A bold step to help address homelessness

January 14th, 2015

As we reach the end of the ten-year time frame set out in the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, there are still more than 2,300 people on our streets each night in Seattle. These figures are especially heart-wrenching during these colder, wetter winter months in Seattle, but the fact is we simply don’t have enough shelter or low-income housing capacity to house very person who is homeless. To address this challenge, we need to solutions that meet people where they are at, provide a safe place to be at night and offer services to support people getting back on their feet.

So today I stood with my Council colleagues Nick Licata, Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell in support of Mayor Ed Murray as he unveiled a proposal that helps create more safe options for people to lay their head at night. The Mayor announced the opening of an additional 50 shelter beds in Downtown and another 15 beds in Capital Hill specifically for homeless youth. Critically, the Mayor also announced new encampment legislation that builds off previous legislation developed under the leadership of Councilmember Licata. This proposal allows for regulated encampments on private and city lands and couples that “safe place to be” with access to services and supports that people experiencing homelessness might need to get back on their feet. I am thankful the Mayor brought this proposal forward and I look forward to getting the support of Council in this bill.Encampment legislation announcement

Since joining the Council, I have participated in the One Night Count of our unsheltered population three times, and I am getting ready to spend another night outside doing it again next week.  I’ve gone out with Heroes for the Homeless to deliver fresh socks and warm cup coffee to people living in their vehicles. And I have met with numerous people experiencing homeless, including sadly many young people in our city who are forced from their homes under often tragic circumstances.  All of these experiences have led me to become an advocate for more solutions and opportunities for homeless people in Seattle.

It is why I helped start the Road to Housing program, which helps people living in their vehicles get back into housing and utilizes a very similar model as this encampment legislation: safe place to be, access to services, and the support someone needs to get back on their feet and into housing. That program continues to demonstrate this model can work, and I am eager to support a similar approach in this legislation.

Encampments are not the magic bullet to ending homelessness in our city, but they do offer a partial solution to people in dire straits by giving them a safe place for the time being. I don’t think any of us up here want to see a tent in an encampment as anybody’s final destination either, but it can be a stop along the way on the path to greater stability, especially when we pair that place to be with access to a case worker and some support services for the individual.  We want to see people moving through encampments on their way to housing, and I believe that’s what most folks in encampments want too.

This encampment proposal is about meeting people where they are at and hopefully working together towards a path to greater stability. It also expands options for someone who wants to hold on to their possessions or live with a partner or a pet.

This proposal also helps address concerns that neighbors and businesses raise about homeless people sleeping in doorways or in unregulated encampments in parks or other public spaces. I strongly believe that if we want to tell folks “you can’t be here” we also need to say where you can be, and this proposal gives us more options.

This proposal will be transmitted to Council shortly and will run through the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee that I chair (and that my colleague Nick Licata also sits on). City Council will want to dig into the details of the proposal, no doubt, but I’m hopeful that my Council colleagues will join me in embracing this progressive, pragmatic approach to homelessness in Seattle.

2014 in Review

December 30th, 2014

What an exciting year it has been to be a Councilmember in Seattle. We passed historic legislation to raise wages for over 100,000 workers in the City and saw the voters support two progressive initiatives to establish a universal preschool program and expand transit service in Seattle. There is so much more to be proud of, so I am writing to today with a look back to some of the things we have accomplished together this year in the areas of planning and land use, sustainability, transportation and social justice. Thank you for sharing in these highlights with me and happy holidays to you and your family.

PLANNING & LAND USEStarting in 2014, I became chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee. This is an interesting time to be in this role, as Seattle is the fastest growing city in the country. The crux of most of our land use discussion right now is how does Seattle grow – adding density, new housing and new jobs – while maintaining affordability and all that makes Seattle such a great place to live. This is the guiding question for me and my work in land use. Here are some of the highlights from Committee this year.

  • Workforce Affordable Housing – Since 1981, Seattle voters have approved and implemented one of the most impressive public housing levy programs of any city in the country to build affordable housing in Seattle. But that only serves the lowest-income households, leaving many people who work in lower-wage jobs—like fast food workers, retail workers and others in the service sector—struggling to find a reasonably affordable place to live in the city. I believe affordability is the greatest challenge we face right now, and I have been working hard to find solutions for people don’t qualify for HUD or Section 8 programs, but who don’t make enough to afford the current market-rate units being built.
    • In October, Council passed the Linkage Fee Resolution, which sets out a new path for the City by ensuring that new development better mitigates its own impacts on affordability. It asks that developers either build 5% of their new units at affordable levels or pays into the city’s housing fund. The Linkage Fee would apply to all new commercial and multi-family development and can be used to help fund new workforce affordable and family-sized units. Read more about why the linkage fee is important in a recent guest editorial to the Seattle Times.
    • In September, Council passed Resolution 31547, which did two important things to help find more housing options in our city. First, it committed the City to participating in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Regional Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), which aims to purchase property now around future transit stations in order to preserve some affordability and be able to incentivize future community development opportunities. Second, the resolution calls for a review and report on Seattle’s development regulations regarding accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), also know as “backyard cottages,” to look at new ways to provide housing options for more people in our existing neighborhoods.
  • North Rainier Rezone (aka Mt. Baker rezone) – This rezone of the area surrounding the Mt. Baker Transit Center will set the table for future development around the light rail station to help bring jobs, housing and various commercial uses to that neighborhood. Critically, the plan promotes a more walkable and bike-friendly neighborhood that is better connected to the investments we have made in bus and light rail there.
  • Small lots & Microhousing – In both of these high-profile issues, I strived to strike a balance with the competing interests of neighborhood activists and density advocates, with legislation that allows these new innovations in housing development to continue in the City, while also addressing some of the major concerns raised by opponents.

