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Adding affordable 'workforce' housing near Seattle's industrial waterfront divides labor unions

In this photo taken Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, amber light spills out of the tunnel that will shortly become the new Highway 99, as traffic moves along on either side of it on the current Hwy. 99, ahead of an upcoming closure of the older roadway in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
In this photo taken Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, amber light spills out of the tunnel then under construction to replace Highway 99. The project is among several major changes to the Seattle waterfront in recent years. Local labor unions are divided about allowing affordable "workforce" housing to be built in Seattle's stadium district, seen on the right.

Last week, Seattle City Council chambers were more packed than they’d been since the pandemic hit, according to one councilmember, for what might seem like the least exciting of committees: a land use hearing about a change to industrial zoning.

But a question of whether to allow more affordable housing near the waterfront in the stadium district has surfaced divisions inside organized labor, one of Seattle’s biggest political lobbies. Many of those in attendance last week were members or representatives of a union, pushing for or against adding market-rate and affordable "workforce'" housing in the Stadium district.

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s plan to update code for waterfront land for the first time in decades would prevent the encroachment of big-box stores and mini-storage facilities near the shoreline and deep-water port and rail infrastructure. In its current form, it adds around 3,000 units of housing clustered in Georgetown, Ballard and South Park, but prohibits it near the stadiums.

The maritime unions — including longshore, sailors and warehouse workers — came to support that proposal, along with representatives from the Port of Seattle.

"City government has attempted, and failed, to update industrial land policies for at least 15 years," Harrell's spokesperson Jamie Housen said in an email.

"Conflicts between property owners, labor unions, businesses, and the Port of Seattle have stymied every effort to strengthen industrial and maritime land protections and take advantage of new opportunities for housing and jobs in the evolving industrial, manufacturing, and maritime sector. From the beginning, Mayor Harrell said ‘this is important, let’s get it done."

However, a coalition of housing advocates and building trades unions, such as the carpenters and ironworkers, want to add hundreds of units of market-rate and affordable "workforce" housing near the stadiums.

Representatives of those unions said their members need affordable housing near where they work. They would like to delete a sentence in the current draft of the mayor's zoning ordinance that prohibits housing in the Stadium area. Some neighborhood groups in the Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square have also advocated for allowing housing to support activity outside of big events.

The maritime workers and their allies, like representatives of the Port of Seattle, disagree. They say allowing housing near port infrastructure would result in noise complaints from residents or bicyclists crashing into trucks and shipping infrastructure.

Some, like Gabriel Peron, vice president of the Seattle chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, even see it as an existential threat to their livelihoods.

"It [doesn't] only impact me, but it impacts everyone that comes behind me," Peron said during the council meeting. "It is important that we preserve that type of industry so we can have workers that have a long term job."

Others pointed to the Fremont neighborhood, where zoning was changed to allow office buildings years ago and now, the waterfront is filled with them.

Supporters of housing cited a city report from March that says "some limited amount of housing" wouldn't impact nearby industrial activities. But the report also acknowledged the Port and unions' concerns and said "considerable deference to labor and institutional stakeholders with direct experience with the intricacies involved in the operation of marine terminals is warranted."

"We're not going to stop people moving to Seattle," said Pedro Espinoza, a political liaison for the regional carpenters’ union.

"It's a growing city. It's becoming a very popular city. So if we start surrounding the wagons around certain areas, that we can't do this, we can't build that... I think we are pretty smart here, that we can all come to a consensus and not be arguing and fighting. When it comes to worker housing, affordable housing — that's what we need."

This will be a tricky question for Seattle City Council, many of whom rely on union support in their campaigns. Housen, Harrell's spokesperson, said the mayor wanted to move past this conflict in his proposal.

"Over the years, one of the most controversial issues was the debate over housing in the stadium area – preventing needed reforms to increase housing and jobs," Housen said via email. "This issue was the primary reason previous efforts to update the city's policies have failed."

Voting on the zoning change will likely take place in June.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.