Citing “Competitiveness,” City to Raise New SPU Director’s Pay—Even Though They’ve Already Hired Her

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Last week, the council’s affordable housing and finance committee approved a proposal from the mayor’s office to raise the salary for the new director of Seattle Public Utilities to as much as $334,000, which would represent a 67 percent pay hike from what the previous director, Ray Hoffman, earned when he retired this year. The pay increase would be accomplished by creating a new pay band—a minimum and maximum salary range—and a new position, to allow the city to go beyond the current $223,000 maximum for the director position.

As they did when giving former City Light director Jorge Carrasco a salary of $210,000 in 2004, making Carrasco the highest-paid city employee—and as they did when justifying an even higher salary, $340,000, for Carrasco’s replacement, Larry Weis—the Seattle Department of Human Resources (SDHR) justified the steep pay hike by saying that its “analysis determined that the City’s current salary range is not competitive with top executive positions at comparable public water utility organizations. If Seattle wants to get the very best candidates to lead major departments, the argument goes, it has to offer a salary competitive with what candidates could get in similar positions elsewhere.

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Whether you buy that logic or not (remember, Carrasco ended up leaving under a cloud of controversy in 2015), the fact is that the city doesn’t have to attract a candidate. It already hired one—Mami Hara, who was appointed by Murray in July and confirmed by the full council this past week. Hara initially applied to be director of the Office of Community Planning and Development, which pays $167,000, and was recruited by SDHR to apply at SPU instead. She accepted the position at a salary of $223,000 a year, which is at the top of the current pay band for the job.

So why, council member Lisa Herbold asked SDHR director Susan Coskey last week, was the mayor’s HR department arguing that they needed to offer more money to attract better candidates? Given that they not only had a candidate, but a candidate who had accepted the position and the salary—and would have been willing to accept a significantly lower salary as head of OCPD—the standard argument about attracting the best candidates made little sense

Coskey acknowledged that, yes, Hara had accepted the job at the lower salary. However, she argued, “had this person not been known to us, we would have had to be here to say we are trying to attract the talent.”

And Hara took the job, Coskey continued, with the understanding that the city would go through a separate process and potentially raise her salary later. “As someone who was recruiting her, [I] let her know it was not a competitive salary for this position … and I think this process was taken on faith that there were two processes” going on simultaneously, one to hire an SPU director, the other to raise the salary for that position. “The request we made was, ‘Come, and understand that we are looking at [the salary issue] and the chips will fall where the chips fall,” Coskey said.

Coskey also noted, pointedly but obliquely, that “one of the interesting things, particularly as it relates to workforce equity, is that the fact that someone takes a job doesn’t necessarily mean if it’s way out of whack, that that’s the salary that we should be paying, particularly when you look at this head of a utility compared to the other head of a utility position that we have.” Coskey was referring to the fact that women often accept lower salaries than men do, even in highly competitive positions, and to the fact that Weis’ salary is more than $110,000 higher than the salary Hara accepted.

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Council Encampment Legislation Barrels Forward as Murray Task Force Scrambles

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Legislation to provide modest protections for unhoused people living in unsanctioned tent encampments continued moving forward on parallel tracks this week, as an 18-member task force appointed by Mayor Ed Murray scrambled to come up with “guiding principles” to send to the council’s human services committee, chaired by Sally Bagshaw, in time for a Thursday-morning hearing on a separate bill that would effectively end random encampment sweeps. Murray spokesman Benton Strong told me after Wednesday night’s meeting that the task force still hopes to come up with legislation for the mayor to propose in lieu of the bill the council is currently considering.

Meanwhile, the council is barreling forward with its own legislation that would make it harder to sweep homeless encampments. The legislation, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of  Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments in “suitable” locations without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing,” which can be long-term overnight shelter, and “stable services that can lead to housing, rather than a return to homelessness.”

The legislation would also set up a shorter process for clearing out encampments that create an immediate health or safety risk to residents of the encampment or the surrounding area, and would specifically bar encampments in places where there is a “specific public use,” such as schools, playgrounds, and sidewalks. In those cases, the city would have to provide 48 hours’ notice, and provide an alternative spot that is “suitable” for the encampment to relocate. All of this would be backed up with the threat of a $250 for violating the ordinance.

As Josh Feit at PubliCola pointed out this morning, most of the council seems more or less on board with this basic framework, although some have balked at the $250 fine, saying it would be costly to implement and could open up the city to frivolous lawsuits. Only Tim Burgess, a former cop who occupies the “conservative” end of the generally left-leaning council dais, seems totally opposed to the proposal; he argued Thursday that if the city could no longer clear camps with relative impunity, police would be compelled not to respond to calls for service at encampments, a worst-case scenario that council staffer Ketil Freeman dispensed with quickly, saying police could respond to 911 calls “as long as the assistance was done in accordance with these principles.”

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Some the “guiding principles” presented at Wednesday’s task force meeting.

Burgess had to leave early. But before he did, he threw down this warning: “If we follow the approach that the committee is discussing, we are essentially voting to allow permanent camping in the city on public property that the city defines as ‘suitable.’ That’s one of my core concerns about this ordinance: It suggests that our response to homelessness is to allow camping in the city.” His suggestion: Expand the number of sanctioned encampments, which have been a relatively stable housing solution for some unsheltered people. Bagshaw responded that she wasn’t opposed to that idea, but pointed out that “that is not going to solve the problem,” in part because sanctioned encampments impose rules that many people find intolerable, including a blanket proscription on drugs and alcohol.

With Burgess dispatched, the rest of the council appeared to reach a few points of consensus: First, that the current system, in which the city slaps a notice on campers’ tents giving them 72 hours to leave a location, then comes back in a few days to confiscate their belongings and tell them about existing shelter options, isn’t working. (The problem isn’t that people aren’t aware of shelters, it’s that most shelters are full, and that they have possessions, partners, and preferences that shelters don’t accommodate.) Second, that the definitions of terms like “accessible and available housing” and “unsuitable locations” need some massaging. Third, that easing the rules on encampments isn’t a long-term solution; instead, Bagshaw argued, it should be an interim step, to allow the mayor’s office time to “breathe” and come up with a systemic response to homelessness. (They’re working on that, for better or worse.)  And fourth, that while the council debates solutions, the city should at least spend some money cleaning up trash around encampment sites, since homeless people don’t have easy access to Dumpsters and garbage bags. “We penalize business owners when someone sprays graffiti on their outdoors and we force them to repaint it,” council member Bruce Harrell said. “It seems to me that the city should have incredible liability when we see the amounts of trash in areas [where people are camping], and we are not being responsible enough to clean it up.”

The council also agreed to remove people living in RVs and cars from the legislation, since they present a different set of challenges than people sleeping outside in tents.

For those imagining that the federal government will come in and deliver enough housing dollars to make the problem go away, Bagshaw concluded with a warning. “This is a city problem. It’s also a county problem. But what I do believe, after spending time in Washington D.C. and the state of Washington, in the governor’s office is: The cavalry is not coming. We are going to have to solve this … in a very short time period. One of the things we can’t do is to wait another two years to have someone decide this. We’re going to have to do this right away.”

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On this issue, the momentum all seems to be with the council. Although the mayor’s task force continues to meet, and is supposed come up with some sort of recommendations by the end of the month, it remains unclear what form those will take, and whether the 18 task force members can reach consensus. At the fourth task force meeting Wednesday, Neighborhood Safety Alliance leader Gretchen Taylor, one of the neighborhood activists Murray appointed to the task force, was still asking “why must we allow camping” at all, and discussing whether endorsing “low-barrier shelters”  a good idea, given that some people will prefer not to worry that their bunkmate is high or that he has a pet. Given that Seattle doesn’t have any low-barrier shelters that would meet the standard of “adequate and accessible housing” yet, this seems like a highly rhetorical, and pointlessly theoretical, discussion.

Critics and advocates of the task force have reminded me that this is just how the mayor works: Set up a task force that includes people with opposing perspectives, “lock ’em in a room,” and don’t let them out until they come up with a consensus. Two problems with that theory. One is that the mayor’s office hasn’t been much of a presence at these meetings; only George Scarola, Murray’s homelessness coordinator (a high-profile appointment Murray made last month), has sat quietly through the meetings from beginning to end. This (along with some pretty loosey-goosey facilitation) has allowed the loudest advocates to use up a huge amount of time each week grandstanding, so that the last few minutes become a scramble to summarize everything and come up with “next steps.” (As Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith put it at last week’s meeting, “I have completely lost track [of] what the charge of this group is.”)

The other is that there’s really no urgency to come up with legislation. The council already has legislation. The task force could be considering the council’s bill, and working to address any deficiencies they see in that proposal. But that would require the mayor to concede that the council has him in checkmate, and that his steadfast support for sweeps has put him in a weak political position. So instead, they’re sitting in service to a classic Murray temper tantrum.

