Seattle )
warm but overcast spring day, three hundred people from across the region
gathered at Holy Rosary church in West Seattle to honor a remarkable
politician and community activist. Charlie Chong passed away at age 80 from
complications following heart surgery.
Actually it may be incorrect to call Charlie a politician at all even though
he ran for Mayor twice and served on the City Council for one year in the
mid-90’s. Call him the anti-politician, a more
appropriate moniker given his deep rooted populist sentiments and his
disdain for the groupthink so pervasive among most of our local politicians
who once elected all too quickly forget those who helped elected them.
Charlie never did.
During his brief time on the Council, he made a point of rising at
councilmeetings and regularly offering verbatim comments from public or
grassroots organizations with which he shared a common bond, then casting
his vote exactly in line with their sentiments. To his
corporate driven colleagues on the Council prone to burying their political
biases in planner jargon this was absolutely shocking behavior.
It also brought into sharp relief the ritualized lip service other
councilmembers like to offer (both then and now) right before a critical
vote and just before they screw you. Amazingly, Charlie
even made it a habit to answer his own phone and field calls directly from
Charlie was a lone neighborhood voice during his time on the Council
and often on the losing end of 8-1 votes but that did not deter him.
When others might content themselves to politely try and eke out
minor amendments to water down a bad bill crafted by big business, Charlie
stood on principle. By doing so, he routinely changed the nature of debate
and galvanized many into motion. He let everyone know
when special interests were in the driver’s seat and when it would cost the
neighborhoods dearly. This kind of leadership and the climate he helped
create paved the way for future activists to seek election and get elected
such as fellow anti-establishment activists Nick Licata, Judy Nicastro, and
Peter Steinbrueck. These politicians – while not
necessarily adhering to the values Charlie espoused – all owe in part their
tenure and their electability to the ground Charlie broke.
Charlie first provided such leadership on the
scene as a citizen activist and community leader from
In retirement after years of work in government, Charlie first
emerged in the early 90’s to lead a neighborhood challenge to then Mayor
Rice’s plan for placement of dense “urban villages” around town.
Hundreds mobilized at the grassroots level thanks to Charlies
leadership and turned back this plan. It also spawned
similar efforts across town and signaled the re-emergence of a strong
neighborhood movement. Charlie deservedly is viewed with
near reference by many of today’s neighborhood leaders.
But for those of us involved in trying to address homelessness and
the loss of low income and affordable housing, his candor and the voice of
his supporters was not always well received. In fact, at
first we viewed him with suspicion, because when Charlie initially surfaced
as a leader of the neighborhood movement he occasionally tipped his comments
over into appeals that came across initially as narrow efforts to exclude
tenants and people of color from some of these more affluent homeowner
where he lived. He supported efforts at Sand Point to
turn away use of a tiny portion of that large site for low income family
housing initially although later actually tried to mediate conflicts between
the neighborhoods and housing advocates and in the end told supporters from
Sand Point they must accept some level of low income housing on the
site. During his first ill-fated race for Mayor against Paul Schell, when
asked what to do about the homeless, he once called for tougher involuntary
treatment laws (as did Schell during that race I might add).
And at one point,
Charlie’s penchant for candor (and letting his words get ahead of his
thoughtfulness) tipped perilously close to rank prejudice.
Once in a televised debate he said that it
might be better if more low income housing was
built outside Seattle (and by inference rather than in Seattle) when
explaining why he sometimes joined with neighborhood groups to oppose the
location of subsidized housing in their communities. However awkward, he was
trying to say that the barriers to low income housing in the suburbs should
be taken down. He later acknowledged to us however that
these comments could be construed as prejudicial to poor people and publicly
stated later that he supported “scattered-site”
low income housing in our communities.
Seizing on these gaffs,
the corporate liberal establishment sought to typecast Chong as a right
winger, a closet racist, or a crackpot. At one point during his first race
for Mayor, supporters of his opponent Paul Schell attempted to label Charlie
as anti-gay, but it was Charlie who first supported adding gays to the list
of city “minority” contractors, not Schell. With a long record as a
government employee defending poverty programs during the Johnson and Nixon
years, it was also grossly unfair and inaccurate to say that Charlie is a
neighborhood exclusionary - although it is true that Charlie’s words on
occasion did give rise to the expression of exclusionary sentiments.
But, if we were to look
more carefully at Chong’s overall record and stance on key housing and
homeless issues and on issues of equity and economic justice, hands down,
he’s one of the best locally elected official we’ve seen.
Among past councilmembers, only
Galle, and Michael Hildt played a larger
role on these fronts, in part because they were in office longer and worked
within a more sympathetic political climate. In his short one year tenure on
the Council, Chong was a vigorous opponent of the no-sitting law and other
anti-homeless measures. He actively opposed the “parks exclusion” law. Few
spoke so forcefully to protect the civil rights of the poor. And he actively
supported the Displacement Coalition’s alternative to the Holly Park
Redevelopment Plan and opposed all the HOPE VI projects that destroyed
hundreds of units of low housing units in our neighborhoods. He called
publicly for redirection of these dollars to fix up rather than destroy
existing low income housing – hardly the stance of a “NIMBY” (not in my back
And more than anyone of
prominence on the
Seattle political scene, Charlie was more
than willing to challenge head-on our city leader’s love affair with the
downtown corporate establishment. It is our city’s love
affair with highrises that singularly caused the loss of literally thousands
of low income “SRO” (single room occuancy) units, as Charlie rightly pointed
out, over a two decade period and helped to drive rents up for the rest of
us now to near stratospheric levels.
Above all, Charlie did
not buy now fashionable nostrums that we should accept runaway densities in
order to avoid sprawl or preserve affordability. In
fact, the Mayor’s pro-density agenda has done nothing of the kind.
Quite the opposite. Charlie always said that
growth which was not sensitive to the existing character of communities
simply served to drive prices up, cause the loss of existing lower priced
units, and as such force longtime low income and working people out of the
city. Indeed it has and today we are reaping the consequences of policy
decisions that paid no heed to Charlies words. Chong
also supported and was one of the first to call for controls on the
demolition and abandonment of low income housing, including giving his
unqualified support for the Displacement Coalition’s "right of first
refusal” law (that would give tenants first right to buy their apartments
when their housing is threatened with speculative sale, conversion, or
demolition. Chong also showed an unprecedented level of
willingness to change his mind, such as his reversal from opposition to
support for the downtown homeless hygiene center when activists approached
him on the matter.
When some progressives
steered away from Charlie because of his failure to be on the right side of
every issue... We strongly disagreed with that position.
We urged strong support for Charlie knowing that we
would be waiting a very long time for the perfect progressive to come along
and a populist like Charlie looked pretty damn good to us.
Unfortunately, the indecision of many in the progressive camp
probably helped ensure his defeat when he ran against Schell and a later run
to recapture a City Council seat During that first race
of his for Mayor he called me two days before the election and told me that
if elected he would like to appoint me to head the Office of Housing at City
Hall. There was no need to curry favor from us, we’d
already endorsed him and publicly urged others to vote for him.
