• Kelly O
  • Could proponents of microhousing make common cause with major employers in order to help Seattle renters? Alan Durning argues they could and should.

Will Mayor Ed Murray's housing affordability advisory committee—charged with tackling the city's housing crisis—stand up for Seattle's renters, given its make-up? Though the committee appears pretty evenly balanced between developers and housing affordability advocates, the mayor doesn't seem to have appointed many low-income renters, as I point out in last week's paper.

That's one way of analyzing the make-up of the 28-member committee, and of course there are others. In my article I didn't find space to quote Alan Durning, who's on the committee (and is also the executive director of the Sightline Institute). But he has some interesting comments to add to the discussion, and the gist of his argument during our interview was that having a relatively even balance between developers and affordability advocates on the committee didn't worry him. (My count, by the way, found 11 members who fit into the broad category of developer or construction interests, 10 members who might be considered advocates for low-income renters, five members who are hard to categorize, and two members who have yet to be named.)

Durning actually felt more surprised—and gratified, he told me during our interview—to have not found anyone on the committee representing NIMBYs (generally older, richer, whiter neighborhood activist homeowners). That's notable, he told me, because they're "a key part of the city's housing politics." Proof of that came just days later, when NIMBYs scored a victory against microhousing (commonly known as aPodments), their longtime bugaboo, with the City Council unanimously approving new regulations on where and how microhousing can be built. The legislation is complex and does a lot of things—among them, creating a new tightly restricted class of housing called "Small Efficiency Apartments," implementing a design review process, and requiring that such units include two sinks.

The Seattle Times quotes Cindi Barker, a West Seattle homeowner, effusively praising the new regulations. And—looks like Durning may have spoken too soon—it turns out Barker is on the mayor's housing committee. (Here's the list of members.) So NIMBYs do have at least one voice.

In response to all this, Durning took to his organization's website to lament the council's decision on microhousing and offer an analysis of who actually influences the city's housing policy—and to what end. In the process, he made that good point about what he thinks is really lacking on Mayor Murray's committee: voices from major employers.

Why is this lack of major employer voices a problem?

The question reminds me of an essay that urban aficionado David Sucher wrote in 1998, when then-mayor Paul Schell organized a summit on housing affordability. Sucher wrote “Who really wants Affordable Housing? In terms of politics, basically no one.” Homeowners, mortgage lenders, investors, realtors, builders, property-tax-dependent governments, neighborhood associations: they all want housing prices to just keep rising, Sucher argued. He's got a point. The local power blocs that have a big financial stake in housing affordability are renters and employers, and neither goes to bat to increase the supply of rental housing.

This gets to a core point Durning wishes he'd made to me last week:

The housing task force is notably lacking in representatives of major employers. When a Stranger reporter asked recently if the number of real-estate developers on the panel was troubling, I wish I’d said, “I’m more concerned that no one from human resources at Safeway or Swedish Hospital is on the list.” Until we develop a power bloc—not just a righteous band of urbanists, sustainability wonks, real-estate developers, and advocates for low-income workers—I’m afraid elected leaders will keep getting spooked by NIMBYs.

Read the whole thing (you really should) right here.