Joe Szwaja has a smart idea for how an ever-pricier Seattle can remain affordable to average working people. When the city sells a piece of public property to a developer with the understanding he or she will turn it into workforce housing, the City Council ought to get the promise in writing.
It was a comment on the city’s sale of the Alaska Building that Szwaja, a schoolteacher and Green Party candidate for City Council, couldn’t resist making Aug. 2 at a candidates’ forum on growth and development at the Yesler Community Center.
Szwaja, who is challenging incumbent City Councilmember Jean Godden for Position 1, was one of seven council candidates who fielded questions on Seattle’s rapidly changing landscape, including whether the city and school district should sell off public properties to developers, how gentrification can be mitigated and affordable housing maintained, and where the candidates stood on the anticipated redevelopment of public housing at Yesler Terrace.
Szwaja said the Alaska Building’s buyer, who later decided to turn the corner property at Second Ave. and Cherry St. into a hotel (or an office building), reneged on the good-faith agreement he had made with the city – something Szwaja (pronounced “SWI-a”) wants to see nailed down in the future.
Public property, he said, should be for public benefit – an idea many of the candidates endorsed in priniciple, with City Councilmember David Della suggesting that the city help community organizations buy surplus properties. Della’s Position 7 opponent, Tim Burgess, a former cop and reporter, said he’d look at affordable housing proposals for any properties the council were to consider selling.
Burgess also stressed preserving the historic character of Seattle’s neighborhoods, which he said should remain in charge of planning at the grassroots level and resist the mayor’s attempt to consolidate planning efforts at City Hall.
Al Runte, a candidate for Position 3 who ran for mayor in 2005 and is currently gathering signatures for a city measure to make developers pay for open spaces and parks, was alone in insisting that Seattle’s public schools shouldn’t be sold off to fix the district’s financial problems. “I can see the time when we will need the property for what it was intended for – schools,” he said.
But even as Seattle works to fund low-income housing, affordable rentals of $700 to $800 a month are being torn down, Szwaja said, as City Hall encourages denser housing developments as a way to curb sprawl and traffic.
In the meantime, he said, the Seattle Housing Authority’s mixed-income redevelopments of its Holly Park, High Point and Rainier Vista public housing complexes have resulted in the loss of roughly 1,000 units of low-income housing.
“There’s a lot of affordable housing,” said Szwaja. “The problem is average people can’t pay for it. ... A lot of people are getting ridden on a red carpet of density right out of town .”
Venus Velazquez, a former staffer in the Department of Neighborhoods seeking the Position 3 council seat being vacated by Peter Steinbrueck, was more direct. “We need to take a growth time-out,” Velazquez said.
Among other questions addressed by the panel:
Yesler Terrace: Szwaja stated that he supported one-for-one replacement of all low-income units within the current boundaries of the 30-acre Yesler Terrace public housing site, which a citizens advisory committee is currently looking at expanding as part of plans to rebuild Yesler Terrace as a mixed-income community similar to NewHolly and High Point.
Godden, who did not attend the forum, said later that she, too, supports one-for-one replacement. “It’s a little early in the planning process to make any broad remarks about it,” she said.
Rainier Valley: With light rail bringing gentrification to Seattle’s lower-cost southern neighborhoods, Councilmember David Della said the city needs to look at the area’s neighborhood plans (which many residents argue Mayor Nickels has run roughshod over) . The developments envisioned around the stations “should not be determined by the city,” he said. “They should be determined by the people who live there.”
City Councilmember Sally Clark, whose three challengers were not invited to the forum, noted that the arrival of light rail is helping push people further south. She would deal with this through tax breaks on “affordable” new rentals starting at $1,227 for a one-bedroom and by reducing the city’s parking requirements. Both items are advocated for by developers.
Mitigation: Forum organizers from Puget Sound SAGE, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been fighting Goodwill’s plan to put a big-box mall on the border of Seattle’s Little Saigon, included two questions regarding “community benefits agreements,” or CBAs, and “economic impact statements.”
All the candidates gave a qualified “Yes” to economic impact statements, saying they’d like to see the details. Like state-required environmental impact statements, the city could require developers to assess and report on the economic affect of a project on a neighborhood prior to the council approving it.