The good, bad and ugly: a look back at Seattle politics in 2017 and towards an uncertain future for 2018


Put on hold… again. In 2018, don’t expect progress addressing homelessness, not as long as city leaders remain incapable of tracing the problem back to their own policy decisions that promote redevelopment at the expense of our existing low-income housing stock. (Photo by David Bloom)

  • by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, reprinted from our January column appearing monthly in City Living and other Pacific Publishing newspapers 

They were the best of times; they were the worst of times. Okay, looking back over the last year at the actions of locally elected leaders, more often it was the worst of times.

Sure, if you are a developer or a higher-income earner, likely things are just peachy but if you’re low-income, homeless, a person of color, senior citizen, retail or service worker or even an average working class person, likely 2017 was not your year. Nor was it a good year for those who care deeply about preserving the livability and affordability of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Yes, Seattle’s job picture has remained strong, and thanks to a required increase in the minimum wage, workers at the bottom earn more. But real wages continue to lag behind rising prices, especially Seattle’s record rent increases. And if you’re poor, you’re getting hit with much higher taxes and bearing more than your share due to the most regressive state tax structure in the nation.

Our city’s leaders have only accentuated that regressivity by covering the cost of new infrastructure demanded by growth with special property tax levies, increased parking meter rates, car tab hikes, utility rate increases, increased user fees, and tax hits on small businesses.

Yes, Seattle electeds in 2017 adopted an income tax on high-income earners. But everyone knew it was a trial balloon facing enormous legal and state constitutional hurdles.  It looks like grandstanding to us when the same officials sit on legally viable progressive options they could adopt tomorrow, like developer impact fees, the office head tax, and increased utility rates for large users.

And our City Council continues to upzone the hell out of our neighborhoods which only has brought us more gentrification and displacement, not to mention loss of tree canopy and other green space. Yet record levels of new market rate housing haven’t lowered rents one iota.  Over the last six years, they’ve risen by 57 percent.  (A recent news story notes that rents fell over the last three months.  But monthly rents always dip this time of year, and they’re still up 4.5% from a year ago and $500 above six years ago)

To most of our leaders that only means we haven’t upzoned enough or built enough luxury and market rate units.  Under the phony rubric of “HALA” (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda), in 2018 the City plans to pass citywide upzones that would add capacity for another 65,000 to 70,000 units.  (Keep in mind, Seattle is ‘overzoned’ now with capacity for about 220,000 units – three times what we need to meet the city’s regionally assigned 2035 growth target of 70,000 units)

In 2018, also expect more mudslinging from pro-density zealots, calling “racist” or “exclusionary” or “NIMBY” anyone who stands against this give-away-the-farm developer-driven agenda.

Since 2005, over 6000 low income and affordable existing rental units have been removed directly due to demolition to make way for luxury and market rate redevelopment. Thousands more have been lost to speculative buying and selling (and refinancing) of older apartments that push rents on these above affordable levels.  Upzoning also drives up land values and taxes that are passed on to tenants via higher rents.  If the HALA upzones are implemented in 2018, expect more of the same.

We’re spending $100 million over the coming year to add subsidized units, up significantly from the previous years, but for every new subsidized unit we’ll continue to lose 3-4 times that number of existing unsubsidized affordable housing to these redevelopment forces.  Despite the additional funds (including most of the $11 million from the recently announced sale of city land in South Lake Union), no amount of added funding will be enough to aid all those who are and will be displaced as a direct result of city leaders’ pro-growth, pro-development policies. And this is why it’s a certainty we’ll see more homeless on our streets in 2018.

To make matters worse, city leaders cut funding for basic survival services like shelter, transitional housing, and hygiene centers in favor of the 24/7 navigation center and an untested voucher system dubbed “rapid rehousing”. But merely giving someone a voucher to help pay rent for a few months when there are few affordable rentals simply means when their voucher runs out most will wind up back on the streets.  And navigation centers are fine but not at the expense of critical survival services. 

With more homelessness, we’ll also see more reactionary neighbors calling for more police, more sweeps, more get tough measures met by a commensurate push back from homeless advocates.

And expect more hand-wringing over “what went wrong” and more changes in how homeless programs are delivered. But don’t expect another “rearranging of the deck chairs” to work; not as long as city leaders remain incapable of tracing the problem back to their own policy decisions that promote redevelopment at the expense of our existing low-income housing stock.  (Don’t expect this to change under our new Mayor Jenny Durkan or, least of all, from new councilmember Theresa Mosqueda who seems to rival Councilmember Johnson in her virulently anti-neighborhood sentiments.)

There are a few bright spots as we look toward 2018. Councilmembers Herbold, Sawant, and O’Brien have advanced tenants rights with controls on short term rentals, mandatory code inspections and code compliance before rents are raised and stronger protections against discrimination.

We’re also seeing “affordable housing” coalitions forming to demand rent control, and the rise of groups representing communities of color making displacement a priority–such as Black Lives Matter, the People’s Party, and exciting new leaders like Nikkita Oliver and Kirsten Harris-Talley.

And there’s now a valiant effort by over two dozen neighborhood groups across the city to challenge the HALA upzone plan in hopes either of turning it back or adding measures to mitigate its effects on our communities.

These efforts hold promise but ultimately it means identifying, running and electing new councilmembers in two years who put first our neighborhoods and small businesses, tenants, working people, seniors, and communities of color. Until then, expect things to get worse before they get better.

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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