Brad Finegood, King County Opiate Task Force Member: Safe Consumption Sites Will Save People Like My Brother

UPDATE: Today, a coalition of public health experts and people who have lost loved ones to overdoses announced that they are suing to block Initiative 27, which would ban supervised drug consumption sites throughout King County, on the grounds that public health decisions are outside the scope of the initiative process. The group, called Protect Public Health, argues in their lawsuit that under state law, King County and its public health department are responsible for making public-health policy decisions for the county, and “[i]t would be antithetical to this scheme to allow citizens to delay or override urgent action on a public health crisis merely by raising sufficient funds to qualify a referendum or initiative.” (You can read the full complaint here.)

Last week, the King County Elections Department confirmed that initiative supporters had collected enough signatures to qualify for the February 2018 ballot; a last-minute effort backed by Republican King County Council member Kathy Lambert to put the measure on the ballot in November was unsuccessful.

With safe consumption very much in the news this week, I thought it would be a good time to hear from some advocates on both sides of the safe consumption issue. First up: Brad Finegood, a drug policy expert at King County with a mouthful of a title: Assistant Division Director, King County Dept. of Community and Human Services, Behavioral Health and Recovery Division. As deputy director of the recovery division, Finegood was a member of the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, which released a set of recommendations for addressing the opiate addiction epidemic last year. Those recommendations included promoting safe storage and disposal of prescription medications; wider access to treatment for opiate addiction, including medication-assisted treatment with drugs like suboxone and comprehensive treatment on demand; and wider distribution of naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug.

But by far the most controversial recommendation the task force made was that the county open two supervised drug consumption sites, where users could consume their drug of choice—heroin, meth, cocaine, whatever—under medical supervision. The intent, the task force wrote in its report, was to reduce drug-related health risks and overdose deaths; provide access to treatment and basic health care, reducing drug users’ use of emergency services; and “improve public safety and the community environment by reducing public drug use and discarding of drug using equipment.” Many communities didn’t buy the task force’s logic for recommending the sites (which have been common in many European countries for decades) and have passed city-level laws banning them; in February, King County voters will have their say on Initiative 27, which would prevent the county from opening a supervised consumption site anywhere, including in Seattle, where some communities especially hard hit by the heroin epidemic, such as Capitol Hill, have been open to the proposal.

As a King County employee, Finegood can take no official position on I-27, and we didn’t discuss the initiative explicitly during our conversation. But his longtime support for supervised consumption is no secret. For Finegood, the issue is more than political—it’s personal. A longtime drug counselor who worked extensively in the criminal justice system, he lost his own brother several years ago to a heroin overdose, and believes that a supervised consumption site could save the lives of people like his brother—both by preventing and reversing overdoses, and by reducing the stigma and shame that keeps drug users from reaching out for help. I talked to him at his downtown Seattle office last month.

Here’s Finegood:

Image result for brad finegoodMy brother and I were three years apart and we were always really close growing up. We grew up in a lower-to-middle-class neighborhood with two very hardworking parents and we both had really good educations. We both went to college together at Michigan State. I saw him every single day. But I never knew there was an opiate issue. That was really hidden to me and my family.  I would say, looking back, that there were probably some telltale signs. I’d go over to his house at noon, one o’clock, and knock on the door and he wouldn’t be awake. But I always figured, he was in college, he went out late, it was summertime and he didn’t have school or work.

Then he got married and went off into the working field, and there was a lot that I didn’t know, that was hidden. Some telltale signs of drug use would be marks on people’s arms or track marks or baggy eyes, and I never really saw any of that, so there was no reason to be concerned. A lot of stuff was obvious in retrospect. His wife wanted to gain some space from some of the people that he was involved with, so they moved to the East Coast to get away. Then they ended up getting a divorce and he came back to town and ended up connecting with a person who also had opiate use disorder but also hadn’t used in a long time. So when they connected, they started sharing stories, and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we could get high together?’ She was in a different city, but they would rendezvous and go see music and get high.

That happened a couple of times. Then they got together and went on a three-day party binge for New Year’s, and he didn’t wake up on New Year’s Day.

“He cared a lot about his family, and didn’t want to let us down. There’s so much stigma that goes along with having opiate use disorder.”

We didn’t even know there was an opiate problem. And then he passes away and we meet this girl who he had been friends with, and she tells us some stories about what happened. His ex-wife then started telling me stories about past seven years of his life, when I had seen or talked to him every single day, and we started to piece together all these pieces.

It was just utter sadness and a ton of guilt—the guilt of being that close to my brother and not knowing. I was working in a clinic that served people with opiate issues, and I didn’t even know my brother was using under my nose. I think a lot of that was not wanting to let people down. He cared a lot about his family, and didn’t want to let us down. There’s so much stigma that goes along with having opiate use disorder. There was a picture that had been taken maybe two or three months before he died where he just had these raccoon eyes, and I thought, ‘Oh, that makes sense now.’ There was a lot of family system disbelief and denial that that couldn’t happen to us—’not in our family.’

One of my first jobs coming out of college was as a substance abuse counselor. I wanted to be able to help people, but I used to look at it from a criminal justice standpoint. I thought of the criminal justice system as a primary intervention for people, because I thought, people can get arrested and their drug issue could be brought up. I used to say that my brother’s biggest problem was that that he never got arrested. I had worked with so many people in the criminal justice system, and I saw that it could sometimes have a positive effect on people, if they were treated in a therapeutic environment.

You take folks who are struggling with [addiction] issues, and you put them in a confined area with other folks who are struggling with the same issues, and you don’t provide any therapeutic interventions around—then there can be some negative consequences.

I realized some of the unintentional harm that incarceration can cause people when I was working with somebody who had alcohol use disorder. He drank and got a probation violation, so the judge was going to send him back to jail for the weekend. And so I was like, ‘Hey, buddy, let’s make this an intentional experience. It’s lousy that you have to go back to jail for the weekend, but let’s get something good out of this, and you’ll come back next week and we’ll talk about it.’ So he came back the next week, and I was like, ‘So how was it? Did you learn something? And he goes, ‘Yeah—I learned how to make meth!’

