City Approves More One-Time Spending on Homelessness as Budget Cuts Loom

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The Seattle City Council’s repeal of a controversial business “head tax” last week didn’t just eliminate future spending on solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis—it also killed funding for several ongoing programs that are currently being funded with one-time revenues, casting the future of existing homeless programs in doubt at a time when Mayor Jenny Durkan is asking for significant budget cuts in every city department.

Meanwhile, city funding for new housing projects, for which housing agencies compete through an annual process called a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA), is shrinking this year from more than $100 million to $40 million, enough to fund only a handful of proposals submitted by housing providers this year. (That $40 million could end up being slightly higher if more money comes in from developer payments into the city’s incentive zoning fund, and if a transit-oriented development planned for Northgate, which accounts for $10 million, does not move forward, making that money available for bids.)

Council members, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly identified a lack of affordable housing as a key bottleneck that keeps people from moving off the streets or out of the shelter system; in a recent survey of 898 people experiencing homelessness in King County, 98 percent said they would move into safe and affordable housing if it was available.

The head tax, a $275-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues, would have provided about $47.5 million in annual revenue for the city to spend on housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

Although proponents pitched the head tax as a funding source for new programs, much of the money would have backfilled spending on existing projects, including the mayor’s new “bridge housing” initiative, which the city council approved on Monday. Without the head tax, the mayor and council will have to come up with tens of millions of dollars in cuts (or borrow the money from the city’s dwindling reserves) to keep those programs going.

The bridge housing program, which will pay for about 500 new and existing shelter beds and “tiny houses,” will be funded this year with $7.2 million in one-time funds from the sale of a piece of city-owned property in South Lake Union.

Ben Noble, director of the City Budget Office told the council last Wednesday, the city will need to come up with about $9.5 million a year to maintain the bridge housing program in 2019.

In addition to the 500 shelter beds, Durkan and the council will have to come up with funding this year for about $8 million in programs that the council only funded through the end of 2018, on the belief that by the time they began budget deliberations this year, a head tax or some other progressive revenue source would be available to pay for those programs in future years. And they will have to do so at a time when Mayor Durkan has asked for budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent from every city department in response to tepid revenue projections.

“Unless things change radically, I wouldn’t expect a major infusion of revenue,” Noble told council members last week. Noble said that if the city wants to continue funding Durkan’s bridge housing plan and all the other services that are currently being paid for with one-time funding, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services.”

On Monday, council member Teresa Mosqueda—one of two council members who voted against repealing the head tax—said the upcoming budget crunch highlights the need for a permanent, progressive revenue source to pay for services on an ongoing basis, “so that we don’t have to think about the heartbreaking reality when the money runs out at the end of this year.”

As those deliberations are going on, the city will be inviting housing providers to compete for a drastically reduced pool of funding to build affordable housing this year. Last year, the city granted about $101 million in funding for affordable housing projects through its competitive bidding process; this year, providers have submitted about $280 million in requests for just $40 million in available funding. (About $30 million in additional funds are already earmarked for specific projects). King County, which does its own funding process, has made just $7 million available this year for transit-oriented affordable housing projects across the county—down from about $18 million in 2017.

Miriam Roskin, deputy director at the Seattle Office of Housing, says the amount of money available through the NOFA process fluctuates from year to year depending on how much the city is taking in from sources like developer affordable-housing fees, payments from developers for permanent street closures, and federal funding.

Regardless of the reason, the reduction in available funds comes at a time when there is more need for affordable housing in the city than ever, and when other funding sources to build that housing appear on the verge of drying up.

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Morning Crank: Slipping and Sliding

1. With the loss of an estimated $47.5 million in annual revenues from the head tax, the city is in the unenviable position of not only figuring out how to pay for new housing and services that would have been funded by the tax, but funding ongoing commitments that would have been backfilled with head tax funding. In addition to about $15 million in programs that were funded during in the 201 8 budget using one-time funding sources (I’ve asked the city’s budget office for a complete list), there’s Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” program, which was originally supposed to have funded 500 new shelter and “tiny house” encampment slots this year. The bridge housing program, which the council’s finance committee approved on Wednesday, will be funded through 2018 by  about $5.5 million from the sale of a piece of city property in South Lake Union but will cost about $9.5 million a year starting in 2019, according to City Budget Office Director Ben Noble.

The latest version of the plan would pay for 475 shelter beds (down from 500), with 100 of those now officially “TBD,” with no provider or timeline identified.  The timeline for some of the new projects has slipped, too, from late July to November in the case of the controversial proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, and from July to “TBD” in the case of the 100 shelter beds for which no provider is identified. (See below for a comparison between the mayor’s original proposal, announced May 30, and the plan as it stands this week.)

Mary’s Place, which the mayor’s office originally said would contribute 100 new beds by building out an upper floor of its North Seattle shelter, “had a change of situation because they bought a large facility in Burien that put them in a more difficult financial situation,” deputy mayor David Moseley told council members Wednesday, and has “offered us a different proposal that’s more of a diversion proposal,” one that would focus on prevention rather than shelter. “We’re working with them on that proposal,” Moseley continued. “At the same time, we’re working on backfilling those 100 shelter beds.”

HSD had previously denied that Mary’s Place was planning to substitute diversion for its 100 bed commitment. One day before Moseley told the council that Mary’s Place would no longer be able to contribute 100 of the new 500 shelter beds, I asked an HSD spokeswoman if Mary’s Place had proposed fulfilling its commitment through diversion rather than actual shelter beds, as I had heard. The spokeswoman told me that I was incorrect and that there had been no such proposal. Moseley’s comments Wednesday confirmed the existence of the proposal I had asked HSD about (and whose existence their spokeswoman denied) the previous day.

On Wednesday, I asked the spokeswoman for more details about the Mary’s Place beds and what will replace them. In response, she cut and pasted a section of Durkan’s Wednesday press release about the plan that did not include this information. I have followed up and will update this post if I get any more detailed information about how the city plans to replace those 100 beds.

Durkan has asked all city departments to come up with budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent for the 2019 budget cycle that begins this fall. Noble, the city’s budget director, told council members Wednesday that if the city wants to continue funding the new shelter beds after this year, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services. … This will be  a difficult fall with difficult decisions ahead.”

Bridge Housing plan, May 30, 2018

Bridge Housing Plan, June 13, 2018

2. A poll that apparently helped seal the fate of the head tax over the past weekend was reportedly conducted not by business interests, but by Bring Seattle Home, the SEIU-backed coalition that formed to oppose a potential referendum on the tax. The group’s latest expenditure report includes a $20,000 debt to EMC Research, a Seattle-based polling firm.

