Council Members Talk Amazon in NYC: “Don’t Flinch Every Time a Corporation Flexes Its Muscles”

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

File:Long Island City New York May 2015 panorama 3.jpg

Image via King of Hearts; Creative Commons license

As New York City braces itself against the potential “Seattleization” of Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon recently announced it will build one of two satellite “HQ2”s, two Seattle City councilmembers arrived in New York City Monday morning with a dual message: It’s going to be every bit as bad as you imagined. And: There’s still time to prepare.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold spoke at the headquarters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Monday morning, following a succession of local elected officials and progressive activists who denounced the company. (RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum, for example, described Amazon as “one of the worst employers not just in the United States but anywhere in the world.”)

Herbold read a letter from an Amazon contractor who described a desperate, daily scramble for shifts in a job with no benefits, no job security, and no health care—just an 800 number staffed by a nurse who “will tell you to see a doctor that you can’t afford.” Her advice for New Yorkers who want to extract some benefits from Amazon, which will receive an estimated $3 billion in tax breaks for the project? Mobilize early, align with small businesses, and be prepared for Amazon to try to change the conversation.

“We simply weren’t able to counter the influence of big money on public opinion” in Seattle, Herbold said, referring to the failure of the city’s $275-per-employee “head tax,” which would have funded housing and homeless services. “In Seattle, Amazon used small businesses as a stalking horse. … You have to remind small businesses that they, too, are victims of regressive tax structures.”

After telling Seattle leaders  they would support a scaled back “compromise” version of the tax, Amazon helped fund the “No Tax on Jobs” campaign, which planned to run a referendum to overturn the measure. Eventually, the council voted to overturn the tax, with Herbold voting with the majority and Mosqueda voting no.

Mosqueda offered the head tax experience as a cautionary tale, and warned the New York activists, “Don’t be the city or the state that flinches every time a corporation flexes its muscles, threatens to move out of town, tries to say that they’re going to cut jobs or stop construction, and pulls back on investing on the very system and infrastructure that they refuse to pay into.” Amazon’s outsize presence in Seattle, Mosqueda said, has “had a dramatic impact on who can afford to live in the city,” contributing to homelessness, gentrification, and “people not being able to keep the homes that they grew up in.”

Finally, Herbold cautioned that activists should brace themselves for Amazon and its supporters to suggest that private philanthropists, not the government, should be responsible for creating an adequate social safety net. Herbold recalled that when she wrote an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to participate in a national conversation about how to meet workers’ basic needs in the “gig economy.” The response, she said Monday, was “basically [that we need] more philanthropy.”

“We are in a modern Gilded Era,” Herbold said. “There is no accountability for private philanthropy, and charitable gifts don’t solve infrastructure issues or inequality.”

Bike Lanes Are For Everyone: Fact-Checking Claims that Only “The Privileged” Want Safe Cycling Infrastructure

Transportation Twitter is buzzing today about an anti-bike lane op/ed in Crosscut that argues, among other things, that new bike lanes in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Wedgwood will hurt minority-owned businesses; that the only people who ride bikes are a vaguely defined group known as “the privileged”; and that bike improvements that have dramatically reduced traffic violence in the Rainier Valley represent an imposition on a neighborhood that did not ask for and does not need those improvements.

(The piece, by Latino Civic Alliance board chair Nina Martinez, might as well have been ghostwritten by local attorney Gabe Galanda, who has been making almost word-for-word identical arguments against bike lanes in the Rainier Valley and Wedgwood on his Twitter page.)

Instead of arguing the issue on Twitter, I decided to fact-check the piece line by line to show why bike advocates are so worked up about its central claim, that “Seattle’s bike lobby needs to check its privilege,” and by the suggestion that low-income people and people of color don’t want or need safe places to ride. The text of Crosscut’s article, in its entirety, is in italics.

A downtown bike lane once estimated to cost $860,000 is now $12 million per mile.

The biggest inaccuracy in Crosscut’s editorial, and the easiest to fact-check, appears right in the very first line of the piece, which claims two things: A bike lane downtown was going to cost a total of $860,000, and now costs $12 million a mile.

