Why is Rob Johnson spinning the facts so hard?

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Rob Johnson refuses to answer questions about overselling a key housing policy (Wikipedia)

When it comes to HALA’s “Grand Bargain,” Councilmember Johnson has had major legislative success, but he has misled the press and the public about the extent of the program’s early results on-the-ground.

By George Howland Jr

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson is spinning out of control. It appears Johnson misled three reporters about the “Grand Bargain”— the mandatory housing affordability (MHA) program. In addition, in his May 18 press conference and press release, Johnson provided the public with incorrect information about MHA.

In interviews with two reporters, Johnson said that seven projects had opted into MHA. In fact, at the time of the press conference,no projects had opted into MHA. In his press release, Johnson used more nuanced language, saying, seven projects “have begun the process to opt-in to the new Mandatory Housing Affordability program in Downtown and South Lake Union.” No projects had begun any such process.

Over two months later, only three of the projects have opted into MHA, according to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

There may be a misunderstanding or a good explanation for Johnson’s behavior, but since he refuses comment, it’s impossible to know.

MHA is the most ambitious and controversial part of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), a multi-pronged effort to address Seattle’s severe housing crisis. Johnson asserts that MHA will provide 6,300 rent-restricted homes by 2025.

To evaluate the success of MHA between now and 2025, it is vital that the press and the public receive accurate information from Johnson, the city council’s leader on the program.

It is unacceptable, although all too common, for elected officials to mislead the press and the public.

Outside City Hall used the Public Records Act, permit information and private sector interviews to understand how MHA is currently working on the ground. The picture that emerges is different from Johnson’s spin, though it does reveal some real success for the program.

Johnson has political success on MHA

In 2015, Johnson, 39, was elected to his first-term representing District 4, Northeast Seattle, on the city council. Johnson, a dedicated urbanist, was given a dream assignment —the chair of the Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee. When Mayor Ed Murray proposed the most sweeping land-use changes to Seattle’s code since 2006’s incentive zoning, things got even better for Johnson. The proposed legislation landed smack-dab in Johnson’s committee.

MHA is an “inclusionary zoning” program where developers must include between two and eleven percent affordable housing in their projects—depending on the location of the building—or pay into a low-income housing fund. The program has sparked fiery divisions in Seattle politics. MHA has divided the urbanists—although most support it. Homeless and housing advocates have also split on the issue. Neighborhood activists—both progressive and reactionary—have generally opposed it.

Johnson has handled the MHA controversy skillfully. At times, he has used a cudgel— for example, linking single-family zoning to President Donald J. Trump’s wall between Mexico and the U.S. Other times, he has finessed the situation—such as when he voted for some of his council colleagues’ amendments and negotiated on others.

Johnson’s approach has been successful politically. MHA has been unanimously approved by the city council for the University District, downtown, South Lake Union, the Central District and the International District. Next year, MHA will be proposed for the rest of the city.

Johnson “has done a good job,” says Futurewise’s Tim Trohimovich, an MHA supporter. “Through amendments, he’s been able to craft proposals that get unanimous approval” by the city council.

One amendment that Johnson successfully proposed was to allow developments that were permitted before MHA became law to opt into the program. Most new multi-family residential and commercial buildings that receive permits in the future must participate in MHA. Under Johnson’s amendments, already permitted developments that choose to opt in will have to pay a fee or include affordable housing and, in exchange, the projects will be allowed to construct bigger, taller buildings.

Zero projects had opted in

On May 18, Johnson held a press conference and put out a news release titled, “Councilmember Johnson Announces Developers Voluntarily Entering into Mandatory Affordable Housing Program.” In interviews with Seattle Weekly and Publicola, Johnson said seven projects had opted into MHA.

In June, an anonymous source told Outside City Hall that Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) had prepared a spread sheet, titled “opt-in project list,” for Johnson’s press conference that showed no projects had opted into MHA. Outside City Hall obtained the document through a public records request.

On the “opt-in project list,” seven developments are labeled “interested,” which the list defines as [h]“ave heard from applicant or third-hand of potential interest.”

The “opt-in project list” is dated May 15, three days before Johnson’s press conference. The source said the document contained the following instructions: “Do not distribute outside of the department without a public records request.”

Four articles were posted on the Internet about the press conference.

1.       The Urbanist’s Stephen Fesler correctly reported that developers had only “expressed interest in modifying their projects to use the opt-in provision.” The website also posted a memo from Johnson’s office that showed the seven projects’ addresses and indicated that none of them had done anything more than express an interest in opting into MHA. Fesler did not interview Johnson for the post, which may have worked to the reporter’s advantage.

2.       In an interview with Seattle Weekly’s Daniel Person, Johnson said, on May 18, “We are setting the right tone because developers are choosing to opt-in.”

