Concerns about Nick's Housing Ideas (fwd)

P. Myers (mpwr@u.washington.edu)
Thu, 16 Jul 1998 12:54:13 -0700 (PDT)


from the Seattle scene...thanks Anitra, John, SHARE/WHEEL, and
especially the homeless activists, bravely putting themselves on the
line!!! patm 

Subject: Concerns about Nick's Housing Ideas

John Fox Response to Nick's Urban Politics #42 in which he indicates that in
response to the Qualman tenants concerns he will introduce in late Aug.
legislation requiring relocation assistance for tenants displaced by
excessive rents.

*****
This piece began as a short expression of concern to Nick about how we
should proceed with a low income housing agenda, but then grew into a mini
treatise on how we can improve the potential for progressive politics in
Seattle - Sorry about that but I hope you read on.
*****

While I am very supportive of the above idea of relocation for those
displaced by rent increases(as well as the idea of 60-day notice)and I am
very glad to see interest in moving forward with new initiatives, I am
concerned that if we introduce these proposals either before or simultaneous
with introduction of a right of first refusal law, that it will undercut a 6
year effort to secure passage of right of first refusal. We understand that
Peter is on the verge of introducing right of first refusal later this month
or in August. 

It is appropriate and absolutely needed to require developers and landlords
to pay relocation due to excessive rent increases, but our first priority
must be preventing the loss of these units in the first place which can in
many cases be accomplished with right of first refusal. There also are a few
other approaches that would help us in this arena that should be given
priority which I reference below. 

Parenthetically, it surprised me when I read the recent Seattle Times
article on the Qualman Tenant's demonstration, that when asked what we
should do about their situation, Peter did not take this opportunity to
strongly push for right of first refusal. If such a law had been in place,
it would have blocked the sale from occuring at all and given the tenants a
real opportunity to turn their building into a low income cooperative.
Already, we're getting sidetracked with small potatoes when we should be
going for the whole ball of wax (sorry about the mixed metaphores). 

Most rent increases that are substantial usually are preceded by a sale of
the property (new debt service requirements accompanying sale are the most
significant factor contributing to large rent increases - a sale also leads
to the new owner making superficial repairs which also becomes a
justification for jacking up rent). We can get at the problem of significant
rent increases in a lot of cases through passage of right of first refusal,
precluding the need for relocation assistance and precluding loss of the
units in many cases. A right of first refusal also would act as a deterrent
to the sale of the property in the first place.  A developer won't be so
interested in purchasing a building when they know that the existing tenants
get first crack at it and that they will have to wait their turn.

When city councilmembers are confronted with difficult legislation, the
first response of many of them (I don't mean Nick or Peter), is to look for
a convenient way out of the controversy.  Rather than going on record
against something, if they can opt out for what appears to be a compromise
position (even if it is no compromise at all), they will do this, if only
for the sake of appearance. Kiosks instead of repeal of the poster ban is a
case in point. I do believe that Nick and Peter and others should have
brought the issue to a vote. Even though it likely would have lost, it would
have clarified where people stand (more on why this is important later).  

I am worried that the presence of other proposals, including relocation for
tenants displaced by excessive rents, if presented at this time, may confuse
the issue and provide some councilmembers a way out or a way to obfuscate
the need for right of first refusal. 

(Councilmembers will say hey I support relocation assistance but its going
too far to support right of first refusal.That's as far as we need to go or
can go at this time, but hey I'm concerned." Everyone will haggle over
details of both proposals, and some councilmembers will get confused. The
new relocation requirements will get watered down. Then, surprise, both
proposals fail - Don't laugh, I have seen this happen before at the Council
level. In this way, nothing happens but each councilmember can say - "hey, I
tried.")  

(For example, a version of this happened when the City Council refused to
allocate 2 million dollars in promised funding needed to purchase and save
the 150 space National mobile home park occupied by low income seniors. A
councilmember came in with a proposal to cut the amount in half. Then some
councilmembers supported the reduction while others continued to support the
full allocation. Others opposed any allocation at all. Then those still
supporting full allocation would not support half an allocation. Had these
two groups cooperated, at least we could have come up with half of what was
needed to save the park - retaining the potential to make up the difference
by going to other sources. Instead when full support was voted down,
councilmembers supporting the full amount voted against a payment of only
half the amount. In the end, no money was committed by the Council, but most
of the councilmembers could say "hey I supported giving some amount...it
isn't my fault." National trailer park was razed for a Eagle Hardware store.
I could go on giving examples of silly and destructive inaction - but if
there is an easy way out - a way to wind up doing nothing, many of the
current councilmembers will take that course, particularly on controversial
issues.)

Let's get the right of first refusal law out there for a vote up or down and
very soon.  Let's see where the chips fall and if we can get the five votes
(I think we can).  But, if we cannot, we at least will call out our friends
and find out who are the pretenders.  We elevate and force discussion on
what is needed.  Win or lose, it helps us educate and mobilize the community
and build longterm support so that eventually we can secure five votes. (It
also paves the way for passage of any other these other proposals now being
kicked around.) The same could be said about bringing repeal of parks
exclusion to a vote and bringing repeal of the no-sitting law to a vote (win
or lose in the short run). Doing this kind of thing also puts the other side
- the Sidran/Pageler crowd on the defensive for the first time in years and
slows down their interest in pushing for passage of even more draconian
measures.  

