Seattle Rep. Macri Has a Plan to Ease Eviction Fears

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Image result for nicole macriSeattle state representative Nicole Macri (D-43) is drafting legislation that could address some of the issues raised in last month’s report on evictions by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project. That report revealed that many renters who get evicted owe very small amounts of money, and that the vast majority of people who get evicted in Seattle end up homeless.

In Washington state, landlords have no obligation to accept rent that is more than three days late. And aside from Seattle—where landlords are barred from terminating a lease without cause—landlords can terminate a renter’s tenancy with just 20 days’ notice, giving the renter almost no time to find a new place to live and to come up with the money to pay for first and last month’s rent, and deposit.

Macri says her office is meeting with stakeholders to figure out the exact parameters of the bill (or bills) that she will propose in the upcoming state legislative session. The options include things like extending the current three-day limit to somewhere between 14 and 30 days—meaning that tenants who fall behind on their rent would get a bit more breathing room to come up with the rent, instead of immediately getting an eviction notice on their door.

“What we’re hearing is that folks are being put out of their homes for relatively minor infractions, including small underpayments of rent,” Macri says. “Say you underpay your rent by $20. The [state] statute allows a three-day notice to go up on your door at the moment the late day comes up on your lease. You can be in court the very next week after the three days expire, and within a week and a half or two weeks a sheriff could come to remove your possessions.”

Another problem the eviction report found is that judges in Washington have no discretion to order landlords to accept late rent or work out payment plans; if a landlord wants to evict a tenant for late payment, for example, a judge can’t order the landlord to accept partial payment or set up a payment plan. In jurisdictions with judicial discretion, like New York City, the eviction rate is much lower than in Washington.

Another proposal Macri is drafting would create a just cause eviction ordinance—similar to what Seattle already has in place—for the whole state. Like Seattle’s, it would specify the circumstances under which a tenant could be evicted, and bar evictions for reasons that fall outside the ordinance. The current situation, Macri says, “creates fear [among tenants] about bringing up any concerns with their unit. People are afraid to say, like, ‘I need a new refrigerator, because it isn’t working,’ because they’re worried that they’ll get a 20-day notice.”

Macri says she hopes to have legislation ready to pre-file by next month, in time for next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

Out of Office

I’m in sunny Berlin for a few days, so if you’re going to make some news, please do it when I get back. (I’m looking at you, Rob Joehnson!) I’ll be posting sporadically but mostly out of commission until mid-month.

I’ll be posting sporadically from here; in the meantime, please enjoy these photos of happy socialists in the former East Berlin. More about this mural here.

City Budget Roundup, Part 2: Tenants’ Rights, Homelessness, and the Streetcar

This is part 2 of a two-part series; part 1 is just below this post, or right here.

I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,

This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.

Tenants’ Rights

Several proposals would enhance and expand the rights of tenants living in substandard housing or at risk of eviction. One, by council member Mike O’Brien, moves about $600,000 for eviction prevention from the Human Services Department to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections and stipulates that most of it has to go to community-based groups that do proactive outreach to tenants at risk of eviction who may not know their rights or the resources available to them. This money was allocated last year for the same purpose, O’Brien said, but was inexplicably spent expanding a hotline tenants can call when they need help, rather than letting tenants know that the hotline and other resources exist.

“We were pretty clear, I thought, in our budget last year” that the money was supposed to be spent “really actively going out and finding households that may not be aware of what their rights are and making sure they have access to those resources,” O’Brien said. “What happened last year is that the executive”—at the time, Tim Burgess—”chose to put that funding into increasing the funding for the hotline response work. … It’s hard to see how we could be more clear than last year. But we will try to be more clear.”

Another proposal, by Herbold, would direct SDCI to come up with faster ways to get landlords to address habitability issues, and to prevent evictions when tenants live in substandard properties. Currently, tenants can be evicted from apartments even if the landlord is in serious violation of the city’s building and land-use codes, or if the tenant has withheld rent because an apartment needs serious maintenance to be livable. Two other Herbold proposals would increase tenant relocation assistance for tenants displaced by rising rents and make more tenants eligible for such assistance, and direct Seattle Public Utilities to analyze the eligibility criteria for the city’s Utility Discount Program. Currently, the program—which provides a discount on water and electricity to eligible customers—is only open to people making less than 70 percent of the state median income, or around $42,000 for a household of two; Herbold wants to expand it to people making less than 70 percent of the local median income, or about $56,000.