Let’s take those two things in turn. Was a downtown bike lane supposed to cost just $860,000 total?

No. In fact, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that this is false on several levels. Go just one layer past the frothing, error-riddled Danny Westneat column linked in Crosscut’s editorial and you learn, via Times reporter Mike Lindblom, that “Actually, the city didn’t promise downtown bike lanes for only $860,000 a mile. Nor did it overrun budgets by a factor of 14. That figure is an average that includes much cheaper locations.” Whoops. So not only was there never any specific bike lane that was supposed to cost a total of $860,000, the $860,000 per mile figure that Westneat cites is actually a citywide average for all bike infrastructure.

As for $12 million a mile : The Times also reported that a huge percentage of that $12 million figure are costs that have nothing to do with bike lanes. In fact, Lindblom makes that abundantly clear early in his story, noting in the first few paragraphs that “There’s more to a project than paving a bike lane.” The $12 million per mile cost includes things that have absolutely nothing to do with bikes and that are in fact largely for the benefit of other roadway users, such as new sidewalks, repaving the entire roadway (not just the bike lane), adding new streetlights on both sides of the road, and replacing the subsurface sewer infrastructure. The actual cost for a representative $3.8 million, 4.5-block bike lane project on Seventh Avenue, once all the non-bike-lane portions of the project are factored out? $136,020.

The cost of the Burke-Gilman “missing link” in Ballard is now pegged at $23.5 million.

This, like the “$12 million for a bike lane?!?” figure, is misleading because it includes many expenditures that have nothing to do with bike lanes per se. The total cost of the “Missing Link” now includes many extra goodies demanded by industrial businesses in the vicinity of the trail, who have dragged the project out for years (and years) (and years), so that now, the bike path itself only makes up 30 percent of the cost of the trail extension, according to SDOT.

In fact, the Burke-Gilman “trail” extension has become more of a full-corridor project, thanks to those concessions to businesses, and now includes repaving part of NW Market Street, adding an brand-new intersection for freight access at 54th Avenue NW and Market, funding transit improvements on Market, adding signals that will make it easier for freight traffic to cross the trail, and rebuilding freight businesses’ driveways up and down the trail. These are not bike projects; they are car and freight mobility projects, and including them in the cost of the “trail” is highly misleading.

The city is removing small and minority-owned business parking in Northeast neighborhoods like Wedgwood and Roosevelt. The average Seattle taxpayer should be infuriated.

No citation is given for this claim that business owners in the Wedgwood and Roosevelt neighborhoods are largely “small and minority-owned,” but here are some demographics that help paint a picture of the part of town Martinez is talking about. The ZIP code that includes both Roosevelt and Wedgwood, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey,  is 81 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic or Latino, and just 2 percent African American. That’s much, much whiter than Seattle as a whole, which is 69 percent white and 7 percent Latino/Hispanic and African American, respectively. In comparison, the ZIP code that includes much of Southeast Seattle, 98118, is 35 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 27 percent African American. I believe we can safely assert, based on those figures, that neighborhood businesses owned by local residents in Wedgwood are less likely to be owned by minorities than neighborhood businesses in other parts of the city.

Moreover, businesses on 35th Ave have been complaining about street parking being removed for bike lanes for much of the past five years, since the 2014 adoption of the latest version of the city’s Bike Master Plan. (The claim that the Businesses complain about parking every time bike lanes are proposed in a way that will remove free on-street public parking for cars. They complained about bike lanes on 65th Ave. NE, on 75th Ave NE, on Nickerson Street, on Stone Way… and they will complain about the next bike lane just as loudly.

(Incidentally, SDOT’s survey of parking utilization in the area around the planned bike lane found that on-street parking was never more than 50 percent full within a block of the project, demonstrating that removing a small number of on-street parking spaces on one side of 35th Ave NE will not significantly impact drivers’ ability to find parking near neighborhood businesses.)

 

Support

 

Bottom line: This isn’t about minority-owned businesses—it’s about business owners who feel, contrary to what the law actually says, that they own the public streets in front of their establishments. Business owners are free to provide parking for their patrons; what they are not free to do is claim that the public street right-of-way, which we all pay for, belongs exclusively to them and their car-driving customers.