SUSTAINABILITY – In addition, my committee also leads the Council’s efforts around sustainability. Below are some highlights from our work in 2014.

  • Oil trainsFor me, 2014 will be remembered in part as the year we saw a drastic increase in oil transport by rail through the City of Seattle. In March, Council passed Resolution 31504 asking the City’s Office of Emergency Management and the Seattle Fire Department to report to review and, if needed, update the City’s incident response plans for the increasing risk imposed by oil trains. These departments reported their findings in September, and I am working with the Mayor’s office to continue to explore how Seattle can protect itself in the event of an oil train catastrophe. I have also been working with the Mayor’s office and my colleagues on Council in asking the State and Federal Governments to step up efforts to regulate this growing threat to our public safety, property and environment.
  • Duwamish cleanup – The Duwamish River is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site, and we recently received the final Record of Decision that mandates the City’s responsibility in clean-up. Throughout this process, I have been working with South Park and Georgetown communities to explore how we can create more livable, healthy and safe communities along Seattle’s only river. We have much work left to do on the Duwamish in 2015 and beyond.
  • Advanced Green Lake cleanup — Green Lake is Seattle’s most popular park and one of its great swimming destinations. So this year in the 2015 budget, I worked with Councilmember Jean Godden to secure funding to speed up the City’s effort to treat Green Lake to deal with toxic blue green algae, which has led to multiple closures over the past couple of years. We now hope that have treatment completed in Spring of 2016.
  • Pollinator health — This year we also worked with local sustainability advocates to pass a resolution ending the City’s use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides on City-owned property in a move to help promote the health of bees and other critical pollinators that keep Seattle blooming year-round.

TRANSPORTATION – In 2014, I joined the Council’s Transportation Committee as vice-chair. Additionally, I joined the board of Sound Transit as a representative from the City of Seattle.

  • Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1 – I was extremely proud to support, and to see the voters of Seattle support, local ballot initiative STBD Prop 1 this past November. With this new funding, Seattle can help stave off potential future Metro service reductions in our city and expand the level of transit service for the residents, workers and commuters of Seattle. A robust public transportation system is essential to the future of this city in order to meet our economic, livability and environmental goals.
  • Sound TransitAs a member of the board, I am working hard to help gather support for a new ST3 funding package to go to voters in 2016. We need the support of the legislature in Olympia to make it happen, and I hope you will join me in building the public and political will needed to build out the regional transit system we need.
  • The Sound Transit board also recently adopted Sound Transit’s new Long Range Plan, which includes, among many other things, routes to Ballard & West Seattle that are so desperately needed to help move the growing number of people to and from those popular, but harder to reach neighborhoods.
  • Bike & pedestrian safety – The budget that City Council recently approved included tens of millions of dollars in new and improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure to help implement our Bike and Pedestrian Master Plans. Council also passed legislation to implement a new bike sharing program, Pronto, with 500 bikes and 50 stations to help provide one more way of getting around town. Since the program, is not yet operating citywide, I sponsored new funding in next year’s budget to help plan for bike share expansion to Southeast Seattle. BREAKING NEWS: Just as the newsletter was going to print, we learned that the bike counter on the Fremont Bridge just passed 1 million trips for the year!

SOCIAL JUSTICE – What a year for social justice in Seattle! From the fight for $15 to a new preschool program, 2014 will go down in the history books for Seattle. I am both honored and grateful to be able to play a small role in the movement for social justice in Seattle, and I look forward to future progressive wins in our city.

