The C Is for Crank Interviews: Teresa Mosqueda

As the lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, the campaign chairwoman for Raise Up Washington (which ran last year’s successful minimum-wage initiative), and legislative director for the Children’s Alliance, City Council Position 8 candidate Teresa Mosqueda has credentials in Olympia a mile long. Most of the causes she has championed involve historically marginalized or disempowered groups, particularly women and children; this year, for example, she worked behind the scenes to pass a paid family leave law that’s the most generous in the nation. Her work as a labor lobbyist, however, has led her opponent Jon Grant to criticize her as a pawn of “Big Labor,” a term that some on the socialist end of Seattle’s political spectrum consider synonymous with Big Business. Mosqueda has endorsements from every Seattle labor group and the support of a political action committee, Working Families for Teresa, that is backed by the grocery workers’ union (UFCW 21), the home health care workers’ union (SEIU 775), the Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO.

I sat down with Mosqueda at her office at WSLC headquarters on South Jackson Street.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: If you win, the council will have a six-woman majority for the first time since the 1990s. Do you think a majority-female council will emphasize different issues or produce different policy results than the majority-male councils we’ve had for the vast majority of Seattle’s history?

Teresa Mosqueda [TM]: I hope so. I think part of the lived experience that I’m going to be bringing to this seat is one of creating greater economic stability for working families and women. Women are part of the workforce now. We do not have affordable child care. We do not have affordable family leave yet. Although Seattle has made some good strides to push the state in the right direction, [the new statewide family leave plan is] not going to start coming onto the books until 2019, 2020. And, frankly as women, we are often left out of conversations about what retirement security looks like. Because we have to step out of the workforce so many times [to do unpaid work as mothers and caregivers], because we tend to get tracked into lower-paying jobs, our retirement security also suffers when we don’t have people proactively thinking about how to create equity.

One of the things I want to do is help prevent folks from getting retaliated against for speaking about their pay on the job. Right now, there are zero protections. It says on the books that you have protection from retaliation, but the reality is, talking about your pay at work gets people fired, it gets them demoted, it gets their hours cut. So we need to make that a protection. Second, I’m also very interested in looking at the data in terms of [job] tracking. Let’s take an organization like Safeway, for example, or Whole Foods. If you look at who’s in floral versus who’s in meat-cutting, it’s women in floral and men in meat-cutting, and meat-cutting pays significantly more than floral. And you can see that people are tracked into certain jobs in various industries based on their gender, and I want to make sure that is something that we look at and do an analysis of and seeing how we can prevent that. And then, lastly, I do think that it’s important that we ask companies to display their pay, to give more folks transparency in the workplace.

ECB: You identified child care as an economic issue that falls largely on women. What’s your plan to provide child care for women and families?

TM: The principles are pretty simple. One: We’ve said that nobody should spend more than 9.5 percent of their income on health care. I want to apply that same principle to child care. Seattle, as you know, is the most expensive city in the country right now for a parent to have child care. Right now, it costs more to pay for child care for a year than it does to go to the University of Washington for a year. So there are a few things I would like to do. Number one is creating a sliding scale subsidy, especially for those on the bottom levels of the income spectrum. Number two is to really encourage or try to facilitate people going into the early learning profession, by working with our local colleges to make sure that we’re getting more folks into child care and early learning.

One way to do that is to actually pay them better. One idea I have is to actually subsidize or enhance the pay rate that child care providers receive in our city. I know everyone’s got their eyes on the [Families and Education] levy right now, but I do think there is a direct tie-in [between child care and education]. I also think we should work with the state on the square footage limits that we have on child care. Right now, an in-home child care provider has to have 35 square feet per child inside, and I think it’s 65 square feet per child outside. What home can you buy right now where, if you wanted to have a dozen kids and make it a sustaining business, that you could actually have that amount of square footage? I also think there’s a lot the city could do in terms of zoning and incentives for child care throughout the city.

 

“I’ve seen the Freedom Foundation use very similar tactics that I’m hearing, unfortunately, from some [on the left], saying that labor is not representative. I think it’s extremely dangerous for us to be using right-wing rhetoric when it comes to electing local progressive candidates.”

 

ECB: Your opponent keeps suggesting that you are a tool of “Big Labor,” while he’s the true progressive in the race. Should voters be concerned about the fact that labor groups are spending tens of thousands of dollars on independent expenditures to help get you elected?

TM: People in the labor movement elect their leaders. Those in the labor movement decide through a democratic process who to endorse. It’s workers who’ve endorsed me. Every labor union has endorsed me. The workers, faith communities, organizations from communities of color, environmentalists, health care advocates are behind me. So I say that it’s a false narrative. I’ve seen the Freedom Foundation [an anti-union advocacy group] use very similar tactics that I’m hearing, unfortunately, from some [on the left], saying that labor is not representative. I think it’s extremely dangerous for us to be using right-wing rhetoric when it comes to electing local progressive candidates. I think this is exactly what the right wing wants us to do—to fight against each other, fight over the scraps and to pull our community apart. I’ve seen that language be used in the halls of  Olympia and across our country, where labor is being demonized, and I think now is the time for us to find the commonality between movements and find common interest in fighting the -isms, whether it’s sexism, classism, racism, and uniting against the forces that are trying to divide us.

I entered this race when I was 36. I’m now 37. I am a Latina woman who’s a renter in Seattle. I am a progressive advocate who has proven credentials that I brought to the table, fighting for health care for all kids, including undocumented kiddos, standing up for the rights of all workers, fighting for retirement security and affordable health care for kiddos—the issues that I brought to this race stand on their own.

ECB: Would you revisit any aspect of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, and can you address Grant’s proposal to require developers to make 25 percent of all new housing affordable to low-income people?

TM: I’ll start with the 25 percent affordability suggestion. I’ve looked into this in depth, and what we saw in San Francisco, which passed an initiative saying they wanted a 25 percent requirement for all new buildings, is that it basically brought development almost to a halt during one of the biggest economic booms in history. Now it’s back with their board of supervisors. They’re trying to make a decision about what is the right number across the city, and they’re looking at what we did in Seattle [where the mandatory housing affordability proposal calls for different density increases] zone by zone. I’m not interested in grinding us to a halt. I’m interested in actually creating the housing that we need right now.

“The two-thirds of our city that is zoned for single family use has got to be reevaluated. We cannot create the affordable housing that we need for the folks who are living here, working here, retiring here, and those who are coming here, if we do not go back and add cottages, duplexes, triplexes, and affordable units.”

 

If there was something that I was going to push for on city council, especially with a new mayor and a new city council, it would be to say, did we lowball it [on affordable housing requirements] before? Twenty-five percent has obviously proven too much of a requirement to actually incentivize building, but instead of looking at [a] 2 to 11 [percent affordability requirement], is there a range that would allow us to move forward in this economic boom and get the affordable housing that we need without driving us back to either the conference room table or into court?

What I’ve been talking about is looking at every developable parcel of land that the city, county, and state owns, and that Sound Transit owns, and turning that into affordable housing options across the income spectrum— working with community land trusts, working with nonprofit housing developers, creating cohousing, coops, and subsidized housing models.

And in addition to that, the two-thirds of our city that is zoned for single family use has got to be reevaluated. We cannot create the affordable housing that we need for the folks who are living here, working here, retiring here, and those who are coming here, if we do not go back and add cottages, duplexes, triplexes, and affordable units for folks who probably rent but would like to buy one day. We have to be creative. We have to think out outside of the box. I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of your readers are tired of people who run for office who make these grand promises and then don’t deliver. What I’m talking about is getting in to office and then delivering the affordable housing that we need across the income spectrum. So it’s not going to be a one-sentence bumper sticker solution, it’s going to be a multifaceted approach.

ECB: The city’s Pathways Home strategy for addressing homelessness is based on a report that explicitly decouples homelessness and housing affordability, and concludes that people may just have to move outside the city or county to avoid being homeless. Do you agree with that strategy, and would you change anything about the city’s current approach to homelessness?

TM: I see them as interconnected. We have a crisis in the city both in terms of the lack of affordable housing and in terms of the number of folks who are living unsheltered on our streets. So I think that we need to take  a comprehensive approach and overhaul how we’re addressing the homelessness crisis. Number one, we have to stop the sweeps. It is retraumatizing people. It is not creating equitable solutions for folks who have already been failed by the system so many times. Getting moved from corner to corner is not a way to make sure they feel safe, and it is not a way to make sure they can access the services they need. We have to treat this as the health issue that it is.

 

“We are going to politicize the process and polarize the process, and it will not result in an actual [police] contract. The Freedom Foundation wants open collective bargaining  because they know it will result in stagnation and finger pointing.”

 

I’ve been talking about building the shelters that we need, building the permanent supportive housing that they need, and getting folks inside navigation centers [low-barrier shelters]. We obviously have to work with the community so people know where they’re being placed and why they’re being placed there, but they have to be placed throughout the city so that they’re in places where people can actually access them. It does us no good to place a navigation center ten miles away from where somebody can actually walk to where the services are needed. But in addition to that, making sure that we have actual inpatient treatment services in Seattle is one big priority that I’d like to address with the county. We do not have inpatient substance abuse treatment in Seattle that is sufficient. Folks end up going to Harborview and they’re let go 12 hours later. What they can do at Harborview is stabilize people. They can’t give them the case management and the substance abuse counseling and the long-term care that they need to be able to actually get sober. They should not be acting as our primary care providers throughout our city.

