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City View Newsletter

Volume 1, Issue #14  •  December 15, 2008
Newsletter Archives

I'm nearing the end of my first year on the City Council.  Here's my report on the year's highlights, plus commentary on a couple of current issues.

I hope you find my E-newsletter helpful.  I'd love to hear your suggestions on how we might make it better.  Is it frequent enough?  Do we provide enough detail on city issues?  Are the links and resource information helpful?  Please reply to this E-mail with your comments.  Thank you.

2008 Highlights and Thoughts

It's been a very fast year.  Wow!  Time flies. As I've written before, I thoroughly enjoy my job.  My colleagues are great to work with, we deal with important (and some not so important) issues, and we get around to all corners of our good city and meet people who care deeply about this place.  It's all very rewarding.

Here are a few highlights from my first year -

February:  Co-sponsored legislation to allow Seattle Opera to lease the old Mercer Arena and to restore and redevelop it for administrative offices, storage of sets, set-building shops, and practice and education facilities. It's a public-private partnership that didn't cost the City a penny, yet will restore a building and dead spot along Mercer Street between the Opera House and KCTS-TV studios.  Passed Council 9-0.

March:  Co-sponsored legislation requiring paid lobbyists to register with the City when they lobby City officials, similar to King County and Washington State requirements.  Passed Council 9-0.

April:  Co-sponsored legislation that formed a citizen's committee to assess whether a park levy should be placed before voters in November. The committee finished its work in early summer and recommended that the Council place the Parks and Green Spaces Levy on the ballot.  Passed Council 7-1.

May:  Amended legislation requiring the immediate removal of five automated public toilets that had become magnets for social disorder and crime.  Passed Council 5-0. 

June:  Sponsored legislation to aid police in fighting crime in motels and hotels by beefing up guest registration requirements while defining the circumstances under which police can view registration logs. Passed Council 5-0.

July:  Sponsored legislation to improve civilian oversight of the police and to support public accountability by strengthening the role of the civilian police auditor and expanding the size of the civilian review board. Passed Council 7-0. 

July: Co-sponsored legislation to place the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy on the November election ballot.  Passed Council 7-0.  Voters passed the levy by a margin of 59%.

July:  Co-sponsored legislation to ban the use of Styrofoam food service containers and plastic service ware, an important environmental protection action that takes effect in2009.  Passed Council 7-1.

August:  Introduced a Safer Streets Initiative to address street crime and social disorder, and to provide treatment and prevention programs.  So far, seven of the 12 steps have been funded or adopted. Two measures required the support of suburban cities and the King County Council - funding for a safe house for children involved in prostitution and the pairing of mental health professionals with the police department's Crisis Intervention Team.  The funding for both was endorsed 9-0 by the City Council and approved 9-0 by the King County Council under the leadership of Councilmember Bob Ferguson.

November:  Voted to adopt the City's 2009 budget which included Council funding adds for emergency food supplies, home delivery of food for home-bound individuals, emergency shelter, and restoration of funding for three neighborhood anti-crime programs - GOTS, CURB, and Co-STAR.  The budget maintained funding to hire more police officers, part of the City's five-year plan to boost police staffing.

Read what others are saying about my first year here and here.  

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Exchange of Values: Incentive Zoning for the Common Good

This afternoon, the Council will vote on important legislation related to urban growth, density, and affordable housing.  The Council bill is the result of multiple committee meetings, public hearings, workshops, and dozens of conversations over the past year. 

The legislation we vote on today provides robust incentives to builders in exchange for affordable housing.  The legislation advances sound public policy - clustering of density with diversity of housing.  And, the legislation reflects what our city desires - growth that is limited to select areas, contributes to our diversity, and is socially just. 

I've put more time into this issue than any other.  I've read countless articles, studies, books, and letters.  I've listened to speakers tell me that this legislation is an excellent step and will spur the construction of much needed affordable housing. Others have said that this legislation will stifle development and put up insurmountable barriers to new construction. Still others believe the legislation is a give-away to developers. 

While I've been torn on the best approach to achieve affordable housing, clustered density, and a strong and diverse city, I believe this legislation provides a pathway to achieving those goals.

Here's why: 

Seattle needs more affordable housing.  City studies show a need for an additional 24,000 units of workforce housing.  The legislation will spur development of housing units for those making 80% or less of Area Median Income (AMI), which is about $43,000.  Our schoolteachers,office and retail workers, firefighters and other middle-income workers will benefit from this housing.

Incentive zoning trades benefits for the common good.  Investors gain valuable property, while the City and its residents gain affordable housing. The core idea is this - You own property where land use codes allow you to build a 40-foot high apartment building.  The City "up-zones" your property to 85 feet, which allows you to build a higher structure, greatly increasing your return-on-investment potential.  In exchange for the up-zone,you agree to set-aside 17.5% of the "bonus" area for apartments for those making 80% or less of the current AMI. 

