We Asked: Seattle Election Candidates (Except One) Respond to Questions on Three Important Issues

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Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

I recently reached out to eight Seattle candidates to get their views on what I consider three key questions for the November general election. This is Part I, focusing on residential zoning. Part II focused on prosecution of misdemeanors. Part III focused on homelessness and Compassion Seattle.

  1. Zoning: Do you think Seattle should eliminate essentially all residential building restrictions across all neighborhoods, allowing, say, multi-unit apartment buildings to be built on any lot, whether in a residential neighborhood or otherwise?
  2. Misdemeanors/Abolition: Should Seattle essentially end (or at a minimum dramatically reduce) criminal prosecution for misdemeanors, including shoplifting, property destruction, prostitution and misdemeanor assault?
  3. Homelessness: Should the Charter of the City of Seattle be modified to simultaneously (a) require the city to allocate a fixed percentage of its budget and commit to specific, measurable actions that prioritize mental health and substance use disorder treatment support services, combined with (b) housing, and (c) if services and housing options are available, compel the city to remove encampments that pose health and safety risk?

I’ve heard back from seven of eight campaigns; the Lorena González mayoral campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries. We’ll take each of the above topics in three articles, the first of which is below and the others will follow shortly.

By way of explanation: For the 2019 Seattle election cycle, I created and published Alignvote, a voter-candidate matchmaker website. It asked voters a handful of questions, including intensity. Then, it showed a stack-ranked list of how closely your answers matched the candidates’ on-the-record answers, together with some optional elaboration by candidates if they supplied it. Alignvote presented a simple distance-score between you and the candidates, based on similarity of answers and how strongly that issue mattered to you.

Unlike the questions above, Alignvote’s 2019 questions weren’t ones I authored. They merely repeated ones which had already been asked and answered by candidates in forums, questionnaires and more. Alignvote served roughly 20,000 voter-candidate ranking matches in 2019, and gave campaigns further insights into how voters felt about some issues. It was on television and radio. I am still undecided whether it’s returning for 2021.

Question 1: Residential Zoning

Do you think Seattle should eliminate essentially all residential building restrictions across all neighborhoods, allowing, say, multi-unit apartment buildings to be built on any lot, whether in a residential neighborhood or otherwise?

Background: How should Seattle be allowed to grow? Zoning decisions are enormously consequential, because they determine what can be built where. Seattle’s zoning laws are under the purview of the City Council, the city’s lawmaking branch, and any changes are enacted into law by a majority vote and a signature of the mayor. So it matters what City Council and Mayoral candidates say about this issue.

Some 70 percent or more of Seattle’s land is zoned as “single family residential.” This means that multi-story apartment buildings cannot be built upon this land. When you think of neighborhoods like Madrona, Windermere, Laurelhurst, or Mount Baker, you probably don’t think about condominiums or apartment buildings, but changes in legislation could allow them to be built anywhere, on any lot. Remember that in 2019, considerable change was made to Seattle’s residential zoning, which now allows the construction of “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) and “detached accessory dwelling units” (DADU) on all Seattle residential lots.

In cities such as Minneapolis, they’ve decided to do away with all residential zoning. It’s a sleeper issue that very likely will be decided by the next term of leaders. Here in Seattle, some of the ground is already being laid by changes to nomenclature. This year, Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Dan Strauss proposed renaming “single-family residential” zoning to “neighborhood residential,” a step which has long been advocated by urbanist activists.

Advocates for eliminating all single-family zoning argue that as the city grows it desperately needs more housing options, and eliminating the restrictions is key to increasing density and making housing more affordable. They consider single family zoning exclusionary in nature, a structural way that the city reinforces historic class and racial divides, and argue all neighborhoods should have a full range of density supply to allow all possible options. Generally, real estate developers also strongly favor this idea as it opens up an entirely new set of expansion opportunities, and stands to reward them handsomely.

Those opposed to making these zoning changes cite several concerns. First, they see Seattle’s single family neighborhoods as a key foundation of the city’s quality of life, places that build and support families. Many also worry about rapidly rising property taxes on all residents due to soaring valuations of what the same land might merit with a new multi-household/higher-density structure. They fear such taxes would quickly go far beyond what single families can afford, forcing more sales and up-zoning. They often cite that neighborhoods will all look the same, cutting down more trees and trading grass for pavement, while increasing traffic, overwhelming parking, adding noise and other nuisances. They also worry that the home next door could soon be turned into the next multistory apartment building, bringing more cranes and jackhammers, and removing trees and green space.