ECB: You’ve said that, unlike your opponent, you don’t want to open the police union negotiations to the public. Why not, and what would you do to increase transparency in police contract negotiations?

TM: I have constantly said what we need in this city is to rebuild trust. We need to make sure that people are not fearful when they call the cops  because they’re having a mental health crisis or because they are fearful that somebody broke into their home. And without a contract, I think a lot of people are concerned that we’re not going to get that trust. A contract can help us to that, but we’re not going to get a contract if you open up negotiations, like the Koch Foundation and the Freedom Foundation have called for. Because what that will inevitably create is folks sitting around a conference room table grandstanding. We are going to politicize the process and polarize the process, and it will not result in an actual contract. The Freedom Foundation wants open collective bargaining  because they know it will result in stagnation and finger pointing.

What I would commit to is saying, here are the things that I would want to see as part of a collective bargaining process: Be transparent with the public about how we’re going to hold folks accountable, how we’re going to create trust, and then be honest about what actually happens post-negotiations. The other thing I’ve said is, in addition to what the [Community Police Commission] has called for, which is the inspector general being in the room, the Office of Police Accountability being in the room, and CPC being in the room, I want there to actually be a community member at the table.

ECB: Are you talking about this community member being an observer or an active partner in contract negotiations?

TM: An active partner. I would like to see somebody sit in for the duration of the negotiations and be an actual part of the negotiations. Obviously, there’s things that come with that we need to be confidential and we need to be very respectful of the negotiating process, but I think we could have one or two community members sitting at the table bargaining in good faith. I think it can help us get to a base of trust.

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 doing interviews like this one, which take an average of about 8-10 hours from start to finish. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers like you. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “I Just Don’t Think It’s a Big Deal.”

1. Yesterday, new Mayor Tim Burgess announced he was hiring Eli Sanders—an old Stranger colleague of mine—as his deputy communications director and speechwriter. Sanders, who writes feature stories and comments on national politics for the Stranger, will return to his job at the paper in November and write about what he learned during his ten weeks on the city payroll. (He will also continue to host the Stranger’s Blabbermouth podcast while working for Burgess). In his Slog post about his new temporary gig, Sanders writes, “I’ve often wondered… what it’s actually like on the inside.”  Now Burgess is giving him the chance to find out, and Seattle taxpayers will be picking up the tab.

Burgess says he chose Sanders because “I respect him. He’s a talented writer, I trust him, and I wanted to do something different in terms of not just another person who’s been writing in government. I wanted a new perspective—a new, outside set of ideas— and he’s capable of delivering.”

City hall staffers and others who work with the mayor’s office are understandably wondering whether it will be possible to hold sensitive conversations with Burgess in the future, given that all conversations in Sanders’ presence will effectively be on the record. (Sanders writes that he told Burgess, “If I do this, I’ll be writing about the experience afterward. Everyone will have to know that going in. And I’ll be coming back to The Stranger with a story. “) Sanders and Burgess got to know each other back in 2012, when Sanders wrote a long, mostly laudatory piece about the council member, who went on to run for mayor the following year.

Asked about the wisdom of embedding a reporter in his office and entrusting him with confidential information, Burgess says, “We have an understanding about confidentiality parameters with Eli—what he can and can’t write about, who he can and can’t quote. We’ve worked all that out.” Burgess says people will be reminded of those parameters whenever Sanders is in the room, adding, “I just don’t think it’s a big deal.” Reporters go to work in government jobs and then write about it afterward all the time, Burgess pointed out. That’s true. However, I can think of no other time when a reporter has gone on temporary leave from his journalism job to work for an elected official with the express purpose of using the temporary gig as material for an “eye-opening” story about “what it’s actually like on the inside” of City Hall.

Sanders didn’t return my call for comment, but as a reporter, I understand the appeal of his new assignment—dipping one’s toe into city politics for a couple of months, at what I’m guessing is a significantly higher salary (Sanders’ predecessor in the job, Katherine Bush, made $127,650 a year), is a plum reporting gig. (In his post, Sanders calls it  “experiential journalism.”) What motivated Burgess (whose paramount mission right now should be to restore trust and integrity to municipal government) to bring Sanders on now  is more inscrutable. Burgess took the office promising to restore sanity and a steady hand to an office rocked by scandal and low morale. It’s hard to see how participating in a Stranger writer’s reporting experiment furthers that goal.

2. As Sanders was packing up his notebooks at the Stranger, his coworkers were gleefully celebrating the firing of another mayoral staffer, communications director Benton Strong.  (Previously,  Strong was a spokesman for the state Democrats and SEIU 775). In a post titled “Good Riddance, Benton Strong,” the Stranger‘s news staffers—Heidi Groover, Sydney Brownstone, Ana Sofia Knauf, and news editor Steven Hsieh—took turns trashing the “bad flack,” concluding with a call for readers to submit their own damaging stories about Murray’s former spokesman. As I said on Twitter, I’ve been frustrated and irritated by many different spokespeople for elected officials over the years, Strong included, but shitting all over a largely unknown staffer who just lost his job is unnecessary, tacky, and pointless.

3. Former city council member Nick Licata has been lobbying hard to fill Burgess’ now-empty seat on the council, sending a letter to council members “formally requesting that the City Council consider me as a candidate for filling the Council seat.”

“I believe that I can bring additional value to the Council’s budget process since I’ve been through it 18 times and have served as either the Chair or Vice Chair of the Budget Committee for a third of that time,” the letter continues. “As the former chair of the public safety, human services, and parks committees, as well as serving as Council President, I’m familiar with both the operations and capital budget’s contents and process. And, I understand from that experience how it affects city government services in a number of different areas.”

If appointed, Licata would be working alongside his former council aide, Lisa Herbold, who is now a council member and Burgess’ replacement as chair of the budget committee. Licata, once considered the furthest-left member of the council, now says his politics are more or less in line with most of the current council members’. “I think my agenda has always been pretty much a rational, cost-effective way to try to get social justice issues passed. That’s not new,” Licata says. “The majority of the council and I are on pretty much the same page on most issues.” Former interim council member John Okamoto’s name is also circulating as a potential “consensus” appointment, as is former council member Sally Clark’s. Neither is a shoo-in, though, particularly Okamoto, who won his appointment in 2015 (to Clark’s old position) by a vote of 5-3. Three of the people who voted for him two years ago are no longer on the council.

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The C Is for Crank Interviews: City Attorney Candidate Scott Lindsay

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 doing interviews like this one, which take an average of about 8-10 hours from start to finish. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers like you. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Scott Lindsay, the onetime public safety advisor to former mayor Ed Murray who is challenging City Attorney Pete Holmes, was in the news a few weeks ago for leaking draft legislation that would offer limited amnesty from fines and impoundment to people living in cars and RVs and create dozens of small safe lots for people to park their vehicles around the city. Lindsay released an early version of the bill, sponsored by city council member Mike O’Brien, last month, forcing O’Brien to quickly amend and release the proposal and to hold a hasty press conference to walk back some of the more controversial elements of the draft Lindsay leaked. Lindsay’s reputation as the guy who defended Murray’s encampment sweeps, and his efforts to kill legislation reviled by neighborhood activists, like O’Brien’s RV bill, helped earn him the endorsement of the Seattle Times, which effused about his “tougher,” “stronger,” more “aggressive” approach to homelessness and drug addiction. But Lindsay has also won endorsements from onetime Holmes supporters like Harriet Walden and Lisa Daugaard, two members of the Community Police Commission and longtime advocates for police accountability and reform. The CPC soured on Holmes when he proposed delaying police reform legislation earlier this year.

I sat down with Lindsay at Cupcake Royale in Madrona.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: When we set up this interview, you said you could make a strong case that people who lean further left should vote for you. From what I’ve seen so far, most of your support has been coming from the right, from places like the Seattle Times editorial board and neighborhood groups like Safe Seattle. If you’re the candidate for the left, why are those groups so convinced that you’re their guy?

Scott Lindsay [SL]: I have no idea what their impressions are. I’ve clashed in very public ways with them. What makes me different, and maybe what they might find attractive, is, I’m willing to go talk to them, and I’m actively trying to convince them that fighting supervised [drug] consumption [sites] is maybe not the smartest use of their resources. The thing that also may differentiate me is that I do think we have some public safety issues in the city of Seattle, and I’m willing to acknowledge that. I think  we’ve heard a lot of talk about a progressive approach to public safety. We have not seen action and we have definitely not seen results, and I’m a guy who is going to not only say it but do it.

ECB: What are some of the places where we haven’t seen results?

SL: Holmes, and in fact all of the Seattle political establishment, talks as if we have implemented significant criminal justice reforms in Seattle when we’ve not. We’ve not. The [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program has been in existence for five and a half years, and it’s barely grown outside of downtown into Capitol Hill. [Eligibility for LEAD] has not yet expanded out of the narrow classification of [criminal] charges that we started with. That program is touching just some tiny portion of the population that actually needs it. Holmes says that the cosponsored LEAD, but I haven’t seen any evidence of his engagement over the last three years. We’re not delivering on that program. We’re not delivering on  criminal justice reform within the court  system. And so the result is, people are cycling through the system repeatedly, and reoffending to a significant degree.