  • $15/hour Minimum Wage – Who could have guessed when fast food workers first walked off the jobs in May of 2013 that they would be celebrating the victory of a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle just one year later? I was proud to be the first elected official in Seattle to participate in those early actions when I escorted one of the first courageous striking workers, Caroline, back to her job at Taco Bell to make sure she was welcomes back for her shift and was not retaliated against for exercising her right to strike. One year later, I was even more proud to vote in support of raising that courageous young woman’s wage. It was an historic victory won by workers who took matters into their own hands and organized for the right to earn a living that lets them live in the city they work. Major kudos also go to Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Kshama Sawant for their leading roles in the effort. For my part, I strengthened the enforcement provisions in the final legislation to make sure business were following the new rules. I also supported additional funding in the budget to accelerate $15/hour for City employees because I feel City should lead by example and pay all employees a living wage.
  • Office of Labor Standards – In addition to this big win, the City also created a new Office of Labor Standards to ensure that our progressive new laws for workers—Paid Sick & Safe Leave, Jobs Assistance in Hiring (“ban the box”), Wage Theft, and Minimum Wage—are all being followed. Councilmember Nick Licata deserves credit for getting the ball rolling and Mayor Murray for making it happen. For my part, I worked to secure $1 million for the new office in the next biennium to help strengthen its enforcement work by partnering with community-based organizations to help workers know their new rights and how to exercise them.
  • Priority Hire Legislation – This is an issue I have been working on since 2013 with Councilmember Sally Clark, but we are finally nearing adoption of a new ordinance that would ensure that we are hiring local workers when we are spending our local tax dollars and public works projects.
  • Seattle Preschool Program – This year Seattle voters also supported a new program to provide access to preschool for every child in the city. The first step is a new preschool pilot program that will serve as the basis for a future universal program. The work was spearheaded by Council President Tim Burgess and Mayor Murray, and my office worked to help bring an racial and economic justice lens to the proposal to ensure that the pilot is accessible to the children who most need it.
  • Food Access in Delridge – Early in 2014, my office partnered with the Seattle Women’s Commission to explore food access issues in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle.  We put together a report which shows that the lack of sufficient income is the biggest barrier to accessing healthier food, not lack of transportation or grocery stores, as are often reported to be the main issues.
  • Birth Doula Services  – Another big victory for me in the budget was securing funding for birth doula services for low-income women in Seattle. Doulas are trained and certified to provide support to women before, during and in the weeks following birth and are a critical piece of the maternal and child health system, although they fall outside of traditionally government funded public health services. They are tied with increased health outcomes for both mother and child and I was excited to secure the support of my Council colleagues for this funding in the budget.

As you can see, it has been a incredible, busy year here for me and my staff. We are honored to serve you and excited to continue our work with you to bring about a city that reflects our values and embodies our vision of a city that works for our people and protects our planet. Thank you for your engagement on these and other issues throughout the year.

Happy Holidays!

Affordable Housing Linkage Fee Proposal

October 14th, 2014

City Council is currently considering a new way to help fund workforce affordable housing in Seattle. It is called the Affordable Housing Linkage Fee. The basis of the proposal is that the rapid growth and new development we are experiencing in Seattle is causing an even greater need for more affordable housing. This new fee asks new development to help pay to mitigate the increasing demand on our affordable housing stock. I am proposing that we replace our current incentive zoning program with this new housing linkage fee program, which has the potential to significantly grow our resources for affordable housing in the city.

This proposal comes out of over 18 months of work. For the full version of this post—which includes extensive background on how we got here, what our consultants have told us throughout this process of developing this proposal and what we know about our current affordability crisis—please check out this page. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to stick to the recommendations section that deals with the linkage fee proposal.

In order to explain how the change to a linkage fee will bolster our resources for affordable housing in the city, we need to start by explaining how our current incentive zoning program works. From our Department of Planning and Development: “Incentive zoning is a set of requirements that property owners in certain zones must meet to achieve the full potential of their building site. Property owners are required to provide public benefits, such as affordable housing, historic preservation, and open space, in exchange for larger buildings.” To meet the affordable housing requirements, a developer can either produce affordable units in the building they are developing or they can pay into the City’s affordable housing trust fund (in land use terms we call this “producing on site” versus “paying the in-lieu fee” to the trust fund).

The City has had an incentive zoning (IZ) program for commercial buildings downtown since 2001 and for residential buildings downtown since 2006. The program has been expanded to additional neighborhoods concurrently with upzones in Pioneer Square, SODO and South Lake Union, as well as around light rail stations. The fee-in-lieu was increased downtown and in South Lake Union in 2014. After the South Lake Union rezone, the Council adopted Resolution 31444, calling for a comprehensive review of our workforce housing programs, with a particular look at 60-80% AMI households, to better understand how we were meeting the need in Seattle.

The consultant found that while the IZ program has provided significant resources for affordable housing ($31 million from 2001-2013), the program is limited in its ability to provide significantly more affordable housing because (a) IZ is geographically limited in scope and (b) it is a voluntary program even in the areas it applies. So the consultants’ recommendation is simply to expand the geographic scope of the program and make it apply to all commercial and multi-family residential projects. The consultants also recommend increasing the fee, and their analyses suggest it can be done without significantly slowing down growth and development.

The proposal I am putting forward is right in line with the recommendations we got from our consultants. My proposal would replace the IZ program with the housing linkage fee for all commercial and multi-family residential development. The fee would be based on the square footage of the project and would be set at the level required to produce 3%-5% of the units being created at an affordable level. Developers will still have the choice they have today—produce 3%-5% of the units in the building as affordable units (with a 99-year period of affordability) or pay the housing linkage fee. The fee would apply in all urban villages and centers, commercial zones and low-rise zones. The fee will not apply in the single-family zones or to single-family home development. This map shows where the fee will be applied across the city.LinkageFeeAreas

Critics of the linkage fee approach are saying that the broader scope and increased fee will slow down development and prevent more housing supply from coming online in the market. They also say the fee will get passed on to renters. But we have good reason to believe that both concerns will not come true.

