Fact-Checking the Homelessness Claims in the Mayor’s State of the City Speech

As I mentioned in my post about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s second State of the City speech, the mayor’s statements touting the city’s achievements on homelessness deserve some additional scrutiny and context. In her speech, the mayor claimed that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018 alone. Separately, the mayor stated that the city had made “historic” investments in new enhanced shelter beds “that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have.”

Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

The mayor’s claim that the city “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018—an increase from about 5,500 in 2017— is misleading. In fact, it overstates the likely number of actual households (or “families,” as the mayor’s office put it in a social media graphic that accompanied the speech) in two key ways. First, the number is based on data from the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), used nationwide to track homeless people’s use of services. HMIS doesn’t track households; it tracks exits from programs. This means that Durkan is conflating the number of exits from programs with the number of families exiting homelessness.

For example: Under HMIS, every exit from a single program (say, food assistance, shelter, hygiene, or case management) counts as a single “exit.” That means a single household using three different services would count as three exits, not one. (“Household” refers to heads of households; according to King County, 77 percent of people who are homeless are in households consisting of one or two adults.) If the average household used just two services over the time they were homeless—and the city is working to get people to access more services, not less, in an effort to help people find housing faster—that would mean that Durkan would be overstating the number of exits from homelessness by 100 percent. This is a hypothetical—the city was unable to provide the actual number of families exited from homelessness—but given that the city has moved toward enhanced shelters, which allow people to access many services in one place, it seems more likely that people are simply using more services than that there are thousands of new people successfully moving through the homeless service system and into housing every single year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the city’s Human Services Department, acknowledges that the 7,400 number “doesn’t reflect the number of individuals” moving from homelessness into housing. She says the exit numbers “are really meant to show how our programs are doing overall. So from our point of view, it doesn’t matter to us if somebody uses one or two or six programs to get to housing, it matters that they get there.”

That makes sense—but it’s not the same thing as “help[ing] over 7,400 households move into permanent housing,” as Durkan put it. Olberding says that the city currently has no way to extrapolate a number of households from that figure. “This is the imperfection of the system as we have it, “she says.

The city’s own guidance on homeless service terminology flags this as an issue (emphasis added):

• Exits are captured for each project type (Prevention, Rapid Rehousing, Emergency Shelter, for example) in HMIS. One exit does not equal one household in HMIS. An exit represents an activity of a household in HMIS.

• For this reason, in the count of total exits to permanent housing, there may be duplicated households. This duplication would occur, for example, when one household uses the services of outreach, shelter, and rapid rehousing to find permanent housing and exit the system. This example would result in three exits, from three project types, for one household.

• HMIS cannot currently support de-duplicating households in the number of total exits to permanent housing.

To characterize each of those “exits” as a “household” or “family” who successfully found housing, therefore, is almost certainly to overstate the success of local programs in getting people into housing—perhaps dramatically. This kind of overstatement can have the perverse result of making it harder to win public support for initiatives to help the thousands of people currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Seattle. It isn’t a trivial matter, and it’s something the city itself has noted is a problem.

The second issue with the claim that the city has moved 7,400 families from homelessness to housing in the past year is that the number includes an unknown number of people who are already housed in permanent supportive housing, and stayed in that housing—that is, people who aren’t actually homeless. (People who are actually homeless can be moved into permanent housing through a variety of means, including diversion, prevention, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing, among others.)

The city acknowledges that their count includes people who live in permanent supportive housing and maintain their housing, but they don’t track how many. However, All Home, the agency that tracks homeless service results in King County, does. Extrapolating from the numbers on All Home’s System Performance Dashboard, which includes countywide numbers for 12 months starting in July 2017, and the group’s latest Count Us In report, which estimates that about 70 percent of King County’s homeless population lives in Seattle, it’s possible to estimate that about 3,900 households in Seattle that are counted as exiting from homelessness are in that category because they maintained their existing permanent supportive housing, not because they were homeless and became housed. Durkan took office at the end of 2017, so that extrapolation is obviously not apples to apples. But it does give a sense of how much lower the likely number of actual households moved from homelessness into housing is than the “7,400 households” the mayor claimed.