ECB: What do you say to neighborhoods when they’re already worried about Navigation Centers bringing more homeless people into their communities? It sounds like you’re saying to them, ‘We’re going to take people directly out of jail and bring them into your neighborhood.’

SL: Well, they’re going directly out of jail and into your neighborhood anyway.

What I told the Seattle Times is, I laid out a specific plan and I said we need to address the intersection of criminally involved individuals who are suffering from addiction and suffering from homelessness. And I brought to them specific data about how that population makes up the bulk of people currently being prosecuted by the city attorney and how we’re getting very crappy results in terms of trying to change the behavior of that population.

ECB: Do you believe that the population of homeless people with addiction is primarily responsible for crimes like car prowls and break-ins?

SL: Absolutely.

ECB: What makes you so confident?

SL: Because that’s what our data tells us, and that’s what our police tell us, and that’s what our courts tell us. Go to SPD and they will say that virtually 100 percent of the car prowls in the North Precinct are committed by people whose underlying issue is addiction, principally heroin and methamphetamine.

ECB: I find addiction as a contributing factor easy to believe. What I don’t know, and what I’m asking, is how many of the people committing property crimes are homeless. I have heard many people in the neighborhoods express the opinion that by cracking down on homeless people, the city will solve the problem of property times, and I’m wondering if you think that’s true.

SL: I am the first to say that we are not talking about all homeless. The county has done good work on this. What we know is, it’s people with addiction and who are unsheltered who are currently going through  the system. That does not mean that the vast bulk of homeless individuals are criminally involved or that they’re struggling with addiction, but the folks who are in the  criminal justice  system are very substantially homeless and suffering from addiction.

This is our status quo—the streets-to-jail cycle—right now. We’ve got a lot of folks who are coming out of the criminal justice system right back onto the streets, right back into homelessness, right back into drug addiction. So we have to go and do proactive outreach to folks where they are. The Navigation Team is a form of proactive outreach that’s trying to find low-barrier housing and services for folks to get them out of the cycle before they enter into  criminal justice  system.

The second [intervention] is diversion after arrest. That means expanding LEAD citywide and expanding the total number of qualifying crimes for LEAD. If somebody’s committing a car prowl right now, and they are arrested right here, and their underlying issue is addiction and homelessness, that would be a perfect client for LEAD. And yet because we’re outside of the geographic boundary [of LEAD] and car prowl is not a qualifying crime, they are not eligible to be diverted. Then, if we arrest somebody whose underlying issue is addiction and homelessness [and the case goes to court], we should tie that judge into the Navigation Team, into LEAD, and have, in effect, a street court that is oriented around a harm reduction approach.

And then, in jail, we have to have treatment options. The second somebody on a Seattle Municipal Court charge is booked into a jail and if they [have heroin] addiction,  we need to be offering them counseling and, if not methadone treatment, which can be more involved, then at the very least suboxone.

And finally, we need to have a serious warm handoff. Instead of pushing folks [leaving jail] out onto the street who we know came in homeless, came in with addiction, let’s crate warm handoffs, all tied into the Navigation Center and the Navigation Team.

ECB: So is idea they would exit jail and go straight into the Navigation Center?

SL: I think so, yes—or in a setting similar to the Navigation Center facility.

ECB: It seems like that would require a scaling up of our shelter facilities that isn’t anticipated in the Pathways Home plan (which proposes a shift from shelter to permanent housing) or in the city budget.

SL: This is a four-year plan, but absolutely, if we’re going to be serious about these things, we need to have a vision, have an architecture, and then fund these things appropriately.

ECB: What do you say to neighborhoods when they’re already worried about Navigation Centers bringing more homeless people into their communities? It sounds like you’re saying to them, ‘We’re going to take people directly out of jail and bring them into your neighborhood.’

SL: Well, they’re going directly out of jail and into your neighborhood anyway. And so the question is, can we do something to reduce the impact of that? We already have a lot of transitional and halfway housing around Seattle. We’ve been able to manage this in the past. The Navigation Center is a temporary way station on the way toward, hopefully, more permanent options.

ECB: Would you have released the draft [of Mike O’Brien’s RV legislation] if you were city attorney?

SL: Not if they were seeking my attorney-client privileged legal advice.

ECB: What if they weren’t, and you just didn’t like a piece of legislation and you wanted to slow it down?

SL: I think the city attorney should speak publicly on issues of significant importance to the city.

ECB: Why did you leak O’Brien’s RV legislation—or do you dispute the term ‘leak’?

SL: I dispute the term ‘leak.’

ECB: Okay, how come?

SL: So O’Brien had created his [vehicular living task force]. They’d made their recommendations in April. He then worked up the legislation and his office spread it to a lot of stakeholders. They briefed it to some other council members. They briefed it to city departments. And it spread to series of stakeholders. His office then put out an email out 15 to 20 stakeholders that they were introducing that version of the legislation imminently and it was in the law department for a final review—with minor revisions, but they made clear that it was final. That version of the legislation was in the hands of 50 to 100 people. It was not closely held. In that email, they said, we are introducing it imminently and we’re going to have two hearings on it his month and vote it out of committee right after Labor Day. It was a very truncated legislative process right in the middle of August, when a lot of people aren’t paying attention. That had me very concerned, because I thought the legislation was deeply flawed in a legal sense and a policy sense, and that O’Brien was going to try to shove it through at the wrong time. I wasn’t going to do anything with it until his office said they were introducing it imminently. Once they said they were doing that and on such a truncated timeline, I made it public.

ECB: Would you have released the draft if you were city attorney, rather than a candidate for city attorney?

SL: Not if they were seeking my attorney-client privileged legal advice.

ECB: What if they weren’t, and you just didn’t like a piece of legislation and you wanted to slow it down?

SL: I think the city attorney should speak publicly on issues of significant importance to the city. I have very specific experience with this. I was the guy who created the RV safe lots [a safe RV parking program that the city abandoned after deciding it cost too much.] I tried to make those work. I saw what the challenges were. So I have experience. I’ve also seen how Mike O’Brien’s program, Road to Housing, which we spent several hundreds of thousands of dollars on, was a serious flop. [Road to Housing was a program that encouraged churches to allow people living in vehicles to park in their lots. Ultimately, it only created a dozen safe parking spots]. So I’m not coming at this as, ‘Oh, I got a special document and I’m just going to throw it out there.’

“They had a small group of investigators that were able to make sure the domestic violence cases were able to be filed right away. Holmes says domestic violence is a top priority, but he took away these investigators. SPD’s domestic violence unit is telling me, ‘Here’s why we’re getting shitty results out of our domestic violence cases.'”

ECB: Why did you think O’Brien’s plan wouldn’t work? What was the issue?

SL: I think the blanket amnesty [from fines and towing] is just a very legally problematic policy. The thought that we could create 50-some safe lots is unfortunate—it’s counterproductive because we already have experience with this. At the end of the day, what we found was that trying to serve people in their vehicles and to help them stay in their vehicles is the most expensive way to try to service this population.

ECB: So what is a more effective and affordable solution?

SL: I think we need to vastly ramp up the outreach, and outreach to somewhere. Just going and sending an outreach worker alone and cold to a situating and saying, ‘Hey, would you like services?’—the answer is almost always ‘No, thank you.’ Having a police officer try to resolve the legal issues and the social and health issues at the same time is a more effective model.

ECB: You said that ‘blanket amnesty’ isn’t workable from a legal perspective. It seems to me that from a ‘managing homelessness’ perspective, towing people’s vehicles away isn’t working either, since they go from being homeless people in cars to being homeless people in tents and doorways.

SL: There’s a way to do this with appropriate controls and forgiveness, where we say, if your vehicle’s broken down and you received tickets and all you need is $250 for a new starter, we’re going to forgive the tickets and we’ll help you with the starter, but you have to get your vehicles back into basic legal compliance. We absolutely should not be towing somebody’s vehicle away if it’s just a matter of some basic economics. At the same time, to say that there’s blanket amnesty if you’re living in a vehicle creates a whole host of significant issues.

Go under Spokane Street. We had massive fire hazards. We had major public health problems. We had widespread exploitation of women. We had serious drug dealing and other issues. And we had a homicide just three weeks ago. How is the city going to manage the impacts of significant accumulations of vehicles in one location if there’s a blanket amnesty?

ECB: Let’s shift gears and talk about domestic violence. You accuse Pete of declining to file more DV cases than any city attorney in recent history. His counter is that he’s been boosting more DV cases to felony status, which goes through the county court system, and that the number of DV cases that come before the city attorney are cyclical. How do you respond?

SL: The decline rate, at which they refuse to file cases up front, is 65 percent. That is the highest that it’s been in Seattle’s history. In 2009, it was under 50 percent. So, per the city attorney’s own stats, they are declining to file more cases than they ever have in the history of Seattle. [Ed: The city attorney can decline to file a domestic case for prosecution for many reasons, including a victim who is unwilling to testify, incomplete or unclear paperwork, or an accuser who decides it’s safer not to press charges; charges that are boosted to felonies also show up as declines].

