Seattle Weekly Prints Error-Riddled Piece by Bay Area Activist Who Compared YIMBYs to “Alt-Right”

This week, Seattle Weekly ran an error-riddled piece by a San Francisco activist and writer named Toshio Meronek titled “The Growing Power of Seattle YIMBYs.”

As someone who has covered the YIMBY movement  in Seattle (and attended the first-ever national YIMBY conference two years ago), I was intrigued by the headline, which echoed my own reporting on the increasing influence of YIMBY activists in Seattle and other high-cost cities. Unfortunately, the headline was just about the only thing about the story that was accurate.

Generally speaking, YIMBYs can be described as people who support the development of housing affordable to people at every income level, from formerly homeless individuals and families to those who can afford market-rate housing in an expensive city like Seattle. Since YIMBYs span the political spectrum, making the term itself a somewhat slippery catch-all, they might better be described as pro-housing: They support zoning and other regulatory changes that make it easier for affordable and market-rate housing developers to add housing to cities, and oppose exclusionary zoning and other restrictions that keep single-family homeowners’ house values on an ever-rising trajectory while pushing people who lack the means to buy single-family homes out of cities. Many YIMBYs explicitly oppose exclusionary single-family zoning because of its roots in racist redlining policies; others do so because it artificially drives up land values by excluding whole classes of people from huge swaths of growing cities. Some YIMBYs support more government-subsidized housing and protections for incumbent tenants; others oppose regulations like rent control on the grounds that they can drive up housing costs. But on one thing, they agree: They say “Yes in My Backyard.”

I wasn’t familiar with the writer, Toshio Meronek. So I did what the editor who green-lighted the story probably should have done in the first place: I googled him. As it turns out, Meronek is a Bay Area activist with a long history of making inflammatory, unsubstantiated claims about YIMBY activists. In a piece for the lefty online publication Truthout titled “YIMBYs: The Alt-Right Darlings of the Real Estate Industry,” Meronek made the bizarre claim that YIMBYs’ goal is to turn cities into playgrounds for the tech nouveau riche while driving poor people into “debtors’ prisons” with the aid of “militarized policing ” and “social control.” In a followup piece for the San Francisco Examiner titled “The Problem with YIMBY,” he doubled down, claiming that  YIMBYs’ “alt-right” views are “rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan. Further, they collaborate with the real estate industry to rebrand these racist and conservative policies as hip and edgy — this is the ‘alt-right’s’ method of spreading right-wing politics beyond its old white men in suits image.”  Victoria Fierce, a YIMBY activist whose group, East Bay Forward, was featured (and mischaracterized) in Meronek’s Truthout piece, had a particularly scathing, and thoughtful, rebuttal.

Meronek imported the template he employed in San Francisco to Seattle, writing a poorly researched polemic for the Weekly that pits tenants’ rights activists such as the Seattle Tenants Union against YIMBYs writ large, to the diminishment of both.

The piece is a mashup of unrelated policy arguments and mischaracterizations of YIMBY views that reveals Meronek’s ignorance of Seattle’s policy debates and his disdain for accurately reporting basic facts that interfere with his agenda of portrayingYIMBY activists as wealthy, racist, Silicon Valley-funded proxies for the real estate industry.

Originally, I had planned to address every discursive non sequitur in the piece, but then I realized that that’s the entire point: Meronek is attempting to dazzle us with bullshit. By suggesting that YIMBYs are somehow on the wrong side of local, national, and international debates over everything from rent control to rent bidding web sites to Airbnbs to the relative number of public housing units in New York City and Singapore, Meronek manages to implicate them by mere proximity in issues that are barely related, if at all, to the availability of housing in Seattle—which, after all, is what YIMBYs are actually working to increase. The straw men Meronek sets up can then be knocked down with a whisper. The Tenants Union wants more affordable housing? Imply that YIMBYs are against that. The Seattle City Council wants restrictions on rent bidding websites? I bet YIMBYs are super into rent bidding, too. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in King County is absurd, and has been for decades? Sure, they weren’t even around when the problem first materialized, but let’s blame YIMBYs for that, too. Some venture capitalist in San Francisco who has nothing to do with the YIMBY movement compares housing to sandwiches? Attribute that same belief to an unrelated think tank researcher in Seattle, while presenting no reason whatsoever for making that connection. Think about it for two seconds and it’s too late, because we’ve crossed ten lanes of traffic to get to an anecdote about Airbnb regulations in New York City.

In the end, the YIMBY becomes a comical straw capitalist with blinking dollar signs in his eyes—the kind of imaginary person who isn’t himself “impacted by the housing crisis” but has figured out how to benefit from it, one greasy backroom deal at a time.

So I’ll just stick, for the most part, to the many mischaracterizations and factual errors  in the Weekly’s piece, starting with the claim that the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank for which I have written about equitable development and affordable housing solutions, “promote[s] a libertarian, free-market solution to the housing crisis based on trickle-down economics.” Sightline, formerly Northwest Environment Watch, is in reality a Seattle-based think tank that promotes policies that advance sustainability, environmental justice, and social equity. Even if you aren’t familiar with the group, their mission statement and a description of the work they do is right on their website. And even if you’re skeptical of things like mission statements—perhaps  you read “We strive to identify injustice and work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it” and think, “That sounds like free-market libertarianism based on trickle-down Reaganomics to me!”—you can always look over Sightline’s exhaustively archived research, or interview local Seattle sources about their work, or actually talk to the group itself about their mission. There is no evidence that Meronek did this.

Instead—after an 11-word, out-of-context quote from Bertolet, the only YIMBY voice in this story ostensibly about YIMBYs—Meronek accuses Sightline of funneling money… to itself.

Specifically, Meronek makes the bizarre and nonsensical claim that Alan Durning, the director of Sightline, has “funneled at least 1.3 million dollars to YIMBY organizations through the charity Good Ventures, founded by Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz.” This claim is so ridiculous on its face that I’m going to take a second to unravel it, because it speaks to the poor level of reporting in this piece overall, and is the kind of thing that should have made an editor or fact-checker question the veracity of the entire story.

Open Philanthropy, the foundation created by Good Ventures, is a nonprofit that provides grants to a long list of mostly left-leaning organizations, including Sightline and other sustainability groups. Sightline is not itself a granting organization and does not control the giving of any organization that provides its funding.

What Meronek appears to have done is look at Open Philanthropy’s grants database, picked a few groups more or less at random, including Sightline, and added those up to get to (approximately) $1.3 million. (I say “more or less at random ” because there are several groups that received funding from Open Philanthropy, including California YIMBY, that have “YIMBY” right in their name but did not make Meronek’s list of YIMBY groups). What’s bizarre about Meronek’s statement is not only that he’s claiming that Sightline made funding decisions for Open Philanthropy, a group that gave Sightline money and not the other way around, but that Sightline gave Open Philanthropy’s money to itself.

