On Tuesday, Seattle City Council candidates squared off in the first forum of the general election season at the First Baptist Church in First Hill. Questions were focused on housing, land use, and the once-a-decade “Major Update” to the Comprehensive Plan is due in 2024, which weighs heavily on those issues.

The forum was hosted by the Complete Communities Coalition (CCC), of which The Urbanist is a member. Other members include Real Change, Habitat for Humanity of Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties, Futurewise, Housing Development Consortium, Tech 4 Housing, Chief Seattle Club, and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. The coalition came together to advocate for a good Comprehensive Plan that promotes pro-housing, pro-affordability policies. Cliff Cawthon from Habitat for Humanity of Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties and Tiffani McCoy from Real Change moderated the forums.

The first forum included candidates from Districts 2, 6, and 7, each of which has an incumbent running for re-election. The incumbents were the leading vote-getters in the August primary, but challengers could make up ground by November. Five of the six candidates in these races participated.

The matchups are listed below with The Urbanist’s primary endorsements indicated in bold and their respective share of the primary vote after their name.

  • D2 – Tammy Morales (incumbent) 52% versus Tanya Woo 43%.
  • D6 – Dan Strauss (incumbent) 52% versus Pete Hanning 29%.
  • D7 – Andrew Lewis (incumbent) 43% versus Bob Kettle 32% (didn’t attend forum).

The remaining candidates in the four other races squared in a forum the following night. The Urbanist will share that video and some takeaways in soon-to-come future post. (We also live tweeted that event.)

Watch the video for the whole story but here are a few takeaways that jumped out.

Bob Kettle (D7) skipped the forum

District 7 candidate Bob Kettle declined the invite from the Complete Communities Coalition to participate in the forum. Kettle is a long-time member of the Queen Anne Community Council, which has been active in blocking land use changes and new housing opportunities, including backyard cottage reform. It could be Kettle didn’t want to answer for that track record or had written off pro-housing advocates and urbanists from his political coalition — Kettle also skipped The Urbanist questionnaire. He was the only candidate in all seven races to decline to attend the forum series.

Everyone in attendance wanted more housing growth

While Kettle’s absence could loom large on consensus, the candidates in attendance mostly agreed about first principles. They all articulated a vision of a Seattle with more housing options and density and argued that the Comp Plan update should further that goal and tackle issues of affordability and displacement. This growing consensus is pretty remarkable considering it used to be common for candidates to run anti-growth, anti-tenant candidates campaigns to advance or get elected. With the issue of housing affordability coming to a head, that kind of position no longer appears viable.

Broadening growth areas to lessen displacement

Most candidates acknowledged that the existing strategy of focusing growth only in urban villages and centers — which are less than a quarter of Seattle’s land area overall — is a recipe for greater disruption and displacement since those neighborhoods tend to see intense growth while other neighborhoods are almost untouched. Confining growth so narrowly also contributed to Seattle not building enough housing over the timespan the urban village growth strategy has been in place and that has worsened housing affordability issues citywide. To see so many candidates sharing this analysis was heartening.

“If your comprehensive plan only really allows development and growth for 25% of the city, which under our previous comprehensive plan, urban village strategy, basically it does, you are going to hyper-charge the competition, the displacement from that select one quarter of the city that is the only place that you can develop,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said. “Part of the plan has to be broadening and expanding the opportunity to increase gentle density to increase density in parts of the city that hitherto have been completely locked out…”

A citywide HB 1110 upzone or exemptions for displacement risk?

This being a land use forum, moderators got even more specific about how candidates would apply the principles they were espousing. With the passage of House Bill 1110 setting up single-family zoning reforms in major cities statewide, Seattle is facing the question of whether to apply that reform truly citywide or use a provision that would allow 25% of single-family zoned areas to be exempt. Most candidates said they’d decline to use that provision, preferring to hew to the idea of a shared commitment to addressing the housing crisis.

“The bottom line is no, I don’t believe that parts of the city should be carved out,” Councilmember Tammy Morales said. “I think every neighborhood needs to help answer the question of how we address the housing crisis in the city including Broadmoor and Laurelhurst and wherever else.”

Councilmember Dan Strauss, however, was less committal, and he left open the possibility of exempting some neighborhoods as an anti-displacement strategy.

“The only place that I would consider using this is as one of the anti-displacement strategies, because we know that throughout our city as we have grown and rezone, one of the reasons that the displacement has occurred in those places is because we rezone very small areas, right, and so the pressure was on that very small area to grow bigger, faster, and displaced the people living there,” Strauss said. “If this can be part of the strategy to prevent displacement, of the historically marginalized or communities that have not been able to build generational wealth, then that’s where it should be utilized.”

Strauss’s opponent Pete Hanning did not equivocate in the same way.

