February 19, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 8

Community & Editorial

Mainstream media often misses the mark when it comes to covering Seattle government

By Carolee Colter / Guest Writer
and John V. Fox / Seattle Displacement Coalition

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We have high regard for the great majority of print, TV and radio reporters in our city. Most are underpaid, overworked and given little space or airtime to do more than gloss over local topics. Here are some stories, however, just begging for deeper coverage:

Homelessness increases while underlying causes ignored:
News stories recently zeroed in on the annual One Night Count, which showed a jump in the number of homeless people on our streets from last year. While the media referred to the need for more shelter beds, services and subsidized housing, how about highlighting the connection between homelessness and record numbers of Seattle households pushed from their homes due to demolition and increased rents?

Housing authority sacrifices public housing, which is now the city’s largest market-rate developer:
Seattle Times editors recently praised the new Yesler Terrace development that will add high-rise offices and more than 3,000 market-rate units on the site, ignoring the net loss of several hundred desperately needed low-cost units. 

Over the last 15 years, Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) has morphed into a market-rate developer, demolishing public housing, selling off its land and low-income properties; buying, developing and managing market-rate developments; and contracting out work and our tax dollars to a food chain of private builders, planners, bankers and architects. Everyone’s winning — except for the low-income people SHA is charged to serve. 

Streetcar continues to fall short of ridership projections:
Despite the Amazon office explosion, ridership and revenues for the South Lake Union Streetcar remain well below expectations. City planners may soon ask the Seattle City Council for more funds (for a third time) to bail it out. 

Yet, this hasn’t deterred city leaders from moving forward with an $850 million plan to extend the streetcar into North End neighborhoods and downtown. 

King County’s April ballot measure for a $60 car-tab increase is slated to raise $130 million “to stave off bus-service cuts.” However, $50 million of that goes to local governments with no strings attached, including $16 million for Seattle.

Will Seattle use its share for streetcars or real needs in our neighborhoods? 

Multi-Family Tax Exemptions (MFTE) subsidize (un)affordable housing:
More than $200 million in MFTE tax breaks have been given away to a handful of residential developers since 2004. While developers must set aside 20 percent of units at “affordable levels,” these rents are actually hundreds of dollars above what even median-income tenants can afford. The state auditor is investigating the program. 

Use of MFTE has skyrocketed and now the city says it’s draining millions from the city budget. Where’s the press coverage? 

City Light and Seattle Public Utilities say rate hikes are necessary:
City Light is facing a revenue shortfall, partly due to a drop in prices received for surplus hydro power, and partly due to expensive capital projects such as $400 million in new infrastructure in South Lake Union. Internal memos indicate everyone’s rates must go up by 3 to 4 percent to cover these costs.

Alternatives to jacking up costs include raising large-user rates to bring them in line with what large users like Boeing and Nucor Steel demand and imposing impact fees on new users like biotech companies and Amazon in South Lake Union. 

As for the revenue shortfall due to low energy prices, city leaders could tap the city’s emergency fund, consolidated loan pool or cumulative reserves until market conditions push energy prices, and City Light revenues, back up. A thorough airing of such options is needed. 

With passage of our new district-election system, every city councilmember faces reelection in 2015. We sincerely hope the press digs into stories like these so that voters truly are informed.  

A slightly different version of this op-ed appeared in Pacific Publishing Newspapers.




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