This is confirmed by an email from Weekly editor Seth Sommerfield to Sightline, in which Sommerfield explained that the $1.3 million number was “the approximate sum of these grants specifically: Sightline $350,000 10/17; East Bay Forward $40,000 4/17;  Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. $300,000 7/16; California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund $300,000 6/16; Sightline $450,000 10/15.” (Those numbers actually add up to $1.44 million, not $1.3 million, which seems like a weird rounding error if those were in fact the numbers Meronek used to get to $1.3 million.) Sommerfeld then said that any issues with the way the Weekly characterized Sightline were just ” a matter of your perception, not based on false reporting.”

“We have not found any inaccuracies in the reporting,” Sommerfeld wrote.

What the Weekly is saying, and standing by, then, is that of the funding it is claiming Sightline “funneled” to nonprofits through Open Philanthropy, a funder that is not controlled by Sightline, approximately $800,000 went to Sightline itself. Put another way, they’re claiming that Sightline granted itself $800,000 from an organization it does not control. There’s no way to make these numbers make sense. They just don’t. It’s like saying that a group that gets money from the United Way—say, the Downtown Emergency Services Coalition—is in control of all of United Way’s charitable giving because they received a grant from United Way.  Claiming that a group controlled the funding decisions of one of its benefactors, and somehow gave money to itself, is not a matter of perception, or a different way of looking at the numbers. It is a falsehood, represented as fact.

But the YIMBYs at Sightline aren’t the only thing Meronek mischaracterizes. He also blames YIMBYs—an acronym that barely existed before 2016—for gentrification in the Central District, implying that it is a new phenomenon that can be laid at their feet.

The city’s Central District is a stark example of what can happen when market-rate development is unleashed on a neighborhood. Once a majority-black area, the District is now cost-prohibitive to many black Seattleites, who make, on average, less than Asians or whites. The city now faces what its own Race & Social Justice Initiative calls an “extreme racial disproportionality in homelessness,” with—no surprise—black people ending up on the street in droves.

I couldn’t find an online source for that RSJI quote, which gives me pause in the context of a story that is so littered with misrepresentations and sentence-fragment quotes throughout, but that isn’t the part that’s wrong—Seattle’s homelessness crisis is also a racial equity crisis, with Native Americans and African Americans ending up homeless far out of proportion to their representation in the population. The problem is that the Central District (or, as Meronek adorably calls it, “The District”) lost the bulk of its African American population long before the current boom. See, for example, this 2005 Seattle Times article bemoaning gentrification from a wave of white newcomers to the area. Or this 2007 Seattle PI article describing the  same trend.

In fact, you can go all the way back to the year 2000, when the Central District’s African American population had been reduced to more than 70 percent in the 1960s to just over a third.  (Today, it’s closer to 20 percent).  People were trying to figure out what to do about the problem then, too. At the time, though, the issue wasn’t a wave of market-rate development—that didn’t happen until recently—it was a lack of housing affordable to people who were being priced out of the area by taxes and losing their homes to predatory housing lenders. (Policies that would have allowed and incentivized more housing in the area, including affordable units, could have helped with that.) The current wave of market-rate development that is being “unleashed on” the Central District is not responsible for gentrification that emptied the neighborhood of African American residents 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. These are complicated problems that shouldn’t be placed, ahistorically and unfairly, at the feet of present-day activists who are, in real time and on the ground, trying to solve them. There are certainly groups, particularly in the Bay Area, that promote market-rate housing at the expense of other solutions. But that’s not what’s happening in Seattle—nor, for the most part, anywhere. Pro-housing YIMBY groups here in Seattle have actually supported equitable development projects that are attempting to slow the trend of gentrification in the CD, like the recent partnership between Forterra (a sustainability nonprofit that has recently gotten into urban development) and Africatown, to develop affordable housing and support black-owned businesses in the heart of the neighborhood.

After blaming historical gentrification in the Central District on a movement that just started in the last few years, Meronek pivots back to Sightline, which is when he makes his most bizarre

The next misrepresentation, which has little to do with the YIMBYs, is minor in comparison: Meronek claims that an electricity survey showed that Vancouver was overrun with foreign investors buying up apartments and leaving them vacant. (The evidence was that 12,000 units had very low electricity usage, a stat that advocates for foreign investor taxes have used to argue that those units are sitting vacant.) Bertolet himself actually did a great job debunking this survey, using historical electricity usage data and occupancy data over time to show that the rate of low-usage units has remained flat over time, as has the occupancy rate of apartments in Vancouver. His research, headlined “Stop Blaming Foreign Home Buyers,” is well worth reading in full.

After a quote from “Capitol Hill staple” Dennis Saxman (an old-school lefty with little influence but who’s always game for a quote about how development is bad) describing YIMBYs as advocates for “uber-development,” the aforementioned non sequitur about New York and Singapore, and some random  statistics about Airbnbs in Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, and New York, the piece winds down with a plea for rent control and inclusionary zoning. But Meronek gets that one wrong, too. After implying that Seattle doesn’t have inclusionary zoning, Meronek pivots and says we do, but that “an unmarried, childless buyer can make up to $84,000—or 120 percent of the area median income—and still be eligible for this affordable housing.” Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, provides rent-stabilized apartments to people making up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income, or $42,150 for a single person with no children, and homeownership assistance is available for people making up to 80 percent of AMI, or $56,200 for that same single, childless person. It’s unclear where Meronek got his 120 percent figure, which also remains uncorrected.

Would a local writer with some familiarity with local organizations and issues have done a better job writing about this issue? Probably. Would an established journalist have done a better job than an activist with an (easily Googleable) ax to grind? Almost certainly. But the biggest issue I see with this story isn’t even its writer’s mangling of the truth. It’s that the writer decided he wanted to tell a story—about a shadowy cabal of corrupt Silicon Valley capitalists and associated sham nonprofits lining their pockets with the spoils of late-stage capitalism—but he didn’t have the goods. That’s why the story, on its face and setting aside all the errors it contains, makes no sense. What do Singapore’s public housing policies, Facebook, Airbnb, Chinese investors in Vancouver, and Rentberry have to do with a bunch of activists in Seattle? Nothing, really, but when you glue them all together with a few quotes from tenant advocates and random Capitol Hill activists, it sure sounds sinister, doesn’t it?