I am concerned about the proliferation of bike lanes for another reason: because they displace the underprivileged and reapportion to the privileged, public monies that should be dedicated to mitigating our city’s homelessness crisis, income inequality and neighborhood gentrification.

There is no evidence whatsoever that bike lanes themselves are somehow “displac[ing] the underprivileged.”  As for the rest of the claim, it’s a standard canard used for any number of issues: Why are we spending any money on X, when we should be spending all our money on Y?  The fact is that the city has had a bike master plan since the Nickels Administration, and that bike safety has been a longtime priority for Seattle (at least in theory) for many reasons, among them: Making it possible for people who don’t own or can’t afford cars to get around the city safely; decreasing carbon emissions that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color; improving safety for all roadway users, not just cyclists; reducing the number of people who are killed and injured by drivers on our streets; improving public health and reducing obesity in the city; and reducing car dependence so that people of all ages, incomes, and abilities can get around the city comfortably and safely. In any case, the ten-year Bike Master Plan adopted in 2014 clocked in under $100 million; even if all of that money had been allocated to “mitigating our city’s homelessness crisis” alone (leaving aside the other goals of fixing “income inequality and neighborhood gentrification”) it would scarcely make a dent in the need. (In contrast, the recently overturned head tax was projected to raise about $75 million a year). And more people, including people of color in neighborhoods where cyclists are forced to share street space with zooming automobiles, would die as a direct result.

For all of our progressive political ideology, Seattle is one of the most racially hegemonic cities in America.

Fifty years after city law was changed to declare housing discrimination illegal, historical neighborhoods of color like the Central District, International District and Beacon Hill are now some of the most desired areas to live in our city. Those neighborhoods have been gentrifying over the last 30 years. But the people of color business owners who were once segregated into these neighborhoods — by further adverse housing practices like “redlining” in the 1970’s — are being priced out of those same neighborhoods today. 

This is accurate. And has nothing whatsoever to do with whether business owners in Wedgwood get free parking, or whether bike lanes benefit communities of color.

And the challenges of small businesses in our city are not limited to those historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. Seattle ranks first in the country for small business growth. Yet Black and Latino residents who together comprise 15 percent of our city’s population, for example, own less than 5 percent of businesses citywide. It remains a real struggle for people of color and immigrant members of our community to realize the American Dream of small business ownership.

Again, this is true enough, but what does it have to do with businesses in wealthy, white neighborhoods who think city taxpayers should subsidize free parking for their patrons? It’s like writing an op/ed trashing Mayor Jenny Durkan for her policy on homeless sweeps but making every other paragraph about the problems facing women in STEM fields.

What is missing from Seattle’s governance and infrastructure planning is honest discourse about these difficult issues — about our checkered racial and socioeconomic history, and about how past and recent development decisions in City Hall have displaced and still displace historically marginalized communities and small businesses. Instead, city planning officials too frequently pay homage to the special interests of the privileged, like the small but loud bicycle lobby. 

You’ll get no argument from me that we need to talk more about our checkered racial and socioeconomic history—particularly Seattle’s history of redlining people of color out of “desirable” single-family neighborhoods and then perpetuating that formal segregation in the post-Jim Crow era with zoning rules that effectively bar low-income people and people of color from buying or renting homes in the vast majority of the city even today. The idea that the “bicycle lobby” is “privileged,” however, is straight out of the business lobby’s playbook. Remember when “Save 35th Ave. NE,” the group that is pushing to preserve parking for cars at any cost, put out a dog-whistle tweet suggesting that low-income “single moms” don’t ride bikes? Not only did single moms quickly disabuse the group, en masse, of that sexist, classist notion, they staged a protest ride to make the point that single moms, moms with partners, and women in general can and do ride bikes all over the city. The notion that “techbros” are the only people out on bikes is quickly dispelled by walking or riding on the Burke-Gilman Trail, much less in any neighborhood where biking is actually relatively safe—which makes the case for more bike infrastructure, not against it.