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 3.08.35 PM.png

The mayor also claimed in her speech that the city has “made investments in our 24/7 shelters that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have” and  “delivered on an historic 25 percent expansion of our City’s shelter space – opening more than 500 new safe places in Seattle.” This statement is confusing, because it conflates a number of different programs—including enhanced shelters (24/7 low-barrier shelters that provide one-stop access to many different services), basic shelters (overnight-only shelters with minimal services) and other kinds of “safe spaces” like authorized encampments. Overall, the city did add 516 new “safe places” between 2017 and 2019. But 220 of these are brand-new basic shelter beds of the kind Durkan (accurately) derided as less effective in her speech, including 100 new overnight beds in a King County shelter at Harborview Hall, plus 80 mats in the lobby of city hall. The 516 “safe spaces” also include motel vouchers for 40 rooms (which accounts for up to 60 “beds”) and space in tiny house encampments for about 100 people. (Under federal HUD criteria, these people are technically considered unsheltered.) Overall, the city added about 366 actual shelter beds (of all kinds) between 2017 and 2018—an achievement, but one that has to be put in context. And the context is that, far from being the kind of enhanced shelter spaces that, as the mayor put it, “are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have,” these new spaces are largely examples of the kind of shelters that have shown little success at moving people into permanent housing.

The mayor actually could have highlighted a different number—a promising sign buried in the statistics. Since 2017, the city has done a significant amount of work converting basic shelter beds to enhanced shelters—a significant and important move in the direction of spending money on what works. Here’s what numbers provided by the mayor’s office show:  In 2017, there were 1713 total shelter beds, of which 749 were enhanced—meaning that they included services, allowed people to keep their pets and possessions, and do not kick people out in the morning or require people to line up at night.  By the end of 2018 (“2019” in the chart below), there were 2079 total beds, of which 1411 were enhanced. That’s a major shift away from basic shelter to enhanced shelter—an improvement that the city should absolutely be touting as a success.

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. 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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. 

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Focus on Affordable Housing, Modest Goals in Mayor’s “City of the Future” Speech

Screen shot from Seattle Channel because the room where Durkan spoke was pitch black inside.

Last year, when she delivered her first State of the City speech after just three months in office, Mayor Jenny Durkan called herself “the Impatient Mayor,” and laid out a laundry list of goals for her first year. On the list: Free college for all high school graduates; “bust[ing] through gridlock” by improving access to transit and making roads and sidewalks safer for cyclists and pedestrians; increasing infrastructure for electric cars and promoting green buildings; and doubling the number of people the city moves from homelessness into permanent housing.

Support

This year, Durkan hit on similar themes—climate; affordability; transit access; affordable housing—and made her best case that the city has made progress on all those fronts during her first year in office. In the past year, Durkan said, the city has passed the Seattle Promise program to give high school graduates two free years at a Seattle community college; offered free ORCA transit passes to thousands of high school students; “invested over $710 million together with our partners in affordable housing”;  made “the largest shelter increase in our city’s history,” and passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which guarantees new minimum wages and rest breaks to Seattle domestic workers. Durkan also said the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” during her first year in office.

The housing numbers are debatable. The $710 million figure comes mostly from non-city funding, such as the state housing trust fund, and private dollars (see chart above).  And, although Durkan can say that she achieved her goal of 500 new shelter spaces, the majority of these are basic shelter (mats on floors or bunk beds in open dorms in places like Harborview Hall, a new nighttime-only King County shelter, run by the Salvation Army) or spots in authorized encampments and “tiny house villages” where people live in small garden-shed-like structures with heating and doors that lock. Enhanced, low-barrier shelter—shelters that provide services, give people a place to be during the day, and allow residents to stay with their partners and pets—have a much higher success rate than other models at getting people into permanent housing. Last year, for example, the city’s Human Services Department reported that 21 percent of people entering enhanced shelter exited shelter into permanent housing; for basic shelter, that number was 4 percent.

Harborview Hall. Beds were scheduled to be installed shortly after this photo was taken last December.

Durkan’s claim to have moved “more than 7,400 households… out of homelessness” also demands scrutiny. The mayor’s office confirms that that number includes not only people who went from homelessness into housing (the city created 360 new affordable housing units last year, Durkan said in her speech) but those who were at risk of homelessness and managed to stay housed. Durkan’s office has not yet responded to a request for a more detailed breakdown of the 7,400 figure.

State of the City speeches are rarely the vehicle for mayors to announce major new initiatives, and Durkan kept her list of new proposals modest: Requiring all new buildings that have off-street parking, including new duplexes and single-family houses, to include charging infrastructure for electric vehicles; a new $1,000 scholarship to help income-eligible participants in the Seattle Promise program pay for non-tuition college expenses; providing free transit passes to about 1,500 low income Seattle Housing Authority tenants; expanding Ride2, King County Metro’s on-demand van program in West Seattle, to serve commuters in South Seattle. And she said she would issue an “executive order to refocus our work on strategies to prevent displacement and displacement” on Wednesday.