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A Conversation With a Neighbor Who Changed His Mind About a Tiny House Village

In case you haven’t noticed, the debate about homelessness in Seattle has gotten a little toxic. At a time when homeowners show up to chant “bullshit!” at public hearings and socialists attempt to drown out city council votes they don’t agree with, it’s rare to hear about anyone actually changing their mind after talking to “the other side.” Which is why I was eager to sit down with a guy I met at a recent public meeting on a new “tiny house” village that’s currently being built in a vacant lot at 18th and Yesler and hear more about how he went from distributing flyers opposing the project to figuring out ways he could support the people living there.

Omeed, who asked me to use his first name only, joined a group called Yesler Neighbors that distributed flyers in the neighborhood around the tiny house village urging neighbors to write and call the city to demand that they put a “pause” on what they described as an “illegal encampment” based on a litany of what they described as land use and public notice violations. (See the full letter here). “We support ending homelessness in our city but believe it should be done in a transparent, legal, and thoughtful manner,” the letter left on neighbors’ doorsteps concluded.

After the meeting at Ernestine Anderson Place on South Jackson Street, which included a Q&A with project sponsors from the Low-Income Housing Institute and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, I started chatting with Omeed outside. “I’m someone who changed his mind,” he told me—he now supported the encampment, although he still thought neighbors hadn’t received adequate information to form their own views on the project in the first place. For example, he said, he had been unable to determine whether the encampment would be “low-barrier”—that is, whether it would allow residents to consume drugs and alcohol on-site—and how the rules would be enforced. On Monday, Omeed broke ties with Yesler Neighbors to focus on other activist work—namely, electing Democrats to the state legislature through an organization called the Sister District Project, which sends activists into swing districts, like Washington’s 26th and 30th, to support Democratic candidates at the state level.

I sat down with Omeed in Pratt Park, just a few blocks from the tiny house village, which is currently under construction. Omeed, whose parents moved to the United States as refugees during the Iranian revolution, moved to Seattle about six years ago from Washington, D.C.; his wife is a native Seattleite with roots in the city going back 12 generations. They live a few blocks from the new tiny house village at 18th and Yesler.

How did you become aware that this tiny house village was being built in your neighborhood?

We got a flyer on our front door on May 15 or 16, and that same week, or shortly after, gravel started going down [on the lot]. It really did seem abrupt. We’re used to getting a certain amount of notification and time to understand what the project is. That was like—wait a second. But that part didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there were a lot of houses that did not get flyers, and there were houses several blocks further away from it, where it’s not necessarily in view, and they were flyered when I know some of the houses along the fence line never received any notice of it. I got it; some of my neighbors did not.

What did you think when you got the flyer? Were you supportive of the idea?

My initial reaction was like, ‘Cool, let’s save some lives. This might be great.’ My wife’s initial reaction was like, ‘I wonder if I can volunteer and help them with some landscaping stuff’—just do something that’s welcoming. And then we started hearing some other information, and then when you do some Google searches about these villages, Licton Springs [an encampment in North Seattle that allows drugs and alcohol] tends to be the thing that makes it up to the surface, and that was really jarring and it put some guards up. I’m a naturally defensive person. Growing up in a household where your parents are refugees, your mom’s an asylum seeker… siege mentality is a kind of natural thing to have. So my guard just tends to go up really quickly.

What was your concern related to Licton Springs?

Crime stats, the fact that there is open drug use—I don’t know how much is anecdotal or real. I only drove by. On the Aurora Avenue side, it was like, ‘Uh, this is an interesting part of town…’ Then the barbed wire along the top of it, too—it just seemed like that isn’t something that I necessarily want in my neighborhood.

You mentioned when we spoke before that your main concern was whether this tiny house village was going to allow drugs and alcohol. Can you talk more about that concern?

The flyer didn’t indicate if this site was going to be low-barrier. There was no information about it. When we went to the first meeting on the 22nd, I don’t recall that very strong commitment [to a no-drugs-and-alcohol policy] and that gave me kind of a pause. After that first meeting my guard went up a little more. More concerns started to bubble up.

I don’t think addiction is criminal. I can’t say that addicted people mean crime. I would be concerned, though, if there’s other folks that want to come there, [like] dealers. If that gets drawn over to it because they know it’s a low-barrier site where people are going to be allowed to use, that’s just not okay.

What changed your mind about this project?

I went to visit the 22nd and Union village a little while ago, and I talked with those folks, and they were just like normal working people. They’re just having a hard time. [Mayor Jenny] Durkan said in press release that these folks are, in a way, economic refugees. A segment of the population really is. Something like 40 percent, give or take, of the unsheltered population is employed in some capacity, and 20 percent of those are employed full-time. The fact that there isn’t enough housing that those folks can afford is disgusting. It’s a frustration.

I get frustrated when I hear things like Fort Lawton are held up in litigation, which just makes them more expensive to build. We declared a state of emergency a few years back and my understanding of a state of emergency is you suspend some rules and blockers because it’s a state of emergency. So I’m just thinking, what kind of state of emergency is it where things can end up in litigation or get blocked by neighbors because they’d rather have another park? We have lots of great parks. I’m not saying we shouldn’t find more ways to create green space, but this is an emergency.

So how are you feeling about the tiny house village now? Are you planning to volunteer to help them out, or put your efforts into pushing for other housing solutions, now that you know more about the project?

It takes a lot of effort to be in that mindset, to try and fight with the city and fight with this organization and do all those things. What I think might be a better use of my time moving forward, especially if I’m serious about building more housing and finding the funds to pay for it, is to make that call to the county saying, ‘You have nearly $200 million over 20 years to give to a profitable baseball team, yet you have yet to come up with a way to pay for [housing]. It’s there. We don’t have to subsidize these sport teams and these stadiums. We also don’t have to subsidize massive tax breaks to Boeing, the largest defense contractor and one of the largest companies in the world. It’s absurd to say we need to come up with these other revenue streams when the money really is there. It’s not a matter of efficiency in government or ‘audit this’ or ‘make cuts there.’ It’s, stop giving away money to people who already have millions of dollars and we’ll have it.

My wife is setting up the [National Night Out] event for our block and I said, ‘They should be invited.’ I don’t think I have to take anything out on the folks who are going to be living there. My gripes are with the city, the county, and the state—the people who refuse to actually do the things that need to be done to actually deal with this emergency. So I don’t see why I have to turn my back to those folks who otherwise need help.

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City Approves More One-Time Spending on Homelessness as Budget Cuts Loom

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The Seattle City Council’s repeal of a controversial business “head tax” last week didn’t just eliminate future spending on solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis—it also killed funding for several ongoing programs that are currently being funded with one-time revenues, casting the future of existing homeless programs in doubt at a time when Mayor Jenny Durkan is asking for significant budget cuts in every city department.