One of the major problems is that Pete Holmes has been shuffling and reshuffling the criminal division and moving people around. They had a small group of investigators that were able to make sure the domestic violence cases were able to be filed right away. Holmes says domestic violence is a top priority, but he took away these investigators. SPD’s domestic violence unit is telling me, ‘Here’s why we’re getting shitty results out of our domestic violence cases.’ It used to be the case that when there was some missing information, the investigators would complete that—no problem, it’s a little Google search, boom, complete. Now the city attorney’s office says, ‘Okay, SPD, this case isn’t ready to file,’ and they send it back to the officer who’s out on the street. And that officer may be on vacation, or maybe he has a really full workload. Maybe it gets pushed to the back of pile, and they maybe complete it a week, two weeks later. The case gets more and more stale.

Domestic violence cases are hard, but they haven’t fundamentally changed in the last 30 years, and Holmes has a burden to explain why, if you are an abuse survivor in the city of Seattle, the prospect of you making it through  this process and holding your abuser accountable is slim to none. He says it’s a priority. Those numbers don’t show that. Those numbers show that, in fact, we are badly failing survivors.

Read my pre-primary interview with Lindsay, where we discussed even more issues, including the role of the Community Police Commission in police reform, here; and check out both my recent conversations with City Attorney Pete Holmes here.

In the Trump Era, a Seattle-Only Health Care Option?

This story originally ran at Seattle Magazine.

As the Trump Administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants and threatens to overturn the Affordable Care Act, pushing more than 20 million people off their health care plans, some Seattle leaders are looking for ways to ensure that people living in the city can access health care regardless of their income or immigration status.

To figure out how to accomplish this, they’re looking to the south—specifically, to San Francisco, another high-cost West Coast “sanctuary city” that just happens to have the only truly universal health care coverage system in the country.

The plan, known as Healthy San Francisco, isn’t technically health insurance—only San Francisco residents are covered, and only inside San Francisco’s borders. But it does provide comprehensive health care—everything from annual exams to mental health care to lab tests to addiction treatment—to people making up to 500 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $60,000 for an individual. This group includes independent contractors, lower-middle-class people without employer-provided insurance, and, increasingly, undocumented immigrants, who do not qualify for benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

The idea, according to San Francisco Health Department spokeswoman Rachel Kagan, is to “reduce the dependence of uninsured people on emergency rooms health care,” by getting them “plugged into the health care system earlier, where they can get preventative care.” At its peak, Healthy San Francisco had about 65,000 members; once Obamacare was up and running, enrollment declined to about 14,000.

People who qualify for Medicaid are ineligible for Healthy San Francisco, as are people who already have insurance. (Uninsured people who qualify for the Affordable Care Act can decide to pay the federal penalty and join Healthy San Francisco instead). “It’s supposed to be a program of last resort,” says Alice Kurniadi, a senior program planner at SFDPH, which oversees the program. Healthy San Francisco is funded by the city’s general fund, fees from participants, which max out at $1,800 a year, and a payroll tax on businesses—$2.64 per employee, per hour for businesses with more than 100 employees, and $1.76 an hour for businesses with 20 to 100 workers.

Seattle had a similar tax—derisively referred to as the “head tax” by opponents—for a brief period in the mid-2000s, when the city council passed a $25-per-employee tax to pay for transportation projects. That tax was repealed in 2009, and efforts to reinstate it for other purposes (most recently, to fund the city’s Office of Labor Standards) have failed. (Restaurants challenged the law in San Francisco, but lost; a subsequent court case concluded that the “Healthy San Francisco fees” many had instituted in protested went straight into restaurant owners’ pockets.)

City council Position 8 candidate Teresa Mosqueda, who says she will propose a “Healthy Seattle” plan here if she’s elected in November, acknowledges that there are significant differences between the fiscal and political climates in San Francisco and Seattle that will need to be addressed for the plan to have a shot here.

“The biggest difference is that [San Francisco] already has so much more revenue that they’re able to play with,” including a statewide income tax, Mosqueda says. “Because we have a different revenue system here, we need to have a larger conversation with businesses and employees” about the best way to fund a citywide health-care plan.

One thing Seattle does have in common with San Francisco, Mosqueda notes, is a large system of community health-care providers that could form the backbone of a public provider network. San Francisco’s “medical homes” are mostly community clinics, along with a few private providers. “They had three dozen health care centers and hospitals in their city,” Mosqueda says. “I’ve counted—we have almost four dozen community health centers in our city, and even more hospitals and a VA.”

No one I spoke to in either city was placing bets on whether Trump will manage to overturn the Affordable Care Act this year, but both San Francisco health officials and Mosqueda said it’s a good idea for cities to prepare for the worst.

“If we can actually create a pool that will allow people to get the comprehensive services that they need, then we should,” Mosqueda says. “I think it’s definitely possible in a post-ACA world” to deliver health-care services at the city level. “And also in a post-whatever-Trump-does world,” she adds.

 

Morning Crank: Mayor Gonzalez?

1. City council president Bruce Harrell took the oath of office as Seattle’s emergency mayor yesterday (OK, real mayor, but only for another two and a half months max), promising to announce by today whether he will continue to serve as mayor until voters elect a successor to former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned this week after a fifth man accused him of sexual assault. .

The stakes for Harrell are high, although perhaps not as high as you might think: Although serving as mayor until the election results are certified at the end of November would require Harrell to give up his council seat, rumors have swirled since his most recent election in 2015 that this term, Harrell’s third, would be his last. Harrell ran for mayor and lost in the primary in 2013, so remaining as mayor would give Harrell a short-lived opportunity to serve in the position he lost to Murray four years ago.

If Harrell does stay on as mayor, Lorena Gonzalez would be next in the (informal) line of succession for council president. If he decides to return to the council, the council would choose another council member to serve as mayor. While Tim Burgess is an obvious choice—he’s stepping down this year, to be replaced in January by either Jon Grant or Teresa Mosqueda—the fact that Burgess chairs the council’s budget committee inserts a political wrinkle into the decision. If Burgess becomes mayor, the chairmanship of the budget committee would pass to council freshman Lisa Herbold—a member of the council’s left flank who might be more inclined than the centrist Burgess to tinker with Murray’s budget to reflect more left-leaning priorities (like, say, reducing the emphasis on rapid rehousing in the Human Services Department’s budget).

So who does that leave? Gonzalez, who was the first council member to call on Murray to resign, appears to be the next in line. She’s running for reelection this year, and assuming she wins, would be able to go right back to being a council member when the results are certified in November

Harrell has said he will make his decision before 5:00 this afternoon.

2. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission dismissed a complaint by one of the losing candidates in the August primary election against Seattle City Council Position 9 incumbent Lorena Gonzalez. That complaint alleged that Gonzalez had deliberately misled the commission about how many open debates she had participated in before the primary and demanded that the commission fine her and force her to  return all the money she has received from voters in the form of “democracy vouchers.”

“If the Commission terminates the candidate’s participation in the Program, it will invalidate the choice of the more than 2,100 residents to date who have assigned their vouchers to Councilmember González,” commission director Wayne Barnett wrote in his recommendation to the commission. “The Program exists to empower residents to participate in elections in ways they have not been involved in the past. The Commission should be cautious about exercising the ‘nuclear option’ in a way that disserves one of the primary goals of the Program.”

Although the commission ruled against Gonzalez’ erstwhile opponent, Barnett’s recommendation letter raises interesting questions about the breadth of the initiative that instituted public financing of local elections, and could have implications for what campaign forums look like in the future.

The democracy voucher program requires any council candidate seeking voucher funding to participate in at least three forums at each stage of the election (primary and general) to which all candidates have been invited to participate. The complaint argued that because the losing candidate was not invited to some of the forums Gonzalez listed as qualifying events (including a “women of color” forum), she should have to return all her vouchers. This interpretation could require candidates to figure out who was invited to every potentially qualifying event they attend. Or it could mean that every single candidate must be invited to every debate, regardless of whether they are viable. In the mayor’s race, Barnett points out, that would have meant that every debate could have included all 21 people who filed for the position, including “Nazi shitheads” screamer Alex Tsimerman—a prospect that would have rendered the debates more or less useless for people hoping to learn anything about any of the six candidates who were actually viable.

3. Some people just can’t take a joke. And some people just can’t get a joke—even when you explain it to them. Case in point: Last week, I ran an item about a going-away gift from the mayor’s staff to longtime City Hall staffer (and Murray chief of staff) Mike Fong—a giant fake check for $3.5 million made out to the “Michael Fong Community Health Engagement Location.” (CHEL is bureaucratic code for supervised drug consumption sites.) As I wrote at the time, “The joke, concocted by Murray’s comms director Benton Strong, is a little obscure.”

Too obscure, apparently, for Neighborhood Safety Alliance member Jennifer Aspelund, who filed a records request on Friday, September 8 seeking “any monies allocated for Michael Fong community health engagement location center and any discussion of such center.”

The city’s response? “This location center does not exist; therefore, the Mayor’s office or any other departments do not have any responsive records.”

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

The C Is for Crank Interviews: City Attorney Pete Holmes

Image result for pete holmes city attorneyCity attorney Pete Holmes was first elected in 2009 as a reformer. A bankruptcy attorney who advocated for marijuana legalization and was one of the original members of the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB), the body that reviewed disciplinary decisions in police misconduct cases, he challenged then-incumbent Tom Carr from the left, assailing Carr for cracking down on minor crimes like pot possession and waging war against bars and clubs while letting DUI and domestic violence cases molder. Now, Holmes’ challenger, Scott Lindsay, is ripping some pages from the city attorney’s own playbook, accusing him of allowing domestic violence cases to founder, ignoring crimes committed by homeless people and people with substance use disorders, and failing to implement criminal justice reform.

