2015 Year in Review

December 31st, 2015

SHell NO!It feels like an understatement to say that 2015 has been an incredible year. Seattle continues to be at the forefront of a bold, progressive movement in our country, continually demonstrating that cities can lead the way forward to a just economy and healthy environment.

Of course, we face huge challenges too, particularly with regard to issues like housing affordability and homelessness, but we are facing our challenges head on. I believe we are making progress in some areas and breaking new ground in others.

Here are some of the gains we made in 2015 in the areas of equitable development, transportation, sustainability, and social and racial justice.

Equitable Development – Seattle continues to grow in population and jobs, meaning that our economy is also soaring right now. Nevertheless, many people in Seattle are left out of this boom time. Rapid growth and rising rents are contributing to displacement of communities and cultural anchors. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by this displacement. The ongoing fight for more affordable housing is about ensuring that Seattle is a place where all people have the opportunity to live and prosper. We want to preserve the diversity of people, communities, and neighborhoods that makes Seattle so special.

This was my final year as Chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, and in that committee we spent a lot of time focusing on issues of equitable development that we started exploring in 2014. I also chaired the new Select Committee on Housing Affordability, which Council created to engage with Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) recommendations, which came out in July.

  • In May Council adopted Resolution 31577, which I sponsored to ensure that we incorporate racial and social equity into Major Comprehensive Plan update that is under development in the new Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) (learn more at seattle.gov). This resolution means our future planning will consider displacement risk factors when targeting growth and future infrastructure investments. In the budget process this fall, we also created a new position in OPCD that will be responsible for incorporating an equity analysis into all of our future planning work.
  • This year also saw some tremendous gains in our fight for more affordable housing in Seattle. For the first time in our city, all new multifamily residential and commercial development will be required to help produce new affordable housing as a result of the “Grand Bargain” that was struck between the City, developers (both for profit and non-profit), and affordable housing advocates. The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program (a.k.a., “Commercial Linkage Fee”) are the main components of this bargain and are direct descendants of the linkage fee legislation my office has been working on for the past two years. The Grand Bargain will also require future upzones in our multifamily and mixed-use zones (coming in 2017), and 2016 will see the City conducting extensive outreach and engagement over these proposals.
  • This year also saw my office laying the foundation for legislation we plan to pursue in 2016 to expand opportunities for more backyard cottages and mother-in-law units throughout the city (known as “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, and “detached accessory dwelling units,” or DADUs). We hosted a couple of public presentations on the issue and helped produce this report.
  • Finally, through partnerships with many in the community and Councilmember Licata’s office, we strengthened tenants’ rights in Seattle by eliminating loopholes in our Just Cause Eviction Ordinance to prevent landlords from drastically raising rents on low-income tenants for the purpose of evicting them without providing relocation assistance.

Sustainability & Transportation – I will always remember 2015 as the year Seattle said a big “SHell No!” to drilling in the Arctic. But it wasn’t all about the kayaktivism, as I really tried to focus my work on supporting community-led efforts against the exploitation of our natural resources for profit. I also had a chance to go to Paris to be a part of the global climate conference there, and it was incredible to see what cities are doing around the world to make meaningful strides towards ending our dependence on fossil fuels.

The fight for the future of our life on this planet is not just about standing up to big oil. In fact, the most important thing we can do locally is to create viable alternatives for people to get around without the use of fossil fuels, and that is where my passion for expanding transit access and improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure comes from. We must offer people choices and other ways to get around. This will be my top priority as the new Chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee in 2016.

