Sightline Institute — Housing and Urban Development

Organization Name 
Award Date 
10/2015
Grant Amount 
$400,000
Purpose 
To support Sightline Institute's work on housing and urban development.
Topic (focus area) 

Published: January 2016

Sightline Institute staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

Sightline Institute is a think tank based in Seattle, WA, focused on sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia).

As part of our exploration of land use reform (one of our focus areas), we decided to grant $400,000 over two years to support Sightline’s work to promote a package of land use reforms in Seattle that combines increases in market rate and below market rate housing.

If successful, we believe this set of reforms could serve as a rubric for similar land use reform efforts in other key regions.

Rationale for the grant

The cause

Land use reform is a focus area within our work on U.S. policy and we have prioritized it for possible grantmaking. In particular, we are hoping to promote reforms designed to enable more housing construction in key supply-constrained metropolitan areas.1 This space stands out for the paucity of funding and organizations advocating in favor of allowing more housing supply, and accordingly our current priority in this area is growing the field of advocacy-oriented groups working in key regions (such as Seattle).2

The organization

Sightline Institute is a Seattle-based think tank, founded by researcher and author Alan Durning in 1993, that focuses on sustainability in the Pacific Northwest. Its model is to inform potential policy champions, such as elected officials, activists, media, and progressive businesses, about policy and communications strategy.3 Currently, its three core focuses are climate and clean energy; urbanism and smart growth, such as land use reform (both housing and parking); and democracy reform, such as campaign finance reform and universal voter registration.

Seattle and HALA

Seattle is one of the handful of metropolitan areas that accounts for the majority of the impact of restrictive zoning on increased rents and decreased income.4 We also believe that it is a good candidate for advocacy on this issue. Ed Murray, the mayor of Seattle, recently assembled a 28-person committee known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee (HALA) to work out a deal to increase the affordability of housing.5 HALA is notable for the diversity of interests represented among its members, including business interests, affordable and market-rate developers, and affordable housing advocates.6

HALA produced an agreement that has been described as a “grand bargain” of policy recommendations, combining upzoning with an increase in inclusionary zoning (requiring a specified percentage of below-market-rate units as part of every new development for lower-income individuals and families).7 We see both parts of this agreement as helpful, and particularly pleased to note that the agreement has created a broad political coalition in favor of reform, including market rate developers, affordable housing developers, social justice advocates, business groups, and unions. Prior to the HALA “grand bargain,” market-rate developers and affordable housing advocates had been locked in a stalemate over “linkage fees” on new construction. Relative to that deadlock, the policies recommended by HALA should lead to both more market rate and more below-market-rate housing, both of which we see as useful for reducing housing costs in Seattle.

Though the HALA recommendations themselves represent a political breakthrough, they will not go into effect unless they are enacted by the city council over the next few years, and they are expected to face stiff opposition from some residents and neighborhood groups.8

Proposed activities

Sightline proposes to leverage its communications, communications strategy (i.e. messaging research), and policy research expertise to promote HALA’s agenda in Seattle, and to tell the story of Seattle’s land use reform nationally. Sightline is a part of, but does not lead, the coalition mentioned in the previous section, which is planning to work to ensure that the city council enacts the HALA recommendations. Sightline’s proposed work aims to provide intellectual and messaging support for the coalition, but will not replace the coalition’s work of organizing support for the HALA recommendations as they move through the city council.

Sightline proposed two main areas of activity for its work under this grant:9

  1. Promoting HALA’s agenda in Seattle. This will likely involve communicating with both the public and key decision-makers in Seattle. Examples of this kind of work might include:
    • Debunking myths about affordable housing
    • Explaining and expanding on basic features of the HALA proposal
    • Writing op-ed articles
    • Writing white papers
    • Public appearances
  2. Making the national case for Seattle-style land use reform. If HALA’s proposals are adopted by the city council, Seattle and the coalition that promoted the HALA recommendations could be a good example of successful land use reform to promote to other regions facing similar issues. Sightline could tell this story nationally by directly publicizing it to national media, and possibly by commissioning work about HALA and Seattle by leading writers on urbanism.

Budget and proposed uses of funding

Sightline will primarily use the grant of $400,000 ($200,000 per year for two years) to hire an additional researcher at a cost of ~$100,000 per year in salary and benefits. It will retain the remainder as a substantial budget for supplementary consulting, communications, public opinion research, and legal research, or for hiring a junior research analyst.