For a couple of days I reveled in thoughts over beer with friends,
who I would hire and who I would fire (a long list) once Charlie was
Ah…..what might have been had Charlie been
elected Mayor? At the time, we weighed in for Chong loudly and openly
despite a few blemishes not just because he had done the right thing on a
few key issues. We warned then (and this was before the WTO globalization
protests) that the election of a Paul Schell would accelerate the further
globalization and corporatization of Seattle and the region’s economy, and
foster the continuing exportation of jobs. (This is what surprised us most
about Labor’s support of Schell at the time.) With these social and
economic shifts that have occurred since the Chong-Schell race, we have seen
fewer and fewer key public policy decisions – especially those related to
land use, growth, and the distribution of our tax dollars - remain within
the grasp of Seattle citizenry. There is a beltway
mentality and citizens when they venture down to City Hall are often viewed
with disdain and their views trivialized. Blue suits
dominate (just submit a disclosure request for councilmember’s daily log of
visitors for proof of that).
Charlie Chong is one of very short list of
Seattle politicians to represent a
community-based reaction to these trends -but he was that movements leader -
an Emmett Watson with real political teeth. Given the rapidity of change, he
may have been our last opportunity to retain some important community values
- such as a certain level of economic and social diversity, and neighborhood
and locally based economies that we have some ability to control. Under a
Paul Schell, these qualities indeed were swept aside to make way for a brave
new world of international capital, Microsoft, Paul Allen and ultimately the
election of you know who: Greg Nickels.
Chong’s belief in the right of
small entrepreneurs and neighborhoods to control their own destiny is also a
belief in the devolution of power and authority downward where ultimately
there is a greater potential, also, for poor people, working people, and low
income communities to shape their future. We know one darn thing for
sure…there likely would have been no WTO, no police riots, no tear gas in
Seattle would have been held in
This is how I will remember Charlie Chong – and as a friend and
with respect for his extraordinary integrity. Thomas More once said, a
person is defined by their conscience. And like Thomas More, Charlie never
bowed to the will of the King. He was our city’s polite,
ingratiating, outspoken, sometimes quirky but always honest man for all
The power elite of
Seattle mobilized their resources to
marginalize Charlie and exploited his warts. That
ultimately cost him in his Mayoral bid against Paul Schell and later bid the
Council and for Mayor. Some in the social service community, fearful of
losing their funding took the bait and endorsed incumbents or for that
matter anybody but Charlie. Ironically it was Charlie –
more than any other city elected before or since - who stood up to oppose
the forces of gentrification at work in our city causing more demolitions,
abandonment, and increased rent – more homelessness.
Ironically for the
people who are homeless, who every day are stripped of their civil rights,
who daily lose their homes to the relentless forces of redevelopment, who
hover in the shadows of those steel and glass office towers and shiny new
condominiums that the Greg Nickels of this world are busy creating, Charlie
Chong or rather the values he represented may be their last best hope.
Charlie passed away but he passed on a battle flag and a
responsibility for the rest of us to carry on.
Towards the end of the funeral service Mary
Pearson, Charlie's wife of nearly 30 years, gave a brief but extraordinarily
moving expression of gratitude to all of us. Just as Charlie would have
done, she thought first about friends and colleagues, thanking us for our
work and for our friendship and love. "Charlie," she said, "was not a rich
man. He really wasn't. But he was rich and blessed in a way that really
mattered" to be part of a caring community of friends and committed
will miss Charlie Chong.
- Seattle Displacement Coalition 206-632-0668
father's death leaves a legacy of positive change behind"
A week before Father's Day, my father John Noel Fox passed away in a
congregate care facility in Bellingham, just one month shy of 90. I had
the difficult but very real privilege of being there when he died, along
with my sister and one of his nurses.
It is painful to lose a loved one - to sit back and helplessly watch him
fade away. But I know that he lived a long and very good life.
My dad was born in a small factory town, Marion, Indiana, to John and
Nellie Fox. His father was a lineman for the county and his mother a
telephone operator. He grew up during the Depression, and it was a tough
working-class existence. He helped his family make ends meet by working as
an aide at the local veterans home.
Marion was known then and now as a basketball town. Every home high-school
game drew over 5,000 people. My dad was a starting guard for that team.
The whole town turned out.
The whole town turned out for other activities as well. In 1930, my dad's
father dragged him to see a lynching of two black men. Reportedly 10,000
other townsfolk witnessed this. Recently I saw a historic photo of this
obscenity. Historians write that it was one of the more egregious of
hundreds of lynchings during the '20s and '30s. In spite of that, or
perhaps because of it, my dad never possessed a discriminatory or racist
bone in his body. He lived his life believing in equal treatment for all.
My dad was an outstanding athlete. He played four sports in his teens and
20s - fast pitch softball, baseball, basketball, and football. To this day
he is one of Western Washington University's only multi-sport letterman.
At 17 he was the youngest player on a men's fast pitch softball team that
won the national championship. Later he joined an all-star team that
regularly played professionals including Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize, and
a semi-pro team that squared off with black professional teams. He
remembers playing against Buck O'Neill, considered one of the best
baseball players who ever lived. Dad told me had he stuck to baseball,
he'd have gone pro. I believe it.
During the war, my dad was a Navy Seabee building airstrips in the South
Pacific by morning and playing baseball in the afternoons. He had it
relatively easy, he said, but pointed out that he had tried to go to the
front lines only to be turned away because of his eyesight. How was it
that he could hit a baseball, he told them, yet they wouldn't let him go
He met my mom Arlene at Western Washington University. They were married
just before he went off to war, and remained married for 63 years until my
mother died April 21, 2005.
My sister, Maureen, was born in 1948 and I was born in 1949. We grew up on
Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula where my dad and mom both
taught and coached. It was an idyllic existence for us kids with lots of
woods, water, and fields to play in. I'd go to the high school ballgames
and even my dad's team practices. After the games, I'd sit and watch the
teen sock hops on the darkened gym floor.
My dad was a progressive and a labor supporter. Even after he became a
principal, he would not leave the teachers union. In fact, it took a
special rule passed at the state level barring administrators from the
teachers union to force my dad out. He knew where his loyalties lay and
his staff respected him for it.
As another expression of his belief in justice and equality, he pioneered
equal access for women in sports - and this was before Title IX. At
Mountlake Terrace (where we moved in the '60s), he made sure as athletic
director that girls' sports got equal levels of funding and respect.
He genuinely cared about and encouraged the best in everyone he touched.
My dad and mom throughout their careers influenced more than one
generation and many hundreds of young people. My sister and I were
privileged to feel that caring and support throughout our growing-up
years. I lived and breathed athletics and no doubt developed my strong
sense of social justice during this period of my life.
After surviving an aneurism and bypass surgery, my father enjoyed a long
retirement with my mother - traveling, playing golf, socializing with
lifelong friends and enjoying his family. They maintained a summer home in
Bellingham and a winter home in Palm Desert.
