A presentation on Buckley’s housing needs Tuesday drew a vigorous rebuke from a city council member who appeared to have misinterpreted parts of the report.
The presentation from Blueline, a Kirkland-based civil engineering and land use planning firm, was highly technical and made no specific policy recommendations. But Buckley Council member Ron Smith lambasted it as “woke” drivel during the city council’s May 24 meeting, calling the housing needs assessment presentation “the worst 30 minutes” of his entire life.
In an email to the Courier-Herald on May 26, Smith said his disappointment was also based in part by how the presenters delivered their findings to the council. He said the work should have been done by city staff and said the city is relying “way too much” on contractors at the moment.
“I was very disappointed in the presentation, as it was very apparent that the presenters were reading from a script, the fact was on Zoom and not in person,” he wrote.
“I do not regret my statements, as this presentation should have never been on a regular council agenda, rather a study session,” Smith wrote. “It was a non-actionable item and wasted valuable time of all councilmembers and Mayor.”
Blueline presenters at the May 24 council meeting broke down the factors contributing to housing affordability challenges, such as who is “cost-burdened” — in other words, who has to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing alone. Transportation costs should be factored into those considerations, according to the presentation, since they are often connected to housing costs. The report also addressed how age, race and other factors played in to who could and couldn’t afford to live in Buckley.
While the presentation didn’t advocate a specific solution, the presenters concluded that Blueline’s housing action plan could ultimately help the city improve affordability for very low and extremely low-income residents, the presenters said.
(You can listen to the presentation for yourself using this link to the city’s official recording of the council meeting: https://bit.ly/3LSeb5l. The presentation begins at 35:10, and Smith’s comments begin at time mark 59:20.)
At the end of the presentation during the council meeting, Smith gave an impassioned rant during a question-and-answer period.
“I don’t want to hear from them at all,” Smith said. “I just want to know how much we’re paying this firm for this woke presentation. This absolutely woke language about income distribution. Nobody distributes income. You go to work, you earn a paycheck. … That’d be like a socialist world that we’d live in, if somebody distributes something to someone. So I want to know what we’re paying for this drivel. Lack of diversity? I’m sorry, people live where they live at. I have been preached to for 30 minutes on a woke topic. I want to know how much we’re paying them, because this is ridiculous. Transportation costs? I’m sorry, Joe Biden, when he first came in office, cancelled our own energy independence. And now we can’t get gas. Transportation costs have nothing to do with Buckley. It has to do with what people voted for, or supposedly voted for. This is the worst 30 minutes of my life I’ve ever spent, to be honest with you.”
(Woke is a term originating from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the 1930s that came to mean staying alert to racial prejudice. In the last decade or so, its meaning has expanded in the public tongue to include other social inequalities, and it is now most often used as a pejorative shorthand against left-wing politics.)
After Smith’s comments, Buckley Building and Planning Director Emily Terrell explained at the meeting that “income distribution” doesn’t refer to the government giving money to people. Rather, it’s a term referring to the range of incomes that people in a given area make.
“It’s the same information you find in the census, because that’s where this data came from,” she said.
Smith said in his followup email that he accepts Terrell’s explanation. “The way it was used in the presentation sounded vastly different to me,” he wrote.
But Smith wrote in an email that he didn’t understand what the report’s sections on income distribution and race had to do with keeping Buckley a livable community.
“I am tired of people being divided up via race, socio-economic status et:, we are all humans who happen to call Buckley home regardless of all of the pigeon holes some folks want to assign,” he wrote.
“Buckley is a very conservative community and I am quite sure my constituents would reject this type of verbiage,” he wrote in another email.
(Smith didn’t object to affordable housing developments in general. He wrote that if a developer creates an affordable housing project that meets all the requirements of the city, then that project should be approved.)
Terrell also clarified at the meeting that the presentation was funded through a state Department of Commerce Housing Action Implementation grant, and that “there’s not a dime” coming from the city budget related to that grant.
In a follow-up interview, Terrell said that the data presented “are meant to be the dry statistics that they are.”
“Our goal is not to be incendiary at all with this,” she said. “There is no judgement here. We’re not talking about whether or not we should have more or less of any type of person, income. None of that. This is literally a snapshot based on publicly available (government) statistics.”
Terrell also clarified that the information on transportation costs is based on data from 2012 through 2016. (Barack Obama was president at that time, not Joe Biden.)
“The datasets … lag a lot,” Terrell said. “The important thing to understand, (is that) right now we’re seeing an incredible inflation in energy costs that are relatively recent. … That is not data we captured, or even can capture.”
