Seattle area’s economic boom splashes over the Cascades, bringing work and worries

My latest in The Seattle Times 

For Subsplash, a small Seattle-based maker of social apps for churches, the decision to open a second campus in Wenatchee this fall was easy. The Central Washington town has better weather than Seattle. It boasts fast internet, lower labor costs and business-friendly government: Subsplash’s new offices are in a city-sponsored business “incubator” in the popular Pybus Public Market overlooking the Columbia River. And, of course, Wenatchee has much cheaper housing. The median price for a home is $325,000, or less than half of that in Seattle.

As Phil Goodman, head of human resources at Subsplash, put it recently, “Wenatchee is kind of our HQ2.”

But not everyone in Wenatchee is so excited to see the newcomers. At a local hiring fair this spring, as Goodman was telling locals how glad he was to see businesses “coming over [from Seattle] to Wenatchee and providing jobs,” he got some good-natured pushback.

“There were a few people who were like, ‘Well, hold on, don’t tell too many people. We don’t want too many companies over here,’ ” he recalled.

It’s a common refrain across much of Central Washington these days. As eager as towns like Wenatchee, Chelan and Cle Elum are for new industry and high-wage jobs, many residents also wonder what these urban “refugees” will mean for communities that are often already struggling with big-city growing pains.

Read the article in The Seattle Times



Politico: How Cities Became The New Unions

The $15 minimum wage was just the beginning. Now Seattle is trying to build a whole safety net for workers—and triggering a war with its biggest companies.


SEATTLE—On an overcast morning in early April, three members of the Seattle City Council arrived to find their cavernous, titanium- and maple-paneled meeting chambers packed to capacity with a noisy, unwelcoming crowd. Many wore T-shirts bearing the message “I drive, I vote.” When the council president tried to open the hearing, one argumentative man kept interrupting so industriously that security had to escort him from the room.

The confrontation had been orchestrated in part by Uber, the ride-share company, as the latest move in its long-simmering war with the city. Almost from the moment Uber chose Seattle as its third test market, back in 2011, the city has sought to put itself between the company and its drivers: first, there had been an ordinance attempting to cap the number of ride-share drivers here; then, in 2015, the City Council passed a law allowing drivers to bargain collectively. Now, the city was considering a law to force ride-share companies to nearly double the base rate paid to their drivers, from $1.35 to $2.40 per mile.

City officials argued the new rate was necessary to ensure that drivers earn Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage. But Uber, king of the budget ride, was having none of it. After blasting an email to its Seattle-area customers warning that the city “wants to double your rates,” Uber dispatched a small army of company-friendly drivers to City Hall to lobby the council in person. Seattle, a city famous for promoting innovation, was innovating in a way that Uber didn’t appreciate.

Yet, it’s the kind of assertiveness that Uber and the rest of corporate America will probably have to get used to. Ever since 2014, when Seattle became the first major municipality to adopt a $15 minimum wage—over the objections of its own business community—the famously left-of-center city has rolled out a series of ambitious, often controversial laws aimed at shielding workers from the chaos of the fast-changing, technology-disrupted urban job market. Today, Seattle’s workers enjoy a list of on-the-job benefits that feels almost European in its scope—everything from a high minimum wage to a ban on last-minute schedule changes to a city-sponsored retirement savings plan. And more are on the way. This year, council members are considering a “bill of rights” for the estimated 33,000 housecleaners, nannies and other “domestics” who work for the city’s population of high earners.

Seattle, celebrated mainly for software, airplanes and overpriced coffee, is now at the forefront of a radical new experiment to see how far a city can go—and should go—to improve the lives of the people who work there.

Read the rest of the article.



Politico: ‘My Generation Is Never Going to Have That’

In Seattle’s red-hot housing market, a group of millennial techies is using data skills to alter the look, and affordability, of their adopted city.


n a brisk Saturday morning in March, a 27-year-old programmer named Zach Lubarsky, bundled in a fatigue jacket and knit cap, took a ReachNow rental car to the north end of Seattle and spent an hour or so scouting one of city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Wallingford, as it’s known, offers house hunters some of the best specimens of the city’s famous century-old Craftsman bungalows.

But Lubarsky wasn’t hunting for a house. He wants the whole neighborhood.

To Lubarsky, a number cruncher-turned-housing activist, Wallingford’s architectural jewels, with their grand front porches and exquisite topiary, are emblematic of this city’s potentially fatal flaw: a housing market so expensive it’s throttling one of America’s biggest urban success stories. Decades ago, these tidy homes were cheap enough for schoolteachers and firefighters. Today, most cost at least a million dollars, and what was once a proudly middle-class neighborhood has morphed into a financially gated community.

Part of the problem, Lubarsky admits, is people like himself: Seattle’s red-hot tech economy, led by companies such as Amazon and Groupon (where Lubarsky works), has filled the city with an army of well-paid workers bidding up the price of housing. But that tech-fueled demand has tended to overshadow the other driver: insufficient supply. Since the end of the financial crisis, Lubarsky says, Seattle has added roughly 100,000 jobs, but barely 32,000 new homes and apartment units. “We’ve underbuilt every year since 2010,” he adds. And a big part of that deficit, Lubarsky says, is due to neighborhoods like Wallingford, where zoning laws make it almost impossible to build anything other than a single-family house.

