Outside city hall john fox on government in seattle

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one noticing this, but I could swear the Mayor declares just about everything she does as “the first ever”. A couple of neighborhood advocates astutely pointed out that Mayor Durkan’s newly created middle income advisory group could be dubbed “HALA II” made up of many of the same faces that crafted the now infamous “Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda”. You know, the body Mayor Murray created primarily for the purpose of ramming upzones and increased density into all our neighborhoods.

At least this earlier task force also included a few good ideas to address our city’s low income housing shortage and three or four real citizens (out of its 28 members) were invited to participate.

Durkan’s new “middle income” group, however, lacks even one person (out of its 25 members) without a vested and direct financial interest in promoting runaway density.

And, more to my point, there have been a number of “middle income”, “missing middle” and “affordable housing” efforts over the years – every decade or so they pop up in one form or another. Mayor Nickels made it a priority a little more than a decade ago and we all feared his administration, backed by some city councilmembers, were laying the groundwork to shift the bulk of the city’s housing levy dollars away from serving the very poor to production of middle income Continue reading →

The Mercer “Mega Block”. Advocates are asking the city to ‘gift’ the land to a nonprofit provided that 40% or 500 of 1300 units allowed on site are offered at affordable rates – why not all of it? Definition of “affordable housing” allows public entities to gift or sell their public land to developers in return for units priced above the going rate – over $1800 a month

In 2002, the city sold land along Mercer at bargain basement prices to City Investors, Paul Allen’s development arm. Then in 2007, the City turned right around and re-acquired a large chunk of that same land – portions not redeveloped by Allen – and of course at a much higher price, earning Allen a hefty return in the process. This land and other properties along Mercer (including those acquired from other owners using the threat of eminent domain), would be needed, we were told, to make way for a $250 million reworking of Mercer.

It turns out that much of that land re-acquired from Allen in 2007 was not needed for the Mercer project winding up fallow for over a decade or used as a staging area for construction equipment. Now, the unused portions are going to be resold back to a developer along with a strip of city land from a street vacation. Mayor Durkan is in negotiations with developers and has set a condition that 175, or 13 percent, of the 1300 units that zoning will allow there must be offered at “affordable” rents.

The state legislature last year passed a new law allowing gifting or sale of public land at below-market value to “a public, private, or nongovernmental body” provided the land is used for a “public benefit”, meaning affordable housing. But the language of the finally approved bill allows a developer to offer all the so-called “affordable” units at rents priced all the way up to 80 percent of area median income (AMI).

Last week, Mayor Durkan announced her support of what now is the $286 million dollar downtown streetcar project – $150 million over original estimates and climbing. Despite a backlog of real transit needs, Durkan’s first priority apparently is accommodating real estate and downtown development interests and finding the additional funding to cover the streetcar’s ballooning budget “shortfall”. Cost overruns would be the proper term. (As I write this, what do you bet she’ll propose a raid on the 2015 transportation levy and/or tolling cars on downtown streets to cover this cost?)

So it’s full speed ahead with a streetcar – full speed by the way is about 4-5 miles an hour and a brisk walk can outpace it – all at a cost of $200 million per mile of track. Our regional, local, and neighborhood bus transit service languishes, and our road, bridge, and sidewalk infrastructure continue to deteriorate but Durkan has prioritized extending a streetcar line in downtown. And keep in mind, we’ve just learned that the 2015 voter approved nine-year $930 million transportation levy has promised “more projects than the agency (SDOT) can now deliver” .

As Seattle Times editors were quoted, echoed even more recently by Times columnist Danny Westneat, the streetcar is not a real transportation solution but a developer’s “bauble” used to drive up real estate values along its route. They putt along in traffic with no more than a few riders on a lavishly expensive fixed rail, cost 30-40 percent more than buses to operate, and at a cost to build for the proposed addition of about $200 million per mile of track.

The initial motivation appears to have been aimed at making an “investment” in “workforce housing”; near market and market rate opportunities for their upper-middle income workforce and, from details provided to date, one that likely would yield them a reasonable return in the process. With the exception of $25 million, or 5 percent of the total, $475 million will be in the form of market and near market rate loans. One portion, $225 million would be in the form of below market rate loans for those earning between 60 percent and 120 percent of area median or an annual income of $62,000 to $124,000.

The remaining $250 million would towards a kind of revolving ‘market rate’ loan fund for housing serving those with incomes at or below 60 percent of area median. In practice, without deep public subsidies, these loans likely would assist those earning right up to that 60 percent income threshold, rarely below it. In effect, all this appears to resemble what the banks often do – direct some of their assets into a local portfolio of loans to qualified customers.

U.S Bank Trustees put Halcyon Manufactured Home Community up for sale in North Seattle for $22 million. HALA-MHA upzones “brought this on” says an organizer for park residents Housing advocates and park residents ask supporters to join them this Tuesday in Council Chambers: “Come support Sawant’ s proposed freeze until we find long term measures to save these homes” (sign up to testify begins at 1:30pm)

Thirty years ago, with help from the Seattle Displacement Coalition, residents of the City’s nine remaining manufactured home parks succeeded in getting our City Council to approve a moratorium on redevelopment of those parks. About 650 households – all low income and most elderly called them home. Unfortunately, after two years, the freeze was allowed to expire but without follow-up on the part of the Council. No permanent measures were approved to prevent continued loss of the parks.

Today only about 135 homes remain in two parks, the Bella-B and Halcyon Manufactured Home communities – both near Haller Lake along Aurora in North Seattle. When the longterm owner of Halcyon recently passed away, control of the property moved to a group of trustees dominated by U.S. Bank. They promptly offered its 7.5 acres up for sale for $22 million dollars Given the wave of new development in Seattle and planned upzoning of the site where the park is located, apparently the trustees are optimistic that demand will push the sale price much higher than its current assessed value of $3.5 million.

Residents are asking for time and some financial assistance that might enable them to acquire their own park and convert it into a tenant owned cooperative. They’re nearly all low income retirees whose only asset really is their home which likely will be scrapped because there is nowhere to move them unless the city acts. However, if the City acted quickly, it could make use of eminent domain to acquire the property for the residents (and at a much lower court mediated sale price nearer it’s assessed value). Sawant will ask the City first to use its emergency powers to place a moratorium on redevelopment of the park and she’ll also seek removal of any plan to upzone the site under the HALA-MHA plan.