Meanwhile, city funding for new housing projects, for which housing agencies compete through an annual process called a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA), is shrinking this year from more than $100 million to $40 million, enough to fund only a handful of proposals submitted by housing providers this year. (That $40 million could end up being slightly higher if more money comes in from developer payments into the city’s incentive zoning fund, and if a transit-oriented development planned for Northgate, which accounts for $10 million, does not move forward, making that money available for bids.)

Council members, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly identified a lack of affordable housing as a key bottleneck that keeps people from moving off the streets or out of the shelter system; in a recent survey of 898 people experiencing homelessness in King County, 98 percent said they would move into safe and affordable housing if it was available.

The head tax, a $275-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues, would have provided about $47.5 million in annual revenue for the city to spend on housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

Although proponents pitched the head tax as a funding source for new programs, much of the money would have backfilled spending on existing projects, including the mayor’s new “bridge housing” initiative, which the city council approved on Monday. Without the head tax, the mayor and council will have to come up with tens of millions of dollars in cuts (or borrow the money from the city’s dwindling reserves) to keep those programs going.

The bridge housing program, which will pay for about 500 new and existing shelter beds and “tiny houses,” will be funded this year with $7.2 million in one-time funds from the sale of a piece of city-owned property in South Lake Union.

Ben Noble, director of the City Budget Office told the council last Wednesday, the city will need to come up with about $9.5 million a year to maintain the bridge housing program in 2019.

In addition to the 500 shelter beds, Durkan and the council will have to come up with funding this year for about $8 million in programs that the council only funded through the end of 2018, on the belief that by the time they began budget deliberations this year, a head tax or some other progressive revenue source would be available to pay for those programs in future years. And they will have to do so at a time when Mayor Durkan has asked for budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent from every city department in response to tepid revenue projections.

“Unless things change radically, I wouldn’t expect a major infusion of revenue,” Noble told council members last week. Noble said that if the city wants to continue funding Durkan’s bridge housing plan and all the other services that are currently being paid for with one-time funding, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services.”

On Monday, council member Teresa Mosqueda—one of two council members who voted against repealing the head tax—said the upcoming budget crunch highlights the need for a permanent, progressive revenue source to pay for services on an ongoing basis, “so that we don’t have to think about the heartbreaking reality when the money runs out at the end of this year.”

As those deliberations are going on, the city will be inviting housing providers to compete for a drastically reduced pool of funding to build affordable housing this year. Last year, the city granted about $101 million in funding for affordable housing projects through its competitive bidding process; this year, providers have submitted about $280 million in requests for just $40 million in available funding. (About $30 million in additional funds are already earmarked for specific projects). King County, which does its own funding process, has made just $7 million available this year for transit-oriented affordable housing projects across the county—down from about $18 million in 2017.

Miriam Roskin, deputy director at the Seattle Office of Housing, says the amount of money available through the NOFA process fluctuates from year to year depending on how much the city is taking in from sources like developer affordable-housing fees, payments from developers for permanent street closures, and federal funding.

Regardless of the reason, the reduction in available funds comes at a time when there is more need for affordable housing in the city than ever, and when other funding sources to build that housing appear on the verge of drying up.

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Morning Crank: Slipping and Sliding

1. With the loss of an estimated $47.5 million in annual revenues from the head tax, the city is in the unenviable position of not only figuring out how to pay for new housing and services that would have been funded by the tax, but funding ongoing commitments that would have been backfilled with head tax funding. In addition to about $15 million in programs that were funded during in the 201 8 budget using one-time funding sources (I’ve asked the city’s budget office for a complete list), there’s Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” program, which was originally supposed to have funded 500 new shelter and “tiny house” encampment slots this year. The bridge housing program, which the council’s finance committee approved on Wednesday, will be funded through 2018 by  about $5.5 million from the sale of a piece of city property in South Lake Union but will cost about $9.5 million a year starting in 2019, according to City Budget Office Director Ben Noble.

The latest version of the plan would pay for 475 shelter beds (down from 500), with 100 of those now officially “TBD,” with no provider or timeline identified.  The timeline for some of the new projects has slipped, too, from late July to November in the case of the controversial proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, and from July to “TBD” in the case of the 100 shelter beds for which no provider is identified. (See below for a comparison between the mayor’s original proposal, announced May 30, and the plan as it stands this week.)

Mary’s Place, which the mayor’s office originally said would contribute 100 new beds by building out an upper floor of its North Seattle shelter, “had a change of situation because they bought a large facility in Burien that put them in a more difficult financial situation,” deputy mayor David Moseley told council members Wednesday, and has “offered us a different proposal that’s more of a diversion proposal,” one that would focus on prevention rather than shelter. “We’re working with them on that proposal,” Moseley continued. “At the same time, we’re working on backfilling those 100 shelter beds.”

HSD had previously denied that Mary’s Place was planning to substitute diversion for its 100 bed commitment. One day before Moseley told the council that Mary’s Place would no longer be able to contribute 100 of the new 500 shelter beds, I asked an HSD spokeswoman if Mary’s Place had proposed fulfilling its commitment through diversion rather than actual shelter beds, as I had heard. The spokeswoman told me that I was incorrect and that there had been no such proposal. Moseley’s comments Wednesday confirmed the existence of the proposal I had asked HSD about (and whose existence their spokeswoman denied) the previous day.

On Wednesday, I asked the spokeswoman for more details about the Mary’s Place beds and what will replace them. In response, she cut and pasted a section of Durkan’s Wednesday press release about the plan that did not include this information. I have followed up and will update this post if I get any more detailed information about how the city plans to replace those 100 beds.

Durkan has asked all city departments to come up with budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent for the 2019 budget cycle that begins this fall. Noble, the city’s budget director, told council members Wednesday that if the city wants to continue funding the new shelter beds after this year, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services. … This will be  a difficult fall with difficult decisions ahead.”

Bridge Housing plan, May 30, 2018

Bridge Housing Plan, June 13, 2018

2. A poll that apparently helped seal the fate of the head tax over the past weekend was reportedly conducted not by business interests, but by Bring Seattle Home, the SEIU-backed coalition that formed to oppose a potential referendum on the tax. The group’s latest expenditure report includes a $20,000 debt to EMC Research, a Seattle-based polling firm.