Mike O’Brien, 10-Year Council Veteran, Will Not Seek Reelection

Telling a group of supporters that included housing, social justice, and environmental advocates, that he was “going to try to smile,” city council member Mike O’Brien announced Wednesday that he would not run for reelection after 10 years on the council. The announcement, which he made in his office at city hall, capped off months of speculation about whether the embattled environmental-activist-turned-veteran-politician would bow out to avoid what was sure to be a bruising reelection campaign. O’Brien is the fourth of the seven council incumbents whose seats are on the 2019 ballot who has said he will not seek reelection; the others are Bruce Harrell (District 2), Rob Johnson (District 4), and Sally Bagshaw (District 7).

O’Brien, elected in 2009 on the same ballot as his fellow Sierra Club leader and onetime colleague, former mayor Mike McGinn, started his time on the council as a climate change-focused environmental champion and ended as an earnest (if not always effective) advocate for people with few friends in city hall—people experiencing homelessness, opponents of the proposed new youth jail, and people living with addiction and mental illness who, as O’Brien put it in a three-page document outlining his accomplishments, engage in “criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral needs or poverty.”

A poll last year, conducted by O’Brien’s consultant WinPower Strategies, reportedly showed that the incumbent was unpopular in his district, which elected him by a 23-percent margin in 2015. (O’Brien was initially elected citywide, but his seat became a district position when the city switched to district elections for 7 of the 9 council members in 2015.) Dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s leadership was on full display last May, when a meeting to discuss a proposed employee hours tax on large businesses, which O’Brien supported, devolved into a profane, one-sided shouting match. (O’Brien, who is known for showing up at meetings that he knows will be stacked with angry opponents, reportedly almost left.) It may be that O’Brien’s district, which has experienced many of the same challenges as other parts of the city such as visible encampments, open drug use, and rising property crime, had really had enough. Or it could be that O’Brien might have found more support in his district than is evident at public-comment sessions and on forums like Facebook and NextDoor, but didn’t care to spend the next months finding out.

K.C. Golden, of 350 Seattle, and council member Mike O’Brien.

“There are a lot of people that are scared, that are frustrated, and that shows up as fear and hate sometimes in a way that’s kind of ugly, but the base emotions are real,” O’Brien said. “People are nervous about our future is like. I really wish that politics in Seattle weren’t so divisive… because we do need to find ways to come together.”

One reason O’Brien waited as long as he did to announce he wasn’t running, according to several sources close to him, was that he wanted to see if another candidate he could support came forward. So far, it appears that none have. “We need great leadership going forward,” O’Brien said . “I’ll admit that I have some nervousness about the uncertainty of what that leadership looks like.” But, he added, “I feel like I need to step back and trust that the system is going to work.”

Support

Editor’s note: The caption on a photo accompanying this story originally misspelled the name of 350 Seattle’s K.C. Golden.

Why Does This Seattle Affordable Housing Provider Evict So Many Tenants?

Image result for lihi housing seattleThis story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.

“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.

“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.

LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”

It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”

Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.

“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”

See my story on Seattle’s eviction court here.

Audit Calls Seattle’s Approach to Homelessness “A Dangerous Guess”

A new city audit of the Navigation Team, which looks at data that the city’s Human Services Department collected during the second quarter of 2018, concludes that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies who do outreach to people living unsheltered; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time (and who would be prime candidates for low-cost diversion programs); does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. Data from the executive branch has lagged significantly, which is one reason the auditor is just now releasing a report on the second quarter of last year.

The Navigation Team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, consists of uniformed police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and provide referrals to available shelter beds and services. Although most people living in encampments simply move along to the next place (or return to the same place), some do accept services or go in to shelters, and when those shelters are enhanced shelters—shelters that accept people as they are, with active addictions and partners and possessions they don’t want to give up—they sometimes lead to permanent housing.

Support

The problem, the audit says, is that the city does not have a rigorous system of analysis in place for tracking the Navigation Team’s success at getting people into housing, so it’s difficult to say whether the team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, has been successful. As council member Lisa Herbold put it in a letter to acting HSD director Jason Johnson last month, “[I] continue to be concerned that a considerable and sizable uptick in removals is happening in the absence of any [demonstrable] outcomes. Without the latter, the former is just perpetuating a situation where people reoccupy the same places or new places that are equally problematic.”

