2015 Year in Review

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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