A spokesman for Bring Seattle Home didn’t return a call for comment. But the poll reportedly found that not only did voters oppose the head tax by wide margins (as previous polls had concluded), they had strong negative opinions of the city council, where the idea for the head tax originated. All seven of the council members who are elected by district are up for reelection next year, and although this poll didn’t ask respondents what they thought of their specific council representative, council members are well aware of this looming deadline. So far, none of the seven have filed their reelection paperwork with the city. Although Mayor Jenny Durkan supported and ultimately signed the “compromise” head tax bill that reduced the size of the head tax from $500 to $275 per employee for businesses with gross receipts above $20 million, poll respondents apparently blamed the council, not the mayor, for the tax, expressing much more favorable views of Durkan than council members.

3. On Thursday, with none of the angry public comments about “triplexes on every block” that often precede such decisions—even Marty Kaplan wasn’t there—the Seattle Planning Commission approved a letter endorsing key aspects of the city’s preferred plan to make it easier for single-family  homeowners to build backyard cottages and create living spaces in their basements. (This alternative is identified as option 2 in the environmental impact statement on the proposal, which the city was required to produce after Kaplan sued. The EIS confirms that backyard cottages promote equity and do not harm the environment.) The letter expresses the commission’s strong support for allowing both a basement apartment and a freestanding backyard unit (subject to the same lot coverage requirements that already exist); eliminating the requirement that homeowners add parking for their extra unit whether they will use it or not; and allowing up to 12 unrelated people to live on lots that have both a backyard cottage and a basement apartment.

The letter also urges the city not to force homeowners building a second additional unit to pay into the city’s mandatory housing affordability fund, a requirement supported by some opponents of backyard cottages, because the additional cost “could suppress production of these units and be counterproductive to the intent of the proposed legislation.” (The point of requiring developers to provide affordable housing is, in part, to offset the impacts of displacement and gentrification that can be side effects of large new developments in previously affordable neighborhoods; the planning commission’s point is that treating individual homeowners like massive developers discourages them from providing housing. It also implies that adding units for renters in single-family areas somehow contributes to gentrification and displacement, when it does the opposite.) The planning commission also recommended setting size limits for new houses to prevent the development of McMansions, and reducing development charges for accessory units, such as sewer hookup fees, and creating a sliding scale for some fees so that lower-income people could afford to build second units on their properties.

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Scratching Your Head Over Today’s Head Tax Defeat? Here Are Some Answers.

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After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?

Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.

So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.

Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?

Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.

Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.

Is this really all about Amazon? 

No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.

But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.

This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.

So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?

Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.

So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed? 

Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.

If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.

Head Tax Heads for Repeal. What Happened, and What Happens Now?

The city council will hold a special meeting at noon tomorrow—just two days before the deadline for head tax opponents to turn in 17,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to overturn a tax on big businesses to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis—to preemptively repeal the tax. The decision came just weeks after a bruising battle that resulted in the unanimous passage of a “compromise” head tax plan—$275, instead of the original $500—that was supported by all nine council members and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Much like that proposal, today’s surprise repeal announcement emerged after a round of secret weekend negotiations, in which council members who supported the tax just weeks ago concluded that it was time to concede the fight. Polling on the referendum to repeal the tax reportedly spurred council members to reverse their support.

Earlier this afternoon, seven council members signed off on a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office supporting the repeal measure; only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, who denounced the “backroom legislation” during Monday’s full council meeting, did not signal their support for repealing the tax. The statement from the other seven council members said, in part:

“In recent months, we worked with a range of businesses, community groups, advocates, and working families to enact a bill that struck the right balance between meaningful progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis while protecting good, family-wage jobs. Over the last few weeks, these conversations and much public dialogue has continued.  It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. 

“We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”

The $275-per-employee annual tax, which would have applied to the 585 highest-grossing businesses in Seattle,  would have funded $47 million a year in services, shelter, and housing for Seattle’s homeless population. Without the tax, hundreds of new apartments will not be built, hundreds of new shelter beds will not open up at night, and thousands of people who would have received rental assistance, case management, or mental health care through the levy proceeds will continue to go without those services.

Opposition to the tax came not just from the usual suspects in the business community—Amazon, which threatened to pull employees from the city over an earlier version of the tax, pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the repeal effort, as did Starbucks, Kroger, and representatives of the hotel and grocery industries—but from groups with names like Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle, whose members gathered signatures on their own time to repeal a tax on giant corporations. The tax, which was the product of five months of meetings by a 17-member task force, was chosen specifically because it would not directly impact ordinary citizens (unlike a property tax or sales tax), but enough ordinary citizens opposed it to convince at least some council members that their voices represented the majority of Seattle.

“I think it reflects majority sentiment,” council member Sally Bagshaw says. “I do, and I’m sad. … Everywhere I went, clearly businesses were unhappy, but half of labor was unhappy.  Neighborhoods and communities were saying, ‘We don’t see tents being moved off the street. We still see needles. We still see garbage. We’re not happy with this.'” Bagshaw did not mention polling on the head tax, nor did any of her colleagues.

Council member Rob Johnson, who was not directly involved in the weekend negotiations, says his primary concern in supporting a repeal of the head tax is the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds pre-K through college education and is on the ballot in November. A referendum to repeal the head tax, he worried, might have put voters in an anti-tax mood and swept preschool funding away with it.

“As the person trying to get the [FEPP] levy across the finish line in November, I’m obviously excited about the opportunity to have a laser-like focus on that, as opposed to a potential referendum and the  [FEPP] levy at the same time,” Johnson says. “I signed on because I think it gives us a much clearer pathway for success in November.” The last time the families and education levy was on the ballot, in 2011, it passed by more than 63 percent.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been targeted with an outsized share of the criticism from activists who oppose spending more money on homelessness (including a “town hall” in Ballard that immediately devolved into a profane one-way screaming match), says it became “increasingly clear” over the past couple of months “that the public is aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” which has run a well-funded campaign to reframe the employee hours tax, which would be paid by employers, as a “tax on jobs,” which would harm employees and the city as a whole.

In a statement, council member Lisa Herbold—who signed the joint statement supporting repeal—denounced the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which she said “has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites 1) of the tired, old conservative trope that increased levels of human suffering we see in our city is caused by government inefficiency rather than by the Gilded Age level income inequality in Seattle and elsewhere, and 2) that leading first with a regional funding approach, reliant on higher property or sales taxes for all taxpayers, is preferable to resources from those most benefiting from income inequality in Seattle paying their fair share.” Asked why she issued such a scathing statement after signing off on the joint statement supporting repeal, Herbold said, “I’m acting based on what I’m hearing” about the lack of support for the tax, but “I don’t agree with” repealing the tax.