“It’s hard to see how we could be more clear than last year. But we will try to be more clear.”

SHARE/WHEEL

Nearly a month ago, I wrote:

“[The] issue of SHARE’s shelter funding, like the issue of whether the city will keep paying for bus tickets for its clients, has become something of an annual ritual—and every year, the council finds a few hundred thousand dollars to keep them going. If this year is any different, it will be a notable departure from tradition.”

Turns out that this year isn’t any different. On Thursday, council members agreed to restore funding for basic overnight shelters that SHARE operates in collaboration with several  churches, despite the fact that the controversial organization scored dead last in the Human Service Department’s bidding for shelter funding last year. When SHARE failed to win funding for its shelters through that process, the city provided “bridge” funding that was supposed to get the group through the middle of next year; during that time, they were supposed to come up with a “transition plan” for when the money went away. Last month, HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said that of all the agencies that received bridge funding and agreed to come up with a transition plan, SHARE was the only service provider that had failed to do so. The reason SHARE gave the city for not abiding by the agreement, according to Washington: They said they had no plans to close down.

Good instinct: As in previous years, the council came through for SHARE, promising $378,000 for the second half of 2019 and $756,000 in 2020.

Image via Streets.mn

Adaptive Signals

Transit, pedestrian, and bike advocates raised concerns that Mayor Durkan’s proposal to fund new “adaptive signals“—traffic lights that respond to traffic volumes, usually by prioritizing drivers over other roadway users—only paid lip service to the idea of accommodating cyclists and pedestrians. In addition to more car-detecting sensors, Durkan’s budget proposed a pilot project that would trigger a “walk” signal once enough pedestrians had gathered at an intersection, as well an app that would signal to traffic lights that a cyclist was present—as long as that cyclist owned a smart phone and happened to have the app running. O’Brien’s proviso would put a hold on the adaptive signal money unless the plan “test[s] or further[s] the development of passive detection of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit modes.”

Homelessness

Mayor Durkan’s budget proposal, which comes on the heels of the city’s botched attempt to tax large businesses to pay for homeless services, essentially flatlined spending on the homelessness crisis, boosting it by a barely-inflationary 3.2 percent between 2018 and 2019. The council could boost that substantially through a number of small and large budget adds, including, potentially, one very big tent.

The big-tent idea apparently originated in Los Angeles, where the city recently erected a massive white tent containing enhanced shelter and services for about 75 homeless Angelenos. Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the big-tent idea, said she was skeptical until she visited LA, where she discovered that the tent wasn’t just “a FEMA tent” with tents on the floor or bunk beds lining the walls;  it had “partitions between beds, the option for pets and loved ones to come and be together, [and] access to mental health care on site.” Creating an enhanced shelter in a tent, Mosqueda’s office estimates, would cost $6 million over two years. “I offer this up as a potential opportunity for us to think about ways to expand the options that we have along that continuum of housing  … so that if it is more cost-effective, then we can direct more resources to building permanent housing,” Mosqueda said.

Support

And finally, Some more budget restrictions

Council members have frequently expressed annoyance at Durkan for failing to deliver reports on schedule or comply with recommendations from the council or, in the case of one of this year’s budget provisos, the city auditor’s office.

This year, council members proposed placing spending restrictions on two big, expensive ongoing projects. The first is the existing First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar. The mayor is supposed to report to the council twice a year on how the streetcars are doing, both financially and in terms of performance metrics such as ridership and reliability. The last time the mayor’s office provided such a report was in June 2017, when Ed Murray was mayor. “We’ve been waiting on this report for a while, and I’m sure what the holdup is,” O’Brien said last week. “It should be fairly simple to meet the requirements of this proviso. It’s just unacceptable that we’ve been waiting 18 months for the next report on those two segments of the streetcar system.” Durkan’s budget does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help pay for anticipated streetcar revenue shortfalls up front.

“Another reasonable response might have been to not support continued funding of the Navigation Team, because all the work that was supposed to have been done by the executive by this time this year was not done. So we’re really trying to meet them halfway on this.”

