Morning Crank: Needles are a Longstanding Problem

Needles in libraries, a shift in the city’s protectionist industrial-land policies?, and more in today’s Morning Crank.

1. In my piece last month about a library employee who was stuck by a needle while changing the trash in the women’s restroom of the Ballard branch library, Seattle Public Library spokeswoman Andra Addison said that she was unaware of any other instance in which a library staffer had been stuck by a needle and said that the library’s administrative services division had determined that the system “just really [doesn’t] have the need” for sharps containers.

Since then, the library has changed course, and is installing sharps containers at three branches—Capitol Hill, Ballard, and the University District. A review of the “shift logs” (daily logs of notable incidents and interactions with patrons) at the Ballard branch indicates that far from being an anomaly, needle sightings are a regular, even banal, occurrence. Over the course of just six weeks, spanning from late December 2017 to mid-March of this year, Ballard library staff recorded a dozen needle-related incidents, including a man slumped over after shooting up at the library, a needle left unattended in a Pop-Tart box in the lobby, needles found floating in toilets on two different occasions, and an oversized CD case stuffed with needles and empty baggies that had been tossed in the book drop. In one case, an uncapped needle was found lying on the floor in the teen area of the library; in another, a library staffer discovered two needles in the restroom while cleaning up piles of trash and clothes that a patron had left behind.

“We could see the man slumped over and the needle was lying in front of him,” one log report says. “I called 9-11 to report a man shooting up in front of the library. I also called security. I then went back out to check on the man. At this time he was holding the needle in his hand. I told the man that I was excluding him from SPL for 2 weeks. He became very upset and said that he had found the needle on the ground and that the library was putting him at risk. He then came into the library and threw the needle in the garbage in the lobby.”

The logs, which detail many other security incidents as well as a case of mistaken identity (a giant stuffed panda that appeared to be a sleeping patron), make a couple of things clear: First, that improperly discarded syringes, far from being an unusual or notable occurrence, were a well-documented issue at the Ballard library long before the custodian was stuck with a needle and rushed to the hospital. And second, library workers are doing double duty as security guards and hazardous-waste cleanup crew, a situation that has complex causes but that can’t be addressed by merely telling workers to use heavier rubber gloves, or even by installing sharps containers in a couple of branches. As long as the city fails to adequately fund housing and treatment, and delays building safe consumption spaces for people living with active addiction, as a county task force unanimously recommended a year and a half ago, our libraries are going to continue to be de facto safe consumption spaces, crisis clinics, and emergency waiting rooms.

2. Seattle may be known for its rigid rules protecting single-family neighborhoods from incursions by off-brand housing like duplexes, townhomes, and apartments, but when it comes to protected land-use classes, nothing compares to the city’s industrial districts. Since the 1990s, it has been official city policy to wall off industrial areas from other uses by restricting or prohibiting uses (like offices and housing) “that may negatively affect the availability, character, or function of industrial areas.”

That quote is from a presentation Seattle Office of Planning and Community development senior planner Tom Hauger delivered to the Seattle Planning Commission yesterday, and it was meant to show the way the city has viewed industrial lands historically—not necessarily the way they will be viewed in the future. In fact, Hauger said, an industrial lands advisory panel that has been meeting since 2016 to come up with proposed changes to the city’s industrial lands policy is about to release a somewhat radical-by-city-standards) “draft concept” (don’t call it a proposal) that could open much of the industrial land in the SoDo district, around the stadiums and within walking distance of the two south-of-downtown light rail stations, to office uses. This could help reduce the traffic impact of the nearly two million new workers that are expected to move to the region by 2050, and it could provide a bridge to the kind of hybrid office/industrial spaces that are already taking root in other cities as the definition of “industrial” itself evolves.

Under rules adopted in 2007 (and reviled by developers ever since), office buildings in industrial areas are restricted to 10,000 square feet (retail is restricted to 25,000), meaning that in practical terms, there is virtually no office space in the city’s two industrial areas, the Duwamish Manufacturing Industrial Center (which includes SoDo) and theBallard Interbay Northend Manufacturing Industrial Center. The change that’s being contemplated, known as the “SoDo concept,” would allow developers to build office space in the  district if they provide space for industrial businesses on the lower levels, up to a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 1.0, which can be visualized (roughly) as a single story stretching across 100 percent of a lot, two stories that cover half the lot, and so on. In exchange, developers could build up to five times as many stories of  office space, up to the height limit, although Hauger said the task force would probably end up settling on two to four additional office stories (again, roughly) for each full story of industrial space.

This sounds like minor stuff, but in the context of the industrial lands debate in Seattle, it’s a shot across the bow. More radical proposals, such as allowing housing near existing and future light rail stations in SoDo and Interbay, are, for the moment, off the table. “The advisory panel has talked about housing, but it’s been a minority view, and the majority has decided that, especially in the Duwamish area, that housing near the light rail stations is off the table,” Hauger said.

3. King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober gave himself a full week to wrap up his affairs before formally stepping down after his executive board found him guilty on all five charges against him, which included allegations of financial misconduct, conduct unbecoming an officer, and creating a hostile work environment last Sunday. The nearly 14-hour trial ended Stober’s nine-week-long effort to keep his position after an initial investigation concluded that he should step down.

Although it’s unclear why Stober announced his resignation a week in advance instead of stepping down immediately, he did knock out one task right away: Sending an email out to all the precinct committee officers in the county—the same group that would have voted this coming Sunday, April 15, on whether to remove Stober if he had not resigned—thanking them “for the honor and the privilege.” Stober frames the decision to step down as his own voluntary choice—”I have decided to resign,” he writes—and enumerates the Party’s achievements under his leadership before concluding, “Most importantly, we had fun doing all of it. I am so proud of the things we did together – thinking about it brings a smile to my face.” The only hint of an apology to the woman he fired after another woman in the Party who had witnessed his behavior filed a complaint on her behalf? A vague “to those I have let down and disappointed – I am truly sorry,” followed by four sentences of thanks to the people who “have stood by my side.”

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.

Illuminated Billboards: Coming Soon to a Street Near You?

Four years ago (an eternity in technological innovation terms) the Seattle City Council adopted new regulations intended to address what they worried was a coming onslaught of large billboards on the sides of Seattle buildings, especially downtown. The rules cracked down on the proliferation of “off-premises signs”—signs advertising products or services that weren’t offered in the buildings where they were displayed. Among other changes, the legislation closed some of the loopholes that allowed Alaska Airlines, for example, to claim it operated out of a building in Chinatown because it placed an ancient computer terminal in the lobby where people could theoretically buy plane tickets;, it also limited the size of new wall signs to 672 square feet (previously, there were no specific size limits.) The off-premises sign rules are still far from strict or strictly enforced, which is why you’ll see a sign advertising energy drinks, for example, on the wall of a building that houses a gym or convenience store.

Separately, back in 2011, the council rejected a proposal, pushed by Russell Investments, to allow companies (other than hotels) to display large illuminated logos on the tops of downtown buildings, which is why you don’t see logos all over Seattle’s downtown skyline. The council’s decisions didn’t make ugly signs go away (on-premises signs are still subject to few restrictions, which is why visitors to SoDo will still see huge video displays advertising “Amateur Night!” outside the Dream Girls strip club), but they kept them (sort of) down to size.

Fast forward to 2018, and the intersection of Fourth and Union downtown, where the owners of one building (1408 Fourth Ave.) are testing the limits of the city’s sign ordinance, with a large electronic billboard that alternates between ads for an eye clinic and leasing opportunities in the building and large-format images of screensaver-style images of flowers and hot air balloons. Paula Rees, a Seattle-based planner and designer who specializes in building public spaces, says the sign, which is located across the street from her downtown office, goes “against everything the code states as its intention”—it’s distracting, it creates visual pollution, and it advertises multiple businesses inside a single building.

 “This sign was predicted,” Rees says. “Many professionals testified about this mess coming when Sally Clark’s ill-considered legislation was before Council.” The reason there haven’t been more digital signs before now “is that nobody could afford it. When I first started seeing this stuff at conferences, a Barco [digital] sign that was 45 inches square could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can buy this stuff for hardly anything.”

