With the end of the Governor’s emergency orders approaching on Halloween, the Seattle City Council has started to refresh itself on the laws that will expire when Mayor Bruce Harrell decides to end the City’s own civil emergency.
The Mayor’s office did not tell The Stranger when he plans to lift the emergency, but Council Member Dan Strauss said he felt confident that the council could turn on a dime during budget negotiations to extend pandemic-era design review reforms. Strauss’s eagerness to reform design review marks a shift in his attitude from this summer, when he deferred to a seemingly dysfunctional task force for policy recommendations related to the process.
During the pandemic, the council passed a law to enact three major reforms to design review, a process that halts the production of housing so that a board of volunteers can judge the aesthetics of apartment buildings. The board bases its judgements on a bunch of City and neighborhood guidelines that don’t actually guarantee a pretty building because, as I will say until my dying breath, beauty is subjective, and we all think plenty of design-review approved buildings are butt-fucking-ugly. End rant.
The council already saved one of the three reforms from dying along with the civil emergency, a measure that allows community participation to continue remotely. As of this week, Strauss said the council has no current plans to keep the other two reforms, which exempt affordable housing projects from design review entirely and allow other buildings to undergo a streamlined review by a city employee, a process known as “administrative review.”
While he didn’t vow to extend both policies wholesale, he said he’s working on permanent legislation or at least pilot programs to continue administrative review and “allow affordable housing to process through design review expediently.”
He also made it clear that the three-part pandemic-era law is not connected to the task force he established in November of last year to advise him on reforms to the review process.
“This is just stuff we're going to move forward on with or without that group,” he said.
“That group,” and its feedback, seemed a lot more important to him this summer.
Picking up the Pace
Despite telling The Stranger that he wanted to eliminate design review for affordable housing, he also said he wanted to wait for his nearly year-old and long-delayed task force to direct him, which the task force said might not happen until March 2023–nine months late. He said he wanted to wait even though he knew the City agency leading the group had narrowed the scope of the conversation, making task force members believe recommendations to exempt affordable housing would not make the final report to council.
While it's unclear if he will fully exempt affordable housing from design review, he at least asked the task force he previously blamed for his inaction to pick up the pace. He said he told the task force to report back in December or on the first day of 2023 at the latest.
Without the task force holding him back, Strauss also said he can save the remaining two policies in time without creating a gap between the end of the emergency orders and the beginning of the new policies, which would create a big mess.
He’ll have some cushion, as this COVID law keeps the policies in place for 60 days after the end of the civil emergency. But it’ll be tight, according to the timeline Strauss laid out. Realistically, the process of passing the bill would take more than 70 days or a little over 10 weeks from start to finish. Strauss conceded that if the Mayor ended the emergency order today, “there might be a gap of one to three weeks.”
Other COVID-era Law Preservation Plans in the Works
Both Strauss and Council Member Andrew Lewis said they haven’t heard any murmuring about the end of the local emergency order. But if Harrell is anything like Gov. Jay Inslee, he’ll give the council some notice. Inslee announced he would end his reign as king (joke) over a month in advance. This would give the council a much more realistic timeline to save some of the pandemic-era provisions, especially during the all-consuming budget season.
Lewis said the council would have the easiest time making extensions during a short period between the budgeting process and the winter recess, when the council typically tears through last-minute policy priorities. (You’ve heard of the “September Squeeze?” Get ready for “Last-ditch December.” We’re still workshopping that one.) [Eds note: Dun-dun-DUN December. Ding-Dong December. Doh! December. Eh, hers is still better.]
Lewis said he’s been working on making his favorite COVID-19 policies permanent for the last year. For that final push in December, he’s queuing up a bill to eliminate “personal guarantees” in leases for small businesses, which would mean that landlords couldn’t go after the personal assets of small business owners if they can't pay rent. Under the emergency, council members got a little bit of leeway to be sloppy in lawmaking, but once the emergency ends, Lewis said, the courts won’t be as understanding, and the council’s laws will need to be air-tight, hence why Lewis has spent a year trying to work out the kinks to make that policy permanent.
In a body that likes to move slow and steady, Lewis’s and Strauss’s kind of preparation is the only way the council will be able to react when the Mayor ends the emergency, especially during budget season.