Photo of a street in downtown Seattle.

Weekend Long Reads: The Cost of ‘Compassion’

by Kevin Schofield

Two “long read” documents came through my inbox in the past week that, upon reflection, are likely to set the tone for a good chunk of our political conversation over the next few months as we head into the primary and general elections here in Seattle.

Compassion Seattle Cost Analysis

As the debate over the “Compassion Seattle” proposed charter amendment has heated up, a central question has been how much it will cost. The City Council, who will be responsible for finding the money if it passes, wants to know too, so it sent its central staff off to do an analysis. Here is their report.

And the answer is complicated, because there are varied interpretations of vague language in the bill. At the low end: $30 million up-front capital costs and $40 million annually in ongoing operational costs. At the high end: $839 million in capital costs and $97 million annually for operations.

Table depicting the range of Charter Amendment cost estimates.
Table depicting the range of Charter Amendment cost estimates. Sourced from the Seattle City Council Central Staff’s “Cost Analysis of Proposed Charter Amendment 29.”

The memo walks through each of the sections of the charter amendment, explains the range of possible interpretations, and costs each out. That includes housing and shelter, behavioral health services, and the changes to city regulations and fees.

The memo doesn’t provide definitive answers to many questions, but it’s a good baseline for discussion — we will all still disagree, but at least we’ll know what we’re disagreeing about.

Cost Analysis of Proposed Charter Amendment 29

Racial Equity Analysis of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan

At the request of the Seattle City Council, the Office of Planning & Community Development (OPCD) and the Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) developed an analysis of the racial equity impacts of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, in particular its “growth strategy” (i.e. concentrating growth in urban villages and urban centers). Earlier this week OPCD quietly released the report, in advance of a presentation to the City Council’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee.

And it says exactly what progressive leaders and advocacy groups have been saying for years: The “urban village” strategy has exacerbated displacement in BIPOC neighborhoods while insulating disproportionately white, richer “single-family zoning” neighborhoods from change. The report says a lot more than that, and it’s worth reading in detail, but that is the issue we will all be talking about. For better or worse, this is the report that those who are pushing for eliminating (or heavily revising) single-family residential zoning have been waiting for.

The weakness of the report is its lack of objectivity. OPCD commissioned PolicyLink to do it, an advocacy organization that describes itself as:

“a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing racial and economic equity with a focus on delivering results at scale for the 100 million people in the United States living in or near poverty. PolicyLink takes an ‘inside-outside’ approach to policy change, working with grassroots advocates focused on economic and racial justice, as well as with policymaker and government champions, to achieve equitable policies.”

The domain expertise that PolicyLink brings on racial equity issues is great; the baggage it brings with it not so much, because it opens up the analysis (and city officials) to criticism that the outcome of the study was predetermined. The City certainly knew what it would be getting when it hired PolicyLink, and it didn’t disappoint. That doesn’t mean its conclusions are wrong; it certainly reraises and amplifies many well-documented criticisms of the city’s growth over the past century, including the history of racist, exclusionary zoning and loan policies that systematically excluded Communities of Color from many parts of the city. But there will also be ample criticism on how PolicyLink packed its workshops with representatives from advocacy groups (page 16 of the report) and how its recommendations are all over the map and largely cover the full spectrum of progressive policy, well beyond what one might expect in a racial equity analysis of the City’s growth strategy: more affordable housing in high-displacement neighborhoods, better support for BIPOC-led businesses, eliminating single-family zoning, community control and ownership of land; but the recommendations also called for addressing racial health disparities, climate justice, middle-wage jobs for people with less education, stronger unions, participatory budgeting, and paying reparations for BIPOC Seattleites. Again, these are not necessarily good or bad policy proposals, but they go far beyond the “urban village strategy.” The report also recommends power-sharing with community-led organizations, which is a double-edged sword: “Neighborhood control” helps at-risk communities fight displacement, but it also helps richer, whiter neighborhoods fight zoning changes that would increase density.

The City’s Comprehensive Plan is due for a major revision in 2024, and the process of writing that revision begins this fall. There are many steps and there will be plenty of opportunities for stakeholder input, but this report lays out the major issues we will be arguing about — with single-family zoning topping the list.

Racial Equity Analysis of Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan and Urban Village Strategy

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Chris Yunker (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

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