A proposal from Herbold, meanwhile, would require the Navigation Team—a group of police officers and social service workers who remove encampments and direct people living in tents to available services—to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council would release funding for the coming quarter. Those steps, or “Checkpoints,” include things like creating a plan for “unsheltered individuals to be meaningfully involved in Navigation Team evaluation” and assessments of strategies to prioritize hygiene services and prevent trash from piling up at encampment sites.

Bagshaw said the process Herbold was outlining sounded like “a lot of committee work” for the council, to which Herbold responded: “The issue is that the auditor has made recommendations, and the executive is not in compliance with those recommendations. … I think we’re acting in really good faith. I think another reasonable response might have been to not support continued funding of the Navigation Team, because all the work that was supposed to have been done by the executive by this time this year was not done. So we’re really trying to meet them halfway on this.”

 

City Budget Roundup, Part 1: Soda, Short-Term Rentals, and Legacy Businesses

I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,

This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.

Sweetened Beverage Tax 

As I reported on Twitter (and Daniel Beekman reported in the Times), council member Mike O’Brien has expressed frustration at Mayor Jenny Durkan for using higher-than-expected revenues from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which is supposed to pay for healthy food initiatives in neighborhoods that are most impacted by both the tax and health problems such as diabetes and obesity, to balance out the budget as a whole. In a bit of budgetary sleight-of-hand, Durkan’s plan takes away general-fund revenues that were paying for those programs and replaces them with the “extra” soda tax revenues, which flatlines spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) aimed at reducing consumption of unhealthy food… like soda.

“The intent was pretty clear when we passed the legislation last year about how the funding would be spent,” O’Brien said last week. “What we saw in this year’s budget was [a proposal] that may have technically met the letter of it, but certainly not the spirit.”

O’Brien’s proposal would create a separate fund for soda-tax proceeds and stipulate that the city should use the money from the tax in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory board that was appointed for that purpose, rather than reallocating them among the programs the tax is supposed to fund, as Durkan’s budget also does. (See chart above). The idea is to protect the soda tax from being used to help pay for general budget needs in future years, and to ensure that the city follows the recommendations of its own soda tax advisory group.

Airbnb Tax

When the city passed a local tax on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, the legislation explicitly said that $5 million of the proceeds were to be spent on community-led equitable development projects through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative. This year, state legislators passed a statewide tax that replaced Seattle’s local legislation, but council members say the requirement didn’t go away. Nonetheless, Durkan’s budget proposal stripped the EDI of more than $1 million a year, redirecting those funds to pay for city staff and consultants, prompting council members including O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, and council president Bruce Harrell to propose two measures restoring the funding back to the promised $5 million level and creating a separate equitable development fund that would include “explicit restrictions” requiring that the first $5 million generated by the tax go toward EDI projects, not consultants or overhead.

“I think the mayor did this intentionally,” O’Brien said last week. “I don’t think she doesn’t like the equitable development initiative—I think she’s just struggling to make the budget balance—but this is a priority. We’ve seen with the sweetened beverage and the short-term rental tax that …  when we say we are going to impose a new revenue stream and here’s how we’re going to dedicate it, and then less than a year later someone says we’re going to dedicate it a different way, I think that is highly problematic on a much larger scale than just these programs.”

The council appeared likely to reject a separate, tangentially related proposal by council member Rob Johnson to exempt all short-term rental units that existed prior to September 2017, when the council first adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, from the new rule restricting the number of units any property owner could operate to a maximum of two. Currently, this exemption only applies to short-term rental units downtown and some units in Capitol Hill and First Hill; by providing the same exemption to short-term rentals across the city, Johnson said, the council could provide some certainty that the city would actually bring in $10.5 million in annual revenues, which is what the state projected and what Durkan assumed in her 2019 budget.

O’Brien, who drafted the original short-term rental regulations, suggested Durkan had jumped the gun by assuming the state’s projections were right before the legislation had even taken effect. “Typically, we try to be conservative when we have new revenue sources,” he said. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Belltown, said she had heard from constituents who bought downtown condos as retirement homes who told her their buildings have turned into 24/7 party hotels with few permanent residents. “The idea of opening this up just for budget reasons is disturbing,” Bagshaw said.”