The owner of the building is an LLC registered to Ann and Danny Schnitzer, who also are the registered agents for Sun Advertising, a billboard company registered at the same address, 11221 Pacific Hwy SW in Lakewood, as 4th Avenue Bldg LLC and at least 18 other businesses. I left messages for both Ann and Danny Schnitzer; Ann called me back and said she would respond to my questions by email; I called back several days later to make sure she had my correct email address and never heard back.

Council member Mike O’Brien bikes by the sign every day on his way home from work and says he noticed it a few weeks ago. ” I was like, ‘Holy cow, that has to be illegal,'” O’Brien says. “If the guy doing like my eye appointments can put up a sign like that, I can only imagine every building [with a business that] that sells Coca-Cola would be jumping at that opportunity.”

Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesman Bryan Stevens says the sign doesn’t violate any rules. “When the permit for this changing image sign was issued, we stipulated that the sign was only for use by the building owner (4th Avenue Building LLC) and is authorized to only display static images that change no more than 7 times per minute (otherwise it becomes video), no off-premises advertising, no flashing, no video display methods (movement) or moving text/images, in accordance with our land use code for on-premises signs in downtown zones.” The sign code allows one sign like the one at Fourth and Union every 300 “lineal feet” of street frontage, which works out to about one sign per block.

To Rees, the sign might as well be a giant, illuminated Pandora’s Box. “Since the ’70s, we’ve just kept burying our heads in the sand on the sign code,” Rees says. As long as the city fails to get ahead of technology, she adds, “we’re going to get whatever we get.”

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: Democrats, Taxes, and “The Ideological Anti-Parking Agenda”

Detail from Seattle frequent transit map; click for link to full map.

1. A last-ditch email from anti-development activist Chris Leman with the subject line “Parking SOS!! E-mails and calls needed to prevent devastation of neighborhood parking” heralded next Monday’s vote on parking reform legislation that will clarify where apartments may be built without parking, require more bike parking at new buildings, and require developers of large buildings to “unbundle” the cost of parking and rent by charging separately for each.  Council member Lisa Herbold has proposed giving the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development the authority to institute parking  mandates, refuse to grant residential parking permits to new renters, or take other steps to reduce competition for on-street parking as part of the environmental mitigation process, arguing (among other things) that cars circling the block for parking produce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

Leman’s email makes several misleading claims, implying that the city wants to define “frequent transit service” as three buses per hour (in reality, it allows that frequency during low-ridership midday hours if a route offers extremely frequent service at rush hour, like the RapidRide buses that arrive every 10 minutes), and claiming that “many more areas of the city will be open to developers putting in dense buildings with no parking.” In reality, while the changes will slightly increase the amount of the city served by frequent transit service (from 18.6 percent to 22.5 percent), the changes will only allow new buildings with no parking in six small portions of urban villages served by six frequent bus routes (full list on page 20 of this report.)

But the biggest misrepresentation in Leman’s letter, which describes Herbold as a lone voice of sanity against the “ideological anti-parking agenda” of North Seattle council members Rob Johnson and Mike O’Brien,  is that eliminating parking mandates contradicts “the majority wishes and interests of [council members’]  constituents.” For months, tenants, commuters, and environmental advocates have been showing up in council chambers and at public meetings to make the case that renters shouldn’t have to pay extra for  parking spaces they don’t want or need. Although the old-guard neighborhood activists may not like or want their input, those people are constituents, too, and their numbers are growing.

2. This one is still in the “credible rumor” category, but former state Senator Rodney Tom—the Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-leader of the Republican-voting Majority Coalition Caucus—may be considering a run for the 48th District state senate seat currently held by Democrat Patty Kuderer. And he’d be running as a Democrat.

Tom, who did not run for reelection for the Bellevue-Medina seat in 2014, did not return a call to his office on Tuesday. But Halei Watkins of Moxie Media, which recently merged with Kuderer’s campaign consulting firm, Winpower Strategies, says she has heard the rumor repeated frequently enough, and with enough “fervor,” that she believes it. “I think he is going to run because he thinks he needs to, [and] is probably being encouraged by the business community,” Watkins says. “Frankly, I don’t think that it matters to him if he runs as a d or an r he might as well just run as [a member of the Rodney Tom party at this point.” Tom was one of two nominally Democratic members of the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus, creating a 25-24 Republican-voting majority in a senate that had a Democratic majority on paper. Tim Sheldon, the other Democratic member of the MCC, remains in the senate, which has had a true Democratic majority since the 2017 election of Manka Dhingra in the 45th, another Eastside district that neighbors the 48th.

Kuderer, for her part, doesn’t sound worried about a challenge from the right in her Democratic-leaning district. “I really don’t know” if Tom is running or not, she says, but “it doesn’t change my campaign strategy any” if he is.

3.  As the city council gets ready to take up the recommendation of the Progressive Revenue Task Force, including a new, $75 million employee hours tax on businesses, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce put a phone poll in the field out this week focusing on the tax proposal, homeless encampments, and Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien. Summer Stinson, a Democratic Party activist and co-founder of Washington’s Paramount Duty, a pro-school-funding group, live-tweeted the poll. Among the questions Simpson said she was asked (linked and reproduced here with permission):

• What do you think of Mayor Jenny Durkan, Amazon, and city council member Mike O’Brien?

• Do you see “the ineffective city council as a problem?”

• Do you think  “there is too much influence from labor unions on city government?”

• Do you agree “that the Seattle City Council has raised too many taxes and fees?

• “Is homelessness getting worse because the City Council, despite spending millions a year, does not know how to reduce homelessness?”

Chamber spokeswoman Alicia Teel confirmed that the organization is funding the poll. Asked about its purpose—and, specifically, why the poll zeroed in on O’Brien—Teel said, “Understanding public opinion is part of our overall advocacy strategy; we poll on a fairly regular basis to get a sense of how much people are tuned into developments at City Hall, including how Council is stewarding taxpayer dollars. The tax on jobs”—the Chamber’s preferred term for the employee hours tax—”is a proposal that would affect all of our members in Seattle, so it’s definitely top of mind for us. As for asking about specific Councilmembers, we are curious about how well people feel that they are being represented by their district Councilmembers.”

4. After publishing a nearly 9,000-word defense of his behavior as chair of the King County Democrats (a defense that included four sentences that could be generously construed as apologetic), Bailey Stober temporarily ceded his duties as chair last night but did not step down, saying that he wanted the chance to defend himself in an trial that will take place on April 8, followed by a vote by the county’s precinct committee officers on whether to remove him from office on April 15.

For all the details on last night’s meeting of the King County Democrats, and Stober’s non-apology apology, I’ve posted a few highlights from Twitter below, and collected all my tweets here.

Stober remains on paid leave from his job as communications director for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson while the office, with the help of an outside attorney, investigates the charges against him and determines whether they impact his ability to do his job as chief spokesman for the assessor. Chief deputy assessor Al Dams says the investigation will be limited to the allegations of harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior; the county will not look into allegations that Stober misused Party funds because he does not have the authority to spend county funds. Dams did not immediately respond to a request for Stober’s salary; last year, when his job was listed as “administrative assistant II,” the 26-year-old made $90,445, according to the Tacoma News Tribune’s public employee salary database.

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.

Afternoon Crank: “Giving the Appearance that the Chair Was Partying on Contributions to the Organization.”

1. The treasurer for the King County Democrats, Nancy Podschwit, along with several other members of the group’s finance committee, has called for a special meeting to remove embattled chairman Bailey Stober in a letter documenting no fewer than 13 instances of what they refer to as “inappropriate” spending by Stober. The letter and an accompanying memo add details to the financial case against Stober, who is also accused of targeting his female coworkers and a former employee whom he fired of sexual harassment and bullying.