Mayor Durkan, the audit says, still has not agreed to allow an independent assessment of the Navigation Team’s success at getting people off the street and into permanent housing. The audit notes that a similar report, back in 2017, listed “possible low-cost and no-cost opportunities for rigorous independent evaluation for the City,” but that “[t]he Executive’s Quarter 2 Response concluded that, ‘many of the rigorous academic evaluation options suggested by the City Auditor would incur a high cost and are only utilized after a program has been through a few years of practice.'”

The report continues:

The Executive’s resistance to pursuing rigorous independent evaluation, even at no-cost or low-cost to the City, is concerning. As noted above by the criminologist Joan McCord, 32 without rigorous evaluation, the City’s approach to addressing unsheltered homelessness remains “a dangerous guess.” Our 2017 report raised questions about the potential for unintended consequences as a result of the City’s current approaches. These include the potential public health and safety consequences from a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene strategies and potential traumatic exposure for unsheltered individuals from the use of police in an outreach capacity.

What do those public health and safety consequences look like? Well, according to the audit, they include a lack of access to basic hygiene facilities (like showers) and restrooms that are open outside normal business hours. Only six city-funded restrooms are available all day and night, the report found—and four of those are port-a-potties that are “poorly-lit and [with] no running water,” according to the report. (Three of those four, moreover, “were damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability (e.g., no toilet seat, no sanitizer dispenser, broken ADA rail)” and at least one had not been cleaned in more than a week. In contrast, UN human-rights standards would require at least 224 public restrooms distributed throughout Seattle to adequately serve the city’s homeless population.

When council members and advocates have brought up the lack of restrooms and showers accessible to homeless people in the past, the mayor’s office and HSD have distributed lists of all the restrooms and showers that are available, and suggested that people who need to use these facilities seek shelter at “enhanced shelters” that provide 24/7 access. However, as the report confirms, there simply aren’t enough of these shelters across enough of the city to actually serve the thousands of homeless people sleeping outdoors on any given night.

“Given that the 2018 point in time count found that, in Seattle, 4,488 people were unsheltered (i.e., they were sleeping in tents, vehicles and RVs, and on the street), the current availability of 24-hour restrooms should be examined,” the report concludes. Homeless advocates have also argued that because the need for restrooms is universal, people should not be required to enter the formal shelter system as a prerequisite for going to the bathroom or accessing shower and laundry facilities. The audit also found that most of the city’s drop-in showers are open limited hours and concentrated downtown; Council District 5, in far north Seattle, does not have a single drop-in shower station. (Additionally, some “free” public showers do not provide towels or charge for towels, the audit found.) In contrast, other cities have mobile restrooms and showers and offer more 24/7 facilities outside the formal shelter system.

The audit also faulted the executive for decentralizing the city’s homelessness response, starting in late 2017 when it decommissioned  the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which began meeting after the declaration of a homelessness “emergency,” in 2015, but was deactivated in late 2017. The city’s homeless outreach strategy is spread across several departments with confusing and messy chains of command. The audit criticizes the city for having “no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers [and] not currently thinking of homeless outreach ‘as a complete system.’ This lack of coordination limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.” The city simply doesn’t have a coordinated strategy for reaching people who have just become homeless, who are prime candidates for low-cost diversion tactics such as family reunification, the audit found; instead, the Navigation Team encounters newly homeless people only haphazardly, as it investigates and removes encampments that are deemed to be dangerous. “We recommend that the City consider improving its capacity for receiving reports of newly unsheltered individuals and quickly dispatching outreach.”

Herbold’s letter notes that people who are referred to shelters through the Navigation Team tend to stay in shelters longer than other clients, tying up beds, and suggests that one reason for this is that the Navigation Team doesn’t assess people for their housing eligibility prior to sending them to shelter (at which point their score on a standardized scoring tool used to determine their eligibility for housing goes down, because they are no longer unsheltered.) In response to Herbold’s questions, an HSD spokeswoman said that the Navigation Team often has to act quickly and “forgo a field assessment as it will be later conducted at shelter intake and through subsequent case management. This approach capitalizes on the team making connections to shelter resources in a timely manner before an opportunity disappears.”

The audit recommends that the city consider coordination models pioneered by other US jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Snohomish County, which use a coordination approach developed by FEMA called Incident Command System (ICS). The city used to use some elements of ICS to coordinate its response to homelessness, but stopped doing so in 2017 when it discontinued the use of the emergency operations center.

