THE SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL hasn't exactly had a great record in recent years when it comes to keeping housing affordable in the city. So it's refreshing to open the latest voters' pamphlet and see that the council candidates include affordable housing as a legislative priority. But how is one to decide?
As it is now, the council's approach to keeping housing affordable is a well-oiled machine that's seldom examined for flaws. Hence the city's acquiescence toward the Seattle Housing Authority's decision to raze several public housing projects and replace them with a "mixed-income community." Hence its indifference (with the exception of a couple of members) when developers tear down 75-unit affordable buildings to build something fancy-pants.
Position 7 candidate Charlie Chong wants a simple moratorium on the demolition both of public housing projects and the sleepy old apartment buildings. The Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox says the city has had demolition moratoriums before, lasting as long as 18 months in the case of trailer parks. In order for the moratorium to stand up to legal challenges, the city has to demonstrate an emergency, set a time limit, and produce legislation addressing the emergency by the end of the moratorium. Sounds great, but how likely is it that Charlie can line up five votes?
And Chong is not likely to be dazzlingly proactive about creating new low-income housing. In this regard he contrasts with position 9 candidate Alec Fisken, a preppy-looking baby boomer whose mantra is that the city should put as many units as it can under public or nonprofit control. To this end, he supports making it easier for apartment building owners to sell their buildings to nonprofit housing providers. He also wants to strengthen the bonus program that would let new downtown developments skirt zoning regulations (an idea you have to think over real hard before you fill in the circle by his name at the polls) if they give money to a fund that will reimburse apartment owners for keeping rents low. Fisken also thinks we should reward developers for including affordable units in new buildings. He seems enthusiastic about putting these well-thought-out plans to work. It's disturbing, though, that he's also pumped about SHA's "mixed-income communities." The unproven theory he and lots of neo-liberal suits put forward is that the have-nots are better off when they mingle with the haves. Providing housing is necessary and his zeal for it is impressive. But uprooting low-income adults is way, way risky.
Of course, since Chong and Fisken are in different races, you can vote for both of them and hope they get elected for a nice contrast. Or you can choose a happy medium between the two, like Fisken's position 9 opponent Dawn Mason. She served in the state house and left in 1998 for an unsuccessful state Senate run. She takes credit for securing millions of dollars for Seattle's share of the State Housing Trust Fund. Mason's ideas about increasing the housing stock include donating city land to affordable home builders. But, like Chong, she is adamant that very low income units like those at public housing projects Rainier Vista and Holly Park must not be destroyed. And she says housing for the poorest of the poor must be located carefully, with the idea that keeping these residents close to hospitals or job training or other support services is more important than placing them in middle-class settings (though she supports "mixed-income communities" in theory). Also, her populist rhetoric will harden the enamel on your teeth, and the council suffers for lack of people like her.
Over in position 1, Judy Nicastro's shtick is essentially that landlords need to quit jerking tenants around. She proposes a mobile credit check so that renters don't have to pay $15 or so per application just so the landlord can pocket the money. She also would like to give renters the right to refuse a month-to-month lease in favor of a one-year contract. Last winter she took a grassroots organization to Olympia to demand that Seattle be allowed to have rent control, although she doesn't seem to think we should use the privilege if we get it. Nicastro isn't opposed to boosting housing stocks, but she worries, like Chong, that increasing supply without regulating landlords just means more expensive units for yuppies.
Position 7 candidate Thomas Whittemore is a former Tenants' Union activist who has a top hat full of sound progressive ideas, my favorite being a proposal that we have an inspection program for rental units. Unfortunately we had one several years ago that was shot down by the courts.
All the City Council candidates have at least one good idea about how to make the city more livable for the masses. The battle that looms is making them walk the walk once they get there.