My mom's passing in 2005 left a great hole in my dad's life. He lost
appetite and many of his interests. Diabetes was discovered after it had
damaged his kidneys and no doubt accentuated his heart problems.
During the last nine months of his life, he was in and out of Bellingham's
Evergreen Treatment and Care facility. He also was hospitalized seven
times, usually after he'd try to live at home by himself. He just wouldn't
or couldn't take all those 17 medications, eat right, exercise and give
himself the required diabetes shots. Even so, he repeatedly rebuffed the
efforts of my sister and myself to come live with or close by us. His
independence was important to him.
Finally after an April heart attack, he chose to remain at Evergreen where
he found real friendship and support from the administrators, aides, and
residents. In one sense his world had shrunk but in another sense it grew
by leaps and bounds. In fact, the last real joy he experienced in his life
was interacting with the staff.
In the last week, he remarked in frustration, "You are born into this
world with nothing and you are going to leave it with nothing." Later and
again in his last moments, I let him know emphatically what an important
contribution he made to his family, his friends, and those hundreds of
students and teachers he influenced throughout his life.
Our time here on earth is finite, but my Dad left an indelible mark on
this infinite world of ours. We will always remember and love him.
John V. Fox with help from Carolee Colter. They can be reached via
this piece may also be accessed at the Coalition's website - see lead
headline (click here)
July 26, 2007: Vol XXIII Outside
City Hall: About the Council Races
- our look at the candidates and races
by Carolee Coulter and John V. Fox (reprinted from our
column in the
Beacon Hill News and Capitol Hill Tiimes
Yes, we know it's summer
and you'd rather be picnicking on the beach. But there’s an important local
election coming up. Five City Council seats are up for grabs. In fact,
with the recent decision to move the primaries back to August, it's less
than a month away – Tuesday, August 21st. You'd never know it, though,
given the lack of media coverage of these races.
Normally we'd decry such a
lack of attention but after following the candidates around, reviewing their
websites and literature, and talking with some of them… well perhaps there’s
a reason for such a blackout. With only a couple of exceptions, it's really
all rather boring and the choices limited. Incumbents and challengers alike
seem too prone to mouthing platitudes rather than offering us real
Of the five council seats
up for election, only three—David Della’s, Jean Godden’s and retiring Peter
Steinbrueck’s open seat--are truly contested. Incumbent Tom Rasmussen has
no competitor while Sally Clark faces only weak challengers with no funding,
no name familiarity and no knowledge of the issues.
For Steinbrueck’s open
seat we've got five candidates of which only three are mounting credible
campaigns. Social service consultant Venus Velazquez has some good points.
No doubt she’d advocate for more funding for low-income housing and service
providers. But she seems to dismiss the neighborhoods as nothing more than
a bunch of NIMBY's. Then there's Southeast Seattle businessman Bruce
Harrell who touts his former prowess on the football field and his support
from the downtown establishment. And last but not least, retired professor
Al Runte is the only candidate in any of the contested races truly trying to
represent Seattle neighborhoods. He speaks out clearly for example on key
transit, parks and fiscal issues. But unfortunately he does not seem
adequately tuned to the city’s continuing loss of low income housing or
issues of homelessness.
In another race we've got
Tim Burgess, a former police officer, taking on incumbent David Della.
Burgess is the "let's get tough on crime" guy, long obsessed with the
four-year-old Rick's Strip Club affair. Like dozens of other aspiring
politicians over the years, he mouths what he thinks people want to hear
while catering to the status quo. He tried to get the support of the
downtown establishment but Della already had that constituency sewn up
recently garnering the Alki Foundation’s endorsement. Della did stick his
neck out with his strong and early support for the elevated viaduct option.
But other than that, try getting him to tell you where he stands on a
specific issue--especially any with even a smidgeon of controversy. We’ve
never been able to get a commitment out of him on housing or homeless
Jean Godden’s facing a
real challenge from Joe Szwaja, with a couple of also-rans Lauren Briel and
Robert Sondheim trailing far behind. Four years ago, Godden squeaked into
office on the strength of high name recognition and her opponent’s
involvement in “Strippergate.” She also raised, and continues to raise,
oodles of cash from the corporate establishment. Godden touts her role in
rolling back electric rates as chair of the Council's Energy Committee. But
most of the rollback grew out of commitments made by City Light and the
Mayor before she had a hand in the process. Meanwhile, there isn’t a
subsidy or a zoning change requested by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. that she
hasn’t fully supported whatever the cost to the general fund.
Most importantly in our
mind, Godden has been absent when housing advocates have called for
legislation to control runaway condominium conversions, demolition of
low-income housing, and runaway gentrification. Her opponent, Joe Szwaja is
to date the only candidate in these contested races willing to give our
growing housing crisis the attention it deserves. While we see much to like
in Szwaja, we nevertheless remain troubled by a lack of specifics in his
call for “affordability” and “sustainability”— phrases all the candidates
We're still looking for
candidates who'll be far more explicit in speaking to those constituencies
increasingly left out at City Hall.
For example, we want a
candidate who will:
Support tenant rights by promoting a return to a mandatory
code enforcement program, a moratorium on conversions and demolitions, and
give non-profits first crack at buying low income apartments before an owner
can sell to a speculator or condo converter.
Uphold neighborhood plans and no more upzones unless existing
low income housing is protected and the neighborhoods approve.
Require developers to sign community benefit agreements
committing them to provide livable wages and affordable housing before they
can get a permit or land use change.
Ensure police accountability by supporting a true independent
review board with subpoena power and real enforcement teeth.
Put protecting our greenbelts, open space and tree canopy over
the prerogatives of developers.
Support the “green alternative” four-lane-only 520 and oppose
any high-level bridge or any plan that does irrevocable damage to the
Support use of our parks for all, preserving them for passive
use rather than giving them over for on-going commercial use.
Redirect transportation dollars now pouring into South Lake
Union back out to our neighborhoods, such as Southeast Seattle, Lake City
and Greenwood that don't even have sidewalks.
Place caps or other reasonable limits on runway downtown
development to ensure manageable levels of growth and make developers, not
taxpayers, pay for new infrastructure needed to support their developments.
Assure the folks in Ballard and West Seattle that whatever
happens to the viaduct, there will be no reduction in capacity without first
guaranteeing full and adequate mass transit.
Our message to candidates: Stop speaking in mind
numbing generalities. Be specific in responding to these issues and say so
in your leaflets, websites, and in the voters guide. Let us know how you are
different from the run-of-the-mill politicians who dominate the Seattle
political landscape. That’s what city residents are crying out for in this
and future elections.
August "Outside City
Hall Column" Vol XXIV reprinted from this week's edition of Beacon Hill News:
Seattle’s urban forest is falling victim
to the relentless growth courted and rewarded by city government land-use
- by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox (206-632-0668) Seattle Displacement
Coalition (website link)
It seems like everything we really love about Seattle is slipping away—the
social and economic diversity, the older buildings that give our
neighborhoods their distinctive character, the trees and green spaces.