A 2017 SDOT survey found that only 3 percent of trips to local businesses are made by bicycle, as compared to by foot (40 percent), car (35 percent), or transit (18 percent). For small business owners, brick and mortar and customer access are vital, as is their workforce. Yet Seattle continues to spend tens of millions of dollars to replace parking spots with bike lanes, for the benefit of the privileged few.

Well, yes. People tend to walk to neighborhood businesses, because, well, they’re located within walking distance. People tend to bike for slightly longer distances. And they tend to drive when they have to carry things home with them, or run errands with kids. But wouldn’t it be great if neighborhoods were safe enough that some of those people who are running local errands by car felt comfortable cycling to local businesses instead? The fact that a lot of people currently drive isn’t actually an argument that our transportation system should or will always be this way, it’s evidence of the fact that we have spent the past 100 years designing a transportation system for the past 100 years for cars, and we’ll have to work just as hard, on a much faster timeline, to make our streets welcoming places for cyclists and other road users as well.

As for “the privileged few”: It’s a common canard that only rich, white men need, want, or benefit safe bike infrastructure. It’s also patently false and, in light of the actual demographics of bike riders, paternalistic and insulting to the many low-income people, women, and people of color who ride bikes. As a former Southeast Seattle resident who gave up riding to work because Rainier Ave., the most direct and least hilly route to downtown or Capitol Hill, is so demonstrably dangerous, I am an avid advocate for safe bike infrastructure. But let’s not rely on anecdotes from one person who commuted from Southeast Seattle daily for years, taking her life into her own hands. Let’s look at the numbers.

• Biking is rising fastest among people of color, particularly African Americans and Asian Americans. Meanwhile, Latinx people ride bikes more than any other ethnic or racial group.

• People of color are also more likely than other groups to say they ride bikes for transportation, rather than recreation, belying the claim that bike commuting is for rich white people only.

• Although most Americans say they would like to bike more often than they do, people of color are most likely to say this, and to say that protected bike lanes, in particular, would make them more likely to make them get on a bike.

• Latinx cyclists are the group proportionately most likely to die from traffic violence, followed by African Americans, giving them a direct stake in improving bike safety in their neighborhoods.

• Finally, the lowest-income Americans bike far more for recreation and transportation than people in the highest income brackets, largely because many low-income people cannot afford to own a car.

Access to safe bicycle facilities is thus a racial and social-justice issue. To pretend otherwise by relying on lazy stereotypes about Spandex-clad bros on racing bikes is to willfully ignore the facts about who’s riding bikes, and why.

“Bike Lanes Are White Lanes” author Melody Hoffman explains that the emergence of bike lanes in once segregated and now gentrified neighborhoods sends a clear message to those who live and own businesses there — that their voices don’t matter. She urges “urban planners and bike advocates who are planning this infrastructure to not just bring projects into neighborhoods.” Instead, bike lane projects should be “community-driven.” Hoffman calls out the privilege we are seeing here: “For the white middle class person, they feel that their one barrier is they need a protected bike lane to feel safe, but that is not the lived experience of all people.”

In fact, the very lengthy process for bringing protected bike lanes into the Rainier Valley was spearheaded and championed by a community-based organization called Rainier Valley Greenways, which led the charge for a series of “road diets” on Rainier Ave. S that have reduced crashes in the corridor, which has long been known as “the most dangerous street in Seattle” for the literally hundreds of injuries and fatalities caused by car crashes every year. After years of work that included a protest march in Columbia City and countless meetings with community members and city officials, the group finally won changes that have resulted in dramatic (95%) reductions in aggressive speeding, a 41% reduction in the number of people injured while walking and biking, and no significant delays to bus or car traffic driving through the corridor. According to the owner of one Columbia City small business, quoted by KING 5 in 2016, “The benefits far outweigh the downside.”

Seattle is at a crossroads. We are the fastest growing U.S. city. But we also have major societal problems caused by the unprecedented insurgence of wealth. As a city we must decide how to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly and equitably, ensuring that we are also serving and protecting small businesses. It is unacceptable for city officials to impose a bike lane agenda on neighborhoods like those proposed throughout the Rainier Valley without bothering to stop, look around and listen to peoples’ life experiences.