That’s why Lubarsky wants to radically reconceive the way Seattle lives. For several years, he and fellow activists have waged a data-driven campaign to change the city’s zoning to allow more “density” in single-family neighborhoods, which account for more than half of the city’s land. If this pro-density campaign succeeds, neighborhoods like Wallingford could be transformed by a wave of new construction that would gradually replace single-family homes with duplexes, town homes, apartments and other multifamily housing types. And that would go some of the way toward solving a paradox that threatens many of America’s most successful cities: the younger workers needed to maintain that urban success can no longer afford to live there.

Predictably, the campaign has provoked a fierce backlash from homeowners, many of them baby boomers who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. They’ve sued to block the proposed “up-zones” to their neighborhoods, which, they warn, will kill the very “character” that makes Seattle’s housing so charming to newcomers in the first place. But to Lubarsky, that cherished neighborhood character was always false advertising, given how few people can actually afford it. “My generation is never going to have that,” he says, gesturing to a tricked-out Craftsman with a tidy yard and paved driveway. “There are too many of us to live like that.”


Read the story in Politico



Politico: This Is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town


Eastern Washington had cheap power and tons of space. Then the suitcases of cash started arriving.


EAST WENATCHEE, Washington—Hands on the wheel, eyes squinting against the winter sun, Lauren Miehe eases his Land Rover down the main drag and tells me how he used to spot promising sites to build a bitcoin mine, back in 2013, when he was a freshly arrived techie from Seattle and had just discovered this sleepy rural community.

The attraction then, as now, was the Columbia River, which we can glimpse a few blocks to our left. Bitcoin mining—the complex process in which computers solve a complicated math puzzle to win a stack of virtual currency—uses an inordinate amount of electricity, and thanks to five hydroelectric dams that straddle this stretch of the river, about three hours east of Seattle, miners could buy that power more cheaply here than anywhere else in the nation. Long before locals had even heard the words “cryptocurrency” or “blockchain,” Miehe and his peers realized that this semi-arid agricultural region known as the Mid-Columbia Basin was the best place to mine bitcoin in America—and maybe the world.


Read the rest of the article in Politico Magazine

Politico: This Is What Really Happens When Amazon Comes to Your Town

SEATTLE—Thursday is the deadline for cities bidding to host “HQ2,” as Amazon calls its planned second headquarters, and the competition has been intense. More than a hundred would-be hosts have assembled generous packages with everything from multibillion-dollar tax breaks to free utilities to an offer to build Amazon its own city (also named Amazon) in the hope of enticing the online retail giant and up to 50,000 of its handsomely paid employees.

But as these cities go all-out to win Amazon’s affections, they might take a lesson from the city where those same affections have dimmed: Seattle.


Read the article.

Trump promised to save Northwest aluminum jobs. My Seattle Times article on why he can’t.

The off-again, on-again history of Wenatchee’s massive Alcoa aluminum plant has left the city and former workers unsure about its prospects, even as ingot prices climb to levels that previously sustained one of the Northwest’s last surviving smelters.


To the outsider, these might look like hopeful times for Kelley Woodard, president of the Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council.

Twenty months after aluminum maker Alcoa idled its giant smelter just south of town and laid off 428 of Woodard’s union members, the aluminum business is showing signs of life.

Prices for the smelter’s 1,500-pound aluminum “ingots” are recovering. Aluminum companies are reporting modest profits and restoring some idled facilities. Last month, Alcoa announced plans to restart a smelter in Indiana, and, says a spokesman, it continues to “regularly evaluate all of the curtailed sites, including Wenatchee.”

And if market conditions don’t yet warrant restarting the Wenatchee smelter, industry analysts say that could soon change, thanks to President Donald Trump.

In recent months, the Trump administration has taken steps to curb exports of ultracheap, government-subsidized Chinese aluminum that have flooded markets and depressed prices.

Though no fan of Trump, Woodard, 58, readily acknowledges the president’s tough stance on Chinese aluminum “could be a huge plus for us.”

And yet, standing in front of the nearly empty smelter, where Woodard leads a skeleton maintenance crew, this veteran “Alcoan” is surprisingly ambivalent about a restart. That’s a fairly common attitude around Wenatchee.

Read the whole story.





Is Your City Being Sold Off to Global Elites?

Visas for sale, skyrocketing housing prices, miles of condos: Is the flood of foreign cash pouring into Vancouver’s housing market the model for any successful urban center?

Mother Jones Magazine,  MAY/JUNE 2017 ISSUE

“See the little pair of shoes?” Kerry Starchuk brings her minivan to a halt before a sprawling manse with antebellum columns and a cast-iron fence and points to the front door. Sure enough, next to the welcome mat sits a solitary pair of clogs. Realtors do that, Starchuk tells me, “to make it look like someone is living there.” But a quick survey of the property spoils the ruse. The blinds are drawn. The lawn is overgrown and the capacious circular driveway is empty. Still, Starchuk credits the effort. “Some of the houses, you drive by and they haven’t even picked up their mail.”