Additionally, Sightline plans to use this grant to pay for existing staff to spend more time on the communication strategy and messaging research supporting the effort to enact the HALA proposals. It is likely that this will involve a reallocation of existing staff time that otherwise would have been spent on projects unrelated to housing.

Case for the grant

We view Sightline’s work in support of the HALA agreement as an opportunity to fund advocacy work that will promote a potentially transformative coalition in one of the metropolitan regions we see as most important for land use reform. If this effort is successful, and if the story is told effectively, it could prompt attempts to replicate the HALA coalition in other cities.

Sightline’s work supporting the effort to implement the HALA recommendations will not by any means be the only factor in determining the outcome of the HALA proposals, and there are other actors in the housing advocacy space in Seattle that we have not thoroughly investigated. However, it appears to us that the HALA recommendations, and the coalition of interests that they have mobilized, represent an important political advance in land use reform efforts, and that Sightline is reasonably situated to increase the likelihood that the recommendations are implemented. We also think that, if the HALA proposals are implemented, Sightline is well-positioned to tell the story nationally.

We hope to achieve two main outcomes with this grant:

  1. Increasing the likelihood that the effort to implement the HALA agreement in Seattle succeeds by improving the quality and quantity of the messaging supporting it.
  2. Multiplying the benefits of any success achieved in Seattle by telling the story nationally, with the aim of leading other cities to adopt similar reforms. In particular, it seems likely to us that the broad coalition supporting HALA represents a model that could be replicated to support land use reform in other cities. We believe the effort to implement the HALA proposals is an important opportunity to show that the coalition dynamics we seek to support are possible.

Risks and offsetting factors

Although the framework of the deal produced by HALA seems promising, we are uncertain of the impact it will have, and in particular whether it will be sufficient to reduce high market-rate rents in Seattle. Other potential risks for this grant include:

  • Sightline’s work could be irrelevant to the success of the effort to implement the HALA agreement.
  • Our funding could be irrelevant to Sightline’s level of engagement in this work. We think this is relatively unlikely: our understanding is that our support is meaningful relative to Sightline’s level of unrestricted funding and that it did not have any other major funders that it expected might contribute to support housing work at this level.
  • The coalition supporting the HALA agreement may prove inadequate to ensure its enactment by the city council, which would make it difficult to use Seattle as a positive example in other cities.
  • If it is implemented, the HALA agreement may end up producing reforms that do not align with our priorities in this area.

Plans for learning and follow up

We expect to have a conversation with Sightline staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.

Questions that we hope to eventually try to answer include:

  • How does Sightline end up using the grant funds?
  • To what extent does Sightline’s work in support of the HALA recommendations contribute to their potential adoption by Seattle city council?
  • If the HALA recommendations are adopted, do Sightline’s efforts to promote the story nationally have a noticeable impact on the discourse around land use reform? What impact do the changes have in Seattle?

Our process

We approached Sightline to discuss its work on housing issues after learning about the Institute in the course of our research into land use reform in Seattle. We discussed potential uses for additional funding on this topic, and received a grant proposal from Sightline.10

We also spoke to a small number of people who work in this area and asked for their assessment of Sightline’s impact. From those conversations it appears to us that Sightline is consistently regarded as credible, particularly with its main audience of people interested in sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest.

We considered several different levels of annual funding for this project before settling on $200,000/year.11

Sources

Document Source
Cohen 2015 Source (archive)
Open Philanthropy Project, Land Use Reform Cause Report Source
HALA Report 2015 Source (archive)
Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Source (archive)
Sightline Institute, About Us Source (archive)
Sightline Institute, Program Summary - Housing and Urban Development 2015 Source
  • 1.

    See our shallow investigation (Open Philanthropy Project, Land Use Reform Cause Report), particularly footnote 18, which provides details on the evidence for the claim that a small number of metropolitan areas – Boston, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington D.C. – account for the majority of the negative impact of restrictive zoning on growth.

  • 2.

    See our shallow investigation (Open Philanthropy Project, Land Use Reform Cause Report), particularly footnote 23, which lists the organizations working in this space that we are aware of. This list does not include Sightline.

  • 3.

    “Sightline Institute is an independent, nonprofit research and communications center—a think tank—founded by Alan Durning in 1993. Our mission is to make the Northwest a global model of sustainability—strong communities, a green economy, and a healthy environment. We envision in the Pacific Northwest an economy and way of life that are environmentally sound, economically vibrant, and socially just. We believe that if northwesterners succeed at reconciling themselves with the natural heritage of this place—the greenest part of history’s richest civilization—we can set an example for the world. Sightline equips the Northwest’s citizens and decision-makers with the policy research and practical tools they need to advance long-term solutions to our region’s most significant challenges. Our work includes in-depth research, commentary, and analysis, delivered online, by email, and in-person to Northwest policy champions.” Sightline Institute, About Us

  • 4. See Open Philanthropy Project, Land Use Reform Cause Report
  • 5.

