Ahead of their lobby day in Olympia last week, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) published this ~ hilarious ~ member training video featuring three well-paid, white lobbyists who absolutely ~ skewer ~ the idea that companies who build houses bear any responsibility for repairing racial inequities in housing.
They also absolutely ~ destroy ~ those dorkasauruses in Olympia who seek to mitigate climate change problems, homelessness, and workplace safety issues through housing policy at the expense of humble contractors who simply wish to build subdivisions wherever they'd like. One lobbyist in the video describes bills to address these issues as "virtue-signaling regulatory schemes" that lawmakers only support so they can "sleep well at night."
Ha ha ha! What kinda dummy-dum could sleep well knowing they passed a bill to require cities and counties to view their city planning through a racial justice lens? Ha ha ha.
Before I risk ruining this genius skit by explaining the joke any further, let me introduce you to our players.
Jan Himebaugh, who introduces the skit, lobbies for the BIAW, which represents the interests of companies who seek to profit from the construction of detached single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes. The building industry pays her big bucks to split checks at the Chelsea Oyster Bar in Olympia with Republican Senators, and to help kill bills that basically aim to mitigate the harmful impacts of sprawl.
This year, for instance, the BIAW has tried to kill a bill to give tribes a seat at the table on planning decisions, plus bills requiring cities and counties to create housing growth plans that don't perpetuate racism, that don't destroy the climate, and that don't block salmon runs. Lest you think they only work to block pesky regulations, they also opposed a bill from Sen. Mona Das that would have allowed cities and counties to raise more property tax revenue in exchange for legalizing missing-middle housing in single-family zones. And, for good measure, they also want to kill the capital gains tax.
The guy on the left in the video, who plays the role of the humble affordable home builder, is Steve Gano, a longtime lobbyist and founder of Gano and Associates. In February of this year alone, his team of three pulled in nearly $117,000 lobbying for Big Tobacco, Wells Fargo, Shell, Uber, insurance companies, BIAW, Walmart, Big Pharma, and others. Gano used some of that money to schmooze with Sen. Mark Schoesler at Ranch House BBQ in February.
The guy on the right, who plays the Nanny State, is Bill Stauffacher, founder of Stauffacher Communications. In February of this year, his team of two made $77,250 lobbying for private prisons, BIAW, cigar companies (lol), insurance companies, railroads, timber, Apple, and others.
Together these three comedic legends produced this video to train BIAW members on how to deliver talking points to lawmakers during virtual meetings last week, at which they opposed the bills I mentioned above.
At the beginning of the video, Himebaugh claims she awoke from a dream in a "terror, a cold sweat," and then presents a soft-focus skit as a reenactment of the dream. Gano appears onscreen with a set of plans "for a nice little affordable house" he wants to get a permit for. Stauffacher, representing a government agency, says he's here to help in the most "obtuse way possible," and then starts reading from his imaginary list of permit requirements.
That's when the hits start coming, folks.
Does the builder's house save energy? Recover the salmon population? Reduce overall worldwide gas emissions? Save the orcas? Only include materials produced by labor unions? Ensure that no one will ever get injured? Or "make up for all the wrongs ever done to anyone at any time in history?" If the builder's answer is "no," then he'll have trouble obtaining a permit to build the house. Ultimately, the lobbyists conclude, "The 2021 Legislature...has done everything in its power to make housing more affordable by making it so expensive."
Washington House Rep. Gary Pollet, who chairs the House Local Government committee, confronted Himebaugh about the video during a committee meeting last week and zeroed-in on the skit's racial undertones.
At the hearing, Himebaugh dismissed the video as "a parody about the cost of housing and adding costs of housing." Pollet asked if she thought it was "an appropriate parody to say that the Legislature is requiring builders to be held responsible for righting all the wrongs to everyone ever in all of history, and is that a comment in regard to legislation we’ve tried to pass to undo the racial impacts of housing and zoning regulations?" Pollet then emphasized racial aspect of that critique, noting that "many" would find it "highly offensive." In her response, Himebaugh said the lobby meant no offense, and only meant to use "humor to get the point across that these conversions are important."
Over the phone, Pollet said he viewed the video partly through the lens of the lobby's opposition to HB 1220, which would require cities and counties to consider "racially disparate impacts and displacement in the housing element" of their comprehensive plans and prevent local jurisdictions from using zoning laws to block homeless shelters in an emergency. He sees the builders' joke about not being able to build a house unless they "make up for all the wrongs ever done to anyone at any time in history" as a reference to that bill.
In a text, Sen Mona Das said, "The fact that they didn’t think this video was a problem is the problem."
Neither Stauffacher nor Gano responded to requests for comment.
In an email to Senate Democrats last week, Stauffacher apologized for his role in the skit: "What is clear to me now is that some phrases that I used in the video were racially insensitive. I have been called to task for this, and I deserve it. I am not that type of person. The responses I have received from members of your caucus clearly demonstrate that I have much more work to do when it comes to understanding racial equity," he wrote.
In a letter to House and Senate Democratic leadership, BIAW executive vice president Greg Lane offered a non-apology.
Lane said the industry group respects "the concerns over the choice of words used in the video," feels "alarmed by allegations that there were racial connotations behind any part of the message," meant only "to entertain our members, through the use of satire and hyperbole," and regrets "that the sarcastic tone and method of exaggeration we utilized did not communicate" the "frustration those in our industry have with the land-use and other policies that impact housing approved by the Legislature." Lane then argued that any legislation that might lead to people charging more for houses creates a barrier for "BIPOC buyers" of houses.
In an email, Janelle Guthrie, a spokesperson for the BIAW, doubled down on the argument that the video merely used "hyperbole to convey the consequences of excessive environmental and land use policies on the cost of housing, nothing more."
As evidence for the lobby's "strong track record opposing any and all forms of discrimination in housing," Guthrie pointed to the lobby's support of House Bill 1335. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Javier Valdez, is a currently unfunded proposal to require the University of Washington and Eastern Washington University to search through old covenants and deed restrictions "to identify recorded documents that include racial or other restrictions on property ownership or use against protected classes that are unlawful under [Washington State Law Against Discrimination]."
Pollet dismissed the letter from BIAW as "offensive and irrelevant."
"They’re trying to proselytize and say any housing is now good housing," Pollet added. "Well, if you destroy the last remaining affordable housing for immigrants or the African American community in Seattle in the name of building new housing that displaces all the existing residents, and none of them can ever afford to live in the new housing, you have contributed to increasing the effects of systemic racism—not decreasing them."
He continued: "What’s so horribly offensive is they weren’t just saying 'we reject that the Legislature and housing laws have anything to do with continuing racial injustice,’ they were training their members to think in these unconscionable racial terms."
And of course, the bad acting doesn't help, either.
Update, 3/24: House Speaker Laurie Jinkins replied to BIAW's letter on behalf of the Democratic caucus. In a letter, she excoriated the lobby for for promoting a training video that "highlighted intolerance for others and mimicked racist tropes about the suffering of Washington’s first people, Black and African Americans and other communities of color." She also rejected the lobby's non-apology, saying Lane's letter lacked "any true acceptance of the racist comments in your training video" and failed to "recognize that the video itself served no purpose other than to divide." In the end, she encouraged the builders to "deeply reflect on the harm caused" by the video, to educate their organization about "the corrosive effects of racism," and to take "tangible steps towards reducing its effects."