I sat down with Holmes last month to discuss his record, Lindsay’s accusations, and issues ranging from health care to homeless RV residents to downtown disorder.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Your opponent, Scott Lindsay, has accused you of deprioritizing domestic violence cases in your eight years in office, pointing to stats that show a steady decline in the number of cases filed. How do you respond to this allegation?

Pete Holmes [PH]: That is simply, unequivocally wrong. And it’s unfortunate because, without getting defensive, it is quite easy for someone smart like Scott to take the stats out of context and give them a spin that is at best misleading and at worst, intentionally creates a completely false impression that is, in fact, diametrically opposed to what my policies are and what the performance has been. In truth, domestic violence referrals from SPD, as well as [case] filings, have been cyclical. They have gone up and down over the last 10 years.

What happens immediately in every case is that advocates reach out to the victim and assess whether or not a case needs to be filed. Sometimes the victim doesn’t want it to happen. What’s best for the victim is always assessed early in a case. Frankly, we’re making better decisions [on which cases to file.] A referral to the county for prosecution as a felony case, instead of  filing as a misdemeanor, will show up as a decline. That’s really what a really good  domestic violence section does, is to do triage. We don’t have the resources to file every case, nor would you want to.

If there is a follow-up investigation required for a misdemeanor, there are next to no resources available for that. In fact, for years, SPD had no detective support whatsoever for any misdemeanor  domestic violence referrals. So, in other words, whatever the patrol officer got that evening on response is all we have. Today, as we speak, we have one [full-time] detective at SPD that’s handing an average of about 1,500 cases. And this is not a criticism of SPD. They’re managing resource problems in the same way that we are. They do have a team that’s dedicated to felony domestic violence investigations. If it’s a felony, they get full backup support, and we have to get in line and wait. So that’s why our triage is even more important. This is something that I have talked about with every police chief since chief [John] Diaz: ‘Please make sure that this stays on your radar. We need misdemeanor support.’

“I know that the one thing even council members with whom I have had strong disagreements over the years, and there have been many will, tell you is that even when they’ve disagreed with Pete, they have never feared that Pete is going to somehow rat them out or put them in a false light.”

ECB: And nothing has improved since Diaz?

PH: Well, it comes and goes. The domestic violence unit under Captain Deanna Nollette is hugely supportive. It’s not a criticism. I recognize that we’re all struggling to get the job done, and we’re always using triage. That’s true with SPD as well as our office.

That’s the other thing that’s so disappointing when Scott pulls these stats and does not give the full story. This shouldn’t be a finger-pointing exercise. When you go public with stats like this, it’s not unlike if you leak an early draft of an ordinance. [Lindsay released an early version of city council member Mike O’Brien’s legislation creating protections for people living in their vehicles.] That’s not a good way to encourage collaboration.

ECB: Since you brought it up, what do you think was the impact of Scott leaking the RV legislation?

PH: That’s a great question for you to ask the council members. I know that the one thing even council members with whom I have had strong disagreements over the years, and there have been many will, tell you is that even when they’ve disagreed with Pete, they have never feared that Pete is going to somehow rat them out or put them in a false light. Because all these things have a lengthy, deliberative fact-gathering process, and arriving at the best policy is not waking up one morning and saying, ‘We should have an ordinance that says this.’ It’s going, ‘This is a problem. How should we address this?’ And you go through a lot of iterations. I don’t want to get in [O’Brien’s] head and say whether he felt pressured to get it out, but I don’t see how it was avoidable, frankly. And that’s why you shouldn’t do attention-grabbing stunts like that, especially if you’re going to be an ethical lawyer. That is precisely the wrong way to have a mature debate about a lightning-rod issue. If you want to throw red meat, if you want play on people’s fears and prejudices and anger, that’s Page 1 in Donald Trump’s playbook, and it only lends itself to poor, poor policy making.

ECB: What do you think of the legislation itself, which proposes opening dozens of small lots for people living in their vehicles and granting amnesty from parking tickets and fines for people living in their vehicles who agree to participate in a program?

PH: I’m not going to comment on that, except to say that under Scott’s tenure, the executive tried the approach of having these car camps, these designated parking spots, and I think the results speak for themselves on that. [The city abandoned the “safe lot” and “safe zone” program after concluding that the “safe lots” cost too much and the unmonitored “safe zones” resulted in too many public safety risks]. It doesn’t mean the problem went away. There are litter and human waste issues. The allegations of criminality at least have to be investigated. But when you ask people, ‘What would you like to do?’ that’s when usually people start to be quiet and say, ‘Well, seriously—is the tow truck driver going to tow away the camper that’s got a family in it?’ Perhaps there are some really hardened tow truck drivers who will do that, but are you comfortable with that if you’re in the position of authority and authorizing that?

“If you want to throw red meat, if you want play on people’s fears and prejudices and anger, that’s Page 1 in Donald Trump’s playbook, and it only lends itself to poor, poor policy making.”

So, a, the problem hasn’t gone away. B, the only thing you can do is to attempt to address it. And c, when you criticize early efforts in that way, especially in this office, it is so wrong-headed. It should be self-evident, but if you are simply walking into a room of people who are angry about homelessness for whatever reason—maybe they feel genuine distress about the plight of the homeless, maybe they just don’t like the blight of their city, whatever their reason, they’re angry about it—having a shouting match is just not going to lend itself to really good decision-making.

ECB: Your opponent talks a lot about how he came up with the idea for Navigation Teams [groups of police and social service providers who offer services before sweeping homeless encampments] when he worked at the mayor’s office. Do you think the teams are an improvement on the way the city used to do encampment sweeps?

PH: To an extent. I certainly have been impressed by the officers and the teams that include social service providers. That has been a much better response than the status quo, which was: Send out a cop to make an arrest. They are now actually engaged in bona fide problem-solving. I think it’s the right approach. But the big question is, are there sufficient resources for the Navigation Team to refer people to, and that’s always going to be the question.

There is also an issue about how the resources of the executive compare to the resources of the city attorney. If you’re running for this office, you need to make sure that you correct any misimpressions about just what it is you can do. You can promise that you’ll cure rain in Seattle. It does beg the question, how are you going to do that? It seems like [Lindsay] really got ahead of himself and doubled down when he said [to the Seattle Times editorial board] that he was the only person in the mayor’s office working on homelessness. That’s not true on its face, and it ignores that the mayor is the executive who appoints all the department heads—like human services, like SDOT, like the chief of police. All of those are subject to mayoral direction and that includes spending of resources the actual general fund. So the city attorney, in that case, is very much in a supportive role.

I think the city attorney’s role is also to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Point Person for the Mayor [Lindsay], if you’re going to use prison labor to clean up an unauthorized encampment, that is a nonstarter from a liability perspective. I would like to think that you have enough just social justice chops in your body to understand that that’s a stupid thing to do—a heartless thing to do—but if you don’t, here’s the legal analysis. If one of these guys gets pricked by a used needle without the proper equipment by a used needle we are on the hook. So if you don’t understand common sense, here’s a legal analysis for you.’ That’s what the city attorney does.

ECB: What do you think of the merits of the lawsuit against Initiative 27, which would ban supervised consumption sites throughout King County?

PH: I can’t get into [the merits] because I’m looking at a response right now to the initiative. But it’s completely wrongheaded policy, and it’s an example of what I’m talking about. What’s disappointing about my race is that Scott is effectively playing into that same angry narrative. He is going after the people who want to just call a cop and ‘clean up these people, clean that tent, send these people packing on their way. What do you mean you’re going to allow people to shoot up? Are you crazy?’ And these are people that have done zero research, have probably next to no public health qualifications, and it is emblematic of how we backslide.

We do, at best, an ineffective job of trying to get policy headed in the right direction—that is, a public health approach to a public health problem. I think Scott is playing into that, and that is so disingenuous. It’s so cynical. That approach is simply going to mean that, well, the pendulum may just swing back the other way, which is, call the cops. Maybe we’ll renew the debate over whether we should have a  municipal jail, because there are consequences to every policy decision you make. So if we decide we’re going to go back to a law enforcement approach, a  criminal justice approach, to a public health problem, then you’re going to overtax the criminal justice system. You may find us having a difficult time maintaining the reforms under the federal consent decree when you start asking cops to go deal with addicts. That approach has failed. We can’t have backsliding right now, and the thing that’s going to make us most susceptible to backsliding right now is pandering.

“I think the city attorney’s role is also to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Point Person for the Mayor [Lindsay], if you’re going to use prison labor to clean up an unauthorized encampment, that is a nonstarter from a liability perspective.”

ECB: Are the existing therapeutic courts sufficient to deal with all the people coming into the criminal justice system needing help with mental illness and addiction?

PH: Anything that is resource-oriented is insufficient. I can tell you, we simply don’t have enough resources. The criminal justice system is a bad place to deliver public health services. That said, there aren’t enough resources that we actually can refer people to and say instead of going to jail, I’m going to refer you to counseling or inpatient treatment or whatever. We can only do that now if we invoke the involuntary commitment act, where you’ve actually got someone who is not competent to stand trial and is a danger to themselves or others.