  • I worked with community members and organizations from South Park, Georgetown, and Delridge to create and adopt Resolution 31567, establishing a greater role for the City of Seattle in remedying one of the largest environmental and economic injustices in our city – the Duwamish Superfund site. This resolution will help us coordinate outreach efforts in the cleanup area and identify ongoing City projects that serve resident, tribal, and fishing communities in the Duwamish River Valley.
  • While we continued our ongoing work to fight oil trains from endangering our city, this year’s real battle over fossil fuels took place in Elliot Bay. I joined with activists and organizers from Seattle and across the country protest Shell Oil’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. This fight came to Seattle when Shell made secret plans with the Port of Seattle to store their drilling rigs in Elliott Bay. For the first time in my life, I participated in civil disobedience that put me at risk of arrest by joining with others to blockade the oil rig from leaving the Port and heading up to the Arctic. Additionally, I authored Resolution 31576 stating that the City of Seattle opposes drilling in the Arctic. We also worked with the Mayor to request that our Department of Planning and Development review the permits the Port held for Terminal 5 to determine whether they were appropriate for Shell’s proposed use there. Altogether, our combined actions help win in the court of public opinion. In late September, Shell announced they were no longer pursuing Arctic oil exploration due to, among other things, the “unpredictable regulatory environment” that our actions helped create.
  • I owe a big thank you to all who supported the Move Seattle Levy this past November, because without this additional funding, we would not be able to make the investments needed to help create the transportation choices we want to see in the city. The Move Seattle Levy includes great projects in every part of the city. I am particularly excited for funding for a new infill light rail station at Graham Street along the current Link line in Southeast Seattle. I am also thrilled over funding to help build a new pedestrian bridge over I-5 to connect North Seattle College and the neighborhoods on the West side of the freeway with the future light rail stop at Northgate. Move Seattle funds will also help us build more projects in our Bike and Pedestrian Master Plans, as well as more safe routes to schools for our students.
  • I am also very excited about a new investment that I championed in the budget that will expand access to ORCA cards for low-income students in Seattle Public Schools. Currently, middle and high school students who live more than 1.5 miles or 2 miles, respectively, from their school must walk or drive to and from school every day. This makes it difficult for many students to get to school on time or participate in after school activities, and many students in some neighborhoods fear for their safety. So a group of students at Rainier Beach High School began advocating for more bus passes for these students, and we were able to secure $1 million in City funding to work with King County Metro and Seattle Public Schools to help get thousands more ORCA cards into students hands. We are still working out the details now, but are hoping to get these cards to students by February of 2016.

Racial & Social Justice – We have made great strides towards racial and social justice in this country and our city, but we still have so much further to go. I am proud of some of our accomplishments this year and know that we will continue our progress in the years to come.

  • It has been a number of years in the making, but early in 2015 we finally passed our Priority Hire Ordinance, which is about making sure that we are hiring locally when we put our tax dollars into local public works projects. Through this new process, we will also be creating new career pathways for people historically facing barriers to the construction field. This was over two years of work by my office, many in City government, and numerous stakeholders, and is something we can all be proud of.
  • Seattle took some big steps to address the homeless crisis we are experiencing. Early in the year, we passed a bill to permit up to three homeless encampments in the city. While not a long-term solution to homelessness, I believe an encampment can be a safer place for someone to be than under a bridge, as well as a place where folks can live in community with others and get access to the services they may need to get back on their feet. We opened two new encampments in Ballard and Interbay this fall and will be monitoring them closely to see what we can learn and improve upon. We also passed a state of emergency on homelessness and dedicated over $7.5 million in new, one-time funding in the City’s budget to help tackle the urgent need in our communities. This work is ongoing and will be a major focus of 2016, but it is clear we need to continue taking action to help ensure everyone has a roof over their heads.
  • This year I also worked with a number of young activists and organizers of color to adopt Resolution 31614, stating the City of Seattle’s vision to detain zero young people and develop new policies and strategies to eliminate the need for youth detention. The criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates youth of color—for example, two-thirds of 2012 bookings to the youth detention center were young people of color, though they make up a far smaller proportion of the population. Additionally, we secured $500,000 in the 2016 budget for small grants to help fund community-based alternatives to youth detention.
  • Just this month, City Council passed the Voice for Drivers legislation that my office championed in partnership with people who drive in a for-hire capacity for a living. While we have made great gains for workers in Seattle with new labor standards and increased minimum wage, we know that drivers in the for-hire industry are left out by virtue of their status as independent contractors. This means that many African and Southeast Asian immigrants and their communities miss out on those gains too, as they make up the vast majority of drivers in this industry. Past efforts at regulating this industry have come up short, so I put forward this legislation to give drivers at taxi, for-hire and transportation network companies (e.g., Uber, Lyft) a voice on the job and the opportunity to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. What we are seeing in this industry is a race to the bottom, but we know workers are stronger when they organize together to use their collective voice to make an impact in their working conditions. We have seen this throughout the history of this country, from factory workers that came together to fight for safer working conditions and the 8-hour workday over 100 years ago to the fast food workers who are leading the Fight for $15 today.
  • Finally, I am thrilled to say that Honest Elections are coming to Seattle. This initiative approved by voters is something I have long been fighting for, and was all about getting money out of politics and creating a public financing system for local elections. When fundraising is no longer the most important aspect of running for office, we open the door to candidates who previously could not access the wealthy people who make up the donor class in politics. When candidates are not spending all their time making fundraising calls, they are spending more of their valuable time talking to more voters about the issues most important to them, many of whom are disenfranchised and have never been asked to participate in the political process in this way. Honest Elections is just another example of Seattle leading the way on progressive new solutions to the problems of inequity we continue to face.