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Fact Checking Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne Homeowner Who Wants to Stop Backyard Cottages

img_0328On September 30, a city hearing examiner will hear closing arguments in an appeal by the Queen Anne Community Council and its representative, former council president Martin (Marty) Kaplan, of legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien to make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments. The council has appealed a finding that the change will have no significant environmental impact under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), and is seeking to force the city to put the legislation through a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that would introduce significant cost and set the legislation back months.

The proposal, which was announced as part of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) last year, would remove parking mandates for secondary units, loosen owner-occupancy requirements, and allow single-family homeowners to build both a cottage and a basement apartment on their property.

Kaplan argues that the changes will lead to rampant speculation by developers, who will buy up existing houses, tear them down, and replace them with a new house (shaped, in every rendering Kaplan brought during the initial hearing earlier this month, like a windowless, monolithic box) plus a tall backyard structure that will destroy neighbors’ privacy and take away their light and air. This developer rampage, to hear Kaplan tell it, will quickly turn Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods  into canyons of “triplexes” whose occupants overwhelm Seattle’s parking, road, sewer, bus, and electrical infrastructure and quickly render the city “unlivable.”

One of the speakers at Monday night’s Queen Anne Community Council meeting, where Kaplan gave an update on the appeal, predicted the cottage legislation would “unleash a waterfall of development that will make our neighborhoods unrecognizable. What gives them the right to rewrite the contracts of all single-family owners in our city? This is a part of our contract that we bought. Who are they to say that doesn’t exist anymore? What city has ever done that?”

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At the hearing on his appeal, where discussion is supposed to be limited to environmental impacts, Kaplan has been relatively measured—kept in check by hearing examiner Sue Tanner, who has reeled him back in when he’s started in on tangents about “neighborhood character” and “the largest rezone in the city, ever.” In front of his supporters on Monday night, though, Kaplan was less constrained. I decided to fact check some of the claims Kaplan in front of this completely friendly audience.

The claim: “People have said they’re not really triplexes, but that’s not my word—the word ‘triplexes’ was used in the HALA agenda when they were discussing this legislation … and the mayor quickly pulled that back … and he said, ‘I’m not touching the single-family properties, you’re right.’ But in the document they called it a rezone, essentially allowing triplexes on single-family property.”

Fact check: Kaplan is right that the original HALA report called for “allow[ing] more variety of housing scaled to fit within traditional single-family areas to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods.” And he’s correct that Mayor Ed Murray backed down on housing diversity after a misleading column by the Seattle Times’ homeowner advocate Danny Westneat prompted an anti-renter backlash. However, the “triplexes” HALA refers to are just that: Triplexes, three-unit buildings housing three unrelated households, not backyard cottages or in-house mother-in-law apartments. “Triplexes” is a rallying cry for anti-density homeowners, I believe, because it evokes images of low-income renters living in rundown, ramshackle buildings.

The claim: “O’Brien’s idea is that this is going to be affordable housing. You can build a bunch of these things and it’s going to help out. And it will change the character of single-family neighborhoods and that’s okay as far as he’s concerned. …

“The average cost of these backyard cottages is between $300,000 and $350,000. If you do the numbers, which I did, these ‘affordable housing units’—if you want to rent an 800-square-foot housing unit, you’d be paying about $2,500 to $2,800 a month to live in a backyard cottage [of that size], and that’s their own testimony, so there’s no affordability component to this at all. That’s the Madison Avenue approach to convincing everyone that these will bring the cost of housing down. … I think that any reasonable person would look at it and realize that $2,800, $3,000 a month is not the goal that they’re shooting for for affordable housing. Affordable housing in this city is $500 a month. These are not affordable.”

Fact check: Although OPCD acknowledges that their initial estimate of the “average cost” to build a DADU, $55,000, was artificially low (that average included renovations by homeowners who simply needed to get an existing DADU up to code, for example), they say Kaplan’s $300,000-$350,000 estimate is absurdly high for a 1,000-square-foot unit. (The legislation increases the maximum size from 800 to 1,000 square feet). This is backed up by reports from other cities that have less stringent regulations on backyard cottages; for example, a 2014 report by the state of Oregon found that the average cost of building an accessory dwelling unit was $78,760, or $221,240 less than the low end of Kaplan’s “average” estimate. In 2011, Governing magazine estimated that an “elaborate” backyard cottage could a Seattle homeowner up to $140,000, still less than half Kaplan’s claim.

Kaplan’s  rent estimates, too, seem concocted out of worst-case scenarios and thin air. Typical rents for DADUs, according to the city, are “affordable” (meaning they cost no more than a third of a renter’s income) for people making between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area median income, meaning about $1,500 to $2,000 a month, or a little less than the Seattle-area average of $2,031. A quick Craigslist search for backyard cottages yielded three results in Seattle, ranging from $1,500 to $1,600 for both one- and two-bedroom cottages, and a search for mother-in-law apartments brought up eight results ranging from $925 for a one-bedroom basement apartment to $2,175 for a three-bedroom unit that occupies the bottom half of a house.

Kaplan, like many homeowners, has apparently lost touch with the rental market in Seattle, too: Although $500, which he cites as an “affordable” rent, is close to what the city considers “affordable” for a very low-income person in a studio apartment, non-subsidized apartments at that level effectively do not exist.

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The claim: “In order to protect neighborhoods, we want to make sure that there’s not an incentive … for people to speculate, to come into a neighborhood and say, ‘I’m going to tear that house down and build two of them, and I’m going to rent them out, and over time I’ll do that ten times and I’ll make more money from it because now I own part of the neighborhood.'” And: If the legislation is adopted, “a speculator can buy the house next door to you and set up an LLC—because they all will be LLCs—and then have his nephew live there for eight months and then, good, he’s gone.”

Fact check: The legislation requires the owner of a backyard cottage to live on the property one year, starting with final approval of the building permit, “as the owner’s permanent residence.” That requirement is designed (necessarily or not) to discourage speculation. But the fact is, builders aren’t exactly scrambling to  build extremely low-density developments (three units, at most, per property) in single-family areas; instead, they’re building low-rise apartments and townhouses in areas zoned for low-rise housing, because that’s what’s profitable. Since Seattle’s zoning code changed to allow backyard cottages in 2009, only 220 have been built citywide, and there’s no evidence that allowing a basement apartment would open the doors to a developer frenzy.

The claim: “If you have a big enough site, you can just fill it up with a 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage, a 1,000-square-foot mother-in-law apartment, and a house of unlimited size.”

Fact check: This is simply not the case. In single-family zones, “big” sites–those over 5,000 square feet–are limited to 35 percent lot coverage, which means that two-thirds of the lot must be open space. So on, say, a 7,200-square-foot lot, which is one of the largest lot-size designations in Seattle, the maximum amount of building on a lot would be 2,520 square feet, or a 1,000-square-foot cottage and a house with about a 1,500-square-foot footprint. Theoretically, a creative homeowner could shoehorn a 1,000-square-foot apartment into the basement of that main structure, but given that the house itself couldn’t be taller than 35 feet, the remaining living space would be very much “limited” by existing city regulations.

The claim (referring to the fact that new cottages might be built where residents currently park their cars): “The parking, a lot of times in single-family, is kind of open space. If you’ve got a garage and a driveway that goes up to it, that’s open space and it allows your neighbor light and air.”

Fact check: The city of Seattle defines “breathing room open space” as consisting of “parks, greenspaces, trails, and boulevards”; it does not include parking spaces or driveways in that definition.

The claim: “There could be a real impact on density, to the point where it takes away the tree canopy. City hall should be really concerned about that, because there’s what’s called the Urban Forestry Commission in Seattle that comes up with goals and plans for growing our tree canopy. … That has been thrown under the bus. There is not one mention of preserving a tree.”

Fact check: Kaplan is right: The proposed legislation is silent on the question of the city’s tree canopy. However, as I’ve written previously, “Save the trees!” is  just a sneaky slogan that makes single-family advocates sound like they’re in favor of sound environmental policy while supporting policies (like preserving two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land for single-family use) that promote sprawl. And it’s sprawl, not a lack of trees on privately owned land, that is destroying actual forests and farmland, even as it “saves” the odd backyard conifer.

The claim: “What we’re talking about here is [rezoninig] half the area of the city of Seattle with no public input, no right for you to comment, and only a proclamation from city hall that says ‘There’s no environmental impacts, let’s just lie this sucker through.'”

Fact check: The city council adopted a resolution back in 2014 committing to explore changing land-use rules to allow more backyard cottages. In 2015, the city released a report that includes detailed descriptions of the potential code changes that the city was considering, including allowing both an ADU and a DADU on a single lot, eliminating the owner-occupancy requirement, and removing the parking mandate. In January and February of 2016, O’Brien and the Office of Planning and Community Development held two public meetings to discuss the legislation, and took public input that is summarized in this report.

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Is the Heroin Task Force Focusing on the Wrong Solutions?