Had Durkan brought the Chamber into the head tax negotiations earlier this year, instead of focusing on getting Amazon to stand down, the campaign might have looked much different, or not existed in the first place. But as things played out, “don’t tax jobs” became a rallying cry for both businesses and, importantly, citizen activists, who also glommed on to the idea that the city could get by without additional revenues by auditing its homelessness programs  and “spending our existing dollars more efficiently.”

O’Brien says that with thousands of people sleeping outside and in shelters and transitional housing across Seattle and King County, “finding efficiencies” isn’t enough to make a dent in the crisis. “We absolutely need more funding for housing and  services. We would have to make devastating cuts to other programs that everyone cares about to fund what we need to do with existing resources, so that’s just not possible,” he says. With the head tax, which the task force chose after rejecting other options as impractical or open to legal challenge, off the table, “there’s nothing that stands out that’s remotely promising, and that’s discouraging.” A city income tax is locked up in court, sales and property taxes are regressive and unpopular, and other options—like a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, or a tax on corporate profits—are prohibited by law. There really just aren’t many options that aren’t either political suicide or downright illegal.

For months, the mayor and council have talked about the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness—that is, a tax that would not be borne solely by Seattle. But the region has shown little interest, so far, in coming up with such solutions. Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a countywide sales tax as a replacement for a Seattle-only property tax measure floated by then-mayor Ed Murray, but that proposal has not been seen or heard from since. Meanwhile, a regional task force called One Table, which was supposed to come up with recommendations for funding homelessness services earlier this year, has canceled several meetings and is reportedly stalled. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed an earlier, larger version of the head tax and signed the council’s legislation for the “compromise” that will be repealed tomorrow, but has never come forward with an alternative proposal of her own, leaving the council in the driver’s seat on spending, for better or worse.

Mosqueda, one of the two council members who did not sign off on the statement advocating repeal, said today that the head tax the council approved was “the best idea at the time”—better, at least, than nothing, which is what the city is left with now. “I am happy to support an alternative strategy, but I need to know that there’s a proposal, so that folks have light at the end of the tunnel, so that there is housing on the horizon, so people can get off the streets and not continue to suffer and live outside.”

O’Brien expressed a sentiment that has been bubbling for weeks at city hall, on homelessness and other issues: “We need leadership from the mayor. We can’t say we’re not going to do anything. If there’s not a regional solution, we have to do something else. She’s been here six months now, and she needs to make this her top priority.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment beyond the joint statement. But she did not present a plan to deal with the defeat of the head tax, which would have funded her proposal to add 1,000 new beds at shelters around the city, announced last week. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Durkan joked at the time. And here we are.

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Supporters Outnumber Naysayers as Backyard Apartments Move Closer to Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I schlepped up to the Queen Anne public library to watch a presentation by Marty Kaplan, the architect and homeowner who sued the city to stall a proposal that will make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement apartments on their property. Kaplan’s lawsuit effectively forced the city to do a full environmental review, or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), on the policy—a review that concluded that not only do garage apartments not harm the environment, they provide significant benefits, such as reducing the number of single-family homes that are torn down and redeveloped as McMansions and improving equity in neighborhoods that were originally designed to keep poor people of color out.

The “full build-out” scenario, included in the EIS for illustrative purposes only, shows massive single-family houses on every lot, an outcome that is already allowed under current rules.

Kaplan’s presentation, delivered to several dozen members of the Queen Anne and Magnolia Community Councils, was ostensibly about the results of that review, but anyone who actually read or even skimmed the 364-page document would be understandably confused by his interpretation of the report. The city’s preferred alternative, Kaplan claimed, would lead to the development of “three houses on every lot,” with “12 [unrelated] people on every lot. … If you’ve got a big family, 20 people could live there, I guess.” And without rules requiring homeowners to provide parking for all those new tenants, Kaplan continued, “if there’s 12 people living on site and ten of them own cars, then they’re going to park them in the neighborhood,” contributing to an already untenable parking situation in neighborhoods like Queen Anne. (As he said this, I thought of the four parking spots directly in front of the library that I had walked past on my way into the meeting.) In the background, as Kaplan spoke, was a slide of the city’s theoretical “full build-out” scenario (above), which Kaplan characterized as what the city hopes will happen within the next few years. Moreover, Kaplan said, backyard units would never be affordable to regular people: “It’s proved that in order to build a unit, you’re going to spend $300,000,” he said. “You’re not going to rent that out for $80 a month.” (Fact checks on all of those claims below.)

The preferred alternative, Alternative 2 in the EIS, shows the actual anticipated development pattern after 10 years under the new rules.

It was refreshing, then, to go to a well-attended public meeting at city hall a few days later—a meeting that Kaplan had told his neighbors would be “basically Madison Avenue coming in and telling you what you should like”—and see that the proponents of the long-delayed proposal outnumbered the naysayers by a factor of about 15 to 1. (Maybe the housing opponents were put off when Kaplan told them it wouldn’t make any difference if they showed up?) Tech workers in their 20s talked about their desire to share the city with people who didn’t have the good fortune to work in industries that pay six-figure starting salaries; homeowners talked about wanting to build backyard apartments so that they could share the city with new neighbors; and environmental advocates talked about density as an important solution to the climate crisis. Several people said they hoped the city would go even further than the preferred alternative and allow three accessory units per property—two inside the main house, and one in the backyard.

But my favorite comment of the night came from Zach Shaner, a renter who lives on Beacon Hill. Shaner (whose name you may recognize because he used to write for Seattle Transit Blog) started off by noting that in the time the city has been working on the EIS, the cost of a median home in Seattle has risen from $591,000 to more than $725,000. “This political process is not morally neutral,” Shaner said. “While we’ve talked and studied and dithered, owning a home has gotten $131,000 harder. In the meantime, my family has given up on owning a home in Seattle.” Shaner and his wife would like to help their friends build an extra unit on their property, he continued, but the current rules make it illegal for them to do so. “I really dream of the day that we have painstaking processes to stop housing rather than to permit it, but in the meantime this is a small but substantive step in the right direction.”

Now for that fact check: In reality, the preferred alternative would increase the number of unrelated people who can live on a lot from the eight allowed under existing rules to 12, and would allow homeowners to build one backyard cottage and retrofit their basement into a living space. The maximum number of buildings on a single lot, in other words, would be two—and any new construction would still be subject to the same rules that limit the amount of lot coverage on single-family land today. The “full build-out” scenario, which Kaplan portrayed as the city’s desired outcome, is clearly captioned, “The Full Build-Out Scenario is included for illustrative purposes only and is not an expected outcome of any alternative analyzed in the EIS.” And it actually looks overbuilt not because of backyard cottages, which are the small red boxes in the image above, but because of all the enormous single-family houses that are technically legal now but have not been built because most homeowners would rather live in charming homes with backyards than cover their lots with eight-bedroom megamansions. The city’s parking study concluded that “each additional ADU would generate between 1 and 1.3 additional vehicles using on-street parking,” not 10. And although higher-cost garage apartments can certainly cost well over $300,000 to build,  many cost substantially less; and it would require a breathtaking ignorance of the current rental market to actually believe that you could rent so much as a bean bag in the corner of an unfinished basement in Seattle for $80 a month.