As you can see, it has been an incredible, busy year here for me and my staff. We are honored to serve you and are excited to continue working to bring about a city that 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,
Mike O’Brien


Update on Affordable Housing Work

September 3rd, 2015

I continually hear from people in our city struggling to keep up with rising rents. That is why I have been working to ensure that as Seattle grows, new development helps pay for new affordable housing.

For me, this work dates back to 2013, when the Council debated the rezone and affordability requirements in South Lake Union. During that rezone, it become clear that we could not meet Seattle’s affordability needs with voluntary programs and tax subsidies. I knew then we would need a citywide, mandatory program that required affordable housing to be included in new market-rate development.

We are lucky to have a booming technology sector attracting high-wage jobs and skilled workers to Seattle, but this growth also required us to pause and ask how will we continue to be affordable for all the residents and workers who do not have those high-wage jobs?  And who will pay for the infrastructure to serve them?

I’ve met the workers in security works and janitorial jobs created by the tech boom in Seattle.  These community members deserve to live in the city with the ability to walk and ride transit to work, just as much as the high-paid tech workers in the same building. See more about our affordable housing needs and the history of Council’s work in this area on this infographic from a previous blog post.

So I was excited to stand with Mayor Murray to announce the introduction of the legislation behind the “Grand Bargain.” The Grand Bargain itself represents 6,000 desperately needed, new affordable units that we cannot build fast enough—especially not for those in need today. The two key components of this bill are the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program—which will require affordable units are produced with new residential development—and the Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program, more commonly known as the commercial linkage fee—which will ensure that fees collected on commercial development will support new affordable housing construction. These 6,000 new units will be in addition to the thousands of units that the City funds with an expanded housing levy, multi-family tax exemptions, and state and federal resources. All told, we are aiming to create 20,000 new affordable units over the next ten years.

The Council has begun our legislative process in the Select Committee on Housing Affordability, which I will be Chairing. Here are three of the first items we took up in the committee:

  • Resolution 31609 – A resolution that lays out the Council’s workplan for addressing the HALA recommendations and other affordable housing goals.
  • A Resolution to lay out the framework for developing the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. This resolution establishes the Council’s specific intent in considering future upzones to implement a citywide mandatory inclusionary zoning program for multifamily residential development and an affordable housing impact mitigation program for commercial development. It also establishes minimum expectations for planning studies and public outreach and engagement that must precede Council consideration of implementing legislation.
  • An ordinance to implement the Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program, more commonly known as the Commercial Linkage Fee. We will get to work on this legislation first and my goal is to pass something by the end of this year. That said, it too relies on future upzones, so it will not go into effect and begin collecting fees until we implement the MIH program, sometime in 2017. This bill had its own public hearing on September 30, 2015 at 5:30 in Council Chambers.

Finally, we held a Public Hearing on Wednesday, September 9 (flyer) on this housing affordability work, and we need your voices to weigh in on the issues you see with affordability in Seattle. The HALA Committee has spoken. Now it is your turn. If you are a worker or family who can’t afford housing in the City, we want to hear from you about the unit types and neighborhoods that best meet your housing needs.  If you are a home-owner or advocate working in solidarity, we need to hear that you are ready to make your neighborhood accessible to individuals and families across the economic spectrum and that inclusionary housing has neighborhood support.

I hope you will join us at public hearings and/or weigh in with Councilmembers by emailing us at council@seattle.gov. Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions by emailing mike.obrien@seattle.gov or calling 206-684-8800.



A Voice for Drivers

August 31st, 2015

For the past few years, Seattle has been on a mission to make sure that every worker in this city has the opportunity to earn a living wage. We’ve made wage theft a crime, expanded paid sick and safe leave to workers across the city, and instituted a new minimum wage that will see workers many making $15 in another year and a half.