Totem poles

Photograph by Rick Shu via Wikimedia Commons

As Crosscut has reported, local Native American leaders want the city to remove the totem poles erected in Victor Steinbrueck Park, because they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people who have long populated the area in and around what is now Seattle. Other totem poles in Seattle, including the Tlinget pole in Pioneer Square, are similarly controversial. Council member Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is sponsoring an item that would direct the city’s Office of Arts and Culture to address the issue—not by simply removing the offending poles (which is controversial among some historic preservationists and Pike Place Market advocates) but by reviewing and making recommendations about all the Native American art on all city-owned land in Seattle. In response to Juarez’s proposal, budget chair Sally Bagshaw cautioned that she didn’t “want to get bogged down” in a massive study if the problem of offensive or inappropriate art could be addressed on a case by case basis “when they come to our attention. Otherwise,” Bagshaw continued, “I can imagine someone [stalling the process by] saying, ‘Well, we haven’t looked at our 6,000 acres of parks.'”

Legacy Businesses 

In announcing a proposed $170,000 add for the legacy business program—a plan to protect longstanding neighborhood businesses by providing cash assistance and incentives for landlords to keep renting to them—council member Lisa Herbold called it the policy for which she is willing to “fall on [her] sword” this year. Previous budgets have provided funding to study such a program, but Herbold’s proposal this year would actually get it off the ground, by providing startup and marketing costs for the program. “Much like landmarks are a bridge to our city’s culture and history because of their physical form, sometimes businesses as gathering places are also a bridge to our city’s history and culture,” Herbold said.

Support

Critics have said Herbold’s proposal, like similar programs in other cities, could prevent the development of badly needed housing by saving struggling businesses out of a misguided sense of nostalgia.

In response to a question from council member Teresa Mosqueda about whether the program might allow businesses to relocate or reopen in new developments, Herbold said yes, citing the Capitol Hill writers’ center Hugo House as an example. However, it’s worth noting that the Hugo House is a nonprofit, not a for-profit business, and it was “saved” not by government intervention but by the  private owners of the old house in which Hugo House was originally located, who promised to provide the organization with a new space when they redeveloped their property.

 

Morning Crank: “Preparations are Underway for a Litigation Budget” on Fort Lawton

1. Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia neighborhood activist whose land-use appeals have helped stall the development of affordable housing at Fort Lawton for so long that the city now has to pay to secure the former Army base out of its own budget, says she isn’t giving up yet on her effort to stop the plan to build 415 units of affordable housing, including 85 apartments for formerly homeless families, in its tracks.

Campbell filed a complaint alleging that the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the affordable-housing plan failed to adequately consider all the potential environmental impacts of the project; that  seeking and receiving several postponements, Campbell failed to show up at recent hearings on her appeal of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the development, prompting city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil to say that he would be justified in dismissing the case outright but would give Campbell one last opportunity to hire a lawyer and make her case on strictly legal grounds. Vancil’s order stipulated that Campbell could not introduce any new evidence or call any witnesses.

Late on Friday afternoon, Campbell’s new lawyer, a fairly recent law-school graduate named Nathan Arnold, filed a new brief asking Vancil to re-open discovery in the case, which would allow her to interview and cross-examine witnesses from the city. (Campbell and the Discovery Park Community Alliance were represented until at least this past January by an attorney at Foster Pepper, to whom the group paid about $15,000 for their services, according to Campbell.) The city has until next Friday, November 9, to respond, and Campbell has until the following Wednesday, November 14, to respond in turn.

Meanwhile, Campbell is preparing to sue the city. In a message to the DCPA email list, she writes: “It is not known how soon after November 2nd the examiner will issue his decision. However, when it is issued and if it affirms the adequacy of the City’s FEIS then DPCA will need to promptly shift gears and prepare for a judicial appeal and review of the FEIS. In fact, given the probability that this will be the outcome preparations are already underway to establish a litigation budget and to start exploring the grounds, the causes of action, for a lawsuit in either King County Superior Court or in U.S. District Court.”