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Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

Part 2 of a two-part series on the recommendations of the Seattle/King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force. Part 1 ran yesterday

That the city and county would appoint a task force on heroin and prescription opiate addiction—rather than, say, crack or alcohol addiction—is understandable: In 2014, according to the report, “heroin-involved deaths” in King County topped out at 156, the highest number since 1997. The number of overdose deaths tripled in King County between 2009 and 2014, and from 2010 to 2014 the number of people entering publicly funded treatment for heroin addiction grew from 1,439 to 2,886. Detox admissions for heroin in King County now outnumber those for alcohol. As Auburn mayor Nancy Backus said at Thursday’s press conference, “There isn’t one face of addiction any longer. We can no longer drive by or walk by any one person and say, ‘Oh, that person is addicted to drugs. That’s not the one face anymore. It’s our sons, our daughters, our our mothers and fathers and our loved ones, and we no longer have the luxury of saying that it doesn’t impact us.”

In a way, though, that’s a problem: The drugs “we” had “the luxury” of ignoring, which include drugs that are mostly smoked like meth and crack (which, not coincidentally, isn’t the drug of choice for the white suburban teenagers Backus may be thinking of when she talks about “our sons and daughters”), didn’t go away. And if we build a giant infrastructure laser-focused on heroin addiction now, there may not be leftover dollars, or political will, to address meth or crack addiction when addiction to those drugs reaches “epidemic” proportions.

You may not remember it now, but just 15 years ago, King County was having this same conversation about the heroin epidemic of the late 1990s. They even created a 30-member task force to deal with it

Because the fact is, drug epidemics are cyclical. Including heroin. You may not remember it now, but just 15 years ago, King County was having this same conversation about the heroin epidemic of the late 1990s. They even created a 30-member task force to deal with it; their report, titled “Heroin Task Force Report: Confronting the Problem of Heroin Abuse in Seattle and King County,” was released in August 2001, 15 years and two weeks before the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force released its Final Report and Recommendations. That earlier task force came up with many of the same solutions, including wider access to medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, as this one.

As Kris Nyrop, a longtime Seattle drug-policy activist and project director for the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, told me after the press conference, the 2001 task force recommendations “just kind of went away” after that heroin epidemic started to wane. “If we  set up all this infrastructure specific to dealing with heroin addiction, what are you doing about all the folks addicted to cocaine and meth?” Already, heroin overdose deaths appear to be on the downswing; last year, heroin-related deaths declined 15 percent in King County, from 156 to 133. Meanwhile, ominously, deaths from methamphetamine rose, as did calls to the King County drug helpline related to meth; according to the University of Washington’s 2015 drug use trends report, “[a] steady increase in police cases positive for methamphetamine was seen from 2011 to 2014, with a plateauing in 2015 at 336 cases, just barely second to heroin.”

Of course, many meth users do inject the drug rather than smoking it (that same UW report found that 58 percent of needle-exchange clients reported shooting meth by itself in 2015 and 37 percent reported injecting it with heroin, up from 32 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in 2011), but the report includes other recommendations that, by their nature, cannot address non-opiate addictions. Specifically, the task force recommends making it much easier for doctors in regular clinical settings (as opposed to drug treatment centers and methadone clinics), to prescribe buprenorphine (AKA suboxone), making it accessible to people who aren’t able to adhere to stringent treatment requirements, like showing up for appointments regularly, submitting to urinalysis tests, and participating in behavioral treatment programs.

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Task force co-chair Brad Finegood

This is undeniably a necessary step for some opiate users—suboxone cuts a user’s odds of dying in half, according to the report, and “treatment capacity for buprenorphine is limited and far exceeded by demand.” However, as task force co-chair Brad Finegood, head ofKing County’s behavioral health and recovery division, acknowledges, “there’s no medication as a treatment for methamphetamine.” Or, for that matter, cocaine, or benzodiazepines, or alcohol. Just as harm reduction for heroin could end up taking precedence over harm reduction for those substances (safe smoking rooms, supervised “wet” housing, and other programs that keep users safer while they’re using), treatment for heroin with suboxone, which involves taking a pill every day, could end up taking precedence over longer-term, more resource-intensive solutions like residential inpatient treatment (which is not just an order of magnitude more expensive than a drug prescription but is in desperately short supply in King County) and long-term intensive therapy to help them figure out how to cope with life without their drug of choice.

You might be forgiven for thinking, based on such statements and on the report itself, that MAT stands not for “medication-assisted treatment” but for “medication AS treatment.”

Finegood says King County understands the need for other types of treatment, which are mentioned in the report under a section called “Develop Treatment on Demand for all Modalities of Substance Use Disorder Treatment Services .” (“Providing individuals seeking treatment with multiple treatment options supports the many pathways of recovery and respects client choice and autonomy.”) “Buprenorphine isn’t a miracle drug,” he says. However, the report, and the elected officials touting the report on Thursday, places a very heavy emphasis on medication-assisted treatment, to the exclusion of other treatment options.

This emphasis is reflected in the press coverage of the report, and in elected officials’ response to it. For example, one reporter called the drug “the closest thing to a silver bullet” we have to treat opiate addiction, and the head of the city’s public health committee, Sally Bagshaw, highlighted the drug in her statement about the recommendations, saying, “I’m particularly drawn to the Task Force’s recommendation that we enhance access to buprenorphine, which is an effective tool to treat opioid addiction. As Council considers next year’s annual City budget, I intend to identify funding for a Belltown facility that will provide professional buprenorphine access for those looking to conquer or suppress their addictions.” You might be forgiven for thinking, based on such statements and on the report itself, that MAT stands not for “medication-assisted treatment” but for “medication AS treatment.”

Finegood, whose own brother died of an overdose 15 years ago, says the report shouldn’t leave the impression that the county wants to push people toward long-term suboxone maintenance as the only solution to drug addiction. “We’re trying to stand up models like at the downtown public needle exchange, where people can get started on initial doses of buprenorphine without getting through the barriers of psychosocial treatment first, with the goal of getting them stabilized on medication and then starting on psychosocial treatment,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s an ‘and/or,’ I think it’s an individual need issue. What I’m trying to work on is getting more outpatient providers to start prescribing buprenorphine [instead of] what was traditionally an abstinence-based” approach.

“I would not say this is a miracle cure-all pill, where people don’t need to learn to change their habits, but let’s say it’s a situation where somebody got prescription medication from their doctor, and they got hooked and can’t deal with the cravings, and they’re freaking out,” Finegood says. “They may just need that prescription.” (For more on the difference between addiction and dependence, check out my interview with author and former heroin user Maia Szalavitz). Finegood adds that the county has plenty of openings for outpatient treatment (which relies on drug users showing up and not using in between appointments) but is woefully short on detox and treatment beds.

The recommendations, though (arguably) flawed, will represent a huge leap forward for the way King County thinks about and treats opiate and heroin addiction—if they’re implemented. As task force member and People’s Harm Reduction Alliance founder Shilo Murphy said Thursday, “We spent a lot of time and energy on all these proposals, and I don’t want them to die in committee. I don’t want them to be forgotten. I really want to know that you guys are going to fight for these” recommendations.

In the report itself, the task force “recommends that local government and other partners begin to implement the recommendations contained in the report as soon as possible,” and that the work groups established by the task force continue to meet and guide the implementation of the recommendations. Within 90 days, the county and its cities are supposed to provide a response, and at that point the task force will reconvene to assess it. The recommendations don’t have much to say about costs, as Constantine acknowledged Thursday. “We are just getting the report, so we don’t know what the cost is of any of the elements of it is,” Constantine acknowledged. “King County is famously short on cash. But this is important.” If that’s true, expect to see the conversation shift to the political challenges of acknowledging and dealing with our county’s drug addiction problem. If not, expect to see reporters digging up this report in 15 years to compare its recommendations to those of the 2031 Heroin and Opiate Addiction Task Force.

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Heroin Task Force Recommends Safe Consumption, but Do Leaders Know What It Means?

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Part 1 of a two-part series on the recommendations of the Seattle/King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force. Part 2, which will focus on the task force’s emphasis on medication-assisted treatment and on whether the heroin epidemic is waning, will run tomorrow.

On Thursday, King County’s Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force released a long-awaited list of recommendations  to prevent opiate addiction and reduce harm for people addicted to opiates and heroin.

The headline, of course, is the group’s endorsement of two safe drug consumption sites in King County–one inside and one outside Seattle. The subhead, though, is the task force’s emphasis on “medication assisted treatment” for people addicted to heroin and other opiates, which would make it much easier for people to access maintenance opiate agonists like buprenorphine, which sells under the name suboxone, an opiate that helps reduce cravings for more harmful opiates like heroin, and methadone. (Traditional treatment generally relies on an abstinence-based approach that puts heroin users at a higher risk of relapse, particularly if they lack support systems.) The recommendations also include measures to promote prevention of opiate and heroin use such as education campaigns and drug-abuse screening in schools, and expanded distribution of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, to more people, agencies, and institutions.

