Harrell is flanked by his executive team including Deputy Mayors Kendee Yamaguchi and Monisha Harrell and Director of Strategic Initiative Tim Burgess to the right and Policy Director Dan Eder to the left.
Mayor Bruce Harrell gave an inaugural address at a small gather at Seattle City Hall. (Credit: Seattle Channel)

Styling himself a progressive rather than a moderate, Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to enact a bold agenda and pledged to listen and work with self-proclaimed progressives in an inaugural address Tuesday morning.

“In our administration we are not going play small ball,” Harrell said. “This is not the time for small ball. This is the time to be creative and bold.”

In his speech, Harrell sought to back up that claim with initiatives like a health care for all plan to close the gaps in health care insurance coverage among Seattle residents. He also highlighted mentorship program for kids and increased programming at community centers. Branding his vision as “One Seattle,” Harrell said love, kindness, and collaboration would prevail over fear, mean tweets, and division, allowing the city to accomplish big things.

“In One Seattle, we’ll have affordable housing for all,” Harrell said. “We’ll support our seniors and those on fixed income and vulnerable people. That’s why I’ll be issuing an executive order demanding a full review of the approval process, policies, and implementation to expedite construction of affordable housing.”

Some of this work was already taken up and completed this past spring by the Seattle City Council via Councilmember Andrew Lewis’s legislation which streamlined permitting and code requirements for permanent supportive housing. Harrell’s full review could well find ways to expedite affordable housing production further and perhaps cast a wider net and fast track more types of affordable housing, not just the below 50% area median income projects under the purview of the Council’s ordinance.

The zoning question

Harrell briefly broached on the subject of zoning, although, like on the campaign trail, the specific commitment was fuzzy.

“We’ll fill in the gaps where zoning is already available for housing and construction and density,” Harrell said. “And our chief operating officer Marco Lowe, who not only has deep experience in City Hall but also actual experience in the housing industry, we will lead this critical effort. So as we embark on a citywide master plan update, as many of you are aware about, we’ll look at opportunities to address every neighborhood to address the shortage of quality housing at every income level.”

While still in campaign mode, Harrell attacked his opponent Lorena González to phase out single-family zoning across the city, as other cities like Minneapolis, Portland, Sacramento, Olympia, and other have done. Painting her housing plan as extreme, Harrell said he opposed abolishing all single-family zoning. His campaign surrogate Tim Burgess, a former city councilmember and fill-in mayor who is now Harrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives went a rhetoric step further and accused González of promising “to abolish all single-family neighborhoods.”

Whether his inaugural speech represents a pivot on zoning policy is hard to parse. I have a question in to his office for details, but “addressing every neighborhood” could end up meaning a wide range of options, including rather incremental changes at the low-end.

Despite delays from the Durkan administration, the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development did deliver a racial equity analysis of Seattle’s growth strategy to Seattle City Council as requested by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. That analysis found single-family zoning was at odds with racial equity and housing choice and affordability, and Mosqueda has suggested it should guide the City’s approach to the Comprehensive Plan update, which is due in 2024.

Whether his inaugural speech represents a pivot on zoning policy is hard to parse, since “addressing every neighborhood” could end up meaning a wide range of options, including rather incremental changes at the low-end. For now, Harrell’s office declined to reveal any more details about his every neighborhood strategy. “[Harrell] remains committed to ensuring the City is rapidly growing housing supply, thoughtfully increasing density, and identifying and filling the gaps in areas zoned for higher density that are underutilized,” spokesperson Jamie Housen said.

Mayor Harrell mentioned grappling with the legacy of redlining and racial exclusion in his remarks, but it’s not clear if he’ll make the same connections to zoning policy carrying forward the legacy that Mosqueda and González have made, nor to climate action.

Aspiring climate leader

“We will be a national leader in coordinating citywide climate policies towards net zero emissions,” Harrell said in his speech. But with an early focus on electric cars rather than more fundamental changes to streets and land use, the climate math may not add up — at least without bolder initiatives not yet laid out. On the other hand, Harrell did extend an olive branch to progressive advocates, such as those working on issues like climate and housing justice.

“My plea to people who self-proclaim to be the progressives: Give me a chance,” Harrell said. “I’ll work with you.”

Transportation emissions make up nearly two-thirds of Seattle’s climate inventory, so tackling that problem will be paramount to the mayor’s net-zero aspirations. The city’s climate action or lack thereof will go hinge on what happens at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). Mayor Harrell fired SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe, suggesting the department needs a new direction and a vision that “recognizes the role of cars” in addition to “increasing safety and decreasing travel times by bolstering transit, improving sidewalks, [and] protecting bike lanes.”

Harrell still weighing eviction moratorium extension

Harrell made affordable housing, reducing homelessness, and clearing parks of encampments a focal point. But he also declined to promise an extension of the city’s eviction moratorium, which expires on January 15th, despite the cresting omicron wave showing the Covid pandemic is hardly in the rearview mirror. Failing to extend that moratorium could lead to spike in homelessness and exacerbate suffering from the pandemic. To explain his hesitancy for an extension, Harrell expressed worries about vulnerable landlords who might lose their home with rental income and said he’d announce a decision in the next week.

Police Chief Diaz to remain — for now

In a media availability following his speech, Mayor Harrell left open the possibility that Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz could become his pick to lead Seattle Police Department (SDP) long-term. He suggested he’d have the job on a trial basis, but may launch a national search if it doesn’t work out.

During his speech, Harrell stressed gun violence prevention and more resources for SPD while also eliminating racial bias, which has been persistent issue for the department for a long time. Harrell has been highly critical of efforts to defund SPD and made it a major campaign issue.

This week Harrell said he would double down on recruitment and retainment efforts at SPD to increase the ranks. Former Mayor Jenny Durkan set a goal of hiring 125 officers in 2022 and slowing separations to 90 for a net gain of 35 officers, a plan which was funded by Council.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.