That moment has stuck with me, because you realize that even the most well-intentioned intervention might have negative consequences. You take folks who are struggling with [addiction] issues, and you put them in a confined area with other folks who are struggling with the same issues, and you don’t provide any therapeutic interventions around—then there can be some negative consequences.

I was sort of raised [professionally] in the drug court world. Drug court was really the first idea that said there could be a therapeutic approach to working with people that have behavioral health issues. It’s harm reduction compared to sending someone to jail for a long period of time, but on the spectrum of harm reduction it’s not full harm reduction. That concept has evolved very much over the past 15 years to understanding that we have to be able to treat substance use disorder with a public health approach. Our partners in the criminal justice system will be the first ones to tell you, at least most of them, that criminalizing people with substance use disorder has been really unsuccessful.

“In my almost 20 years of working in this field, nobody that I’ve ever met who has opiate use disorder likes having opiate use disorder. They almost always know the risk, but they use anyway.”

The evidence [about safe consumption sites] tells the story, and the evidence is that people do not die when using those facilities. The evidence also says that when people have access to a caring environment,  they’re more likely to be able to move along the path [toward recovery]. When you provide an environment for people to feel safe, where they can come to without stigma, without prejudice, and they know that they can use on site and not die, then they’re going to continue to use that resource.

In my almost 20 years of working in this field, nobody that I’ve ever met who has opiate use disorder likes having opiate use disorder. People with substance use, especially opiate use, disorder use despite the risk of possibly overdosing. They almost always know the risk, but they use anyway. It’s a neurochemical brain disease. My brother is proof of the fact that you can be clean and sober for quite a period of time and that lure to come back is mighty difficult to fight. If you are consistently waiting for people to hit rock bottom, they’re gonna be dead.

“I think that stigma against people who have drug problems is really prejudice and discrimination against people who have drug problems.”

I think that without a doubt my brother would have benefited [from a safe consumption site.] Do I know if he would have used it? No. But do I know that there are people out there who need it and are willing to use it. Our survey from the needle exchange tells us that a significant number of people who use needle exchange services —the vast majority—would use it. And if they are willing to use it, then that means they will not be using it primarily outdoor, often by themselves, in a vulnerable situation. I know very little of the intricacies of my brother’s use, but if there was ever a time when he could have used it to make himself less vulnerable, I would have hoped he would have used it. Does it mean that my brother would be alive right now? No. But one of the things that I can say is that I believe that my brother had a lot of shame associated with his disease, and I believe that shame was because of how we as a society look at people with substance abuse disorder. I used to say, I wish my brother would have become involved with the criminal justice system. Now I wish my brother wouldn’t have felt shame. I think shame killed my brother. I think shame of having a heroin problem and having a drug problem killed my brother, because it kept him from ever wanting to ask for help. It kept him from ever admitting that he had a problem. And it kept him only trusting people that had the same problem. I think that stigma against people who have drug problems is really prejudice and discrimination against people who have drug problems.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Maybe He Meant Because No One Can Afford To Live There

1. I’ve known Mike Fong, Mayor Ed Murray’s chief of staff, since he worked as an aide to city council member Heidi Wills. In fact, he started at the city right around the same time I started covering city hall, in the late spring of 2001.

Back then, he looked like this:

After 16 years working for the city—as a council staffer and, for the past two years, the mayor’s chief of staff—Fong is leaving city hall behind. (Other mayoral staffers surely won’t be far behind him, as the seventh floor of City Hall empties out in anticipation of current Mayor Ed Murray’s departure in December). He isn’t going far, though—just across the street to the office of King County Executive Dow Constantine, where he’ll be chief operating officer, overseeing Constantine’s cabinet.

Fong has been at city hall (and not just THIS city hall—the old one, too) through some of the biggest stories (and transformations) in the city’s history—from Strippergate to the ouster of former City Light director Gary Zarker to the council’s review of then-mayor Greg Nickels’ response to the 2009 snow storm, which ultimately contributed to Nickels’ loss (to Mike McGinn) that year. During that time, the old City Hall itself was razed, Seattle’spopulation grew from around half a million people to more than 700,000, and Amazon’s value rose from $3.6 billion to more than $500 billion. But as far as I can tell, Mike hasn’t changed all that much. He’s the kind of easygoing, no-bullshit staffer journalists love—he doesn’t spin or offer bland talking points, and his grasp on policy is peerless—and the kind of guy I’d want on my side if I was an elected official with aspirations for higher office. I know I don’t speak just for myself when I say he’ll be missed at city hall.

2. Constantine’s office has seen quite a few shakeups recently, including the departure of his longtime chief of staff (and onetime aide to former mayor Greg Nickels) Sung Yang last month. Yang, who also moved to Constantine’s office after a long  career at the city, left to join Pacific Public Affairs, the consulting firm owned by Constantine’s former deputy chief of staff, Joe Woods. Rachel Smith, the county’s government relations director (and another former Nickels staffer), is Constantine’s new chief of staff. Constantine’s campaign manager, Mina Hashemi Mercer, is also reportedly leaving to become the next Director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, where she previously worked for two and a half years.

Constantine is eternally rumored to be considering a run for governor.

3. The city council’s housing and human services committee discussed legislation that would protect some people living in their vehicles from ticketing or towing for certain parking violations and provide them with access to services; in exchange, vehicle residents would register with the city and agree to abide by certain rules. The recommendations are designed to get people into permanent housing faster while recognizing the reality that homeless people don’t have the money to pay fines or get their vehicle out of impoundment. Another reality: Homeless people who lose their vehicles don’t just disappear; usually, they become homeless people living on the street, destabilized and in even more desperate straits.

North end neighborhood activists, including members of the so-called Neighborhood Safety Alliance, made familiar arguments yesterday against people living in RVs, claiming that they were responsible for an E. coli spike in Thornton Creek, accusing them of leaving literal “tons of garbage and human waste” all over neighborhoods, and suggesting that they, the north Seattle homeowners, might just decide to buy an RV and live in it so they, too, could enjoy the good life, exempt from rules and “homeowner taxes.”