A spokesman for Bring Seattle Home didn’t return a call for comment. But the poll reportedly found that not only did voters oppose the head tax by wide margins (as previous polls had concluded), they had strong negative opinions of the city council, where the idea for the head tax originated. All seven of the council members who are elected by district are up for reelection next year, and although this poll didn’t ask respondents what they thought of their specific council representative, council members are well aware of this looming deadline. So far, none of the seven have filed their reelection paperwork with the city. Although Mayor Jenny Durkan supported and ultimately signed the “compromise” head tax bill that reduced the size of the head tax from $500 to $275 per employee for businesses with gross receipts above $20 million, poll respondents apparently blamed the council, not the mayor, for the tax, expressing much more favorable views of Durkan than council members.

3. On Thursday, with none of the angry public comments about “triplexes on every block” that often precede such decisions—even Marty Kaplan wasn’t there—the Seattle Planning Commission approved a letter endorsing key aspects of the city’s preferred plan to make it easier for single-family  homeowners to build backyard cottages and create living spaces in their basements. (This alternative is identified as option 2 in the environmental impact statement on the proposal, which the city was required to produce after Kaplan sued. The EIS confirms that backyard cottages promote equity and do not harm the environment.) The letter expresses the commission’s strong support for allowing both a basement apartment and a freestanding backyard unit (subject to the same lot coverage requirements that already exist); eliminating the requirement that homeowners add parking for their extra unit whether they will use it or not; and allowing up to 12 unrelated people to live on lots that have both a backyard cottage and a basement apartment.

The letter also urges the city not to force homeowners building a second additional unit to pay into the city’s mandatory housing affordability fund, a requirement supported by some opponents of backyard cottages, because the additional cost “could suppress production of these units and be counterproductive to the intent of the proposed legislation.” (The point of requiring developers to provide affordable housing is, in part, to offset the impacts of displacement and gentrification that can be side effects of large new developments in previously affordable neighborhoods; the planning commission’s point is that treating individual homeowners like massive developers discourages them from providing housing. It also implies that adding units for renters in single-family areas somehow contributes to gentrification and displacement, when it does the opposite.) The planning commission also recommended setting size limits for new houses to prevent the development of McMansions, and reducing development charges for accessory units, such as sewer hookup fees, and creating a sliding scale for some fees so that lower-income people could afford to build second units on their properties.

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Scratching Your Head Over Today’s Head Tax Defeat? Here Are Some Answers.

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After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?

Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.

So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.

Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?

Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.

Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.

Is this really all about Amazon? 

No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.

But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.

This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.

So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?

Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.

So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed? 

Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.

If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.

Head Tax Heads for Repeal. What Happened, and What Happens Now?

The city council will hold a special meeting at noon tomorrow—just two days before the deadline for head tax opponents to turn in 17,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to overturn a tax on big businesses to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis—to preemptively repeal the tax. The decision came just weeks after a bruising battle that resulted in the unanimous passage of a “compromise” head tax plan—$275, instead of the original $500—that was supported by all nine council members and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Much like that proposal, today’s surprise repeal announcement emerged after a round of secret weekend negotiations, in which council members who supported the tax just weeks ago concluded that it was time to concede the fight. Polling on the referendum to repeal the tax reportedly spurred council members to reverse their support.

Earlier this afternoon, seven council members signed off on a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office supporting the repeal measure; only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, who denounced the “backroom legislation” during Monday’s full council meeting, did not signal their support for repealing the tax. The statement from the other seven council members said, in part:

“In recent months, we worked with a range of businesses, community groups, advocates, and working families to enact a bill that struck the right balance between meaningful progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis while protecting good, family-wage jobs. Over the last few weeks, these conversations and much public dialogue has continued.  It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. 

“We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”

The $275-per-employee annual tax, which would have applied to the 585 highest-grossing businesses in Seattle,  would have funded $47 million a year in services, shelter, and housing for Seattle’s homeless population. Without the tax, hundreds of new apartments will not be built, hundreds of new shelter beds will not open up at night, and thousands of people who would have received rental assistance, case management, or mental health care through the levy proceeds will continue to go without those services.

Opposition to the tax came not just from the usual suspects in the business community—Amazon, which threatened to pull employees from the city over an earlier version of the tax, pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the repeal effort, as did Starbucks, Kroger, and representatives of the hotel and grocery industries—but from groups with names like Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle, whose members gathered signatures on their own time to repeal a tax on giant corporations. The tax, which was the product of five months of meetings by a 17-member task force, was chosen specifically because it would not directly impact ordinary citizens (unlike a property tax or sales tax), but enough ordinary citizens opposed it to convince at least some council members that their voices represented the majority of Seattle.

“I think it reflects majority sentiment,” council member Sally Bagshaw says. “I do, and I’m sad. … Everywhere I went, clearly businesses were unhappy, but half of labor was unhappy.  Neighborhoods and communities were saying, ‘We don’t see tents being moved off the street. We still see needles. We still see garbage. We’re not happy with this.'” Bagshaw did not mention polling on the head tax, nor did any of her colleagues.

Council member Rob Johnson, who was not directly involved in the weekend negotiations, says his primary concern in supporting a repeal of the head tax is the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds pre-K through college education and is on the ballot in November. A referendum to repeal the head tax, he worried, might have put voters in an anti-tax mood and swept preschool funding away with it.

“As the person trying to get the [FEPP] levy across the finish line in November, I’m obviously excited about the opportunity to have a laser-like focus on that, as opposed to a potential referendum and the  [FEPP] levy at the same time,” Johnson says. “I signed on because I think it gives us a much clearer pathway for success in November.” The last time the families and education levy was on the ballot, in 2011, it passed by more than 63 percent.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been targeted with an outsized share of the criticism from activists who oppose spending more money on homelessness (including a “town hall” in Ballard that immediately devolved into a profane one-way screaming match), says it became “increasingly clear” over the past couple of months “that the public is aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” which has run a well-funded campaign to reframe the employee hours tax, which would be paid by employers, as a “tax on jobs,” which would harm employees and the city as a whole.

