Last week, city council land-use committee chair Sally Clark refereed a well-attended "workshop" at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center on the contentious transit-oriented communities bill under discussion in Olympia. The legislation, which has been heavily amended to placate density opponents, would upzone the areas around most light-rail stations, mandate affordable housing in new developments, and require cities to come up with plans to reduce driving.
Although Clark started off the discussion by insisting "this will not be a contact sport," the room was divided into two very distinct, and passionate, factions: Home-owners who oppose new apartment buildings in their single-family neighborhoods and environmentalists who believe that the bill both ensures affordable housing and protects the environment.
You'll notice that I didn't mention any faction worried about the displacement of low-income people. That's because the vast majority of low-income advocates—including Rachael Myers from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, who was on the panel—support the legislation. And with good reason: The bill mandates one-for-one replacement of demolished affordable housing, at rents affordable to the people displaced, and requires that any new developments include affordable housing—25 percent affordable to people making 80 percent or less of median ($52,100 for a couple), 10 percent to those making under 60 percent ($39,060 for a couple).
Those two things—new affordable housing and one-for-one replacement—are exactly what antidisplacement activists like John Fox, the lone opponent of the legislation on last week's panel, have been insisting on for years. (Fox would prefer that the affordability levels be lower, but politics is compromise—something most activists are well aware of.)
Given how much the bill would do to provide and protect affordable housing, it's hard to reach any other conclusion than that Fox, like his NIMBY allies in the neighborhood movement (many of whom could be seen cheering loudly every time he spoke at last week's meeting), cares more about "saving" suburban-style single-family neighborhoods than making sure poor people can live in the city. That, or he's just delusional.
Here's the reality: Myers, a former Real Change advocacy director, supports the bill specifically because it mandates more affordable housing than any existing city law. At last week's meeting, Myers pointed out that the legislation preserves and creates far more affordable housing than the market would on its own. "If you own an apartment building [on the light-rail line], there's going to be quite an incentive to sell that or convert it into condos and displace people," Myers said.
Fox, of course, disagreed. Not only did he insist the bill would force people out of their homes, he even claimed that denser developments increase driving—a claim for which there is not a scrap of evidence. Fox also blasted a provision in the bill that eliminates minimum parking requirements at developments around light-rail stations—a bizarre objection, from an affordable-housing perspective, since every parking space adds tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of an apartment or condo.
At this point, it's hard to see what Fox's housing-related objections to the legislation actually are. Sitting onstage last week, arms crossed defensively, he sounded more like a homeowning NIMBY (which, in fairness, he is not) than an affordable-housing advocate. And judging by the applause from the many neighborhood activists crowded in the auditorium, they considered him a kindred spirit.