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Morning Crank: “Dominated By Loud and Demanding Extremists”

1. According to a new analysis of the first six months of the city’s dockless bikeshare pilot program, which unleashed thousands of Starburst-colored rental bikes around the city, bikeshare users logged nearly half a million rides between July and December of last year, and roughly a third of the city used one or more of the three bikesharing services—Ofo, Lime, and Spin—at least once during those six months. Seattle bikeshare users took 3.6 rides for every 1,000 residents, a number that dwarfs the successful CityBike program in New York City (2.6 rides per 1,000 residents.) Those numbers, in fairness, are partly due to the fact that Seattle has the largest free-floating bikeshare system in the nation, by a lot: Of 44,000 bikes spread across 25 cities, nearly a quarter—10,000—are in Seattle.

The evaluation, which was done in collaboration with the University of Washington, also concluded that while ridership was concentrated around the University of Washington, the Burke-Gilman Trail, and downtown Seattle, the bikes are also more popular than expected in the Rainier Valley and Georgetown, two neighborhoods that weren’t included at all in the city’s original Pronto bikeshare system, which required users to return their bikes to designated parking spaces. (Unlike traditional bikeshare systems, “dockless” bikes can be left on the nearest bike rack or parking strip when a rider ends their trip.) People of color were just as likely to use the program as white users, and while just 24 percent of riders reported using helmets, the bikes did not seem to contribute to higher crash or head injury rates, adding another data point to the mounting evidence that the county’s mandatory helmet law does little to protect rider safety. While very few people (just 7 percent) used bikesharing only for recreational use, a huge percentage used the bikes to get to work or to access transit (75 percent), an indication that bikesharing may be able extend the “walkshed” for transit much further than the standard quarter-mile.

The news wasn’t all positive. The vast majority of bikeshare riders—68 percent—were male, a statistic that lines up with the skewed demographics of cycling in general. About four percent of bikes were parked in a way that fully blocked pedestrian or sidewalk access—a number that Seattle Department of Transportation bike share project manager Joel Miller noted might seem small, but “four percent of 10,000 bikes is certainly a lot of bikes and a lot of obstructions out there.” Perhaps predictably, 85 percent of the calls and emails the city has received about bikesharing have been negative, with most people complaining about bikes they believe were parked improperly, people who fail to wear helmets, and that the bikes themselves are ugly. The city can’t do much for people who are offended by the colors orange, yellow, and green, but they have set up designated bikeshare parking spots in Ballard on a pilot basis, and plan to expand that pilot project around the city.

People who consider bikes (or any form of transportation other than cars) to be “clutter” can rest easy on one count—transportation committee chair Rob Johnson said he has no interest in allowing electric scooters, which have caused  intense civic handwringing from Austin to San Francisco, on Seattle sidewalks any time soon. “I’ve started to watch a couple of the companies, particularly Lime (green) and Spin (orange), work with other cities on electric scooters, and I think that for us as a city to stay focused on bikes and make sure that this program goes from a successful pilot to a successful permanent program is the right progression for us, as opposed to something that could lead to the rollout of a scooter system,” Johnson said.

SDOT will present a new proposed permit plan for the post-pilot dockless bikeshare system to the transportation committee on June 19.

2. A new poll is testing campaign messages for and against a proposed referendum to repeal the $275-per-employee business tax that Mayor Jenny Durkan signed into law last month. Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, and other large corporations have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to overturn the law, which would impact about 585 companies with revenues above $20 million a year. Much of that money is currently being spent on paid signature gatherers, who have been parked outside grocery stores across Seattle and have reportedly clashed with pro-tax organizers who are encouraging voters to “decline to sign”; those organizers, meanwhile, have accused signature gatherers of misleading voters about what the tax will do, falsely implying that it is a tax on groceries or that it will come directly out of workers’ paychecks.

The poll asks whether the following messages, among others, would make the respondent more or less likely to vote to repeal the head tax:

• What Seattle has already tried to do to fix homelessness hasn’t worked, and it seems like homelessness has been normalized. The city need to stop enabling those who refuse services, camp illegally, and dump trash like used needles and condoms in our public spaces.

• Homeless sweeps don’t work. They just shuffle people around. Most people want to come inside but there aren’t enough options. We need to have compassion and fund housing, treatment for addiction, and behavioral health services.

• The city of Seattle is wasting hard-earned tax dollars by spending tens of millions on the homeless and super expensive bike lanes. The city keeps promising big results and not delivering. Without a comprehensive plan for homelessness, we shouldn’t give them another cent.

• Complaints about government waste are a smokescreen and an attempt to distract. Homelessness is complex and will take time to fix. Big corporations are shamelessly and purposely spreading confusion to avoid paying a tax that they can afford to pay.

• City Hall is dominated by loud and demanding extremists led by demagogues like Kshama Sawant.

• The homelessness crisis isn’t going to get better without more housing and services. If big corporations don’t chip in, that means more property or sales taxes. The head tax isn’t perfect, but at least it’s not regressive.

• With rents up an average of $600 a year, low-income people can’t afford to have their jobs endangered by this tax.

• Amazon’s construction halt was a selfish attempt to hold the city hostage. We need to call Jeff Bezo’s bluff, overturn his effort to repeal the tax, and show that Seattle will make sure that megacorporations like Amazon help solve problem they’re creating.

• The city keeps asking taxpayers for money for homelessness, but they don’t have a plan. The city has spend over $60 million a year in the past five years and homelessness has only gotten worse. Our tax dollars are being wasted on things that don’t work.

• The mayor and city council and nonprofit providers are moving forward with a plan that is starting to  work. It got 8,000 families into housing last year. But the city needs an additional $410 million a year to tackle homelessness, and this tax will help.

• Low-margin, high-volume businesses will have to pass the tax on to consumers, meaning higher bills for food. We don’t need another back-door tax on food.

The poll also asks about a number of potential replacements for the head tax, including a “surcharge” on companies whose CEO makes 100 or more times what the average worker makes; a larger head tax; a tax that “only applies to employers who pay wages so low their employees qualify for public assistance”; and a business tax based on how much square footage a company occupies in the city rather than the number of people they employ.