Those big buildings sprouting up everywhere embody the forces at work.
Whether gargantuan single-family homes squeezed between one-story
bungalows, or three-story stacked townhouses with garages downstairs and
paved-over yards, these new buildings with stratospheric prices have
displaced working-class families or immigrants or renters in the Section 8
program and others living below the median income.
their blandness and bulk they dominate the more modest and (to us anyway)
more pleasing structures that integrated well with the existing character of
And of course any and all trees on these
lots had to go.
Whether it’s several hundred trees removed at a time to redevelop Seattle
Housing Authority’s properties at Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point,
or trees on single lots that got in the way of bigger structures, Seattle’s
urban forest is falling victim to the relentless growth courted and rewarded
by city government land-use policies.
Our urban forest consists of all the trees in the city on both
public and private property, including street trees, park trees, greenbelts
and trees on institutional campuses.
Taken in the aggregate, the urban forest performs valuable public services
that went unrecognized for years. Trees regulate stormwater by capturing
run-off, preventing or mitigating flooding. They cleanse the air by
removing many thousands of pounds of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide,
carbon monoxide, ozone and particulate matter from the atmosphere every
year. Their shade cools buildings in the summer, reducing the need for air
conditioning. Lately their ability to isolate and store carbon has been
recognized as a key factor in combating global warming. People spend more
money in shopping districts with trees, offices have higher occupancy rates
in building with trees, children do better in school and hospital patients
recover more quickly when they can look out at trees.
Check out the Mayor’s proposed
Urban Forest Management Plan, which
goes before City Council for approval later this year.
To read the plan you’d think the Mayor had got religion about trees.
The plan notes that according to aerial surveys, the portion of
Seattle covered by tree canopy has declined from 30% to 18% between 1972 and
1999, costing the city about $1.5 million per year in stormwater storage
costs and air pollution-related health care costs.
Accordingly the plan calls for a goal of restoring a 30% canopy cover in 30
This means increasing the total number of trees
in Seattle from 1,3 million today to 2.2 million, which includes planting
649,000 new trees.
Despite the significant costs of
planting and maintenance, the plan’s authors calculate a net public benefit
of over $44 million a year.
We'd feel a lot more encouraged by the Mayor’s Urban Forest Management Plan
if it weren’t for a history of underfunding, a lack of public input, and the
glaring contradiction between the plan’s goals and the underlying philosophy
of this administration.
Trees need regular watering in their early years and pruning in their later
years. Left alone, our greenbelts strangle under ivy. The city has shown a
decided lack of commitment to adequate staffing for tree crews and
arborists. As the plan points out, more frequent maintenance would actually
save the city money over time. But from one annual budget to the next,
short-term cost savings win out over long-term investments.
The misnamed Seattle Urban Forest Coalition, which drafted the Urban Forest
Management Plan, is composed exclusively of city staff.
The Emerald City Task Force, supposedly a citizens’ advisory committee,
consists (so far) of developers, with no representation of environmental or
Hopefully this will be rectified by
City Council appointing some Task Force members instead of
leaving it up to the May
But our greatest problem with the Urban Forest Management Plan is that its
ideals seem so out of sync with the land-use decisions coming from the Mayor
and Council majority.
Upzoning creates incentives to
tear down smaller buildings that covered less of the lot and put up bigger,
bulkier buildings with no room for trees.
setback requirements means, again, no room for trees.
Allowing DADU’s (Detached Accessory Dwelling Units) in single-family
neighborhoods adds to the problem.
And those monster
houses and townhouses sprouting up on your street—no room for trees.
When it comes to tree preservation, it’s on private property that the rubber
meets the road.
Almost three quarters of Seattle’s
land-base is privately owned.
Of Seattle’s 1.3 million
trees, less than half are in city parks.
If we as a city
aren’t willing to take a stand on the public value of trees on private
property, there’s not much hope for our urban forest.
The Urban Forest Management Plan suggests measures like these used by other
Restrict removal of large trees on private
Require one tree to be planted for a given number
of on-street parking stalls
Require site plans for building permit
applications to locate significant trees on adjacent properties to ensure
these trees aren’t damaged or destroyed during development.
Maximize the amount of plantable space in new
development for trees.
Apply tree removal enforcement tools consistently
across the city.
Quite frankly, we’re not sure the city has the guts to
implement these regulations. Developers will complain
that such rules impede their ability to build affordable housing.
We’ll be confronted yet again with the false choice of trees versus
Just as with housing, we must start with policies that
preserve our existing trees and accommodate only the level of growth that
allows us to do that. We do not have to sacrifice
Seattle’s physical or social character to meet our regional growth targets
and contain sprawl.
When our electeds talk about density, more often than
not it means cramming growth into vulnerable lower-income communities as if
trees were a luxury for the wealthy. We all deserve
storm water retention, air pollution mitigation and the shade and shade and
beauty that trees provide.
Mayor seeks to subsidize
developers and kill affordable housing
- city council seeks your input on multi-family
tax break giveaway plan
- a windfall for developers with no public benefit
- plan will spur still more displacement and loss of neighborhood character
Everyone old enough to pay rent knows that the lack of affordable housing in
Seattle has reached crisis proportions. Yet in response to the removal of
several thousand low-income housing units in our city to condo conversion,
demolition, speculation and redevelopment, the mayor wants to give subsidies
and incentives that will spur still more of the very kind of development and
speculative activity that has caused this loss in the first place.
If the mayor has his way, a program now limited in scope called the
Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program (MFTEP), would be extended to nearly
every neighborhood of the city and renamed the Seattle Homes Within Reach
The old plan was bad enough. Even though the majority of renters in Seattle
need housing priced at or below one third of their monthly income or 60
percent of median - roughly $890 a month for a one-bedroom unit - the MFTE
gives away 10 years of lucrative tax breaks in selected areas of the city
while requiring developers to set aside only 20 to 25 percent of these new
units for households at 70 percent of median income - about $1,040 per month
for a one-bedroom unit. That cuts out a lot of Seattle renters right there.
But under the mayor's new proposal, developers need only set aside 20-30
percent of their new units at rent levels affordable to those with incomes
between 90 and 100 percent of median. With vacancy rates now expected to
drop to record lows of 2 percent, our mayor is going to reward developers
who set aside a handful of units at $1,490 a month for a one bedroom unit.
That cuts out a whole lot more Seattle renters.
On a 100-unit apartment, a developer would receive about $3 million worth of
tax subsidies for renting out 20 to 30 percent of the units at these
unaffordable rates - all in the name of "affordability." Even the housing
market without government interference does better than that.
Much has been made of the teachers and firefighters who live outside Seattle
because they can't afford homes in the city. Without discounting this
problem, we still wonder about the vast majority of tenants in Seattle who
have incomes at or below 50 to 60 percent of median. For them, the set-aside
apartments subsidized with our tax dollars are indeed "beyond reach." A
recent meeting in Ballard to discuss this program drew over 150 people. When
the crowd was asked who in the room could afford one of these so called
affordable set-aside units, not one hand went up.
