About Neighborhood Theory

Bo Zhang and Brian Kalthoff are two Seattle residents in the real estate industry. We began n-theory.com as students at the University of Washington, on our desire to better understand the efforts of thoughtful developers who wish to better serve the neighborhoods they care about. We’re most interested in the corners of the real estate industry that intersect with community development and neighborhood-level social structure. We believe that real estate developers are accountable for the block-by-block demographics that contribute to public life, and that this power can be better utilized in collaboration with the communities that developers serve.

Socially Responsible Development Questionnaire – City Council and Mayoral Candidates Respond

Over the summer, we began working with a small, diverse group of both for-profit and non-profit housing developers and citizens, all with an interest in promoting socially responsible development toward Seattle’s future built form. The Harrell, McGinn, Murray, and Steinbrueck campaigns all responded with detailed responses to our questionnaire.

After the primary election, we submitted the same questions to the candidates for City Council. We are happy to say that we have received responses from all but one campaign. The Conlin, Sawant, Bagshaw, Bellomio, Licata, O’Brien, and Shen campaigns all responded to our questions.

As the responses cannot be succinctly summarized—and with 7 different responses to 5 essay questions—below is not so much a summary as an excerpt from each full response:

Richard Conlin views the most “salient” issue regarding socially responsible development (SRD) to be the work of integrating affordable housing and transportation choices in a way that is accessible to all. His challenger, Kshama Sawant, acknowledges that Seattle has reason to tout its green credentials, but writes that these improvements are often at the expense of already marginalized communities. Sally Bagshaw hopes to advance SRD by requiring affordable units in market rate apartments, while Sam Bellomio advocates strengthening citizen engagement. Mike O’Brien, in his response, highlights his success in securing funds for a cultural center in Little Saigon as part of the Yesler Terrace Re-Development, as a way to prevent displacement and retain the neighborhood character.

Potential negative outcomes of growth, for Albert Shen, include inadequate public transit relative to the city’s growth, in particular to underserved communities—for example, the lack of a Graham Street LINK station. Kshama Sawant sees gentrification as a negative outcome of growth and development, and proposes freezing rents and enacting rent control as remedies. While Richard Conlin, after explaining the nature of Seattle’s boom-bust cycles, asserts that people in Seattle do not fear change, but rather loss. According to Sally Bagshaw, this is caused by rapid growth—and to Nick Licata this rapid growth tends to exacerbate already existing discrepancies in wealth.

Nick Licata asserts that the “Seattle process” can make the city reactive, when it should be responsive—essentially always “one (economic) boom behind.” However, the he goes on to say that as a model of community engagement, Seattle has set an international example. Mike O’Brien sees the “Seattle process” as an opportunity to fully examine a development’s merits, but that the lengthy review can increase costs that ultimately get passed on higher housing costs. Both Albert Shen and Kshama Sawant indicated that the process can cause delays to the supply of affordable housing, and both draw the connection between the delay in affordable housing and an inadequate public transportation system. Kshama Sawant proposes that while the “Seattle process” has somewhat democratized the process, monied influence still holds undue sway. Richard Conlin values the democratic principles behind the process, but sees it fall apart at times when it is an endless loop, and in the worst case the views ultimately taken into account are simply the last ones standing. He laments that the current land use code is often too focused on things we do not want to see happen, rather than promote opportunities for the things we would like to see happen.

In regards to building typologies and parking, Sally Bagshaw recognizes people’s desire to preserve single family neighborhoods, but states that 100,000 new neighbors are expected within city limits within the next 10 years. She has been impressed by some of the density solutions advocated by Seattle-based Sightline Institute’s Founder and Executive Director, Alan Durning, in his book Unlocking Home. These include, for example, easing parking and owner occupancy restrictions for (modest) detached and attached accessory dwelling units. Sam Bellomio states that the future typologies will be decided by the impacted neighborhoods. Nearly all candidates expressed the very critical need for improved public transportation to accompany any new growth in the city or any change to the building typologies as issues of both efficiency, sustainability, and equity.

All the candidates who responded express a desire for a range of affordability across all neighborhoods. Mike O’Brien sees the need for a multi-faceted approach that includes strengthening the incentive program in the SLU rezone to a variety of housing types, including micro-housing. Albert Shen states that his 8 years with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), a non-profit housing provider and community development agency, gives him direct experience in working with the affordable housing community. Kshama Sawant sees raising wages, controlling rents, and taking advantage of currently vacant and underutilized buildings as steps to take before increasing supply. Richard Conlin sees the greatest need for people who earn 30-50% of area median income (AMI), especially as the Federal government reduces its commitment, and sees the Housing Levy as a key tool for this. Nick Licata states that preservation of existing housing is a key to affordability as well, and that the creation of the City’s rental housing inspection program, which he spearheaded, will promote stronger maintenance practices and will help prevent some properties from reaching such a state of disrepair that they are vulnerable to redevelopment.