Campbell’s email also mentions an alternative “workaround plan” that she says would turn Fort Lawton into part of Discovery Park—without housing—”while deploying a network of currently-owned properties that meet and exceed housing objectives crafted for Fort Lawton land.” The email also says that the DCPA has already met with interim Parks directory Christopher Williams and deputy mayor David Moseley to discuss this alternative.

2. Rebecca Lovell, the tech-savvy former head of the city’s Startup Seattle program, stepped down as acting director of the city’s Office of Economic Development this week after nearly a year in limbo under Mayor Jenny Durkan. Lovell, who was appointed acting director by former mayor Ed Murray, is joining Create33, an offshoot of Madrona Ventures, which Geekwire describes as “a unique hybrid of co-working space and a community nexus.” OED’s new interim director is Karl Stickel, a city veteran who most recently was OED’s director of entrepreneurship and industry.

Support

In addition to OED, the city’s departments of  Transportation, Civil Rights, Human Services, Parks, Human Resources, and Information Technology are all headed by acting or interim directors.

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3. City council member Kshama Sawant, who used the city council’s shared printer to print thousands of anti-Amazon posters during the head tax debate, spent as much as $1,700 in city funds on Facebook ads promoting rallies and forums for her proposed “people’s budget” (and denouncing her council colleagues) between the end of September and the beginning of this month.

The ads, which include the mandatory disclaimer “Paid for by  Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s Office,” denounce Mayor Jenny Durkan, Sawant’s colleagues on the council, and the “Democratic Party establishment.”

“Seattle is facing an unprecedented affordable housing crisis,” the Sawant-sponsored ads say. “And yet, Mayor Durkan and the majority of the Council shamefully repealed the Amazon Tax that our movement fought so hard for, which would have modestly taxed the largest 3% of the city’s corporations to fund affordable housing.”

Because Facebook only releases limited information about its political ads, the cost of each ad is listed as a range. Of the five ads Sawant’s office has funded since September 28, two cost less than $100 and three cost between $100 and $499.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett  says that “since these are about the budget process, she can use city funds to pay for them without violating the ethics code. There’s no electioneering here that would trigger the need to pay for these with non-public funds.” I have contacted Sawant’s office for comment and will update this post if I hear back.

 

Seattle Magazine’s “Influentials” Include YIMBYs, Mosqueda, and Others Working for a Better City

Credit: Seattle magazine

I was proud this year to once again participate in Seattle magazine’s “Most Influentials” issue, which focuses every year on people and institutions that are making a positive difference in Seattle. At a time when it’s easy to notice only what’s negative about the city—the escalating homelessness crisis, the affordable-housing shortage, debates over whether the city has lost its “soul” (it hasn’t), the issue is a timely reminder that Seattle is actually a pretty great place, with people doing amazing work in fields that don’t always get their due, from bus driver/artist/filmmaker Nathan Vass, whose essays about driving the Route 7 are urban poetry, to TransYouth Project leader and UW psychology professor Kristina Olson.

Here are a couple of my contributions to the issue; read the whole list, along with Rachel Hart’s editor’s note about the issue, at Seattle magazine’s website, or pick up a copy on newsstands now.

The YIMBYs

YIMBY—the acronym stands for “yes in my backyard”—started as a national rebuke to so-called NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”), residents who oppose development in their neighborhoods. Today, the politically diverse movement has an active Seattle presence that is focused on saying yes to new density in urban neighborhoods. In the past year, YIMBYs have helped elect two council members: freshman Teresa Mosqueda and incumbent Lorena González, both of whom faced anti-density opponents.

They’ve advocated to allow homeowners to build second and third units on their property; pushed the city to convert the Talaris Conference Center site in Laurelhurst into affordable, high-density housing; and testified in favor of tiny-house villages to serve as temporary encampments that provide shelter to homeless Seattleites. And they also have helped to reframe the debate about a proposed affordable housing development in Magnolia’s Fort Lawton.

Battles over zoning and housing move slowly, so the true impact of today’s YIMBY activism might not be visible for years. What’s clear is that YIMBYs are framing important debates—and changing what it means to be a neighborhood activist.