It’s midmorning on a Saturday in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, and this is maybe the 20th example we’ve seen of what locals call the “empty-house syndrome“—homes purchased by foreign nationals, many of them wealthy Chinese, and left to sit vacant. Some will eventually have occupants; Vancouver is a top destination for well-heeled emigrants. But often, the new owners treat the houses as little more than vehicles for spiriting capital out of China. By one recent estimate, 67,000 homes, condos, and apartments in the Vancouver metro area, or about 6.5 percent of the total, are either empty or “underused”—an appalling statistic, given a housing market so tight that rental vacancy rates are below 1 percent. Hence the shoes: To shield absentee owners from public opprobrium, niche firms specializing in “vacant-property maintenance” will arrange elaborate camouflages—everything from timed light switches and “garden staging” to artful props, like pumpkins at Halloween and wreaths at Christmas.

Read the whole story

Waking Up In Bed With Donald Trump

It’s been established that Chris Christie is washed up. Getting in bed with someone like Trump is something you don’t ever walk back—although from the look on Christie’s face these days, he would give his left testicle to wake up and discover this has all been a very bad dream.

Which raises an important question for those of us who don’t plan to vote for The Bad Idea: What happens the “morning after” for the country as a whole?

Consider: Now that Trump has revealed more of his inner Marge Schott — with the non-disavowals and the open incitement of violence at his rallies — to be a Trump supporter is to publicly declare your OK-ness with spectacularly incorrect bucket list. You’re no longer a closet hater, tucked safely behind dog whistles and coded rhetoric: you’re basically marching down Main Street wearing both a sheet AND knee-high black boots.

You’re also betting the farm, reputationally. While Trump certainly could win in November, that’s still a stretch; polls show Clinton beating him now by 5-7 points, and if anything, his new racist red shoes will widen that margin faster than GOP anti-Clinton oppo attacks will narrow it.

Which means that, as a Trump supporter, you won’t only have backed the wrong horse; you’ll still be out of the closet in a big, hard-to-take-back way, with your neighbors, your family, your employers, your kids. Some non-Trumpians may relish the prospect of so many outed haters, elections having consequences and all; at the very least, we’ll no longer be able to ignore the fact that America has a serious personality disorder.

But I have to admit I’m actually a little afraid of the shape this new knowledge might take. We won’t merely be faced with the reality of America’s nastiness; we’ll also be faced with the everyday, on-the-street fact of maybe 45 million of our fellow citizens who supported a guy who casually flirts with fascism and thuggery – people who, if they remained Trump supporters till Election Day, with all that he is likely to have said, aren’t likely to have the grace to be embarrassed. No, they’ll be pissed; worse, they’ll feel entitled to express that anger, having just spent the preceding year or so being encouraged to give life to their worst impulses, without shame.

The genius of the American political system is that it has the near-miraculous capacity heal itself after each, once-every-four-years rupture. And while that power was already running low these last few decades, Trump could crush it entirely.

So thanks, Christ Christie. You’ve made your bed – and we’re all sleeping in it.

Trump and David Duke: remind us again where that firewall is…

For those just resurfacing from the Oscars, here’s a rough timeline of Trump’s non/reluctant disavowal of an endorsement by ex-Klan Leader David Duke, who earlier praised the Donald as someone who would shut the border and dismantle the“Jewish controlled” finance industry :

Sunday morning: Trump tweets “As I stated at the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke- I disavow.”

Earlier Sunday: “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”

Feb 2000: Trump withdraws as presidential candidate for Reform Party after claiming: “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani. This is not company I wish to keep.”

And just to drive home how little he cares about the company he now keeps,  prior to his Sunday comments, Trump took a moment to re-tweet a quote from Mussolini. [“It’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”]. He later told NBC’s Meet the Press, “”Mussolini was Mussolini… What difference does it make? It got your attention, didn’t it?”)
One is tempted to call the top of the Trump Market — there’s no way he can maintain this  — what shall we call it, casual fascism? — and still get the nomination, right? Except that blithe fascism seems not only likely to further arouse a key part of his base, but may now also be attracting mainstream political opportunists — Christie and now Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Who else might we expect to jump on the Trump Train (which, naturally, will always run on time?)

Pundits, too, despite months of insisting that Trump is un-nominatable — are now starting to whisper about the “inevitability” of his nomination.  Certainly, the media love a disaster story, and if they can’t find one, they will make one:  and most GOP voters, we’re told, do not support Trump. But  according to one recent poll, 80 percent of GOP voters think Trump will win the nomination.

There is still plenty of time for the Donald to fall on his own sword. Surely, all but the actual racists and fascists and inbred hillbillies must take Il Duke’s latest salvo as proof of fatal recklessness.

But we’ve been saying that for a year now — just like we’ve been saying that, even if he does win the nomination, there is NO WAY HE COULD WIN THE GENERAL ELECTION.

I still think Trump is unelectable.  But I also think a lot of us  — especially in the media (right and left) — have no fucking idea what the rest of America is really thinking.

So, once again: where, exactly, is this firewall?