Read the whole audit here (skip page 23 if you want to avoid one really gross restroom photo). The mayor’s office did not respond to an email seeking responses  the audit.

As Council Moves to Protect Mobile Home Park, It’s Important to Remember How We Got Here

Next week, the city council is expected to adopt an emergency one-year moratorium on development at the Halcyon Mobile Home Park in North Seattle, to prevent developers from buying the property while the council crafts legislation to preserve the park in perpetuity. That future legislation, which will be developed in council member Rob Johnson’s land use committee, would most likely create a new zoning designation allowing only mobile or manufactured homes on the two properties, similar to a law Portland adopted last year.

If this is the first you’re hearing about the plight of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park,  you’re not alone. Although the park, which houses dozens of low-income seniors and their families, has been on the market since last June, it recently caught the attention of council member Kshama Sawant, who called a special meeting of her human services and renters’ rights committee last Friday afternoon to discuss her emergency legislation, which she said was necessary to prevent “US Bank, a big financial institution that does not care about ordinary people, [from] selling the property to a corporate developer called Blue Fern.”

Urging Halcyon’s elderly residents to write to the council and turn out in force for public comment at the full council meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sawant did not mince words. “It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it,” Sawant said.

“It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it.” —Council member Kshama Sawant, urging residents of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park to write the council

The sudden “emergency” was news to  council member Debora Juarez, who said she couldn’t attend Sawant’s special committee meeting on Friday due to a prior commitment. (Sawant’s committee ordinarily meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, although it has only met once since last July.) On Tuesday, after Sawant repeated her claim that “the developer, Blue Fern, could vest literally any day now,” Juarez took the mic to “correct the record.”

Among those corrections: Blue Fern has not filed plans to develop the property. The property is not owned by US Bank. And no development plans are in the offing.

It’s true that the property, which was owned by one family but is now part of a trust, of which the University of Washington is a beneficiary, is on the market—with US Bank as the trustee and Kidder Matthews as the broker—but Blue Fern, after inquiring about the preapplication process last October and attending a meeting with the city in December, has decided they do not plan to move forward with the proposal. According to a spokesman for Blue Fern, Benjamin Paulus, “Neither Blue Fern Development, LLC or its affiliated companies are under contract to purchase this property.”

The sudden panic—the last-minute committee meeting, the declaration of emergency, the chartered bus that ferried Halcyon residents and supporters to today’s council meeting—was, in other words, at least partly based on misinformation. Confronted by her colleagues about this, Sawant said the specific details didn’t matter, because “it is only a matter of time before another corporate developer comes along and decides to buy this property, so the residents haven’t been misled.”

Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reexamined  single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council was busy arguing over every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere if we had built somewhere else for them to go.

Many of the residents themselves—one of whom fell down during yesterday’s council meeting, causing a brief hush in the room —appeared to believe, as late as yesterday afternoon, that they were at imminent risk of losing their homes. Several residents choked back tears as they testified, saying they were terrified about becoming homeless. These are real, legitimate fears—of nine mobile home parks that existed in Seattle in 1990, when the city council passed a series of similar development moratoria,  just two remain—but it’s hard to see how stoking them, by suggesting that the bulldozers are practically at the gate, serves the interests of vulnerable low-income seniors.

Support

Mobile homes are naturally occurring affordable housing, and developing them into other kinds of housing—in this case, townhouses or apartments—creates a very literal kind of physical displacement. It’s understandable that the city council, faced with the prospect of tossing dozens of senior citizens out of their homes, would do everything in their power to prevent that from happening, including creating special new zones that protect mobile home parks in perpetuity.

But there’s a larger question such parcel-by-parcel anti-displacement efforts elide: Why are apartments still illegal almost everywhere in Seattle?  Every time the city decides to preserve one apartment building, or one mobile home park, without asking about the opportunity cost of that decision, they are putting off a crucial conversation about Seattle’s housing shortage, and how to solve it. Every time the city walls off another block from development—whether it’s the Showbox, which also got the “emergency moratorium” treatment, or a mobile home park for low-income seniors—without addressing the astonishing reality that two-thirds of Seattle is zoned exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, they are making a deliberate decision that this same thing will happen again.

None of these choices happen in a vacuum. Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reformed single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council and anti-displacement advocates were busy litigating the fate of every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe the residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere, if we had built somewhere else for them to go.