In a statement, council member Lisa Herbold—who signed the joint statement supporting repeal—denounced the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which she said “has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites 1) of the tired, old conservative trope that increased levels of human suffering we see in our city is caused by government inefficiency rather than by the Gilded Age level income inequality in Seattle and elsewhere, and 2) that leading first with a regional funding approach, reliant on higher property or sales taxes for all taxpayers, is preferable to resources from those most benefiting from income inequality in Seattle paying their fair share.” Asked why she issued such a scathing statement after signing off on the joint statement supporting repeal, Herbold said, “I’m acting based on what I’m hearing” about the lack of support for the tax, but “I don’t agree with” repealing the tax.

Had Durkan brought the Chamber into the head tax negotiations earlier this year, instead of focusing on getting Amazon to stand down, the campaign might have looked much different, or not existed in the first place. But as things played out, “don’t tax jobs” became a rallying cry for both businesses and, importantly, citizen activists, who also glommed on to the idea that the city could get by without additional revenues by auditing its homelessness programs  and “spending our existing dollars more efficiently.”

O’Brien says that with thousands of people sleeping outside and in shelters and transitional housing across Seattle and King County, “finding efficiencies” isn’t enough to make a dent in the crisis. “We absolutely need more funding for housing and  services. We would have to make devastating cuts to other programs that everyone cares about to fund what we need to do with existing resources, so that’s just not possible,” he says. With the head tax, which the task force chose after rejecting other options as impractical or open to legal challenge, off the table, “there’s nothing that stands out that’s remotely promising, and that’s discouraging.” A city income tax is locked up in court, sales and property taxes are regressive and unpopular, and other options—like a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, or a tax on corporate profits—are prohibited by law. There really just aren’t many options that aren’t either political suicide or downright illegal.

For months, the mayor and council have talked about the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness—that is, a tax that would not be borne solely by Seattle. But the region has shown little interest, so far, in coming up with such solutions. Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a countywide sales tax as a replacement for a Seattle-only property tax measure floated by then-mayor Ed Murray, but that proposal has not been seen or heard from since. Meanwhile, a regional task force called One Table, which was supposed to come up with recommendations for funding homelessness services earlier this year, has canceled several meetings and is reportedly stalled. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed an earlier, larger version of the head tax and signed the council’s legislation for the “compromise” that will be repealed tomorrow, but has never come forward with an alternative proposal of her own, leaving the council in the driver’s seat on spending, for better or worse.

Mosqueda, one of the two council members who did not sign off on the statement advocating repeal, said today that the head tax the council approved was “the best idea at the time”—better, at least, than nothing, which is what the city is left with now. “I am happy to support an alternative strategy, but I need to know that there’s a proposal, so that folks have light at the end of the tunnel, so that there is housing on the horizon, so people can get off the streets and not continue to suffer and live outside.”

O’Brien expressed a sentiment that has been bubbling for weeks at city hall, on homelessness and other issues: “We need leadership from the mayor. We can’t say we’re not going to do anything. If there’s not a regional solution, we have to do something else. She’s been here six months now, and she needs to make this her top priority.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment beyond the joint statement. But she did not present a plan to deal with the defeat of the head tax, which would have funded her proposal to add 1,000 new beds at shelters around the city, announced last week. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Durkan joked at the time. And here we are.

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Morning Crank: “Dominated By Loud and Demanding Extremists”

1. According to a new analysis of the first six months of the city’s dockless bikeshare pilot program, which unleashed thousands of Starburst-colored rental bikes around the city, bikeshare users logged nearly half a million rides between July and December of last year, and roughly a third of the city used one or more of the three bikesharing services—Ofo, Lime, and Spin—at least once during those six months. Seattle bikeshare users took 3.6 rides for every 1,000 residents, a number that dwarfs the successful CityBike program in New York City (2.6 rides per 1,000 residents.) Those numbers, in fairness, are partly due to the fact that Seattle has the largest free-floating bikeshare system in the nation, by a lot: Of 44,000 bikes spread across 25 cities, nearly a quarter—10,000—are in Seattle.

The evaluation, which was done in collaboration with the University of Washington, also concluded that while ridership was concentrated around the University of Washington, the Burke-Gilman Trail, and downtown Seattle, the bikes are also more popular than expected in the Rainier Valley and Georgetown, two neighborhoods that weren’t included at all in the city’s original Pronto bikeshare system, which required users to return their bikes to designated parking spaces. (Unlike traditional bikeshare systems, “dockless” bikes can be left on the nearest bike rack or parking strip when a rider ends their trip.) People of color were just as likely to use the program as white users, and while just 24 percent of riders reported using helmets, the bikes did not seem to contribute to higher crash or head injury rates, adding another data point to the mounting evidence that the county’s mandatory helmet law does little to protect rider safety. While very few people (just 7 percent) used bikesharing only for recreational use, a huge percentage used the bikes to get to work or to access transit (75 percent), an indication that bikesharing may be able extend the “walkshed” for transit much further than the standard quarter-mile.

The news wasn’t all positive. The vast majority of bikeshare riders—68 percent—were male, a statistic that lines up with the skewed demographics of cycling in general. About four percent of bikes were parked in a way that fully blocked pedestrian or sidewalk access—a number that Seattle Department of Transportation bike share project manager Joel Miller noted might seem small, but “four percent of 10,000 bikes is certainly a lot of bikes and a lot of obstructions out there.” Perhaps predictably, 85 percent of the calls and emails the city has received about bikesharing have been negative, with most people complaining about bikes they believe were parked improperly, people who fail to wear helmets, and that the bikes themselves are ugly. The city can’t do much for people who are offended by the colors orange, yellow, and green, but they have set up designated bikeshare parking spots in Ballard on a pilot basis, and plan to expand that pilot project around the city.

People who consider bikes (or any form of transportation other than cars) to be “clutter” can rest easy on one count—transportation committee chair Rob Johnson said he has no interest in allowing electric scooters, which have caused  intense civic handwringing from Austin to San Francisco, on Seattle sidewalks any time soon. “I’ve started to watch a couple of the companies, particularly Lime (green) and Spin (orange), work with other cities on electric scooters, and I think that for us as a city to stay focused on bikes and make sure that this program goes from a successful pilot to a successful permanent program is the right progression for us, as opposed to something that could lead to the rollout of a scooter system,” Johnson said.

SDOT will present a new proposed permit plan for the post-pilot dockless bikeshare system to the transportation committee on June 19.