Again, the changes that have been made in the Rainier Valley, specifically, came from the community and would not have happened without strong advocacy from within the community—a community that was tired of seeing its residents maimed and killed by cars and trucks speeding down a street that was originally designed as a highway for cars traveling between Seattle and Renton.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council must now hit the pause button to allow transparent community development conversation to occur. Until then, there will only be more discord — with underrepresented communities still feeling that nobody in City Hall cares what they think.

I understand that this is an editorial, and that sometimes editorials aren’t fact-checked as assiduously as reported stories. However, even editorial opinions are stronger when they’re based on facts and data rather than opinions and innuendo. In this case, those opinions lead to some startling and problematic conclusions of their own. Asserting, contrary to evidence, that only privileged white people ride bikes, for example, is a way of erasing the people of color who are endangered every day by terrible or nonexistent bike facilities in their neighborhoods. Suggesting that Rainier Valley residents had bike lanes and road diets shoved down their throats erases the Rainier Valley residents who volunteered their time for years in the fight to get safe bike facilities on at least a small stretch of the most dangerous street in Seattle.

Ultimately, I think people who pit bike lanes against other priorities (bike lanes or solving homelessness; bike lanes or fixing income inequality) know that defunding safe infrastructure for cyclists won’t mean more money for homelessness or stopping gentrification or anything else. They just see “bike lanes” as a froufrou, unnecessary expenditure that benefits rich white guys in Spandex. It’s up to news outlets, including Crosscut, to examine the facts and determine whether that claim holds water. I hope they will follow up and do so.

* This story initially misidentified local attorney Gabe Galanda as Galanda Broadman, which is the name of Galanda’s law firm.

The City Studied the Impact of Easing Rules on Garage Apartments. What They Uncovered Was an Indictment of Single-Family Zoning.

In 2016, a group of homeowners, led by one especially ardent anti-density activist named Marty Kaplan, sued the city to stall proposed rules that would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units—basement apartments and backyard cottages—on their property.  (The rules, which would apply in single-family areas outside urban villages, would have eliminated parking requirements for accessory units; allowed homeowners to have both a basement unit and a backyard cottage, as long as they kept development under preexisting size limits; and eliminated owner-occupancy requirements, among other tweaks.) A city hearing examiner, Sue Tanner, found in favor of Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council later that same year, delaying the rule changes and forcing the city to do a full environmental impact statement to determine whether allowing several hundred more basement and backyard apartments across the city would have a detrimental environmental impact. (Environmental impact statements do not, as yet, consider the beneficial environmental impacts of making it possible for people to live near where they work or go to school, instead of driving in to the city every day on exhaust-choked freeways).

Nearly two years later, that document is finally here, and its 364 pages are a strong rebuke to anyone who has ever argued that single-family zoning is a natural feature of the landscape in Seattle, and that legalizing apartments in single-family areas will lead to displacement, environmental degradation, and drive up housing costs for low-income renters. The document places Seattle’s current zoning debates squarely in the context of history—not just redlining, which has been documented elsewhere, but post-redlining decisions that made apartments illegal on two-thirds of the city’s land and shut non-white, non-wealthy residents out of those areas almost as effectively as formal redlining did in the middle of the 20th century.

The DEIS begins by outlining the city’s zoning history, which began in the 1920s, when the city created two zoning designations: First Residence District (the equivalent of today’s single-family zoning) and Second Residence District (the equivalent of Seattle’s current multifamily zones). Over time, and through a series of zoning ordinance overhauls, the areas where apartments were legal in Seattle shrunk and shrunk again, until the city arrived at the zoning it has today. Single-family zoning, in other words, is hardly a sacred designation that has existed since time immemorial, as many neighborhood activists argue today, but a special protection for certain areas of the city that has grown dramatically over time, as these side-by-side maps of Ballard attest:

Today, when you see apartment buildings in areas designated single-family, know that those are relics of a time when apartments were legal in that area.