The preference would be that we upstream all these things and avoid the criminality in the first place. That’s the problem. Say you’ve got someone who’s not a criminal, who’s an addict, or you’ve got someone who’s mentally ill, and then we try to say, ‘Well, we’re going to force you to get that treatment.’ We obviously need to do that when that’s the only option we have, and we need more resources to do that, but where I struggle and where the policy debate needs more calm discussion is, how are we going to allocate more policy resources upstream? Every time you say, ‘We’re going to call the cops and make an arrest,’ that’s some money that can’t go upstream. The pie ain’t getting any bigger.

“We can’t have backsliding right now, and the thing that’s going to make us most susceptible to backsliding right now is pandering.”

ECB: What would you consider to be upstream of even programs like [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, the pre-filing diversion program for low-level offenders] or arrest?

PH: It would be wonderful if we had universal health care, but if we were able to do as much as we can to compensate for the lack of universal health care, that alone would be a huge  public safety advance.

ECB: Would you support a program along the lines of Healthy San Francisco, which provides health care to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid but also can’t afford or access insurance?

PH: Again, it begs the resources question. It’s going to cost money. Obviously, it makes sense to me, because it’s going to get you the better solution, but I can just sit here and hear the counter-arguments—that, ‘Oh, it’s Freeattle all over again. You’re going to offer these services and attract more people.’ That’s going to be the debate, and it’s going to be so unhelpful. The role of the city attorney  is to make it more likely that that debate is going to happen and happen in a productive way, and I would support having that debate.

Read my pre-primary interview with Holmes, where we discussed even more issues, including encampment cleanups and the role of the Community Police Commission in police reform, here.

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 doing interviews like this one, which take an average of about 8-10 hours from start to finish. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers like you. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: A Framework for Inaction

1. Nearly every candidate in this year’s Seattle elections, from urban planner Cary Moon to labor crusader Teresa Mosqueda to former US attorney Jenny Durkan, calls herself (or himself) an “urbanist.” (Moon was even endorsed by The Urbanist blog.) But what are the candidates telling neighborhood groups—the sort of organizations that too often stand in the way of the kind of new housing that would move Seattle toward an actual urbanist future?

At a recent candidate forum held by a group of Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Ballard homeowners, Moon said she would “restart” the process of allowing more housing in neighborhoods so that people already living in those neighborhoods—incumbent property owners—can make sure that their “culture” and neighborhood “character” is preserved.

Asked about Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which allows modest increases in housing supply in non-single-family areas, Moon responded:

The HALA process was way too insular and top-down. It was a small group of people, behind closed doors, who decided that they had a compromise with each other that they unleashed on the world and said, ‘You shall do this.’ That is not the way we do things in Seattle. A better process would have been to go to neighborhoods and say, ‘We’re growing this much and we need to create a healthy society where people of all income levels and all ages and stages of life can live in your neighborhood. Here’s the target goals for your neighborhood. How can we achieve these goals together?’ And work directly with these neighbors around how they want to grow. Do you want duplexes? Row houses? Backyard cottages? Upzone your urban village? [Put] the whole range of tools on the table and work with neighborhoods to figure out, what is the right way for you to grow that preserves your culture and your character of your neighborhood that you care about. That is what we should have done. And I would restart that process at this point and have a new discussion based in those constructive approaches and that positive future vision, because that’s the only way we’re going to make change in this city.

Moon’s response parroted both anti-development activists like Jon Grant, who’s running on a socialist party platform for council Position 8, and property values activists like Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne homeowner who sued to prevent the city from allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in Seattle’s single-family areas. (Not to mention former mayor Mike McGinn, who ran unsuccessfully this year on a similar message).

Although Moon has, to her credit, been consistent with this let-the-neighborhoods-decide talking point (she said something similar to Transportation for Washington, the political arm of  the urbanist Transportation Choices Coalition, in their endorsement interview, and to me), she’s savvy enough to know that promises to preserve “your culture,” “neighborhood character,” and even “your neighborhood” are dog whistles,  not neutral policy goals. Assuring homeowners that the neighborhoods belong to them, not newcomers or renters, and defining “character” as “exclusive single-family areas” creates a framework for inaction, not a blueprint for growth.

2. On a more positive note, it’s been fun to see Moon and Durkan try to outdo each other with proposals to advance pay equity for women and in jobs primarily held by women over the past two weeks—something I’ve never seen from any male candidate for local elective office, ever. (This, in case you’re wondering, is one of many reasons we need more women in local positions—try to imagine any of the male council members of the past 50 years adding “gender pay equity” to the mission of a standing council committee, which Jean Godden did, or expanding that mission to “gender equity” in general, as Lorena Gonzalez did after Godden left the council.)

The latest shot across the bow comes from Moon, who on Monday proposed a set of rule changes to promote pay equity and transparency from large employers and an ordinance that would bar employers from asking prospective hires about their salary history. Women in Seattle currently make just 78 cents on the dollar compared to men doing similar work, one of the worst big-city pay gaps in the country. Salary history requests contribute to this gap, because when employers base salaries on women’s current pay in a system that underpays them, it only perpetuates the problem. In addition to the salary history ban, Moon proposed working toward a local version of state legislation that would have banned retaliation against workers for discussing their pay, prevented employers from paying some people less for doing the same work as other employees based on their job title, and tracking women into lower-paying jobs.

The pay gap, unsurprisingly, is even worse in the tech industry, where female programmers make, on average, almost 30 percent less than their male counterparts. Durkan is supported by the political arm of the Seattle Chamber, which includes the Washington Retail Association and the Washington Tech Industry Alliance, organizations that opposed SB 1605 this year. The Chamber’s PAC, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, has poured $86,000 into an independent expenditure group, People for Jenny. I reached out to Durkan’s campaign yesterday afternoon to find out whether she supports a ban on salary history or a local ordinance that mirrors 1605 and will update this post when I hear back from them.

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

How Programs Like “Our Best” Fail Black Girls: A Conversation With Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

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This story originally appeared on the South Seattle Emerald.

The story of the school-to-prison pipeline is a familiar one: Nationwide, young Black men in both public and private schools are more likely than their White counterparts to be disciplined, tracked into special education classes, and suspended for the same infractions, contributing to higher dropout rates and subsequent incarceration. Seattle is no exception to this nationwide phenomenon. In Seattle public schools, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as White boys to be referred to special education, and fall far behind their White counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores, to seventh-grade math proficiency, to graduation rates.

Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray announced a new initiative, called Our Best, that aims to close this achievement gap by doubling the number of Black male mentors, providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs that serve young Black men, and creating a new special advisor to the mayor on young Black male achievement. The program, which is modeled on former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, aims to increase the number of Black boys who graduate from high school, provide Black young men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful, well-paid employment,” and reduce the percentage of young Black men entering the criminal justice system.

Admirable as those goals may be, some advocates wonder: What about the girls? Young Black women face unique challenges that aren’t shared by young Black men, including pregnancy (four in 10 Black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason), lack of economic opportunity (the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts), and abuse (girls are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and harassment.) Black girls are also far more likely than Black boys to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single Black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for Black men and $41,500 for single White women.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University, was one of the first prominent African-American writers to ring the alarm bell about My Brother’s Keeper back in 2014 when she wrote a New York Times op/ed titled “The Girls Obama Forgot: My Brother’s Keeper Ignores Young Black Women.” (Crenshaw is also known for coining the term “intersectionality,” which describes overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression.) The following year, Crenshaw and the AAPF published a report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” which chronicled the “hidden toll of race on Black girls,” including the astonishing fact that Black girls are six times as likely as White girls to be suspended from school for the same infractions—a gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between Black and White boys.

I sat down with Crenshaw in Seattle earlier this summer.

Erica C. Barnett [ECB]: Mayor Ed Murray has argued, essentially, that if the city can address the achievement gap for young Black men, the benefits will accrue to all Black students, including young women, without the need for a separate program addressing young women’s specific needs. Specifically, part of the argument is that when boys end up in jail, it destabilizes the African-American family structure and forces women to take on all the responsibilities in a family, including earning a living and taking care of kids and other family members. What do you think of the argument that addressing Black boys’ issues will ultimately help address Black girls’ problems as well?

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw: Where do I start? Trickle-down social justice doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did. If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet. That ship has sailed. It sailed a long time ago. What’s most important is to recognize the ways that boys and girls who are from socially marginalized groups are marginalized by a variety of factors.

Gender correction is not at the source of the solutions for African-American people or for any people. These frameworks are effectively foregrounding a framework that appeared in the 1960s, and even at that time it wasn’t really accurate to what was happening. This is [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan effectively warmed over and reproduced over 50 years later. [Moynihan, who served as assistant labor secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote a now-infamous 1964 report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” that argued for racial self-help and the restoration of the traditional family as the solution to racial economic inequality]. The Moynihan thesis was basically that equality would always outpace what African-Americans were able to expect as long as their family structure was non-normative. To think that the source of inequality is incomplete socialization to gender norms is to ignore a whole variety of structural and historical dynamics that impact both boys and girls, men and women.

“If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet.”

So what about the job market? What about the under-resourcing of public schools? What about stereotypes about men and women, boys and girls? What about suspension and punishment that happens inside of schools and outside of schools? What about geographic isolation and segregation? All of these are structural, institutional, historical factors that together contribute to the wide variety of inequalities that African-Americans face? To essentially say that the problem is located in the individual, as opposed to the structure in which the individuals live, is to effectively let off the hook an entire history of subordination and do so by essentially saying that, ‘the inequality rests in you, Black boy,’ rather than in the society that constructs the situations in which people live.