2. A new poll is testing campaign messages for and against a proposed referendum to repeal the $275-per-employee business tax that Mayor Jenny Durkan signed into law last month. Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, and other large corporations have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to overturn the law, which would impact about 585 companies with revenues above $20 million a year. Much of that money is currently being spent on paid signature gatherers, who have been parked outside grocery stores across Seattle and have reportedly clashed with pro-tax organizers who are encouraging voters to “decline to sign”; those organizers, meanwhile, have accused signature gatherers of misleading voters about what the tax will do, falsely implying that it is a tax on groceries or that it will come directly out of workers’ paychecks.

The poll asks whether the following messages, among others, would make the respondent more or less likely to vote to repeal the head tax:

• What Seattle has already tried to do to fix homelessness hasn’t worked, and it seems like homelessness has been normalized. The city need to stop enabling those who refuse services, camp illegally, and dump trash like used needles and condoms in our public spaces.

• Homeless sweeps don’t work. They just shuffle people around. Most people want to come inside but there aren’t enough options. We need to have compassion and fund housing, treatment for addiction, and behavioral health services.

• The city of Seattle is wasting hard-earned tax dollars by spending tens of millions on the homeless and super expensive bike lanes. The city keeps promising big results and not delivering. Without a comprehensive plan for homelessness, we shouldn’t give them another cent.

• Complaints about government waste are a smokescreen and an attempt to distract. Homelessness is complex and will take time to fix. Big corporations are shamelessly and purposely spreading confusion to avoid paying a tax that they can afford to pay.

• City Hall is dominated by loud and demanding extremists led by demagogues like Kshama Sawant.

• The homelessness crisis isn’t going to get better without more housing and services. If big corporations don’t chip in, that means more property or sales taxes. The head tax isn’t perfect, but at least it’s not regressive.

• With rents up an average of $600 a year, low-income people can’t afford to have their jobs endangered by this tax.

• Amazon’s construction halt was a selfish attempt to hold the city hostage. We need to call Jeff Bezo’s bluff, overturn his effort to repeal the tax, and show that Seattle will make sure that megacorporations like Amazon help solve problem they’re creating.

• The city keeps asking taxpayers for money for homelessness, but they don’t have a plan. The city has spend over $60 million a year in the past five years and homelessness has only gotten worse. Our tax dollars are being wasted on things that don’t work.

• The mayor and city council and nonprofit providers are moving forward with a plan that is starting to  work. It got 8,000 families into housing last year. But the city needs an additional $410 million a year to tackle homelessness, and this tax will help.

• Low-margin, high-volume businesses will have to pass the tax on to consumers, meaning higher bills for food. We don’t need another back-door tax on food.

The poll also asks about a number of potential replacements for the head tax, including a “surcharge” on companies whose CEO makes 100 or more times what the average worker makes; a larger head tax; a tax that “only applies to employers who pay wages so low their employees qualify for public assistance”; and a business tax based on how much square footage a company occupies in the city rather than the number of people they employ.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

 

 

Morning Crank: The Ne Plus Ultra of GOP Supervillains

1. Bailey Stober may have been deposed as head of the King County Democrats, but his legacy of profligate spending lives on, in the form of an $1,800-a-month lease (twice what he was reportedly authorized to spend) for an office space in Auburn that has been sitting vacant for several months. This week, the group’s new chairwoman, Natalie Reber, sent out an announcement: The leasing agent for the space had found a tenant.

The bad news? According to Reber’s email to membership:

The leasing agent at the Auburn office has made a deal with the [Dino] Rossi campaign and it sounds like they will be taking over the lease.  While this is not ideal, I think it is reasonable and as far as any talking points, we just simply say, it was a business decision made by the leasing agent.  

Rossi, a current state senator and two-time gubernatorial candidate who is running for the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated next year by retiring Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, is not just any Republican—among Washington State Democrats, he’s the ne plus ultra of GOP supervillains. And, starting next month, he’ll be helping  them pay their rent.

Reber, who is out of town, declined to provide any details about the new arrangement, saying only that the group has “let the leasing agent know that we would like out of the lease and left it to them to find tenants. While that’s being sorted out, I don’t have a comment.”

Natalia Koss Vallejo, the former executive director of the King County Democrats (Stober fired her shortly after another woman filed a workplace misconduct complaint against him on her behalf), says the group considered subleasing some of its unused space to a Democratic candidate while she was still director, but rejected multiple potential tenants because the group had not formally endorsed anyone in their races yet. (The endorsement process is still ongoing.) With Rossi renting part of the space, she says, it seems unlikely that a Democrat will rent out the rest of the office in the future: “The walls in those units are super thin. If I was a Democratic candidate, I would not want to be sharing that space with a Republican.”

According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, the King County Democrats continued to pay rent on the space through at least April, but appear to have negotiated a better deal on their Internet service, which was costing the group more than $450 a month. (According the group’s treasurer, Stober signed the group up for the most expensive Internet service package Comcast offers, one better suited to a midsize e-commerce firm than a political organization which had, at its peak, one employee.) Donations that were withheld while the Democrats debated what to do with Stober, including $5,000 from King County Executive Dow Constantine and a couple thousand dollars from various district Democratic groups that refused to pay their dues as long as Stober remained in his position.

2. The Families and Education Levy, which funds programs to help kids from birth through 12th grade, and the Seattle preschool levy, which subsidizes preschool, will be on the ballot as a single, combined Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy in November. (The levy seems likely to share the ballot with what amounts to an anti-levy: A referendum to repeal the $275-per-employee head  tax, whose proceeds are earmarked for programs to address homelessness.) Among other changes, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s levy renewal plan proposes eliminating for a two-year home visitation literacy program for two- and three-year-olds called the Parent-Child Home Program (the plan assumes that future funding for the program will come from the city’s sweetened beverage tax); dramatically reducing funding for programs in elementary schools; and expanding or increasing subsidies for preschool and college to include the very highest-income families.

At a time when the income and wealth gap between Seattle’s wealthiest and poorest residents is increasing and parents who might be eligible for subsidized preschool are being forced to move outside city limits, it’s unclear why Durkan has proposed increasing tax subsidies for wealthy families to send their kids to preschool and college. Currently, the subsidy for preschool tuition declines with income on a sliding scale, from a total subsidy for people making up to 300 percent of the poverty level to a maximum of $535 a year for the highest-income families. Durkan’s proposal would set a minimum subsidy of $1,000 per student specifically for high-income families, for a total subsidy to wealthy families over the life of the program of about $3.6 million.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Promise program, which currently offers a year of free community college tuition to kids at three South Seattle high schools, would expand tuition subsidies to all public high-school graduates, regardless of their family income. Because higher-income students generally qualify for fewer tuition subsidy programs overall, the city would spend more subsidizing their tuition, on average—about $3,000 a student, or half again as much as the $2,000 the city spends on a typical Seattle Promise subsidy today.