When we bring to a vote tough legislation, it changes the terms of the
debate.  We are not just debating over whether or not to reallocate a few
dollars here or there in the budget, adding technical language to the
"consolidated plan" or arguing over reorganization or appointments to
housing and planning commissions (which takes up so much time within Council
committees).  Instead of just reacting to what the departments haul in for
council review, then splitting hairs ad nauseum over some aspect of their
internal agenda, we're actually talking about challenging structural
conditions that cause poverty.  We're talking about challenging developers
and requiring them to pay their fair share. Over time, this altered framing
of the issue enables us to reverse the conservative drift at the City level.
Already, the presence of Peter and Nick on the Council has worked to achieve
that.  The Burma vote, even though it lost, helped galvanize a progressive
response, led to critical press coverage highlighing the pretenders on this
issue (Podlodowski, Pageler, Donaldson, Drago, and Choe.)See Dan Savage's
savage attack on these five in a past issue of the Stranger. 

In contrast to this process, take a look at what has happened around the
issue of the ban on postering. A vote on this issue was shelved, much to the
joy of many councilmembers who detest voting at all on controversial issues.
As a result, instead of having a thorough airing at the Council level around
critical issues of free speech etc.everyone got tracked into a discussion
about how we can get a few kiosks built, and how we can make them look
pretty. (I would bet dollars to donuts that in five years, after spending
hundreds of thousands of dollars and consuming countless hours of city staff
and community time, that at best,we might have a handful of kiosks placed
around town. This will be a great opportunity for a a few ribbon cutting
ceremonies and photo op for elected officials to embrace neighborhood folk,
but it hardly is a substitute for a poster ban repeal that would
re-establish free expression in this town. When the Council made it a crime
for the homeless to urinate in public four years ago, they promised us
restrooms in all our neighborhoods and dedicated a couple of million dollars
to achieve it.  They hired a staff person who spent many hours researching
the issue and talking to neighborhood and business groups. Trips were taken
at taxpayer expense to Paris, New York, and other large cities to see how
they do address the problem.  There were plans to combine toilets with
kiosks. All these promises and much ado (no pun intended)in the end left us
with about 6 smelly portapotties scattered around town. In the meantime,
poor people continued to get harassed, cited, or even jailed in some cases
just because they have to take a piss. It's time to push the discussion on
the critical issues so that over time we reconfigure the political debate
and ultimately change the faces on the City Council.  

Oh yeah, getting back to the housing arena, I think that we all should
concentrate first on getting right of first refusal passed. Then, lets bring
a package of proposal up for a vote before the Council. This package should
include relocation to tenants displaced by rent increases and 60 day notice,
but other measures that are of equal or even greater importance include:

1.  Securing passage of a mandatory code inspection program for low income
apartments or exclusively for buildings with repeated code violations. (this
should be a top priority. We had it for a few years.  It worked and let's
get it back.)

2.  I also think there is a need to look at a code inspection requirement
(and requiring compliance with minimum maintenance standards) as a
pre-requisite to rent increases above say 5%. 

3.  Extending the anti-abandonment law city-wide.  

4.  Expanding abatement/receivership provisions in a way that actually
requires DCLU to more actively intervene (right now, they simply refuse of
act or exercise the authority in law that they have) when owners neglect
and/or abandon units.  This could be done in a way to allow non-profits to
take over neglected and abandoned buildings. Somehow, we have replace heads
of DCLU or in other ways force them to aggressively enforce.

5. Strengthen and mandate under certain circumstances condemnation
proceedings to enable the City to acquire neglected and abandoned buildings.

6. Strengthen other provisions of the housing code. 

7. Implement other measures to prevent loss of Section 8 units (in addition
to right of first refusal).

8.  If we are going to require relocation in cases involving significant
rent increases, and amend our existing relocation law, then we also should
take the time to up the amount tenants receive in relocation assistance when
they are displaced by demolition - requiring the developer to pay up to
$1000 in relocation and requiring the city to match that amount. (we should
have done this months ago, when the courts upheld the City's relocation
law). This would re-establish the amount that was paid to tenants before
Mark Sidran and Norm Rice convinced the old City Council to cut the amount
by one-half and eliminate most of the developers responsibility.  When we up
the amount, we can also extend relocation to tenants displaced by
significant rent increases.  

There also is a great need to expand the amounts we spend on low income
housing - identifying new local funding sources, tapping more from the
general fund, using a portion of any budget surplus, councilmanic bonds,
emergency funds etc. that we need for the purposes of facilitating purchase
of Sec. 8 buildings threatened with market rate conversion, demolition and
sale.  An additional pot of funds should be created to assist in tenant use
of right of first refusal.  These are matters to discuss at budget time
especially.  We also need a "no net loss" policy adopted to prevent SHA and
others from destroying existing low income units under their control and a
tolerance policy on encampments, repeal of no-sitting law.  These should be
top priorities also.  Let's move on them starting with the tough ones first.
See where we are, keep hitting away until we win. (Why is it that this
happens at the State Legislature and not at the City Council.  Why are we so
bashful here in liberal Seattle?) Some of these housing initiatives could be
introduced as a package but I think we should be careful on how we do this
to avoid giving councilmembers a way out and an excuse to do nothing.
Working with constitutent groups and proceeding with their support and
involvement is important. 
                                  *****
I like the fact that you (Nick) and Peter want to move on the housing front-
what a refreshing change from the status quo, and indeed let's get moving
but first with right of first refusal and then these other things.  Let's
move the debate forward, mobilize our constituents, change the terrain of
the debate so that ultimately we can get these things passed, if not this
year, then next year when our efforts hopefull will lead to election of new
more progressive councilmembers and in other ways alter the political climate.

Thanks again for your interest in moving forward.  I hope that these
thoughts will be taken in the constructive vein they were intended.

- John Fox

see excerpts of "URBAN POLITICS # 42 with Nick Licata" those para. dealing
with the above issues