The DEIS goes on to trace population changes in Seattle over time. Somewhat surprisingly, given the dramatic population growth in Seattle between the 1960s and the 2010s, some parts of town actually lost population between 1970 and 2010, the period when zoning rule changes slowly made it impossible to build duplexes, triplexes, and apartments; the vast majority (81 percent) were in single-family-only neighborhoods. The areas with the most notable population loss were in North Seattle and certain parts of West Seattle.

Between 1990 and 2010 alone, while Seattle’s population grew 18 percent, the population in single-family-zoned areas outside urban villages, which “compris[e] 60 percent of Seattle’s total land area,” grew just three percent. (Those areas, again, are the parts of town where the proposed zoning changes would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to add an additional unit or two to their property.) Single-family areas, in other words, have not only failed to absorb an equitable proportion of the city’s growth, but they have managed this feat through the adoption of ever more restrictive zoning laws in Seattle’s relatively recent history.

Excluding new residents from single-family areas has had class and racial implications. According to the DEIS, people of color have become disproportionately more likely to live in areas zoned for multifamily use—that is, areas outside the single-family zones that Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council are suing to “protect”—with a few exceptions, including Southeast Seattle and the Central District. “Non-Hispanic White people are, by contrast, disproportionately likely to live in areas where single-family housing predominates.” Meanwhile, people of color are dramatically more likely to be renters rather than homeowners and more likely to spend more than 30 percent (or even 50 percent) of their income on housing than the non-Hispanic white folks who dominate single-family areas. Less than a third of all households of color, and fewer than 30 percent of Black and Hispanic/Latinx households, live in detached single-family houses, while more white people live in houses than any other housing type. According to the city’s analysis, “[T]hese citywide statistics illustrate that housing type varies along racial lines and are suggestive of patterns in single- family zones, where detached one-unit structures are the only housing type allowed.”

The DEIS also demolishes the notion—common among both wealthy homeowners like Kaplan and anti-displacement activists on the left—that allowing more housing in single-family areas will result in greater displacement of low-income people from those areas. (This theory was recently articulated by former Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, who claimed that “one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes.”) According to the city’s analysis, although 54 percent of homes citywide are renter-occupied, just 27 percent of homes in the “study area” (single-family areas outside urban villages) are. Since the study area includes many apartments built before apartments were made illegal in those areas, it’s safe to assume that those rental units are mostly those apartments, not single-family houses.

Looking at the data another way, it’s clear that the people who do live in detached single-family houses are mostly well above Seattle’s area median income, which was around $75,000 in 2015 (and is closer to $80,000 now). The disparity is perhaps best illustrated with a couple of charts:

The report also spells it out: Most poor people don’t live in detached single-family houses, rental or otherwise, because they simply can’t afford them. “Only 14 percent of households in detached one-unit structures are below 200 percent of the poverty level, a common threshold to be eligible for certain assistance programs, while for most other housing types about one-third of households are below 200 percent of the poverty level,” the report concludes. Given that 81 percent of single-family homes are occupied by homeowners, not renters, that means that just 2.66 percent of all single-family houses are occupied by people making twice the poverty level or less. That doesn’t mean those renters can actually afford the houses they are renting; in fact, the city’s analysis found that a renter would have to make 123 percent of the Seattle area median income to afford an average single-family rental house, and that even the very rare low-rent houses are unaffordable to people making twice the federal poverty rate, or about $33,000 for family of two.

Put still another way: “For households with incomes of 80 percent of AMI, even two- or three-bedroom single-family homes with rents at the 25th percentile, a common marker of rent for the least expensive homes on the market, are out of reach.” In Seattle, in other words, essentially no single-family rental homes are affordable to very low-income renters.

The DEIS also, of course, looked into the specific environmental claims that are being made by the homeowners who want to ensure that backyard cottages remain effectively illegal in their neighborhoods. They found, not surprisingly, that neither of the two alternatives the city considered, which the city estimates would produce between 1,210 and 1,440 more attached and detached accessory dwelling units, combined, across the city in the next 10 years—would have a significant impact on tree canopy, overall density, parking availability, or neighborhood aesthetics. (Alternative 3, which includes more size restrictions on detached units and would require homeowners building a second accessory unit to contribute to the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, would have slightly lower impacts in some areas, but the impact of 121 to 144 new units spread across the city would be generally negligible.) The report did note, however, that “removing the off-street parking requirement could reduce the amount of vegetation and tree removal otherwise needed to accommodate a parking space when creating an ADU.”