On Wednesday, council members expressed concern at the idea of government subsidies for rich families to send their kids to preschool and college. Council member Rob Johnson, who noted that he recently paid preschool tuition for his daughters, said, “I think there is a value for us to provide opportunities for kids at all income levels to participate in the Seattle Preschool Program, but I’m not sure we should be subsidizing ev family that walks in the door.” Similarly, Johnson said he worried that if eligibility the Seattle Promise program is opened up to all students, “kids in my neck of the woods, in Roosevelt, whose parents are really on them to get on it and get their applications in on  time may take up those slots,” while kids with higher needs “who may benefit more form the Promise program may be shut out of it because all those Roosevelt kids got in first.”

Council president Bruce Harrell, who represents Southeast Seattle’s District 2 (where two of the three current Seattle Promise high schools are located) said he understood the argument for socially engineering preschools so they included kids from all over the income spectrum, but drew the line at expanding scholarship subsidies to wealthy families. “I have very little interest [in] subsidies for higher-income families. In fact, I would be opposed to that,” he said.

The committee will take up the levy proposal again at 11:00 on June 6 in council chambers.

3. A few hours after the levy discussion, council members had only positive things to say about an arguably similar proposal to subsidize transit passes for all Seattle public school students students, not just those who are low-income, at an additional cost of about $3 million a year. (The proposal is one of several changes to a sales tax and vehicle license fee measure voters approved in 2014, which was originally earmarked to expand Metro bus service. Because of driver and bus shortages, Metro has been unable to expand service as much as originally planned.) Currently, the city spends about $1 million a year on the youth ORCA program, which pays for free bus passes for low-income students; the change would add $3 million to the youth program and expand it to fund passes for all high school students, and some middle-school students, regardless of income.

Johnson, who originally proposed expanding the youth ORCA program, said yesterday that he would “like us to discuss more options than what the mayor has put on the table, because there might be things like reduced fare for all kids—as opposed to what we have right now, which is a proposal that would give free ORCA cards to all high school kids, some middle school kids, and no elementary school kids.” Discussing the options with staff after yesterday’s hearing, Johnson pointed out that elementary school kids who rely on the bus are most likely to be accompanied by parents (usually moms, often low-income) who rely on the bus to run errands and get their kids to school.

4. The Downtown Seattle Association is hosting a swank-sounding members-only event next week to solicit donations and hand out signature sheets for the effort to repeal the $275 employee hours tax, which is earmarked for housing and homeless services. The location: The Palace Ballroom in Belltown, owned by noted $15 minimum-wage Chicken Little and head-tax opponent Tom Douglas. Appetizers and drinks will be served.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

‘Homelessness Is Not a Choice’: The State of the Crisis in Seattle and King County

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

Three years after the city of Seattle declared a homelessness state of emergency, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the region continues to increase.

This year’s one-night count of people experiencing homelessness in King County, conducted by the county’s homelessness response agency All Home, found 12,112 people living outdoors, in vehicles, and in shelters—a 4 percent increase over 2017.

At a press conference Thursday, All Home interim director Kira Zysltra attributed the rise in homelessness, which was slightly slower this year than in previous counts, to a growing lack of affordable housing in King County. “Homelessness is not a choice,” she said. “We are the fastest-growing big city in the country. … The economy is booming and rents are rising, [which] leads to more and more people falling into homelessness.”

The January 2018 count also showed sharp increases in the number of people living unsheltered on sidewalks, in parks, in sanctioned encampments, and in vehicles, as well as an increase in the number of single and chronically homeless individuals.

That number, according to the report, is “to be considered a minimum estimate” and undoubtedly represents an “undercount” of the true number of people experiencing homelessness at any one time.

Of those, 6,320 were living unsheltered (4,488 of them in Seattle), a 15 percent increase over 2017 in King County and a 17 percent increase in Seattle.

Mark Ellerbrook, manager of regional housing and community development with the King County Department of Community and Human Services, said around 30,000 people were homeless in King County at some point in 2018.

The one-night count also included a representative survey of people experiencing homelessness in King County, conducted after and separately from the count. According to All Home, 98 percent of the people surveyed said that they would accept safe, affordable housing (as opposed to overnight shelter) if it was offered.
According to Ellerbrook, the county faces a housing shortage of about 90,000 units affordable to people making less than half the area median income, which for a two-person household, would be $40,100. This shortage, he adds, has only grown since 2011, as the booming economy has led to rising rents across the county.

“We see the declining availability of affordable housing as a root cause of homelessness,” Ellerbrook said.

In fact, the overwhelming majority (80 percent) of survey respondents said access to affordable housing and rental assistance would help them escape homelessness, and 70 percent said that immediately prior to becoming homeless, they had owned or rented a home or lived with friends or family members.

Some other highlights from this year’s report:

• The number of people living in vehicles increased 46 percent in this year’s count, from 2,314 in 2017 to 3,372 this year. A very small portion of this increase could be attributed to a slight (7 percent, or 223-person) decrease in the number of people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings, or in tents.

People living in vehicles were less likely to have access to services, less likely to have criminal records, and more likely to report that police had asked them to move along—71 percent reported being told to leave, compared to 49 percent of people experiencing homelessness in general. They also seem far more likely to have become homeless because of job loss and evictions.

According to the report, “Compared to all other survey respondents, vehicle residents reported notably higher rates of attributing their homelessness to the loss of a job, eviction, or the dissolution of a relationship.”

• Although more people moved into permanent housing than in previous years—according to Zylstra, “we are seeing people, through our programs, housed faster and faster at higher and higher rates.” And although the number of people in families experiencing homeless and homeless veterans declined (by 7 percent and 31 percent, respectively), other types of homelessness increased, often dramatically. The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness—defined as persistent, ongoing homelessness combined with a disabling medical condition—climbed 28 percent between 2017 and 2018, for example.

Although the report offers no specific explanation for the sharp increase in chronic homelessness, the specific challenges facing people who live on the street for long periods suggest that lack of access to behavioral health care is a major issue. According to the report, 63 percent of chronically homeless people reported behavioral health and substance abuse issues, respectively, and more than half (52 percent) said they were homeless because of those issues, compared to 32 percent of those surveyed overall.

