Is Paul Allen’s Vulcan behind a housing lobby group?

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Paul Allen’s Vulcan refused an interview (Vulcan)

Seattle for Everyone claims to be a “broad coalition,” but a developer advocate calls it a “front group” for the billionaire’s development agenda

Seattle for Everyone (S4E) appears to be just one more progressive group in a city chock full of them. On the S4E website, the organization describes itself as a “broad coalition” that wants to ensure “the benefits of the city’s growth are shared by all current and future residents.”

Yet developer lobbyist Roger Valdez says, S4E is a “front group. Vulcan is really the one behind it.” Vulcan is Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen’s holding company that owns 60 acres of real estate in South Lake Union. Over the last twenty years, Vulcan used over $1 billion of public money to help transform the humble Cascade neighborhood into South Lake Union, headquarters of Amazon. Now, Vulcan has become a city-wide developer. The company is redeveloping Yesler Terrace, Seattle’s oldest public housing project, into a mixed-income neighborhood of homes, offices and retails businesses. Vulcan also just bought Promenade 23, the Central District’s main shopping center.

Ironically, Valdez used to count Vulcan among his clients at Smart Growth Seattle. He says he watched as Vulcan built S4E into a formidable lobbying machine made up of urbanists, labor unions, developers, environmentalists, a social-justice group, an immigrant-rights organization and LGBTQ advocates. “It’s really good PR,” says Valdez.

S4E’s agenda is very clear and straight forward: it is lobbying neighborhoods, businesses, non-profits and the Seattle City Council to support Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA).

The salient feature of HALA is the “Grand Bargain”: developers get to “upzone” with bigger and taller buildings and, in exchange, they are required to include housing for poor and working-class people in their projects (mandatory inclusionary zoning) or pay into a low-income housing fund.

Valdez claims that the “Grand Bargain” is set up to boost the profits of Vulcan and other large downtown developers. It’s “pretty transparent who is going to benefit from mandatory inclusionary zoning,” he says. Meanwhile, Valdez argues his current clients, smaller developers, will be hurt by the new regulations. “We were thrown under the bus,” says Valdez.

Valdez says S4E emerged from another group, the Coalition for Housing Solutions (CHS), made up of business groups, architects, land-use attorneys and developers including Vulcan. Valdez was actually part of CHS and was a signatory on its 2015 letter to Mayor Ed Murray protesting a proposed “linkage fee” on new development in denser parts of the city, including Vulcan’s 60 acres in South Lake Union.

Valdez says Jack McCullough, a “power broker” and one of Seattle’s best developer land-use attorneys, chaired the CHS meetings. Eventually McCullough negotiated the terms of the “Grand Bargain” with members of the mayor’s HALA task force. The stand-alone “linkage fee” proposed in 2015 was killed and the “Grand Bargain” became the new status quo. McCollough told The Seattle Times that it may have marked the high-point of his 30-year career. Clearly his developer clients will benefit from the newly negotiated terms.

At that point, Valdez explains, CHS moved into the background and S4E took center stage. It “morphed into Seattle for Everyone,” says Valdez.

Seattle for Everyone: paying $200 an hour, organizing 25 neighborhood groups and maintaining radio silence

Valdez is an urbanist provocateur who loves to play the bad boy while confronting “NIMBYs” (not in my backyard) and “timid” elected officials. So is he just venting against his former client Vulcan? What evidence exists to support Valdez’s claim?

Naturally the first thing that I did was to call S4E and Vulcan to get their side of the story.

S4E responded with absolute radio silence. I called S4E’s “coalition manager” Kylie Rolf and “field director” Brock Howell. They did not return my calls. I called all twelve members of S4E’s steering committee including representatives of non-profit organizations that are usually starving for publicity, such as Puget Sound SAGE, an urbanist-labor-community alliance, Transportation Choices Coalition, a transit advocacy organization, and Service Employees International Union 775, an activist labor union. These groups regularly seek news coverage by cranking out press releases about their work in the community.

Yet I received no return calls. In my 28-years of reporting on large groups in Seattle, this has never happened before. Often individuals would refuse comment, but not large coalitions. (SAGE, by email, did offer a briefing on another topic.) Even Seattle’s Colacurcio family and their notorious gang of strip-club operators and criminals used to take my calls.

Clearly someone had told everyone to refuse comment.

Finally, Rolf emailed me the following cryptic statement: “Thank you for reaching out to me to talk about HALA and the Seattle for Everyone coalition. Unfortunately, we are not able to participate in an interview at this time, however you can find more information about the coalition and its mission on our website at www.seattleforeveryone.org.”

Since S4E refused any meaningful comment, I turned to researching the public record. Fortunately, I had obtained over 60-pages of relevant information from public-disclosure requests from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s office, the Department of Neighborhoods and the Office of Housing.

S4E’s Kylie Rolf is the Public Affairs Director at Sound View Strategies, a political and public affairs consultancy. She previously worked for U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

She has registered with the city of Seattle as S4E’s lobbyist. In the public filing, she reports receiving an hourly fee of $200. Even if she only works half-time for S4E that amounts to annual billable hours of over $200,000.

The email obtained through public disclosure shows that Rolf is very active on behalf of S4E. She is coordinating with multiple city departments including the Department of Neighborhoods, the Office of Housing and Mayor Ed Murray’s office. She is not only lobbying and organizing in Seattle, but she worked on behalf of HALA’s agenda in the state Legislature.

S4E also employs Brock Howell. On Howell’s Linked-In page, he writes that as of March 2016, he has a “full-time contract as field director for Seattle for Everyone.”

In addition to the main organization, S4E has 25 neighborhood groups that it operates under names like Ballard for Everyone, Columbia City for Everyone and NE Seattle for Everyone.

According to the disclosed email, S4E also conducted its own polling about Mayor Murray’s $290-million low-income housing levy.

Who is paying the bills?

Clearly, there is significant cost to paying these lobbyists, organizing these groups and doing a political poll. Who is paying the considerable bills?

In Rolf’s lobbyist registration, she describes S4E as a “Issue Advocacy Non Profit.” In registering S4E in that fashion, Rolf is able to avoid any release of information about the group, its budget and its sources of funds. Neither the city of Seattle nor the state of Washington requires any significant disclosure requirements about groups like S4E.

Vulcan never returned any phone calls regarding its relationship with S4E. The company did, however, email the following comment: “Vulcan has joined other developers and non-profits in support of ‘Seattle for Everyone’ because we believe Mayor Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program will provide an effective and equitable path to creating thousands of new affordable housing units across the city.”

In August 2015, a Vulcan representative told The Seattle Times that the company no longer supported Valdez’s organization, Smart Growth Seattle, and had “shifted its funding to a new coalition with a ‘broad base of community-stakeholder involvement’.”

City email obtained through public disclosure says that S4E was formed in “late July or beginning of August 2015.”

Finally, Publicola obtained a telling letter from developer lawyer McCullough, who negotiated the “Grand Bargain.” On July 26, 2016, McCullough wrote the Seattle City Council that members of the Coalition for Housing Solutions “have provided financial support measured in six-figures to the Seattle Housing Levy campaign and to the operations of Seattle for Everyone…” All CHS’ members are all businesses and include Vulcan.

At this point, until S4E opens up its books and shows us that some group other than Vulcan is funding the organization, there is no reason to doubt Valdez. As he puts it, “It [is] all being run by Vulcan.”

Questions, tips, comments: 206-877-2952 or georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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