First, the report on policy recommendations explains how rents will not increase due to the linkage fee. This is because developers are already charging the highest rents that the market will bear. If developers could raise rents and pass on more costs to their tenants, they would do it already. I do not believe this will happen. The theory is that the cost of the linkage fee—with the predictability of a three-year phase in and the certainty that comes from applying it to all commercial and multi-family residential projects—will actually be built into the cost of the land and not passed on to future tenants. In a competitive market with all developers bidding on a project and paying the linkage fee, the land price will adjust to reflect the market reality for development.

From our review of affordable housing best practices and incentive-/inclusive-zoning programs from around the country, we see that the most successful programs in other cities are mandatory. This creates a level playing field for developers across neighborhood, the city and various housing types, and embeds the cost of the program into the land, so that it is less likely that it is passed onto renters.

Second, the economic analysis conducted by DRA shows that Seattle’s jobs, real estate and development markets are so strong that we could raise our fees significantly without halting the growth we are experiencing. The more modest fees that Council are considering are below the level that the analysis suggests would slow development. So I do not believe we will halt more housing from being built than under our current IZ program.

Now, there is a risk in setting the price of the linkage fee too high, beyond the recommendations of the consultants, because that could lead to a situation where projects do not get built and there is not enough supply being created. In that scenario, rents could go up as available space becomes scarcer. But the economic analysis is convincing—if we get the price right we won’t hinder development and we will significantly increase the resources we have to help meet the growing demand for housing at all levels of affordability.

Next steps

On October 14, the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee recommended adopting Resolution 31551, which asks the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to create legislation based on the linkage fee proposal. The Full Council will vote on the resolution on October 20. The resolution asks DPD to submit a draft of the legislation in June of 2015.

My proposal for new microhousing regulations

August 13th, 2014

As Chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee (PLUS), I recently convened a working group of neighborhood residents—including people who live in or near microhousing buildings—and developers of microhousing to help dig into the micro-housing regulations that were proposed by the Department of Planning and Development earlier this spring. We convened this group because it was clear that neither side, not the neighborhood activists nor the developers, was happy with the proposed regulations. I wanted to hear the issues at the crux of each side’s concerns so I could help navigate a path forward to establish permanent regulations for this type of in-demand housing.

The working group met three times over the past two months, with each meeting lasting at least two hours. As the convener and facilitator, I tried to focus the conversation on specific issues each side were interested in, such as size requirements of the units, when design review is appropriate, parking regulations, and where future microhousing and congregate living buildings should be located. At the last meeting, I shared my proposal for regulating microhousing. It differs from the original DPD proposal in a number of ways, which are nicely framed up in this matrix compiled by City Council Central Staff. A stand-alone document outlining my proposal is available at this link and on the PLUS Committee agenda for today, August 13.

The fundamental change with my proposal would replace the existing model of micro-housing with “small efficiency apartments.” Each of these would be treated as an individual unit for purposes of counting towards permitting, growth targets, fire and life safety requirements, and the like. Along with the requirement that they be individual units, we also provide new flexibility for these studio units to be built smaller, to respond to the changing market demand for small, more affordable units. Below, I will summarize my proposal on some of the biggest issues we discussed in the working group.

How Big and Where Built?

The new requirements would allow small efficiency apartments to be built with an average size of 220 square feet within the building, with individual units as small as about 180 square feet allowed.

In addition, we know there is some share of the market that would like a very small unit and shared kitchen facilities, more like a dormitory than individual studio apartments. My proposal will allow these to continue to be built as congregate housing, but specifies that they can only be built in higher density zones in our urban villages and urban centers. These are the places that most likely have access to transit and amenities to support a higher density community. In multi-family low-rise zones, congregate residences will not be allowed. However, in these zones, small efficiency apartments may be built.

Design Review

My proposal would require most new small efficiency apartments and congregate housing to go through design review, depending on the size of the building, which is measured by gross floor area. For multifamily projects in which more than 50% of the units are small efficiency dwelling units and for congregate residences (all zones):

  • Streamlined Design Review (not appealable) for projects containing 5,000-11,999 square feet of gross floor area.
  • Administrative Design Review (appealable) applied to projects containing 12,000-19,999 square feet of gross floor area.
  • Full Design Review (appealable) applied to projects containing 20,000 square feet or greater of gross floor area.

For multifamily projects in which 50% or fewer of the units are small efficiency dwelling units, the standard Design Review threshold for the zone where the project is located would apply.

Parking Requirements
In Station Area Overlay Districts, Urban Centers, and commercial and multifamily zones within Urban Villages near frequent transit service, no minimum parking requirements would apply. In all other areas, one space will be required for every two small efficiency dwelling units in a building or for every four units in congregate housing buildings.


Next Steps

With the working group now complete, the ball is back in the City Council’s court. In today’s PLUS Committee, we are discussing the working group and my proposal for microhousing and congregate housing. We plan to bring it back to Committee for more discussion on Friday, September 5, our next PLUS Committee meeting. For more information on the PLUS Committee, check out our web page.