Jim Vollendroff, head of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division at King County Public Health, said that the “vast majority of those entering our mental health services system right now are entering the system at the equivalent of someone who has cancer entering the system at stage 4.” Discharging those folks from the acute mental health care system without housing in place just compounds the problem, he said, because “shelter or homelessness…is not an environment for people to maintain recovery.”

• As in every previous survey, the vast majority of people living on the streets in King County reported being from the region—a fact that has never dispelled the persistent myth that people flock to Seattle from all over the country for free services.

About 83 percent of survey respondents said they lived in King County immediately prior to losing their housing, and another 11 percent lived in another county in Washington State. That leaves just 6 percent who lived in another state when they became homeless; the primary states from which people reported moving are California, Oregon, and Texas.

• Several reporters asked whether it wasn’t true that most unsheltered people remain homeless simply because they “refuse services” and don’t want to come inside. The survey found that, in fact, people listed lack of access to services as one of the primary barriers to finding permanent housing.

This year, the number of people who reported that they were receiving any services at all tripled over last year, to 18 percent, and 69 percent of respondents said they had experienced problems when trying to access services. These problems included not qualifying for the services they wanted (23 percent), lack of transportation (23 percent), not knowing where to go (23 percent), and never hearing back after applying for services (18 percent). These numbers, combined with the finding that virtually every person surveyed said they would accept safe, affordable housing, suggests that the problem of persistent homelessness is far more complicated than people refusing to accept the shelter and services they’re offered.

 

Another Durkan Proposal, This One Long in the Works, Emphasizes Emergency Shelter

This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan will roll out more details about her plan—announced earlier this year—to spend the proceeds from the sale of a parcel of city-owned land in South Lake Union on new shelter beds, temporary housing vouchers, and other programs to help people who are homeless or at risk of falling into homelessness. The plan, originally rolled out under the name “Building a Bridge to Housing for All,” includes the renewal of several contracts with the Downtown Emergency Service Center to provide basic shelter to 163 men and women. (I broke the story that the city had decided to continue funding the three shelters, which all lost funding under strict new city funding requirements that de-emphasized spending on basic shelter, earlier this month.) The plan would also expand the overnight shelter inside City Hall by 120 beds, fund 280 new “enhanced shelter” beds, which come with on-site services, and fund several new “tiny house village” encampments that are already underway. In all, the $8.75 million shelter component of the proposal includes 100 new tiny houses, 283 new or renewed basic shelter beds, and 280 beds in enhanced shelters. One question you may be asking is: Wait—wasn’t the city supposed to be moving away from shelter and toward permanent housing? Another: If this is all going to be funded using one-time money from the sale of city property, how is it sustainable? And a third: If DESC is getting its funding renewed despite failing to meet the city’s performance metrics, does this mean the city is acknowledging that requiring service providers to move most clients into permanent housing quickly may be an unattainable goal in a city with virtually no affordable housing for people to move into?

Durkan and city staffers responded to (but didn’t always answer) those questions, and many others, during a sometimes tense press briefing about the proposal yesterday. Let’s take them in turn.

What’s up with all the emphasis on shelter? 

At a press briefing outlining the details of her plan on Tuesday, Durkan touted the fact that her proposal represents “the single largest increase in shelter capacity” since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015, and argued that “It would be the wrong thing for the city of Seattle to close shelters and then put people back on the streets.” (The proposal also includes rent vouchers for a small number of high-risk households who are on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list and a payment of several million dollars into an affordable housing fund.) That kind of statement is impossible to challenge—who would want to “close shelters and put people back on the streets”?—and yet it’s kind of what the city itself argued when it decided to emphasize “quality over quantity” in funding shelter beds last year, when the city explicitly cut funding to shelter providers who were unable to convince the city that they could meet its new mandate to move at least 40 percent of their clients into permanent housing within 90 days. At the time, then-mayor Tim Burgess  declared sternly, “Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.”

Similarly, Durkan’s alternative head tax proposal would have heavily emphasized getting people off sidewalks and out from under bridges (and out of sight of the homeowners who’ve been inundating city officials with angry emails) over building permanent housing. Durkan’s proposal, which the council rejected for a slightly larger one that emphasized housing over shelter, would have built just 250 affordable rental housing units over five years.

Asked whether she and her Human Services Department were easing up on the strict exits-to-permanent-housing requirement, Durkan responded, “We are still making sure that there’s accountability within the system, and when I say accountability, I mean effective. … But in the short term, we are going to make sure that as we work with [our] partners to increase the ability to get housing for people, we are going to work with them to people off the streets. It is not an option to leave people in place. It is not.”

How does Durkan plan to pay for this in the long term? 

It appears that long-term funding for Durkan’s plan would come primarily from the head tax—a $275-per-employee tax on companies with gross receipts above $20 million that passed earlier this month. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, the adopted head tax plan includes between $15 million and $16 million a year to continue programs, like the shelter beds that are being funded with one-time proceeds from the sale of land in South Lake Union, “which had one-time funding in the 2018 budget, or insufficient funding,” plus unspecified “new emergency, temporary, and enhanced shelters, navigation centers… and/or service and safe parking for vehicular living.”

If Amazon (and the army of anti-tax homeowners currently gathering signatures to overturn a tax on the city’s largest businesses on their) has their way, the city will need to come up with another way to pay for all those new (and newly re-funded) shelter beds. Asked what she would do if the head tax is overturned, Durkan joked, “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

What about those performance metrics?

Homeless service providers were recently told that they were getting a three-month grace period before the city starts penalizing them for failing to meet its strict performance metrics. Durkan said the city will penalize providers who fail to meet those metrics once the grace period is over, and said that numerous programs are already meeting the new standards. However, she was somewhat defensive when several reporters pointed out that the point of the new performance standards was ostensibly to move away from funding short-term shelters—and that a major expansion of short-term shelters seemed like a move in the opposite direction.

“We cannot be so pure at this point that we just say, ‘Put people out on the street,'” Durkan said. “Moving a whole system to a performance-based system doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice human beings and throw them in the street. You can move a system to be better and more performance-based and still have the reality that some shelter is better than [no] shelter. … It doesn’t happen overnight. There is no silver bullet. It is a very complicated system, and we are going to work with the reality on the ground, and one of those realities is going to be that we are not going to just turn people out onto the street.” It’s a message that both homeless advocates (who made very similar arguments back when the new performance metrics were being adopted) or anti-homeless activists (whose primary goal seems to be reducing the visible signs of homelessness, particularly in their neighborhoods or on their routes to work) could theoretically get behind. The problem it, it’s not the city’s adopted policy—which is what makes it a confusing message as well.

