I made this full page Real Change poster back in 2006, when we were fighting the Downtown for All campaign along with SAGE to get downtown condo developers to pony up a $20 per square foot surcharge for affordable housing for floors that exceeded Seattle's previous height limit. The developers and the Mayor had reached a back room agreement of $10 per square foot that they fully expected to be obediently ratified. It wasn't. We fought the downtown interests and won, and the higher surcharge is expected to raise about $14 million for housing.
We helped build the grassroots support that would take a minority idea favored by Tom Rassmussen, Peter Steinbrueck, and Nick Licata to final approval by the entire Council.
What made this happen?
We worked our relationships. Real Change partnered with SAGE to strategize and bring in other allies, but we also brought in Real Change vendors and their relationships with readers to help build pressure. Many other allies came into motion. At the hearings it was the will and the interests of the people versus the self-interest of the developers, and we were heard.
We made it interesting. We took what had been a sleepy technical issue that was poorly understood by most, and made it about equality and basic fairness. Would the downtown be just for the wealthy, or would it be a Downtown for All?
We did our research. Peter Steinbrueck got the city to commission a neutral third party to produce an expert opinion on whether development at the higher surcharge was still sufficiently profitable. Downtown interests tried their best to delegitimate the report, but they never got traction. One turning point was when Columbia Tower developer and Seattle legend Marty Selig testified that if developers could not pay the $20 surcharge and still make a profit, "they shouldn't be in the business."
We polarized. We made t-shirts that said "Developers Stole My Downtown and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." We made an issue of the Mayor's clear allegiances. We held a well-attended "Zoned Out" forum on downtown issues and put our council members on the spot. We beat up on weaker kneed allies who were more willing to compromise than we were and got them to back off. We took what had been a sleepy technical issue and made it a moral crusade.
We called their bluff. The downtown establishment kicked and screamed all the way to the final vote, but their dire prognostications of the flight of investor capital to the wilds of Bellevue failed to materialize. What's more, the more they threatened, the less support they seemed to have on the Council, and the more attractive siding with the democratic will of the people became.
As we continue to work on issues of housing affordability, wage equity, and civil rights, we need to remember our successes, and that the downtown interests don't always prevail. People power can trump money and clout, if you're smart about your organizing and play to win.