Mayoral Challengers Face Uphill Battle To Satisfy Market Urbanists

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Mayor Mike McGinn cutting the ribbon on the Ballard Neighborhood Greenway as kids on bikes line up to get a first ride. (Credit: Dennis Bratland)
Mayor Mike McGinn cutting the ribbon on the Ballard Neighborhood Greenway. (Credit: Dennis Bratland)

Former Mayor Mike McGinn declared Monday he’s joining the race and seeking a rematch against Mayor Ed Murray, who beat him by 8,500 votes in 2013. It’s not just Murray and McGinn in the race. Lawyer/poet/activist Nikkita Oliver might have something to say about that. Plus, a fourth major candidate declared today: Cary Moon, who is an urban planner that campaigned against the SR-99 car tunnel with Waterfront Seattle.

What do all the major challengers have in common? A chorus of urbanists have branded each of them “NIMBYs,” which is short for Not In My Back Yard activists. It seems a matter of time before Moon gets similar treatment.

Not Using NIMBY In My Backyard

Now in these urbanists’ defense, all of the major candidates–Murray included–have said things that could be construed as anti-growth or “NIMBY.” We try to avoid using the term NIMBY on this website, because the term can be inflammatory and imprecise. The word has grown to encompass such a broad range of ideas. Oppose any particular upzone? NIMBY. Oppose cutting design review? NIMBY. Speak about the benefits of homeownership? NIMBY. Suggest some growth should go to suburbs? NIMBY. Question some aspect of supply side housing economics? NIMBY.

Pushing back against anti-growth ideas can be worthy, but when basically doing anything market urbanists don’t like is “NIMBY” then it’s a blunt term to use. Richard Florida has proposed “New Urban Luddite” as an alternative term to NIMBY, but luddite could seen as equally offensive. Let’s just use anti-growth as appropriate.

Is McGinn Dogwhistling To Anti-Growthers?

The reaction to McGinn and his admittedly cryptic campaign slogan, Keep Seattle, was ‘McGinn is a “moderate” and a “NIMBY” now?’ McGinn swept into office in 2009 viewed as an outsider and riding an urbanist wave. One of his signature issues was opposing the SR-99 car tunnel, and he was seen as a dogged advocate for bicycling and pedestrian issues to the point opponents branded him “Mayor McSchwinn.” This isn’t the type of guy you’d expect to see cavorting with John Fox (noted anti-growth propaganda purveyor with the Seattle Displacement Coalition.)

This tweet announced McGinn’s candidacy.

Moreover, since leaving office, McGinn wrote thoughtfully about who speaks for neighborhoods and suggested traditional neighborhood groups aren’t representing renters and people of color well enough. He also ridiculed Brier Dudley’s “war on cars” screed and defended Seattle as a multimodal city, much like other urbanist bloggers at the time.

So what exactly did McGinn say on Monday that was so upsetting? Well, at his announcement McGinn made a nod to “neighborhood driven planning process” and “inviting everyone in” about growth. Some interpreted this as a dog whistle to anti-growth forces, but inclusive process isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it doesn’t lead to undue delays to much needed housing growth.

Even if McGinn is trying to reach out to the neighborhood groupies, it’s not clear that’s an alliance they’re interested in. For one, McGinn is also talking about reviving the push for townhomes in detached single-family zones–a policy not particularly popular with that crowd (see: HALA single-family backlash). Plus, they haven’t really been a strong McGinn ally in the past.

Perhaps McGinn’s neighborhood olive branch represents an electoral reality–urbanists alone aren’t a large enough constituency to beat an incumbent–rather than a fundamental shift in policy approach.

Enter Cary Moon and Her Housing Vision

Cary Moon

For a first-time candidate, Cary Moon does have a relatively fleshed out housing platform thanks in part to a four-part series she co-wrote with Charles Mudede last year. Like McGinn, she points to more missing middle housing (i.e., triplexes, rowhouses, and small apartments) as an important solution. A less talked-about policy she adds ares taxes on luxury real estate, on capital gains, and on foreign capital. Moon argues this would reduce speculative practices and profiteering. But the rhetoric she used in her co-authored Stranger piece seems likely to rile some market urbanists:

3) Put up immediate defenses against the influx of Wall Street and global capital. The excess capital idling in our global economy operates with the efficiency of heat-seeking missiles when it finds a target, and our hot housing market is just sitting here vulnerable and defenseless. What can our city and county government do right now to deflect their interest and protect our housing stock? How about instituting an owner occupancy requirement? How about requiring all shell companies to fully disclose ownership? How about inventorying all our affordable housing and demanding a one-for one replacement in any proposed redevelopment (something that should have happened with Hope 6, a Federally funded program which demolished big chunks of our public housing stock without replacing a lot of it, and thereby displacing thousands of families, most of whom were black)? How about instituting a policy––and building a civic culture––of selling to human Seattleites who need a place to live as a first priority? …