* In particular, Durkan highlighted the city’s rapid rehousing programs, which provide short-term rent vouchers that formerly homeless people can use to rent on the private market, as a success story, saying that just 3 percent of all voucher recipients have returned to homelessness in the first quarter of 2018. However, the success or failure of a program that purports to provide “permanent” housing should probably be graded on a longer period of time than three or even six months—HSD’s official standard—given that people may still be receiving subsidies after that short a time. Also, a King County audit recently found that in general, rapid rehousing programs across the county are failing to meet most performance metrics, including not just returns to homelessness but the amount of time it takes for people to move from shelter to permanent housing. 

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Why Is the Mayor Allowed To Dictate the Law?”

1. On Tuesday, May 15, the Consumer Protection Division of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s found itself suddenly inundated with Consumer Protection Act complaints against the Seattle City Council, claiming that the council had violated citizens’ consumer rights by, among other things, allowing the city’s “public areas, streets, sidewalks, parks and cemeteries” to be “destroyed by unsanctioned homeless people and drug addicts.”  The written complaints—more than a dozen in one day—had a couple things in common. They all came from residents of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. And they all used strikingly similar language, replicated here from one of the complaints, which I obtained through a public records request:

Dear Attorney General: I am writing to you because our public areas, streets, sidewalks, parks and cemeteries and currently being destroyed by unsanctioned homeless people and drug addicts. You cannot drive anywhere in Seattle and surrounding neighborhoods without seeing a homeless tent, evidence of where a homeless tent once was, trash and drug needles, bottles of urine, human feces, etc. in any open space around the city. The homeless are destroying public property by cutting down trees and shrubs to make their encampments. They are littering, urinating and depositing used needles around their encampments. They are harassing pedestrians for money. Often these camps are elaborate, built of shipping pallets, plywood, and other building materials stolen from neighbors or construction sites. Some are built using Yellow Bikes with tarps draped over them. RV’s equipped with generators and BBQ grills are being setup alongside public roads as if it were a camp ground! On occasion, they have stolen power from neighboring houses or businesses. This has gotten way out of control. These camps are dangerous to both the homeless and residents using the public spaces, as they are often setup right next to a busy road with trash and debris spilling into the road and sidewalk areas. Needles can be picked up by children or accidently stepped on by children or pets. The trash attracts rodents. The urine and human feces is a health concern. We report these encampments when they spring up, but we are told by the police that there is nothing that they can do ??? that they have been instructed by the Chief of Police and Mayor to not do anything unless a felony crime has taken place. Currently there are laws against camping along side public roadways and on sidewalks. There are laws against littering. There are laws against camping out of your vehicle along a public road. There are laws against public urination. There are laws against illegal drug use. There are laws against loitering. There are laws against illegal parking. There are laws against vagrancy. Why are the laws not being enforced? Why is the Mayor allowed to dictate the law? I see this no differently than if the Mayor asked the Chief of Police not to arrest her brother for drunk driving and felony hit and run. She should not be able to dictate which laws are enforced and which laws are overlooked. As Attorney General, I would like to know what you can do to ensure that these laws are enforced? Laws were created for the protection and safety of everyone in the community. The homeless is not a protective class. They should not be exempt from following the laws that we all must follow simply because of their income status. Please advise as to what can to be done to enforce our laws! Thank you.
Curious how so many people in Magnolia came to file essentially the same complaint (sometimes shortened or dolled up with a few personal details) at the exact same time, I checked out what seemed to me the most likely suspect: The Magnolia NextDoor page. (NextDoor is a semi-private social network for people who live in the same area of the city.) Sure enough, a little over a week ago, there it was: A post from a Magnolia resident, titled “Homeless Encampments – Letter to the Attorney General,” that encouraged people concerned about the issue of “tents that are springing up all over the city” to “file a complaint with the Attorney General” using his letter as a template.
The complaints are all listed as “closed” in the state’s consumer complaint database, and the division referred all the complaints back to the Seattle City Council “to process in accordance with your agency’s procedures.” The consumer protection division deals only with complaints against businesses, not government agencies or officials, and according to its website, “is authorized to bring legal action only in the name of the State of Washington, and is prohibited from serving as an attorney for individual consumers.”  You can almost hear the deep, bureaucratic sigh as another pile of frivolous complaints land on the AG’s virtual desk.

2. Tonight at 6, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission will host a screening of “Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back!,” a film that argues Israel has enlisted unwitting LGBTQ people in service to so-called “Israeli apartheid” by “promoting [Israel] as ‘gay friendly’ to divert attention from terrible human rights violations.” The term “Israeli apartheid,” which likens Israel’s control of the West Bank and its policies toward Palestinians to the racist policies of the former South African government, is common in far-left circles but is considered anti-Semitic by many Jews. On Wednesday, the Jewish Federation Seattle created a petition to stop the event, which the group says “promotes lies about Israel, alienates and discriminates against the tens of thousands of Jews and Israelis living here, and is likely at the very least to stir up increased anti-Semitism.” In 2006, a gunman went on an anti-Israel tirade while he shot six people, killing one, at the Jewish Federation’s headquarters in downtown Seattle.

According to the event page for the screening, which is being co-hosted by the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities and socialist city council member Kshama Sawant the 10-member, city council-appointed commission is “standing in solidarity with Palestinians who face daily persecution from the occupying forces of the Israeli government. We are critiquing the Israeli governmental use of force, not individual Jewish people nor or we suggesting limiting human rights of Jewish people.”

But individual Jewish people in Seattle, and groups that work to combat anti-Semitism in the city, see the event differently. Maxima Patashnik, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Federation, says the documentary “presents a really one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is really a detriment to the LGBTQ activists in Israel who have worked hard to gain equality and human rights and lumps them in with this Israeli propaganda campaign.” She says that while the film (like the event itself) does include the perspectives of a handful of Jewish people, “The events in the film as they are presented are extremely exclusionary, unwelcoming, and alienating to the vast majority Jews and Israelis here in Seattle.”

Patashnik also questions whether a city-funded commission whose mission does not include weighing in on international affairs should be sponsoring an event at City Hall that promotes the idea that (according to the website for the film) “Israel is the country most famous for” pretending to be LGBTQ-friendly to cover up human rights violations. “If this film was just being sponsored by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, they would be well within their rights to do that. Where it crosses the line is that this is city-sponsored,” she says.

