Guest column: Susanna Lin writes about the race for city council Seat 9
Ah, it’s election time again. For those of us who care about local politics (and you should too) it’s a buzz of excitement with numerous candidates who have entered the race (and at least one who has left it). Every day, more possible futures unfold with some campaigns gaining steam and others struggling.
The first interesting development in this year’s race to City Hall was an announcement by Councilmember Tim Burgess that he would not be seeking reelection for his at-large position 8 seat. A laundry list of candidates then jumped into the race vying to replace him.
And if you pay even the smallest attention to local politics, you know that next came a decision by Mayor Murray not to seek reelection with charges of alleged child sexual abuse hanging over his head. Even though he stepped down just days before the filing deadline, it opened up the ‘big seat’ at City Hall to a dizzying list of candidates.
But I think another race also deserves our attention, and that is the less covered race to that other at-large City Council seat, position 9. This seat is currently being held by incumbent Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez who is running for reelection and who is not embroiled in a headline-grabbing scandal. Can she quietly walk her way to another term at City Hall? Challenger and neighborhood activist Pat Murakami hopes the answer is no.
Gonzalez has shown a tendency to keep her head down and does not comment frequently on development and the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) upzones. The key element of HALA is across the board upzones (bigger buildings, denser development) and all we get in return is 2-11 percent of the new units required at affordable rents or developers pay a fee to build affordable housing elsewhere. That small affordable housing requirement would likely not even replace all of the naturally occurring affordable housing that would be lost to the bulldozer. Not to mention that other cities with similar programs require developers set aside 10-30 percent of their units as affordable.
Despite Gonzalez being relatively quiet on the issue of upzones and development, if you look at her voting record she has a clear track record of supporting legislation that is favorable to big time developers like Vulcan. Paul Allen, who founded the mega giant development firm Vulcan, even personally donated to Gonzalez’s campaign. That, in my book, speaks volumes. Vulcan has pushed forward the HALA upzones, which conveniently have very low affordable housing requirements from the wealthiest of developers like themselves, but require a larger percentage contribution towards affordable housing from “the little guy” developers, while imposing significant upzones on the neighborhoods.
And time and again, Gonzalez has shown an allegiance with the corporate developers’ favorite Councilmember Rob Johnson. She supported Johnson’s amendment that added additional blocks to the the already massive U District rezone, and following Johnson’s lead was another brick in the stonewall refusing to increase the affordable housing requirements for the wealthiest Downtown / South Lake Union developers. While Gonzales may not be the loudest HALA cheerleader, her voting record and campaign contributors make it clear that wealthy real estate developers are in her corner.
By contrast, Gonzalez’s main challenger, Pat Murakami, is tired of seeing so many city councilmembers in the pockets of the developers and says she wants to restore the voice of the neighborhoods to local government. So who is she?
Pat Murakami lives in the Mount Baker neighborhood and has been fighting for a livable and equitable Seattle for almost two decades. She is current president of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council, was president of the Mount Baker Community Club for five years, was a member of the Federation of Community Councils, former Vice President of the Seattle District Council (you know, the same District Council that Mayor Murray defunded), and former president of the Cleveland High School PTSA. This is a woman who has put in a gazillion volunteer hours working to make this city better for everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.
One of her most notable achievements occurred in 2006. At the time, Mayor Nickels wanted to declare SE Seattle a “Community Renewal Area.” According to a little used state law, doing so would allow city staff to unilaterally declare large chunks of SE Seattle “blighted” and then on that basis make use of eminent domain to force property owners in those areas, many of whom were immigrants, to hand over their property to the the City.
Eminent domain by law (and according to a strict state constitutional standard) can only be invoked for narrowly defined “public uses” like a school or roadway, or park or to reclaim abandoned and grossly neglected housing. In all cases, the property must remain always in public ownership and dedicated only for “public use.” Blight, even if true (and it wasn’t), cannot by itself legally justify use of condemnation. And the owner always gets just compensation according to fair market value. Here, however, the Mayor and staff sought to circumvent these restrictions to secure the land at below market value, and then turn right around and sell these properties at discounted rates to developers intent on profiting by redeveloping areas in SE Seattle especially around light rail stops.
Mayor Nickels called it “community renewal.” Pat Murakami called it deceitful and formed a group called “Many Cultures, One Message” to organize the opposition. After many a spirited meeting to fight this shameless, unwarranted encroachment by the City, they were successful and Nickels abandoned his blighted plan.
This is the type of fight Murakami will take on. She’s not a person who will be swooned by big developer lobbyists or campaign donations from Paul Allen. We all know Seattle is growing. Murakami will fight to keep it livable and will be a voice for those who have been ignored by City Hall. Gonzalez is not all bad. Few of us are, but on the big issues of housing and development, she’s siding with the big dogs and Murakami is siding with the people. Which candidate is the one for you?
Susanna Lin is a neighborhood activist, blogger, volunteer, mom, wife, and physical therapist. All opinions expressed here are her own. Her writing can also be found on Wallyhood, Seattle Fair Growth blogs. In addition to her land use interests, she has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University and practices in Seattle.