Housing, Political Courage, and Thinking Outside the Box

Lipstick on Pig
On Tuesday night’s Housing Forum put on by the Seattle Great City Initiative, a panel consisting of Tony To, Charlie Royer, Maria Barrientos, and Sally Clark participated in an often lively discussion on what Seattle needs to do to meet our housing shortages in a sustainable manner (disclaimer: I’m Vice-Chair of the SGCI Steering Committee).  There was some great perspectives offered, but I wanted to touch on Charlie Royer’s comments towards the end. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It’s not an alternative for people to want or not want more housing. It needs to happen [referring to global warming]. And the City of Seattle needs the political courage to make this happen.” The crowd erupted in applause; Sally Clark kept her head down but nodded attentively. Royer was right on the money. We need more political courage in Seattle. Anyone who recently heard Obama’s speech on race now knows what political courage looks like. You know what else we need? Thinking outside of the box. They go hand in hand. So what would it look like here? Here are a few things a politician could say (in my fantasy world):
  1. Our zoning code won’t get us from here to there (if “there” is a creative, vital, sustainable city). In fact, Euclidean zoning doesn’t work. It’s a limited, anachronistic, “blunt” tool that should have no place in today’s drive towards sustainable urban spaces. It is inherently built to pit developers against the city, neighborhoods against the developer, etc. We’re better than that. Tools such as performance zoning allow cities to develop goals and encourage builders to meet these goals while allowing them more room for creativity to get there. Instead of telling people what the WRONG result is, why don’t we give them the impetus to do the RIGHT thing. We’re not going to switch overnight, but why not develop a second track that gives a “fast tracking” option to developers who think they can deliver better goods than what the current code allows? If it works, we phase over to that system over time.
  2. We have poor design standards. One of the reasons some people have reacted so vehemently to increased density is because of the “scourge” of townhomes. The City of Portland has held design competitions to develop different design schemes that can be downloaded from their website. Again, we know what sucks – let’s show what doesn’t.
  3. We need TIF, and we need a development authority was some, er, cohones. One of the reasons that projects such as this are able to happen is through multiple sources of funding. TIF is such a source, and having a development authority with a series of mandates that reflects the multiple layers of action needed (let’s call it the “Seattle Sustainable Development Commission”) would allow leverage of federal and state funds, city land, and other resources to really be proactive. Tools such as multifamily tax abatements, incentive zoning, etc are useful, but they pale in comparison to a fully funded, quasi-governmental development authority with TIF powers. Until then, we’re just piddling at the corners.
So, yes, we need political courage and thinking outside of the box. We need to be proactive and stop with the lipstick on the pig. But Royer had another good point. Politicians need political support. Who’s going to give it to them?