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

In her first several months on the council, Mosqueda, an energetic former labor lobbyist elected in 2017, proposed a plan, one that shouldn’t be radical yet is, to give surplus city land to affordable-housing developers, instead of selling it to the highest bidder; cast one of just two votes against repealing the “head tax,” which would have paid for housing and homeless services; passed new city protections for domestic workers; and stuck her neck out as a high-density housing advocate at a time when a revanchist neighborhood movement is ascending. Rarely has a City Council freshman taken a mandate and run with it quite as hard as Mosqueda. In doing so, she’s proving to be a bridge player on an increasingly fractured City Council.

Getting Smarter About Public Land: Lessons from Across the Northwest

The full version of this story is available at Sightline.

As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.

Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.

To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.

But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.

How much publicly owned land is there?

Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.

Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.

The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.

“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says.  “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.

Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing

Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.

Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.

The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.

Read the whole piece at Sightline.

Extra Fizz: Challenge to Fort Lawton Housing Is On Its Last Legs

Photo: Alex Crook for Seattle magazine.

A legal challenge to proposed affordable housing at Fort Lawton, the former Army base next to Discovery Park, appears to be on its last legs. If the city’s hearing examiner dismisses the case, which has been going on, in various forms, since 2008, the city will finally be able to proceed on plans to build hundreds of units of housing on the site, which the Army formally mothballed in 2011.

Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia activist who has filed appeal after appeal to stall the development, did not show up at a scheduled meeting with the hearing examiner last week, which had already been postponed for a month at Campbell’s request so that she could get an attorney to represent her. (Campbell asked for a stay, initially, because of a planned vacation; later, she asked for more time because of an illness. The result has been additional months of delay.)

At the meeting last week, hearing examiner Ryan Vancil set a schedule for the rest of the hearing process, but noted that because Campbell has missed numerous deadlines for providing evidence, calling witnesses, and appointing counsel, any arguments she makes from this point forward must be restricted to purely legal theory, and can’t include any new facts or evidence.

At the conference last week, Vancil noted that Campbell had not called to let him know she would not be showing up, and noted that he would be justified in dismissing the case based on her “failure to prosecute,” but said that “out of an abundance of caution,” that he wanted to give her one last chance to reply to the city in the case. In his order, Vancil wrote that:

Appellants’ failure to appear at the pre-hearing conference, failure to file exhibit and witness lists, and apparent failure to secure counsel as a result of the stay are sufficient grounds for this matter to be dismissed. However, the Appellants will be afforded a final opportunity to pursue their case. As there is no opportunity remaining for Appellants to introduce new evidence or testimony, the hearing for this matter scheduled for Monday October 29, 2018 is canceled. The parties will address any remaining issues in this matter in the form of legal briefing.

Campbell, who did not respond to a request for comment, has until this Friday, November 2, to file a closing brief in her case.

Morning Crank: Toward a Redefinition of “Single-Family”

Council member Teresa Mosqueda released more details last week about her proposal to do a full race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy—a neighborhood planning framework that was adopted in collaboration with homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups in the 1990s, long before the city adopted its Race and Social Justice Initiative. The memo suggests that the city might move toward a “redefinition of ‘Single Family,’ that includes attached family-dwellings in areas that may not have frequent transit service, but have good transit service, and access to community assets within walking distance (such as parks, open spaces, and community centers) that are otherwise missing from many of the Urban Villages?”

Mosqueda’s memo notes that single-family zoning currently occupies 86 percent of the residential land in Seattle, but it hasn’t always been so. Prior to the 1930s, when the federal government officially encouraged the separation of multifamily and single-family housing through formal redlining, the city had two residential zoning designations—First Residence, which was single-family-only, and Second Residence, where multifamily housing of all kinds was allowed. Much of what is now single-family was in that second category.

The urban village strategy, adopted in the post-formal-redlining 1990s, concentrates development tightly around arterial streets, preserving the vast majority of the city’s land exclusively for detached single-family houses, a development pattern that has contributed to the city’s housing shortage and helped drive up housing prices to levels that are unaffordable to working- and middle-class people.