3.       Seattle City Council Insight’s Kevin Schofield attended the press conference and asked Johnson questions. Schofield wrote, S“even projects in the Downtown-South Lake Union area [are] beginning the process to opt in.”

4.       A May 19 article written by Publicola’s Hayat Norimine about the press conference began, “In the past month—since Seattle council members passed mandatory affordable housing legislation downtown and in South Lake Union—developers from seven already-permitted projects have opted into the program.” Norimine interviewed Johnson for the article.

There are two explanations here. Either three reporters made very similar errors or Johnson misled all of them.

Johnson did not contact any of the three reporters to correct the misleading information.

Johnson has a section of his official city council website called “Media Mentions.” He only chose to post Publicola’s article about the press conference, one of the three articles that contained incorrect information. The Urbanist’s article that reported the correct information was nowhere to be found on Johnson’s website.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold was concerned enough about confusion around MHA that she addressed the subject in her June newsletter. N“one of the approximately 7 projects that could opt-in have gotten to the point of actually formalizing their commitment to opt-in by getting an approved MUP or MUP revision that utilize the extra development capacity; and anecdotal stories statements of interest are not guarantees of future action,” Herbold wrote.

The seven projects: one without a permit, another has permit on hold, three have opted in

With the help of land-use experts, developers, permit information and the “opt-in project list,” Outside City Hall learned a lot about the seven projects in question.

Descriptions of the projects were obtained from public permit information that SDCI confirmed. SDCI also provided the information on which developments will participate in MHA. As of July 27, an SCDI spokesperson stated that three of the seven projects have decided to opt in.

The estimates of the buildings’ MHA fees are from the “opt-in project list,” but SDCI would not confirm them. An SDCI spokesperson says, “We can’t estimate…the MHA payment at this time.”

  1. Martin Selig Real Estate has a permit to develop an 11-story addition over the Firestone Building, a 2-story landmark, at 400 WestlakeAve. N. in South Lake Union. The project will opt into MHA and the fees are estimated to be $2.5 million. Selig had no comment.
  2. Clise Properties has a permit to build two 40-story residential towers and a ten-story podium with 638 residential units, 10,509 sq. ft. of retail and 175,116 sq. ft. of office space at 2301 7th in the Denny Triangle. The development will opt into MHA and the fees are estimated to be $3.8 million. Clise declined comment.
  3. 8th & Pine Partners has a permit to construct a 55-story structure with 609 apartments, 206 hotel rooms and ground-level retail at 1618 8th Ave. in downtown. The company has decided to opt into MHA and the fees will be around $5.6 million. 8th & Pine Partners chose not to comment.
  4. Urban Visions has applications that are under review by SDCI. That means the project does not even have a permit yet. The developer has applied to build five office buildings that are nine or ten stories each at 1000 6th S. in SoDo. Urban Visions’ Vice President Broderick Smith says the firm plans to build 1.3 million square feet of office space. He says, “We will likely participate [in MHA]—everyone is learning the process as it’s new.” Smith adds that the MHA fee would be $10.9 million and, in return, the development could grow by 137,500 square feet.
  5. Westbank Corporation, “Canada’s Premier Real Estate Developer,” has a permit to build two 45-story residential towers at 1200 Stewart St. in the Denny Triangle. The development has not yet opted into MHA. If it does opt-in, MHA fees are estimated to be $3.6 million. Westbank had no comment.
  6. Crescent Heights, a national developer, has a permit to develop two-39 story towers with 943 apartments at 1901 Minor in the Denny Triangle. An SDCI spokesperson says the permit has been put on hold pending the results of the developer’s effort to acquire city property. At this time, the development is not participating in MHA. The estimate of its MHA fees is $3.8 million. Crescent Heights did not comment.
  7. Stanford Hotels has a permit to build a 55-story building at 1903 Fifth Ave. near Westlake Park in downtown. The project would include 229 hotel rooms, 272 apartment units and 3,000 sq. ft. of street level retail. The development has not opted into MHA, but if it does the fee estimate is $5.6 million. Stanford Hotels did not return requests for comment.

Johnson put out flawed information that misstated the current MHA opt-in process. It remains quite puzzling why, given his major legislative successes and some strong early on-the-ground results, Johnson felt the need to do so.

In the era of Trump and fake news, Johnson’s spin may seem like a minor kerfuffle. Seattle’s housing crisis is, however, too dire to let politicians get away with playing games. In addition, even if national politics has replaced truthiness with outright lies, Seattle must hold its elected officials to a higher standard.

Questions, tips, comments: georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

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 is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition and no part of his writing serves as a statement of the Coalition’s views. He works under his own editorial direction. The Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.

About George Howland Jr

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