Morning Crank: “Some Kind of Magical Treatment Carwash”

1. Homeless service providers and advocates expressed skepticism, and some support, for the idea of consolidating the city and county’s response to homelessness under a single regional agency on Monday. Kevin at SCC Insight has a thorough writeup of the report from NYC-based Future Laboratories, but the key bullet point was the recommendation that Seattle and King County should consolidate all the agencies providing services to people experiencing homeless in the region into a single regional über-agency, while keeping capital projects (i.e. housing construction) under the purview of individual cities.

Some of the issues service providers raised after consultant Marc Dones’ presentation were familiar. Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, cautioned that in the absence of additional funds for housing, it would be almost pointless to provide more funding for treatment and behavioral health care, which was among Future Labs’ 10 recommendations. “We are not going to realize the benefits from all of those additional investments if we don’t pair them with housing, and too many of the proposals so far are really just for the allocation of additional treatment beds,” Malone said. “There’s this idea that some people have that there’s some kind of magical treatment carwash that we can run people through, and they come out through the other end all better.” In reality, Malone said, it’s hard for people fresh out of treatment to stay on track while living on the street. “We ought to make sure that there’s a commitment to [housing] before we move on the rest of these investment changes.”

Paul Lambros, the longtime head of Plymouth Housing Group, cautioned that any new regional agency needed to have real authority, lest it get “watered down” the way previous efforts at a “regional response to homelessness” have. During the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness (which wrapped up in 2015 with homelessness more pervasive than ever), “we made recommendations, and then, through … the city council’s process and the county council’s process and others, it got watered [to the point that] there wasn’t a lot of authority there,” Lambros said.

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, agreed with Dones’ statement that the success of a system shouldn’t be judged on how many times someone has to come back to get a new ID, but pushed back on the notion that having to get an ID again and again and again was somehow normal. “Just as we should not require people to share their personal information many, many times over and measure things like how many times someone has gotten an ID card, we should question how it is that peoples ID’s are lost so frequently, including in sweeps that are funded by public dollars,” Eisinger said.

Support

2. Fred Podesta, the former Finance and Administrative Services Department director who had served for several months as head of the city’s Navigation Team, left the city earlier this month to take a new position as the COO for Seattle Public Schools (Podesta’s reassignment, last August, was widely viewed as a demotion; he took a new). His replacement will reportedly be Jackie St. Louis—the current coordinator for the Navigation Team and part of the social-worker component of the team, which also includes Seattle Police Department officers.

Durkan has been forceful in her support of the Navigation Team, which was doubled in size thanks to a one-time grant from King County in 2018. During last year’s budget negotiations, when council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed rolling back the team to its pre-grant size in order to give city-contracted human service workers a 2 percent raise, Durkan went on the offensive, and one of her deputy mayors, Mike Fong, sent letter to council members suggesting that rolling back the size of the team, which sweeps encampments and directs camp residents to services and shelter beds, would result in “400 more people living on our streets” and “200 more encampments in our parks and public spaces.”

Durkan spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg says the mayor’s office came up with these numbers by reducing the actual 2018 numbers “by the percentage of the proposed cut.”

In an email labeled “Talking Points-Nav Team cuts,” Durkan staffer Anthony Auriemma suggested several talking points that didn’t make it into Fong’s email, including the claim that if the council rolled back funding for the Navigation Team, “the City will struggle to deliver basic services such as keeping parks open for everyone to enjoy or ensuring sidewalks are safe and accessible.”

It’s hard to say whether Durkan’s office would have actually argued that reducing the Navigation Team to its 2017 size could have forced the city to shut down public parks or that Mosqueda’s plan would have rendered sidewalks across the city unsafe and unusable. It’s easy to see, however, how such talking points (combined with claims that council members were swelling the city’s unsheltered population by hundreds of people) could be politically damaging to council members seeking reelection this fall. Back in November, Durkan’s spokeswoman categorically denied reports that the mayor had called council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, they would have to explain to their constituents why they had allowed public safety to deteriorate in their districts.

In the end, Durkan got her permanent Navigation Team expansion, and the human service workers got their 2 percent inflationary pay increase. Imagine what this debate would have looked like during an economic downturn.

Waterfront Tax Stalled Due to Concerns Over Security, Assessments, and Cost

Image via City of Seattle.

A version of this story first appeared at Seattle magazine’s website.

