Amid displacement, Mayor Burgess proposes a citywide upzone


Mayor Tim Burgess is getting pushback from community groups about his housing policy.

Community groups express concerns about race, social justice and city hall’s ability to listen

By Cliff Cawthon, Contributing Writer

Last Thursday, Mayor Tim Burgess unveiled a plan to implement Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements on all new multifamily and commercial development in 27 neighborhoods across Seattle. MHA would allow developers to build bigger and taller building in exchange for including affordable housing in their projects or contributing to a low-income housing fund. Under this plan, the mayor hopes that the city will meet its goal of at least 6,000 new rent-restricted homes for low-income people over the next decade.

The plan overall includes building 50,000 homes by 2025, including 20,000 affordable homes (6000 of these would be income restricted). The plan is purportedly aimed at expanding the housing capacity first in the city’s urban villages, in densely packed neighborhoods including Rainier Beach, Othello, and South Park, all places at high risk of displacement. In other words, places where residents are extremely vulnerable to any immediate economic shock.

This, of course, has received pushback from people in the community who are concerned that this approach would exacerbate displacement and not create enough housing to meet demand.

In Mayor Burgess’ speech last Thursday, he stated that this plan may draw criticism but, this is the city taking action on its commitment to affordable housing. “With this plan, we will extend our requirement that new developments contribute to Seattle’s affordable housing supply,” he says. “Now it’s time to bring this requirement to other high-opportunity neighborhoods so that we can hasten our progress in building a more inclusive and equitable city.”

When I asked Mayor Burgess about whether community input and housing demand went into the implementation of this plan, he says, “That’s why we’re moving fast.”

To put the problem of displacement into perspective, despite Seattle as a city diversifying last year, the southern parts of King County and Pierce County are growing at a faster rate than the city itself due to the influx of former Seattleites.

The “high-opportunity” neighborhoods that Mayor Burgess mentioned are mostly concentrated north of Southeast Seattle and the Central District. In the city’s estimation, the “lower-opportunity and high [displacement] risk” neighborhoods are concentrated in the Southeastern part of the city.

“Displacement is happening, ignoring that fact is just a NIMBY bias”

The Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) is one of the groups in SE Seattle that has been pushing a community-based response to displacement through its food innovation district and engaging the city on the MHA. The organization declined an invitation to speak at the Thursday roll out of Mayor Burgess’ plan.

David Sauvion is a community activist with RBAC, who has been involved with engaging with the city about the Rainier Beach MHA. He was cautiously skeptical about the plan. “We just want to call out the facts of the process,” says Sauvion, “Displacement is happening, ignoring that fact is just a NIMBY bias.” RBAC, in a statement sent to the Department of Neighborhood, forwarded to me by Sauvingnon, outlines many key issues that they characterized as causing them to face “hardship” when engaging with the city.

These issues include a very uneasy and cumbersome working relationship with the city. RBAC also stated that the city ignored community input on drawing up these MHA guidelines. In addition, RBAC believes the Department of Neighborhoods staff does not have a relationship with community members that they serve. “Under the circumstances, we’re even surprised that the city could imagine that we would be prepared to celebrate this milestone,” says Sauvion.

Despite RBAC’s concerns, the organization supports the MHA legislation. Sauvion explains, “It’s a step in the right direction, and a minimum effort to increase housing affordability, but RBAC’s relationship with the city has been anything but equitable.”

North of Rainier Beach, another historic neighborhood organization based in the Chinatown International District, InterIm Community Development Association, has expressed critical support for MHA as well, but also calls for equity. Leslie Morishita, InterIm’s Real Estate Development Director, says, “We do hope the city puts its race and social justice initiative into practice and puts a good faith effort into seeking the voices of low-income people of color, immigrants and refugees, and other marginalized communities that are facing disproportionate displacement pressures.” Morishita also says InterIm will continue to advocate for other solutions to displacement proposed by low-income communities. In addition, InterIm hopes that the city will be open to input from community organizations. Morishita, however, expressed skepticism that the city would apply a racial and social equity lens to the MHA or be receptive to ideas from non-profits and community organizations.

The citywide MHA plan will be rolled out over 12-18 months beginning in January of 2018 through to August 2018 with many public events. The city council hopes to vote on the plan next summer.

Questions, comments, tips?


 Cliff Cawthon is a freelance contributor to Outside City Hall. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition, nor does he speak for the organization. George Howland Jr, longtime independent Seattle journalist, is his editor at Outside City Hall. Cawthon is a south Seattle-based educator, organizer, politico and writer, originally hailing from Buffalo, NY. He’s currently an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Bellevue College. Cawthon has been working in politics for the last 15 years. For the previous four years in Washington state, he has worked, most notably, as a workers’ rights and housing justice organizer and leader. He’s been involved in major campaigns, such as the Fight for Fifteen in Tacoma and statewide, and the Seattle Progressive Income Tax. In his down time, he’s the Co-Chair of the Tenants Union Board of Directors, a Commissioner on the Seattle’s Renters Commission, a freelance writer and a community radio host on Rainier Ave. Radio He holds an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science


About George Howland Jr

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