Yet we know that for all of our progress, there are workers in some industries and some communities that are still left behind. More specifically, we know that drivers in the for hire industry are left out from many of these gains, which means that many African and Southeast Asian immigrants are left out too, since they make up the vast majority of drivers in this industry.

So I am proud to announce the next step in Seattle’s fight for economic justice. It is an industry specific approach that will bring incredible new opportunities to our immigrant and refugee communities.

Next week, I will introduce legislation that would give drivers at taxi, for-hire and transportation network companies a voice on the job and the opportunity to negotiate for better pay and working conditions.

We know workers in a company or industry are stronger when they organize together to use their collective voice to make an impact in their working conditions. We’ve seen this throughout the history of this country, from factory workers that came together to fight for safer working conditions and the 8-hour workday over 100 years ago to the fast food workers who are leading the Fight for $15 today.

What we are seeing today in the ride-for-hire industry is a race to the bottom. Last week I met with a driver that works for Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar who told me that after he got done with his 2014 taxes, factoring in both all his taxes and his deductions, he took home an average $2.75/hour.

This young man actually left a job paying minimum wage with the hope and promise that he could make even more money and set his own schedule by driving for Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

Yet instead of fulfilling that promise, he wakes up every morning and hopes he’ll be able to get access to the apps and rides he needs to make his car payment, pay his rent, afford food and clothes and maybe even have something left over to put in the bank or go to the movies.

He is willing to work hard and he does, often putting in 60 hour weeks just to get by. He’s willing to invest in his own success, as evidenced when he went into debt to his friends and family so he could buy the car he needed to drive professionally.

But despite this willingness to succeed, the companies he works for have set artificially low rates, less than $2/mile. They charge a buck a ride for insurance, even though the drivers must also carry their own personal insurance. They pass along a regulatory fee that is charged to the companies. And after all that, they take 20% commissions out of whatever is left. In this young man’s case, he is also still paying off that car that his company helped finance for him, so they take another $100 out of each paycheck.

And like so many other drivers in his situation, he feels stuck. He knows that on his own he is powerless to change his situation. Together with his fellow drivers, he may just have a chance.

This young man’s situation is illustrative of the broader issue these drivers face. Classified by their employers as independent contractors, these drivers have no right to the basic workplace protections many of us take for granted–such as the minimum wage, overtime, restroom and meal breaks, access to social insurance programs like unemployment insurance, protection from retaliation, the list goes on.

These companies like Uber and Lyft are making billions off these drivers, yet the drivers have no say in their role with the companies. They are taking advantage of an unfair working situation for the drivers, and we must innovate and try a new approach to help these drivers realize Seattle’s dream that everyone can make a living wage.

To further this point about the race to the bottom, I think it is helpful to compare these business practices utilized by Uber and others to an employer widely recognized—at least here in Seattle—as being bad for workers: Walmart.

Even Walmart has to pay their employees minimum wage, give them bathroom breaks, and pay them overtime if they put in more than their 40 hours/week. Uber does not.

When Walmart wants to expand and add a new store in a new city, they have to raise the capital and bear the risk of the expansion. Uber comes into a city and demands that the drivers put up the capital and bear the risk for their company’s expansion.

When Walmart wants to offer a deep discount to help drive more business, those discounts come out of corporate profits, not their employees paychecks. When Uber offers 20% off for the weekend, that discount comes straight out of the drivers’ paychecks, and Uber still gets its 20% commission.

We have got to stop this race to the bottom. It goes against everything we are trying to do here in Seattle to fight income inequality. It goes against everything we are trying to do here in Seattle to create the opportunities for our immigrant and refugee communities to pursue their dreams and to support their families and communities.

So we are innovating. We are trying something new. For the first time, the City will play a key role in helping give these drivers a voice and a chance to organize and come together to negotiate with these companies over the issues they are facing on the job.

Here is how this legislation would work:

  1. All drivers who have a Seattle for-hire vehicle licenses that have performed a minimum threshold of trips will be eligible for collective representation (this includes drivers who meet these criteria that work for Taxi, For-Hire, and/or Transportation Network Companies).
  2. The City of Seattle will certify organizations as eligible Driver Representative Organizations. In order to qualify, these organizations must:
    • Be registered as non-profit organizations in the State of Washington.
    • Have organization bylaws that give drivers the right to be members of the organization and participate in the democratic control of the organization.
    • Have experience in reaching consensus agreements with, or related to, employers and contractors.
  1. Driver Representative Organizations will receive a list of eligible drivers at each company from the City and have 120 days to demonstrate that a majority of drivers for a specific company choose to be represented.
  2. Once verified, the Driver Representative Organization will have the ability to engage in collective bargaining over pay and working conditions on behalf of those represented drivers.
  3. The City of Seattle will review any final collective bargaining agreements to ensure compliance with City code.

