In July, more than 200 people from across the city crowded into Ballard Community Center for a unique evening session of Seattle City Council’s Housing Committee.
Council members got an earful from a parade of residents who called on the council to show some leadership “for a change,” to address the impacts of uncontrolled growth on the affordability and liveability of their communities.
Council members attending included Nick Licata, Mike O’Brien, Tom Rasmussen and committee chair Sally Clark.
Ballard has been hit especially hard with dozens of new projects four, five, six stories or higher slammed up against older, single-family homes, duplexes and affordable low-rise apartments. Like many of Seattle neighborhoods, Ballard already has exceeded its city-assigned 2024 residential growth targets (in this case, by 300 percent), and that’s meant loss of tree canopy, open space and hundreds of affordable apartments.
Speaker after speaker criticized the council for giving developers millions in tax breaks and lucrative upzones and accommodating ongoing runaway growth.
David Bloom, former City Council candidate and fellow Displacement Coalition member, called for requiring developers to pay impact fees to help cover the enormous cost of adding new infrastructure their projects demand. He also called for an immediate hold on further upzones citywide and a moratorium on new development until impact fees are implemented.
Tess Stelzer, who helped form the group Liveable Ballard, got the night’s biggest applause when she asked, “Isn’t it obvious that we cannot simply build our way out of our housing crisis?”
Giving away our neighborhoods to developers does not lead to more affordable housing — just the opposite. Despite all this building, rents went up 8 percent from last year in Ballard. Citywide rent increases were the highest in the nation, according to one recent study.
Lack of representation
Before the hearing, Displacement Coalition members passed out flyers on behalf of the Coalition for an Affordable Liveable Seattle (CalSeattle), a group of 17 neighborhood and housing advocacy organizations calling for growth controls and developer-impact fees.
City Councilmember Sally Clark came over to express concern that we were giving the wrong impression with our flyer and an earlier mailing that publicized the meeting. This was “not a hearing to discuss growth and its impacts on our neighborhoods,” she told me, “but a hearing on housing.”
“It’s impossible to separate the topics,” I replied. “Solutions that will help curb runaway growth are key to solving our housing shortage. And besides, you’re holding this meeting in Ballard, that’s drowning in too much growth. It’s inevitable that folks are gonna want to talk about that, don’t you think?”
Later, I got embroiled in conversation with City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s aide, who was there filling in for her. Even though Sawant is a member of the Housing Committee, she chose instead to attend a monthly meeting of the King County Labor Council.
As tactfully as possible, I told the aide I was worried that Sawant will get so caught up in their party’s politics — building mass movements, speaking at rallies and organizing around a few issues — that she could lose sight of what her job requires. As important as these things are, she and her staff wouldn’t have time to effectively grasp — let alone, take leadership on — a flood of key issues that every week come before the council and that are critical to overcoming poverty, homelessness and inequality right here in Seattle.
We’ve heard, for example, that even among Sawant’s natural supporters — those at the neighborhood level, fighting runaway development — it’s difficult for them to schedule meetings or speak directly with her. These are people who voted for her en masse and who arguably may be most responsible for getting her elected. Some say that to date, she doesn’t seem to be adequately tracking key issues affecting these groups.
I urged the aide to push Sawant to reach out more to neighborhood leaders and local housing advocates and to rely on us to help her move a local agenda that includes growth controls, developer-impact fees, one-for-one housing replacement and other housing preservation measures.
After an amiable discussion, the aide mentioned that Sawant intends to bring up developer-impact fees during the budget process this fall. He said she’ll offer impact fees as a substitute for general fund monies when developers come calling for more of the budget for their pet projects.
Of course, I applauded that and told him I will seek her out to participate in the lunchtime City Hall forum that City Councilmember Rasmussen is planning for September on this topic.
I still hold out optimism Sawant will get more involved in and knowledgeable about the critical issues we care about.
As for the rest of City Council, other than perhaps Rasmussen and Licata, I have my doubts. Real change may have to wait until we elect a new batch of council members in 2015.
JOHN V. FOX is co-coordinator for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes.com.