Among other claims, the finance committee members say that Stober:

• Spent thousands on unauthorized entertainment and travel. The King County Democrats’ budget authorized $3,100 for “travel and entertainment.” “Per the budget, this was intended to be a $100 stipend per state party meeting for the chair and state committee people to attend the three state party meetings, as well as sponsorship for the WSDCC meetings,” the memo says. “However, it appears to include many other trips, and includes mileage, hotels and restaurants. … At no point has the chair asked for budgetary authority for general entertainment or travel purposes.” This extra spending included $2,336 to reimburse Stober for mileage on trips in the Seattle area and around the state, as well as two Airbnbs—one for a state committee meeting, which cost $857, and another for a board retreat, which cost $968. Most members of the board were told to reserve a few daytime hours on a Saturday for the retreat, but a select group was apparently invited to spend two nights at the house on Vashon, which was equipped with a hot tub, with all expenses paid for out of county Party funds. According to the memo, “The chair and some others stayed at the facility for Friday night and Saturday, posting on social media about grilling and drinking, giving the appearance that the chair was partying on contributions to the organization.” 

• Spent unauthorized funds on lightning-speed, business-level Internet service. Although the board authorized $250 a month for all utilities, combined, Stober signed a contract with Comcast for its most expensive, top-of-the-line business planthe “Deluxe 250,” which cost the group more than $500 a month. Comcast recommends the Deluxe 250 for e-commerce businesses with 12 employees or more and “extensive employee and customer wifi usage.” The King County Democrats had one employee (they now have none).

• Misled King County Democrats members and the board about the failure of its annual fundraiser, by claiming they had raised $17,100 when in fact it had resulted in a net loss of $730. (Once late contributions were counted, the event—which cost the party more than twice what was originally budgeted, and several thousand dollars more than a revised budget—raised about $630.) UPDATED: A member of the group has brought additional information to my attention suggesting that some of the revenues from pledges associated with this event may have been logged as part of the group’s general fundraising revenues, which would increase the net profit from the event. I will update this post when I get more detailed information about how these pledges were counted in the group’s budget.

• Misrepresented the success of the group’s fundraising in general, claiming at meetings that the group was meeting or exceeding fundraising goals when, in reality, fundraising fell short by more than $18,000 in 2017.

• Made most of the group’s campaign contributions last year in violation of bylaws that say the board must approve endorsements and contributions. These contributions included $75 to Matthew Sutherland, a candidate in Eastern Washington who was not endorsed by the group, which doesn’t generally endorse or fund candidates outside King County.

• Spent $10,135 more on candidate contributions than he was authorized to spend under the organization’s adopted budget, which included $20,000 for donations to candidates and campaign committees.

• Doled out contributions without board approval, despite repeated warnings that the board needed to sign off on such expenditures. Tara Gallagher, a member of the finance committee, is quoted in the memo saying that she met with Stober to discuss the unapproved contributions, and that he told her he would address it at the next board meeting. However, according to Gallagher, “At the next meeting he went into executive session to discuss the budget, which is weird, and mumbled something about the contributions when it would not show up in the minutes” because executive sessions are private.

• Signed an office lease through December 2018 that cost more than double ($1,800 a month) what the board approved ($800), without telling the board about the extra $12,000 annual commitment.

• Spent $6,600 in unapproved funds remodeling the rented office space—the sort of expense, the memo notes, that is typically borne by a landlord—along with $3,877 on office furniture and $5,500 on “office supplies,” nearly $5,000 more than the approved budget of $517. “It is unclear why this is so far over budget, however the treasurer notes that a laptop for the executive director, a printer and other items for the office were purchased,” the memo notes.

2. Podschwit brought up the financial allegations in a heated meeting of the 37th District Democrats last night, at which several officers proposed a resolution calling on Stober to step down and resolving to withhold dues from the King County Democrats until he does. (Ultimately, the resolution—which mirrored similar proposals that have been approved or will be considered in other districts—failed by a vote of 27 to 16.) In her comments supporting the resolution, Podscwhit described watching helplessly as Stober drained the group’s checking account. (Stober was, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the situation unable to get bank approval to be on the checking account, so instead he directed Koss Vallejo’s spending.)

“I truly believe part of the harassment that Natalia went through was him asking to spend money over my continued telling her not to,” Podschwit said. “And I felt terrible—every time I would get a charge on the bank statement or a check that cleared that I was not told about, the first person I would contact was Natalia, and Natalia would tell me that Bailey told her that he was her boss and he told her to do it. We had repeated conference calls [with Stober and the group’s finance committee] on Monday nights where we went over this over and over again as the money slowly drained out of the checking account. … We have text messages, we have emails, explaining to us in no uncertain terms that he was large and in charge. Much like Donald Trump, he was the only one that could fix it. Well, we’re broke.”

Most of the time allotted for discussing the resolution calling on Stober to resign was taken up by a lengthy, discursive, and often misleading explanation of the proposal by 37th District Democrats chair Alec Stephens, a staunch Stober ally who previously compared his treatment by the King County Democrats to a lynching. (Stober and Stephens are black.) Stephens spent nearly 15 minutes very slowly explaining the events that led up to the resolution (“On the vice chairs’ side, they’re down to one now, as opposed to there were two, then there were originally three, or there were originally four…”) before taking the podium again, this time to speak explicitly against the resolution.

“The very first investigation that was done, in my opinion, was totally flawed. Its biggest flaw was not taking the time that we still have not had to actually hear from the accused.” (According to the vice chairs who did the initial investigation, Stober refused to speak to them without a lawyer present, then stopped responding to their requests to meet). He continued: “I am playing no cards, but there is a racial dynamic to this that is of great concern to me. … I think we have to let the process play out and not just say, ‘Well, we’ve decided, and so”—even without hearing him”—you’ve got to go.” At that point, a man’s voice rang out. “It’s called due process!” “It’s called due process,” Stephens echoed.

Shasti Conrad, the King County Committeewoman for the 37th District and—like Koss Vallejo, Stober’s alleged victim, a woman of color—had a response for that question. Speaking in favor of the resolution, she said: “You want to talk about due process? Where is the due process for the woman he fired while there was an ongoing investigation happening? What about the due process for the women who were subjected to that hostility in that work environment? What about the women who had to put up with the jokes, the comments, feeling less than because there wasn’t space for them to speak up? What about due process for them?  … I love this party, but if we are not able to stand up for women’s rights, for victims of sexual misconduct, if we are going to turn a blind eye to blatant financial malfeasance, then I no longer feel safe here.”

Later, Conrad said on Twitter that she was “heartbroken” by the “painful” experience of being “shouted down as I was calling for a Democratic Party free of sexual harassment and a party that is safe for all.”

Meanwhile, a second investigation into Stober remains stalled, as I reported Monday, because the one remaining vice chair has been unable to find volunteers to serve on the five-member panel investigating Stober. Notably, that panel will include two members directly chosen by Stober himself—one reason some potential volunteers have reportedly declined to participate in the process. Stober has called a special meeting of the executive board for next week to discuss next steps in his own investigation.

3. While that meeting was going on (I watched it after the fact thanks to video posted by the King County Precinct Committee Officers’ Media Group, or PCOMG), another meeting, also with a subtle racial subtext, was happening across town. The city council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee held a public hearing at Northgate for residents of Districts 5 and 6, which encompass most of North Seattle, to weigh in on proposed upzones that will impact 6 percent of the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land that is zoned exclusively for single-family use. Longtime (white) homeowners invoked theoretical ruined gardens and equally theoretical immigrants, refugees, and people of color who would be impacted by allowing more housing in the city, and renters, advocates for workers and low-income people, and even a few homeowners pushed back. I’ve collected those tweets in a Twitter moment.

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: Adapting Parking Policies for the Next 50 Years

Dark gray: No parking minimum. Light gray: No parking minimum within 1/4 mile of frequent transit service. Orange: Multifamily and commercial areas with reduced parking requirements. Green dots: Bus stops along frequent transit corridors.

1. The city council continues to debate legislation that makes modest changes to the current rules regulating parking in new buildings, with West Seattle city council member Lisa Herbold continuing to lead the charge against changes to the code that might impact drivers in her district by increasing the walk between their cars and their homes. The updates would, among other changes, change the definition of “frequent transit service”—a direct response to a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners challenging a development on Greenwood Avenue that is directly on a major bus route. The homeowners claim that because the route’s actual schedule varies at rush hour due to traffic, the area doesn’t actually have frequent transit service.

Additionally, the legislation would:

• Allow “flexible-use parking,” which would allow shared parking between buildings (for example, if one apartment building had empty spaces during the day, a retail building without parking next door might rent some of those spaces for their customers.)