The city has been debating whether to allow more homeowners to build extra units for decades, and this specific proposal has been on the table since 2014, when the council adopted a resolution calling for a plan to “promot[e] workforce housing” by exploring ways to make building backyard cottages easier. This latest round will inevitably result in another challenge and more delays, illustrating just how hard it is to make even incremental zoning changes in Seattle. As long as homeowners believe sharing their prosperous neighborhoods with even a few newcomers will impact their property values, which continue to skyrocket year over year, even the most modest request that they participate in solving our affordability crisis will continue to be met with a barrage of legal challenges. By the time this legislation actually starts producing new housing for non-wealthy Seattle residents, it seems more likely than not that the median home in Seattle will have risen from its current high, around $820,000, to well over than a million dollars.

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Morning Crank: By the Numbers

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

1. $1 million: The amount of money Mayor Jenny Durkan said Pearl Jam has agreed to donate from the proceeds of two reunion shows in August to support the cause of ending homelessness .

2. 75: The number of people appointed to serve on One Table, a group of business, civic, nonprofit, activist, and elected leaders from around the region that is charged with coming up with solutions for the “root causes” of homelessness, identified as a lack of affordable housing, inadequate access to behavioral health treatment, negative impacts on kids in foster care,  criminal history that impacts many people’s ability to find housing and employment, and “education and employment gaps making housing unattainable and unaffordable.” The committee met for the first time on Monday morning.  They sat at many different tables.

3. 200,000: The approximate number of people in King County who live below the federal poverty level, currently $16,240 for a two-person household).

4. 29,462; 24,952 The number of people King County says became homeless in 2016, and the number who exited homelessness that year, respectively. After a press conference following the One Table event Monday, King County Department of Community and Human Services director Adrienne Quinn acknowledged that the number of people who are no longer listed the county’s Homeless Management Information System doesn’t necessarily reflect the number of people who are currently housed, either permanently or temporarily; 11,767 of the 24,952 recorded “exits” are listed as “destination not reported,” which means that they could be in jail, in an institution, in drug or alcohol rehab, or on the street. The only criteria for an “exit” from homelessness is that a person hasn’t sought any housing or services in King County in the past three months. “Exits from homelessness” also include hundreds of people who left the shelter system voluntarily to go back on the street; those are listed, paradoxically, as an exit from homelessness into the category “unsheltered.”

5. 35,000: The approximate reduction between 2007 and 2016 in the number of housing units that were affordable to eople making less than 50 percent of the Seattle area median income, which was $33,600 for an individual, $48,000 for a family of four, last year.

6. Three: Number of times reporters asked King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan if they planned to dissolve All Home, the agency that nominally coordinates efforts to address homelessness throughout the county, and replace it with a regional agency that would have the authority to actually implement policies, which All Home (whose director, Mark Putnam, recently resigned) does not.

7. Zero: Number of times either official answered the question directly. (Constantine also deflected questions about whether there would be a tax measure on the next November ballot to fund whatever solutions the group proposes.)

One (metaphorical) table.

8. 94: The percentage of people who have been booked into jail four or more times in the past year who suffer from some behavioral health condition, according to Brook Buettner, who manages the county’s “Familiar Faces” initiative.

9. $250. The amount Seattle CityClub, the civic engagement organization that holds monthly “Civic Cocktail” panels at the Palace Ballroom, is charging for its “Civic Boot Camp” on “Housing the Homeless,” part of a series of immersive, one-day trainings that take people who want to get involved in Seattle’s civic life on a deep dive into a single issue. Past boot camps have covered immigration, livable neighborhoods, and the waterfront. The high price of entry raised the eyebrows of some advocates for Seattle’s homeless residents, who wondered if that money would be going to agencies that provide housing and services or into CityClub’s coffers.