One speaker, Phil Cochran, used his public comment time to demand that Mike O’Brien answer a “simple question.” Actually, he had two: “Do you believe that this ordinance will result in more RVs and more homeless junkies in the city of Seattle, yes or no?” and “What happens when some of these rolling meth labs—which we know they are—catch fire? Who should we sue?” Because public comment is not Adults Play High-School Debate time, O’Brien did not respond, except to say that he’d be happy to discuss the issue at literally any other time. And a member of the Interbay Neighborhood Association said the area around W Thorndyke Drive—at the base of Magnolia, near Dravus—was so totally taken over by RVs that that part of Magnolia is now “unlivable.”

Huh.

Maybe he meant “because no one who isn’t wealthy can afford to live there.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Rapid Rehousing Didn’t Work Out. Now Lisa Sawyer May Face Eviction.

Image via Facing Homelessness.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before.  They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a  black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.

Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”

The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.

In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.

Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.

“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking.  We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)

“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?'”

Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

“Corporate” Contributions: Not Really a Thing in Seattle (Updated)

This originally ran as item 3 in today’s Morning Crank. 

Update at 12:30 on Wednesday: After I posted this item this morning, the right-wing Freedom Foundation announced that it was filing a lawsuit challenging the city of Seattle’s new income tax. The attorneys representing the group: Lane Powell. As I reported on Twitter, Lane Powell attorneys have contributed nearly $3,000 to Jenny Durkan—far more than they have to any other mayoral candidate, including current Mayor Ed Murray, back when he was still running for reelection. Durkan has expressed skepticism over the legality of the tax.

Every year, lefty candidates in Seattle races try to distinguish themselves by pledging “not to accept any money from corporations or developers,” suggesting by implication that their opponent is financed by (and in the pocket of) big corporations. For example, in this year’s mayoral race, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver both pledged that they would not take direct contributions from corporations or developers, and in the race to fill city council Position 8, both Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda made a similar vow Moon and Oliver were trying to distinguish themselves from their business-endorsed opponent Jenny Durkan, and Grant and Mosqueda from their business-endorsed opponent Sara Nelson.

It all sounds very principled: “Even if it costs me the election, I will decline all corporate contributions, because my values aren’t corporate values.” But it’s just about the easiest promise any candidate can make—because corporate contributions are basically nonexistent in Seattle.

Obviously, the Seattle Chamber and other business groups support certain candidates (often, in recent years, by funding independent expenditure campaigns), but corporations don’t typically give to individual candidates, making this perennial pledge little more than an empty applause line. I took a look at the contributor lists for the frontrunners in this year’s mayoral and council races, and found that, after Oliver and Moon (who, indeed, took no direct contributions from business), the candidate who took the smallest percentage of contributions from businesses—just 1 percent—was actually … Jenny Durkan. (Jessyn Farrell tied Durkan’s 1 percent.) Three percent of populist state legislator Bob Hasegawa’s contributions came from businesses, as did 2 percent of Mike McGinn’s. Worth noting: 60 percent of Moon’s money came from her own bank account; as Moon herself has said, she was able to self-finance largely because of family money, which came from the family … business.

In Position 8, the pattern is similar. While neither Mosqueda nor Grant received any money from businesses, “business” candidate Nelson got just 4 percent of her money from businesses.

All candidates, including Oliver, Moon, Mosqueda, and Grant, received contributions from people who work for corporations, including Amazon, Microsoft, Vulcan, and Google.

So the next time a candidate points to “refusing corporate contributions” as a point of pride, you might want to point out that businesses don’t really contribute to Seattle campaigns—even to “business” candidates.

* Of course, businesses do fund independent expenditure campaigns, which cannot be coordinated with candidates.

** Part of the reason business contributions make up such a small percentage of campaign war chests in Seattle is that contributions are limited to $500. The limit is designed to reduce the influence any one contributor can have over a candidate, and it serves its purpose.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: How About You Just Rent Them the Apartment?


Image result for no vacancy sign

1. The council’s civil rights, utilities, economic development, and arts committee unanimously passed legislation yesterday morning that will bar landlords from considering potential tenants’ criminal records, unless they were convicted of a sex offense as an adult. Council member Mike O’Brien offered two amendments to the legislation, which I wrote about last week: The first removes an exemption to the new rule for landlords of buildings with four units or fewer who live on site, and the second removes the so-called two-year lookback, which would have allowed landlords to consider a tenant’s criminal history going back two years.

Council member Debora Juarez, a former Superior and Municipal Court judge, said both amendments addressed a fundamental problem with the original bill: It created different classes of landlords and renters. The four-unit exemption, she said, gave extra privileges—essentially, the right to discriminate—to landlords who happened to own smaller buildings and live in one of the units, and the two-year lookback put tenants with more recent criminal histories in the position of begging landlords, on a case-by-case basis, to take them despite their criminal record. “It’s pretty clear that people of color and low-income people are being disproportionately denied and discriminated against … based on the fact that they have criminal records,” Juarez said. “I think you should just eliminate [the lookback period]. How about you don’t consider anything [other than a tenant’s ability to pay]—you just rent them the apartment?”

Herbold, who expressed concern last week that some small landlords might get out of the business if they had to rent to people with recent criminal records, said yesterday that she had decided “to vote according to my values and what I feel is best for renters in this city.” The proposal goes to the full council next Monday.

2. Council member Sally Bagshaw’s health and human services committee will take up the recommendations of the Vehicular Living Workgroup, which has been meeting since March to come up with “solutions that meet the needs of vulnerable populations living in vehicles due to inaccessible housing and address neighborhood impacts of vehicular living,” at 2:00 this afternoon. The meeting will be just for discussion; no legislation will be introduced.