A controversial one-time tax assessment on commercial and residential property near the downtown waterfront, which was supposed to be approved before the end of this year, has been held up by protests from some of those property owners, who say the proposed $200 million tax assessment, known as a Local Improvement District (LID), is too high and should be scaled back. LIDs allow cities to impose a special tax on properties that will gain value because of improvements paid for with the tax; the city has long planned to use a LID of some size to help fund the $688 million Waterfront Seattle project. Property owners have the right to protest the tax; if owners representing more than 60 percent of the value of the land inside the LID write protest letters to the city, the LID can’t go forward.

The Seattle Times reported last week that high-profile land use attorney Jack McCullough is representing some of the large waterfront property owners in negotiations with the city, and that, according to some condo owners, the city had agreed to lower the LID to $160 million. (Condo owners, who would pay a median assessment of $2,400, payable over 20 years, represent just over 12 percent of the properties along the waterfront, where most of the land is owned by big commercial companies.)

Through conversations with property owners, city officials, and other sources familiar with the negotiations, The C Is for Crank has learned more details about the proposed deal, as well as the remaining sticking points.

The proposed total assessment of $160 million would be supplemented by additional contributions from the city of Seattle and the Friends of the Waterfront, a private nonprofit established in 2012 to raise money for and help operate and maintain the new park. The city will reportedly contribute an additional $30 million, and the Friends another $10 million, to get the total back up to $200 million. (Seattle Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster would not confirm the additional contribution from city tax dollars, but added, “What I can say is the strategy here is in no way to pursue funds that would otherwise be used for neighborhood parks or other facilities in the city [but] to really look at funds that are associated with the replacement of the viaduct and the parks district,” a reference to funds dedicated to the waterfront park in the citywide parks district created in 2014. That ballot measure established an annual budget of around $4 million to operate and maintain the park.

“The only discussion right now is that we will build the project, with a LID of a size that the city can complete the whole project,” says Friends executive director Heidi Hughes, “because without a significant portion of that funding, we end up with road and a wider sidewalk.” Current plans for the waterfront call for a grand, terraced “Overlook Walk” staircase leading from the new Marketfront development at Pike Place Market down to the waterfront (and onto the roof of a new Seattle Aquarium expansion); a wide new waterfront promenade flanked by protected bike lanes and hundreds of new street trees; and year-round events, including the return of Concerts at the Pier (at Pier 62).

Support

Another sticking point has been the budget for operations, maintenance, and—especially—security.  Friends of the Waterfront plans to supplement Seattle Police Department patrols and the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program with its own version of the Downtown Seattle Association’s Downtown Ambassadors—essentially, private staffers who keep an eye on the park, offer information, and help people in crisis—but property owners want more assurances that the city will enforce the city’s anti-camping laws. Former mayor Charles Royer, who co-chaired the waterfront committee and supports the LID,  says that property owners are worried that “the waterfront could open and the first tents could go up the next day.”

Seattle Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster says the city plans to keep the new park secure and inviting through a combination of daily maintenance by parks employees, year-round programming in partnership with the Friends, the ambassadors program, and police. “Our focus is primarily on trained ambassadors and outreach staff who will be backed up as needed by SPD,” Foster says.  “This isn’t about prioritizing exclusions” from the park, he adds. However, Foster said he couldn’t confirm any details about the LID negotiations, including whether the city has committed to spending more money on security in the park.

Ivar’s CEO Bob Donegan, who served on the Central Waterfront Committee that came up with the original waterfront plan, says downtown property owners said that they “would not support the creation of this park if there is not enough budget to do four things: Program, landscape, maintain, and secure the park.” Although Donegan says that ultimately, “I think the security is going to be fine,” others involved in the negotiations say the issue remained a sticking point last week.

Former mayor Charles Royer, who co-chaired the waterfront committee and supports the LID,  says that property owners are worried that “the waterfront could open and the first tents could go up the next day.”

Another issue that has come up in the negotiations is what impact the LID assessments, which were conducted by an independent assessor, will have on their property taxes in the future. Although the LID is a one-time assessment, some property owners have expressed concern that the King County Assessor, which determines individual property values, will look at the higher LID assessments and raise their property values (and thus their annual property taxes) accordingly.  “They wanted assurances that [King County assessor] John Arthur Wilson wasn’t going to bump up their county assessments,” Donegan says. Deputy King County Assessor Al Dams says his office bases assessments on the sales prices of nearby properties, not on independent assessments like those done by Zillow or, in the case of the LID properties, Valbridge Property Advisors. However, Dams notes that “if you put a desirable amenity in a neighborhood or by a piece of property, that may drive up the values. Will the waterfront be really nice? If so, that probably will drive the values up.”