Candidate Responses

Here are the complete, unedited responses of all who responded to the above question on zoning:

Bruce Harrell (Mayoral Candidate)

“I am watching with interest the national conversation on eliminating single-family zoning laws as a means to achieve housing affordability/accessibility and as a means to promote environmental sustainability. I look forward to leading this discussion with housing advocates and neighborhood communities. During my mayoral term, the immediate answer to our housing affordability crisis will be to rapidly build quality, mixed-use housing and aggressively serve low-income residents and working families. We will protect those at risk of losing their homes, and advance equity and diversity in our neighborhoods.

We should start this urgent work where we already have the zoning and capacity to build and are currently underserving our city, and by lowering costs of construction which will in turn lower prices for the consumer. For example, townhome production has gone down 70% since the City’s upfront Mandatory Housing Affordability Fees were imposed. We currently have hundreds of thousands of units capacity to use under our current zoning scheme and as we amend our zoning laws to reflec t progressive housing policy, we must unite our city around a plan to do it.

Wholesale changes to zoning must include community engagement and we must continue to analyze how a total elimination affects access to transit; preservation of tree canopy; preservation of open space and public safety considerations. As Mayor, I will build housing in the areas where we’ve already upzoned and convene a community and stakeholder-led process to determine the future of zoning in our city.”


Teresa Mosqueda (Incumbent City Councilmember, citywide Seat 8)

“Our goal as a city should be to enact zoning and land use policies that align with short and long term affordable housing needs. This means we engage in thoughtful zoning changes that not only improve equity and access to housing, but protect and expand opportunities for home ownership and intergenerational wealth, especially for communities historically marginalized in our city. Improving density and expanding housing to meet needs is not the same as eliminating all zoning rules; in fact, to truly build the Seattle we all deserve, it will take thoughtful, community-driven land use policies, not a one size fits all change.”


Kenneth Wilson (Candidate for City Council Seat 8)

“No. Zoning is a functional protection of the livability of our City. These important restrictions best serve the community by protecting the physical function of transportation, sewers, power grids, unique neighborhood characteristics, viewpoints, and our City’s critical green canopy.Residents living in adjacent higher density zoned housing on arterials benefit from the single-family zones by having the green space within walking distance of their homes. The zoned single family neighborhood benefits from retail and transportation on the arterials. In combination, the zoning enhances livability for all.”


Nikkita Oliver (Candidate for citywide City Council Seat 9)

“Seattle needs to end exclusionary zoning patterns that prevent us from addressing the housing affordability crisis. The density needed to address both the housing crisis and the climate catastrophe must be shared equally throughout the City. The transition from single-family zoning to neighborhood residential is an important first step. This, however, should not be applied to our industrial lands as these are important areas for place-based industries and much of the industrial land in Seattle is not appropriate for housing.”


Sara Nelson (Candidate for City Council Seat 9)

“My short answer is no. We’ve got a housing affordability crisis on our hands as well as rising rates of displacement so we need to encourage the construction of new housing across our city as well as a greater diversity of more affordable options within single family zones. I support adding flexibility to what’s allowed in single family zones, not getting rid of restrictions altogether by allowing multi-unit apartment buildings to be built on any lot, for example.

Seattle took a step toward ending single-family zoning when it legalized two ADUs per lot in 2019 so the lowest zoning in Seattle is essentially three units per lot. Hundreds of new ADUs are now going in and that’s a positive outcome for people who want to “age in place” and earn an income off their property which also combats displacement.

The next step is to follow Portand’s Residential Infill Project which allows four per lot rather than three. Portland’s program also has a provision that stretches the limit to six if two of them are subsidized, below-market rate units. We should consider doing the same thing on large lots (5,000+ sf and larger) in Seattle because Portland’s analysis shows a reduction in displacement and a significant increase in new housing. I also support expanding “missing middle” housing options by allowing flexibility for duplexes, triplexes, and quads on corner lots.

I’ve heard from housing activists in the Central District, that eliminating all residential building restrictions would encourage more of the predatory development practices occurring now. Ruby Hollard of the Keep Your Habitat Anti-Displacement Project told me that developers are aggressively approaching homeowners in the CD and making offers that are too good for people struggling to hang onto their properties because of the pandemic to pass up. We need to help people stay in their homes through foreclosure prevention grants and making it easier to monetize the only asset many people in economically distressed neighborhoods have which is their home.”