Mosqueda’s plan, if it’s allowed to play out, could point the way toward an alternate neighborhood-planning strategy that includes renters, low-income people, and people of color in decision-making—a strategy that would likely lead to more density in areas that have been walled off by existing neighborhood plans. Last week, council members (particularly budget committee chair Sally Bagshaw) raised questions about whether Mosqueda’s plan would duplicate work that has already been done and whether it impacts an ongiong legal challenge by a group of neighborhood activists seeking to invalidate the city’s mandatory housing affordability (MHA) policy, in part, on the grounds that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the impact of increased density. (More on why that challenge is disingenuous here.)

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In the  memo, Mosqueda’s staff quickly dispensed with the latter concern, noting that a racial equity analysis of existing neighborhood plans would have no bearing on whether one was done for MHA (and that it’s outside the scope of the state environmental policy act, which is the basis for SCALE’s challenge, anyway). In response to Bagshaw’s concern—that the analysis has essentially already been done—the memo notes that all the analysis the city has done of the impacts of housing policy on people of color and low-income people so far, including an oft-cited report by former council member Peter Steinbrueck, “appear[s] to start and end with the proposition that the [Urban Village Strategy] is the preferred growth strategy. None appear to actually question the efficacy of the current strategy [or include] an exploration of whether to engage in a new strategy.”

It’s far from clear that Mosqueda’s colleagues will consider this argument persuasive; last week, even Rob Johnson, who supports the idea of revisiting the urban village strategy in principle, suggested that the council might put it off until later in 2019.

The city continues its budget deliberations next week. Last week’s budget discussions  included a debate over Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to use higher-than-expected revenues from the soda tax to cut general-fund spending on the education and food access programs the tax funds, rather than increasing funding for those programs; a discussion about the availability of enhanced shelter beds (almost nonexistent) and whether the mayor’s homelessness budget spends too much on back-office staff; and a proposal, from Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien, to increase pay for all human service providers that contract with the city by 3.5 percent. Durkan’s budget would increase the pay of front-line workers who provide services to Seattle’s homeless population by just 2 percent, and would only benefit those whose jobs are funded through the city’s general fund; increasing and expanding that wage hike would cost just shy of $6 million a year.

The council also talked about the seemingly moribund proposal—recommended unanimously by the county’s opiate task force in 2016—to open a supervised drug consumption site somewhere in the county. Durkan’s budget carries over $1.3 million for a site from the 2017 budget, but doesn’t actually propose spending the money. Durkan, a council staffer told council members last week, “has indicted that opening a [safe consumption site], either leasing or acquiring property, is unlikely is because of the expense and for this reason they have pivoted to a so called fixed mobile site”—i.e., a van. The city is looking at a variety of models for this theoretical site, ranging from a site that does not offer medically assisted treatment (AKA prescriptions for suboxone, an opiate drug that reduces cravings for more dangerous and addictive opiates) and is open only during 9-5 business hours, to a 70-hour-a-week model that does include MAT. “People struggling with addiction aren’t doing it within the course of a 40-hour work week,” Johnson noted.

Bikeshare Delayed After Complaint from Magnolia Activist

Coming soon? Lyft wants in to the bikesharing market.

The city’s decision to do a full State Environmental Policy Act analysis of a proposed expansion of its bikesharing pilot program, which I reported earlier this week, was spurred in part by a request for a SEPA analysis by Elizabeth Campbell, a Magnolia activist with a long history of filing legal complaints against the city. Campbell sent a letter demanding a full SEPA review on August 6. Sometime that same month, SDOT decided to do the review—a process that likely added at least couple of months to the timeline for expanding bikeshare. SEPA reviews are typically performed for projects that exceed a certain threshold, in terms of their potential environmental impacts.  Projects that are generally subject to SEPA review include things like new apartment buildings and projects that involve significant impacts on city rights-of-way. (To give just one point of comparison, new parking lots for fewer than 40 vehicles are categorically exempt from environmental review under SEPA. The bikeshare program does not include any new permanent structures in city right-of-way.)

The city’s experiment with free-floating bikesharing began in 2017, with a pilot program that allowed companies like Lime, Spin, and Ofo to disperse thousands of rental bikes around the city. The city approved new permanent rules for bike share companies in June, and three companies applied for permits—Uber, Lyft, and Lime. Both Uber and Lyft told me that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits.