This is unlike anything we have tried or seen tried before. But we know we have to try something. We’ve tried regulation before, and we have seen both in Seattle and in cities around the world how averse these companies are to any regulation. So we are taking a new approach—giving power to the workers to negotiate directly with their employers.

This is truly groundbreaking legislation supported by the likes of the App-Based Drivers Association, the National Employment Law Project, Working Washington, One America, Puget Sound Sage, and the Sierra Club. These groups support this because they both value the transportation choice that this industry provides, but also believe that companies in Seattle should pay their workers fairly, and everyone should have the opportunity to earn a living wage.

I hope you will join me in supporting a voice for drivers by supporting this legislation.

Proposed Changes to Single Family Zones

July 17th, 2015

There has been a lot of discussion and disagreement about some of the recommendations that came out of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee (HALA), specifically around the recommendations regarding the future of our single family zones. It appears that even among some members of the HALA committee there are different interpretations about the single family zone recommendations. Regardless of the intent of the members of HALA, the recommendations are now before the City Council, and we will be making decisions on which recommendations we will be moving forward and in what form and on what timeline.

I am writing today with my position on the recommendations and the role that single family zoned land should play in addressing affordability.

  • On Backyard Cottages: The HALA report suggests expanding opportunities for backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in our single family neighborhoods. I support this recommendation. These housing types are already allowed in all single family zones in Seattle and often provide more affordable opportunities for people to live in our great neighborhoods without dramatically changing the physical scale of the neighborhood. Last fall the council passed Resolution 31547 asking DPD and HALA to explore ways the encourage more of these housing types in our single family neighborhoods.
  • On Rezoning Single Family lots to Multi-Family: The report also suggests rezoning a small portion of single family property within our urban villages and along arterials with frequent transit to multi-family or mixed-use zoning (see this map of proposed changes). This would amount to a change to only 6% of all of the land currently zoned for single family use. Along with Downtown and South Lake Union, our urban villages throughout the city are where we have chosen to direct the vast majority of our growth in Seattle. Most land in our urban villages is already zoned commercial or multi-family (see this map for detail), and I believe that in order to provide additional zoning capacity for multi-family uses, it makes the most sense to first look to our urban villages.

The idea of rezoning single family properties along arterials with access to frequent transit is intriguing and requires further exploration and study. I can envision areas where this would make sense and areas where it would not. I believe this portion of the recommendation should be examined on a case by case basis with particular focus on ensuring that areas where we decide to allow multi-family housing are well served by transit and other amenities that residents would need.

  • On other changes to Single Family Zones: Many people are concerned that the HALA recommendations call for rezoning all single family zoning to multi-family zoning. I do not support zoning changes that would lead to rapid redevelopment of our single family zones and the replacement of existing single family housing with newly constructed multi-family housing. I don’t believe this will help with affordability. However, if there are creative ways to allow families to convert existing housing in single family zones to allow families to share a house, beyond the mother-in-law apartment model we already have, I am open to exploring that. On properties where redevelopment makes more sense for structural reasons or out of necessity, I would like to see the new buildings take the same size and scale of buildings already allowed in the neighborhood, even if it means more people live in those buildings.

A critical factor for me in evaluating policies in these areas will be supporting policies that maintain existing structures in single family zones and opposing policies that encourage replacement of existing housing stock within the single family zone.

I want to also share a bit about process going forward. None of these changes will happen without significant City Council deliberation and public input. This fall, the Council plans to craft and pass a resolution that would identify which of the recommendations from HALA we plan to prioritize in our upcoming work, what committees that work will go through, and what the anticipated timeline for that work is. We may also use the resolution as an opportunity to clarify the Council’s interpretation of any HALA recommendations that are causing confusion. This resolution itself will go through its own public process which will include at least three special committee meetings and a public hearing between now and the end of September. Our first meeting of the Select Committee on Housing Affordability will be this coming Monday, July 20, where we will receive a briefing on the whole HALA package of recommendations. You can sign up here to receive the agendas for these meetings via email.