• In developments where parking is required, allow that parking to be up to a quarter-mile away from the building (up from 800 feet), in keeping with the definition of accessible transit  as all areas within a quarter-mile of a bus stop served by frequent transit.

• Require landlords to charge for parking separately from rent, to “unbundle” the cost of parking from the cost of a unit.

• Reduce parking requirements for some large institutions and affordable-housing providers.

• Require more bike parking in new developments.

Herbold, who previously argued that the city’s studies showing a low level of car ownership among renters in dense areas don’t account for areas like her district, where most people drive, made the case Tuesday that the city should open up developments where parking is not required to challenges under the State Environmental Policy Act, which are generally intended to mitigate the environmental impact of proposals, not their impact on convenient car use. If SEPA analysis determined that there wasn’t “enough” parking in an area, the city could take a number of actions, including—Herbold suggested—denying residential parking zone permits, which are currently available to all residents of the city, to the tenants in that building. (Herbold pointed out that her proposal would also apply to people buying new condos, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of new units in Seattle are apartments, not condos).

Herbold also argued that the proposal to allow parking a quarter-mile away from new buildings that are required to have parking could discriminate against elderly people, for whom, she said, “I’ve seen estimates that an acceptable walking distance” is between 300 and 600 feet. “We talk about Seattle wanting to be an age-friendly city, and I’m just concerned that the proposed change to a quarter mile does not serve the needs of that aging population.”  A few minutes later, though, she undermined her case by saying that if the quarter-mile rule for car parking passed, she would propose that developers be allowed to move their mandatory bike parking up to a quarter-mile away; after all, she argued, if a quarter-mile is the rule for cars, shouldn’t it be the rule for cyclists, too? Council member Mike O’Brien pointed out that cars and bikes have very different impacts and serve different purposes; instead of “trying to pretend that cars and bikes are identical and have the same impacts,” he said, the city should adopt bike parking requirements that actually work for bike riders—and encourage cycling, which is already official city policy.

2. If Herbold’s RPZ idea sounds familiar, that’s because it has been proposed loudly and often by homeowner activists , who see it as a kind of “gotcha” that will demonstrate that people who move into buildings without parking actually own cars and plan to park them on the street. Taking away their ability to park on the street serves as both a punishment meted exclusively against renters in new buildings (on behalf of homeowners and incumbent renters who own cars) and a targeted I-told-you-so.

RPZ restrictions were one of many proposals to stick it to developers and renters during a rowdy meeting of the Phinney Ridge Community Council Monday night. Staffers from the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Department of Construction and Inspections, and council member Rob Johnson’s office came to present the legislation and ask questions, but the “Q&A” devolved into a shouting match before it even began.

SDCI’s Gordon Clowers, Johnson staffer Spencer Williams, and SDOT staffer Mary Catherine Snyder only made it through a few minutes of their presentation before members of the crowd—mostly white, mostly gray-haired—began pelting them with rhetorical questions. “Have you considered shift workers who might work at night” in your parking vacancy studies, one woman wanted to know.  (Yes). “If you say, ‘You can’t lock your door'”—a reference to shared parking, which would allow shared use of parking garages—”and there’s a whole lot of break-ins, who fixes it?” (That’s a question for the landlord.) “If most neighborhoods are facing growth and most people are looking for on-street parking, there’s eventually going to be such a rat race of parking demand, looking for that last free spot, that it’s not going to be viable.” (Not a question).

I sat and listened as a woman behind me stage-whispered, “SO WRONG. SO WRONG. SO WRONG” while Williams explained that people living in subsidized housing are less likely to own cars, and I watched as people shouted him down when he tried to explain the rationale behind allowing buses that sometimes arrive every 16 minutes to count as “frequent transit service” for the purposes of parking policy.  I heard a dozen people start yelling in unison when Williams was insufficiently surprised that 1,700 apartment units are in the pipeline along the 5 bus route from Shoreline to Fremont (“That’s been part of our growth strategy since the 1990s”), and I listened as grown adults screamed “Bullshit!” when Clowers said the city wasn’t trying to force people out of their cars and when a different person told Clowers he was full of, again, “bullshit,” because “you can interrupt us but we can’t interrupt you.”

Listening to the Phinney Ridge homeowners in the room, you would think that Seattle is a city where it’s impossible for anyone to get around without a car, where no one takes the bus because they’re all too full anyway, where the local transit agency fabricates bus schedules from whole cloth, and where parking policy is made without consideration for “working-class” residents with work trucks and delivery vehicles. If I hadn’t known that I was sitting in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, in a roomful of homeowners motivated not by altruism but by the desire to park their cars near their houses, I would think Seattle was in the middle of a class war between elitist city policymakers and paycheck-to-paycheck laborers getting screwed over by policies designed to crush working-class renters.

But that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the city is starting to make progress toward adapting its parking policies for the next 50 years, when driving alone in privately owned cars will become the exception, not the rule. It’s hard to see the future when the present is all that’s in front of you—if you and all the people you know own cars, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else does, too, and will for the foreseeable future. Policy makers, and elected officials, are supposed to look beyond the next few years and think about how people who haven’t even arrived in the city yet will want to live 20 years from now, especially when crafting land-use policies that will have implications for decades. It’s a shame when otherwise progressive elected officials can’t see beyond the immediate self-serving demands (for ample, free, convenient parking; for laws preserving single-family neighborhoods) of their current constituents.

3. In an example of the kind of inconveniences transit riders are frequently subjected to, King County Metro will relocate its Route 4—a lifeline route that serves downtown, Harborview and Swedish Hospital, Garfield High School, and the Central District down to Judkins Park—for a year, moving the line four blocks to Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. S. in the Central District. That’s inconvenient enough, but Metro is adding an extra wrinkle: Bus riders will also be forced to transfer to a different bus at 21st and Jefferson, making an already slow route that is frequently delayed even slower. Metro says they had to add the transfer because there aren’t enough diesel hybrid buses to run along the route, which is on wires until it gets to 23rd and Jefferson, on weekdays. In response to my tweet about this yesterday, Metro said that “to minimize the inconvenience, hybrids will serve the entire route on weekends, when hybrids are more available than during the w[ee]k.” I have asked why hybrids couldn’t be made “more available” for this route, given that riders will already face a year-long route change; they said they’d get back to me later today.

Last year, the agency dead-ended the route at 21st Ave. and Jefferson Street, forcing people headed south to transfer to the Route 48 bus two blocks away.

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: A Proposal to Bar Renters from Parking on City Streets

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 (and much more). Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

1. This morning at 9:30, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) committee will hold a public hearing on a proposal that would reform parking requirements to allow more housing to be built without parking in dense, transit-rich neighborhoods. The parking update would also require developers who do build parking to charge separately for rent and parking, so that people who don’t own cars wouldn’t have to pay for parking spaces they don’t use. (A 2012 study of 95 Seattle apartment buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, meaning that developers are building more parking than they need. On-site parking, according to a 2013 report from the Sightline Institute, inflates the cost of rent by around 15 percent. Essentially, many renters are paying for an extra 200 square feet of housing for cars they don’t have.)

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes, a change that would effectively expand the areas where new apartments can be built without parking. Currently, the city allows developers to construct buildings without parking if they’re located within a quarter mile of frequent transit service, defined as service that arrives every 15 minutes or less. The problem is that if this rule is interpreted in the most literal possible way—by standing at the bus stop and measuring when each bus arrives—even one late bus per hour can disqualify a whole neighborhood. Since this is obviously ridiculous, the new rules propose to redefine “frequency” by measuring average arrivals over an hour and ten minutes; if buses arrive every 15 minutes, on average, then the service counts as frequent.

Despite the fact that the city has a longstanding official goal of reducing car ownership and solo car trips in the city,  the idea of allowing—not requiring, but allowing—new apartments that don’t come with “free” parking on site remains intensely controversial. (About half of all apartments in Seattle include parking in the cost of rent, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections). Council member Lisa Herbold, who recently questioned the city’s conclusion that much of the new parking that’s being built goes unused, wrote a blog post last Friday arguing that despite the fact that many renters don’t own cars (about 40 percent of those who live in the quarter of Seattle’s Census tracts with the largest percentage of renters), plenty of residents in other parts of town still have cars, and shouldn’t have to fight for on-street parking with tenants in apartment buildings that lack garages. Specifically, Herbold said she still has “concerns” about changing the definition of frequent transit service to a more flexible standard that acknowledges factors like traffic. “I still have to analyze the impacts of the proposed changes, but my fundamental concern is still that I question whether the case has been made to demonstrate a correlation between transit ridership and a reduction in car ownership, and therefore not needing a place to park a vehicle,” Herbold wrote.