“I’m very for having HB 1110 throughout the entire city,” Hanning said. “And I think that what the state did for us… we owe them a huge thank you because for too long, the city of Seattle has actually been taking too much of the growth pressures in our state around housing. And this actually was a requirement that the rest of the region, especially our neighbors, with our city, cities right around us, that they needed to also participate in building more housing stock. But at the same time when we look at our own city, we all share in this responsibility. And it would be unconscionable for me to think that certain neighborhoods would be able to block off that kind of development. Because really we’re talking about adding really appropriate housing into every neighborhood. So I am very supportive of it.”

Tanya Woo, running in D2, did agree with Strauss, however.

“I support HB 1110. I believe that we need to build more housing in all parts of the state,” Woo said. “But I do want to entertain the question that Councilmember Strauss mentioned regarding places in danger of gentrification and displacement. Puget Sound Sage has released a gentrification map or disaster gentrification map of all the places that are in danger of gentrification displacement and they say that the pandemic was a disaster event. So I think we need to carefully look at the areas that the map outlines, and at South Seattle, and all the places that are in danger of this…”

Tanya Woo said Chinatown-International District has racist zoning

While the need for anti-displacement strategies was acknowledged, just what those are wasn’t as broadly shared. For some, decreasing displacement pressure on low-income communities of color meant ensuring more housing can be built in wealthy neighborhoods where displacement risk is very low.

Tanya Woo also argued the inverse and contended that the Chinatown-International District (CID) has too much zoning capacity, which she saw as crowding out mom and pop shops.

“We have lots of racist zoning happening, especially around our communities of color, especially for the CID. What I’m seeing happening is that when they’ve come and upzoned to 17-stories, and like these little family associations, their building burns, and they have to sell for $8 million to an international developer, instead of being able to rebuild their family building to offer up to mom and pop shops, you know, the international developer buys and wants to build a 17-story Marriott Hotel, and that is something we need to tackle head on, especially looking at zoning. I think we need to bring it back down to the neighborhood level because every single neighborhood is different and the neighborhood plans have not been updated since 2000.”

Of course, issues of displacement are complicated, and denying that family association the ability to sell their property would also be robbing them of a generational wealth building opportunity, which are precisely what some candidates were arguing was necessary to narrow the racial wealth gap and give more people the resources to stay in Seattle and thrive. It will be interesting to see if Woo articulates exactly what policies she’d propose to prevent what she sees as unwanted hotel development and to keep mom and pop shops in place.

Dan Strauss’s love/hate relationship with townhomes

Folks who have listened to Councilmember Dan Strauss on the campaign trail have likely heard him sprinkle in some thoughts about townhome aesthetics. On Tuesday, we learned the townhomes Strauss likes are the ones with reclaimed barnwood on them.

“Now I made a joke earlier about liking the density of townhomes but thinking that they’re ugly, and one of the reasons that they’re oftentimes ugly is because there are not strong design standards. There are townhomes on 60th and 20th that used reclaimed barnwood on the outside, and I will tell you, it is the difference between the one that’s next to him that uses the same mix and match siding that every single one uses. So I want to see the re-legalization of duplexes, triplexes, quads, and small apartments, and I want to have strong design standards so that these buildings feel like the community that we want to live in.”

Not sure how much barnwood is out there in circulation, and whether it fits into every homebuilder’s budget, but we cracked the code to getting the land use chair’s stamp of approval. Architects and homebuilders often gripe that overly prescriptive design standards and codes that get in the way of creative designs. Adding another layer to an already cumbersome and expensive-to-comply-with system of building and permitting requirements may not be the salve he thinks it is. Of course, if Strauss is proposing streamlining codes elsewhere, he may well get traction with his idea to somehow write a design standard for a townhome that everyone thinks is pretty.

Ribbing aside, Strauss did seem to acknowledge that it’s okay to have new housing that he finds ugly.

“…The emotional toll that Pete was alluding to, as well, of watching the neighborhood that I grew up in, be torn down, because I grew up in Ballard and Ballard is not the same neighborhood that it was. And today it is more vibrant. It is more vibrant throughout the community,” Strauss said. “On my parents block when I was growing up, I was mad as heck about the skinny homes going in on the second lots of those homes, I remember being very upset with the people who were building them, and today one of those skinny homes are some of my parents’ best friends on the block, and also if those homes had not be built, what would the cost of housing be today because those homes were built 23 years ago. So the greatest challenge that this will address is ensuring that everyone in this room’s kids can afford to live in a city that will have neighbors that will become our best friends.”

Strauss said the housing type he’d most like to see added in District 6 was starter condominiums.

“Everyone’s heard me gripe about townhomes. Yes. I love the density that they create. Yes, I think they’re ugly. And yes, it’s okay to have both opinions. Just sharing that out there here. But what they don’t have is a flat living space for people to age in place or raise their children. I want to see us have more duplexes and triplexes if you look at 8th Avenue and 3rd Avenue in District 6, they are chock full of duplexes, triplexes, quads, and there are actually fiveplex and small apartment buildings that fit the neighborhood character and are currently illegal to build because they are in neighborhood residential areas that do not allow duplexes, triplexes, and quads, and small apartment buildings. Just look across the street from Ross Park.”

Stay tuned for takeaways from the second forum.

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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.