Although some condo owners have joined the protest against the LID, others say they’re happy to pay the tax. Cary Moon, the former mayoral candidate, lives in the assessment area. She says she’s “going to happily pay our assessment, because I know our building is benefiting and I know our property values are benefiting” from what she calls a “really big and ambitious and bold” waterfront proposal. Royer, too, says he’s happy to fork over his share of the LID, which he estimates will be around $24,000—or a little over $1,000 a year. “A thousand dollars a year for me to live next to the beach, with a view of the waterfront … is a fair deal,” Royer says. The negotiations are expected to continue through December, with an announcement on a deal likely sometime next month.

Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

Support

2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.

“F the Showbox!” Emails Reveal District 3 Discontent With Sawant’s Club Crusade

Although crowds of music fans showed up to cheer city council member Kshama Sawant’s efforts to “Save the Showbox” earlier this year, emails obtained through a public disclosure request reveal that many of Sawant’s District 3 constituents and longtime supporters were baffled by or outright opposed her decision to prioritize a downtown club owned by a billionaire Republican over other pressing needs, including affordable housing and promoting small, minority-owned businesses in her own district. Sawant, whose district includes the Central District, Capitol Hill, Montlake, and part of Beacon Hill, is up for reelection next year.

Back in October, Sawant led a successful effort to “Save the Showbox” by adding the Showbox to the Pike Place Market Historical District, preventing the development of a planned 44-story apartment building on the property. (The Showbox, which is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, is a tenant; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.) The move sparked an immediate lawsuit by the owners of the property, who argued that the legislation represents an illegal spot downzone of prime real estate that the council has already upzoned twice specifically to encourage residential development on First Avenue.

In the weeks leading up to the September vote, Sawant gave the Showbox the full Sawant treatment, with hundreds of red-and-white posters, multiple City Hall rallies, a sizeable ($1,325) ad buy in the Stranger, and even a concert on the plaza outside City Hall, held to coincide with the council’s vote inside. But as music fans and Showbox employees signed petitions and testified in favor of the legislation, some of Sawant’s constituents wondered why she was spending so much time and political capital “saving” a club that wasn’t even in her district. “I’m not interested in saving the showbox,” one District 3 constituent wrote. “I’m interested in building affordable housing. We/You are burning political capital on a fight we should not be in.”

What’s interesting about the emails, which came in response to two email blasts urging Sawant’s supporters to show up for an “organizing meeting” on September 11 and a “FREE CONCERT & Public Hearing” on the 19th, is that most of them aren’t from diehard Sawant opponents, but from people who say they support Sawant but oppose her single-minded focus on the Showbox.

“We’re spending a lot of energy and political capital on one building. It won’t create more housing or prevent people from being driven out of Seattle,” another District 3 resident wrote. “It won’t reduce Seattle’s climate impact. It won’t help our problems with homelessness, congestions or anything else. We could be spending this energy on the Mercer Megablock, but we’re not. How much staff time is being spent on this rather than more pressing issues?”

Support

Another District 3 resident wrote: “I’m a big fan of yours, but this is such a waste of time and energy. …  The city will be fine without the showbox- it won’t be fine without lots and lots of serious investment in housing.” And another, which I’ve taken out of all-caps: “You and your office team are failing to help black folks in the Central District!!!! Fuck the Showbox! You can count on one hand the persons of color who actually make a living by working for the Showbox! Save black and persons of color owned places in seattle too!!”

Caveat time. Emails from constituents represent the views of an unrepresentative sample of people motivated to write their council member. And Sawant, who won her last election with nearly 56 percent of the vote, hasn’t drawn an opponent yet. (Nor has she officially said whether she’s running for reelection.) However, it’s not hard to see Sawant’s focus on the Showbox emerging as a campaign issue, especially after a year in which the council’s lone socialist logged few major wins. The head tax is dead, Sawant’s lengthy speeches denouncing her colleagues for failing to support a series of hastily drafted affordable-housing proposals played to a mostly empty room, and the most noteworthy gains for low-paid workers—modest wage increases for social-service providers who contract with the city—were sponsored this year by council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, as part of a budget Sawant cast the lone vote against. None of this necessarily spells trouble for Sawant’s reelection chances. But it does suggest that she’ll have to do more than hold cheering sessions for citywide causes like the Showbox to rally the troops who actually matter—the 92,000-plus residents of her own council district.