Herbold’s blog post includes several maps that do, in fact, indicate that some areas in Herbold’s district—where, she notes pointedly, 82 percent of people own cars—will newly qualify as having “frequent transit service” under the new rules. This, she suggests, could indicate that the council is being too hasty in expanding the areas of the city where developers can build without parking based on access to frequent bus service. However, what Herbold doesn’t note is that most of the areas where the definition of “frequent” service will be expanded are inside urban villages or future urban villages, where developers can already build without parking, and where the percentage of renters is already high—in her own district, for example, the neighborhoods where transit will be considered “frequent” under the new rule include Highland Park and South Park, where, according to Herbold’s maps, between 50 and 68 percent of residents rent, and where far fewer households (37 percent and 29 percent of renters and homeowners, respectively), don’t own cars.

2. Anti-development activist Chris Leman circulated an email last week urging recipients to testify or write letters condemning the proposed new “frequent transit” definition. “On-street parking is no frill or luxury,” Leman writes. “It’s central to neighborhood safety and livability; to business success; and to mobility for children, seniors, the disabled, everyone.” (The entire concept behind Safe Routes to School, by the way, is that kids should be able to get to school safely without being driven there in a car). “Without on-street parking,” the email continues, “our residents could not go about their lives, and our restaurants and other small businesses would suffer or fail.” It goes on to suggest several policy “solutions,” including new rules barring renters from parking on city streets once they get above 85 percent capacity.

This, then, is the logical conclusion of some property owners’ (incorrect) belief that they have a “right” to park in front of their house: A two-tiered system in which only property owners have the right to access public spaces. I’m sure it won’t be long before we hear this argument applied to other public spaces, such as parks and libraries, too: If we’re willing to ban people without assets from using public streets, why wouldn’t we be willing to ban them from using other public assets? A truly fair system, of course, would be one in which everyone pays equally for parking (instead of getting subsidized parking on the street in front of their house for free), but I won’t hold my breath waiting for anti-development activists to advocate for that one.

3. After holding a typically boisterous committee hearing to protest cuts to hygiene centers and to shelters run by SHARE/WHEEL (I called it a “rally,” she called it a “town hall”), council member Kshama Sawant got her wish: The council restored $1 million in funding for SHARE/WHEEL and Urban Rest Stops, ensuring that they will be funded for another year. (The money was restored as part of legislation approving the sale of city-owned land in South Lake Union, which I’ve covered in more detail here and here.) According to a Human Services Department document explaining why the group didn’t receive funding, SHARE and WHEEL’s shelter proposals cost too much per bed and did not address racial equity goals; SHARE’s application, in particular, was “the lowest scoring application among shelters serving single adults, and had poor performance data; lack of specific examples; lack of specificity about actions/policies in cultural competency; high barriers to entry; more focus on chemical dependency compliance than on housing; concerns about fiscal capacity.” (The Seattle Times covered some of the controversies surrounding SHARE back in 2013).

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the council came up with that $1 million: They found the money lying around in last year’s real estate excise tax (REET) revenues, which, according to the city’s calculations, came in $1 million higher than originally estimated.  That allowed them to reallocate $1 million that was supposed to go to a new fire facility to the programs that were cut last year.  All this new funding comes from one-time expenditures, meaning that the city will have to find long-term funding sources in future years if they want to keep them going—a proposition that, like everything else that relies on tax dollars, is easier to do in boom times than in bad.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan hit many of the themes she’s been talking about during her first three months in office in her first State of the City speech yesterday at Rainier Beach High School (which also happened to be the first State of the City speech by a female mayor in Seattle’s history.) The speech, which I livetweeted from the auditorium, was generally sunny and full of promises, like free college for every Seattle high school graduate and free ORCA transit passes for every high school student —typical in years when the economy is booming. Durkan also touched on the homelessness crisis, the possibility of an NHL franchise (put deposits down for your season tickets starting March 1, she said), and her campaign promise to pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights. And she alluded briefly to the fact that the economy can’t stay on an upswing forever—an unusual admission in such a speech, although one that was somewhat contradicted by her promises to put more money into education, homeless shelters, and transportation. And, as I noted on Twitter,  Durkan also said she supported building new middle- and low-income housing across the city: “We need to speed up permitting, add density, and expand our housing options in every part of this city,” she said. But that, too, was somewhat undercut by a comment later in Durkan’s speech, when she said—citing a sentiment that has become conventional wisdom, fairly or not—that “growth” itself “has made it hard for the middle class” to get by.

 

Morning Crank: Parking Reform, Density Delay Tactics, Election Funding, and More

A look back at some of the meetings I didn’t get around to covering last week:

1. Last week, as the city council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee began to discuss legislation that would overhaul parking requirements for new development around the city, council member Lisa Herbold argued that the city should do a more extensive study of parking demand before adopting parking reforms that could result in developments with less parking per unit. A 2012 King County survey of 95 existing buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, but Herbold wondered why the city hadn’t done a more recent survey, in the years since the council eliminated parking minimums in the densest urban areas. “If we’re going to be changing policies based on our perception of our success. I think it ‘s just helpful to have data about unused parking in buildings where we’ve been doing this for a while,” Herbold said. A council staffer countered that doing so would require the city to seek permission from landlords to get inside their garages in the middle of the night, and suggested that the data probably wouldn’t be much different than it was five years ago. According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the average apartment has 0.72 parking spaces, and the average demand for parking ranges from 0.3 to 0.8 parking spaces per unit.

Herbold also questioned the city’s conclusion that between 40 and 48 percent of Seattle renters do not own cars, citing a statistic showing that 77 percent of people living in multifamily units own cars, until a city staffer pointed out that that data was regionwide. And, in a letter to SDCI director Nathan Torgelson that was included in last week’s committee materials, she questioned whether rents would actually go down if parking was “unbundled” from rent, meaning that renters without cars could not be forced to pay for parking spaces they will never use, and suggested that “most parking is unbundled,” a conclusion Torgelson said wasn’t accurate. “[D]ata from 2017 indicate that in the region about 50% of apartment buildings… have parking bundled into the costs of rents,” Torgelson wrote—a number that is higher in the southern half of the city, an area that  includes Herbold’s West Seattle district.

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” (one measure that determines where apartments may be built without parking) to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes. Currently, if a bus is supposed to arrive every 15 minutes but it arrives one minute late once an hour, it doesn’t count as “frequent” enough to reduce or eliminate parking requirements; the new measure would average actual arrivals over time, to account for the fact that buses, like cars, sometimes get stuck in traffic.

The PLUZ committee will hold a public hearing on the parking reform proposals on February 21.

2. Reducing parking requirements for new buildings is one key element of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a plan to add housing, including affordable housing, across the city. Another cornerstone of HALA is a new requirement called Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers of multifamily housing to include units affordable for people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income, or to pay into a fund to build affordable units elsewhere. A group calling itself SCALE (the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity) has sued to force the city into a longer, more drawn-out environmental review process to assess the impact of MHA, and a representative from the group, longtime Lake City neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, gave a progress report to the Phinney Ridge Community Council last Tuesday.

Never has a room full of white North Seattle homeowners (most of them over 50, which I point out not to be ageist but as a sign of who generally has time to get super involved in neighborhood activism) acted so concerned about the fate of “large immigrant and refugee families” who would, Siegfriedt said, soon be unable to find houses for rent in Beacon Hill, Othello, and Rainier Beach if MHA went forward. “These are the only places where large immigrant families can rent,” Siegfriedt said, “so when we start talking about people living in single-family homes being exclusionary, well, that’s not true on the face of it. In fact, it’s a refuge.”