ECB: If you were creating a program within a school system to address those structural inequalities more directly, what would it look like?

KWC: I think there should be targeted programs for socially marginal and struggling students, and those students come across all genders. It’s not just one gender that’s struggling. I think the measurement of what counts as a crisis is also a problem, because the conversation up ‘til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys.

We’ve heard all about the school-to-prison pipeline, the disproportionate suspension rates, and all that, but if you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys. Basically, it’s the way that we frame social problems that is the problem. Assuming that the girls are doing okay, or ‘the girls can wait,’ is basically assuming that ‘whatever is going on with you is basically irrelevant; the racial disparity between you and White girls is something that isn’t the primary point of concern.’

“If you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys.”

What we know is that the long-term consequences of being pushed out of school for girls are in some ways even more consequential over the long term, because the jobs available for girls without a high school diploma actually pay less than the jobs that are available for boys without a [high school] diploma. If you add to that the fact that the majority of Black children will, at some point in their lives, rely either wholly or in part on the income of their mothers—to ignore that, to ignore those real family formations [in exchange] for the ones that we fantasize about, is basically to say, ‘All of you can wait until we get the ideal family formation that we want.’

That kind of framing of families is almost only expressed with respect to racialized communities. Outside of that, we have a completely new idea about what counts as a family. We have a completely new idea about gender roles. But when it comes to remediation—treating Black folks as sort of in need of gender repair—we’re back to old ideas about that.

ECB: A lot of what I’ve heard from supporters of these kinds of programs is that Black women are strong; they can provide for themselves; they’re the rock for their families.

KWC: So what’s that saying? Black men and boys are weak? I think that’s the question that should get asked. Unfortunately, we have accepted this idea that there’s something uniquely vulnerable about the boy child, rather than saying, ‘okay, this is the way the entire system impacts boys and here’s the way it impacts girls.’ Sometimes they’re impacted the same, particularly relative to their White counterparts, but sometimes there are differences, too. There are a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by some of these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy.

“It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?”

ECB: For example?

KWC: Harassment that happens in school. The way that Black girls are often framed as unruly because of a stereotype about both Black people and girls, and that comes together and it makes it more likely that Black girls will be seen as acting out, having attitude. Obviously, the consequences of single parenting are greater for girls than they are for boys. Sexual abuse is more common for girls than it is for boys. So all this stuff gets sort of swept under the rug by saying, ‘Okay, you, girl, can wait so we can create Prince Charming for you.’ We need boys and girls who actualize their best capacity. We need to create opportunities for both of them and not create this fantasy where the girls can wait until the knight in shining armor comes along. Some of them don’t want a knight.

And then you add to that: How can we even be thinking about his when we’re starting to understand that gender is fluid? It’s not just two! So how’s that work? And where are the folks who are advocating for gender diversity when it comes to these issues? Where is the gay community? It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?

Seattle is about to choose a new mayor from among two White women. Although neither of the two candidates, Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan, have expressed an opinion about Our Best specifically, both have had what Crenshaw would call “non-normative” family experiences—Moon as a single mom and Durkan as the mother of two boys with her partner, who is a woman. For now, the city’s focus will remain on young Black men, whose mass incarceration, according to Office of Economic Director Brian Surrat, has “been very destabilizing to the African American family.” Surrat acknowledges that this “sounds like a very conservative argument,” and says the city does “need to have a different set of initiatives and investments targeting young Black women and Latinas, as well as the Southeast Asian community.”

However, the city has no specific plans for such an initiative, nor any details about what it might look like. For now, the city has decided that Our Best is good enough.

 

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Lorena Gonzalez

Incumbent city council member Lorena Gonzalez may have only been on the council for two years, but she has already made her mark as head of the council’s public safety and gender equity committee, which has spent the past five years, give or take, overseeing the implementation of police reforms in the city. (In 2012, the US Department of Justice ordered the Seattle Police Department to implement reforms to curb excessive force and racially biased policing, and a US district judge has refused to release the city from the consent decree until he is satisfied that the city is in compliance). Gonzalez, a civil rights attorney who was Mayor Ed Murray’s chief counsel before running for council in 2015, was the first council member to call on Murray to resign after the Seattle Times reported on records related to the sex-abuse case against him in Oregon, where a child-welfare investigator concluded that Murray had sexually abused his foster son in 1984.

I sat down with Gonzalez late last month at Uptown Espresso in West Seattle.

Image result for lorena gonzalez seattle

The C Is For Crank [ECB]: You were first council member to call for Murray to step down. How do you feel about that decision now?

LG: I feel as strongly today as I did then about needing to take a very strong moral position that the mayor should step down. It was hard for me to realize that I would be standing alone on that for quite some time, and I’m okay with that, because it was the right thing to do. I will always choose the side of survivors, and so if I could go back, I would do it all again.

ECB: I assume it’s damaged your relationship with the 7th floor.

LG: (Laughs.) I think I have had the great benefit of having really strong relationships with a lot of the mayor’s staff because they’re former coworkers and colleagues of mine, and I continue to work collaboratively with a lot of my former colleagues on the 7th floor to get done what we need to finish getting done. That being said, the mayor and I have not personally communicated since my announcement.

ECB: That must be hard, since you worked with him so closely in the past.

LG: This whole thing is hard because of that. He’s somebody that I respected. He’s somebody that I trusted. He’s somebody who motivated me enough to leave a ten-year-long career doing civil rights work and sexual survivor advocacy work that I really fundamentally believed in and loved. And personally, it was difficult for me to process and accept that the what I saw in the investigation file from Oregon was true. So that was very personally difficult to reconcile all that.

ECB: The city has made progress on police reform, but there are still gaps and calls for reform. What additional efforts would you like to see on police accountability and reform?

LG: I actually think we have made significant strides, but that doesn’t mean that we are close to being there yet, whatever ‘there’ is. The reality is that the [police accountability] ordinance that I sponsored, that was approved by unanimously by the council in May of 2017, hasn’t been implemented yet. And it hasn’t been implemented yet because we haven’t been able to convince the federal court to allow us to move forward with the ordinance, and part of that is because [federal district judge James Robart] has legitimate concerns around the powers that our police union holds in the collective bargaining process. And until we are able to convince the judge that we are willing to prioritize constitutional policing above all else, even in the collective bargaining process, then we will continue to be in  a place where this ordinance is in limbo and where some of the huge significant policy changes that are reflected in the ordinance won’t be implemented until we convince the judge that we’re willing to hold the line.

“I feel as strongly today as I did then about needing to take a very strong moral position that the mayor should step down. It was hard for me to realize that I would be standing alone on that for quite some time, and I’m okay with that, because it was the right thing to do. I will always choose the side of survivors, and so if I could go back, I would do it all again.”

ECB: Some reform proponents have suggested that police union negotiations be held in public. Why do you oppose that idea?

LG: I think that that’s a fundamentally anti-labor position. The reality is that the state really does dictate what the rules are around collective bargaining, and we as a city are beholden to those rules. I think what we have historically seen in the city of Seattle is that our agreed-upon system of accountability and discipline has historically been eroded in the collective bargaining process. So I think for me, what is more important is how do we engage in collective bargaining with unions where we make sure that there is no backsliding on the intent and purpose that we’re trying to accomplish through our legislation.

Something that I think could be incredibly powerful in that context, that has been suggested by people like retired judge Anne Levinson, is the idea of having a special monitor in the labor negotiation processes that would just be focused on tracking whether or not the proposed parameters or a final tentative labor agreement have caused some backsliding on what the actual intent and purpose is, as reflected in the police accountability legislation.  I think that level of technical assistance provides more real information about whether or not there’s backsliding than just allowing sort of people who might not understand the intricacies of these policies to speculate as to whether or not they’re working.

ECB: Would part of the aim of creating a monitor position be to satisfy the objections of people who want to give the CPC more authority over things like hiring and firing the police chief and instigating investigations?

LG: I think we’ve empowered the Community Police Commission to the extent that they want to be empowered.  The CPC did not ask for a system that doesn’t look like what it looks like now. They asked to have the role that they currently have in this version of the ordinance. They did not ask for the power to fire the chief. They did not ask for the ability to discipline or do individual investigations. And they fundamentally wanted to stay focused on, how can we create a table of community leaders and members who would have the power and ability to do systemic review and make fundamental recommendations to change those systems if the system becomes unhealthy. And that’s what they decided as a democratic body to advocate for in this legislation, and that’s what’s reflected in the legislation.

ECB: Given that we’ll have a new mayor next year,  I wondered if there’s any part of HALA that you would want to revisit once Murray is out of office.

LG: I’d like to spend more time thinking about displacement tools. A lot of times, people think the mandatory housing affordability program is an anti-displacement tool, but in reality, it really is designed to increase the stock of affordable housing for people of a certain income. It’s not the very low or extremely low-income folks. And so I do think there’s an opportunity for city council to really step into the anti-displacement arena.

“The CPC did not ask for a system that doesn’t look like what it looks like now. They asked to have the role that they currently have in this version of the ordinance. They did not ask for the power to fire the chief. They did not ask for the ability to discipline or do individual investigations.”

