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Seattle politics blogging: Ambiguity about Sawant

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This came up in a thread last week, and deserves its own post/thread. One of the more stunning upsets in this year’s election was the election of Kshama Sawant, who identifies as a Socialist, over longtime incumbent Richard Conlin. Conlin is a consummate insider; never a threat to local business interests, who voted for some appalling and human rights-violating anti-homeless legislation, against the construction of a new homeless shelter (his voting record on the homeless is particularly atrocious), and, unsuccessfully, against Seattle’s sick leave law for restaurant employees. My take on Sawant, from following the race from afar, is that she’s quite a bit savvier a politician than your typical candidate affiliated with the Socialist Alternative policy, and on the subject of economic justice I find myself nodding along with at least 90% of what she says. Many of my friends back in Seattle are understandably excited about this development.

I struggle to join in that joy, for reasons hinted at by Martin Duke here. To explain: Conlin’s best issues are also issues for which he was often a potential swing vote: density, transit, and land use. I shudder to think who will take his place on the council as chair of the land use committee, and on the Sound Transit board. Given the cliquish nature of the council, you can bet it won’t be Sawant. The ST board seat is particularly important because the next few years will see planning for the Sound Transit 3 funding package, which is scheduled to go before the voters in 2016. One outstanding question for this package is whether it will include funding for a light rail extension in the city, to Ballard and/or West Seattle, or to extending the existing line to ever more distant suburbs North and South, which have dubious density and are almost certain to become BART-esque Park and Rides failures that are tragically underused outside of peak commuting hours. Seattle’s unfortunate incoming mayor has been known to express a preference for the latter.

But at least on transit issues, even if Seattle gets a less effective advocate on the ST board, I expect Sawant’s vote will probably go the right way. On density (which, at the end of the day, is necessary to make better transit sustainable and viable), fear the worst. I can only hope these words:

“The first thing we need is a council that will defend existing housing and not destroy existing housing in the name of density & sustainability.”

I very much hope these were the words of a cynical yet savvy politician, who saw an electoral vulnerability that she was in a position to exploit. Because restricting density in Seattle right now is on a path toward the Manhattan/San Francisco scenario with cost of living. Rent increases in Seattle lead the nation by a wide margin. There will be a pretty sizeable increase in apartments coming on the market in the next two years (thanks in no small part to Seattle’s terminally under-appreciated and outgoing mayor). But trends that are otherwise good news: a low unemployment rate, combined with a fair number of reasonably high paying jobs, is likely to continue growth. In addition to not wanting to see my beloved city become a playground for the rich, there’s another problem here: San Francisco had Oakland; Manhattan had Brooklyn, and Brooklyn had Queens, the Bronx, and Jersey City, and so on. Seattle does not have a nice big city for those priced out of Seattle to occupy just next door, nor does is have adequate regional transit to move that many people into Seattle. What was a devastating trend for the poor or middle class in SF and Manhattan will probably be worse in Seattle.

Sawant is, of course, keenly aware of this problem. The two solutions she talked about the most during her campaign were increases in low income housing and rent control. On the former, good as far as it goes, but even if she’s successful beyond any reasonable expectation, this is only going to reach a small segment of the population. On the latter, I rent control is a terrible tool for social justice in theory and in practice (a lottery for affordable housing, in which a few poor/middle class people in the right time and place get it, and everyone else pays more, and they can only keep it if they never move, hardly seems like a worthwhile socialist goal to me) but even if that were not true, it’s illegal in Washington State. The State Senate won’t even let King County tax itself to prevent brutal transit cuts, or give King County Metro a dime of support; the two nominal “Democrats” who effectively switched parties to throw control of the Senate to Republicans are pretty open about their primary motivation for this being the opportunity to fuck Seattle over. But in the unlikely event rent control is legalized, I very much doubt she’d have any chance to lose this vote 8-1.

Many people I respect see all this, and say things to the effect of “Sawant is smart, she’ll come to realize support for density is necessary to achieve her goals.” I hope this is correct, but a smart Sawant may be smart about politics as well as policy, and politicians need constituencies to get re-elected. And a lot of people in Seattle who are open to voting for a socialist are also the worst kind of “left” NIMBY stop the evil developers “neighborhood activists” types who fight like hell to stop any and every new development in their neighborhood (coincidently, they’re usually homeowners who are reaping the rewards of the artificial scarcity of a good we help create, but they’re almost comically immune to any sort of cognitive dissonance arising from that fact.) I suppose it depends on what kind of competition she draws, but she needed these votes to beat Conlin, and she’ll probably need them to win re-election. She may be a socialist, but she’s a politician now too, and she needs to find the votes to win. Whatever else Seattle voters may have done, they may have unfortunately made the city council less likely to allow housing supply to keep come anywhere near keeping pace with housing demand, and that may well be far more consequential than Sawant’s expansion of the Overton Window and “shaking things up” on the council. Seattle can be a city that continues to remain ~90% single family zoned, and restrict heights and mandate parking lots next door to light rail stations, and generally let NIMBYs prevent most new development, or it can be a city with room for a middle class. Barring another massive economic crash, it can’t be both. I wish I could be convinced Sawant understood the available options and the stakes here.

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