Setting minimum density requirements in areas where we want density

August 13th, 2014

Today, on Wednesday August 13th, the PLUS Committee will receive a briefing on Council Bill 118167, related to minimum density requirements in the city’s most dense and walkable neighborhoods.

Density helps create better pedestrian environments because it means more people on the street–whether they are coming from home or work, or out shopping in local businesses or eating at local restaurants. More people on the street level helps these community gathering places and businesses thrive, which in turn make for a more desirable pedestrian environment. This density can also help make an area transit-friendly by potentially increasing the number of people who take transit and reducing the number of cars needed (more walking, biking and transit means less congestion, too). Granted, that means our local and state governments need to be doing more to expand our transit capacity, but the point is that transit goes where the people are. Creating dense, vibrant business districts across the city benefits can have numerous benefits to the city.

This issue of minimum density development emerged last year when single-use, low-density developments were proposed in neighborhood business districts better suited for mixed-use development. For example, in the case of a proposed drug store in Wallingford, the single-story pharmacy with adjacent parking lot and drive-through window did not fit the vision outlined in the Neighborhood plan for a more dense transit and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood business district.

As a result of public concern over these developments in neighborhood business districts, interim regulations were enacted on September 16, 2013 to halt similar future developments while the Department of Planning and Development worked on permanent regulations to address the underlying issue.  Now, with the interim regulations due to expire and DPD ready with their proposed permanent regulations, Council is poised to take up the legislation in September. The new regulations largely reflect the interim regulations, with a few additions.

In short, the bill would require that new development in pedestrian-designated areas of officially zoned “Urban Centers,” “Urban Villages,” or “Station Area Overlay Districts” be built to at least half the allowed maximum density or “floor area ratio (FAR)” in that zone.  Projects of lower density (for example, a single story store with a parking lot), won’t be allowed in these areas. Take a look at this map and the bold black lines that designate where these new regulations will apply.Areas where minimum density regs will apply

We don’t want or need minimum density everywhere, but by ensuring we get density in our priority pedestrian-oriented areas, we ensure we are creating great walkable, transit-friendly hubs both downtown and in our neighborhoods.

If you’re interested in the details, here are some additional resources:

Guest blog post: The dangers of gas-powered leaf blowers

July 30th, 2014

[Note: The following is a guest blog post. Let us know in the comments or via email what you think Seattle City Council ought to do about the issues Maddy raises here: mike.obrien@seattle.gov.]

Maddy B, guest bloggerHi, my name is Maddy and I have recently graduated from my senior year of high school. After reaching out to Councilmember O’Brien about the need to regulate the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, he invited me to write this guest blog post to help educate his constituents on what I have learned and what I see as the dangers of gas-powered leaf blowers.

I am really worried about the repercussions of leaf blower use. Thankfully, a study on leaf blower use and its consequences, commissioned by the Seattle City Council, is scheduled to come out in September 2014. I am pleased that the Seattle City Council is taking the risks of leaf blowers seriously and I am hopeful that this study, requested by Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, will get more than a hearing and that it will lead to actual change.

This earth is our home, our bodies are our home. While innocuous and seemingly unharmful, gasoline-powered leaf blowers cause harm to both. Whenever we use these leaf blowers, we trade health for momentary expediency. As leaf blowers push leaves from one place to another, they also spin “dust particles, including herbicides, pesticides, and other contaminants up from the ground into the air” we breathe as reported by the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment. However, despite the unsettling idea of breathing in whatever may have been on the ground, the emission of particulate matter from leaf blowers is even more disturbing.

Particulate matter is one of the most harmful pollutants according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. It is so small that it can lodge in the deepest parts of our lungs where our bodies can’t get rid of it. Particulate matter can worsen asthma, bronchitis and other lung diseases and decreases the body’s ability to fight off infection. Recent studies even suggest that exposure to particulate matter can lead to premature death for the elderly.

The irritating noise produced by gasoline-powered leaf blowers is actually, in and of itself, a health hazard for children. Stephen A. Stansfeld and Mark P. Matheson report that adult bodies have developed strategies to cope with extensive, irritating noise but that this ability is not fully developed in children. Although extensive noise can “impair performance and increase aggression” in adults, children’s reading comprehension and long term memory can be negatively affected as well.

And it gets worse. The California EPA records that many gasoline-powered leaf blowers operate on two-stroke engines which are designed in such a way that up to 30 percent of the fuel can be lost unused, as exhaust. The main pollutants of such exhaust include hydrocarbons, which combine with nitrogen oxide to form ozone, and carbon monoxide, a toxic gas that can kill. The California EPA also reports that gasoline powered leaf-blowers emit benzene, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, a carcinogen which can cause cancer. As the American Lung Association states, “two-stroke engines like lawnmowers and leaf or snow blowers often have no pollution control devices. They can pollute the air even more than cars” which have catalytic converters to convert exhaust into less harmful compounds. This important feature, however, is lacking in a lot of lawn equipment. A study done by the car researchers at Edmunds.com found that two-stroke leaf blowers actually pollute 23 times more carbon monoxide and almost 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons than a 2011 Ford Raptor. The study concludes that 30 minutes of yard work with this leaf blower would pollute the same amount of hydrocarbons as the 3,900 mile drive from Texas to Alaska in the Raptor.