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Morning Crank: The Ne Plus Ultra of GOP Supervillains

1. Bailey Stober may have been deposed as head of the King County Democrats, but his legacy of profligate spending lives on, in the form of an $1,800-a-month lease (twice what he was reportedly authorized to spend) for an office space in Auburn that has been sitting vacant for several months. This week, the group’s new chairwoman, Natalie Reber, sent out an announcement: The leasing agent for the space had found a tenant.

The bad news? According to Reber’s email to membership:

The leasing agent at the Auburn office has made a deal with the [Dino] Rossi campaign and it sounds like they will be taking over the lease.  While this is not ideal, I think it is reasonable and as far as any talking points, we just simply say, it was a business decision made by the leasing agent.  

Rossi, a current state senator and two-time gubernatorial candidate who is running for the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated next year by retiring Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, is not just any Republican—among Washington State Democrats, he’s the ne plus ultra of GOP supervillains. And, starting next month, he’ll be helping  them pay their rent.

Reber, who is out of town, declined to provide any details about the new arrangement, saying only that the group has “let the leasing agent know that we would like out of the lease and left it to them to find tenants. While that’s being sorted out, I don’t have a comment.”

Natalia Koss Vallejo, the former executive director of the King County Democrats (Stober fired her shortly after another woman filed a workplace misconduct complaint against him on her behalf), says the group considered subleasing some of its unused space to a Democratic candidate while she was still director, but rejected multiple potential tenants because the group had not formally endorsed anyone in their races yet. (The endorsement process is still ongoing.) With Rossi renting part of the space, she says, it seems unlikely that a Democrat will rent out the rest of the office in the future: “The walls in those units are super thin. If I was a Democratic candidate, I would not want to be sharing that space with a Republican.”

According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, the King County Democrats continued to pay rent on the space through at least April, but appear to have negotiated a better deal on their Internet service, which was costing the group more than $450 a month. (According the group’s treasurer, Stober signed the group up for the most expensive Internet service package Comcast offers, one better suited to a midsize e-commerce firm than a political organization which had, at its peak, one employee.) Donations that were withheld while the Democrats debated what to do with Stober, including $5,000 from King County Executive Dow Constantine and a couple thousand dollars from various district Democratic groups that refused to pay their dues as long as Stober remained in his position.

2. The Families and Education Levy, which funds programs to help kids from birth through 12th grade, and the Seattle preschool levy, which subsidizes preschool, will be on the ballot as a single, combined Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy in November. (The levy seems likely to share the ballot with what amounts to an anti-levy: A referendum to repeal the $275-per-employee head  tax, whose proceeds are earmarked for programs to address homelessness.) Among other changes, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s levy renewal plan proposes eliminating for a two-year home visitation literacy program for two- and three-year-olds called the Parent-Child Home Program (the plan assumes that future funding for the program will come from the city’s sweetened beverage tax); dramatically reducing funding for programs in elementary schools; and expanding or increasing subsidies for preschool and college to include the very highest-income families.

At a time when the income and wealth gap between Seattle’s wealthiest and poorest residents is increasing and parents who might be eligible for subsidized preschool are being forced to move outside city limits, it’s unclear why Durkan has proposed increasing tax subsidies for wealthy families to send their kids to preschool and college. Currently, the subsidy for preschool tuition declines with income on a sliding scale, from a total subsidy for people making up to 300 percent of the poverty level to a maximum of $535 a year for the highest-income families. Durkan’s proposal would set a minimum subsidy of $1,000 per student specifically for high-income families, for a total subsidy to wealthy families over the life of the program of about $3.6 million.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Promise program, which currently offers a year of free community college tuition to kids at three South Seattle high schools, would expand tuition subsidies to all public high-school graduates, regardless of their family income. Because higher-income students generally qualify for fewer tuition subsidy programs overall, the city would spend more subsidizing their tuition, on average—about $3,000 a student, or half again as much as the $2,000 the city spends on a typical Seattle Promise subsidy today.

On Wednesday, council members expressed concern at the idea of government subsidies for rich families to send their kids to preschool and college. Council member Rob Johnson, who noted that he recently paid preschool tuition for his daughters, said, “I think there is a value for us to provide opportunities for kids at all income levels to participate in the Seattle Preschool Program, but I’m not sure we should be subsidizing ev family that walks in the door.” Similarly, Johnson said he worried that if eligibility the Seattle Promise program is opened up to all students, “kids in my neck of the woods, in Roosevelt, whose parents are really on them to get on it and get their applications in on  time may take up those slots,” while kids with higher needs “who may benefit more form the Promise program may be shut out of it because all those Roosevelt kids got in first.”

Council president Bruce Harrell, who represents Southeast Seattle’s District 2 (where two of the three current Seattle Promise high schools are located) said he understood the argument for socially engineering preschools so they included kids from all over the income spectrum, but drew the line at expanding scholarship subsidies to wealthy families. “I have very little interest [in] subsidies for higher-income families. In fact, I would be opposed to that,” he said.

The committee will take up the levy proposal again at 11:00 on June 6 in council chambers.

3. A few hours after the levy discussion, council members had only positive things to say about an arguably similar proposal to subsidize transit passes for all Seattle public school students students, not just those who are low-income, at an additional cost of about $3 million a year. (The proposal is one of several changes to a sales tax and vehicle license fee measure voters approved in 2014, which was originally earmarked to expand Metro bus service. Because of driver and bus shortages, Metro has been unable to expand service as much as originally planned.) Currently, the city spends about $1 million a year on the youth ORCA program, which pays for free bus passes for low-income students; the change would add $3 million to the youth program and expand it to fund passes for all high school students, and some middle-school students, regardless of income.

Johnson, who originally proposed expanding the youth ORCA program, said yesterday that he would “like us to discuss more options than what the mayor has put on the table, because there might be things like reduced fare for all kids—as opposed to what we have right now, which is a proposal that would give free ORCA cards to all high school kids, some middle school kids, and no elementary school kids.” Discussing the options with staff after yesterday’s hearing, Johnson pointed out that elementary school kids who rely on the bus are most likely to be accompanied by parents (usually moms, often low-income) who rely on the bus to run errands and get their kids to school.

4. The Downtown Seattle Association is hosting a swank-sounding members-only event next week to solicit donations and hand out signature sheets for the effort to repeal the $275 employee hours tax, which is earmarked for housing and homeless services. The location: The Palace Ballroom in Belltown, owned by noted $15 minimum-wage Chicken Little and head-tax opponent Tom Douglas. Appetizers and drinks will be served.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.