Planning Director Seeks Job In Boulder, More Details on Derelict RVs, and Throwing Cold Water on Bike Lane Praise

Image via City of Seattle

As the city council goes on its annual summer recess (and I return from a quick vacation), some notes on what’s been happening in the city over the past couple of weeks:

• Seattle Office of Planning and Development director Sam Assefa is a finalist for a job as head of the planning department in Boulder, CO, where he served as senior urban designer for six years. Assefa, a holdover from the Ed Murray administration whose standing in the Durkan administration has been in question for a while, has presided over the passage and implementation of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which included upzones in neighborhoods across Seattle, as well as the implementation of new rules designed to allow more density in single-family neighborhoods. Durkan has not made land use and zoning a top priority during her first two years in office, and many at the city have expressed surprise that Assefa has managed to stick around so long.

At the same time, the city is hiring a chief of staff for the department. (A similar position was recently created in the Human Services Department’s homelessness division, whose former director, Tiffany Washington, has moved to a position in the Department of Education and Early Learning.) The department is small—about 40 employees—prompting some to wonder whether this position is necessary, and to whom the new chief of staff will be accountable—the director, or the mayor.

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• Council members continued to question Mayor Jenny Durkan’s legislation aimed at curbing abuse by RV “landlords” who buy up “extensively damaged vehicles” and rent them out to people who would otherwise be unsheltered. The legislation would create new penalties, including fines and restitution requirements, for anyone who “allows” another person to live in an RV that meets two or more criteria, including cracked windows, visible trash, and leaks. The restitution—up to $2,000—would be paid directly by the RV owner, not the city. A companion administrative action by the mayor’s office authorizes the city to impound derelict RVs and destroy them along with their contents.

Durkan’s staffers didn’t appear in person at last Wednesday’s finance and neighborhoods committee hearing, but her office did provide a memo answering some of the questions the council posed earlier this month, including how common the problem of predatory RV rental really is.

According to Durkan’s memo, the city has identified four predatory vehicle owners, and between 30 and 40 vehicles that are being rented out as substandard housing, in the city. “We are certain, however, that the number of vehicle landlords is higher than four,” the memo adds; for example, the unsigned memo says, some people seem to own just one vehicle and rent to just one “victim” at a time. Council members pointed out that the legislation is written broadly enough that it could apply not just to victimized renters but to people living in a friend’s or partner’s vehicle for free.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who has been a critic of the legislation, asked council central staffer Jeff Simms how much the city has spent cracking down on predatory RV landlords already and how much providing outreach to displaced RV renters will cost. Simms said the mayor’s office believes that “the staffing available now at [the city’s Human Services Department] should be sufficient” to connect this group of people (however large it ends up being) to whatever services are available, and noted that the legislation doesn’t require case workers to be present when the city is evicting people from these makeshift shelters. The city’s Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized encampments, will be responsible for outreach to residents of “extensively damaged vehicles.”

According to Durkan’s memo, the city has identified four predatory vehicle owners, and between 30 and 40 vehicles that are being rented out as substandard housing, in the city. “We are certain, however, that the number of vehicle landlords is higher than four,” the memo adds.

Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien pointed out some of the disparities between the way the legislation treats RV residents and the way the city treats housed people in similar conditions. “If we saw someone with a home” surrounded by piles of clothing and trash, like some of the RVs the mayor’s office included in their August 9 presentation, “we would send case manager, because it would be considered hoarding,” Mosqueda said. Similarly, O’Brien said, tenants in uninhabitable apartments have access to far more restitution and relocation assistance up front than homeless RV residents would have under Durkan’s proposal, which would cap restitution at a maximum of $2,000, to be paid by the “landlord,” and provide no relocation assistance at all.

“Compare that to what is in our landlord-tenant laws, which provide for the greater of either three months’ rent or triple the actual damages,” O’Brien said, and “that’s just for the restitution. The relocation assistance is the greater of three months or a minimum of $2,000,” advanced by the city. A tenant paying $1,500 a month, in other words, would be entitled to at least $6,000, payable immediately, while someone living in a rundown RV might get up to $2,000 eventually, if their landlord has the means and inclination to pay.

First, unlike other bike lanes that the city has scaled back or eliminated (35th Ave. NE, the stalled 4th Ave. protected bike lane) the 8th Ave. bike lane wasn’t paid for with city funds. Second, the paint-and-post lane is only temporary.

• O’Brien, who has proposed a number of new rules meant to ensure that proposed bike lanes actually get built, praised Durkan Friday for showing up to the opening of a new one-way protected bike lane on 8th Ave. in Belltown. Local advocates also praised the mayor for attending the ribbon-cutting and saying some kind words about bike lanes; Seattle Bike Blog said they hoped the gesture was an “olive branch” that could signal a bike-friendly turn for the administration, and a member of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board told me they saw it as “a public statement” from the mayor “that she values biking.”

As usual, here comes the cold water. First, unlike other bike lanes that the city has scaled back or eliminated (35th Ave. NE, the stalled 4th Ave. protected bike lane) the 8th Ave. bike lane wasn’t paid for with city funds, but with $6 million of a $16 million payment from the developers of the Convention Center expansion into a multimodal fund that will also pay for new bike lanes connecting the Pike-Pine corridor to downtown.

Second, the paint-and-post lane is only temporary; the real debate, if there is one, won’t happen until after the end of Durkan’s first term, when the city discusses how and whether to build the far more expensive permanent iteration of the bike lane. According to an SDOT spokeswoman, the paint and posts cost just $450,000; the remaining $5,550,000 will be spent building a permanent PBL “as soon as 2023.” Mark Prentice, a Durkan spokesman, says the permanent bike lane will be built “out of concrete and asphalt like what’s on 2nd Ave. and 7th Ave., but that the exact details haven’t been worked out yet.

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