The recommendations include a mitigation fund to help RV residents and other people living in their vehicles pay their parking tickets; additional outreach services; and a citywide “safe parking” program that would allow people living in vehicles to park safely in small groups (no more than five or six vehicles at one place) around the city. The recommendations do not, notably, include banning the estimated 1,000 people who live in their vehicles from parking inside city limits, and that has gotten the attention of the folks at Safe Seattle, a group opposed to allowing people to live outdoors or in their vehicles. Commenters on the group’s Facebook page have called Bagshaw “dangerous,” accused the council of “turning our precious city streets into desolate drug & crime ridden RV parks,” included the hashtag “shitforbrains,” and accused council member O’Brien of intentionally unleashing “blight” throughout the city as part of a conspiracy to drive families to the suburbs so the whole city can be redeveloped into apartments.

The public comment period will be 20 minutes.

3. Every year, lefty candidates in Seattle races try to distinguish themselves by pledging “not to accept any money from corporations or developers,” suggesting by implication that their opponent is financed by (and in the pocket of) big corporations. For example, in this year’s mayoral race, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver both pledged that they would not take direct contributions from corporations or developers, and in the race to fill city council Position 8, both Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda made a similar vow Moon and Oliver were trying to distinguish themselves from their business-endorsed opponent Jenny Durkan, and Grant and Mosqueda from their business-endorsed opponent Sara Nelson.

It all sounds very principled: “Even if it costs me the election, I will decline all corporate contributions, because my values aren’t corporate values.” But it’s just about the easiest promise any candidate can make—because corporate contributions are basically nonexistent in Seattle.

Obviously, the Seattle Chamber and other business groups support certain candidates (often, in recent years, by funding independent expenditure campaigns), but corporations don’t typically give to individual candidates, making this perennial pledge little more than an empty applause line. I took a look at the contributor lists for the frontrunners in this year’s mayoral and council races, and found that, after Oliver and Moon (who, indeed, took no direct contributions from business), the candidate who took the smallest percentage of contributions from businesses—just 1 percent—was actually … Jenny Durkan. (Jessyn Farrell tied Durkan’s 1 percent.) Three percent of populist state legislator Bob Hasegawa’s contributions came from businesses, as did 2 percent of Mike McGinn’s. Worth noting: 60 percent of Moon’s money came from her own bank account; as Moon herself has said, she was able to self-finance largely because of family money, which came from the family … business.

In Position 8, the pattern is similar. While neither Mosqueda nor Grant received any money from businesses, “business” candidate Nelson got just 4 percent of her money from businesses.

All candidates, including Oliver, Moon, Mosqueda, and Grant, received contributions from people who work for corporations, including Amazon, Microsoft, Vulcan, and Google.

So the next time a candidate points to “refusing corporate contributions” as a point of pride, you might want to point out that businesses don’t really contribute to Seattle campaigns—even to “business” candidates.

* Of course, businesses do fund independent expenditure campaigns, which cannot be coordinated with candidates.

** Part of the reason business contributions make up such a small percentage of campaign war chests in Seattle is that contributions are limited to $500. The limit is designed to reduce the influence any one contributor can have over a candidate, and it serves its purpose.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Inherently Dangerous

Image result for "fair housing act of 1968

1. If you’re a renter who makes less than six figures, you already know how hard it is to find an affordable apartment in Seattle. Now imagine that you’ve convicted or arrested at some point in your life. (Quite possibly, you don’t have to imagine—according to the city, 173,000 Seattle residents have an arrest or conviction on their record.) The legislation, sponsored by council member Lisa Herbold, would prohibit landlords from advertising that they don’t accept tenants with criminal records, and would bar them from asking prospective tenants about convictions that are more than two years old, juvenile records, convictions that have been expunged, criminal charges that did not result in a conviction, or pending charges.

As I’ve reported, the legislation as originally proposed included a number of exemptions—on top of the two-year window, it did not apply to landlords of small buildings (four units or fewer) who live on the premises. By exempting small landlords who live on their properties, the original bill effectively accepted the premise that people with criminal histories are inherently dangerous—too dangerous, anyway, for landlords to live next to them.

That exemption, as it turns out, has a fascinating history. It originated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, where it was known as the “Mrs. Murphy exemption.” That exemption says that it’s acceptable under federal law for a landlord to discriminate against someone because of their race if they rent to no more than four people or families and live on the premises. (Mrs. Murphy was, as the New York Times’ Adam Liptak put it, “an apocryphal bigot.”) That exemption has remained in place to the present day; however, many state statutes go beyond federal law and do not include the exemption.

The city’s Office for Civil Rights was unable to say precisely how the exemption got into the proposal, except that it was originally included “to address concerns raised during the stakeholder process,” according to OCR policy manager Brenda Anibarro. “We recently learned of the history of the federal FHA exemption from an article in the Harvard Law Review which includes a significant history steeped in racism,” Anibarro said in an email. “It is for this reason we believe Councilmember O’Brien’s amendment striking this exemption is the correct course of action.”

Interestingly, the “Mrs. Murphy exemption” does not appear anywhere else in Seattle’s municipal code, and the city’s “first in time” rule, which prohibits landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants because of their source of income, only exempts single-family homeowners who live at their properties and are essentially renting to roommates.

Last Tuesday, the council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee discussed an amendment by council member Mike O’Brien (who is out of town) to remove the exemption. Council member Lorena Gonzalez noted that the exemption for small buildings could make “naturally occurring affordable housing”—the small, mom-and-pop type units that anti-displacement advocates often argue the city must preserve—off-limits for the people who need it the most.

Other amendments to the proposal would prohibit landlords from considering an adult prospective tenant’s juvenile sex offense record (landlords could still refuse to rent to adult sex offenders) and remove the two-year “lookback” period. (The sex offender amendment is Herbold’s; the lookback amendment is O’Brien’s.) As advocates have pointed out, people exiting jail are much less likely to reoffend if they have stable housing; nonetheless, one in five people exit King County Jail directly into homelessness, according to All Home, largely because landlords refuse to rent to them.

Herbold, who has not decided whether to support O’Brien’s lookback amendment, says she has heard from small landlords who say they might choose to to sell their buildings instead of renting to people straight out of prison, removing affordable units from the rental market. On the other hand, many people who are just leaving jail or prison would probably be disqualified from renting on the private market anyway, because they wouldn’t pass a standard credit check, so eliminating the lookback may have little practical impact in any case.