I am worried by all this evidence. I am worried that we are trading a healthy future for speed. I am dismayed by the damage we are doing to our own bodies, yes, but also for the damage we unknowingly do to others.

About 100 cities have placed restrictions or banned all leaf blower use. It is time for Seattle to follow—for ourselves, our children and the environment. The Seattle Municipal Code on noise control states that “It is the express intent of the City Council to control the level of noise in a manner which promotes commerce; the use, value and enjoyment of property; sleep and repose; and the quality of the environment.” It is time for the City Council to uphold the Municipal Code and ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

As much as I hope that the recent look into leaf blower use in Seattle will create change within the law, Councilmember Mike O’Brien told me in a recent meeting that he pays the most attention to issues which have strong community support for them. Therefore, it is time to start organizing. I really do believe that together, we could follow many other cities and ban gas-powered leaf blowers. I have a petition at http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/ban-gas-powered-leaf. The goal is 1,000 signatures by the time the study comes out in September. If you are interested in helping organize or participate in a letter campaign, contact me at banblowersseattle@gmail.com. Please help me. This is very important.

O’Brien, City Council Seek Emergency Order Prohibiting Transport of Flammable Crude Oil through Seattle

July 23rd, 2014



Councilmember Mike O’Brien

O’Brien, City Council Seek Emergency Order Prohibiting Transport of Flammable Crude Oil through Seattle
First nationwide action by a City Council to call for immediate end to oil train transport near neighborhoods

SEATTLE – City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and all eight of his council colleagues signed a letter calling for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to issue an emergency order prohibiting the shipment of Bakken crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank train cars. Bakken is highly flammable and easily ignited at normal temperatures by heat, static discharges, sparks or flames, and vapors which may form explosive mixtures with air and spread along confined areas such as sewers. The Seattle City Council is the first in the country to support the petition, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and ForestEthics.

The corresponding letter highlights the O’Brien-sponsored oil train Resolution 31504, which was signed by Mayor Ed Murray and adopted by Council in February. O’Brien’s resolution urged Secretary Anthony Foxx to aggressively phase out older model tank cars used to move flammable liquids that are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements. Following the explosion of DOT-111 train cars in Quebec, which killed 47 men, women and children, Canada immediately took action to begin phasing-out of the DOT-111 cars.

“Dozens of people have died in crude-by-rail accidents when DOT-111 tank cars were punctured and spilled flammable crude,” said O’Brien. “The catastrophic explosions can be triggered by a single spark and yet they travel on tracks underneath downtown and flanking both Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field. Seattle cannot afford to sit idly by with public safety in our city at risk.”

Earlier today the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules that would phase out the use of the DOT-111 cars in two years. City Council’s letter in support of the EarthJustice petition seeks to protect the public from oil spills and explosions now. According to the letter: “Banning the shipment of highly flammable crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank cars is necessary to abate the unsafe conditions posing an imminent hazard to human life, communities, and the environment.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, areas up to one-half mile or more from an accident site are considered vulnerable. An incident requiring warning, evacuation or rescue could easily affect the more than 600,000 people living and working in densely populated sections of Seattle.

BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude. Many of the City of Seattle’s public safety concerns were highlighted in the April 2014 testimony of Seattle’s Director of Office of Emergency Management before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies in the Committee on Appropriations.

The importance of preserving bus service in Seattle

July 17th, 2014

As a board member of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, I am casting my vote today in support of Resolution 12, which would ask Seattle voters to approve a funding package to help retain bus service in the City when Metro starts making cuts next year. If we are serious about our climate goals and want to do everything we can to accommodate the growth we are experiencing in this city, it is critical that we approve Resolution 12.

The data show that more and more people are utilizing different ways of getting around the city.

  • 2012 data from SDOT indicates that Seattle’s population increased by 11%, traffic volumes decreased by 10%, and transit ridership increased by 40% in the past ten years.
  • Commute Trip Reduction data shows that 50% of downtown commuters are getting to/from work via transit, compared to just 27% driving alone.
  • Recent Rapid Ride numbers show that the West Seattle to Downtown use is up 70% over the routes that line replaced. Use is up 39% from Ballard to Downtown.

All of these the data points demonstrate that the work we have been doing for the past decade or so is working—more people are taking transit and other ways to get around than ever, even as the population of the city continues to grow. These stats also tell us that we must continue our progress and not take a step backwards, which is what we would be doing in Seattle if we let these cuts happen. Preserving bus service in Seattle will prevent putting thousands of cars back on the road and making congestion worse.

Finally, the impacts on low-income households that rely on bus service to get to work, to school, to the doctor, to the grocery store or anywhere else around town would be devastating. A lot of debate has gone into determining the best, most progressive funding to help us preserve this critical bus service.  In the end, cutting bus service is the most regressive thing we can do in this situation, so I am supporting this package today.  But our work does not end today. Beyond preserving existing transit service, we need to expand the transit service to meet our current needs and to do so we will need additional revenue sources, including options we are not using today.