There are less obvious, but more invidious, problems with this program than
the unaffordability of these so-called affordable apartments. By offering
this subsidy, the Homes Within Reach program gives developers an incentive
to tear down existing lower-density apartment buildings and replace them
with larger, much more expensive units. The result is a net loss of
lower-cost apartments and more displaced tenants left to compete with other
low-income tenants for a dwindling supply of units. Moreover, the proposed
tax breaks for new high-end development pass added taxes onto existing
It's all part of the mayor's larger strategy of promoting runaway
development throughout Seattle. He recently proposed removal of extensive
environmental review for market rate housing developments up to 80 units in
size (the subject of a recent Geov Parrish column in this paper). And he'll
move soon to add still more allowable residential density in all our
neighborhoods via what he's calling "incentive zoning." This scheme would
reward developers with significant increases in the bulk and height of their
buildings, if they agree to "set aside" some of their units at so-called
affordable levels - again at 80 percent of median or more - and well above
what most current tenants can afford.
Ultimately, the Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program in its present and
proposed incarnations makes a mockery of Seattle's 10-year plan to end
homelessness by emphasizing the needs of people with higher incomes over
those with much less. The upshot is to shift increasing shares of the city's
housing funds to higher-end and mixed income development and away from those
at lower income levels, who currently receive the bulk of those dollars.
It's not that we're unsympathetic to the difficulties of families at the
median income to find houses they can afford to buy. But they don't live on
the ragged edge of homelessness if their apartment gets converted to a condo
or torn down to make way for a more profitable development.
As we've noted before in this column, according to the 2006 King County
Housing Benchmarks Report, there is a shortage in the county (including
Seattle) of over 70,000 rentals affordable to those with incomes at or below
40 percent of median - a monthly rent level of about $600-$800 depending on
size of unit. By contrast there is a surplus of over 100,000 rentals
affordable to those making between 80 and 100 percent of median income - the
type of housing the mayor's tax break plan would subsidize.
The Mayor's tax break giveaway plan should be spiked by our city council
right now so we can get on with the business of addressing our housing
crisis at the root, by adopting laws aimed at limiting conversions and
stopping demolition and the gentrification of our neighborhoods.
Make your voice heard.
City council members are holding a meeting for public input on the
Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 6 p.m. in
the Rainier Community Center, 4600 38th Ave. S. or call your city
councilmembers especially members of the City Council's Housing Committee
(Tom Rasmussen, Sally Clark, Richard McIver)
click here for links to their
numbers and e-mails:
Vol. XXVI: The Transportation Package to No Where: Proposition 1 (Oct.
The Transportation Package to Nowhere by Carolee
Colter and John V. Fox
In recent weeks, we’ve heard that some fellow
progressives may cast their vote, however reluctantly, in favor of
Proposition 1, the transportation package slated for the November ballot.
The measure would raise our city’s sales tax to nearly 10 cents on the
dollar – perhaps the highest rate in the nation - and double car tab fees
to help raise billions for a combination of roads and public transit
We take strong issue with those who say they’re
voting for Prop.1 because “something must be done”. But what really gets
our goat is when we hear somebody say “I’m voting for it because I support
light rail even though I don’t like the roads portion.” On the contrary,
the whole package stinks!
Proposition 1 is the single most wallet-busting,
wasteful, regressive, carbon-emitting, elite-driven, gridlock-ensuring,
misguided funding request ever brought before the voters of this region.
Given the staggering cost of this proposal and the blank check it will
give to regional agencies unaccountable to voters, a ‘yes’ vote virtually
ensures that 50 years from now our children's children will still be
paying for this package.
And because the proposition does not fully fund many
projects – projects that won’t even start let alone be completed for
decades – it does nothing to address our immediate transportation needs.
A blank check
The price tag for Prop 1 totals $18 billion in 2006
dollars. But with interest, debt, and inflation, the cost rises to $38
million in 2027 dollars and $47 billion by 2057 when theoretically the
bonds for these projects will be paid and the projects themselves long
completed. And yet, as critics charge, the real price tag could go even
higher -- much higher. If projects are delayed because full funding is
not found, or stall after breaking ground, costs will rise. And with
passage of this measure there will be no way for voters to pull the plug,
as we could with the monorail. Worse still, Prop 1 gives regional
transportation agencies the authority to collect as much as $160 billion
from these extra taxes through the year 2057.
Increasing our carbon footprint
The $7 billion roads component of this package is a
blueprint for filling up Seattle and the region with even more pavement
and cars. Ron Sims is right on this one. No one who is concerned about
global warming should support proposals that simply create more freeway
lanes and car carrying capacity. To avoid certain rejection of this part
by Seattle voters, the highway lobby tacked it onto a ballot with light
rail hoping the hype, glitz and glamour of rail would obscure all that
auto noise and air pollution.
Bad choices on SR-520
Over $1 billion is committed to expansion of the 520
bridge but this is only about a quarter of the full cost of the most
expensive option now under consideration - the six-lane alternative.
Proponents of the six-lane version want to add two freeway lanes to the
bridge, create a massive interchange next to Husky Stadium, and run a
high-level bridge over the Montlake slough, arboretum, and Union Bay,
causing irrevocable environmental damage to the last remaining wetlands on
Lake Washington while pouring thousands of additional cars into our city.
Over 30 neighborhood groups strongly oppose six-lane expansion and instead
support a four-lane ‘green’ option. Passage of Prop 1, however, would
likely render the six-lane monster a fait accompli. Even though the
design for the bridge hasn’t yet been finalized, proponents of the
six-lane option would no doubt claim a yes vote as a mandate.
The six-lane 520 plan is being pushed by downtown
interests because it would funnel more cars downtown and fuel still more
runaway office development in Seattle's core. Passage of Prop 1 will put
off the day our regional leaders begin to think seriously about a
poly-centered approach to growth -- relocating some of those downtown
office jobs in existing regional activity centers on the eastside and
closer to where nearly half of the downtown workforce chooses to live.
Sound Transit—paying a lot for very little
The $10.8 billion for Sound Transit funding in this
proposition is also worthy of a No vote. As rail critics have repeatedly
pointed out, pouring the vast majority of our region's transportation
dollars into a fixed rail system when at best such a system is expected to
capture only about 4% of all the region's commuter trips, is absurd in the
extreme. And many of those riders aren’t expected to be new to mass
transit but simply switching from bus to rail.
By contrast, expanding our bus system and moving to
Bus Rapid Transit costs far less in operation and maintenance costs. And
we could get it up and running within two years, not three or four decades
as is the case with rail. Combine that with creation of a series of
smaller mass transit stations in existing activity centers where more of
our regional job base should be located, and then run bus routes to and
from those centers—that’s the only way to buy our way out of the sprawl
which will only be exacerbated if rail gets Prop 1 funding.