With the exception of the ordinance to create the Commercial Linkage Fee for Affordable Housing, which I intend to pass in 2015, all other ordinances will happen in 2016 or later.

I will soon have another post describing the historic agreement we reached in the HALA negotiations that will sets a progressive new paradigm for development in Seattle—soon all new buildings in the city will include or contribute to affordable housing.

Thanks and let me know if you have any additional questions, comments or concerns.

Linking Affordablility to Growth: The Best & Fastest Way to Create the Most Affordable Housing in Seattle

July 13th, 2015

Click the graphic below to view a larger version.

Why linking affordability to growth is the fastest way to create the most Affordable Housing in Seattle

Update on the lowrise legislation

June 25th, 2015

Last week in the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee (PLUS Committee), we voted out the lowrise legislation that we have been deliberating over for the past couple of months. The bill makes several changes to the multi-family code to ensure that new development in lowrise zones is at-scale with the neighborhood, while continuing to produce significant new housing throughout the City.

For background on what the bill is all about and what changes it proposed to Seattle’s lowrise multi-family zoning code, check out my blog post from April of this year.

I’ve received numerous calls and emails with concerns over the rate of growth and scale of development throughout our city, but in particular in our lowrise zones. Many people are calling for the City to slow down growth and development altogether. Others just want a say in how this growth is impacting the look and feel of the neighborhood. While I believe this bill helps address some of concerns about development being out of scale with what we anticipated in our lowrise zones, I believe we must allow for additional growth and development to accommodate the job and corresponding population growth Seattle is experiencing.

One of the primary reasons I support new density in the lowrise zones and our urban villages is due to the environmental and sustainability benefits of putting more people closer to the amenities they need: jobs, schools, retail and recreation. In denser areas, people travel less to access these amenities, they do more walking, biking and transit trips to get there and they burn less fossil fuels. If we stop growth in Seattle, that means more people in cars commuting to all the great jobs, parks, restaurants and more that make Seattle such a great place to be.

In our last meeting on The PLUS Committee on June 16, we considered eight amendments to alter the bill before moving it out of committee (nine were proposed but the final amendment was not moved for a vote because the adoption of an earlier amendment made it irrelevant). You can learn more about those amendments by checking out the Council Central Staff memo and appendix from our last committee meeting.

Of the eight amendments that we considered, the PLUS Committee voted to accept three of them.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: The Committee voted to include all unenclosed exterior stairs, hallways, and breezeways in the Floor Area Ratio calculations, which will have the effect of slightly reducing the bulk of buildings with these corridors and simplifying the code by treating all such corridors the same.
  • Change rounding rules: The Committee voted to apply a higher rounding requirement—up from the proposed 0.5 to 0.85 on all lots in lowrise zones. This will make it more difficult for developers to get more dwelling units on their properties that they otherwise would be allowed, by subdividing their lots.
  • Add side setback for rowhouses: The existing code does not include side setbacks for rowhouse development, but the Committee voted to add a 3.5’ side setback for projects adjacent to structures other than other row-houses to allow for landscaping, basic maintenance around the building, as well as the possibility of windows.

The amended bill will now move on to the Full Council on July 6 for a vote. That will take place at 2pm in Council Chambers, and if you are unable to make it but want to provide comment, you can email the entire City Council at council@seattle.gov.

If you have comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at mike.obrien@seattle.gov.

Infographic: How Arctic Drilling Violates Our Laws, Values & Planet

June 15th, 2015

The people of Seattle are doing everything possible to stop the myopic environmental damage caused by Arctic drilling.

Some critics have tried to foment a feeling of futility and kowtow popular opposition by shaming ordinary people for participating in our fossil fuel economy. But the point of the popular outcry – its very essence – is that fossil fuels are inescapable in our daily lives. People are demanding a sustainable economy instead.

Life as we know it depends on bold, immediate action, especially when a harbinger of catastrophic climate change is moored in our backyard.


SHELL NO! Why I am out on Elliott Bay today

June 15th, 2015

The past few months, I have been one of thousands of activists trying to stop Shell Oil’s irresponsible, reprehensible plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. We’ve fought to prevent Seattle from becoming the home base for Shells Arctic drilling fleet, but the bigger fight has always been about stopping Shell’s drilling plans.

ShellNoActionWe already have enough oil to safely transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy future, but Shell’s attempt to drill in the Arctic is a blatant move of corporate greed at the expense of destroying the planet through climate disaster.