The proposals, which come with no price tag or timeline, prompted some bold claims on Thursday morning, when task force members gathered at Harborview Medical Center to discuss their impact in a camera-choked conference room. “I think that if we do our job effectively, we should theoretically be able to reduce opiate deaths over time by 80 percent,” said Brad Finegood, head of King County’s behavioral health and recovery division. King County public health officer Jeff Duchin emphasized that addiction is “a medical condition that is treatable and should be treated like other medical conditions,” not a moral failing. And advocates and officials heaped praise on the task force for setting prejudice and stigma aside to come up with nonjudgmental solutions for people with substance use disorders. “What is different and distinct about King County … is always being willing to be oriented toward outcomes of health and safety and following that wherever it goes,” said Lisa Daugaard, head of the Public Defender Association. “It is truly remarkable and unique.”

The political backlash to, say, allowing community clinics to prescribe drugs used mostly by heroin addicts alone could have buried that recommendation, but the task force went even further.

And, by virtually any measure, it is. Any one of these recommendations—wider access to naloxone; increasing the number of physicians and locations authorized to prescribe suboxone; creating a safe-consumption pilot site—could be seen as a radical improvement in itself, especially for a city where heroin addiction is such a visible problem. (According to one estimate, about one in five homeless people in King County suffer from substance use disorder, and the percentage among unsheltered people experiencing homelessness is likely higher). The political backlash to, say, allowing community clinics to prescribe drugs used mostly by heroin addicts alone could have buried that recommendation, but the task force went further and recommended not just wider suboxone distribution, and not just eliminating barriers to getting naloxone, and not just safe injection sites, but all of those things, and more.

It’s an impressively ambitious list of recommendations. But it will remain just that—a wish list—unless the county and its cities, including Seattle, commit firmly to funding all of the proposals on that list, not just the relatively cheap and uncontroversial ones like universal naloxone access and educational pamphlets, and dedicate resources to funding them.

Let’s start with safe consumption sites, which, as I’ve written before, go beyond the safe-injection model pioneered in North America by Insite in Vancouver, to allow supervised consumption of all drugs, including drugs that are consumed by smoking (technically, vaporizing), like meth and crack.

The political challenges facing any kind of supervised drug consumption site are already phenomenal. (In fact, I wrote a four-part series focusing on some of those challenges; part four, which looks at the likely political opposition in Seattle, is here). Opponents will argue that building facilities where law enforcement overlooks consumption of illegal drugs will make Seattle a magnet for drug users, and trash neighborhoods already overwhelmed by needles and crime. (Imagine, for a moment, a proposal to build a safe-injection site in Ballard, where a sober tent encampment proposal was nearly upended by howls of protest from residents, and whose residents turn to Nextdoor and Facebook to condemn addicts as worthless “druggers” and criminals who freely “choose” drug addiction as they rampage lawlessly through neighborhoods filled with upstanding homeowners who got where they are through hard work and willpower.)

Opening just one site could create a situation where the worst-case scenario of concentrated drug use does come true, because every drug user who wants to use the site will flock to a single spot.

Given the inevitable protests, the question will become: Which neighborhood will be the first to accept such a facility? The task force recommends just one safe consumption space as a short-term—three-year—pilot project, instead of multiple sites in the most heavily impacted neighborhoods, which many experts here recommend and which is the standard in Europe. That means putting the site in the neighborhood of least resistance—say, Capitol Hill or the University District—but it also means we won’t get a sense of what the true impact a network of safe consumption spaces would have, and could instead create a situation where the worst-case scenario of concentrated drug use does come true, because every drug user who wants to use the site will flock to a single spot. This could lead the city to declare failure prematurely, before more sites can open.

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From Welcome to Murraysville.

At Thursday’s press conference, Mayor Ed Murray was quick to point out that “if you look at the heat map of where needles are distributed across Seattle, it’s not restricted to one neighborhood.” He added that his experience with homeless encampments has taught hims that when “certain neighbors tend to go sideways on us, that’s not the whole neighborhood. … Will it be easy? Will there be protests? Will there be another website to go along with Welcome to Murraysville that says I’m putting [safe consumption sites] everywhere? That’s going to happen. But I think we’re going to get there.”

If leaders  look to Insite as a model, without understanding the nuances of the term “safe consumption,” they might end up creating a site for needle users only that will do nothing for people who smoke meth and crack, or who smoke other drugs.

Murray said he plans to travel to Vancouver soon to visit Insite, the only safe-injection space in North America. (The comment was apparently inadvertent, and a Saturday press release announcing his trip to Vancouver on September 19 did not indicate whether he still planned to visit Insite.) But he won’t be getting a complete picture of what a safe-consumption site might look like here, and not just because Insite is a single facility, located in a neighborhood where most of the city’s heroin use and crime have long been concentrated.  Insite, critical as it is, isn’t a true safe-consumption site, since it only allows injection, and therefore isn’t the model for what safe-consumption advocates want to see here. (For that, you have to look to Norway, Germany, Spain, or Switzerland, along with other European countries where safe consumption is relatively commonplace.)

Harm reduction means meeting people where they’re at and reducing the harm they do to themselves while they’re in active addiction, and smoking, say, heroin instead of injecting it is one kind of harm reduction. But if leaders like Murray (and the other officials arrayed behind him at Thursday’s press conference) look to Insite as a model, without understanding the nuances of the term “safe consumption,” they might end up creating a site for needle users only that will do nothing for people who smoke meth and crack, or who smoke other drugs.

This isn’t just a theoretical concern. For example, media reports on last week’s announcement have consistently referred to CHELs as “safe-injection sites,” the assumption being that they will be for heroin users to inject heroin under supervision. And the report itself hedges on this question. “Every effort is to be made to ensure that the provision of supplies and space for consuming illicit drugs (NOT tobacco-containing products or marijuana) via smoking (more precisely sublimation, meaning without combustion of the drug itself) and nasal inhalation be incorporated into the CHEL program design,” the report says.

I asked Finegood what “every effort” means, and whether true safe consumption might end up falling victim to political compromise. After a long pause, Finegood responded: “I just don’t know.”

“There was just such an emphasis on it through the task force, to be able to provide that kind of resource and understanding—that we don’t want to move downstream inadvertently and say you can’t come here because you’re smoking,” Finegood told me. “Maybe [not emphasizing other means of consumption more] was an oversight on our part.”

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Questions, Not Consensus, As Deadline for Sweeps Protocols Looms

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Nothing could have summed up last night’s meeting of the mayor’s 18-member Unsanctioned Encampments Cleanup Protocols Task Force better, for me, than the moment when task force co-chair Sally Clark, at that very moment presiding over the meeting, “liked” the following tweet:

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Yet that’s basically what the task force is expected, by the end of the month, to do: Come up with recommendations that will help determine when, how, and under what circumstances the city can remove people and their possessions from an unsanctioned encampment.

The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services arguably circumvented the task force last month, when they proposed their own legislation that would make it much harder to sweep unsanctioned encampments, a move that some on the task force view as a sign of urgency, and others as a provocation. As task force member (and Alliance for Pioneer Square director) Leslie Smith put it, the new proposal “is hurrying along the path, and I think that has given us either a greater sense of urgency to this group or a greater sense of hopelessness.”

I’ve been to two of the three task force meetings so far (there will be at least three more before the end of the month, but only one is likely to be as long as or longer than tonight’s), and the overwhelming sense is that no one quite knows why they’re there. The format so far has been: Public comment (this week, Magnolia resident/Neighborhood Safety Alliance representative Cindy Pierce expressed confusion at why the task force was meeting at all, given that there are plenty of shelter and treatment beds available: “I see a lot of money being spent and a pretty simple answer, so why do we continue to have these conversations?”), followed by official presentations, followed by a rushed hour or so of discussion that can sound an awful lot like serial grandstanding. By the time most task force members have said their piece, it’s 8:00, and there’s no time left to talk about recommendations, or solutions, or finding common ground. 

For example: Committee members spent a lot of time at last week’s meeting interrogating Chris Potter from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) about exactly what kind of notice the city currently gives encampment residents whom it plans to sweep, whether it provides outreach services to people living on their own, and whether the city is sufficiently tracking and collecting data on the homeless. Near the end of that meeting, NSA member Gretchen Taylor, a member of the task force, asked rhetorically, “Why are we even entertaining the idea of allowing people to camp wherever they want in our city?”

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Cindy Pierce

The discussion last night (which didn’t really get off the ground until about 7:15, after presentations by staffers from multiple city departments, the county, and the state department of transportation), initially seemed like it would be another re-litigation of whether the city’s encampment policy should be changed at all.

But the meeting quickly took a turn for the ontological, when committee members started asking whether the task force could accomplish anything, given its limited time frame and the fact that the council was already considering legislation that would drastically change the city’s policy on encampment sweeps regardless of what the task force comes up with. “My take on tonight is, I have completely lost track [of] what the charge of this group is, and I think this group may have lost track of that” too, Smith said. Eisinger, who initially declined the mayor’s invitation to serve on the task force, added, “I’m disappointed at how this task force is being used… [and] I find it deeply frustrating to be asked to participate in a process in which … this group of people, who have given their time to serve, do not have the opportunity to participate.”