The committee will consider the amendments, and the legislation, again at its meeting on August 8.

2. On Tuesday morning, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee voted unanimously on what council member Rob Johnson called a “no-brainer” proposal that will remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward.

As I reported earlier this month, a council staff analysis concluded that removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” Those appeals will now cost just $65, making it easier than ever for homeowners to stall projects they don’t like—projects like the 57-unit Phinney Flats development, which Phinney Ridge homeowners have held up for more than a year by filing endless appeals on issues such as parking, transit headways, shadows, and lack of air conditioning and washing machines in the new apartments.

3. The land use committee also considered, but did not vote on,  three amendments Herbold proposed to legislation that would it easier for the city to force property owners to demolish vacant buildings that have fallen into disrepair.

Currently, city law requires property owners to wait a full year before tearing down a building if it was most recently occupied by renters; the changes would lower that timeline to four months (which the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections says  is still plenty of time to “ensure that good-quality rental housing is not inappropriately removed”) and make it easier for the city to demolish or clean out hazardous properties and so-called squatter houses.

Herbold’s amendments, which she describes as a three-part package, would: Exempt many houses slated for redevelopment from the new four-month requirement; set up a mandatory vacant property monitoring and registration program; and prohibit land owners from demolishing buildings unless the cost of repairing the building exceeds half its replacement value.

Herbold’s reasoning, as she explained it Tuesday, is that vacant buildings could still be used as housing while they await demolition and redevelopment, and that the original proposal—which lacked a monitoring program—could provide a perverse incentive for property owners to kick out tenants and let their buildings fall into disrepair. “The language as originally proposed was much broader than I intended,” Herbold said Tuesday.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Very Early Morning Crank: Election Night Edition

Jessyn Farrell greets supporters just before last night’s results came in.

Late-night/early-morning observations on tonight’s election results; tune in later on Tuesday and for the rest of the week for more analysis as the late returns continue to come in each afternoon.

Biggest takeaway:: Voters were not inspired by candidates who made their campaigns about “taking back” Seattle and “keeping Seattle” the way it used to be. (In the supposedly halcyon past when single-family homeowners had all the power, rather than just most of it, redlining was used to create the high-cost, exclusively single-family areas that the single-family preservationists now say they want to “protect.”) Bob Hasegawa, the state legislator who wanted to give money and power back to the unrepresentative neighborhood councils, ended the night with 8.62 percent of the total—just 7,562 votes. Harley Lever, the “Safe Seattle” Facebook group leader who supposedly represented the “silent majority” of city voters fed up with coddling homeless people, enabling addicts, and empowering renters who supposedly have no stake in their neighborhoods, got all of 1.82 percent—1,585 votes, less than beef jerky magnate Larry Oberto (1,623).

Oh, and the guy who literally made “Keep Seattle” his campaign slogan ? He came in sixth, with 7.16 percent, or 6,247 votes.

Over in the Position 9 council race, longtime neighborhood activist and single-family zoning advocate Pat Murakami pulled just 19.83 percent against incumbent Lorena Gonzalez despite the endorsement of the Seattle Times, whose middle-aged paunch of an editorial board came out swinging for the candidate whose main claim to fame has been opposing development at light rail stations. The fact that David Preston, Lever’s campaign manager and the man who dedicated most of his Election Day to harassing me, stealing my copyrighted headshot, and encouraging his supporters to mock my appearance on his campaign Facebook page, edged above 10 percent says only that some people will vote for the white dude no matter what.

Second biggest takeaway: Seattle, the supposedly progressive city that hasn’t elected a woman mayor in 92 years (and then for just a single two-year term), managed to choose two of the four women running (and neither of the two men) to move forward to the general. The upside: We’re finally entering the late 20th Century! (Here’s a list of all the current female mayors of United States cities with more than 30,000 residents, if you think having a female mayor is somehow radical). The downside: The two guys who didn’t go forward include one who couldn’t raise money because of his job in the state legislature and one who voters already roundly rejected four years ago. So let’s not pat ourselves on the back for defeating the patriarchy just yet.

Debate I look forward to having if Durkan and Oliver go through: How will each candidate address homelessness head on, and what realistic, achievable solutions do they each propose?

Debate I look forward to having if Durkan and Cary Moon go through: As self-proclaimed urbanists, what realistic, achievable proposals does each candidate propose to address our city’s housing shortage?

Debate I’m glad we won’t be having because McGinn didn’t go through: Relitigating Bernie vs. Hillary. 

Other takeaways: 

Things look good for union, minimum-wage, and paid family leave leader Teresa Mosqueda, who’s leading for council Position 8 with 30.8 percent to socialist and ex-Tenants Union director Jon Grant, who has 24.29 percent. Assuming Fremont Brewing owner Sara Nelson doesn’t pull ahead in the late votes (unlikely, since late votes tend to trend more liberal, and Nelson is backed by the Seattle Chamber), Mosqueda will likely pick up all the voters who make up Nelson’s 23.13 percent, giving her a strong lead going into the general.

• Democrats may be about to flip the 45th legislative district, which has long elected Republicans—and take back control of the Republican-controlled state senate, where Democrats have a nominal majority but where one of their members, Tim Sheldon, caucuses with the Republicans.

In the race to replace the late Republican Sen. Andy Hill, Manka Dhingra, the Democrat, leads Jinyoung Englund, the Republican, 50.5 to 42.5 percent. Before relocating to the district and running for , Englund worked for one of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, US Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and as a lobbyist for Bitcoin, the crypto-currency. On Twitter, she has circulated misleading, heavily edited videos that falsely suggest Planned Parenthood “sells baby body parts”; suggested that climate change is not a threat; and opposed the estate tax.

• Despite many people’s prediction that McGinn would come in second on name recognition alone, he finished the night in sixth place.

In retrospect, maybe we could have seen that one coming .

