HELP! We Need Somebody as Mayor that Will Prioritize Housing Production

The next Mayor of Seattle must pause and eventually end the disastrous policy of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) and its expression in City policy in the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). The policy will add cost to housing, slow its production, and pour money into an inefficient system of subsidized housing production through the non-profit housing industrial complex. But short of that, is there anything practical we can ask a Mayor to do that would improve housing production if they refuse to stop MIZ? I think there is. What Seattle’s next Mayor could do would be to follow the essence of some of the recommendations from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee (in particular, Section IV) to reduce costs through improving the permitting process.

I would call this initiative Housing Efficiency Leveraged for Production (HELP) since everyone seems to love acronyms. Housing efficiency in this context means identifying all the things both internal and external to the production of housing in Seattle that limit or add costs to its production, figuring out what those costs are, and then calculating the relationship those costs have on meeting demand. I have to emphasize I’m against setting quotas for production based on projections by planners. Instead, the City’s goal should be reducing barriers and letting demand drive production, not trying to perfectly match demand productions (which are always laughably perfectly round numbers like 6,000 units over 10 years).

The only candidate for Mayor who has ever run a city is Mike McGinn, and I’m sure he’d agree that it’s about more than making speeches. Making a difference means taking advantage of the things the City already has control of in regulation, and that depends on leadership. Here are the broad components of a HELP Program.

Horizontal – One of the biggest problems the City and any government have is coordination between departments. Breaking up the functions of government into different organizational structures makes sense. While this does help efficiency, it can also contribute to the formation of silos, when one department digs in and does what it is assigned to do without coordinating with other departments. Building housing doesn’t happen in the same way that departments are organized. For example, a water main ends up falling into the jurisdiction of both Seattle Public Utilities and the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Vertical – Leadership on housing means creating both clarity on the broader goals of the City when it comes to housing and the very specific and in-the-weeds (sometimes literally) decisions made by inspectors on site and people who review applications for and issues permits. Vertical integration in this context means allowing City employees to make on the spot decisions in favor of moving a project forward in spite of the rules. Too often enforcement of a rule or requirement or an interpretation of a rule or ordinance is subjective. If an employee isn’t empowered to abrogate that rule to move a project forward, then things get stuck.

Interactive – Very often City policy about and interpretation of very specific rules about drainage, paving, street trees, utility placement, and a wide array of other aspects of review and permitting can accumulate and add costs. And very often it is unclear why changes are made one way or another. One project might have to do a water main extension while another doesn’t and from the standpoint of the builder, the two projects look the same. Creating transparency about why the change is happening, allowing dialogue about how the goal – whether political or practical – might be met without slowing things down is essential.

Data – Usually the City is really bad about what data it uses and how it uses it if it uses it at all. Unfortunately on the ground decisions about implementation of a rule or the code is based on outliers and exceptions; one project manages to accomplish completion and rather than see that as a positive (a bunch of new housing units just became available!) the City views this as a “loop hole” that has to be closed. The City must look at the big picture, and allow innovation. When that happens in spite of the code, don’t make the code more stringent, back off the rules and let housing happen.

Narrative – The story here in Seattle is that we have a housing “crisis.” Fine. I have yet to find anyone that can tell me when the crisis began, how measure the crisis, and how we know what we’re doing has ended it. Whatever. If it’s a crisis then let’s act like it’s a crisis. When there are terrorist attacks or accidents and there is a call for donations of blood because there is short supply, the City Council doesn’t impose a per ounce tax on each donation and limit the number of ounces. It’s all hands (and arms) on deck to rapidly meet the demand for a resource.

Finally, there needs to be a high level person, accountable directly to the Mayor that can manage a HELP effort. It can’t be parceled out. Unless everyone, from Department directors to inspectors are measured by how easy they make it for housing production to happen, then people will do the logical thing, put their heads down, follow and enforce the letter of the rule and point to the other guy or to their supervisor or to the builder as the problem. A high level person who can work toward tangible and measurable production outcomes can hold everyone accountable and reward employees who help make housing happen.

Let’s look at an example. On the approved plans for a project, a utility pole is placed in a particular spot and that placement is approved by SDOT. Later, closer to completion, a City Light inspector determines that the placement doesn’t fit the letter of the rules for placement of a pole. The City Light and SDOT people get together with the builder and all determine, first, the placement is safe and won’t adversely impact electricity on the site and leaving it where it is will save lots of money have to underground or move the pole someplace else on the site. The decision is made to go forward with the placement.

These kinds of decisions are made dozens and dozens of times each day and we need to structure the City response so that the outcome of these decisions favors quick and affordable completion of the project. It’s a crisis after all!


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