Chloe Gale, co-director of Evergreen Treatment Services’ REACH outreach program, tried to refocus the conversation. “We’ve heard really great stories [in these meetings], but we do not have the resources here at this table to answer those [bigger] questions” about homelessness, Gale said. “To me, it boils down to, ‘When do we move somebody?’ That’s what we do have to deal with.” But will they? We’ll know by the end of the month.

While the mayor’s meetings are winding up, the council is moving forward with parallel proposals to deal with encampments: The ACLU legislation, which got assigned to council member Sally Bagshaw’s human services committee last Tuesday, and a set of protocols for clearing the last remaining residents of the Jungle, which moved out of committee by a 4-2 vote on Wednesday afternoon.

Tim Burgess voted “no” on the ACLU legislation, and Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant said no to the protocols for clearing the greenbelt, which will entail telling the 100 or so people remaining there that they have to leave. “Every effort will be made to achieve voluntary compliance  with these police orders and every individual circumstance will be evaluated based on the input and experience of outreach workers,” the plan says bluntly. Many of the people who were living in the Jungle encampments have now relocated to another temporary site on Airport Way, which began as an unsanctioned encampment and is now a tacitly sanctioned one; many others remain unaccounted for.

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Jeff Lilley, head of the Union Gospel Mission (the agency charged with conducting outreach during the Jungle clearout), implied strongly during the meeting that there are more than enough shelter and treatment beds for everyone who needs one; the problem is convincing people who “have to be told” that living outside isn’t their best option to take them. O’Brien and Sawant were skeptical of that claim, and O’Brien noted that, extrapolating from UGM’s own numbers, about 200 people simply moved on from the Jungle without being connected to any kind of housing or services whatsoever. But Lilley countered that some of those people were “transients”—people who drifted here from somewhere else, and may have gone back there—and that many were not really homeless to begin with. “You literally lost some of the population that was just there to sell and deal drugs,” he said.

Near the end of the meeting, Sawant posed a question I asked on Twitter: Will all the “42 available treatment beds” UGM says it has lying unused require participation in an explicitly Christian program? After all, a recovery program that requires participants to pray to Jesus isn’t really inclusive—nor can it be publicly funded under the separation of church and state. (UGM operates largely outside the city and county homeless service system for that very reason). Lilley said UGM’s shelter does not require church participation, but their year-long treatment program requires commitment to Christianity, including daily Bible study and lessons in “how to live with self-worth and self-respect through the power of Christ.”

The Jungle cleanup protocols go the full council next Monday, where they’ll almost certainly be approved.

Housing the 4,500: Optimistic New Report Says It’s Just a Matter of Priorities

Just a reminder that your contributions are what makes it possible for me to write and report time- and resource-consuming feature stories like this one, in which I go deep on the recent reports recommending solutions to the city’s homelessness emergency, with reporting and analysis that goes beyond the executive summary to bring you the real story. If you enjoy the work I do here, please consider dropping a few bucks in the bucket at my Patreon. And thanks. 

Two consultants’ reports released last week recommended sweeping changes to the city’s policies to address homelessness, including a shift in emphasis toward permanent housing for the hardest to house, and suggested that the city’s failure to reduce unsheltered homelessness for decades is primarily a problem of priorities and math, not an intractable social conundrum.

The so-called Path Forward report by consultant Babara Poppe, along with a longer companion report by  Focus Strategies, concludes that the city can “shelter all unsheltered single adult and family households [in the Seattle-King County area] within one year” by focusing its resources on “rapid rehousing” programs, rather than transitional housing; implementing a comprehensive “coordinated entry and diversion system” that focuses only on people who are “literally homeless,” rather than those who are in unstable housing and at risk of homelessness; and “reaching recommended system and program performance targets.”

The Poppe report also recommend shifting the current system of funding service providers who shelter and house the homeless, which the report says relies too heavily on the preferences of service providers, toward a “funder-driven” model in which the city of Seattle would have more direct control over which programs get funded. The new model would also require providers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from funding discussions, when appropriate, and, most importantly, would require them to take on clients who need housing most desperately, regardless of factors like drug use, criminal history, and the amount of time someone has spent on the streets.

Over the past several days, I’ve read both reports in full and talked to numerous homeless advocates, council members, and service providers to get their impressions of the recommendations, which aim to house or shelter the more than 4,500 unsheltered homeless people living in King County.

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The Poppe report, along with the longer Focus Strategies report on which Poppe’s recommendations are largely based, recommends a fundamental shift in the city’s approach to homelessness that’s not just tactical, but philosophical. The biggest change the report suggests is slashing funding for agencies that provide “low-performing” transitional housing—essentially long-term, publicly funded housing one step above a shelter where the typical client ends up living for more than a year—and spending those dollars on organizations that focus on “rapid rehousing,” typically in the form of vouchers for housing on the private market that phase out over time.  (These vouchers are distinct from federal Section 8 vouchers, which provide longer-term, stable housing, but for which the wait list is currently nine years.) By accelerating people’s transition from shelter to permanent housing, the report says, the city can free up shelter beds that were previously occupied by now-housed “long-term shelter stayers” for other families and individuals, getting everyone who’s currently living outdoors or staying in shelters into housing or shelter within a year. While Poppe acknowledges that “the large number of providers that will need to shift practices makes the challenge of transformation daunting,” she believes that if they do so “rapidly and with urgency,” the one-year timeline is feasible.

Others are not so sure. Council member Lisa Herbold, who worked on housing issues for nearly 18 years under former council member Nick Licata before her own election in 2015, says she’s skeptical that in the current rental market (where the vacancy rate is around 3.5 percent), enough landlords and housing providers will be swayed to provide housing to formerly homeless renters to hit the one-year target. Herbold says her “source of income” legislation, which prevents landlords from discriminating against potential tenants because their income comes from nontraditional sources, will help some, but “it’s not going to open up a whole bunch of more units, because landlords still can say that you have to have three times as much income [as your monthly rent],” Herbold says. Landlords also tend to prefer people with stable income sources, and who aren’t “high-risk” due to criminal convictions or active addiction.

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that coordinates homelessness policy across King County, acknowledges the challenge of throwing people who have been homeless for many months or years to the mercy of the housing market. But, he says, “it’s not as if at the end of nine months the client all of sudden receives a letter, and the rent assistance is over and they’ve got a $1,500 rent payment due at the end of the next month.” Instead, clients work with a case manager to help them figure out how to earn more income, get a roommate, or move into permanent supportive housing, a more expensive kind of affordable housing that provides long-term services like mental health care, addiction case management, and training. “Right now, what’s happening in many programs is that [more challenging tenants] are screened out, because maybe they’re not quite chronically homeless,” Putnam says. “It’s better to give them a chance, say, 6 or 12 months of rental assistance, than to give them nothing.”

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In theory, this approach would free up a lot of money for other purposes. Transitional housing is far more expensive than rapid rehousing, according to the report—about $20,000 for each single adults, and $32,627 for each family, compared to $11,507 per household for rapid rehousing. That makes sense, since rapid rehousing typically relies on vouchers that phase out and expire within a few months, after which a person or family is supposed to “move on” to “mainstream permanent housing,” according to the report. In practice, the success of the shift to rapid rehousing will depend on the city and county’s success at finding places for people to actually live.

The report suggests tackling this problem by creating a new housing resource center to link landlords (including private landlords as well as providers that get funding from government sources) with prospective tenants, and by providing incentives to landlords who agree to take on riskier tenants, such as a “mitigation fund” to pay for any damages or eviction costs. It also suggests eliminating questions about things like criminal history and requiring providers to take hard-to-house clients even if they’d prefer to focus on easier cases.

“We have had a lot of opposition from providers on that,” Putnam says. “It took us a while [at All Home] to make that decision because there was so much provider angst about it.” Putnam echoes Poppe’s conclusion that housing providers should be required to focus on housing the most challenging cases, regardless of whether they’d prefer to take on lower-needs clients instead. “Many of the people who are living outside are screened out of our programs because of active drug use or criminal history,” Putnam says. “It’s harder, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization runs the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program for low-level offenders, says “I’m certain that there is a strong case to be made for the existing approach,” which prioritizes people based on a checklist that measures “vulnerability,” but “I will say, that the current approach has left us pretty confident that a lot of people that we work with [at the PDA] will be unsheltered and in public.”

The report also emphasizes the need to house people who are “literally homeless” first—that is, people who are actually living outside, rather than people who are crashing on a friend’s couch, or living in an unstable family situation, for example. The idea is to get the hardest people to house (single men with addiction issues or criminal records, for example.) to move into shelter, including new shelters that allow people who aren’t sober, or who have partners, possessions, or pets, and then into stable housing, first. That, in theory, will help eliminate the bottlenecks that keep some people in shelters for years (on average, the report concludes, single adults stay in transitional housing for 328 days, and families stay an average of 527) while others languish in tents, cars, and doorways. (Pregnant women, families with children, and homeless youth will get priority over other applications if they are “literally homeless,” because they’re considered uniquely vulnerable).