Terrell said she’s asked Blueline to add in a few more data sources, which could make future reports even more accurate. This first report is a broad overview that conforms with the Department of Commerce’s grant requirements, Terrell said.
The city has also experienced an unprecedented building boom in the last few years, Terrell said, so the city’s housing market has already moved beyond much of the data in the analysis.
As an example from her presentation Tuesday night, Terrell pointed out that the city brought in about $790,000 last year in general facilities charges. That’s money charged every time a resident newly hooks up to the water, sewer and stormwater systems.
Only five months into this year, they’ve already raised nearly $3.5 million for that same fund. That means the city has raised money more than ten times faster than it did last year.
Blueline started their presentation by laying out out city demographics like age, income, race and gender in comparison to Pierce County overall.
The presenters stated plainly that Buckley is not a racially diverse community, given that more than 92 percent of the city is white and more than 94 percent speaks only English at home. The presenters did not make a moral judgement about this fact, though they mentioned later that “policies that focus on supporting racially and economically diverse communities help ease socioeconomic strains on residents that would otherwise result in displacement.”
The presentation broke down cost-burden differences by race, but Buckley has so few non-white residents that there was no data about non-white renters for the analysis to break down. Perhaps as a result of this dearth of data, the analysis summarized that white residents “are more cost-burdened than any other race.”
Terrell said that conclusion may be an error. The non-white percentages are likely estimates based on the very small sample size, she said in an e-mail, so the city “can’t really say with any accuracy what the cost burden is for these groups of people.”
Income is a better proxy for cost burden and a factor the city has more accurate data on, she said.
BlueLine’s presentation also showed that Buckley’s population has risen steadily since 2010 after experiencing a brief dip during The Great Recession. The average household income is slightly higher in Buckley than the rest of Pierce County for both family and non-family households, according to the presentation.
Data from 2019 indicates more than 90 percent of the city’s workforce commutes from out of town, and only about one-in-ten residents live and work in Buckley. The presenters cautioned that the COVID-19 pandemic might have shifted those numbers around.
Because Buckley isn’t an island, you have to look at Pierce County data overall to get a sense of what’s affordable in Buckley, the presenters said. And the city’s small size means some municipal level data simply wasn’t available, so the report had to use county data in those cases, Terrell said.
If Buckley had the same income distribution as Pierce County, there would be a lack of of 148 “extremely low-income,” 34 “very low-income” and 23 “moderate income and above” housing units for people who want to live there, the presenters said. Buckley would, however, have a surplus of 215 low-income households.
(Extremely low-income earners make less than 30 percent of the local area’s median family income, which is $77,512. Very-low earners are between 30 and 50 percent. Low-income earners are between 50 and 80 percent, moderate income is 80 to 100 percent, and anything higher is “above median income.”)
In other words, while low and moderate-income Pierce County residents have at least decent access to housing in Buckley, those making half or less the average household income would have more trouble. Overall, about one-third of renters in the city can’t afford the median price of a rental, presenters said.
Roughly 20 percent of Buckley residents are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of income on housing. Another 10 percent are “severely cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing.
But transportation costs, often the second-highest expense for most households, should be part of the conversation too, presenters said.
Quoting a saying among planning experts, Terrell put it this way: “You drive until you can buy, and you ride until you can rent. … That’s the assumption, that you will balance those housing and energy costs.”
As an example: Very-low income individuals, retired couples and single-parent households are, on average, cost-burdened in Buckley, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to the presentation. But adding in transportation costs, all other types of households — like high-earning family homes or single professionals — would be, on average, cost-burdened too.
In June, Blueline will begin public participation in the housing action plan. A draft would be prepared by the end of this year and taken to the City Council. Per the guidelines of the grant, the final housing action plan from Blueline would have to be adopted by June 2023. The council didn’t take any action on the housing needs assessment presented Tuesday.
All council members were present for the meeting except for Marvin Sundstrom, who was excused.
ALSO ON TUESDAY, THE COUNCIL…
• Began with a moment of silence for the victims of an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, in which nineteen children and two adults were killed by an 18-year-old shooter.
• Unanimously approved a motion amending the city’s municipal code to clarify when fees are due for various facility charges.
• Unanimously approved an engineering proposal for firm Gray & Osborne to provide permit review services for the city’s Wastewater Treatment plant.
• Unanimously approved the replacement of the city water department’s Elk Heights Booster Station, which is located near the intersection of Ryan Road and Sergeant Street.