Two progressives clash over methods
Mike O’Brien (incumbent) versus Albert Shen
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien faces challenger Albert Shen in the race for Seattle City Council Position 8.
O’Brien, who is seeking a second term on the council, touts preserving funding for social services and creating a safe parking program for people living in their cars among his accomplishments on the job.
Shen, the owner of a transportation engineering firm, is vying for his first elected office. He is campaigning as a progressive who will bring a results-based approach to city government.
The two candidates differ on how to promote social equity, including how to create and preserve affordable housing and what to do about the city’s homeless population.
In May the city council adopted legislation to allow taller, denser buildings in South Lake Union through incentive zoning, which uses additional height and floor area as an incentive for developers to provide affordable housing, among other amenities.
O’Brien, together with fellow councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Clark, supported taking small steps toward requiring developers to create more affordable housing, while Councilmember Nick Licata pushed the council to charge developers a much higher fee, a move O’Brien called “the Licata leap.”
O’Brien settled on a comparitively lower fee so that his fellow councilmembers could agree, ordinances would pass and the projects could get started, he said.
Still, O’Brien concedes the changes made in South Lake Union are paltry compared to the citywide need for affordable housing.
“We’re barely scratching the surface,” he said. “We need to step back and take a look at our whole affordable housing strategy throughout the city. Even the number I ended up at, there was a lot of pushback from folks on the developer side.”
Shen said O’Brien and the council erred in not being more proactive about affordable housing.
“What happened in South Lake Union, they need to take a good ‘lessons learned,’” Shen said. “They’re bringing in a national consultant [on creating affordable housing], and I think that’s a great first step. In my mind, it should’ve been done before,” he said.
Shen also expressed ambivalence about the efficacy of incentive zoning, calling it “speculative.”
“I agree with the fundamentals of it, that’s a great start. But it doesn’t really move the needle as far as we really need to go because things are changing so rapidly,” he said.
Affordable housing units could be built more quickly and cost-effectively in less expensive neighborhoods, Shen said.
“He [O’Brien] says you’re moving poverty, I say you’re taking an opportunity to up the economic opportunity of that local community,” Shen said.
O’Brien said he prefers that affordable housing is included in every development.
But when that’s not possible, having some affordable housing in each neighborhood ought to be a priority for the city, in part because proximity to job centers provides opportunities for economic advancement.
“The goal here isn’t just about housing, it’s about families being successful. And location matters,” O’Brien said.
Location would not be so critical if Seattle had better mass transit, Shen said. Metro is facing a $75 million budget gap in 2014. Sales tax is the largest single source of Metro’s funding, and since 2008 the weak economy has caused an ongoing revenue shortfall for Metro.
Shen said transit funding is lacking in part because city officials have had a poor relationship with state leaders, something he attributes to opposition to the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Viaduct, a stance taken by O’Brien as well as Mayor Mike McGinn.
To repair that fallout, Shen said he would pursue federal money, and “leverage my relationships with our local congressional delegation and find ways to get money for us locally.” He would also pursue private money to help supplement Seattle’s transportation funding, he said.
The subject of Nickelsville is also illustrative of the candidates’ differing views on homelessness.
Nickelsville had squatted for two years on land in West Seattle before the city of Seattle came up with $500,000 to find housing for the camp’s residents.
That money enabled Union Gospel Mission to help find housing for 30 or 40 households, O’Brien said.
“That was a pretty good record for a three-month period that we intensely focused on,” and shows what city officials can do when there’s a sense of urgency, he said.
O’Brien supported an ordinance proposed by Licata that would’ve allowed other organizations, not just churches, to host temporary homeless camps, but it failed to pass the council.
He said homeless camps are a harm-reduction strategy for those awaiting housing, but, he added, “I think most of us agree that living in a tent on a lot is not a long-term solution.”
Shen, by contrast, takes a harder line on homeless camps. He said homeless encampments shouldn’t be allowed, let alone expanded, even as an emergency survival strategy.
“We just need to get away from these types of facilities,” Shen said of homeless encampments. “It doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Shen said he supports education and training for homeless people, tax credits and incentives for hiring them, and, in the case of the chronically homeless, “getting an understanding of who these people are and target how they are living.”
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