Sunday, 8 December, 2019

The Woman Who Spoke in Paragraphs

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“How are you tonight?”

For certain folks, that phrase means, I respect you. I acknowledge you. And that’s fine. It’s great, actually. I’ve written elsewhere on how pleasantries have valuable meanings totally separate from the words used. 

But certain other people know when I ask that I’m actually asking them something. This woman boarding now got me completely. Most of us speak in half-sentences at best; she had words to get off her chest, and they flew out of her with passionate verve. 

She was a thin woman in her forties, tall, blue-eyed and dressed in black, a trim figure in a jacket with tights and boots and hair tied back. She responded to my question about the same as she would, I imagine, to a friend she’d known for years. Here was a person utterly at home in her own skin.

Dream of Regional Homelessness Authority Crashing Into Reality of Tight-Fisted Suburbs

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LIHI tiny house village at 22nd Ave at Lutheran Church of Good Sheppard. (LIHI)

Long-held dreams of setting up a regional authority to coordinate homelessness services in King County officially took a step forward this week as the King County Council approved a proposal technically doing that. In reality, last-minute changes to the plan make it so flawed to likely represent a step back, doing more to undermine the region’s response than propel it. And based on debate so far, the Seattle City Council may not be so keen on passing it.

The problem is still money and using models that actually work. Under the plan, suburban cities would contribute nothing in the way of funding. However, thanks to a voting majority on the governing body, they would have power to control decisions, such as insisting on a high-barrier service model that doesn’t have a good track record exiting people out of homelessness.

Seattle would contribute 57% of the authority’s funding and King County the remaining 43% under the setup that the King County Council unanimously passed Thursday. The new body would not have taxing authority, barring it from requiring money from the suburban cities going forward. Efforts to boost countywide funding haven’t fared well. In 2017, then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Executive Dow Constantine briefly floated a countywide sales tax to raise $68 million annually to fund homelessness–but that was right as Mayor Murray’s career was going up in flames amid multiple sexual abuse allegations.

The jurisdictions in King County are spending about $200 million per year on homelessness services, according to a 2018 McKinsey report, but the consultant put the need at roughly $400 million annually. One Table–the regional taskforce Mayor Jenny Durkan and Executive Dow Constantine initiated and that laid the groundwork for this plan–also identified the funding needs as great.

Seattle is spending more than $100 million in its latest budget and the County also is investing significantly in homelessness service, but most suburban cities have skimpier housing and homelessness budgets. Additionally, housing advocates have suggested greater investment in social housing is needed to stem the flow of people into homelessness due to skyrocketing rents. Seattle is greatly outpacing the suburbs on housing growth. Additionally, Seattle voters passed a $290 million affordable housing levy in 2016, and the City recently passed mandatory inclusionary zoning (dubbed Mandatory Housing Affordability) across the fast-growing parts of the city to add approximately 6,000 more rent-restricted homes over the next decade. None of that is enough, but it’s far more aggressive than what suburbs or counties are doing.

With three Seattle City Councilmembers weeks from retirement, the rush to get the regional homelessness authority approved may also relate to the incoming council being even less inclined to cede control to the suburbs who aren’t contributing funding. Mayor Jenny Durkan stressed the positives in a press release.

“I applaud the members of the Regional Policy Committee for moving the proposal forward,” Mayor Durkan said. “Our crisis doesn’t end at our City borders, and we have seen suburban cities committed to this new regional entity. Their support of this plan reflects our shared principles and sets us down the path of embracing this chance to more effectively address homelessness in the region.”

While suburbs contributing their mental powers–such that they are–is nice, funding remains the elephant in the room. Seattle City Councilmembers brought up this glaring problem as they debated approving the plan, as Erica C. Barnett highlighted in her reporting.

“The city of Seattle has been very generous in subsidizing the needs of non-Seattle residents,” Councilmember M. Lorena González said. “And yet that reciprocity is pretty much nonexistent in terms of how this deal is structured.” 

“I had always had the impression, going all the way back to One Table that we were going to have a conversation about our funding needs,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold added. “I don’t know why we would, in the structure, foreclose our option to do that.”

Even Councilmember Sally Bagshaw–often a strong ally of the Mayor–agreed with González that the regional authority before them wouldn’t be transformational–as it was originally billed.

Mayor Durkan tried to assuage those concerns in her prepared statement.

State Supreme Court Upholds Injunction Blocking I-976

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The nine members of the Washington State Supreme Court. (Washington State)
The nine members of the Washington State Supreme Court. (Washington State)

News broke yesterday that the Washington State Supreme Court had upheld the King County Superior Court’s injunction against Initiative 976 causing transit backers to rejoice. The 6-3 decision agreed with the lower court that the plaintiffs (which include Garfield County, King County, the City of Seattle, and Intercity Transit) had demonstrated an immediate harm from the transit cuts that I-976 set in motion that outweighed the harms to motorists. Moreover, the constitutional case against I-976 is “debatable,” the majority diplomatically grants in its ruling.

