Last night, Seattle City Council Member Dan Strauss let his NIMBY flag fly at a candidate forum for Districts 2, 6, and 7. The forum was hosted by Complete Communities Coalition, a collection of housing advocacy groups including Real Change, Habitat for Humanity, and House our Neighbors. Moderators quizzed three incumbents and some of their challengers on housing and density, and Strauss showed so much weakness on those issues that at some moments during the forum his more conservative challenger, Fremont Chamber of Commerce Director Pete Hanning, appeared to be the pro-density candidate in the race. (Though, to be clear, he showed his NIMBY colors, too.) 

Strauss’s lack of political chutzpah on urbanist issues could spell trouble for the future of Seattle’s growth if voters re-elect him, and if he stays on as the Council’s land use committee chair, where he’ll continue to lead negotiations on the critically important comprehensive plan, the City’s 10-year growth road map that will determine how quickly Seattle can crawl out of the housing crisis. 

Strauss Cannot Stop Being the Conservative Candidate

Strauss and Hanning share many of the same beliefs. In their interrogation with The Stranger Election Control Board, the two even shook hands for a moment because they felt so in-sync. But at last night’s forum Strauss and Hanning most clearly distinguished themselves when the moderators asked where in the City the candidates would not legalize more housing as part of the new statewide zoning law. The law’s “alternate compliance option” allows cities to maintain current zoning laws on a quarter of their lands, giving them a little wiggle room to comply so long as they still hit mandated growth targets. 

Hanning said the City must upzone everywhere, even in neighborhoods where residents show the most apprehension. Earlier in the forum, he said that upzoning sounded scary for homeowners in Magnolia, but he pointed to Magnolia Village, which boasts restaurants, shops, and an unusual number of apartments for the area, as a positive case study for what density could look like in the neighborhood. 

Strauss said he would use the “alternate compliance option” to mitigate displacement in historically marginalized neighborhoods, echoing a sentiment Mayor Bruce Harrell relayed to Axios earlier this year. However, that’s a bullshit answer for reasons I explained in June. 

Since the moderator also knew that Strauss gave a bullshit answer, she pressed him again, asking which single-family neighborhood he’d shield from upzones. He gave her the run-around, arguing it was too early for him to answer that question because the first of two environmental studies of the City’s comprehensive plan had not yet come out. When she did not seem satisfied, he said he was just trying to be honest. After all, who would want to scare off his new Magnolia voters? 

No one else on the panel struggled to answer the question directly. Council Members Andrew Lewis and Tammy Morales said the city needed density in every neighborhood. Lewis said HB 1110 was a “floor, not a ceiling” to the zoning reform Seattle needed to combat the housing crisis. Morales echoed that sentiment, saying that the City should impose the changes on areas with homeowner associations despite the State’s decision to exclude them from HB 1110 for legal reasons. 

Like Strauss, District 2 candidate Tanya Woo argued that the City should use that 25% carve-out to spare marginalized communities who have shouldered the brunt of growth. Though she apparently misunderstands HB 1110, she at least pointed to Puget Sound Sage’s Disaster Gentrification Map to give people an idea of where she would oppose upzones. Plus, unlike side-stepping Strauss, Woo clearly opposes more housing and even advocates for downzoning the Chinatown International District. 

Thoughts and Prayers for D6

Strauss also built bridges with NIMBYs when he described feeling “mad as heck” when “ugly” “skinny homes” started popping up around his childhood house in Ballard. If voters put him back in his seat, he’ll prioritize imposing “strong” design standards for “gentle density” so lifelong Ballardites like himself do not have to adjust to homes that look different than their own.

Of course, Hanning also validated homeowner concerns about neighborhood character and even a lack of parking, so there’s not much hope for a bold urbanist leader in D6. This reality is especially disappointing for housing advocates and developers, considering Strauss’s current role as the Council’s land use committee chair. In an interview with the Stranger Election Control Board, he said he would not use his position to advance a particular agenda. Instead, as the effects of the housing crisis rage around us, he’d rather stay neutral and listen to stakeholders. 

Luckily, the council could still see an urbanist takeover. Much stronger, pro-density candidates are vying for the four open seats, including Maren Costa in D1, Alex Hudson in D3, Ron Davis in D4, and ChrisTiana ObeySumner in D5. Those candidates will square off in the second round of the forum tonight.