Prop 1 is full of goodies for special interests. Two
egregious examples hidden in the package are $90 million to turn the
Mercer corridor into a two-way street and another $90 million for a
streetcar line on Capitol Hill. Neither of these projects serves any
useful transportation purpose. The Mercer plan is designed to enhance the
value of Paul Allen’s properties in South Lake Union. The city’s own
analysts say that plan actually will make congestion in the area worse
than a “do nothing” option. And it only partially funds a grander Mercer
plan ultimately requiring over $300 million in limited tax dollars.
The proposed Capitol Hill streetcar line is nothing
more than tinsel serving abutting property owners while draining away
precious dollars that we desperately need to create truly effective mass
transit alternatives such as cheaper, better, flexible, and more efficient
bus service that operates at 30 percent less cost than streetcars.
Vote NO on this outrageous transportation package or
brace yourself for a lifetime of regressive taxes and endlessly torn up
roadways to make way for Prop 1 projects. Only the highway and rail lobby
Outside City Hall Vol. XXVII: The Seattle City Council's
2008 budget follies overly favor South Lake Union
- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox (Seattle Displacement
(reprinted from 11/26 issue of the Beacon Hill News)
Times are good for the city of Seattle.
“Good for whom?” is the question. This week the
City Council gave approval to a $926 million general fund budget and a
$3.6 billion total budget (when you count City Light, Utilities,
and federal grants). Due to strong revenue
growth from sales and business-and-occupation taxes, the Council got to
work with a surplus of more than $35 million over last year.
Almost one third of the budget will be
poured downtown to provide the infrastructure needed to add the equivalent
of 12 Columbia towers worth of new high-rise office space over the next 15
years. Our Mayor and Council would like us to believe
that all this growth is good for us – that it means an expanded tax base
and more jobs.
But do the benefits outweigh the costs?
The only thorough study addressing this question was done over 20
years ago when the city developed a new downtown zoning code.
That assessment showed the costs of adding infrastructure exceeded
projected tax revenues by more than 10 percent.
Bad enough to lose public money on
developers’ private gain. But this year’s budget
showers its largesse on just one company and darn near one man, Vulcan,
Inc.’s Paul Allen. Since 2001 over $100
million in city funds has gone into the redevelopment of South Lake Union
(SLU) but it’s just a fraction of what’s to come.
A search of the new budget and capital
improvement plan found “South Lake Union” mentioned 67 times.
At least 20 major capital projects for SLU are referenced, with
expenditures from 2008 through 2013 in excess of $500 million.
By contrast Beacon Hill, an area five times the size of SLU, is
mentioned 12 times, with expenditures of $10 million for the same
Here are some projects earmarked for city
funding in South Lake Union and what they’re going to cost you:
1. The 2008 budget
apportions over $30 million for Mercer Corridor “improvements.”
Most of that $30 million will come out of last year’s “Bridging the
Gap” levy approved by voters to fund over the next nine years bridge and
street improvements “for our neighborhoods.” Wouldn’t
you know it? The first project to receive these funds
goes to Paul Allen. In fact nearly half this year’s
allocation of levy funds will go for Mercer. The full
cost of the project exceeds $300 million. With the
defeat of Proposition One, $100 million earmarked for Mercer was lost.
Even though the rest of the funding hasn’t yet been identified, the
city will break ground on this project. Once underway,
of course our leaders will tell us we’ve got to finish it and that likely
will mean still more transportation dollars destined for our neighborhoods
will be diverted to SLU.
Remember that according to the City’s own
analysis, the plan to rework Mercer will not reduce congestion and may
actually be worse than a “do nothing” alternative.
It’s designed to simply move traffic away from Paul Allen’s properties
that directly abut South Lake Union on Valley Street.
That street would be narrowed and all that traffic redirected to Mercer.
2. Lake Union Armory
needs a new roof – $1.9 million.
3. The SLU streetcar needs another
$150,000. Small potatoes when you consider the city
just dipped into our pockets to pay for cost overruns of $3-4 million for
construction of that $50 million project.
4. Center City Access Station – $900,000.
It’s really more money for the streetcar but they’re
calling it “improvements” to help streetcar riders access other transit
5. Automated Meter Reading – $1.3 million
this year and $8.4 million over five years so City Light staff, with the
click of a mouse, can tally electrical consumption in SLU.
There has been no evaluation of whether the cost of this technology
this outweighs labor savings for the city but it relieves Vulcan of
providing metering in its new buildings.
6. Adding an electrical substation in SLU,
improving the existing substation serving that area, and new electrical
networking to both substations – over $200 million through 2013, with at
least $50 million paid out in 2008. This does not
include over $11 million for removing overhead wiring and undergrounding
much of the area’s electrical systems. All of that cost is covered in City
Light’s 2008 budget.
A year ago we found a City Light memo
indicating the costs of this additional infrastructure would translate
directly into an increase in utility rates of as much as 2 percent.
Despite a longstanding city policy that those abutting
owners/developers who directly benefit from undergrounding should pay for
all costs, Vulcan will cover only $3.4 million of that $11 million.
This too will be passed on to other ratepayers.
8. For a brand new
drainage system for SLU, the budget doles out over $8 million through
2013. This includes a street plan adjoining Allen’s
properties that creates a series of ‘swales’, green planting strips and
other permeable services to reduce runoff from properties in SLU and that
run through the area from Capitol Hill. Oddly, even
before this drainage plan was implemented, Allen’s new developments were
exempted from paying drainage and storm water runoff fees or implementing
runoff mitigation measures.
9. South Lake Union Bike and Pedestrian
Trail--$1 million from the 2008 budget. Ah, just
peanuts. The city last year upped its contribution to
the new park where the trail will run by $2 million.
These are just some of the commitments made
by our Mayor and Council to serve Paul Allen’s plans in SLU.
While you are asked to pay extra in the form of special levies to
help your neighborhood get a streetlight, a stop sign or a lid for your
reservoir, the bulk of city’s increased revenues are pouring into South
Lake Union and downtown.
Sadly, the recent elections of new
councilmembers don’t give us much hope that things will change. Those who
were elected received the lion’s share of their campaign contributions
from the corporate and SLU/Vulcan crowd. It’s business
as usual at City Hall.
John Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 206-632-0668 for more
information on the Coalition's efforts. Copies of this bulletin and all
our previous Outside City Hall Columns may be viewed on our website
Outside City Hall Vol. XXIX: reprinted from Beacon Hill News
Zoned out: Paying attention to where the real power to
change things sits in Seattle
Seattle may not be all that different from other North American cities.
We're all faced with a lack of affordable housing, predatory lending
practices, and growing homelessness. Then there is increasing traffic
congestion, loss of trees and open space, green house gas emissions, and
more air and water pollution. While crime is down generally in Seattle,
recent high profile killings on our streets remind us that it's still a
But there are problems we don't have, at least not in a big way. We
seem to be avoiding the full ugliness of the latest round of
scapegoating of immigrants. We have a socially tolerant culture,
relatively free of hate crimes, that believes in affirmative action. We
don't have widespread Chicago-style public corruption with
under-the-table payoffs - not withstanding a recent investigation of
possible insider deal-making at the Port.
