Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray joined other mayors from across the county in declaring homelessness a national emergency. While the joint effort was explicitly a gambit to bait the federal government into playing a larger role addressing the issue, Murray also promised another $5 million of city funds for shelter and services. It wasn’t just a symbolic gesture, in other words.
Let’s give him credit for that and for his earlier role (played alongside Councilmember Kshama Sawant) in raising Seattle’s minimum wage. It was an enormous step that has helped catalyze a movement for better wages across the country.
But do these actions earn him a place as “One of America’s Most Progressive Mayors,” as national politics magazine Governing suggested last August? The answer is an unequivocal no.
Consider his stance on growth and redevelopment. Seattle’s rapid housing changes have caused the displacement of hundreds — perhaps thousands — from their homes since he took office. He’s offered nothing to mitigate the market forces sweeping across our city. Quite the opposite: he has vigorously pushed for even more runaway development.
Murray’s so called Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) is built on the idea that zoning Seattle for greater density from tip-to-toe — and flooding the city with expensive market rate units — will somehow allow affordable housing to “trickle down” to the poor. Hm, where have we heard that before?
Such supply-side thinking is a delusion. We’re seeing record levels of new residential construction right now, yet vacancy rates are lower than ever. Buildings that offered unsubsidized affordable rents are being demolished en masse, and properties that once offered units at lower rents are being bought and sold by speculators like baseball cards. It’s all added up to the highest rate of rent inflation in the nation.
It’s true that the mayor’s “Grand Bargain” requires developers to set aside some low-income units in their projects, or to alternatively pay a fee into a low-income housing fund, in exchange for the right to build at greater density.
But his requirement is relatively small — both in terms of how much affordable housing it would create and in relation to the millions of dollars developers will reap by taking advantage of upzoned neighborhoods. And the scheme would produce only a tiny fraction of the thousands of existing low-cost housing units we’ll lose to density building.
Essentially, Mayor Murray has embraced the market with a bear hug. Not content to let it run its course, he’s incentivizing it to move with even greater speed and fury. He’s filled his inner circle of advisors almost exclusively with the representatives of downtown corporate and development interests. Eighteen of his 28-member HALA advisory committee had ties to the development business. Only one member could truly be called a neighborhood advocate.
Murray has outright slammed the door on neighborhood groups struggling to cope with runaway growth. He marginalizes them by suggesting they’re exclusionary — or worse, racist — simply because they speak out against his pro-developer HALA agenda.
His latest move — to eliminate the Neighborhood District Council system — demonstrates how far he’ll go to silence opposition to his plans. One neighborhood advocate told us that folks in her community have taken to calling him, “Mayor Putin.”
Although there are 65 housing recommendations in HALA, Murray is aggressively pursuing those elements that directly or indirectly subsidize the development sector —upzones, relief from permitting requirements like parking, and more tax breaks. Housing preservation is only given lip service, and the plan identifies no specific strategies to achieve it. There’s no one-for-one replacement policy to require developers to replace the units they remove. No “no net loss” policy. No developer impact fees.
His plan is all about giving away the farm to developers in the hope that, sometime, somewhere, housing will trickle down to the poor. This is far from a progressive or even liberal ideology — it’s actually rather Reaganesque
Moreover, the mayor has ignored proposals from advocates and people with years of nonprofit development to dedicate a portion of the city’s billion-dollar bonding and debt capacity — $50 million a year for ten years or $100 million for 5 years — to dramatically expand production of subsidized housing for formerly homeless people.
The Community Housing Caucus, of which we were a part, brought other proposals that really could have made a dent in the problem, such as a comprehensive strategy to utilize surplus public land for affordable housing production. But Murray has never responded.
If you think we’ve got a homeless problem now, brace yourself. The HALA upzones effectively target the areas of our city where it just so happens that there are thousands of older affordable apartment rentals and, yes, a lot of rented single family homes that lower income families depend upon, especially families of color. Without any mitigation or preservation plan put in place first, HALA spells massive displacement and unprecedented levels of homelessness.
At best, we’d call our mayor a limousine liberal. He’ll give a little more from the city’s budget for homeless services and shelter; but his pro-growth, supply-side land use and housing policies ultimately benefit the rich.
Mayor Murray may talk a good game and may even genuinely care about moving Seattle towards greater equity and social justice. But his words stand in direct contrast to his deeds, which are driving a deeper wedge between rich and poor and black and white in our city.
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. More information on the coalition can be found at www.zipcon.net. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.