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Not Making Any Bets

1. Activists seeking to prohibit supervised drug consumption sites in King County will have to wait until next February at the earliest to see their initiative, I-27, on the ballot, a staffer for King County Council chair Joe McDermott confirms. The safe consumption site opponents, who are calling themselves “Impaction,” say they turned in 70,000 signatures last Monday, far more than the 47,000 valid signatures required to put the measure on the ballot.

However, the county elections office has to count and validate all those signatures before the county council can consider the ballot measure. Monday was the last regular county council meeting at which the council could have put the measure on the ballot, which pushes the initiative to the next election, in February. Opponents have cried foul, claiming that the council is deliberately pushing back the election until after the first site has already opened, but they’d have a more compelling case if they hadn’t waited until the last possible week to turn in their ballots—a week, it’s worth noting, when King County Elections is already kind of occupied running a primary election. (In any case, they can probably relax. Given the way the county council has already dragged its heels over funding, much less siting, a safe consumption facility, I’m not making any bets that one will be open within the next six months.)

Last year, the 27-member King County Heroin and Opiate Addiction Task Force unanimously recommended that the county open two supervised consumption sites, one in Seattle and one somewhere else in the county, as a three-year pilot program. Safe consumption sites allow drug users to consume illegal drugs, either by injection or  Europe for decades, also provide basic medical care (for example, wound care and HIV tests), access to housing and other services that help street drug users begin to rebuild their lives; peer support; and access to detox and treatment.

Opponents of the sites say they enable users and contribute to street disorder in neighborhoods. At Insite, a safe injection site in Vancouver, B.C., more than 60 peer-reviewed studies have concluded that Insite has increased the number of people seeking treatment without increasing crime.

2. An election already without precedent in Seattle history may yet turn out to be the most expensive in the city’s history. By this point in 2013, now-Mayor Ed Murray had raised “only” $389,839; his successor  in the “establishment candidate” role, former US Attorney Jenny Durkan, had, as of yesterday afternoon, more than eclipsed Murray with contributions totaling $491,107, plus another $127,100 from the business-backed People for Jenny Durkan PAC. (Mike McGinn, the incumbent in 2013, had raised a relatively paltry $285,912).

In the race for City Council Position 8, the “establishment” candidate, Fremont Brewing owner and former Richard Conlin aide Sara Nelson has raised $144,910—$100,000 less than her 2015 “establishment” stand-in, Tim Burgess, had raised by the same date that year. However, Burgess was a longtime incumbent, not a first-time candidate; and Nelson is getting her own assist from a business-backed PAC, People for Sara Nelson, which has raised $65,000 to spend on her behalf. Jon Grant, who ran in 2015, has reported contributions of $176,822 —dwarfing his total at this point in 2015, $40,013, and eclipsing his total in that campaign, in which he raised just $75,635 in all.

All the mayoral candidates enter tomorrow night’s primary with negative or near-zero balances in their accounts, except one: Nikkita Oliver, who has a balance of $53,165. That looks to me like the sign of someone who expects to make it through the primary tomorrow night.

3. And just to put my own prediction on the record (with the usual caveat that I’m eternally, embarrassingly bad at this): Durkan/Oliver.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Election Day Is Tomorrow. If You Haven’t Voted, Read This.

If you haven’t voted yet, you still have until tomorrow, August 1, at 8pm to get your ballot into a King County Elections drop box (locations here); if you’re planning to mail your ballot, do it today so you won’t miss the August 1 postmark deadline.

And if you haven’t decided who you’re voting for in the mayoral election, check out my interviews with the top six candidates, which cover topics ranging from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to the controversial North Precinct building to gender and transportation equity. Or check out  a few key moments from each of those interviews below.

Former mayor Mike McGinn

ECB: One specific thing Murray has done is to distance the city from the neighborhood councils, and as you know, there was a backlash to that. His response to that backlash, and I think it was a appropriate one, was to say, ‘We’re not excluding you, we’re just including other people too.

MM: I personally was bothered by the way Ed kind of got rid of them. I do think they have a place but—you should go reread the article I wrote on Crosscut. I expressed that there were weaknesses. But I think that [cutting ties with the councils] was a divisive act. It was perceived by those folks as an attack. And I think there’s a way to say, ‘Look, you’re a voice and we’re going to continue to solicit your views, but we’re also going to invite more people in. That’s a process issue as well.

ECB: But I feel like those people hated you anyway. So how are you going to convince people that Ed is divisive but you’re not?

MM: You have to define what you mean when you say [divisive]. Are there are people in every neighborhood who are resistant to changes? Sure. But I think there are also people in every neighborhood who are open to change. I’ll give you an example: Bicycling in the the city. When it was portrayed as, the mayor is imposing his will on neighborhoods on biking, that was not something that went so well. That was one of the beauties of the road safety action plan. We actually brought folks in the room and we found a different way of talking about and approaching the issue. That helped change the debate. Now I’m not saying that all of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m for a bike lane.’ There are going to always be some people who hate a bike lane. But when you have neighbors talking to neighbors about what an outcome should be, you remove the process objection. I look at the HALA focus groups. The reason people dropped out is that ultimately, it didn’t feel meaningful to them, for whatever reason. And so that’s what I’m trying to get at, is you need to have that engagement on the front end. When I went to a town hall and had a group of people saying we can’t do something on this street, and we had other people saying, ‘I live in this neighborhood, and I do those things.’ That fundamentally changes the debate.

ECB: It’s my impression that the neighborhood-versus-city or homeowner-versus-renter divide is much sharper now than it was when you were mayor. What’s the breaking point, when you have to say, ‘Sorry, you might not like this policy, but we’re going to do it anyway’?

MM: Ultimately, you have to make the call, but first you have to listen.

And I walked into rooms with hundreds of people yelling at me, and I brought my staff with me and I brought my department heads with me. Has [Murray] ever just walked into the room and said, ‘Anybody in the neighborhood who wants to ask me a question, go, one after the other’? I did. And what I learned was, the first meeting, people really unload. And the second meeting, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s showing up again.’ And by the third meeting, maybe you feel like you’re starting to make some progress. But you need to show that you’re going to have a continued commitment to showing up in the room, and the next time you show up in the room, you show that that you’ve delivered something, and that you’ve heard what they say and you’re trying to deliver an outcome. Who you speak to, who you let question you, changes what you do, and if you’re just in the room with the lobbyists, if you’re just in the room with the donors, certain things are going to become priorities. If  you don’t hold yourself accountable to the neighborhoods, other things become priorities.