Which Candidate Aligns With You?

If you believe Seattle should “mostly keep” existing single-family zoning, favor Bruce Harrell (mayor), Kenneth Wilson (city council 8) and Sara Nelson (city council 9.)

If you believe Seattle should eliminate all single-family zoning, favor Lorena González (mayor), Teresa Mosqueda (city council 8) and Nikkita Oliver (city council 9.)

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at Question 2, regarding the approach we as a City should take to those accused of misdemeanor offenses.

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Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at stevemurch.com.

21 COMMENTS

  1. This type of article is what we need to assist our choices , seeing that actual debating with a unbiassed monitor seems unavailable lately…….

    Thank you

    • Thanks for that, and thanks to those candidates who took the time to offer their responses. There are some big decisions we as voters are making this election, and I hope this series is useful to voters.

      Please feel free to share this series on social media (e.g., Facebook, Nextdoor, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, email) if you found it useful.

  2. Thanks for shedding light on this important election issue; I hope other media outlets catch on!
    The slippery Mosqueda-Strauss SF name change amendment is a stalking horse for deeper changes that should not be considered until the upcoming major Comp Plan update and related environmental impact analysis. The name change to “residential zoning” is a device to pre-approve regulatory changes since zoning regulations must be “consistent” with the FLUM (future land use map), i.e. the named zones and stated land use policies.

  3. Some good questions have been raised, and the background to each question is very helpful. The answers from the candidates should help us make up our minds regarding our upcoming votes in the November general election.

    • I applaud Steve Murch for asking important questions and for providing a balanced review of the issues. Displacement is a large and ongoing issue raised by Ruby Holland in the CD but applying to many low-income homeowners. No campaign has addressed it with a plan.
      In 2019, between the ADU legislation and the MHA, Seattle upzoned the virtually entire 35% of the city zoned residential, yet we have no data on the increased building capacity, nor the projected needs for growth, post Covid. There are 6,000 apartments permitted or under construction at Northgate alone.
      Seattle Fair Growth calls for a moratorium on more zoning changes until the need for additional density is established in the Comprehensive Plan. Neighborhood plans should be based on these needs. To combat displacement, low-cost loans to low-income homeowners wishing to build ADUs in exchange for rents at 80% of market would help these homeowners pay increased property taxes.

      • “Seattle Fair Growth calls for a moratorium on more zoning changes until the need for additional density is established in the Comprehensive Plan.”

        The Seattle Comprehensive Plan does not and can not “establish” growth projections. It is a reactive document, that must allow the growth the state Office of Financial Management projects every five years. That’s a mandate of the Growth Management Act.

  4. Steve’s trio of questions raises a fourth: Is Seattle in danger of having a mayor from the city’s insular, intolerant left who will only listen to those who agree with her. Chicago has that in Mayor Lightfoot, an acknowledged disaster.
    Lorena Gonzalez has refused to answer three basic questions about the city’s future. Earlier, she refused to fill out a questionnaire for the Downtown Seattle Association and dumped on the vital task of restoring downtown. She has even refused to go before the Block Table, unlike candidates Harrell, Echohawk, Sixkiller and Farrell.
    Seattle was once defined, by then-St. Mark’s Cathedral Dean Fred Northup, as “a city where everybody gets consulted about everything.” He was talking about the “Seattle process”, ponderous though it was but inclusive.
    Will the 7th floor of City Hall, under Mayor Gonzalez, become the inclusive domain of left interest groups, our more militant labor unions, and (for press coverage) The Stranger and Publicola?

  5. I think the three questions in this series are critical for Seattle’s future. As usual in campaigns, the candidates bob and weave and change the subject to more comfortable territory, so voters aren’t really sure what they are getting when they pick one. Presidential campaigns are also famous for talking about biography and pet issues, rather than facing the big issues squarely. I commend Sara Nelson for the most specific answers, and I commend the author for putting these candidates on the record. The fourth big question, in my mind, is whether the candidate sees him- or herself as a megaphone for ideology or as an honest broker among various perspectives in the citizenry. (Not that I would expect them to fess up to the first position!)

  6. “In cities such as Minneapolis, they’ve decided to do away with all residential zoning.”