Peter Steinbrueck, Bruce Harrell, Ed Murray and Mike McGinn Answer Questions About Socially Responsible Development

We have been working with a small, diverse group of developers and citizens, including Maria Barrientos and Liz Dunn, all with an interest in promoting socially responsible development toward Seattle’s future built form. Big thanks to the Harrell, McGinn, Murray, and Steinbrueck campaigns for thorough and thoughtful responses to our questions. Please visit the bolded links for the full text of candidate responses. As the responses cannot be succinctly summarized, below is not so much a summary as an excerpt from each full response:

Steinbrueck raises the proposed Transit Communities amendments to the Seattle Comprehensive Plan among his examples of policy-driven socially responsible development (SRD). Harrell defines SRD to include “safe, living wage jobs” for construction workers; “opportunities for minority- and women-owned business”, and the public comment process of Design Review. McGinn expands his discussion of SRD policy to include a mention of the Affordable Housing Advisory Group, as well as “other ways where the City has leverage”, such as the alley vacation requested by Whole Foods in West Seattle. According to Murray, there are still unmet needs in the goal of “mitigating the effects of past injustices”. For instance, “non-profit and neighborhood advocacy groups in the Central District need dedicated space of their own, and we still lack a GLBT community center.”

Potential negative outcomes of growth, for Harrell, include “concrete box buildings”. He also notes “loss of space, privacy and freedom” as well as “loss of neighborhood character and unique identity”. Steinbrueck cites “center city gentrification ” and “social inequities on the poor” as possible negative outcomes. Murray notes a need for decision-making “guided by collaboration and compromise”, with potential negative outcomes including “chaotic and unregulated boom and bust cycles that have characterized growth patterns in too many other cities”. McGinn notes that Seattle citizens might fear “loss of parking” and “gentrification”, but goes on to list a number of projects designed to counter potential negative outcomes in Capitol Hill, Central District, and Southeast Seattle.

Steinbrueck, McGinn, and Harrell are generally supportive of the “Seattle process”, with Harrell defining it as “an effort to get our future right, and to engage in the diversity of opinion that is reflected throughout this city”. McGinn cites a management example from his first term that sped up the permitting process, as well as the regulatory reform task force, as “good examples of private/public partnership”. Harrell suggests benchmarking approval dates during permitting in order to streamline the process. Murray lists community benefit agreements and streamlined permitting as ways to encourage affordable housing stock. Steinbrueck brings up lengthy zoning variance requests, “fee-driven permitting ”, and Design Review as three areas for improvement in the city’s response to housing demand.

In regards to building typologies and parking, Murray believes that focusing growth on neighborhoods like South Lake Union “that are designed to receive” density will, in turn, “reduce development pressure in other areas of the city”. Steinbrueck states that the city’s parking ratios do not reflect the current reality, and that “parking demand should be monetized and cost-out so that the people who don’t own cars can choose not to pay for parking they may not need or want.” All three candidates anticipate an increase in use of transit and car-sharing services, with both McGinn and Harrell noting the number of regional destinations that can be served by transit or car sharing. In contrast to McGinn, Harrell specifies that, while higher-density developments near transit hubs should be exempt from parking requirements, new single family homes should have at least one parking spot per lot.

All the candidates who responded express a desire for a range of affordability across all neighborhoods. Toward that end, all candidates also support increased housing supply and micro-housing. McGinn additionally believes that “reducing the costs of developing new housing” will help encourage the production of more affordable housing, and cites his South Lake Union rezone proposal as “a good example of how more affordable housing could have been realized but was not”. Murray, on the other hand, is critical of the SLU rezoning process, writing that “none of the approaches put forward by the mayor and the Council come close to meeting the stated goals”. Steinbrueck is encouraged by Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) as a way to reduce household transportation expenses, and wants to see the city “honor and adhere to its comprehensive plan targets.” Steinbrueck notes that “preservation of older multifamily housing supports neighborhood character and affordability,” while Harrell prefers to “incorporate affordable housing in the new developments at minimum on a one to one replacement ratio”. Harrell additionally would like to support more family shelter facilities through the 2016 Seattle Housing Levy renewal.

The remaining candidates (with the exception of Staadecker and McQuaid) initially indicated that they would respond, but recent emails reaching out to them have not been answered.