I f state legislation proposed by a coalition of environmental organizations had passed, this is what residents of the areas around light rail stations would have to look forward to: Four-, five-, and six-story buildings, featuring apartments over retail and commercial space, flanked by parks and, because of their proximity to light rail, with less parking than typical new developments. Fully a tenth of the new housing would have been affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the county median income, or around $34,000 for an individual; another 15 percent would have to be afforable to people making less than 80 percent of median, or around $46,000 for an individual. And any affordable housing that was displaced by new development would have had to be replaced and rented or sold at the same rent or mortgage level—ensuring that no one whose housing was destroyed for new development would have to leave their neighborhood.
That legislation has been vastly watered down—thanks largely to the efforts of one man who has been instrumental in derailing supporters' high-density, low-income dreams. That man: John Fox, a low-income housing activist and founder of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.
The motto of the Displacement Coalition is: "We will never compromise away the rights of low-income people and the homeless."
And while Fox hasn't compromised, he has lost sight of low-income people and their needs. By stubbornly opposing state legislation that would mandate density and affordable housing around light-rail stations, he has worked against the interests of the very people he claims to represent—ensuring that housing around transit stations, when it comes, will be more expensive, less accessible, and less environmentally sustainable than if the bill had passed as written.
At press time, backers of the bill—known as the transit-oriented communities bill and sponsored in the state house by Representative Sharon Nelson (D-34)—were still hammering out the details. However, the bill they were discussing (expected to pass out of the house Tuesday night) looked much different—and far less progressive—than the original proposal. Under the bill expected to emerge from the state house this week (the cutoff date for legislation to get out of its house of origin is Thursday, March 12), new affordable housing will likely be optional; developers will no longer have the option of building apartments with less parking; density around transit stops will be a suggestion, not a requirement; and affordable housing that is torn down for development will no longer have to be replaced.
Bill LaBorde, a lobbyist for the Transportation Choices Coalition, one of the groups that is supporting the bill, says Fox is cutting off his nose to spite his face. "He's against the density stuff because he felt it hurt the cause of low-income housing, but the density stuff went hand in hand with all these affordable-housing protections," LaBorde says. "As the density stuff has gotten watered down, so has the housing stuff."
The story of how things got to this point is, in part, a story of making the perfect the enemy of the good. This legislative session, Fox's approach has been to demand everything, collaborate with NIMBYs who despise the poor people Fox claims to represent, and demonize transit proponents who should be his natural allies. Instead of getting the vast majority of what he wanted, Fox is likely to leave Olympia empty-handed.
Fox wants the right thing—affordable housing for low-income people. But he's doing it wrong—and you don't get a pass for good intentions. He believes that displacement can be prevented by banning density—a bizarre misinterpretation of the law of supply and demand. Mandating density near light-rail stations, Fox told me, "would accelerate the loss of low-income housing and have a devastating effect on those communities," as existing affordable housing is torn down to make room for wealthier new residents. "No one disagrees with the principle of managed and responsible growth. But to mandate it—that's what we're upset about."
His solution, essentially, is to leave things as they are—hoping against all evidence that developers won't respond to demand for housing around light-rail stations and believing, further, that the way to keep housing prices low is to place artificial limits on housing supply. Of course, that's not how the housing market in desirable, growing cities like Seattle works. (Despite the lousy economy, we're expected to keep growing.) You can't stop people from moving here, and you can't prevent them from wanting to live along a light-rail line. (Take a look at projects that are already springing up around the Othello light rail station and you'll see what I mean).
One of the reasons you don't see transit stops in many single-family neighborhoods is because those neighborhoods don't stay single-family for long, as supply responds to demand. The more housing you have, the lower prices are overall; the more you constrain the supply of housing (by keeping the amount of developable land low, or decreasing density where demand is high, as it is around transit stations), the more expensive housing becomes. And there's a corollary, too: The more expensive housing becomes, the further away people have to move to afford a home. Limiting the supply of housing doesn't prevent gentrification, and it only worsens sprawl.
Fox frequently confuses this chain of cause and effect—blaming sprawl, for example, on urban density. To Fox, sprawl is simply an inevitable outgrowth of a growing population—when in fact, it is as much a product of "social engineering" as density. In a recent editorial, Fox, along with fellow Displacement Coalition member Carolee Coulter, argued that because "an increasing portion of our region's population and employment is going into Lynnwood, Renton, Bellevue, and further out in the county," a better solution would be creating bus transit centers—presumably flanked by massive parking lots, since Fox also believes even people who live by transit stations must drive cars—all over the region.
If any further evidence was necessary that Fox and his Displacement Coalition are no longer serving the interests of low-income people, take a look at who's with him—and who's against him.
With him: Single-family neighborhood activists like Mount Baker home owner Pat Murakami—a strident opponent of Casa Latina, the day-labor center that serves mostly poor immigrants—whose criticism of density, quoted in a recent Fox/Coulter editorial, is that "people need yards and open space to be mentally healthy."
Against him: Most of the low-income-housing advocacy community, including former Real Change advocacy director Rachael Myers, who said at a recent community forum that although "we've been listening to John and talking with John and trying to address some of his concerns," the affordable-housing mandates in the bill are better than anything that would happen if the market took its course. "This bill does not exacerbate the problem" of displacement, Myers said.
"The fact that his allies are these NIMBY people who hate low-income housing—that has twisted him into this weird sort of logic," TCC's LaBorde says—opposing density even when it would include low-income housing, for example.
Fox says he'll take any support he can get. "I'm an organizer," he says. "We've reached out to everybody—and yes, there are other interests that have gotten involved, too." And he accuses the other low-income-housing advocates of being, basically, sellouts. "They've been very willing to jump on board for one small piece, and that piece was getting a handful of units set aside at 80 percent of [median income]," he says. "They're willing to compromise at a threshold that is totally unacceptable to us."
The irony, of course, is that by refusing to compromise, Fox has helped ensure that the bill won't include most of what he wants—one-for-one replacement of demolished affordable housing and real, enforceable affordability mandates. Although Fox says he's still hoping to "get better and stronger housing language" put back into the bill, LaBorde says that's unlikely.
"He really is to blame for the fact that this is not a stronger housing bill," LaBorde says.
When a weakened version of the transit bill passes, and low-income people are displaced, low-income-housing supporters should remember that it was, in part, John Fox who made the legislation worse for low-income people.
Perhaps it should be called the John Fox bill.