By acting today we hold the course for the short-term while we continue to work with our regional partners to secure more sustainable, more progressive, long-term funding that allows us to grow our transit system to meet the growing demand we are seeing in Seattle.

Explaining my no vote on the new taxi, for-hire and TNC regs

July 14th, 2014

Today, I was the lone vote against Council Bill 118140. This bill was worked out by the Mayor’s office in a negotiated deal with industry stakeholders from the Transportation Network Companies (TNCs, such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar), the taxi industry and the for-hire vehicle industry. There was no opportunity for the public to vet this bill, and no time for the City Council to explore the major policy questions inherent in the bill.

My first choice would have been to work the bill longer by referring it back to the Committee on Taxi, For Hire and Limousine Regulations. That motion failed. In the name of public safety and with the support of the insurance industry, I also tried to amend the bill to eliminate the “insurance gap” included in the bill, but that amendment failed as well. I could not in good conscience support the bill that introduces major policy changes with absolutely no public process and that undermines existing state insurance regulations set in place to protect public safety.

I think it is incredibly unfortunate that we are here today with massive pressure to pass a bill that I would hazard to guess few of my Council colleagues have read all 113 pages of. This massive pressure comes in the form of a threat of an initiative from the TNCs. These multi-billion dollar corporations told the City of Seattle that if we didn’t simply rubber-stamp this deal today without any scrutiny, we will face an initiative that writes the law to the sole favor of their bottom lines.

And we feel this pressure because we know that a TNC-backed initiative would likely pass for two reasons. The first is simple and it is why the Seattle City Council became the first municipal government in the country to legalize their operations: people in Seattle want the service that the TNCs provide. The second reason we think their initiative would pass is because of the simple fact that they have nearly unlimited resources with which to put into a campaign to win at the ballot in November.

So given this threat, and given this fear that we could end up with a worse law for consumers and drivers than we have today, why did I vote against the bill and want to spend more time working to strengthen it?

Simply put – we have a legislative process for a reason, and while it is not always the most efficient and doesn’t always yield the best result, it is a public process that allows us as the elected policy makers in this city to weigh in on the most important policy decisions in any one piece of legislation.

Our legislative process is also designed to give the public an opportunity to examine and weigh in on the important policy decisions that we have to make. I am not comfortable moving on a bill that hardly any of us have had time to wrap our heads around, let alone the general public.

I respect the Mayor’s effort to build a consensus from the taxis, for-hires and TNCs around this deal, but that does not absolve us on the City Council of our public responsibility to ensure the deal is a good one for consumers and drivers. In this case, with a massive bill that legalizes a new service and adjusts regulations for an existing industry, there are numerous important policy issues that should be examined and discussed by this body. But under the threat of an initiative we were forced to gloss over numerous significant policy questions. Consider the following policy issues that I feel require further examination.


Currently, the State sets the insurance requirements for taxis and for-hires. This ordinance would take that out of the hands of the state and allow the city to grant exceptions to the state requirements, for a “provisional period.” What are the implications of this? Why would we allow weaker insurance requirements than what the state requires? How is the public better served by this change?

If we accept this bill, we are creating a system of confusion that, in the event of a serious accident, could leave victims hanging out to dry while insurance companies are caught in extensive litigation to determine liability. This so-called “insurance-gap” has been identified as a major concern across the country, wherever TNCs operate. The gap exists when a driver is on the app but does not yet have a passenger. The TNCs claim this is not commercial activity and so the driver is covered by her/his personal insurance. The problem is that insurance companies say that being on the app is commercial activity and that personal insurance does not cover any action a driver takes while active on the app, passenger or no passenger.

Insurance professionals have had very little no time to weigh in on this and help inform our thinking. But by supporting this bill today, my colleagues have willingly shirked our responsibility to close this gap and that our own goals for public safety in this industry are being met.

Medallion system

This ordinance fundamentally changes the taxi and for-hire industry by converting vehicle licenses into “medallions,” essentially creating property rights for the owner. Making this change is a fundamental policy change for our taxi industry and that comes with significant pros and cons. Some say medallions are great for owners—an investment that is transferable, will add value, and allow owners to borrow against it. On the other hand we hear that medallions will cement an unjust power structure within the industry between owners and the drivers who lease their vehicles.


This ordinance introduces a $0.10 fee per ride for TNCs, with the possibility of adjusting the fee to cover the cost of enforcing the regulations pertaining to TNCs. In addition, the fees are not to exceed $525,000 in year one for TNCs. The policy questions we are ignoring here include: what is the basis for these numbers? How will FAS determine what share of its enforcement is for TNCs (as opposed to taxis and for-hires)? What if the enforcement of rideshare regulations costs more than the proposed cap of $525,000? Why isn’t there a similar fee cap proposed for taxis and for-hires?

In-vehicle cameras

We have heard from a number of drivers and passengers that cameras are essential to protecting their safety. We have no real basis for understanding what the real safety implications are for getting rid of security cameras.  But by accepting this bill today, we have lost the opportunity to engage in this debate.