I continue to be really interested in having the conversations around opening up more of our single-family zones to multifamily housing. And it’s obviously a very delicate conversation to have, and it’s delicate for a variety of reasons. But just because it’s a tough conversation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have it. And we should explore best practices in terms of how we can best engage the community and how we can pilot at least a version of what I think there is interest in doing.

ECB: Given how controversial the mandatory housing affordability (MHA) program was at first, it’s been interesting to watch the council pass every upzone unanimously.

LG: But it’s because it’s in urban villages.

ECB: Right—the problem is that we have single-family zones where you can’t even build a duplex. Were you disappointed when Murray pulled back on opening up single-family zones to more types of development so quickly?

LG: I think it’s fair to say that I wish we could have had more of an opportunity to really see how the conversation could have unfolded. These conversations are really tough, right, because we’re talking about fundamentally changing parts  of the city that have never had to change, so I think we could have potentially benefited from allowing the city and its residents more time to have that public conversation.

ECB: How do you think the mayor’s navigation teams have been performing, in terms of getting people in tents into safer shelter as well as into permanent housing?

LG: I think it’s better than what we had before. I will say that I share concerns about having the Office for Civil Rights being effectively the auditor of how that outreach is occurring around the encampment conversation as a whole, which is where these navigation teams are being used primarily. The Office for Civil Rights has an inherent conflict because they are a department of the executive and it’s a very small office, and I just don’t know how a small office like that could reconcile that conflict of interest and be a true independent auditor.

ECB: How would you resolve that conflict?

LG: I think that the Office for Civil Rights should be its own independent office that has stand-alone authority, similar to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and hopefully someday soon similar to the Community Police Commission, or to shift that work to the city auditor’s office. I’m not sure that there is any other way to ensure that that work isn’t being unduly influenced by the political will of the executive.

 

“I think that impounding somebody’s vehicle as a result of unpaid fines and tickets is not helping our homelessness situation.”

 

ECB: Mike O’Brien has proposed creating a new program where people living in cars and RVs could get immunity from tickets in exchange for accepting services. Is that approach something you’ll support?

LG: Council member O’Brien’s approach is one that makes some sense to me in terms of requiring people to sign up to be part of this registration program. And that would allow outreach workers to know exactly where you’re at, and it also requires you as a person who’s camping to commit to be engaged in service efforts. So I think that that component of give and take is an important one, and it imposes a responsibility on campers that doesn’t currently exist.

I think that impounding somebody’s vehicle as a result of unpaid fines and tickets is not helping our homelessness situation. That, to me, is not a harm reduction approach to the situation. The only thing that we gain by continuing to tack on legal fees that lead to an impoundment is moving people from camping in cars to camping outside and I don’t think that that’s what any of us want. I think the big, tough question will be, how do we administer it? How do we fund this program? And at this point we don’t know what the funding would be. And is that how we should be using our funds in the context of also shifting towards upping our investments in permanent supportive housing?

 

ECB: When the Poppe Report on homelessness came out and the city started moving away from transitional housing in favor of a rapid rehousing approach, you expressed concern that domestic violence victims and others who currently use transitional housing might be shut out in the new housing-voucher-based system. Do you still have those concerns?

LG: I will continue to track that particular issue. I had heard from the Human Services Department that that is a question of prioritization of the funds and have been assured that those individuals—families and survivors—are at the top of the priority list, as some of the most vulnerable populations within a vulnerable population.

ECB: How did you feel when the Seattle Times endorsed your opponent, Pat Murakami?

LG: Oh gosh—it was really disappointing to me, and on a professional level, it felt more like a referendum on the entire  city council, on the work that we have been doing over the last two years. And I accept the fact that I am the only incumbent running for reelection in the city government besides the city attorney, but it really just felt like there was an unloading of sorts that needed to happen, and I was going to be the person who was going got be on the receiving end of that. I think it’s unfortunate, because I do believe that the city is moving in the right direction, and I think that that is in part because of the leadership that the city council has provide over the last two years. I think that, at the end of the day, my primary election results show that people are still happy with the work that I’m doing on the city council and with the direction of the city.

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Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail Station?

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

Plans to turn some of the land immediately adjacent to the Rainier Beach light rail station into the centerpiece of a new “food innovation district”—a proposed network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—remain stalled, after a property that advocates hoped would serve as the hub for that district sold last month to a company controlled by a local landlord who owns numerous single-family homes in the area.

As the Emerald reported back in May, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had hoped to purchase the property on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and S. Henderson St., which is currently the site of a Mexican grocery store. Those plans were thwarted when another bidder, former city council member (and onetime food innovation district champion) Richard Conlin, outbid RBAC. (At the time, Conlin said he had no idea RBAC was bidding on the property, which he planned to develop as affordable artist housing). However, Conlin subsequently withdrew his bid, and the property sold to a mystery backup bidder.

The new owner, the Emerald has learned, is Greg Goodwin, a Rainier Beach landlord who owns and leases about a dozen single-family houses in the blocks surrounding the light-rail station. (Goodwin is the son of the late Albert (A.C.) Goodwin, a longtime property owner and manager in the area; the Goodwin family companies now include Greg D. Goodwin Co., Civetta Properties, and Roan Properties, which purchased the light-rail station property through a Las Vegas-based subsidiary called Radner Properties).

Neither Goodwin nor his sister Gael Goodwin, who is listed as the agent for the now-defunct A.C. Goodwin Properties, returned calls seeking comment about their plans for the property. David Sauvion, the co-founder of RBAC and coordinator for the food innovation district, says RBAC has tried to reach out to the family but “they don’t want anything to do with us. They are difficult to engage.” However, Sauvion says he has heard that “they have no short-term plan for the property; as far as we know, the space will stay vacant.”

Although the first leg of Sound Transit’s Link light rail opened nearly a decade ago, the corridor still has no shortage of vacant properties. Many are owned by Sound Transit—recognizable by their chain link fences and gravel lots, which leaf-blower-wielding workers periodically clear of trash and other detritus. So why are there so still many empty lots along the southern leg of the light rail line in the Rainier Valley? And why is it so hard to build new housing at light rail stations in South Seattle, given that “transit-oriented development” is such a critical component of new light-rail stations elsewhere in the city?

To answer those questions, you have to go back to the early 2000s, when light rail was still immensely controversial in the Valley. At the time, a group called Save Our Valley (whose members included Pat Murakami, a current candidate for Seattle City Council) was fighting to force Sound Transit to run its rail line underground instead of at-grade in order to minimize the impact on neighborhood businesses. Although SOV lost that battle, Sound Transit tacitly acknowledged their objections in its approach to buying land-use for light-rail construction staging in the area; they aimed, in the words of Sound Transit land use and planning director Brooke Belman, to “take the smallest amount of property as possible and acquire as minimal a footprint as possible. … The [Sound Transit] board, at the time, was certainly cognizant of not wanting to buy too much property from the existing property owners down there.”

The result was that Sound Transit was left with a large number of oddly shaped “remnant” properties that can’t be easily developed, including parking strips, narrow parcels immediately in front of existing businesses, and those weird fenced-in lots that dot the length of the light rail line.

Today, Belman says, Sound Transit’s approach to property acquisition “has done about a 180” since a decade ago. If light rail was being built in the Valley today, “We probably would have consolidated a lot of the staging that we did instead of just leaving those remnants.”

One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own. “There was a lot of hope that private development would come right behind us in the Rainier Valley” and start to create residential and retail hubs at the stations, she says. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.

Sound Transit isn’t the only agency responsible for the lack of development at the Rainier Beach station; the city—specifically the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department, now known as the Office of Planning and Community Development—bears some of the responsibility as well. Right now, much of the land near the light rail station is still zoned for exclusive single-family use, rendering it off-limits for new apartment, townhouse, row house, duplex, or retail developments. The rest is low-rise or neighborhood commercial—land use designations that allow things like townhouses and four-story apartment buildings, not the kind of intense development seen at other stations (like Columbia City a few miles up the road.)

That is slated to change under HALA—the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the station area, allowing four-to-seven-story buildings—but the fact remains that the zoning throughout much of the Rainier Beach station area is more fitting for a sleepy area with limited transit access—say, Blue Ridge—than a growing, but still relatively affordable, community within a few blocks of a major light rail hub.

Robert Scully, OCPD’s point person on Rainier Beach station development, says former mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to begin work on rezoning the area, but that work stalled under new Mayor Ed Murray, who wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to updating land use throughout the whole city. “We had a rezone proposal kind of ready to go up to the mayor’s office; we just got held up,” Scully says. That proposal would have provided incentives for food production facilities—in other words, a food innovation hub. Now, Murray is focused on affordable housing, not food production.

The land also presents other challenges—it’s shoehorned into a valley, with rising hills on each side, which makes large developments challenging and expensive. The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell. And there’s really no way, Scully says, for the city to force land owners to include food production in private developments.

“We live in a political system and an economy that’s heavily based on property rights and the real estate market,” he says. “In doing this for the past five years, I’ve kind of arrived at the conclusion that the best tool is for the community, maybe in partnership with a developer or a nonprofit, to actually [purchase] some land down there—enough so that they could actually develop this facility, and that could help influence other development in the area.” Of course, that’s what RBAC had hoped to do. For now, the land will remain vacant.

“We tried,” Sauvion says.