I’ve done everything I know how to do as a citizen, an activist, and as a City Councilmember to try and stop this disaster from happening. Today I am on the water to try one last attempt at stopping Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. And I am not alone.

Millions of people around the world have already spoken up to say Shell No to Arctic drilling at sHellNO.org. Hundreds in Seattle have been involved in protests, and today there will be dozens of us on the water.

I’ve never been arrested before, and I have always been one to play by the rules. Shell on the other hand has a long history of violating the law in search of profits. Shell was in violation of City permits just being moored at T5. The State ruled their stay may be unconstitutional. And in their last trip to the Arctic, they pled guilty to eight felony counts of violating environmental and maritime laws.

This is a company that is willing to do whatever it takes to profit from Arctic drilling, including breaking the law. We simply cannot trust Shell to do the right thing.

I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions today, because if Shell is successful in drilling in the Arctic, billions of people around the world will suffer from the climate devastation that oil poses to the planet. And those billions of people aren’t here today; they may not even know who Shell is or what they plan to do in the Arctic. But we are here today and we are doing everything we can to stop Shell’s disastrous plans for Arctic drilling.

Please join us in doing whatever you can to say sHELL NO to Arctic drilling.


Statement on today’s oil fires in Tacoma and North Dakota

May 6th, 2015

Today’s oil train explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota and the fire raging at the oil refinery in Tacoma are stark visual evidence of the need to transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels. My thoughts go out to the first responders in both cities, and I hope they are able to safely combat those fires.

Oil trains are ticking time bombs, and each one passing through a small town in North Dakota or a large city like Seattle is a risk to the people, the property, and the environment of that community. There is no safe way to transport this oil, and local municipalities should not bear the risk while the railways and oil companies rake in all the profit. We urgently need stronger local, state, and federal protections against these dangerous oil trains rolling through our communities.

Beyond the immediate public safety impacts, we also have to consider the impact on our climate that burning all this oil poses to our planet and the future we are leaving for our children. This is why we are fighting Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling exploration here in Seattle. Contrary to the short-sighted editorial in today’s Seattle Times, which raises the tired old trope of jobs versus the environment, our future economy is tied to the future health of this planet. If we truly care about the long-term economic health of our Port, we cannot stand idly by and aide in the drilling and burning of fossil fuels that will leave Terminal 5 and most of our industrial lands in Seattle underwater. This is why the City Council is on the verge adopting a new resolution stating the City’s opposition to Arctic drilling and urging the Port of Seattle to reconsider its deal to host Shell Oil’s Arctic fleet.

There is no choice to be made when it comes to good jobs and the environment. We can and must choose both. The choice we actually face today is whether we embrace the dirty, fossil-fuel dependent economy of the past that is destroying our planet for generations to come, or do we embrace a sustainable economy of the future that provides good, family-wage jobs and ensures a healthy, inhabitable planet for our children. To me, the choice is clear. It is frankly shocking that the Editorial Board of the Seattle Times cannot see it, but perhaps their vision is clouded by the black plumes of smoke wafting up from Tacoma.

Changes to Lowrise zoning regulations

April 30th, 2015

On Monday, the Council will introduce a bill that makes several changes to the multi-family code to ensure that new development in Lowrise zones is at-scale with the neighborhood, while continuing to produce significant new housing throughout the City.


In 2010, the City Council adopted a comprehensive package of changes to the multi-family code. Lowrise zones are our smaller-scale, multi-family zones where we see rowhouses, townhouses and smaller-scale apartment buildings. Lowrise zones cover about 10% of the City (by acre). LR1, the least dense of the Lowrise zones, is often located adjacent to single family areas and in areas outside urban villages. LR3 is the densest of the Lowrise zones and is generally present in urban villages and centers, near frequent transit, and in popular growing neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard. Here’s a map of all the low-rise zones.Lowrise map

Between September 2011 and September 2013, 414 projects were permitted in Lowrise zones creating 2,376 housing units – largely townhouses, rowhouses and small apartment buildings.  In 2014, an additional 310 projects with 1,918 housing units were permitted in Lowrise zones.

The Council heard concerns from residents that buildings in LR3 zones were taller and bulkier than expected and the micro-housing projects were popping up  without any opportunity for neighborhood input or design review. Several Councilmembers agreed and in response, Councilmember Clark asked Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to take a second look at the code regulations and what was being produced in Lowrise zones. That research also revealed several additional issues related to townhouse and rowhouse development in LR1 zones.