I worked with my colleague, Councilmember Sally Clark, to amend the legislation to require affordable housing in buildings less than 85 feet in height, while allowing developers building over 85 feet the option of including the housing in the structure or making an "in lieu of" payment to build affordable housing elsewhere.  We strongly believe that affordable housing should be integrated with market rate housing. 

In response to some developers and property owners who think current economic conditions are not conducive to new construction, the legislation allows the director of the City's Office of Housing to lower the 17.5% set-aside threshold to 15% under certain circumstances.  The legislation also follows State law in allowing other incentives to be applied with the density-in-exchange-for affordable-housing incentive, such as the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) program.  The AMI will also be based on Seattle, not countywide salaries,   an adjustment that will likely allow slightly higher rental rates to be charged.

The key question in all this is - at what point, and with what incentives, do we tip the balance in motivating private developers to build affordable housing? I believe the legislation nudges us past that tipping point. 

The policy supports density and growth for the common good.  The legislation allows use of this density-in-exchange-for-affordable housing incentive only in select areas of the city - urban centers (like Northgate or South Lake Union), urban villages(like lower Queen Anne), and areas that qualify for the MFTE program.  It will work to cluster density in areas identified as suitable for growth.  The policy does not apply in single-family residential areas of the city. 

This incentive zoning approach is common practice across the country.  The first density-in-exchange-for-affordable housing incentive program was established in the United States in 1972.  Seattle first adopted incentive zoning in 2006 for the downtown core.  Well over 300 jurisdictions - cities, towns, and counties - across the country have some form of incentive zoning, many have practiced it for decades.  Coincidentally, this past Saturday, President-elect Obama named Shaun Donovan as his secretary for Housing and Urban Development.  Today, Donovan holds a similar position with Mayor Bloomberg in New York City where he successfully introduced incentive zoning several years ago.

There are multiple studies on the practicality and effectiveness of incentive zoning.  The opponents often cite these studies to bolster their arguments, but the studies clearly show that incentive zoning works if appropriate incentives are offered.  Perhaps the most thorough and independent study was completed in March by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.  In its conclusion, the Furman study stated, ". . . we found no evidence that IZ [incentive zoning] caused an increase in the price or a decrease in the supply of market-rate housing . . . These results suggest that adverse price and supply effects are not inevitable outcomes of IZ. . . it seems likely that the details of the policies - particularly the inclusion of effective cost offsets—matter considerably." 

The Furman study further states that ". . . adverse impacts on the price and supply of market-rate homes can be mitigated or even avoided entirely by providing benefits to developers that fully compensate them for losses associated with selling or renting IZ units at below-market prices.  The most common compensatory benefits included in the IZ ordinances we studied was an increase in allowable density."

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Lift Your Voice: Protect City Trees

Tonight at 5:30 the Council will hold a public hearing on legislation that will prevent most property owners from cutting down more than three trees over six inches in diameter per year.  There are exceptions for so-called "exceptional" trees, diseased trees, and trees that pose a danger.  Seattle's tree canopy used to be 40% of the city in the 1970s; it's less than 20% today.  Anyone can testify before the Council on this proposal, just show up, sign in, and lift your voice.

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Youth Gangs

The Council recently passed a revised Youth Violence Prevention Initiative that features immediate "stop the violence" measures and longer-term prevention efforts.  The Mayor and Council worked collaboratively to craft an initiative to protect our children, hold accountable those responsible for criminal violence, and give young people hope for better futures. 

The Mayor spoke recently about redirecting young people from "gangs and guns" to "grades and graduation."  Well said, Mr. Mayor.  That's exactly the point. 

I've participated in a couple of recent TV interviews on this topic. You can watch them here and here.

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"Broken Windows" Policing:  It Works!

In considering policing practices to address open-air drug markets, graffiti, and general social disorder, it is occasionally argued that the so-called "broken window" approach doesn't really work to reduce crime. 

In its November 20, 2008 edition, the Economist reported on an interesting study from the Netherlands that tested the "broken window" theory. 

A more detailed summary of the research was published in Science (November 20, 2008). The research reaffirms that paying attention to quality-of-life crime and social disorder does indeed produce positive results for neighborhoods, including reductions in crime, more positive perceptions of community safety, and healthier cities. 

Here's what the researchers in the Netherlands found:  "Our conclusion is that, as a certain norm violating behavior becomes more common it will negatively influence conformity to other norms and rules . . . The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing. There is a clear message for policy makers and police officers:  Early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder.  Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behavior (e.g., litter or stealing), which in turn results in the inhibition of other norms (i.e., a general weakening of the goal to act appropriately)." Join me online!

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