Archive for July, 2009

Thanks for mini-apartments

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009
The Moda Apartments ... roommates not required.
The Moda Apartments ... roommates not required.

Few topics are as visceral. A 300 square foot apartment is an affront, and 200 square feet is downright inhuman…right?

Not to me. They fill an important and underserved need. And for a lot of people they’ll be a good and even fun way to live.

With the Videre opening up on 23rd soon, and with the Moda Apartments recently opening in Belltown (originally sold as condos), small apartments are a hot subject in more ways than one. There’s something about the very idea that compels many people to speak as if they’re being asked to live there personally.

Maybe those people think no housing is better than small housing. Or that the only legit route to affordability is to live farther out (as if that math makes sense), or to have roommates (there’s a way to maintain sanity!), or to live with Mom and Dad, or to live with a subsidy, or to live with the pitter-patter of rats, as a friend of mine once did.

You might think this is all theory to me, but I’ve lived it, and recently. Spent four months in a hotel room on Lower Queen Anne while between condos in 2008. Probably 250 square feet. Stuff away in a storage locker. The only thing roomy was the ADA-compliant bathroom. Living in the middle of things made it much easier…sort of like Moda, and even Videre for some people.

Costs can be high on a square foot basis, for example because plumbing costs don’t scale down with the size of the bathroom, the electrical load for each unit might be nearly as high, and elevator service is related to the number of units more than square footage. With shell costs automatically high, developers can be excused for spending a little bit extra to put in finishes that bring the perceived value up to the prices they need to justify.

About “fun.” We’re all wired a little differently. Some people think fun is living in 3,000 square feet and stretching out, with the whole family having a different room for each thing they do, and spending a lot of time fussing with the lawn, and having lots and lots of furniture, and, well, why on earth do people assume we all want that? Maybe fun is living within one’s means in a cozy place, knowing where everything is, and having freedom from stuff. Maybe fun is using that money to eat better, travel more, or have a financial cushion. Maybe it’s trading square footage for a location in the middle of it all. Yes, it’s possible to live small as a lifestyle choice.

Some people want fun, while others just want to live affordably and without subsidy in a clean place without roommates of the various kinds. Nothing wrong with that. Let those subsidies (such as the levy we should renew this year) go to more needy people. And it’s great when people choose to live near work or school, rather than taxing the transportation system.

Apparently the Videre project was fit into the zoning through creative use of the code, and wasn’t specifically envisioned. Rather than scurry around to fix this “loophole,” we should find ways to help more of these projects happen.

‘Head tax’ is small sacrifice with big benefits

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
Could axing the head tax imperil local transportation projects?
The head tax generates $4.5 million for local transportation projects.

Times are tough in Seattle for small and large businesses.  Everyone is trying to find ways to save money and weather the biggest recession in almost 30 years, and maybe since the end of World War II.

So it makes sense that the Seattle City Council would consider repealing a rather small tax on local businesses as a way of acknowledging this. Repealing the employee hours tax has been proposed by a couple of council members as a symbolic gesture to businesses.

But let’s take a quick look at the employee hours tax, often called the “head tax.”  It is $25 per employee and it doesn’t have to be paid for employees that don’t drive to work. Most employers admit that they don’t pay much tax, and businesses that have less than $80,000 in revenue are exempt. They do feel like it is a hassle. Too much paper work can be expensive in terms of time. But the form is only a couple of pages.

We do know that this arguably innocuous tax generates $4.5 million for transportation projects.  And this funding is part of the overall Bridging the Gap levy that was passed by Seattle voters to make small but critical infrastructure improvements to Seattle’s sidewalks and roads.

So we know that this symbolic gesture:

• will not create any new jobs or revenue for businesses;

• will eliminate $4 million dollars that currently pay for projects that employ people in the city; and

• will eliminate an incentive for employers to encourage their employees NOT to drive to work.

Now, supporters of the repeal acknowledge the first two of these items but deny the last point. Nobody has quit driving to work because of this tax. Do we have survey data?  Have collections gone down or up over since the tax was implemented? We really don’t know.

I find local, state and federal taxes annoying and confusing. But that isn’t a rationale to repeal them. Would simplifying the collection of the tax help? We don’t know that, either.

Are there other ideas out there that would create tangible benefits for business other than repealing the tax? Another thing that hasn’t been explored yet.

That is why tax supporters (including myself as a resident of Capitol Hill) are asking for more time to so the City Council can consider these questions. And here are some basic principles the council should consider during discussions this fall. Any repeal or alternative should:

• measurably improve the climate for business in Seattle;

• replace the revenue generated by the employee hours tax;

• create measurable targets for investment in transportation infrastructure and jobs; and

• have an incentive element to discourage driving and encourage alternatives.

If the council waits for the time to consider these principles perhaps there is a chance of finding a win-win solution to the question of how to improve the business climate without hurting neighborhood transportation projects.

My dinner with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. delivered the keynote address in March at the annual BuiltGreen conference here in Seattle, a dinner was held in his honor on the eve of the event. As a supporter of the BuiltGreen program, I was lucky enough to attend the dinner and to get up close with Kennedy, a man who bears a striking resemblance to his father, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and who is in person a soft-spoken, passionate environmental advocate with deep experience and a strong moral compass.

I was raised as an Irish Catholic and the Kennedys were iconic in our household. The dinner was a deeply profound moment for me and my twin, Patti Southard, seated on the other side of the table.

Prior to sitting down to dinner, Kennedy spoke fondly about his boyhood memories of exploring the natural beauty of the Puget Sound region with his father, along with friends such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and famed climber and Northwest native Jim Whittaker. These experiences, it would seem, helped to form Kennedy’s passion for the outdoors and the environment. Through his work as the prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, Kennedy has transformed his passion into his career.

He has since expanded beyond water issues into a holistic realm of environmental action, including serving on the Board of NRDC; one of the groups I believe is making some of the most significant contributions to protecting endangered species. During his keynote address, he referred to the economy as a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and made it clear that economic opportunity is tied to strong environmental policy and practices.

With about 16 of us around the dinner table including director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, Jay Manning, along with designers, land use attorneys, developers, communications professionals, and other government and non-profit leaders, we each brought our own lens through which we viewed Kennedy’s work that evening. As the conversation warmed up and we discussed everything from skiing at Whistler to the country’s energy grid, Kennedy shared his thoughts on the growing list of environmental challenges we face today, the connections between them, and the role the environment plays in the economy.