SCALE’s big objection to HALA is that it proposes allowing developers to build low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the nearly two-thirds of Seattle that is currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. These upzones, which are confined to areas immediately adjacent to already dense urban villages and centers, will help accommodate some of the 120,000 people expected to move to Seattle by 2035. Siegfriedt said that by forcing the city to do individual environmental assessments for every single neighborhood that would be impacted by MHA, SCALE hopes to “delay [MHA] a year or more—and I hope we could get neighborhood planning back on the table.”

3. On Friday, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee dug into the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to spend $2 million on rental vouchers for certain people at risk for becoming homeless. The program targets a subsection of people on the waiting list for Seattle Housing Authority Section 8 vouchers—federally funded housing vouchers that people can use to rent housing on the private market, as long as that housing is below the fair market rent set by HUD, currently around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. The $2 million is part of $11 million the city expects to see from the sale of a piece of land in South Lake Union that currently houses the city’s radio-communications repair shop; the rest of the proceeds (which also include an early payment  into the aforementioned MHA affordable-housing fund, for a total of $13 million) will pay to design a new fire station in South Lake Union, relocate the communications shop, and for “bridge housing” in the form of tiny houses and a seventh authorized encampment, this one for chronically homeless women.

To qualify for a temporary city voucher, a person must be on the SHA waiting list, currently housed but at risk of becoming homeless, and at or below 50 percent of area median income.

To give a sense of how many people who need housing and will actually be eligible for Durkan’s Bridge to Housing funding over the two years the pilot will be underway, consider: 22,000 people entered the lottery to get on SHA’s 2017 waiting list. Of those 22,000, just 3,500 won slots on the waiting list to get a voucher sometime in the next two or three years, or fewer than 16 percent. According to the city, about 15 percent of people on the 2015 waiting list were housed when they got on the list but became homeless. Using that figure, I extrapolated that (very roughly) 525 people on the current list are housed but at risk of becoming homeless. Extrapolating further, the average assistance for a person on this list works out to $158 a month over the two years of the pilot program. I’m sure there are factors I’m not accounting for—don’t @ me—but that’s a pretty paltry sum in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment now costs around $1,800.

4. It will be another month or so before the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission releases its first-year report on Initiative 122, the voter-approved measure that imposed new campaign contribution restrictions and authorized public campaign financing through “democracy vouchers” sent to every registered voter, but two of the unsuccessful candidates for city council Position 8 (won by Teresa Mosqueda) showed up at the commission’s meeting last Friday to offer their own takes on what worked, and didn’t, about the program. Jon Grant, who received the maximum possible amount of $300,000 in public funding for his race against Mosqueda, praised the program, calling it “an outstanding success—and you know I’m telling the truth because I’m the guy who lost.”

But Hisam Goueli, another “guy who lost” in the same race—he failed to make it through the primary—said if he ever ran again, he wouldn’t participate in the program. Goueli said he spent “several hours every day begging people to complete the process,” which required candidates to receive and have King County Elections validate at least 400 signatures, along with 400 contributions of at least $10, from registered voters, before they were eligible for public funding. Goueli said he was finally cleared to use democracy vouchers the day before the election—too late to do a mailing or a last-minute ad push. Because he had opted to participate in the democracy voucher program, Goueli was subject to smaller contribution limits—$250, as opposed to $500—than candidates who didn’t participate, but he never saw any of the benefits.

And “those people who had the most money in democracy vouchers”—Grant and Mosqueda—”still won the primary,” Goueli said. “The program is a cumbersome process, and even if you do it, it doesn’t limit big money” in the form of independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to restrict. Mosqueda, who was the political director at the Washington State Labor Council before joining the city council, benefited from about $200,000 in outside spending by unions.

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: “This Is Our Dakota Access Pipeline Moment”

1. Environmental activists and tribal leaders have been waging a quixotic battle against Puget Sound Energy’s proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at the Port of Tacoma for months, but many Seattle residents just took notice in the past couple of weeks, after socialist council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution that would have condemned the plant as “an unacceptable risk” to the region.

Sawant had hoped to move the resolution through the council without sending it through the usual committee process, arguing that it it was urgent to take a position on the plant as quickly as possible. Last week, at the urging of council member Debora Juarez—an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation who once lived on the Puyallup Reservation—Sawant agreed to add language noting that numerous Northwest tribal groups, including the Puyallup tribe, have expressed their strong opposition to the LNG plant but have not been included in the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s environmental review process. Last week’s amended resolution also noted the need for intergovernmental partnerships between the PSCAA and the tribes, as required, according to the resolution, by “local, state, and federal permitting and other approval processes.”

But several council members, including Juarez, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw, still felt the resolution needed work, and they spent the weekend, starting last Thursday, drafting a version that eliminated some of Sawant’s more incendiary (pun intended) references, including two “whereas” clauses about the 2016 fire that claimed several businesses in Greenwood and sections urging both the public and Mayor Jenny Durkan to actively oppose the facility. Sawant protested that she had not been included in the process of drafting the latest version of her resolution—”I just want everyone to know that I’m not responsible for those changes,” she said Monday morning—but council members reportedly reached out to her by phone throughout the weekend and never heard back.

The basic question at issue, Juarez argued, isn’t really whether Seattle should meddle in “Tacoma’s business,” or labor versus tribes or labor versus environmentalists. It’s about the fact that climate change has a disproportionate impact on low-income people and people of color, particularly the nine tribes whose land is located in the four-county Puget Sound region, and that those tribes were not consulted in the siting or permitting process. “This is an issue that transcends any political, legal, or jurisdictional lines that people have drawn,” Juarez said. “This is our Dakota Access Pipeline moment, except that we are on the front end of this.”

Whatever the merits of that argument (some members of the labor community, for example, have argued that environmental  protection and tribal sovereignty shouldn’t trump the potential for job creation at the plant), the debate quickly pitted Sawant against other council members who supported, as Sawant put it, “postponing” the resolution. Juarez, in particular, seemed perturbed by the crowd of (largely white) activists who showed up to express their support for Sawant’s amendment and to cheer loudly throughout Sawant’s speeches, which took up nearly 20 minutes of the two-hour meeting. “I mean no disrespect to the advocates, activists, environmentalists, and other groups that align themselves with native people,” Juarez said, but “we’re not a club. We’re not a political base. We’re not a grassroots organization. We are a government. … We will not stay in our lane.” To that, Sawant responded, “This is not about government-to-government relations. This is about the lives of ordinary people, many of whom are native, but others who are not. … I don’t’ think that we should in any way accept this kind of divisive language that native people are the only real speakers and others don’t get to speak. No, all of us have a stake in this.”

Noting that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recently ordered further environmental review of the project, council president Bruce Harrell argued yesterday that there was no real risk in delay, telling Juarez, “I think that your advocacy that the native communities have not been consulted properly or even legally is a great point… We haven’t really had any public process on this issue.” Several council members, saying that they hadn’t seen the latest version of the legislation by late yesterday morning, just hours before they were supposed to vote on it, agreed, and the council sent the measure to Juarez’s Civic Development, Public Assets & Native Communities committee for a rewrite.

2. Public comment was mostly muted during the first council meeting on the proposed citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal, which will allow small density increases in six percent of the nearly 26,000 acres zoned exclusively for single-family housing in Seattle. (That number includes parks and open space, but not rights-of-way, such as streets; when green space is excluded, single-family houses and their yards cover nearly 22,000 acres of the city, or nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land.)  One speaker said that residents of her neighborhood come “unglued” when they find out about new buildings that don’t have parking; another called the Grand Bargain that authorized MHA a “sham bargain,” which probably sounded more clever on paper. And then there was this lady, from a group called Seattle Fair Growth:

Don’t expect density opponents to accept what they’re (misleadingly) calling a “citywide rezone” without a fight. The first public open house on the proposal is at 6:00 tonight at Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford; District 4 rep Rob Johnson, who heads up the council’s land use committee, said he’ll be there at 7.

3. I somehow missed this when it happened, but Elaine Rose, the longtime president of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, left the organization at the end of December with little fanfare and, as far as I can tell, no public announcement. Rose’s departure leaves a major agency without a permanent leader going into a short legislative session with several key bills under consideration*; an ad announcing the open position went out on a local employment listserv last week. (Planned Parenthood also listed a fundraising position earlier this month.) I’ve contacted Planned Parenthood and will update this post if I get more information about Rose’s departure.