Diane Douglas, CityClub’s executive director, says the admission fees pay for scholarships for people who can’t afford to pay full price, stipends for the people who give presentations to the boot campers, food purchased from neighborhood businesses, and to rent space for the day from organizations working on the issue. In the case of the homelessness boot camp, she says, it makes more sense to spend the remainder of the fee supporting CityClub’s mission to get people engaged in the community by volunteering, campaigning for candidates, or donating to groups that provide direct services than to donate the proceeds directly to those groups. “When we survey people six months or a year later, we know that they’re volunteering more, they’re donating money, they’re communicating with elected officials,” Douglas says. “The purpose is really to get them engaged in the community. It’s a substantial amount of money for a day of training, but the idea is to leverage all those people so they’re all giving $250, so they’re volunteering, so they’re voting on the issues and causes that they’ve learned about.”

10. 77.4 cents: The amount a woman currently earns in Seattle for every dollar made by a man doing equivalent work, according to a presentation the Economic Opportunity Institute gave to the city council’s Housing, Health, Energy, and Workers’ Rights committee last week. Non-white women make significantly less than white women across the board, with black women, on average, earning the least; the wage gap is largest, at 29.3 percent, between Asian-American men and women.

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.

Rapid Rehousing Didn’t Work Out. Now Lisa Sawyer May Face Eviction.

Image via Facing Homelessness.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before.  They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a  black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.

Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”

The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.

In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.

Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.

“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking.  We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)

“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?'”

Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.

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

Morning Crank: If Those Conversations Are Not Happening in Good Faith

1. Mayor Ed Murray’s surprise announcement, at a campaign forum last week, that he would put forward “a proposal for a high-end income tax” came at a particularly inopportune time for a group of progressive taxation advocates that has been working for months to craft just such a proposal. Proponents of a local income tax, including council member Lisa Herbold, met last week with city budget director Ben Noble to discuss putting together an income tax proposal that could withstand legal scrutiny. On Monday, Herbold announced she was introducing a resolution—”drafted with the assistance of the mayor’s office” and reviewed by the city attorney—that lays out a timeline and questions that need to be resolved in drafting a local income tax ordinance. The goal, Herbold said, is to begin considering a local income tax proposal by the end of May and to adopt an ordinance in July.

Trump Proof Seattle has proposed a 1.5 percent income tax on incomes over $250,000 a year; Herbold said Monday that one of the goals of the council process will be to decide on an income threshold and what kind of income (earned or unearned) will be taxed. Prior to Murray’s announcement last week, former mayor and current mayoral candidate Mike McGinn said he supported an income tax; Cary Moon, an urban planner and civic activist who announced she was running last week, says she would prefer a capital gains tax.

2.  Council member Lorena Gonzalez had a message for legislators who are dithering over whether to require companies in Washington State to provide paid family leave: If they won’t do it, she will. Time is running out for lawmakers to reach a compromise between two dueling proposals, including one (sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-47) that would preempt Seattle from adopting more generous requirements. The details of the two plans vary in the ways you might expect; the Republican proposal is entirely employee-funded and would provide new parents or people who need time off to care for a sick family member just two months of leave at half pay, while the Democratic version is partly employer-funded and provides more generous benefits.

“I feel that a statewide solution is the best solution for all working families, including Seattle working families,” Gonzalez said.  “But I have still have a very strong interest, and am incredibly ready to advance, a Seattle-only policy if those conversations are not happening in good faith.”

3. A new job opportunity opened up this week for those with thick skin and a willingness to work for a company that has been widely panned as hostile to unions: Community manager for social responsibility for New Seasons Market in Seattle. New Seasons, you may recall, sparked controversy with its plan to bid on a new location above the Capitol Hill light rail station; labor groups criticized the Portland-based company for being “anti-union,” and the United Food and Commercial Workers  organized an “unwelcome ceremony” when the company opened its first Seattle-area location on Mercer Island last year. New Seasons is also rumored to be the anchor tenant at another controversial development at 23rd and Jackson, where the luxury condo behemoth Vulcan plans to build hundreds of new apartments and tear down the unionized Red Apple store that has been a community fixture for more than 25 years. The community manager for social responsibility in Seattle, in other words, is going to have their work cut out for them.

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