Driver Licensing

Taxi drivers currently have to take days of training before being granted a license. An earlier version of this bill required a 4-hour online training. Now it just requires “a training.” What kind of training, and how much will actually protect passengers? I can’t tell you right now.  According to this bill, anyone can get a provisional license with the right paperwork within 48 hours. The catch is that this documentation is not verified for 60 days. What kind of information could slip by us in the interim? Who will be allowed to drive that shouldn’t be allowed to? We have no way of assessing that at this time. How can we ensure passengers are getting into a vehicle with safe drivers if we pass this bill today?


Many of the penalties in this ordinance may seem comparable to what we required of taxis and for-hires, but we have not had the chance to look at the enforcement adequately given the new realities of the rideshare industry. Overall, it is unclear how the penalties for violating the ordinance are fairly distributed between the companies and the drivers. At what point should the companies be responsible for the actions of their drivers? How can we trust that this is a fair penalty system that will actually deter violations, when it is those who are set to be punished making up their own penalties?


Because of we were unable to dig into and resolve these major policy issues, I voted against Council Bill 118140.

The North Rainier rezone

May 20th, 2014

City Council is currently considering a rezone of the North Rainier area surrounding the Mt. Baker Transit Center. Development of the North Rainier area is an issue that the City and community have been working on for over 15 years. The North Rainier Neighborhood Plan was adopted in 1999, and formally updated in 2010. In 2011, the Mt. Baker Town Center Urban Design Framework was adopted, which provided a vision for design of the Rainier blocks near the light rail station in order to try to create a more vibrant business- and pedestrian-friendly environment there. You can learn more background at the DPD’s North Rainier project website.

In the Fall of 2013, the Department of Planning and Development transmitted rezone legislation implementing the changes envisioned in the urban design framework. The Council held an initial discussion on that legislation in November 2013.

This spring, the Council resumed deliberation on the proposal by hosting a public hearing on May 1, 2014, to hear feedback specifically in regards to the rezone proposal put forward by the Department of Planning and Development (links to the ordinance and DPD Director’s analysis and recommendation). In the original neighborhood plan and throughout the plan update processes, the community has consistently called for a plan that yields a true “town center” feel by bringing economic revitalization and a more walkable environment to North Rainier.

I support the North Rainier rezone and think it has the potential to realize transit-oriented development in Seattle. The rezone will set the table for future development that brings jobs, housing and various commercial uses that everyone wants to the North Rainier area. Critically, the plan promotes a more walkable and bike-friendly neighborhood that is better connected to the investments we have made in bus and light rail there.

The rezone itself includes many components, including changes to the height limits of buildings near the light rail station.

  • Expansion of the station-area overlay district to support activation around the transit station.
  • Application of the “Seattle Mixed” zone along Rainier to provide a better pedestrian-oriented environment. These changes also increase heights from 65’ to 85’ on several parcels.
  • Upper-level set-backs and street-level development standards that bring more light onto the street and require transparent street-facing facades along Rainier and parking to be behind retail rather than in front.
  • Increase heights up to 125’ on two blocks where the current Lowe’s store is, to create the potential for a future campus-style hub for a major employer. Lowe’s has a long-term lease on this site, so is not planning to leave anytime soon and has been engaged as part of this rezone effort.
  • Implementation of the incentive zoning program on blocks that are increasing in height to provide workforce housing in new construction.
North Rainier Rezone map

The map of the area to be rezoned (click to enlarge).

At the public hearing, people who spoke for the rezone and against the rezone all expressed a desire for a healthy retail businesses, more good jobs, less traffic through their neighborhood and a place where kids and families feel safe walking.

There are divergent views however on how to achieve this vision. Many folks who want to see this expressed opposition to 125’ building heights along Rainier or MLK. We heard fears that the jobs at Lowes and Pepsi could be lost in part because redevelopment could bring more housing rather than commercial uses.

I support 125’ buildings because I believe they are the key to bringing in a large employer or employers in the Rainier Valley who will bring new jobs to fill up those 10 to 12 stories of offices. I don’t believe we will see high-rise residential develop in this area because of the economics—it is not likely that the rents will support high-rise steel residential construction. We also don’t see low-income housing developed at this scale, as the economics of buildings at four to six stories work better for our non-profit housing partners in the city.

This site is unique because it is two large parcels that have the opportunity to create a campus-style development. Few of these plots of land are left in the city and the rezone proposal has provisions for pedestrian-oriented crossings and open space as part of the development in order to attract this type of development.

I have also heard many concerns that there has been insufficient community outreach to people in the North Rainier area. My staff has counted 44 community meetings in the past five years related to the update of the neighborhood plan, the development of the urban design framework and this rezone. This has been a long and thoughtful planning process and one that does not stop here. After the land-use decisions, SDOT will be working with the community to design and implement the transportation improvements associated with the neighborhood plan (see this slide and memo from SDOT on TOD at Mt. Baker).

I believe this rezone is the culmination of years a planning and a good step towards creating a healthier North Rainier neighborhood where it is safe to walk and bike, where retail succeeds and where new jobs for the Rainier Valley could be located.

We will continue our discussion on the proposal in committee today – May 20 at 2:00pm in Council Chambers and again on Tuesday June 3 at 2:00pm.