This sets the stage for the King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson to see the case though and issue his final ruling–which may be appealed again to the State Supreme Court. While an upheld injunction doesn’t guarantee the case’s ultimate success, it is a promising sign and for both courts.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is representing voters in defending the initiative as is his office’s duty, announced the emergency appeal directly to the State Supreme Court on November 27th. The maneuver intended to overturn the injunction and ensure that I-976 went into effect on December 5th as stipulated in the initiative. Attorney General Ferguson noted he had directed his team to work over the Thanksgiving weekend to get the paperwork ready. They filed that paperwork Monday.

Unconstitutionality is a problem perennial initiative backer Tim Eyman has run into before. It appears Eyman hasn’t boned up on the state constitution in the interim, as I-976 tripped up prohibitions on misleading ballot language and the single-subject rule, which had been a problem for him before, including on previous $30 car tab iterations.

The $10 Million Plan for Adaptive Signals on Denny Way

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Pedestrians attempting to crossing Denny Way while walking on Westlake Avenue’s east side will find they are only allocated around ten seconds of walk time to get across the four lanes of traffic. If they decide that they can’t make it across the street in time, they will wait for 70 more seconds to get to cross. During that time, dozens of pedestrians will often queue on the sidewalk waiting to cross, particularly during rush hour, as Denny Way often turns to stop-and-stop traffic.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is working on upgrading traffic signals on Denny Way between Uptown and I-5 at a cost of approximately $9.8 million, with the goal of moving more vehicles through the corridor outside of peak times. The project will install new curb ramps and tactile strips at pedestrian crossings, but the SDOT’s signal team told The Urbanist “we do not expect pedestrian or vehicle wait times to change during peak times due to this change.” The department will be adding Leading Pedestrian Intervals, which provide an extra few seconds head start to pedestrians before the green light “where feasible.”

The new adaptive signals will allow traffic engineers to alter timing remotely at the push of a button or tuning of an algorithm, as opposed to conventional signals that require sending a technician to the signal box to manually alter the programmed intervals. Although boosters say adaptive signals offer flexibility, their initial focus is moving more cars.

Pedestrians wait to cross Denny Way at Westlake Avenue during a left turn phase. (Photo by the author)

SDOT says that while pedestrians walking east-west along Denny Way will not have to press a “beg button” to get the crossing signal, people trying to cross Denny north-south will after the signal upgrade. Thus, if a cross-street gets the green light, a pedestrian may not get the walk signal at the same time if they have not hit the button.

Pedestrian advocates asked the City to delay implementation of adaptive signals until it addresses the negative impact to people walking, rolling, biking, and in transit. When the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition–of which The Urbanist is a founding member–formed last year, one of its first asks was no new adaptive signals until the technology “can measure and mitigate delays to people walking.” While SDOT has a “pedestrian surge” detection pilot planned, the City is still moving ahead on Denny Way without that technology ready.

Claim a Free Book and Join the Anti-Racism Discussion

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Pick up your copy of an anti-racism book at Elliott Bay Book Company in Capitol Hill. (Credit: Elliott Bay Book Company)
Pick up your copy of an anti-racism book at Elliott Bay Book Company in Capitol Hill. (Credit: Elliott Bay Book Company)

When America elected a White Nationalist three years ago, we ramped up our work to better understand structural racism, Whiteness, and how unjust systems stay stubbornly in place. Do you want to explore why oppressive systems keep getting reproduced generation after generation, despite good intentions? Do you want to strengthen your own skills and courage in the fight for racial and economic justice in our city? Do you want to become a better ally to the racial justice leaders already at work challenging status quo inertia and building a more equitable future?

We can help you on that path. We have anti-racism books to give away. Thanks to Cary Moon and Mark Reddington for the donation and to Elliott Bay Books for making it happen.

These titles are all standouts in guiding our shared quest to become anti-racists. We are giving away 20 copies of each:

  • So You Want to Talk About Race, by Seattle superstar Ijeoma Oluo
  • Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo (another Seattle star)
  • How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

The books are available now, reserved at Elliott Bay Book Company in Capitol Hill (map here). You can go pick up one book of your choosing from the front desk with the code ANTIRACIST SEATTLE. It’s free first come first served, as long as supplies last. These book copies aren’t doing any good unless people are reading them. Be one of those people.

Stay tuned for discussion groups in the new year; it’s better when we do this together, and work through blind spots and insecurities with one another.

Burien Encourages Accessory Dwelling Units in New Reform

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Backyard cottages like this one should be coming to Burien thanks to the City's new reform. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
Backyard cottages like this one should be coming to Burien thanks to the City's new reform. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Monday, the Burien City Council approved a slate of accessory dwelling unit (ADU) reforms. The reforms should make it easier to build ADUs such as backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas and encourage more property owners to invest in them. The city also moved to prohibit the construction of single-family residences in multifamily zones, citing community objectives for greater infill development in those zones.