In her letter to the city, which was addressed to then-SDOT director Goran Sparrman and bikeshare program director Joel Miller and cc’d to Mayor Jenny Durkan, council member Mike O’Brien, and the heads of the city’s parks and neighborhoods departments, Campbell enumerates what she sees as the likely public costs associated with the program. Then she requests a SEPA analysis.

“The sheer number of pieces of business equipment that are to be unleashed upon Seattle’s streets, up to 24,000 bicycles and cycles, coupled with the fact that the majority of the bike-share business operators’ business equipment is to be placed, stored, and located by a number of means, including by mischief or abandonment, at any one time on the City of Seattle’s right-of-ways, parks, lands, public commons, and/or upon private property has immense environmental implications,” Campbell wrote. “At a minimum a SEPA checklist must be prepared and a threshold determination made before the Free-Floating Bike Share Program proceeds.”

The SEPA review wrapped up earlier this month.

Campbell says she asked for the review because she considers the bikes “litter” and believes they’re cluttering sidewalks like so much “trash on the streets.” SEPA seemed like an appropriate avenue, she says, because it pertains to business equipment. “I used to run a bakery,” she says. “What if I took all my bakery carts and set them out on the sidewalks [all over the city]? Realistically, it is that kind of a practice. It’s not the same as, say, a taxi business, where you’re going to take your taxis back to your garage” when they aren’t in use, she says.

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I asked SDOT and the mayor’s office several times if a citizen complaint had influenced SDOT’s decision to delay the bikeshare program and  go forward with a full environmental review.  SDOT repeatedly denied there was any such complaint, saying that the city undertook the analysis in response to the results of two surveys (one by EMC Research conducted back in February, the other an unscientific online poll) and the gist of negative feedback from the public. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson wrote. “I don’t know of any formal complaints.” Later, Hobson added that “the impetus for the SEPA review” was “the final evaluation that included the comments and concerns of community groups about safety.”

That final evaluation, which came out in August, is here. The complaints listed in the evaluation are mostly about bikes being left in places where they don’t belong, as well as the fact that many riders don’t wear helmets—not exactly the type of environmental impacts that the State Environmental Policy Act checklist is intended to address. The checklist, which is standard for all projects, includes questions about the impact a proposed project or development might have on erosion, air and water quality, native plants and animals, shorelines, and environmental health.

On Tuesday, I asked SDOT representatives again whether Campbell’s request was the reason, or a reason, for their decision to do a SEPA analysis. Initially, Hobson responded that this was “the first [she had] heard of” Campbell’s letter and request for SEPA analysis. Later, I heard back from another SDOT spokeswoman, Dawn Schellenberg, who said in an email, “After hearing some concerns, including written correspondence from Elizabeth Campbell … and wanting to do our due diligence, the department decided to complete a SEPA analysis and confirm there were no items of significance we needed to address.”

Conceivably, the city could have decided to do a full SEPA review back in August based solely on survey results and subsequent “concerns” expressed by many citizens, incidentally including Campbell. It’s also possible that there were other specific requests for a SEPA analysis. (I have a records request in to the mayor’s office and SDOT for all communications from the public that contain negative feedback on the program).

But it’s worth noting that Campbell isn’t just any random citizen: She’s a perennial thorn in the city’s side. Over the years, Campbell has filed many complaints against the city, including several that are still working their way through the legal process. For example, the city hearing examiner is currently considering complaints filed by Campbell about a tiny house village on Port of Seattle-owned property in Interbay and a proposal to build affordable housing at the Fort Lawton site near Discovery Park in Magnolia. Campbell, in other words, has been very effective in the past at delaying and deterring projects. This fact alone could give her complaints more weight at the city, which does not typically do full environmental reviews for projects with minimal impact on the natural or built environment, like the addition of a few thousand bikes throughout the city.

The SEPA review concluded with a determination of nonsignificance (DNS), meaning that expanding bikeshare has no significant negative environmental impact. Campbell, who says she was not aware that the city had decided to do a SEPA analysis, says she was disappointed to learn that the window for appealing the DNS closed on October 18; had she known, she says, she might have appealed. “They did a quick and dirty and they didn’t really address the things that I was talking about, which is that [the bikes] are disruptive,” Campbell says.

She says she’s still deciding whether to find another avenue to appeal the bikesharing program. “I’m kind of not known for letting things go,” she says.

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