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After that, the report says, the system can refocus its efforts on those who are in slightly more stable housing situations, either by diverting them away from shelter or into stable housing or by sheltering them for a brief period while they find a permanent housing solution. “The impact of housing a long term shelter stayer is also not only a humane response, it will free up a precious resource that will reduce the number of unsheltered persons within Seattle,” the report concludes. In theory, refusing shelter to people with another place to go would open up quite a few beds; according to the report, in King County, only 66 percent of single adults (a category that includes couples) and 64 percent of families with children were “literally homeless.”

Emphasizing the hardest to house is a laudable goal, and it certainly reflects a shift in priorities: Instead of allowing service providers to cherrypick the people who are easiest to house, the report recommends requiring them to take the neediest first, even when that means housing people with the greatest challenges, such as addiction problems, criminal convictions, and long-term homelessness.  In practice, though, there are some concerns. As council member Lorena Gonzalez noted last week, a “20-year-old women who has repeatedly been subjected to sexual assault and is not living on the street is in some ways equally vulnerable” as a homeless woman who’s pregnant, but the first woman would be dropped to the bottom of the list under the proposed new prioritization system. “It sounds to me like a values judgment about how we predetermine and predict who is most vulnerable.”

The new approach also assumes that everyone who needs housing can be housed (a housing-first principle that advocates praise), without spending much time on the challenges that simple-on-paper proposition represents. “None of what’s in the report is necessarily wrong, it’s just that it’s more complicated” than the report suggests, Daugaard says. “Measuring performance based on how many people you get into housing sounds great and is important information, but you have to have a context of how challenging are the people you’re working with? … The truth is that there’s almost an inverted relationship between the people it’s easy to work with and place in housing” and those who have the highest needs, Daugaard says.

All Home director Putnam says the shift toward harder-to-serve clients isn’t a slam on affordable housing programs, but an acknowledgement that programs that serve the homeless are distinct from those that provide affordable housing to non-homeless people, or those that work to combat poverty. (Indeed, the report itself says, “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in King County is critical.”) “We’re not saying that we don’t need to also have programs for the person that’s about to be evicted, but my job at All Home is strictly for people who are homeless,” PuTnam says. And within that population, too, there are distinctions. “If you’re serving people who are easy to house, that’s not a homeless crisis response so much as a affordable housing response.”

Indeed, Focus Strategies principle Megan Kurteff Schatz said last week that affordability itself isn’t an issue providers serving homeless people should be focusing on, and that placing people in housing that’s technically “unaffordable” (because it costs more than 30 percent of a tenant’s income) or less than ideal, such as a spot in a rooming house, is better than leaving them on the street. “There isn’t any reason we should be saying to people that you have to stay in shelter until we get to that day where we have enough affordable housing in the community,” Schatz said.

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Poppe’s projection that every homeless person can be indoors within a year also relies heavily on new efficiencies, governance tweaks, and a few targeted new investments, rather than additional funding. (Putnam points out that Poppe was charged with determining what the city could do within existing resources, not “how much affordable housing or behavioral health services we need,” but “can we serve and house more people,” but the tone of the report throughout suggests the city, county, and providers have simply been wasteful and inefficient until now.) Currently, the report notes, “average utilization for emergency shelter was 89% for adult households and 69% for families. This suggests that there is unused capacity to house many of the unsheltered families with children in the community with the existing inventory and available beds should be prioritized for this purpose.”

However, there are two large caveats that the report does not mention: 1) The shelter vacancy rates are for all of King County, not just Seattle, and the vacancy rate for Seattle (where more homeless people live, and where most services are located) is likely lower; and 2) The vacancy rate for family shelters, which consist of enclosed units, is based on the maximum possible occupancy of each unit, meaning that a unit that could hold six but is housing a family of four would be considered only 66 percent occupied.)

This creates the distinct impression, fair or not, that the challenges of homelessness  are basically a political problem, which could be solved if only leaders had the will to do it, and that the reason they haven’t is the outsize influence of fat-cat housing and service providers and the homelessness lobby. “It’s important to remember that we have the system that we have now because of public policy—it isn’t because service providers want it this way,” Daugaard says. In fact, “they have been raising this same critique for a very long time.”

“You can’t actually make all these efficient choices unless you do things that are going to make some members of the public uncomfortable , because they’re going to have to accept that people are living in imperfect circumstances and we’re going to provide shelter services to them anyway,” Daugaard notes.

One element of the Poppe proposal that hasn’t received much attention yet, but should, is that it places a huge emphasis on gathering more information about homeless individuals, which raises both privacy concerns (why, one service provider asked me, does the city or its service providers need to know whether someone is gay or straight?) and financial ones: “Proficient and comprehensive data platforms” and “dashboards” and “Homeless Management Information Systems” that track where every homeless person in the city is on a literal day-to-day basis, using a “By-Name List,” sound all right in theory, but they cost money, and every dollar that goes to new admin and overhead is a dollar that isn’t being spent on direct services and housing.

This emphasis raises significant questions, in my mind at least, about whether those non-“literally homeless” people are being left by the wayside to make the numbers (that is, the claim that everyone on the streets right now could be housed within just one year if, as Focus Strategies principal Megan Kurteff Schatz told the council committee Thursday, “the money was moved to more efficient programs”) work out. For example, a person who’s sleeping on a friend’s floor, but will have to leave next week because that friend’s landlord got wise to their unapproved roommate, or a woman whose home situation is harmful for her kids, would be considered “unstably housed,” but not literally homeless, which strikes me as a basically semantic distinction. In other words, unstable housing can quickly turn into literal homelessness.

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The reports, which, throughout, contain an eye-popping amount of jargon and increasingly obtuse acronyms (TAY-VI-SPDAD, anyone?) emphasize management-theory policies such as “competitive and performance-based contracting,” “evidence-based approaches,” and “data analytics,” that jump out not just because they’re a bit eyeroll-inducing, but because removing the human element from the equation in this way, and treating homeless people (and landlords, too) as elements of a math problem that must be solved, ignores the sticky problems that make homelessness so intractable. For example, when Schatz told council members that once the new “dashboards” are up and running, service providers “should be able to produce quarterly dashboards on what kind of results that they’re getting, and you should be able to ask them, ‘Well, performance dipped over here, what do you know about that?,” I wondered briefly if she was talking about quarterly results for a for-profit corporation, or homeless men, women, and children getting roofs over their heads. 

Full disclosure, if this wasn’t obvious: I have a native skepticism about any claim that a decades-old problem with many unpredictable moving parts (like, say, a person’s desire to live in the same city as their family or community support system, or a drug addict’s desire to keep using drugs) can be solved with this one simple trick, as the Poppe report suggests. (Or as Schatz put it Thursday: “You could achieve functional zero [homelessness] within five years if all the recommended changes were implemented in concert.”)

In addition to all the challenges mentioned above, there are a lot of distinctly human problems that don’t fit easily into the simple equations provided in the report, which includes no individual case studies and mostly elides complications like addiction, abuse, despair, and the desire for community that all people share, even if they’re living in a tent in the Jungle.

The Poppe report’s failure to explore addiction in any detail is particularly jarring given the fact that, according to the Focus Strategies report itself, about one in five people staying in shelters suffer from substance abuse or addiction issues. Addiction to alcohol or other drugs is not included in a list of the “root issues” causing homelessness, which, according to the report, include lack of affordable housing, lack of well-paying jobs, inequitable access to post-secondary degrees, and structural racism, among other causes. It’s an especially odd omission given the report’s repeated references to the “Housing First” philosophy, which holds, among other tenets, that people addicted to drugs or alcohol need access to housing regardless of whether they’re willing to get sober, because having a roof over your head is the most important first step before tackling other challenges like addiction. (As the report puts it, “While gaining income, self-sufficiency, and improved health are all desirable goals, they are not prerequisites to people being housed.”)

And it’s odd given the ongoing work of the Seattle-King County Task Force on Opiate Addiction, which held its final meeting Friday and will formally release its recommendations next week. Council member Rob Johnson, who has recently taken a keen interest in addressing homelessness, says “It’s important to recognize the work that the opiate task force is doing right now, and I think we’d be remiss if we were to talk about a set of strategies to address homelessness” that doesn’t integrate or acknowledge those efforts. For example, “we’ve been talking about safe consumption sites—is this part of these strategies? If it’s not, how do we think about these things from a holistic perceptive?”

Daugaard’s Public Defender Association, through the LEAD program, works with unsheltered clients who have criminal convictions, substance abuse disorders, and mental health problems that make them among the hardest to house. She notes that although the report does suggest the creation of multiple “Navigation Centers”—shelter where sobriety is not required, and where pets, partners, and possessions are allowed—it doesn’t consider the behaviors that are often associated with addiction, which might drive other homeless people out of these “everything goes” centers. “When they talk about moving from emergency shelter to 24/7, and they talk about Navigation Centers and low-barrier shelter, they do not engage with the question of, ‘should we ensure that shelter is available for everybody regardless of their behaviors? That is both an issue of the [drunk, high, or unstable] person’s willingness to go in shelter, and it’s also an issue of the person sleeping next to them in a congregate facility being willing to sleep next to a person that’s engaged in this behavior,” Daugaard says. 