While Burien is a suburban jurisdiction, it has a growing city center and access to many regional job centers and amenities. Several major bus lines run through the city, including the RapidRide F Line and Routes 120 and 560. The city is also a few miles away from Link light rail and will soon benefit from upgrades of Route 120 to the RapidRide H Line.

In justifying the ADU regulatory reform, a city staff report stated that housing costs were a significant factor. “Housing affordability is one of the greatest challenges facing communities in the Puget Sound region and across the country,” the staff report noted. “Rising demand outpaces the supply of additional housing units, driving prices steeply upward.” According to the report, the city’s planning commission “evaluated policies relating to housing diversity and accessory dwelling units, and incorporated policies that would set the stage for further discussion of middle income housing” during last year’s Comprehensive Plan amendment process.

Yellow areas represent single-family residential zones, brown areas represent multifamily residential zones, and other colors represent mixed-use and non-residential zones. (City of Burien)
Yellow areas represent single-family residential zones, brown areas represent multifamily residential zones, and other colors represent mixed-use and non-residential zones. (City of Burien)

The regulatory reform includes a handful of changes to ADUs:

  • Each lot with a single-family residence will be entitled up to two ADUs. One ADU may be attached or internal to the single-family residence and one ADU may be detached.
  • Owner-occupancy requirements will no longer apply. This functionally will allow a property owner to own a single-family residence and one or two ADUs without having to reside on the property.
  • Parking requirements will be partially curtailed. Existing regulations require one parking space per ADU, but will not be required when a lot is located within a quarter-mile of a transit stop. Much of the city is located within a quarter-mile of transit stops. The exception will operate on a trial basis for three years.
  • Restrictions on the number and location of entryways will not apply, but other development and design standards will still regulate building form and aesthetic considerations.

What does not change is allowed ADU sizes. Generally, attached and internal ADUs are limited to 1,000 square feet while detached ADUs are limited to 800 square feet.

Precinct Results Show Tenant Power, But Single-Family Zones Remain Conservative Bastions

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East Fremont went for Shaun Scott even though lawn signs might have you thinking differently. (Photo by Doug Trumm))
East Fremont went for Shaun Scott even though lawn signs might have you thinking differently. (Photo by author)

King County released final 2019 election results data on Monday and precinct maps show people in multifamily areas and single-family zones have very different politics. Progressive candidates cleaned up in Seattle’s Urban Villages and renter-heavy areas. Conservative votes mostly tracked Lake Washington and Puget Sound, representing million-dollar view homes. Between the camps, visions for the future of Seattle are not the same.

And unfortunately for single-family preservationists, they’re not making more land nor more detached single-family homes, as much as Seattle Times columnist Brier Dudley can pine for them–at least not at the rate we’re adding apartments and condominiums. This presents a problem for the Milquetoast Moderates (or “Pragmatic Progressives” if you prefer) going forward. Apartments keep going up, meaning more voters who generally lean progressive and are not attached to the project of freezing single-family neighborhoods in amber–the pet project of the Seattle Times Editorial Board, which had the exact opposite endorsements for Seattle City Council as we did.

Alex Pedersen is their lone voice on the Seattle City Council. And he won by less than 1,400 votes, with at least that many apartments likely to open in District 4 within a year–take a look around the U District, Roosevelt, or Wallingford if you doubt that. The math isn’t favorable to the moderates and conservatives.

In more ways than one, zoning is destiny. And even though our zoning still reserves the majority of Seattle for single-family homes only, the inclusionary multifamily zoning we do have is enough to tip the scales–even in a off-year election where turnout trails Presidential years and Midterms, especially in apartment-heavy areas. Turnout maps reveal that wealthy single-family areas had the highest turnout. However, given how decisively they went for progressives, tenants still carried the day even with lower turnout. A side by side of a zoning map and win margins show that urban villages and progressive strongholds were one and the same.

Moving City Elections to Even Years to Boost Turnout

And speaking of off-year elections, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-West Seattle) announced legislation to address the problem–likely switching city council races to even years–which he says will be introduced this coming session. The move is intended to encourage high turnout elections. Hopefully, that bill will find support in the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

Book Event, 12/6: Susanna Ryan and Nathan Vass in Conversation

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My primary emotion upon reading Susanna Ryan’s book version of her wildly popular Instagram feedSeattle Walk Report, other than excitement, was of recognition. As in, someone else also gets excited about these sorts of things besides me?

​Check out page 77, where differing tops of fences are appreciated, or page 94, where contrasting construction cones are replicated with just as much loving attention. I really knew I had found a kindred spirit, though, as early as page 19, where she draws a dumpster beneath big block letters reading, “CAPITOL HILL TRASH TIME!” A subtitle states, “Capitol Hill has the best sidewalk trash in Seattle, and no one can tell me otherwise!” The dumpster image (complete with adorable raccoon) details her finds: “On this walk I saw four buttons, a pile of Christmas lights, a hanger, a dinosaur-shaped fruit snack, a broken plate, a coupon for 20% off a noninvasive face-lift, a stamp pad, and a bag of rhinestones.”

How could you not immediately have to buy this book?