Mayor Paul Schell's effort to trim city ethics regulations continues, but backers of a less constrained city workforce still haven't cited a single case proving the city's exacting standards have caused problems. Take the recent television appearance by Joe McGee, executive director of Local 17, the largest of the city-employee unions. "People are very afraid of the [ethics and elections] commission and its intentions," McGee intoned ominously in last week's interview on city cable Channel 28. "Before we enlarge this bureaucracy, we should figure out what's not working about it." McGee also charged the commission with violating labor law (he didn't cite a specific case), complained about its ability to impose fines on ethically challenged city employees, and grumbled about ethics regulators' independent status within city government. Nice talk, but, seeing as any proposed changes will have to negotiate an increasingly skeptical City Council, the code cutters need to find a problem to go with their proposed solutions—and quick.
Once reviled as a government giveaway to developers, Seattle's proposed tax abatement program for new multifamily projects has undergone a stunning transformation. When the original legislation was drafted by the mayor's office, "it was a [housing] production tool," says City Council member Peter Steinbrueck. "We've turned that into a housing affordability tool."
The program, designed to spur the production of new in-city housing opportunities, will give a 10-year property-tax exemption to new multifamily structures in nine selected Seattle neighborhoods. The abatements will be granted over the next four years, followed by a formal evaluation. Extension beyond that will require council approval.
Although developers pushed for no-strings-attached abatements, Steinbrueck and other council members have added a requirement that one-quarter of the subsidized units be kept affordable to families who make 80 percent of the median income. (This translates into a monthly rental or mortgage payment of $1,114 for a three-person family.) Safeguards have also been added to ensure that property owners don't demolish existing low-income housing to cash in on the abatements.
Another recently added requirement addresses the potential problem of low-income residents purchasing condominium units at the city-mandated price, then turning around and selling the unit for more and pocketing a quick profit. Under the amended legislation, the city would have right of first refusal to purchase back these units and sell them to another low-income family.
Part of the council's reasoning behind the changes was to channel more of the benefits of the program to nonprofit housing developers, whose projects can easily meet the affordability requirements.
A city task force designed to set rules for future public/private partnerships and restore public confidence in such deals got off to an odd start last week. Mayoral aide Thurbon Tukey responded to a Seattle Weekly question about the meeting by saying that it was closed to the public. Curiously enough, this proved not to be the case—and the mayor's office invited three non-Weekly journalists to attend.
The University of Washington's David Hamilton, facilitator of the group, said he was disappointed by the gaffe, but stressed that this and all future meetings of the group are open to the public.
We feel more confident already.
Activists born, not made
A group of fifth-graders at Hawthorne Elementary School got a lesson in activism when they petitioned the Seattle City Council to take action in closing a suspected drug house near school grounds.
Council member Tina Podlodowski visited the school to give the kids the good news: The owner of the rental home intends to sell the property as a site for new housing. The bad news? "Like other constituents, they then handed me a list of three other houses in the neighborhood they'd like to see dealt with as well," Podlodowski reports.
He'll be baaaaack
Hard-working council member Richard McIver, hospitalized after a recent heart attack, seems to be making a rapid recovery. An aide reports that McIver is expected to return to his office duties "much sooner than he ought to."
Under the surface
Supporters of a transit tunnel for Southeast Seattle have clearly made progress—Sound Transit is no longer claiming that a below-ground option is technically impossible; now it says it just doesn't feel like doing it. (Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.)
Tunnel backers, organized as Save Our Valley, have scheduled a community meeting for Saturday, December 12, at 9am at the Rainier Community Center (4600 38th S). Speak now or forever shout over the noise of passing trains.
Just call them the Tacoma Bid Committee, as Seattle's would-be Olympics organizers have lowered their sights in hopes of getting the support of a city council—any city council—for their rapidly fading 2012 Summer Games bid. . . . Peter Steinbrueck, in response to a discussion on how city government would be reconstituted after a major disaster: "What if we're all in the rubble?" . . . The rebuilt section of the Holly Park public housing development has been christened with the spiffy new squished-together corporate-sounding name of NewHolly. It's probably no surprise to learn that KeyBank provided much of the project's financing. . . . The highlight of Tina Podlodowski's recent visit to Pittsburgh: "Everybody could pronounce 'Podlodowski.'" . . . Council president Sue Donaldson on her supporting role as a TV crew followed her daughter, Emily, for a "Day in the Life of a High School Student" special report: "I feel like an escapee from The Truman Show." . . .