“Those are the kind of real application issues that make this not just a math problem. It’s also an issue of the terms and conditions under which people are asked to live.” 

Fundamentally, as in all discussions about shelter, there is the question of whether people will want to move to shelter, or whether they’d prefer to continue living in the forest or on the street. Opponents of encampments and doorway sleepers often boil this down to a simple question of rights—they’re not supposed to be sleeping outdoors, therefore they must take whatever mat on the floor they can get—but like any question of human preference and choice, it isn’t that simple. People who avoid shelters have reasons for doing so, and we can’t dismiss their reasons and also live in a society where being homeless is not a crime. On the flip side, housing homeless people means putting them in neighborhoods, including areas where residents may be reluctant to welcome new neighbors whose previous home was a tent in the park.

“You can’t actually make all these efficient choices unless you do things that are going to make some members of the public uncomfortable , because they’re going to have to accept that people are living in imperfect circumstances and we’re going to provide shelter services to them anyway,” Daugaard notes.

One common reason people don’t go to shelter is that they want to choose who they sleep next to, and maybe even have sex once in a while; another is that people like to know where their home is going to be each day. It’s easy to just say “beggars can’t be choosers” and point to the cot on the ground, but it’s not really constitutional to force people to sleep there (nor is it affordable to jail them when they refuse). “Housing providers might not being a good job because they’re working with the people who are hardest to house, and it would be terrible to interpret this issue of performance-based housing as a math problem,” Daugaard says. “The people who LEAD program managers are working with—housing anybody in that group of people requires phenomenal resolve, talent, and tenacity, and it’s just important to have that context.”

The council is still reading the report and absorbing its recommendations, but the proposals did come with some urgency (a word that’s mentioned no fewer than 18 times in Poppe’s report) and a timeline: By next year, housing providers should be revising their programs based on evaluations that are arriving in the mail this week, and by 2018, if the council agrees to adopt this strategy, the city will start cutting off providers that don’t meet the performance standards outlined in the report. “Effective January, our contracts will reflect those [new] performance standards, but we will hold harmless for a year our decision making with regard to performance,” Human Services Department director Catherine Lester said Thursday.

As the council continues to dissect and discuss the report, I’ll be exploring what it means for unsanctioned encampments, whether the numbers add up, and what neighborhoods, privacy advocates, and service providers have to say about the new recommendations.

 

P-Patch Overreach?

As an avid P-Patch gardener and longtime participant in the program, I receive all emails that go out to the P-Patch listserv.  Usually, they have subject lines like “FREE Farm Talk & Tour” or “You’re invited to our Garden Gala on Sept 16!”

But the one I received yesterday was different. Subject-lined “Issues related to unauthorized encampments” and signed by P-Patch supervisor Rich MacDonald, the letter read,

Dear P-Patch Community,

Unauthorized homeless encampments and their impacts on neighborhoods has been a recurring issue, and we’ve heard from many of our P-Patch community gardeners in recent months.

How we manage Seattle’s homelessness crisis is a much debated topic in our city. What is clear is that we need to find solutions that are compassionate while also prioritizing public health and safety.

We wanted to make sure you were aware that there is a draft bill being put before the City Council on Tuesday that could limit the City’s ability to balance those two factors, effectively making it more difficult for the City to address various issues as it relates to unauthorized encampments.

While we work to address the root causes of homelessness and find long term solutions for our region, we also have an obligation to address and mitigate public health and safety risks in all of our neighborhoods.

As we know this is a topic of concern for you, we just wanted to encourage you to learn more about this issue and add your voice by writing or calling your city councilmember.

(Bolds mine.)

What strikes me about this letter, which encourages gardeners to write or call their city council members, is that it’s an unusually political use of a listserv whose primary purpose is to share news about gardening and gardening-related opportunities. By characterizing the legislation, which would protect unauthorized campers from sweeps and the confiscation of their property and is supported by homeless advocates and the ACLU, as a proposal to “effectively mak[e] it more difficult for the City to address various issues as it relates to unauthorized encampments,” this letter tacitly advocates against the legislation, and puts the Department of Neighborhoods, which has not expressed an opinion on the proposal, in the position of opposing the bill as well.

At least, that’s how I read telling people that a bill will make it “more difficult” for the city to “mitigate health and safety risks” facing P-Patch gardeners, and asking those gardeners to contact the city about that bill.

As someone who opposes the city’s rather heavy-handed approach to sweeps, I wouldn’t characterize my concerns about encampments as being primarily about their “impacts on neighborhoods,” but rather about the impact the city’s sweeps are having on the homeless people who are being swept from place to place with no offer of immediate housing or meaningful services. I would imagine that at least some of my neighbors share those concerns, rather than just the ones MacDonald flags in his email.

I’ve contacted MacDonald and will update this post when I hear back from him.

 

New Seattle Homelessness Director: “It Helps to Have Some Diplomatic Skills,” Tenacity

A Q&A with George Scarola, the city’s new director of homelessness.

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Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced he was appointing George Scarola, a former League of Education Voters lobbyist and aide de camp to State House Majority Leader Frank Chopp (D-43), to a new cabinet-level position overseeing city departments’ work on homelessness.

Scarola is a known quantity to Murray, who worked with him in his previous job as a senator and, before that, as a state representative, which is one reason, both Murray and Scarola say, that the mayor offered him the position. But he’s less familiar to a more recent generation of homelessness advocates and policymakers. The last time Scarola found himself in the trenches on homelessness was back in the late ’90s when, as head of the Sand Point Community Housing Association, he led efforts to build new housing for people experiencing homelessness on decommissioned Navy land in Magnuson Park.

After his time in Chopp’s office, and a stint as head of the state House Democratic Campaign Committee, Scarola worked on Seattle housing levy and education levy campaigns after leaving. Most recently, he was the legislative director for the League of Education Voters, where, several acquaintances say, he brought a rare combination of skilled political player and hardcore public policy wonk. “He’s very good at understanding politics and very sharp when it comes to policy,” Seattle political consultant John Wyble says. Moreover,  “George is great at working with some tough personalities. I’ve seen him do it before and think he’ll do it again with Ed.”

Murray, of course, disputes the “narrative” that he’s rough around the edges, telling me he picked Scarola based on his ability to bring people together, including the lasting coalition he helped build that has passed education levies for nearly two decades.

“George is one of the most value-based, understated individuals I can think of, and in a situation where there’s a lot of anger, tension, and egos, we really need someone who can focus on getting us to yes on all the issues we face,” Murray says. The $50 million the city has pledged to spend this year on homelessness, Murray says, is “more than most departments’ budgets, but there is no single director of this effort. It’s scattered throughout the departments. And so, basically, a lot of it has been in my office, and we can’t do that kind of work. Operationally, it needs to be in an office or department of its own.”

Scarola himself has been on the job less than a week, and still seems to be getting his head around the enormity of the job he’s been tasked with. To be successful, he’ll need to be a combination diplomat-enforcer, as well as a policy wonk who can back up the mayor’s policies with evidence and data. I talked with Scarola recently about his plans for the office, his history with the mayor, and why anyone would step out of semi-retirement to take on the most contentious and challenging issue of the decade.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): The mayor’s announcement said that you’ll be guiding the city’s efforts on homelessness across many different departments. Can you explain what that means?

George Scarola (GS): At the moment, I’m a department of one. The city has about 20-plus departments that touch or deal in big ways with the problem of homelessness—everything from the human services department, sanitation, the police, libraries, the people who do cleanups at encampments, who provide the Port-a-Potties—and because the problem stretches across agencies, it’s easy for the city to look schizophrenic.

The mayor is looking at a model in Boston, where he has one person who can say what’s happening across the board and look at what’s happening across the city, and someone he can hold accountable. I’m a cabinet-level position so that I can call on any department to carry out or clarify what the city’s policy is and ask for resources, ask for help, provide direction, and coordinate the city’s message.

“[Murray] needs a combination of people who have tact and are not going to take no for an answer. … It helps to have some diplomatic skills and still get results.”

ECB: Murray told me that he asked you about taking this position several months ago and you turned him down. Why did you reconsider?

GS:  That was in January or December, and I had made a commitment to go back [to China, [where Scarola moved after leaving his position as policy director at the League of Education Voters] and teach a graduate school course at the same university that it’d been at. It was a cool opportunity, I was teaching public policy at a great university in China, and I was like, “I just can’t tell them no.” And I thought, “There are people who know this issue better.” I talked to my friends in the housing world and homelessness world who I thought should be doing this. Now that I see better what the job is, I get better why the mayor asked me to do this.

