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 recommend a $400,000 grant 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
1.1 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
1.2 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.
1.3 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
1.4 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
- 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
- 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.
1.5 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.
1.6 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:
- 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.
- 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.
1.7 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?
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
|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|