Image result for nikkita oliver

Educator and attorney Nikkita Oliver

ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?

NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.

The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’

What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.

And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.

And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.

ECB: Did you support the housing levy? Because Murray touts that as a big achievement in that direction, in the direction of providing for zero to 30 [percent of Area Median Income]– you know, whatever you think of AMI, because I know it is like $70,000 or something like that—*

NO: Which levy?

ECB: Sorry, the $290 million one—

[Oliver campaign manager Gyasi Ross]: You mean the one he retracted? [Murray initially proposed, then retracted, a property tax to pay for shelter, housing, and services for homeless Seattle residents.]

ECB: No, no, no, we’ll talk about that in a sec, but no, the one to actually build affordable housing.

NO: Honestly, I don’t remember.

ECB: Because that was aimed at building that kind of housing, you know, and it was a property tax levy.

NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.

* Although I usually edit interviews for length and clarity (adding or removing explanatory information from the questions, omitting redundant answers, etc.), this portion of my interview with Oliver has been repeatedly called into question by some of her supporters, who have accused me of misquoting or misrepresenting our conversation to do a “gotcha” on the candidate. For this reason, I have transcribed the interview to include a background comment from Oliver’s campaign manager, sentences that trail off, and verbal tics like “you know.” The question followed immediately on Oliver’s previous answer about the need for the city to provide affordable housing; I was pointing out that the city did just vote to spend $290 million on affordable housing, and asking if Oliver had supported that ballot measure. 

 

Urban planner Cary Moon

ECB: To what do you attribute rising housing prices?

CM: If you look at what’s happening in other world-class cities, you see this phenomenon of outside investors piling on and taking advantage of everyone wanting to move here. It’s just like Wall Street—when Wall Street sees a stock go up two days in a row, all of Wall Street piles on to that stock. That same phenomenon is going on in our housing market.

Housing used to be local. It used to be local players, building housing for local people. Now they’re acting more and more like Wall Street, where outside predators are piling on just left and right.

ECB:  You’ve mentioned this theory before—that foreign investors from places like China are snapping up properties here as investments and leaving them vacant, which helps drive up housing prices. But all the available data seems to show that while this is happening in Vancouver, it isn’t happening here. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen in the future, but what evidence do you have that so-called hot money is driving up housing prices now?

CM: I don’t have any secret information that nobody else has, but the dynamic is there. I’ve read enough articles that have said that investors that have been in Vancouver are now looking at other cities, and Seattle is one of their choices. It’s not just hot money, it’s not just foreign investors, but everything has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be, you buy property, you build a building, you get a certain rate of return, and you get your money back, maybe 7 percent in 20  years. It’s completely different now. Now, you buy a building and sell it right away, and the return on investment comes not from the slow, long revenue stream of rents coming in, but from the quick turn of selling at a higher rate and doing the same thing again and again and again and again. Our development world is behaving more like Wall Street than it used to. It’s developers leaving buildings vacant, it’s people buying investment properties, it’s Airbnb, it’s people building second and third and fourth homes that might not have anybody living in them for most of the year. Real estate is a great place to put your money, if you have money.

Former US Attorney Jenny Durkan

ECB: Do you support the idea of a supervised drug-consumption site?

JD: Here’s what I think. We have a huge injectable heroin problem in this city. You go to any city park, alley, street, or neighborhood in any part of the city and you can see that it’s there. The battle and the discussions we’re having now almost mirror exactly the debates around safe needle sites. I mean it is the same arguments: ‘Its legitimizes heroin.’ ‘It’s saying it’s okay to shoot up.’ It’s not. It was harm reduction and this is a harm reduction measure now. It makes no sense that we can have a site where we can have someone come in for a needle exchange, and you hand them the clean needle and you say, ‘Okay, go to the alley. Go to the park. Go to the street where you might OD and die in the middle of the night.’ And you have no access to health care treatment services or even someone to talk to. It is not a solution standing by itself, but I think it is part of a humane health care solution for dealing with a very real problem.

ECB: You said recently that you’re skeptical that a citywide income tax would be legal. Can you elaborate on why you think it might not be, and would you pursue it further if elected?

JD: If I could wave my wand, we would have a statewide income tax tomorrow.

ECB: OK, you don’t have a wand.

JD: Nobody does, but that’s what they’re trying to do, is wave a wand.

Look: I think if there’s a time to make a test case, now’s the time to do it. I am not persuaded that the legal landscape has changed. You have two barriers. The first is the RCW, the state law that prohibits cities from establishing an income tax. Then you have the state constitution, and in multiple cases, the [Washington State] Supreme Court has held that an income tax is unconstitutional. People think the makeup of our state Supreme Court might change that second outcome, but you still have to get around the first one. I’m skeptical that it will meet the legal test.

brick_background_headshot.jpg

Former state legislator (D-46) Jessyn Farrell

ECB: There’s been a lot of debate over the payments developers will be required to make under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program; some social justice advocates say they’re too low to make a dent in displacement, while some urbanists, including the Sightline Institute, say they’re so high they discourage development. What do you think? Would you change anything about MHA, or the mayor’s larger Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)?

JF: I am fundamentally supportive of HALA. I deeply believe that Seattle needs to increase its housing stock and housing options across the economic spectrum in a really significant way. I think the zoning changes, though, are only one piece of the affordability puzzle, and I would like to go much beyond that.

We need to inventory all the surplus property in the city—whether it’s WSDOT, Sound Transit, Seattle Public Utilities—all publicly held property, and land bank it as the cornerstone for a major new investment in public housing. That has traditionally been a really important strategy for providing housing stability and economic mobility for people, especially in Seattle. And it then becomes an effort around matchmaking, so that you find the nonprofit or private developer resources to do the development.

