Jean's View: Everyone's swimming to Seattle

By Jean Godden

Twenty years ago, Newsweek Magazine famously announced: "Everyone's swimming to Seattle." Pictured on the magazine cover was Washington, D.C., pundit Michael Kinsley, face to face with a salmon and wearing a yellow rain slicker.

That cover appeared during one of Seattle's boom years (1996) when hundreds were moving here to work for Microsoft. Kinsley wasn't just another photogenic poster child, he had been hired to cyberedit Microsoft's Slate magazine.

That was several economic cycles ago. Since then, Seattle has experienced boom and bust, bust and boom and now we're in boom times again. The Seattle Times recently reported that Seattle is now the fastest growing big city in the nation. In a single year (2016), Seattle acquired 2,100 new residents, averaging more than 57 newbies per day and bringing the city's population to 704,352.

Given this overheated population growth, it's small wonder that, despite a forest of construction cranes, we have been unable to keep pace with housing demands nor to stem the wave of rising rents.

The city has been laboring to maximize housing supply -- both market-rate and low-income housing -- by encouraging development through increased density. But the task of increasing density throughout the city has been fraught with controversy.

Early in his term, Mayor Ed Murray impaneled a closed-door committee of developers (both for-profit and non-profit providers), as well representatives of labor and business and a few randomly-chosen renters and homeowners. Their assignment: devise a grand plan. What the committee proposed is now being sold to citizens as HALA, Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.

Key to HALA's Grand Plan is a bargain that, in exchange for greater heights, housing developers must build and set-aside a certain percentage of affordable units, either that or make payments for that purpose. Commercial developers also must contribute. The goal of MHA (Mandatory Housing Affordability) is to produce 50,000 total new housing units in the next ten years, with 20,000 of the units available to lower-income households.

Implementation of the grand plan depends on making more land available for multi-family and high-rise housing units. Within its city limits, Seattle doesn't have much vacant buildable land. That means that increased density will require considerable upzoning -- allowing more height and density within the city.

Upzoning within urban villages and centers has received some tacit approval. However, massive changes in zoning and loosening of regulations has encountered pushback. Of particular concern to many residents is the still undecided notion of permitting duplexes and triplexes throughout single family neighborhoods.

To tell people who presently live here that they must make room for newcomers through significant changes in their communities is not without risk. Nor are the harsh words that have been uttered asserting that homeowners -- characterized as NIMBYs (Not in my Backyard) -- are selfish race-focused grouches.

The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development has been holding outreach meetings to explain HALA implementation. Selling of the program sometimes has the unfortunate aura of group-think. Are the meetings meant to be a one-way dialogue? Or are they an opportunity for residents to provide belated input?

Some have been calling for a pause in Seattle's massive rezoning. Of special concern are opposing goals. On one hand, fliers announce that "no zoning changes are proposed in single family areas outside of Urban Villages." On the other hand, the fliers also state that zoning changes will "expand Urban Villages to reflect a 10-minute walk from very good transit service." In other words, single family zones likely will be trimmed, carved up, making the "no change" rule meaningless at best.

Seattle is holding an election for two at-large council members and a mayor this year. There are many questions about the HALA program that should be -- must be -- asked of those who are seeking office. This is an opportunity for voters to assess Seattle's ten-year program, which presently seeks to triple the city's affordable housing production.

One of the largest concerns is maintaining the character of Seattle's unique neighborhoods. To turn every neighborhood into another South Lake Union would defeat the goal of keeping Seattle an attractive place to live for residents and anticipated newcomers alike. To do otherwise would destroy the city's very desirability for those who are swimming to Seattle as well as for those of us presently in the swim.

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