[Murray] needs a combination of people who have tact and are not going to take no for an answer. Instead of saying, “We’ll get there, but it’ll take us a year,” he would like to have somebody who will just get these things that we know would work better done in a shorter time frame, and just press everybody harder. He somebody that he knows who can do that, and that’s what I do. I try to make things happen without alienating or turning it into an ever more tenuous situation. If you’re talking to the police chief, if you’re talking to a community group, it helps to have some diplomatic skills and still get results.

ECB: Since you’ve worked with both Mayor Murray and Frank Chopp, I have to ask: Is part of your job being a buffer between a sometimes-hotheaded mayor and the departments and community groups?

GS: I don’t see myself as a buffer. Ed wants to get something done and he is determined to make a difference. He’s elevated the issue. He’s communicated that. Now the trick is spelling that out with the city departments and to some extent with people outside of the city. He’s the elected. I only have one job, which is to move a set of policies through across a number of agencies, so I think what he wants is tenacity.

How can you provide any services to anybody if they have no shelter? Once you’ve got housing, you can access conventional services, but without it, I don’t know how you even get started.

ECB: Do you have a theory about the root causes of homelessness? Do you attribute it mostly to a lack of affordable housing, mental illness, addiction, or something else?

GS: It’s all of the above. There’s a statistic I’ve seen where a $100 increase in rent will produce [15] percent more homelessness. That’s one factor. We have an opioid epidemic. We have an economy that forces people into structural unemployment, where there’s just no jobs in rural Washington and small towns in Washington, and people at the edge give up looking for jobs because they can’t find them. You have the federal government getting out of the housing business in the last 30 years in a big way. State funding for mental health has declined. It’s like a perfect storm. Probably there were many people in the past with mental health and drug problems who could afford to get by with cheaper housing. So you raise the housing costs and those people can’t afford to get by anymore. And then add one more: Because the people who come to Seattle are not just people coming to work for Amazon and Microsoft but people who have heard there are more jobs in Seattle and in the service sector, sometimes those jobs aren’t very stable.

ECB: But of all those factors, isn’t the lack of affordable housing the main issue?

GS: Clearly, that is the biggest problem. There can’t be any question that if there’s not much affordable housing, that the people who have the lowest-paid jobs or are in the most unstable situations are going to be the most affected by those increases in rents.

ECB: Given that, what do you think of the “housing first” model, which says that we need to get people into housing before we deal with whatever other problems they might have?

The mayor is very clear: I don’t want to see people on mats on the floor. I want them to have decent shelter. 

GS: I’m totally there. How can you provide any services to anybody if they have no shelter? Once you’ve got housing, you can access conventional services, but without it, I don’t know how you even get started.

ECB: The mayor has appointed a task force to look at how to improve what homelessness advocates are calling sweeps, and what the mayor’s office is calling “cleanups.” When you hear “cleanup,” what exactly do you see the city “cleaning up”? Garbage, people’s possessions, the people themselves?

GS: I think the idea of a sweep is that you move people out without any real place to go, and to some extent the city has chased people from one place without another place to go. The city’s saying, that doesn’t work for anybody. and the cleanup protocols will address that problem. But if we waited until we had realistic shelter available where you could bring pets, partners, and possessions, we’re not going to do much, if any, cleanups waiting for that day.

There’s a task force, and its job is to come up with better protocols. The mayor asked for that task force. I would be the first to say we’re not satisfied with the way the cleanups have been carried out. So he asked the task force to look at the protocols: Why can’t we do this better, how can we do this better? And so I think that’s going to be a tall order, but that’s high on my list, is to do everything I can to help that task force reach some recommendations for the city about how to do the cleanups better.

I worked very closely with a young man who was a classic foster child. He became a young adult and I tried to find him housing. This was years ago and it was like an education.

ECB: Does it undermine the task force’s work to have the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services submitting legislation that would halt the sweeps?

GS: First of all, that’s what the task force is supposed to be doing. Probably that proposal, either in whole or in pieces, will be part of the task force deliberations. If that piece of legislation were acceptable, I suppose we could call off the task force, but the mayor believes that when you have piles of garbage, when you have generally unhealthy situations, when you have encampments in places that either endanger the people getting to them because they’re so close to the roadway or prevent, in the case of the Duwamish, the state from doing some inspection work, that it’s the responsibility of the city to deal with those problems.

I think we’re on a fast track here, and I think that although the task force only has a month and the issues are complex, I don’t think if you took six months you would have a better product. We know what the issues are.

ECB: Do you think the proposed Navigation Center will be a model for what the city will provide to people who don’t or can’t go to conventional shelters?

GS: It is a model, and it is the kind of program that lots of people think is the right alternative to offer. In the legislation the ACLU is proposing, it reads like the Navigation Center:  24/7 [shelter], the ability to store your possessions, a safe, low-barrier place [where] you’re not excluded because you have an addiction problem. I think the Navigation Center is the example that that legislation points to, and it’s been working in other cities, so that’s a very high priority for us.

ECB: A lot of people have told me a policy wonk, but your area of expertise to this point has been education. Would you say that you’re someone who picks up new things, like the politics and policy around homelessness in Seattle, quickly?

GS: I am somebody who, when I know it, I really understand it. It’s a little bit more gut for me. If you’re saying, will I remember all the statistics? No.

The reason I said no in January was, I couldn’t stand the idea of waking up in the morning, in the winter, when several thousand people were living in cars and in tents. It was more than I could deal with. I’ve had six months to get over that, and so I go, “okay, someone’s going to do this job.” And I’ve got a few months before winter hits. It’ll be very personal. I will know the subject at a gut level. It’s not something you can gloss over. It’s a big problem. It’s going to take time go get all these pieces working to move in a direction that’s going to move more people out of the outdoors, out of mats on the floor. The mayor is very clear: I don’t want to see people on mats on the floor. I want them to have decent shelter.

ECB: Is homelessness an issue that has impacted a family member or someone else you know personally?

GS: How could it not? I worked very closely with a young man who was a classic foster child. He became a young adult and I tried to find him housing. This was years ago and it was like an education. Every place he walked in, everyone knew him. And what happens in the foster care system is people learn how to get along and how to fit in in the 15th, 16th, 17th family. But you never learn to take care of yourself. I watched him become the dad to three children, with three different young women. So yeah, I know it from that point of view. And when I told his girlfriend, it probably would be good if you waited [to get pregnant] until Eddie had a job and could provide for you, and you could have an apartment of your own instead of going back and living with your mom, she said, “You are so old-fashioned. She knew that if she got pregnant she could get support from the state, that it worked for her, and I didn’t know that. One of the things you learn is that people do make access that are rational from their circumstances that look crazy from the outside.

Developer Prevails in Lawsuit Challenging Anti-Density Rule

townhouses

Via PubliCola

In a rare win for dense “infill” housing in single-family neighborhoods, developer Bendare Dundat and the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties prevailed today in a lawsuit challenging a city ordinance that requires developers who want to build on small, “substandard” lots adjacent to existing developments to submit their proposals to design review, even though the original development was not subject to the same requirement. The ruling means that developers will be able to build small multifamily buildings on lots adjacent to other small developments without going through a time-consuming public process that could add thousands of dollars and months of delay to projects.

Last year, the city council decided to change the city’s land use code to require that if two unrelated but adjacent projects have a combined total of eight units or more, the second project–even if it’s smaller than the first–must go through design review, which takes months and can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a project.

In a declaration included in the lawsuit, Seattle developer Graham Black said the rules had added between $70,000 and $100,000 to the cost of his six-unit townhome development in the Central District, which had to go through design review because he got his development application in to the city later than an adjacent developer. Because of “random chance,” Black says in the statement, “I am at a significant competitive disadvantage so intend to re-design my project” to allow larger townhomes that can sell for more, so that he can “recoup at least a small portion of the financial costs of delay and involved design review.” This, of course, is exactly the scenario opponents of the new law predicted when they decided to challenge the new rules in court.

The law, King County Superior Court  justice Barbara Mack wrote in her decision, “requires design review by the second applicant approved for a permit, even if the second project is smaller than the first. It imposes direct and indirect costs that are neither reasonably necessary nor a direct result of the proposed development. It is hard to fathom how costs and fees could be reasonable and necessary for the smaller project, but not for the first, more impactful project on the adjacent property. The city appears to agree that the ordinance is designed to mitigate collective impacts, not the impact of any individual project.”

Developer lobbyist Roger Valdez, whose clients include the Master Builders, says he believes developers will be able to use today’s ruling in a future lawsuit to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability-Residential program, which requires developers to make a percentage of new units they build affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income, or pay into an affordable housing fund. In exchange, the city is allowing taller buildings across the city.

“Our argument is going to basically that [the city’s] creating an extraction [of money from developers], because even though you’re giving me this extra density, I lose the rent revenue from the units that I have to rent-restrict or pay a fee,” Valdez says. “I’ll make it up by raising rents, but if the tolerance level of the rents [is lower than] what I have to charge, and projects start to go negative, or the lender says ‘Those rents are too high,’ then the project becomes infeasible and we’ve got a case.”

Assistant City Attorney John Schocet said today that his office had not looked at the ruling in detail, and has about a month to decide if they want to appeal.