Policies like one-to-one replacement of affordable housing and restricting global capital seem ripe to be branded as “anti-developer” by market urbanists. Her campaign website has winnowed the above down to “implement targeted taxes or other mechanisms to deter corporate and non-resident real estate speculation to strengthen neighborhoods.” Vancouver has had some success with its foreign buyers tax so it seems worthy of exploring.

Nikkita Oliver’s Anti-Displacement Message

Nikkita Oliver received the brunt of “NIMBY” accusations after she mentioned a “pause” on development during a Shadow Council event and praised a Brier Dudley article opposing upzones. Lost in the uproar is an honest discussion of how to keep Black and Brown people from slowly being erased from Seattle as the Central District gentrifies and Black folks are displaced and pushed ever southward. Are we doing enough to mitigate displacement and address the racial equity gap in the Central District? The answer seems to be no.

The Central District case is unique in that the formerly red-lined neighborhood is now a booming trendy place to live. The area’s former Black majority has shifted with Blacks now making up less than 20% or the population. Moreover, Black cultural amenities and storefronts are getting priced out or replaced, too. Black Dot, a community space focused on Black entrepreneurs, is in the process of being evicted from its tenant space; this morning Seattle police officers threatened Displacement Stops Here members who were standing guard with trespassing to remove them from the building. At stake is the future of a mega-development the MidTown Center’s owners plan to bring to the 23rd and Union site with upwards of 500 apartments, even as their deal with Lennar fell through.

Oliver hosted her campaign kickoff in the Central District and highlighted the displacement happening there; her campaign could make a powerful case we need to do more to prevent it. Broadly speaking, labeling our opponents NIMBYs or luddites doesn’t negate valid criticisms when they articulate them. Listening to gentrification concerns and being more thoughtful about throwing around labels would probably do the urbanist movement some good.

We have a slate of good mayoral candidates. Let’s listen to what they all have to say.

The featured image of Mike McGinn at the Ballard Neighborhood Greenway cutting is by Dennis Bratland.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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rossb

Semantics aside, no one has been very clear about their position. I’m all for subtlety and compromise when it comes to zoning (or any issue), but there is a difference between subtlety and simply being weak. Murray supposedly supports increased density, and yet totally collapsed after HALA. He formed a committee to look at housing affordability and they spent months working out a compromise. But when they presented their work, he killed arguably their most important policy recommendation. This was a total failure on the part of the mayor. If he didn’t like what they recommended — if he felt like it was too “urbanist” (and lacked enough preservation) — then he should have put different people on the board. This was not a case of a mayor bowing to public pressure, but a mayor taking a stand in opposition to the board he appointed! The contrast between HALA and the SR99 project is dramatic. Politicians pushed a new SR 99 tunnel despite the recommendations of a different board, and despite the opposition by a majority of voters in a non-binding referendum. Yet Murray simply reversed course on the key HALA recommendations because a small handful of people didn’t like the idea of someone adding a new basement apartment. Murray has lost all credibility on the housing issue, which is why we need a change.

Unfortunately, none of the other candidates have spelled out exactly what they want. McGinn is basically running on his previous record, which as far as I can remember, did not involve leadership on this issue. To be fair, the local economy wasn’t booming, so the high cost of rent was less of an issue (and you could argue that the urban village concept would result in a slow, easy transition for those neighborhoods to become more urban). I don’t think he has clearly stated a position on the issue (I don’t think he even has a website for the campaign up yet) and he may not. Like the current mayor, he may speak in vague terms and hope his experience is enough for him to win.

Moon has mentioned the need for changing the zoning laws, and providing more in terms of the missing middle, but she is fixated on the idea that greedy international capitalists are driving up the cost of rent in Seattle. There may be a small influence, but it doesn’t explain why small parts of the city are growing rapidly, while other parts aren’t. Zoning rules do. She has mentioned macro economics and the way that global capitalism can wreck havoc on a market, yet she seems to ignore the fact that home owners may be
considered members of an unintentional cartel. If a group of farmers
conspired to limit the amount of wheat that could be produced — only
allowing it in certain areas — then people would be appalled. Yet that
is precisely what exists with the zoning rules. I own a house, but I
can’t sell it to someone who wants to convert it to an apartment, let
alone tear it down and put up a big apartment. As a society we may want
the restrictions — but it should be obvious to anyone who understands macro economics that the SFH cartel has a major influence on housing
availability and housing prices in the region.