In May 2014, after several months of research and community meetings, DPD published a Director’s Report and draft ordinance that recommended several adjustments to the City’s Lowrise zoning regulations.

Council review of the legislation was delayed through the summer and fall of 2014 as SmartGrowth Seattle appealed DPD’s environmental review for the bill in order to delay its implementation. In late October of 2014, the Hearing Examiner affirmed DPD’s findings.

In January of 2015, Councilmember Clark and I asked members of the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee to weigh in on DPD’s proposed bill.

Changes proposed in the Current Bill

The legislation, as introduced, does not include all of the changes proposed by DPD in 2014. Rather, it focuses on a few key provisions that I think best address the concerns that have been raised. Those provisions are:

  • Establish an upper-level setback on street-facing façades. The setback would be 16’ at a height of 44’ in a 40’ zone, and 12’ at a height of 34’ feet in a 30’ zone: The setback will ensure that a building, seen from the street, is at the expected scale of the neighborhood. Behind the setback, a building could go higher on sloped lots. Some limited projections, such as bay windows, eaves, and gutters, could project into the setback, and open railings and predominantly transparent parapets would also be permitted up to a height of 4’. Departures from the upper-level setback could be considered as part of design review if the designer demonstrates there is a better way to address building scale.
  • Place limits on the use of clerestories: The proposed changes would allow clerestories on 30% of a roof, rather than on the full area. This is to ensure that this design feature is available to let light into top-story units without creating opportunities for the construction of a de-facto extra story.
  • Change rounding rules and density limits in LR1 zones: In the least dense, LR1 zones, developers have been gaming the rules in a couple of different ways in order to increase the number of units they can construct. The first is subdividing 5,000 square foot lots into two 2,500 square foot lots, which allows them to round-up density limit requirements and build four townhomes, rather than the three that would be permitted on a 5,000 square foot lot. The introduced legislation applies a 0.85 rounding requirement to lots less than 3,000 square feet to close this loophole.

The second practice that involves the building of two or more rowhouse units (which do not have a density limit) in front of two townhouse units on subdivided 5,000 square foot lots where only three townhouses would have otherwise been allowed. For lots measuring less than 3,000 square feet in size, this legislation creates a new density limit for rowhouses (1 per 1,600 square feet of lot area) and also applies the same revised rounding requirements to rowhouses as it does to townhouses.

Both of these changes to the LR1 zone are consistent with the intended density that was legislated in the multi-family code changes in 2010. While they may result in a few less units being built per year, the trade-off will be better design and predictability for neighborhoods.  The impact of these changes on housing affordability city-wide should be minimal.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: In the Lowrise zones, exterior hallways (imagine a 1950s era motel) are exempt from FAR. Several projects have been permitted with quasi-exterior hallways that have open air lattice work at one end of the hallway, but are otherwise fully enclosed. This legislation clarifies that hallways with walls on both sides are included in FAR and hallways that are more than 50% open on one long side are exempt.
  • Add design review threshold for LR2 zones: In addition to the changes studied by DPD, this legislation adds a design review requirement for projects in LR2 zones similar to what is currently in place for LR3 zones. This will require projects in LR2 zones that include more than 8 dwelling units to go through the full design review process.

Provisions that are not advancing

There were several possible options that DPD did environmental review on that this legislation does not advance. The most significant of these proposals was to remove an FAR exemption and additional 4’ of height for partially below-grade story apartments. The FAR exemption and height often make it possible for basement units to be included on steeply sloping lots. While these units in newly constructed buildings are not often affordable to low income families, they are generally the most affordable units in a building. Additionally, basement space often includes laundry rooms and other building services like bicycle parking that enhance livability but otherwise compete with rentable space in the rest of the building. I believe the upper-level setback requirement addresses community concerns about scale of buildings and that these provisions are not necessary.

Schedule for consideration

The Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee will deliberate on the Lowrise legislation at the following meetings, all of which will be held in Council Chambers at 600 4th Avenue, 2nd floor.

  • Tue 5/19/15, 2:00pm: Committee briefing and discussion
  • Tue 6/2/15, 2:00pm: Public Hearing
  • Tue 6/16/15, 2:00pm: Commission discussion and possible vote

 If you have comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at: mike.obrien@seattle.gov.

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