    “In September of last year, Mayor Murray and City Council called together leaders in our community to help develop a bold agenda for increasing the affordability and availability of housing in our city by convening a Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. The twenty-eight member stakeholder Advisory Committee was co-chaired by Faith Li Pettis of Pacifica Law Group and philanthropic-sector leader David Wertheimer, and included renters and homeowners, for-profit and non-profit developers and other local housing experts. After months of deliberation, they reached consensus and published a report with 65 recommendations to consider.” Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda

  • 6.

    “In September of last year, Mayor Murray and City Council called together leaders in our community to help develop a bold agenda for increasing the affordability and availability of housing in our city by convening a Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. The twenty-eight member stakeholder Advisory Committee was co-chaired by Faith Li Pettis of Pacifica Law Group and philanthropic-sector leader David Wertheimer, and included renters and homeowners, for-profit and non-profit developers and other local housing experts. After months of deliberation, they reached consensus and published a report with 65 recommendations to consider.” Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda

  • 7.

    For details of HALA’s recommendations, see: HALA Report 2015, Pg 3-6.

  • 8.

    Cohen 2015: “If history is any indicator, Seattle’s many single-family homeowners will come out in force to oppose many of these measures. If they succeed in derailing the process, Seattle will be left with its affordability crisis unresolved and many of its neighborhoods trapped in the amber of prohibitive rents and limiting zoning.
    “The staying power of neighborhood groups is extraordinary,” says Durning. “There are a lot of retirees with a lot of home equity and they have nothing else to do but defend it.”
    Seattle got a taste of the opposition’s panic and power in early July after a leaked copy of the HALA recommendations made it into the hands of Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. He wrote that HALA wanted to upzone Seattle’s single-family bungalows, but failed to mention that the recommendation was to clear the path for more mother-in-laws, duplexes and triplexes everywhere, and taller buildings in the heart of urban villages.
    The column set off a wave of hand-wringing media reports and angry calls to council members and the Mayor. By the time HALA actually released its recommendations on July 17th, many of the city’s single-family dwellers were convinced they would soon be living in the shadow of towers and life as they knew it would be irrevocably altered. A few weeks later Murray capitulated and took the single-family upzones off the table.
    With City Council primaries just a few weeks after the HALA rec’s release, many worried that fury would lead to mandate-sized votes for certain candidates. Instead, neighborhood preservationist candidates mostly failed to make it to the general, giving HALA supporters a glimmer of hope.”

  • 9.Purpose: Sightline, an influential participant in the HALA commission, will seize this unusual opportunity by redoubling our work on housing affordability toward two ultimate goals:
    1. Win adoption and implementation of HALA’s recommendations, including citywide upzones, in collaboration with Mayor Ed Murray, HALA’s champions on the city council, and the emerging HALA political coalition called Growing Together.
    2. Propagate the growth + affordability model outside of Seattle by telling the HALA story in ways that reach key audiences elsewhere in the Northwest and across the United States, ultimately planting the Seattle model in leaders’ minds as a new and pragmatic way forward.”

    Sightline Institute, Program Summary - Housing and Urban Development 2015

  • 10.

    Sightline Institute, Program Summary - Housing and Urban Development 2015

  • 11.

    Annual grant values we considered, but ultimately decided against, and the activities Sightline indicated it would have engaged in with these levels of funding include:

    • $110,000: $100,000 in salary and benefits for a researcher and $10,000 for contracting. This level of funding would have provided for a small contract or two per year that might have been for graphic design, public relations support to place a story in the national media, specialized research such as GIS mapping, or a small piece by a writer to tell the story of Seattle’s land use reform.
    • $160,000: $100,000 in salary and benefits for a researcher and $60,000 for contracting. This level of funding would have provided for an ample budget for graphic design, public relations support to place national stories, specialized research, and third-party writers. Alternatively, it might have provided for a basic video budget or money for focus groups and polling.
    • $260,000: $100,000 in salary and benefits for a researcher, $100,000 for contracting, and $60,000 to hire a research assistant. This level of funding also would have provided for an ample budget for graphic design, public relations support, specialized research, third-party writers, events, a basic video budget, opinion research, and/or legal research on occupancy limits.