In a statement, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission said it was “hosting the film screening as an opportunity to encourage learning and civil discourse” and notes that the film was “made by a Jewish filmmaker and features Jewish and Palestinian activists working together.” The panel discussing the film will also include a Jewish member, the commission says. (LGBTQ Commission co-chair Julia Ricciardi did not respond to a followup question about whether any of the commission members who signed off on the event are themselves Jewish.)

“The Seattle LGBTQ Commission is committed to highlighting and centering experiences of individuals who are often marginalized, underrepresented or erased from public discourse,” the statement continues. “This film screening is an opportunity to invite all individuals from the Seattle community to engage in learning and discussion around information that may not be widely known, as well as provide valuable space for people to engage in dialogue about governmental practices, whether those practices be local, federal, or international.”

Patashnik says the Jewish Federation does not have any plans to formally protest the event.

 

3. Earlier this month, a woman was the victim of a brutal rape by a stranger in the restroom of a car dealership in Ballard. (Most rapes occur in people’s homes and are committed by men who are known to their victims.) Much of the media, and certainly many members of the public, have fixated on the fact that the man was homeless, suggesting that women are at particular risk of being raped by homeless strangers in Seattle due to policies the city council has adopted. And over the last few weeks, they have expressed their feelings
Many of the emails were directed at District 6 council member Mike O’Brien, whose district includes Ballard, where the rape occurred. Some, by the standards of anti-homeless social media screeds, are fairly mundane—a woman claims that she and her children are now “forced to stay in our homes and no longer feel safe to interact in the community we once loved”—but others are darker.
You probably know where this is going.

“Hey Mike,” one man writes. “Heard one of you Ballard BUMS raped someone today? Care to comment? The blame for this is COMPLETELY on your head due to your coddling of the BUM herds in Ballard.

“I sincerely, SINCERELY, hope that your wife is the next rape victim. Please do the world in general a favor and kill yourself.”

Another letter, from a woman, says that if council members like the “unsafe dump” Seattle has turned into, they should invite “these people” into their homes, where “They can rape your friends and do drugs in your backyard.”

A letter from a couple suggests that council members may “wake up” once  “your mother, wife, daughter, son [is] the next victim brutally raped by some mentally deranged homeless person from God knows where!!! … It takes city workers days to clean up after these PIGS!!,” the letter continues. “That’s appreciation isn’t it??  Wake up!!!  Who is in charge here??  Seems like the homeless are.  If they don’t want help, screw them, lock them up.”

A real estate broker, who helpfully includes the name of her employer, her personal website, and the signature line, “Realtor since 1990. Real Property. Real Expertise,” suggests that council members should “make every square foot of the floor space in Your yard, Your home Your children’s rooms available for the outlaws you seem to care for so much. Between Yourselves and all Your staffers You can get a true taste of what the policies you have wrought mean.

The vagrants have No rules

They could …Rape and assault, immolate, stab, kidnap you and your neighbors.

And don’t call the police they shouldn’t respond, you have instructed them not to.

You have already given the vagrants all the permission they need to do all of the above.”

Finally, to end on a (slightly) lighter note, there is this slightly deranged email, with the subject line “Rape of Seattle,” from a man who believes that city council members are accompanied at all times by security details and never “openly walk on the street.”

“If indeed you were running a safe city, then why do you require personal security?,” the writer asks. “Seattle’s political women like you Jenny, Sally, Kshama, Lisa, Debora, Lorena, Teresa, should be able to walk or bike the streets you are responsible for. At least bring your vehicle in for work without security.”

City council members do not have security details, and can regularly be seen on buses, walking on city sidewalks, riding their bikes along Fourth Avenue, and even at the downtown YMCA.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

So Much for Compromise: Amazon-Backed Business Coalition Invests Big to Kill Head Tax

Remember when, just a couple of weeks ago, Amazon held the whole city hostage by halting plans to build one 17-story tower and threatening to sublease space it had planned to rent in another? The issue was the size of the proposed head tax to fund housing and services for some of the thousands of people living homeless in Seattle: A majority of the city council wanted the tax to be $500 per employee on every business with gross revenues of more than $20 million a year (Amazon plus nearly 600 other companies); Amazon said it couldn’t go a cent higher than $250. Over a weekend of frenzied negotiations, in which Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly served as the conduit between Amazon and the city council, that five-member majority evaporated, and on Monday, the council voted unanimously to approve the $275 tax that Amazon supposedly wanted. Amazon resumed construction, everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and the council prepared for the next battle—a debate over how to spend the money, about $47 million a year, that the hard-won head tax would generate.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and it looks like Durkan—and the council—were in over their heads. Amazon may still be building in Seattle, but they have one foot out the door, and last week, they made their first pledge—$25,000—to the “No Tax On Jobs” referendum campaign. The campaign enjoys the backing of not just other corporate behemoths (Kroger, Starbucks, Centurylink) but a who’s who of local developers, hotel industry players, and maritime and industrial businesses. So far, the anti-tax campaign has brought in more than $352,000 in financial pledges—and that doesn’t count the free labor the companies’ anti-tax messaging has received from regular citizens who are mad at the city’s response to homelessness, who are cheerfully gathering signatures at farmers’ markets and community meetings around the city. (The dubious connection between a tax on the largest corporations and ordinary taxpayers is that if companies like Amazon are required to pay additional taxes, they will leave the city, taking all those high-paying jobs with them. The irony that many of the people who are freaked out by this scenario are the same people who stridently oppose the increased traffic and population density that all those “jobs” produce appears to be lost on many head tax proponents.)

It’s hardly surprising that Amazon is looking out for its bottom line. What is a bit surprising is that Durkan seems to have believed that her half-measure “compromise,” which was focused on Amazon and not the rest of Seattle’s politically active business community, would quell a rebellion. When former mayor Ed Murray (who resigned in disgrace after allegations that he sexually abused minors decades ago) wanted to make sure that the $15 minimum wage proposal would stick, he created an unprecedented business- and labor-led advisory committee that included representatives from the Seattle Hospitality Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and local businesses like Ivar’s and Nucor Steel along with labor and social-justice groups. Over five months, that group hammered out a deal that phased the $15 minimum wage in slowly, over seven years, with extra concessions for the small businesses that would be most impacted by the increase. By next year, workers at all but the smallest businesses in Seattle will be making a minimum of $15 an hour.

Four years ago, Seattle Hospitality Group founder Howard Wright stood beside the mayor for a photo op as he signed the legislation making $15 the law of the land. This week, he donated $25,000 to the effort to kill the head tax.

Maybe compromise is harder than it looks.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.