*Full disclosure: I was communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, a reproductive rights advocacy group, until April 2017, and I do communications consulting for NARAL for approximately 3.5 hours a week. NARAL often partners with Planned Parenthood on advocacy efforts, but I found out Rose had left PPVNH through the WHOW list, which is not connected to either group.

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.

Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Airport Conference Center (steps from the light rail station!), attending the Washington State Wire’s first-ever Re–Wire conference, where I was on a panel with WSW founder Jim Boldt, TVW president Renee Radcliffe Sinclair, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. The topic: Polarization, fake news, and the future of media. The topic was way too big for four people to handle in 45 minutes, obviously, so I spent my 10 minutes or so (gently) pushing back against the notion that newspapers are going to save us (they aren’t) and the idea that local news consumers can’t tell the difference between “real” news and “fake” news. Boldt, in particular, seemed sold on this notion, claiming that nearly 9 in 10 news stories we read are generated by artificial intelligence. I find that number highly implausible, simply because local coverage is obviously generated by human beings; you can follow their bylines and see them in the flesh if you go to a community meeting or hang out at city hall. It could be that what he  meant is that nearly 9 out of 10 things that are posted online, or 9 out of 10 things that are posted on Facebook are AI-generated, but that’s a different problem than “why there isn’t much reliable local news.”

At the local level, I argued, the problem isn’t so much that there’s “fake news” (Nextdoor and your neighborhood Facebook group excepted), but that the interpretations of the news that does get reported are increasingly polarized. (Maybe this happens more in Seattle, where an army of newly minted socialists swarms my Twitter feed every time I sound too skeptical about a policy they support, than it does in, say, Tacoma or Kent). A neutral headline like “Rents increase for fourth quarter” will be spun as “excessive regulations force landlords to avoid poverty by increasing rents” by those on one end of the spectrum and as “greedy landlords bleed tenants dry” by those on the other. The problem arises, I said, when media who are deeply invested in one perspective being true dispense with fact-checking and rely on anecdata and alternative facts (or seem to eschew fact-checking altogether) to support their preordained conclusions.* For example, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon insisted, in the Stranger, that “hot money” flowing “out of China” was one of the main reasons housing prices have been going up in Seattle, and the paper, whose endorsement undoubtedly helped push Moon through the primary, did not dispute those claims.

Ultimately, Moon was never able to present evidence supporting her assertion that “hot money” was to blame for high housing prices, and brushed off evidence that refuted it with statements like, “We need to look at the data” and “Something’s going on.” But her supporters had already taken her initial sweeping claim—that foreign capital is a major reason housing prices are high in Seattle—and run with it. Foreign buyers snatching up property and leaving it vacant, creating an artificial market shortage? Feels true. And it’s certainly easier to blame “wealthy foreign investors” than have a complex and heated debate about Seattle’s restrictive zoning codes.

Recently, I’ve encountered the same resistance to numbers and reliance on anecdata in the debate over Airbnb regulations. (This week, the council passed new rules restricting most short-term rental operators, except those already operating in the downtown core, to two units total.) Opponents of services like Airbnb argue that they obviously increase housing prices by taking units off the market. And it feels true, especially when you happen to live near an Airbnb that used to be a long-term rental.  (As, it so happens, I do.) But when you confront them with facts, they often respond with anecdotes or observations, which are data points but are not the same thing as data.

Fact: There are, according to the website Inside Airbnb, a total of 426 units that meet the definition typically used by advocates who argue that short-term rentals are removing apartments from the long-term rental market. These units are whole units (that is, not rooms in someone’s house) that are frequently booked (too often to allow a long-term renter to live there), highly available (meaning they are listed as available to rent most or all of the time) and owned by people with more than one listing (meaning that they aren’t someone’s primary residence.) Even assuming that every single one of those Airbnb hosts would switch to being a full-time landlord (unlikely, given that, according to occupancy numbers, most hosts rent their units out only part-time), 426 units simply isn’t enough to influence rents one way or another in a city with hundreds of thousands of apartments and thousands more people moving here every month.

And yet anecdotes seem to win the day. “I know two people who have Airbnbs that they could be renting out as full-time units.” “We live in an era of landlords sitting on vacant properties.” “I watched two neighboring buildings get converted to full-time Airbnbs [in San Francisco] It’s a thing.” I mean—no one said it wasn’t “a thing.” There’s an important argument we should be having right now about revisiting ex-mayor Ed Murray’s decision to preserve restrictive single-family zoning across the city, but that’s such a difficult, fraught conversation. Easier to blame foreigners and rich people making a killing off their Airbnb empires. It feels true.

This is not to condemn people for basing their policy views on anecdotes from people they know, or their gut feelings. Everybody does that sometimes, especially when they lack full information. Instead, it’s a lament that there aren’t enough local media sources with the time or inclination to challenge assumptions that feel true—rent control will lower rents citywide because my rent won’t go up anymore; offering homeless people a bed in a crowded shelter will work because a shelter is obviously better than a tent—by presenting facts that are true.

* I should say here that I have my own biases—I’m pro-housing,  favor moving people over moving cars, and oppose punitive approaches to crimes of poverty and addiction—but I’ve changed my mind on issues plenty of times when the facts have pointed in a different direction than I thought they did. But this is usually in favor of a more nuanced position (it turns out some kinds of involuntary treatment do work) rather than a polar opposite extreme view (addicted people should be dragged off the streets and thrown into hospitals against their will.)

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.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Jenny Durkan

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 doing projects like this interview series, which included conversations with all the candidates for city council, city attorney, and mayor. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers like you. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Former US attorney Jenny Durkan has been pigeonholed—unfairly, she says—as the “conservative” candidate in the race for mayor, where “conservative” is a term broad enough to include a longtime activist for LGBT causes, former Obama appointee, and advocate for supervised drug consumption sites. She’s caught flak for her style (too stiff and inauthentic, some say), her views on homelessness (more conservative than ex-mayor Ed Murray’s, by some measures) and her tendency to respond to questions in elliptical, lawyerly soundbites (many of which have been edited out of this interview, because nobody wants to read those.) As the candidate with the support of Seattle’s business establishment (as well as most of the local labor groups), she’s also widely considered the frontrunner in the race, and has enjoyed a large spending advantage over her opponent Cary Moon—in addition to outraising Moon in absolute dollars ($727,689 to Moon’s $231,331, of which $111,521 is Moon’s own money), a business backed political action committee, People for Jenny Durkan, has raised $124,600 so far for an independent-expenditure campaign on Durkan’s behalf.

I sat down with Durkan in September.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: There has been a lot of talk by candidates this year about revisiting the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, particularly the amount of affordable housing developers should have to provide and whether single-family areas should be opened up to other types of development, like duplexes and row houses. Would you revisit any part of the HALA agreement?

JD: I never use the word ‘revisit.’ I think it is absolutely clear that we cannot bring on board the number of affordable housing units we need without the private sector participating strongly, and the only way you’re to do that is through a series of incentives. So I think we have to keep the part of HALA that is going to give us the ability to bring on more affordable housing, and as we roll it out, we have to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences—that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.

I think we just have to make sure that we are looking at it how we implement it and make sure it makes sense. We’re getting two, three, four, five years away from when the deal was made and the marketplace is growing. So have we gotten that ratio of required housing and public benefit for housing right, or is there more room there? Should we have transportation impact fees? Should we have park impact fees? We  don’t want to kill the development, because there’s no question that we’re going to get more dense, but as we do that, can we squeeze out of that growth the benefits we need [such as] affordable housing [and] transit-oriented development?

ECB: Do you think Murray made the wrong decision by taking a proposal to allow duplexes and other modest density in single-family areas off the table, and would you revisit that decision?

JD: I think it was the smart thing politically to pull that off the table, because I think the whole thing would have collapsed if the mandatory [affordable housing] fees collapsed. We would not have the resources to bring on anywhere near the affordable housing we need. To pull the rug out from under the deal and be left with nothing—it would have crushed us as city.

ECB: Murray also cut ties with the neighborhood district councils, which prompted quite a backlash from single-family homeowners who say their views are no longer being heard at City Hall. Would you restore city funding and support for those groups?