We're also going "green" and moving toward "zero waste." Our city
council has passed a resolution against the Iraq War.
Maybe it's because of these civic gestures toward these national and
global liberal causes that a lot of people who consider themselves
liberals, or even progressives, seem to give the city of Seattle a pass
when it comes to confronting the more intractable problems of poverty,
social inequality and corporate control of government.
It's a form of laziness, perhaps, an unwillingness to look behind the
façade of mayoral press releases and city council resolutions to see how
far they diverge from what's actually happening on the ground. After
all, it's comforting to take on faith the notion that we're boldly
confronting global warming, saving the urban forest, and reducing
This faith allows most of us to go about our private lives without
having to concern ourselves too much about what the city is doing in our
name (unless of course we're the unlucky ones getting kicked out of our
homes due to condo conversion, demolition, and gentrification).
This intellectual laziness causes people to accept, without
questioning, certain pieces of conventional wisdom such as:
* What's good for downtown and Paul Allen is good for the rest of us.
* If we just add density - more condos - housing will "trickle down"
to the poor.
* If we just spend more tax dollars to build more low-cost subsidized
housing, that too will help us solve our housing shortage.
* We can prevent sprawl and preserve rural open space simply by
maxing out density in Seattle - sacrificing inner-city open space and
our trees for this larger goal.
* Seattle's downtown should absorb most of the region's office
* Solving homelessness is simply a matter of expanding and providing
the right kind of social services.
We've labored over the years in this column and many other forums to
refute these myths. Carolee has questioned fellow environmental
activists asking them just where all this open space is located that is
getting saved by the densification of Seattle. John has explained over
and over in task forces and hearings that preservation of existing
low-income housing is the starting point for keeping Seattle affordable
and preventing homelessness.
We've brought up the jobs/housing imbalance in downtown Seattle, only
exacerbated by recent upzones to that area. We've critiqued the mayor's
urban forest management plan because the mayor's growth agenda makes the
plan's goals impossible to reach.
There are many people of conscience in Seattle who care deeply about
the deterioration of the natural environment that supports all life on
earth. Bumper stickers are everywhere opposing the Iraq War. As
Seattle's voting records in presidential elections demonstrate,
something over 80 percent of us did not support the current
administration in the "other" Washington.
But what are we doing right here at home?
The mechanism by which city government impacts our quality of life -
decent, affordable housing, air and water quality, open space, tree
canopy, views, the physical and social character of traditional
neighborhoods, traffic and pedestrian safety - that mechanism is zoning.
Zoning controls the height and bulk of buildings, the amount of lot
coverage, the setbacks of buildings from lot lines.
Zoning is complicated. Zoning is boring. But zoning is where the
power lies to preserve vulnerable, low-cost housing from demolition, to
protect Seattle's vanishing tree canopy, and to prevent the sprawl of
low-income workers forced to live outside the city and commute long
distances to their jobs.
The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has proposed a
wholesale revision to the multi-family code, following the zoning
changes already enacted for the downtown core. In typical fashion, DPD
promotes these changes with words like "simplify," "flexibility" and
"affordable," but the outcome will in fact be the opposite of what is
Unless protections are in place for smaller, older buildings with low
rents, or unless there are requirements for one-for-one replacement of
lost units at the original rents, upzoning simply leads to glitzy
high-end development at the expense of truly affordable existing
housing. Unless protections are in place for mature trees on private
property, upzoning undermines attempts to preserve Seattle's urban
It's our own city, county and state governments that make the
decisions that affect the cost of housing, the welfare or destruction of
the environment, the economic and ethnic diversity of our population.
And city government is where we have the most leverage to carry out
Even though we've had a sorry selection of candidates in past
elections, even though most of our council members get elected with the
help of corporations to whom they are far more beholden to than the
citizens who elected them, they are still the channel through which the
will of the people can potentially be carried out.
If we give up on our ability to influence them, we give up on the
vision we like to hold of Seattle as an ethnically diverse, thriving
"green" city, the kind of place a liberal would be proud to call home.
Carolee Colter and John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may
be reached via email@example.com.
Hall Vol. XXX March '08
It's a crime to be poor and homeless in Seattle
In recent months, the police have launched crackdowns on homeless
encampments that have popped up with increasing frequency in our city's
greenbelts. On the west side of Beacon Hill and more notably on Queen Anne
Hill, police, aided by parks department personnel have raided make-shift
little cities, summarily removing residents' belongings with not so much as
a notice or attempt to assist affected individuals.
Housing and homeless
advocates have tracked the cause of these recent crackdowns to the mayor's
office. The assumption prevailing there seems to be that you've got to clean
up these problems as soon as they appear, cite the people involved, arrest
them if necessary, or just order them out of the area.
Around the region, other cities are taking steps to move the homeless
along. Tacoma, Issaquah, and Olympia recently approved "anti-panhandling
laws" which some Seattle officials have hinted they may want to emulate.
This is the "social control" school of public policy used to justify a
host of measures implemented in Seattle over the last 15-20 years. There's
the pedestrian interference law which gives police power to cite people who
are "causing someone to take evasive action," criminalizing the simple act
of sitting on a sidewalk.
And the no-camping law which allows police to fine a homeless person up
to $500 for the act of laying out belongings or rolling up in a sleeping bag
during the day in a public park.
Then there's the parks exclusion law giving parks personnel the power to
ban a homeless person from that park and surrounding parks from seven days
to a year - for example, someone who might be sleeping after park hours.
Increasingly, police make use of "trespass admonishments" whereby the
police are authorized by a property owner to ban someone from a mall,
parking lot, or places like the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square at that
officer's discretion. If that homeless person returns within a set period of
time, he or she is subject to immediate arrest.
The whole point of this carceral net is to give police broad power over
the street and park environment. It is impossible for homeless people not
to, at one point or another, run afoul of one or more of these laws. They
can't pay fines and then over time they have a warrant hanging over their
heads. Voila, the police have total control and can move along the homeless
at will anywhere and any time.
In police parlance, this system is called "community policing" or "order
maintenance." It's a philosophy that pays no heed to anyone's basic civil
rights or the Constitution.
More to the point, by promulgating this philosophy of order-maintenance
and social control, it becomes a convenient way for city officials to
conceal their role in our city's failure to provide adequate funding for
community-based treatment coupled with housing.
Worse, the land use policies and funding choices our leaders have made to
promote redevelopment of our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods have
caused the loss of thousands of units of low-income housing - some 15,000
units since the early '70s in downtown alone.
It's all about typecasting the homeless so it's easier to get rid of them
or move them along. And it could just as easily be about moving along young
people or people of color congregating on a street corner - or any other
population that doesn't fit in, especially if they are not there to
For every new unit of subsidized housing built with our levy and other
dollars, we lose three to four units to demolition, conversion, increased
rents and gentrification. The rise of homelessness in Seattle is a direct
result of this dramatic and accelerating loss of low-income housing. All
other factors are incidental. Today there are over 8,000 homeless in a town
with no more than 3,000-4,000 shelter beds.