Oliver is focused on displacement — a real issue that deserves attention — but is ignoring market forces that lead to same. Yes, it is terrible if you are kicked out of your apartment when they build a new, bigger apartment. But is it any better if you leave because you can’t afford to pay the rent when it doubles? More to the point, why are they building there, and not a few blocks over, where there is an empty lot? Because a few blocks over, it is a SFH zone, and they simply can’t build there. In short, what role does restrictive zoning play in displacement? To be fair, her website does say that she wants to “Pursue viable alternative housing options for working people in the missing middle”. Sounds good to me.

Both Oliver and Moon seem aware of the problem, and have at least acknowledged that we need more “missing middle” housing. This is good, and definitely a step in the right direction. But the lack of specificity and emphasis is what I find troubling. It wouldn’t be that hard for a candidate to say they support the HALA recommendations for SFH areas (that the mayor rejected) or go further (e. g. LR1 in all SFH areas). Doing so would not necessarily be a disaster politically, as all the candidates that ran a preservationist platform lost last time.

rossb

Personally, when discussing these sorts of issues, I prefer the terms “preservationist” and “urbanist”. I think both terms are complimentary. I doubt very much anyone who is opposed to new development would mind the term “preservationist”.

Without a doubt there are folks who are NIMBYs on the issue. They have no problem with development as long as it is somewhere else (not in their back yard). I think that opinion is rare, however. A lot of them simply want to preserve Seattle as it is now (or was). If they can’t preserve the houses themselves, they want to make sure the parking situation or even the types of housing remains the same. There are people who would rather not live next to apartment dwellers.

In a city as liberal as this, I doubt very much that there are a lot of people like that, though. But there are plenty of people who don’t want pretty houses (and their interesting landscaping) replaced with ugly buildings. Their is a wide spread spectrum of views, and many are more than willing to compromise, or have a position between the two extremes. I would consider myself an urbanist, but would rather not go “full Tokyo” and see historic houses or buildings torn down so that six story boxes are built.

In my opinion, the current set of policies are more NIMBY in nature, and fail to both please the urbanists and the preservationists. By creating very small zones (i. e. urban villages) and trying to focus growth there, everyone loses. Costs are very high because there is a very small amount of land that can be developed, and much of it is already relatively dense (two story apartment buildings are being replaced by six story apartment buildings in some areas). Relatively valuable, nice old houses within those zones are replaced, upsetting anyone with any sympathy for preservation (http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2012/10/capitol-hill-house-standing-since-1890-wont-get-landmark-protection/).

Meanwhile development marches on in the SFH areas, just not with increased density. Small houses are torn down and replaced with big ones. Small houses on big lots are replaced with a couple big ones, instead of a small apartment or a half dozen small houses.

I don’t believe that the policies were designed to be NIMBY in nature, but that is the result, given the demand in this city. I don’t think anyone (neither preservationists nor urbanists) is very happy with the current situation, which is why we need a change.

Mike Carr

Oliver is against the exact thing what is happening all over Seattle. What Mayor Murray is trying to expedite, what this blog is trying to promote. Seattle is in a major transition of tearing down existing housing and businesses and creating new buildings for housing and businesses. Typically this creates more units and higher rents with the lower priced leases and rentals disappearing. This displaces businesses and people every time. This happened in Ballard, Downtown, QA, Capitol Hill, all over. Soon to happen in the University District. She doesn’t want this to happen in the Central District? Is she a NIMBY? Does she think all displacement is bad or just in the Central District? Does the Central District need different zoning? Is now the time to decide what is good for Ballard/QA/Downtown/Capitol Hill… is now not good for the Central District? Why? Maybe the Urbanists need to re-think the impacts of building at all costs, we are losing a lot in the process.

catphive

I think Oliver has said the most NIMBY things so far. Moon seems to have the most urbanist positions. Mcginn really hasn’t made his positions clear quite yet.

It’s a little early to tell though. At this point I think they will all be triangulating to find their constituency in a crowded race.

Cary’s interview in the stranger is the most compelling thing I’ve seen so far:
http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/04/19/25084739/cary-moon-is-running-for-mayor-of-seattle-an-interview-with-the-brand-newest-murray-challenger

Donn

Oliver hasn’t made her positions at all clear publicly, either, as far as I know, and Moon is full of vacuous why-can’t-we-all-get-along non-positions, aside from the very well taken point that we need to defend the housing market against non-resident speculation.