    Not at all. I’ve heard it may be something like that in Houston, but Minneapolis just raised the unit limit from one to three, in what used to be single family. That falls well short of what developers want (and the article you link to mentions a predicted additional 50 units per year), so I would expect the target in Seattle to be something more like all SF changed to a standard somewhere between Residential Small Lot and Low Rise 1. We’re already practically at the same place as Minneapolis – nothing really stopping developers from building a triplex using an ADU and DADU.

    If Seattle were to eliminate all residential zoning distinctions, we could have 8 story apartment buildings sprouting up in the middle of erstwhile SF neighborhoods, and it’s news to me if anyone has been pushing that.

  7. I appreciate the participation of some of my valuable and beloved public figures/characters in these comments. I concur with pretty much all the comments: does that tell me this is a self selecting group who appreciate direct, simple and perhaps even courage to simply ‘answer the darn question’.
    I’m excited about both Sara Nelson and Ken Wilson. Their answers here reinforce my excitement: both the clarity and content in each case.
    Thank you Post Alley and Steve Murch for providing this antedote to the puffed up opinionating that has been squeezing out Basic Reporting in most all of our media.

  8. A little-known provision of state law controls how much new housing must be built in Seattle, and where that housing must be built. The Growth Management Act requires Seattle’s government approve construction of lots of large-scale residential buildings at the (existing and planned) light rail station locations. This state law requires Seattle permit construction of a disproportionately-large share of the projected housing needs that the state Office of Financial Management forecasts for King County every five years.

    Sound fishy? It is. OFM’s projections invariably are overblown. The key problem with the state law’s dictates that urban cores be where jobs and residences are located is that vast numbers of jobs are being done at home and that will continue. Forcing Seattle to approve lots of new residences near light rail stations now is worse than futile as light rail won’t serve its intended purpose (a daily commute alternative to and from offices at station locations for hundreds of thousands).

    This utterly unique land use planning — TOD to the max, and an obligation to allow large scale residential construction at locations that do not make sense for how employment works for most Seattle residents — needs to be fixed before broad upzoning of sfd zones in Seattle is considered. No big deal, right? The GMA needs overhauling, the PSRC’s Vision 2050 is useless because it ignores widespread remote working, Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan needs fundamental revisions, etc.

    Maybe the officials responsible at all layers of government will acknowledge reality and make changes fervent interest groups that supported them would oppose. Or maybe not.

  9. Not much mentioned in the zoning debate is the fact that Western Washington is predicted to experience very substantial population growth in coming decades, and if most of that growth is housed in single family housing spread out across the landscape the environmental impact will be awful. All the growth in higher-density housing doesn’t have to happen in Seattle proper (Forterra argues for densification even in small towns, for example), but Seattle is going to have to densify a fair amount. I’d like to see the candidates argue more from environmental impact than they do.

    • Your claim that “Seattle is going to have to densify a fair amount” certainly is what Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan calls for, but there are many problems with official and unofficial Seattle government policies.

      What are these population growth projections you are looking at? I ask because public entities around here have been fixated on the now-obsolete convention that downtown Seattle office buildings (and Microsoft’s campus) would be large scale magnets drawing people to live close by.

      The reality that government officials around here remain willfully ignorant about is remote working ended daily commute requirements by the large employers, so downtown Seattle no longer pulls people toward it for either their employment or residential needs. Without that “pull” the growth projections government planners like so much more than likely will turn out to be wildly overblown.

  10. One of the ways to accept more densification is to ration the number of multi-unit buildings on a given block, lessening the impacts (parking, view blockage, rising taxes). I’m sure this raises some spot-zoning questions, but it would seem that you could address these issues by holding an auction/lottery for a block’s properties. Do readers know of successful efforts to implement such gradualism?
    Another idea: Seattle builders such as Anhalt used to put in amenity-rich apartments, often built around an interior courtyard and using traditional architecture. Might there be a way to incentivize this kind of harmonious density with tax breaks or transfers of development rights?

    • I think that’s an entirely fair point, and I thank you for raising it. First — yes, I absolutely DO have opinions, fairly strongly held ones, about which candidates I’ll be voting for.

      In earlier drafts, I linked to the piece on my own blog, but in the end I felt embedding it in this “open mic” series would have been overly prejudicial in my view. The focus of this three-part series is to ask questions and hand the microphone to the candidates. The link to my blog is in the “about” section of every piece, and it notes that I do write about city politics.

      That said, her team’s lack of response to multiple email inquiries could very well be because of the piece that you linked to, and it’s good to get that on the table. Readers should weigh her non-response after reading the piece you linked to above.

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