JD: I would have neighborhood councils. They’d be configured differently, but I think we suffer way too much from top-down right now, and part of the reason there is so much anxiety in neighborhoods and communities is the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs. I’ll give you an example. I was down in Rainier Beach the other day and I spent several hours with the community and youth down there, because when I was US Attorney, I’d helped them get a grant for youth violence prevention, and I wanted to get updated on what’s working and  what’s not working. And they’ve done amazing things. Even with the huge amount of displacement, the increased violence, the deaths they’d seen, the community is fighting to maintain its place.

“What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.”

 

But they’re not getting the help they need from the city, because the city has quit listening to them. From the activists to the kids, you will hear, ‘We think we’ve figured out a path out for youth violence prevention, for activating our corners, for having corner greeters, for empowering businesses, for helping bring business back here. I think that the support the city had historically given them has eroded. You can’t do neighborhood work from city hall. While you have to have a vision and policy that works for the whole city and move people beyond some of their own vested interests, you also have to listen to what they think the solutions are for their own communities and neighborhoods.

ECB: So did Murray’s decision to take some power away from the neighborhood councils make that harder?

JD: No, again, I really want to make clear that I don’t want to talk in terms of, ‘Do you agree with what Ed did?’ I’m telling you what I would do. I think you have to have a very vibrant Department of Neighborhoods that works with people in communities and listens to people and talks to people. As I understand it, in some neighborhoods, it became the same people showing up all the time, so it was a very limited spectrum of voices. My view is, the answer is not to shut down those voices—the answer is to bring more people in. Maybe not at the same room at the same time, but you can have more meetings at different times. You can have virtual meetings. You reach out in all the ways you can to get more voices in. What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.

ECB: Opponents of supervised drug consumption sites have filed an initiative to ban the sites throughout King County. What’s your take on that lawsuit, and do you think Seattle will ever actually get a supervised-consumption site?

JD: I think the city of Seattle should consider joining that suit and challenge it in their own right. [Ed: Since our conversation, the city has expressed its intent to join the lawsuit.]

[Beyond that,] I don’t think they have the ability to stop the city from doing what it wants. If I’m mayor, we’re going to go ahead [with a supervised consumption site] and we’ll take the legal challenge, because the city of Seattle does not depend on King County for its rights. It has its own statutory rights, and one of those is to decide what it needs to do for the public health and safety of its people.

There’s no question in my mind that consumption sites are something we need to have as part of the health care response to a health crisis on our streets. Right now, we’re in a place where we give clean needles to people and tell them, ‘Go use it in the car, in the doorways, in the parks.’ It makes no sense. And for me, what’s most important is, if you read the task force recommendations, it’s not just a place where people can go and use drugs. It is a place where there will be health care workers, where they may get hooked up with addiction services and counseling and treatment. It may not ‘take’ the first time, the third time, the fifth time, the tenth time, but for somebody, it might eventually work, and that’s what we have to provide them, is that option. And they will never get it if they’re in the doorway or on the street corner.

 

“I think it was the smart thing politically to pull [allowing duplexes and row houses in single-family areas] off the table, because I think [HALA] would have collapsed.”

 

Right now, it’s being portrayed in such an unfair way. People might be surprised that a former federal prosecutor would say we should do this, but what is the alternative? I live downtown right now. My partner and I went out to dinner the night before last. In a three-block walk, we saw three different homeless people shooting up heroin, three who probably just had, and a couple of people looking to score. That’s in three blocks! What we’re doing right now is not working, and what we did in the ’90s didn’t work. I was in the front row. I was a criminal defense lawyer and saw that the war on drugs was really a war on addicts, and that’s who we locked up. And if we don’t have public health response to this crisis, we will end up in the same bad place. So we have to try things that are different. Will it work perfectly? Absolutely not. Is one site enough? Of course it’s not. But we have to show that there can be a different response that might work for some people some of the time.

ECB: Do you think the city has been moving in the right direction on homelessness, in terms of both encampment sweeps and the way the city spends its service dollars?

JD: I think what we’ve been doing on homelessness isn’t working. I think we have not done some of the really hard things we have to do to really move the dial. Number one is, we have to get real and we have to get forward-leaning on addiction services and mental health services.

I think the Navigation Teams are a mechanism for trying something different, and I think that from all the reports I’ve heard, from people who’ve been working with them, they’ve had some good successes. In my view, we have to get people out of tents and into treatment. When I talk to the various providers and the people working with the homeless, their estimates are that a significant majority of the hard-core chronic homeless are suffering either from mental illness, drug problems, or a combination of the two.

 

ECB: You’ve opposed opening up the police union contracts to observation and participation by the public. Given that the police department is still under a federal consent decree and the police union has been reluctant to institute reforms, why do you oppose opening up the contracts, and what would you do to increase transparency at SPD?

 

JD: There is no question, with Trump as president and the Janus decision coming down, that the right-to-work forces are going to be emboldened and they’re going to be coming after workers’ rights. In that context, I think it is irresponsible for anyone to say, ‘Let’s do their work for them and open up collective bargaining.’

Second, I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective. Going into police reform, we had a list of things we had to do, and so it wasn’t a question about, were they going to do them? A judge was ordering them to do it. So then the only part we aren’t seeing is what are we going to pay them to do it. And that all comes out when the city council has to vote on it, so there is more transparency than people think there is. My question would be, what things do people feel they don’t know?

 

“I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective.”

 

ECB: One thing we don’t know might be whether the city is going to pay cops a huge bonus just for wearing body cameras, for example.

JD: But we will know that when the contract gets presented and has to be voted on. We’re not in the room, but we set out the guiding principles—which I think the public has a right to do—and we see things that are going to be in the contract. Once we have the inspector general stood up, once we have the [Community Police Commission] more fully staffed, part of their function is going to be setting what those goals and policies are going to be. There will be transparency into that, because their job is to bring in the voices of the community and to report back. So we have built in already, I think, the ability to have more transparency, and I think some people just aren’t aware of it.

ECB: If the issue isn’t the police contract, then why do you think we’re stalled on police reform?

JD: I actually don’t think we’re stalled on police reform. I think we’re stalled on implementing some of the ordinances that I think will give greater civilian accountability. [Ed: The city can’t implement police-reform legislation until Judge James Robart signs off on the proposed reforms.] In terms of what’s actually happening on the ground—de-escalation policies, crisis intervention training, body cams—it’s all moving forward.

ECB: If that’s true, then how do you explain incidents where de-escalation training clearly didn’t work, like the shooting of Charleena Lyles?

JD: The Charleena Lyles thing shows us that reform is never done. Since the changes [requiring SPD officers to go through crisis intervention training], significant uses of force are down 60 percent in three years. That’s amazing. Charleena Lyles was a horrible, horrible crisis. I think we failed her as a society in so many ways even before the police got to the door. She had been living on the street, and she got into housing, but clearly still had issues with domestic violence, mental health issues, a single mom, and from what I can tell from the public record, about the only time she got provided services was when she was arrested and in jail. That’s the only time we as a society did anything for her. And so we have to change that equation where, if we are going to get people off the street and into housing, we also have to provide them the social services, the network, the support that they need day to day.

 

ECB: Your opponent has said she’ll expedite Sound Transit delivery to Ballard and West Seattle by loaning Sound Transit funds to build those segments more quickly. What would you do to help Seattle get its final two segments of light rail faster?

JD: The way we can best speed up ST3 is through accelerating the siting process. That’s the longest lead time that you have in these megaprojects, and we unfortunately tend to do those things very sequentially—environmental impact statement, community input, three different site alternatives, then SDOT weighs in… We can’t afford to do that. If I’m mayor, we’re going to try to do things, instead of sequentially, in collaboration. We know where the lines are going and there’s only so many locations that the transit stations can go. Let’s start doing the process now. Let’s not wait for all the alternatives. Let’s start engaging the noisy neighborhoods and the community voices now, and start having that robust dialogue. If you wait for two years, three years to engage, then you getting those intractable fights that seem to delay things forever. With these big projects, if you let them get away from you, they will get away from you. If you deal them at the beginning, you can impact how long they take.