Ten years ago, when City Attorney Mark Sidran and a former city
councilmember succeeded in ramming through many of Seattle's current
anti-homeless laws, it was not without an enormous outcry from housing and
homeless advocates and the church community.
There were sit-ins, building occupations, lawsuits, and acrimonious
name-calling from all sides. Public hearings were packed to the gills.
Sidran and other city officials were called fascist or worse. These laws
divided our city into the well-off who wanted the homeless gone and the rest
of us who saw these laws for what they were - a crass social control measure
aimed at sweeping the poor out of sight, out of mind.
With talk among city elites and chamber types of new, more onerous laws
against the poor, and the current attempts by the mayor to "clean up"
encampments, homeless advocates are once again taking up the banner for
tolerance, for more housing, services, and jobs - not abuse or jail for the
Our elected officials boast routinely about how liberal and compassionate
they are. Only a repeal of the "Sidran laws" and a move to more tolerant
approach to encampments will give meaning to these claims. Policies designed
to guarantee better access to affordable housing, jobs or job training,
community-based treatment, and to protect an individual's right to free
association would be seen as compassionate.
Should city officials persist in their efforts to pass even more
draconian measures, we will, without a doubt, see a return to acrimonious
city politics that will polarize our city along class and racial lines
because a disproportionate share of those caught in this carceral net of
anti-homeless laws are people of color.
The well being of our community and ourselves is irrevocably bound up in
the well being of all of us, especially those less fortunate than us.
When poverty and inequality grow, that's when cities fundamentally break
down. It certainly is not our place to tolerate inappropriate or criminal
behavior, but it's immoral to address these problems by passing
unconstitutional laws that essentially criminalize the poor - that cast a
net over all who are homeless in our streets and parks.
Outside City Hall: Volume XXXI
- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox (April-May '08)
reprinted from last weeks Beacon Hill News - this article
also can be accessed at the
Seattle Displacement Coalition's Website along with our past columns
and updates on a host of other critical issues affecting Seattle
A NEW PARKS LEVY?
With this year’s expiration of the voter-approved Pro
Parks Levy of 2000, Seattle faces the question of how to provide for its
parks in the coming years. During its eight-year
lifespan, the $198 million Pro Parks levy funded acquisition of 42 acres
of open space for parks, and 70 park development projects.
With talk of both a $75 million levy to revamp Pike
Place Market and a $6 to 7 billion regional sales tax proposal for Sound
Transit on the ballot this fall, the Mayor has shown almost no interest in
renewing the parks levy. No doubt he fears that with
too many measures on the ballot, overwhelmed taxpayers could shoot them
However, a poll commissioned by Councilmembers Conlin,
Rasmussen and Harrell indicated two-thirds majority approval for a
proposed $175 million levy for “neighborhood parks, green spaces and
trails.” It appears that such support, along with a
healthy push by many parks, open space, and neighborhood activists, has
convinced a majority of councilmembers to go ahead and place some kind of
parks measure on this November’s ballot, despite the Mayor.
We’re not big fans of Sound Transit since, as we have
said before in this column, our limited transit dollars would be better
spent on an expanded regional bus system. We also
cannot help but wonder if we really need a levy at this time for
improvements at the Pike Place Market.
The word is that the City Council might create a levy
with half for parks and half for the Pike Place Market.
Perhaps a more modest amount of funding for the Market can be
incorporated into a new parks levy – something worth examining.
But first, there are some unanswered questions about
what kind of parks levy should go on the ballot or if it should in fact be
postponed until 2009.
The 2000 Pro Parks levy was developed with a high
degree of citizen involvement, and a lot of compromise, to accommodate the
diverse interests of Seattle’s park users.
Nevertheless, some of the results left a lot of folks dissatisfied.
If another list of projects is submitted to the voters this fall,
will there be time to adequately weigh the interests of different
stakeholders? If disputes over where and how the money
gets spent are not resolved, that could be a recipe for bitter-end
opposition to the proposal.
A particularly intense area of controversy is the
conversion of neighborhood parks into lighted sports fields with
artificial turf. There is a constituency of adult and
youth sports teams that compete for scarce space for games.
They may be a minority of park users, but they are well organized
and well-funded, with paid lobbyists to court city officials, and vigorous
e-mail campaigns and vocal participation at hearings.
Will their interests win out over the larger numbers of those who prefer
passive uses of parks such as walking, strolling, picnicking, birdwatching,
or just sitting and watching the world go by?
The recent poll commissioned by Councilmembers
indicated that 52% of those polled preferred to use funds from a new parks
levy for new and improved parks, trails, more green space or habitat
restoration, while only 6% preferred using such funds for sports
facilities and athletic fields. If sports and
playfield advocates nevertheless succeed in weighting a ballot measure in
their direction, the general public might vote down the measure.
The Mayor has made much of his “green” initiatives,
including fighting global warming and restoring the urban forest.
But the expansion of artificial turf sports fields, at the cost of
$1.5 million per field, works directly counter to our city’s carefully
cultivated “green” image.
Artificial turf heats up to 40 degrees or more
above the surrounding air temperature. In a city
being denuded of trees and paved over in concrete, this is a serious
consideration in a warming climate.
Artificial turf is made from ground-up auto tires,
which in direct sunlight release volatile organic compounds that include
eye and skin irritants, lead and a known carcinogen, hexadecane.
There are types of artificial turf that are permeable
to stormwater. But once that rainwater works its way
through the ground-up tires into our storm drains and waterways, it will
carry toxic chemicals with it.
How “green” is the conversion of open space with
wetlands and wildlife habitat at Magnusen Park into artificial playfields?
If you live in Rainier Valley, you are familiar with
the stark glare of Rainier Playfield lighting that pours kilowatts of
wasted energy up into the night sky and into residents’ windows.
If more lighted sports fields mean more of this kind of waste, how
“green” is that?
There are potential solutions to the artificial
playfields controversy. Some neighborhood and open
space activists have suggested conversion of indoor spaces or former
industrial areas for organized sports, or partnering with schools, leaving
natural areas in their more natural state. But if
these solutions are ignored in favor of more artificial fields with
glaring lights, there are parks and open space advocates ready to oppose a
And then there is the recent proposal by the Mayor to
sell off vacant lots owned by the city in a one-time fire sale that would
eliminate forever the potential to save remaining pockets of trees and
green space in our densifying city.
Why should we sell off this land to developers, only
to raise and spend funds from a new parks levy to buy land elsewhere?
The parks department first should inventory these parcels, assess
the health and size of the trees standing on them, and determine whether
any parcels could be developed for neighborhood “pocket parks,” or be left
intact to preserve stands of trees as “carbon sinks.”
These are all difficult issues and if we cannot wade
through them with sufficient public input, a parks levy this fall may
indeed be premature.