Late Morning Crank: New Homelessness Policies and New Streetcar Claims

1. Update: The mayor’s office says they have been briefing council members on the four elements of its homelessness strategy (spending and accountability, crisis response/creating safer spaces, regional coordination, and affordable housing) but is not rolling out any major new policies. Mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas says rumors around ramped-up enforcement could be related to the previously announced additional $500,000 the city plans to spend on its Navigation Teams. As for the idea that the city plans to implement involuntary commitment to detox for addicted people who decline assistance from Navigation Team members, Formas pointed to a letter to the co-chairs of the One Table task force signed by the mayors of Auburn, Renton, Kent, Bellevue, and Kirkland suggesting that the leaders of the regional initiative (which has been dormant for months but is meeting again next week), should consider “involuntary treatment for those presenting an imminent likelihood of serious harm to self or others, or who are gravely disabled as a result of substance use disorder” and who refuse to go to treatment. Should this become an element of the One Table implementation strategy, it would mean forcing people into short-term detox, which has not been shown to be effective for treating severe addiction.

Original item: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has reportedly been briefing city council members on a new policy related to homelessness that, rumor has it, involves more strenuous enforcement of the city’s anti-trespassing and no-camping laws. Conversations with folks on the second floor and advocates working on homelessness-related issues indicate that the new policy could involve involuntary commitments for people suffering from addiction under Ricky’s Law, which allows adults to beheld for up to 17 days in “secure withdrawal management and stabilization facilities,” AKA secure detox, if they are available; since the state and King County would ultimately be responsible for actually funding detox beds, this could be a way of putting pressure on the county for ramping up detox funding. Currently, there are only a few dozen detox beds available in all of King County, including a recently opened facility on Beacon Hill that filled an existing gap in care left by the closure of Recovery Centers of King County; that facility has 32 beds for patients needing detox. Formas said they would be “doing some action items on homelessness and affordability next week.”

So far, according to council log-in sheets, the mayor’s office has met with council public safety committee chair Lorena Gonzalez, council president Bruce Harrell (both yesterday), and council members Mike O’Brien  and Sally Bagshaw (this morning). I will update as I learn more.

2. I reported last week on the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenging a tiny house village” encampment in South Lake Union on the grounds that it violates state environmental rules. One thing I didn’t discuss in detail is the fact that the reason the city has been able to authorize so many tiny house villages—seven, at the moment, or four more than are allowed under a city ordinance limiting the total number of authorized encampments to three—is that each of the new authorized camps has been approved on a rolling conditional basis under what’s known as a “type 1 permit.” Such permits, which must be renewed every four weeks, are meant for temporary uses such as temporary fire and police station relocations or farmers’ markets, as well as any other temporary use that’s meant to last four weeks or less. Type 1 permits can be approved administratively, meaning that they don’t have to go through a lengthy public hearing process or the usual environmental review. (The Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenges this premise, and also argues that temporary encampments should be Type 2 decisions, which require more process and are more involved.)

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This struck me as a peculiar way of permitting encampments, given that the city has decided as a matter of policy and law that only three encampments should be allowed citywide. I’m no lawyer, but it also seems like an area where the city could be legally vulnerable—if the city wants to allow more than three encampments, then why not do so through the legislative process, by changing the law, instead of using this workaround? The city attorney’s office had no comment on the legal ramifications of using Type 1 four-week permits to allow tiny house villages.  Wendy Shark, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says temporary permits are only for “encampments that are also in the process of applying for the 6-month temporary use permit.  In every case, encampments needing temporary use permits are applying for the 6-month permit or will soon apply.  Since the 6-month permit is a ‘Type II’ application involving public notice and opportunity to appeal to the City’s Hearing Examiner, the Type I four-week permit is a means to establish an encampment in the short term while the longer public process occurs.”

However, since city law currently restricts the total number of longer-term encampments to three, Shark adds that “legislation will be needed to change the current number of interim use encampments that are permitted.”

3. Local transportation Twitter was buzzing this week over a couple of articles about Seattle projects aimed at improving mobility for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. I covered the first, a Crosscut editorial claiming that bike lanes are only for rich white people,  on Wednesday. The second, an article by Times reporter David Gutman, repeated claims from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the delayed downtown streetcar may be too bulky, and use the wrong track gauge, to connect to the existing South Lake Union and First Hill lines. I reported on the same claims in a brief item Wednesday morning, noting that if the claims turned out to be true, it would represent a significant embarrassment for the city along the lines of the time when Sound Transit had to go in and remove tracks installed by King County Metro in the downtown transit tunnel because they were the wrong size for light rail.

Yesterday, however, transit advocates began to dispute the mayor’s claims, and Gutman’s story, pointing out that both of the two types of streetcar bodies that would run along the connected line use the same standard gauge (1435-millimeter) track, and that the difference in the car widths is relatively trivial. The new cars, built by CAF USA, would be about ten feet longer than existing streetcars, which were manufactured by Inekon. The print and current online editions of Gutman’s story include context about the likely actual size of the vehicles and the fact that the gauge of the tracks is compatible with both cars, contrary to what Durkan implied in her statement, which suggested that the city does not even know if “the new vehicles [are] compatible with the current track gauge.”

However, the story that the  Times initially ran online did not include any of that information. After it went up, both FOX News and local conservative radio host Dori Monson latched on to what FOX calls the “streetcar fiasco,” which FOX described, in typical FOX fashion, as the latest setback for a left-wing mayor trying to raise her national profile with “fervent attacks against the Trump administration over immigration, climate change and abortion.”  Monson, meanwhile, suggested that former SDOT director Scott Kubly “should be in prison” and that former King County executive Ron Sims is a fake “man of God” who is destined for hell.

When I asked mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas about the mayor’s statement Tuesday night, she said, “we do know that the cars are heavier, wider, and longer than the current cars, but engineers are looking at all the facts in the context of these cars running on the full system.” On Wednesday, Formas followed up with more details, acknowledging that the tracks are technically compatible with the new cars and that the new vehicles are actually slightly narrower than the existing streetcars, but adding that “evaluation of the existing conditions related to track gauge is necessary to provide accurate data to CAF so that they can account for these differences in the design of the track and wheel profile for the CAF vehicle.”

In addition to concerns about whether the new streetcars would fit into the existing maintenance barn, Formas said that the “dynamic envelope” of the streetcar, which includes both width and length, raised concerns about the vehicles “hit[ting] other elements in the ROW, such as trees, signage, curbs, and poles as they travel along the track.” The streetcar will be still about six inches narrower than a typical King County Metro bus, which are eight and a half feet wide (compared to eight feet, .038 inches for the new streetcars and eight feet, .085 inches for the existing ones.)

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