Just as we allocate population growth across the region through [the Puget Sound Regional Council’s] 2040 plan, I think we need to set a target of $1 billion in affordable housing and allocate affordability targets across the entire city, so you’re not really letting any neighborhood off the hook. Then you create neighborhood-based plans that use an array of affordability tools, so some neighborhoods are going to focus more on rental vouchers so that people who are living in current housing can stay there; some neighborhoods are going to focus more on [accessory dwelling units]; some neighborhoods are going to have more traditional density. We need a strategic plan for the city that allows us to hold ourselves accountable, and then we can create programs within every single neighborhood.

That, obviously, is not easy. There are neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily going to want it. But here’s what I see: There are people in every single neighborhood who are worried about affordability, whether it is their kids not being able to buy into Seattle, whether they’re worried about property taxes or whether they’ve been in their houses for 40 years and now they’re on a fixed income. Clearly, renters are worried. And I think that you appeal to people from that perspective: Look, we are all in this together. We cannot solve this problem in traditional ways. Our traditional frame in Seattle has been around zoning, and that is a piece of the puzzle, but it cannot be the only piece. We need major public-sector investment, and then we need to really open up all of the different tools. And I think it becomes really micro, property-by-property, arterial-by-arterial planning. Part of that is preserving cultural spaces in neighborhoods and preserving environmental spaces in neighborhoods. Upzoning certainly has a role, and there are places where we need to do it, but there are so many other affordability tools that we can use and that I think neighborhoods would embrace.

11th District State Senator Bob Hasegawa

ECB: What do you think of Mayor Murray’s decision to cut ties with the neighborhood councils? That was an effort to get more new voices included in city planning, including, importantly, people of color.

BH: I think we need to be going the opposite direction from dismantling the neighborhood councils to empowering them more. The city’s argument was that the community councils don’t necessarily represent the diversity of the people in the community, and I think that’s true. They’re pretty much white, middle-class, older—even in the Rainier Valley. That’s the people that have the time to do it. I think grassroots organizing is the hardest job in the world, and the most underappreciated, and that’s why it never gets done. But it is the only way democracy can succeed. So if we are going to reverse our top-down structure, which is what the city has become, to a more bottom-up structure, we have to put a lot of work into it. So I want to fund the neighborhood councils so they can go into the neighborhoods and start organizing.

ECB: What is your definition of gentrification and how would you deal with it?

BH: I don’t know if there is a definition. It’s the loss of the economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity—what the city has always had. The income inequality that’s facing the whole country right now is being demonstrated to an extreme in Seattle, because you’ve got so many people making six-figure salaries moving in and displacing minimum-wage people.

When you look at the [Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda] set-aside for South Lake Union, they only require 2 percent of the units to be affordable, whatever affordable is. I think other cities are at 25 percent or above.

ECB: So what’s your alternative?

HB: A public bank.

This year, The C Is for Crank also made endorsements in two races—the mayor’s race and Seattle City Council Position 8. Read my endorsement of Jessyn Farrell for mayor here, and my endorsement of Teresa Mosqueda for council here. And look for more endorsements for the general election in October.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

This story originally ran in Seattle Magazine.

Last month the Seattle Times reported that hundreds of new Amazon interns, each wearing identical company-issued black backpacks, are crowding out other commuters on King County Metro’s Route 70. The overcrowded buses, which forced drivers to skip some stops when full, led Metro to take the unusual step of adding service to the route for the rest of the summer without the extensive public process that typically informs long-term service increases.

Metro service development manager Bill Bryant says the bus agency routinely provides extra service for special events, like Pride or the Women’s March, and temporary disruption such as the periodic closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “We really do not want to see any situation where specific trips on a route are passing customers by on a regular basis,” he says. “We received multiple reports that people were getting passed by [on Route 70], and we decided to pull the trigger.”

According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service. The current uptick in service during morning rush hour—two extra buses between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.—is costing Metro about $3,600 a week.

Shefali Ranganathan, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, says the “bottom-line question is, should Metro explore a broader partnership with Amazon where Amazon buys service hours from Metro” to mitigate their impact on the system. “Maybe this is something [Metro] should approach not just as a one-off [service improvement] but as a broader partnership that would benefit Amazon and the broader community, which is what Microsoft does,” Ranganathan says.

There’s precedent for this: Back in 2012, Amazon paid for the South Lake Union streetcar to run more frequently, although that money was compensation for land the city gave Amazon to expand its South Lake Union campus.

Microsoft, somewhat controversially, has given its workers a way to opt out of the public transit system entirely by creating a private option, the Microsoft Connector, which has grown into the largest private regional bus system in the nation. Since last year, Amazon has offered its own limited shuttle service, called Amazon Ride, which runs four shuttle buses between the company’s two main campuses in South Lake Union and the University District. The company also spends $12 million on ORCA transit passes for its employees.

Of course, Amazon’s expansion in the city isn’t limited to a few hundred summer interns. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was hiring 100,000 new U.S. employees by mid-2018, and advertised more than 9,000 new job openings in Seattle. Most of those new jobs will be in South Lake Union, meaning that the pressure on Metro service will only grow. “The growth in South Lake Union, just across the board, continues,” Bryant says. “The choice to add service to keep customers moving and to prevent pass-bys is not a hard choice for us.”

As a transit agency charged with getting cars off the roads, Metro wants to make sure all those new customers keep coming back to use its service, rather than giving up and driving to work alone. But Metro has also made a commitment, through its service guidelines, to serve low-income and minority communities, such as Southeast Seattle. When Metro decides where to add service during its twice-annual service adjustment process, it looks not just at demand but at how well the system is serving the goal of racial equity.

A few tens of thousands of dollars shifted over to South Lake Union over the summer may not sound like much. But if Amazon’s growth creates the demand for permanent shifts in service, that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by.

Amazon, which provided information on its existing shuttle service through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for information about any plans to expand its shuttle service. Although the company confirmed that it is actively working with Metro to plan for increased ridership from the UW to South Lake Union, Bryant says “we haven’t had any significant conversations with Amazon about significantly increasing their shuttle service.”