Should all this new construction be helping to fund new affordable housing in Seattle?
  • C_Eng-Wong Photography/Shutterstock
  • Should all this new construction be helping to fund new affordable housing in Seattle?
Yesterday, the Seattle City Council got in a big ol' fight over a nonbinding resolution stating their intention to hopefully do a thing next year. YUP! That's our city council!

The thing they hope to do next year: enact "linkage fees," which would be a charge developers pay per square foot of new construction, which then goes into a city fund to build affordable housing. They voted down most of the amendments that would change it, and then passed the resolution 7-2. (We wrote a lot about linkage fees over here if you want more.) The meeting was actually pretty funny, because everyone on council and in the audience played their most stereotypical roles to a T, making it a pinnacle of city-council-watching for me and the maybe six other people who give a shit.

Here's what went down.

Mike OBrien, rocking multiple cowlicks throughout the proceedings.
  • O'Brien, rocking some major cowlicks throughout the proceedings. (Click to enlarge! Cute!)
Mike O'Brien, the current chair of the land-use committee who's been working on affordable-housing programs similar to this one since at least early last year, was cheerful and dogged and hilariously cowlicked while pushing for a very moderate solution to a very huge problem—a solution he knew some of his colleagues were rabid to completely undermine and dismantle.

O'Brien's resolution, which, again, was merely a statement of the council's intention to hopefully move forward on actual legislation by the middle of next year, was based on months of research and studies by consultants and input from public meetings, but was treated by critics at this final meeting as if it had only just been discovered on the floor that morning. "There was no engagement around the development of this resolution," said Jon Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association during public comment. "A lot of our members first heard about it when they read about it in the Seattle Times." (What!? Did they miss this?) Joe Ferguson, from real-estate firm Lake Union Partners, urged the council to "slow everything down, let us sit down and talk everything through with you," adding that he was "very much insulted by the urgency that this is being swept through." (Low-income housing advocates, of course, were glowing in their praise of the bill and the urgency with which this is needed.)

And, to repeat, all the council members put on their best show.

Tom Rasmussen and Sally Bagshaw—who love more than anyone else to pull a last-minute sneak attack in which they introduce an amendment that fundamentally undermines the legislation at hand—both offered spectacularly funny amendments. Bagshaw's was to delete the numbers from the resolution, so that instead of a specific range of what the fees would look like (based on what city consultants said would be fair to both affordable housing needs and developers and within the range of what would be legal to require of someone), the resolution would simply be raising the idea of perhaps looking at the concept of fees. "My amendment would eliminate the fees in the resolution entirely," she said with a totally straight face, arguing that the "community is divided" over this issue and she didn't think it was "appropriate" to pass something that had fees in it. Even though these proposed fees wouldn't actually become law, they're just guidelines. Bagshaw's amendment failed.

Rasmussen's amendment was somehow even funnier, because he wanted to change the language of the nonbinding resolution—meaning a document that simply states the council's intention and direction for future work—from a document stating the city's intent to "implement" a linkage fee program to a document stating their intent to "develop and consider" a linkage fee program. Essentially, he wanted the council to publicly agree to think about something instead of agreeing that they plan to actually do some version of this thing. GOOD LORD, PEOPLE, WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?!

Sally Clark, queen in many realms of both nonspecifics and friendly generalities, said she supported this amendment because it was technically more accurate to just say they're going to think about it. I kid you not, y'all. But this amendment failed, too.

Meanwhile, Nick Licata was doing his damnedest to push the legislation leftward in the face of all this watering-down business, and he offered two resolutions that would make the program even more stringent on developers—one that would set the fees at the top of their range instead of offering a low end at all, and one that would open the door to enacting the fees immediately once they're passed instead of phasing them in over time. The second Licata resolution actually passed, demonstrating that not only is most of council happy to move on this contentious topic, but that they'd rather move toward the progressive side of things than the in-developers'-pockets side of things.

Kshama Sawant played her regular role, dropping comment after comment that's actually quite close to the way all these people talk in private, behind the scenes, but never in public—things like saying the complaining developers "were included, they just don't like it" and calling one of Tom Rasmussen's amendments a "Trojan Horse." (Rasmussen, offended, said, "I didn't think of [my amendment] as a Trojan Horse!")

Bruce Harrell did this thing he does from time to time, where he gets an almost fatherly tone of voice and casually reprimands the whinier council members for being babies. It is refreshing as shit, each and every time.

In the end, the resolution passed through mostly unscathed, and O'Brien said he felt "great" about it. "The city council has now been clear that we intend to implement a linkage fee next year," he said, adding that a lot of the work still has to be done and that they will "do it in a way that will not have negative repercussions on the current development in Seattle."

He said the developer community was "included and invited throughout this process," and that basically, "at the end of a process, if you don't like how something is going... you say 'It was too fast, we weren't included in the process.'" He also said you can't always make decisions by consensus. (Uh, someone tell the mayor?) "I don't think we'll get to consensus on this," he said honestly. "When we can get to consensus, that's great, but people have been having this discussion for years now." At some point, you have to call it, make a policy decision, and move on. Which is what the council intends to do now. I mean, we can hope. Since it was that contentious for them to pass a nonbinding resolution stating their future intentions, it's not like this is all gonna be smooth sailing from here on out.

And wait, is anything interesting happening next year? Oh, yeah, is the entire city council up for reelection? Yeah, that's it. Surely that won't have any effect on a process like this.