Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz gives $450,000 to promote Mayor Ed Murray’s “Grand Bargain”
Billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, his spouse, have given $450,000 to two local groups supporting Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The $8 billion Silicon Valley power couple gave the grants through the Open Philanthropy Project (they call it Open Phil), their charitable foundation.
In October 2015, the Sightline Institute, a local urbanist and environmental think tank, received a two-year, $400,000 grant to continue its work on behalf of HALA. In February 2016, Seattle for Everyone (S4E), a developer-funded coalition that lobbies for HALA, received $50,000 to support its campaign. S4E is already funded by another billionaire, Paul Allen, through Vulcan, his Seattle-based holding company that is one of the city’s biggest developers.
S4E did not respond to requests for comment. The group has refused past interview requests from Outside City Hall and seems determined to hide its activities and funders from the public.
Likewise, Open Phil would not comment for this article.
University District Community Council (UDCC) President Matthew Fox, a veteran of City Hall and neighborhood activism, became aware of Open Phil’s funding of HALA through on-line research. He noted the irony of a group that calls itself “Open Philanthropy” but “won’t talk about what they are funding.”
Sightline Institute, to its credit, answered all Outside City Hall’s questions. Sightline’s Executive Director Alan Durning and its Senior Researcher Dan Bertolet spent over an hour in person going over the details of the $400,000 grant and their support for HALA.
Founded in 1993, Sightline has a staff of 16 and a 2017 annual budget of $1.5 million. Sightline used part of the Open Phil grant to hire Bertolet, a brainiac urban planner, and used the rest of the funds to bolster its staff’s pro-HALA efforts.
Sightline has not been an uncritical supporter of HALA. On Feb. 6, Sightline sent a letter to the city council opposing the details in a key HALA measure: the upzone for the University District. The think tank believes that the fees on new U District development will be too high. Bertolet has written several times about the need to make HALA’s fee requirements for new buildings mathematically correct or risk stunting housing production.
HALA: a wedge or a new political coalition?
One of UDCC’s Fox’s concerns about Open Phil is their philosophy on land use. On Open Phil’s website, the foundation summarizes the problem as, “Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, which drives up prices, especially in a few large high-wage metropolitan areas.” It goes on promote a “possible intervention”: “Shifting decision-making to larger administrative bodies, such as state governments, could reduce the influence of the narrow local interests that most often impose barriers to permitting additional density.”
In Open Phil’s grant to Sightline, the foundation writes the HALA recommendations “are expected to face stiff opposition from some residents and neighborhood groups.”
Fox believes that Open Phil’s larger land-use philosophy is guiding their support for HALA. “It’s a national campaign to undermine local control of land use,” he says. Fox also notes in April 2016 Open Phil provided $37,000 to pay for staff and airfare and hotel rooms for attendees at the first ever national YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) conference.
Sightline’s Durning was not aware of Open Phil’s goal of shifting land-use decisions away from local to state control. “I haven’t studied Open Philanthropy’s stated goals,” he says. He doesn’t see any connection between HALA and shifting land-use authority.
UDCC’s Fox disagrees. “HALA is helping (Open Phil) build this coalition to undermine community control over land-use decisions. HALA is the wedge to move social-justice groups to favor corporate upzones. It’s (Open Phil’s) little blueprint for building this coalition.”
Sightline’s Durning sees the HALA coalition as important and a force for good. Durning was a member of the HALA Task Force, a 28-member group chosen by Murray. The Task Force spent 10 months coming up with the 65 HALA recommendations. Durning says, “A new political coalition emerged in Seattle—developers, trade unions, environmentalists, urbanists, GLBT organizations, social-justice groups. Seattle for Everyone is the political body that grew out of the ten months the HALA task force spent sitting a room together. Most of the participants in the HALA task force ended up in a different place than where we began.” For instance, Durning says Sightline had started the HALA process strongly in favor of deregulating the housing market. By the end, Sightline agreed to support new regulations including the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA).
Tech billionaires and a “city for all”
The MHA would allow developers to build bigger and taller buildings (upzones) in exchange for including housing for working and poor people in their projects or paying into a low-income housing fund. Fox’s University District is the first neighborhood that has an upzone proposal under consideration by the city council. The city council will probably vote on the upzone in the middle of this month.
Fox sees the proposed upzone as way to turn the U District into the next South Lake Union. “I don’t want some tech billionaire from the Bay Area telling me to replace a funky, eclectic, affordable neighborhood with a giant tech canyon,” Fox says. “This is an extremely well-funded, out-of-town corporate initiative.”
Durning asks, “Is the implication that Open Philanthropy’s grant is self-interested?” Durning believes Open Phil has no financial interest at stake. “Open Philanthropy is profoundly moved by the analysis” of Ryan Avent, author of “The Gated City,” and other writers. Avent argues that local land-use constraints—such as strict single-family zoning—do serious economic damage by inhibiting national productivity, Durning explains.
Fox doesn’t accept that Open Phil is financially disinterested. He says, “Facebook is expanding here. He is still a stockholder.” He says, “You can’t say with any certainty that (Moskovitz) isn’t making money off tech growth in Seattle.”
Durning wants to make sure that Sightline is not seen as a proxy for tech billionaires. “Our work is about research and bringing facts to the debate. We certainly do not speak for the wealthiest. Our gravest concerns are about sustainability. (We want) a city for all.”
Fox doesn’t believe that HALA will deliver on its promise of a more economically diverse city. “If you turn a whole neighborhood over to that high-tech stuff, none of the support people are going to be able to live there. HALA isn’t going to change that.” He adds, “HALA has too few (low-income) units at too high an income level. These people are buying a pig in a poke.”
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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.