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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Competing for a Limited Number of Units

1. While the city of Seattle was debating over the merits of the head tax last week, the King County Auditor’s Office quietly released a report on the region’s response to homelessness that concluded, among other things, that “rapid rehousing”—which provides short-term rent vouchers to low-income households to find housing in the private market—isn’t working in King County. The city of Seattle’s adopted Pathways Home approach to homelessness suggests investing heavily in rapid rehousing, which assumes that formerly homeless people will be able to pay full market rent on a private apartment within just a few months of receiving their vouchers.

For this system to work, either: a) formerly homeless people must get jobs that pay enough to afford full market rent in Seattle, currently over* $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment, before their three-to-12-month vouchers run out, or b) formerly homeless people must find housing that will still be affordable after they no longer have the subsidy. The problem, the King County report found, is that there are only about 470 private units available throughout the entire county, on average, that are affordable to people making just 30 percent of the area median income—and the competition for those units includes not just the hundreds of rapid rehousing clients who are currently looking for housing at any given time, but all the other low-income people seeking affordable housing in King County. Seattle’s Pathways Home plan would dramatically increase the number of rapid rehousing clients competing for those same several hundred units.

“Given market constraints, difficulties facilitating housing move-ins could limit rapid rehousing success,” the auditor’s report says. “As local funders increase their funding for RRH, it is possible that move-in rates will go down as more households compete for a limited number of units. Given the importance of client move-ins to later success, if this occurs additional funding spent on RRH may have diminishing benefits relative to its costs.” Additionally, the report notes that a proposed “housing resource center” to link landlords and low-income clients seeking housing with vouchers has not materialized since a consultant to the city of Seattle, Focus Strategies, recommended establishing such a center in 2016. In a tight housing market, with rents perpetually on the increase, landlords have little incentive to go out of their way to seek out low-income voucher recipients as potential renters.

2. Learn to trust the Crank: As I predicted when he initially announced his candidacy at the end of April, former King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober, who was ousted as both chair of the King County Democrats and spokesman for King County Assessor John Wilson after separate investigations concluded that he had engaged in unprofessional conduct as head of the Democrats by, among other things, bullying an employee, pressuring her to drink excessively, and calling her demeaning and sexist names, will not run for state legislature in the 47th District.

Fresh off his ouster from his $98,000-a-year job at King County, and with a $37,700 county payoff in hand, Stober told the Seattle Times‘ Jim Brunner that he planned to run for the state house seat currently held by Republican Mark Hargrove. Stober’s splashy “surprise” announcement (his word) came just days before a candidate with broad Democratic support, Debra Entenman, was planning to announce, a fact that was widely known in local Democratic Party circles. In a self-congratulatory Facebook announcement/press release, Stober said that he decided not to run after “conversations with friends, family, and supporters,” as well as “informal internal polling.” Stober went on to say that his “many supporters” had “weathered nasty phone calls and texts; awful online comments; and rude emails from those who opposed my candidacy. We chose not to respond in kind. They went low and my supporters went high.” In addition to routinely calling his employee a “bitch” “both verbally and in writing,” the official King County report found that Stober “made inappropriate and offensive statements about women,” “did state that Republicans could ‘suck his cock,'” and “more likely than not” referred to state Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski as “bitch, cunt, and ‘Waddles.'”

3. On Monday morning, Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman announced $1.2 million in funding for prepaid-postage ballots for the 2018 election. The only county that won’t receive state funding? King County, which funded postage-paid ballots for the 2018 elections, at a cost of $600,000, over Wyman’s objections last week. 

County council chairman Joe McDermott, a Democrat (the council is officially nonpartisan but includes de facto Democratic and Republican caucuses), says he was “really disappointed” that Inslee and Wyman decided to keep King County on the hook for paying for its own prepaid ballots, particularly given Wyman’s objection that the decision should be left up to the state legislature.

“She was against it before she was for it,” McDermott told me yesterday. Wyman’s office, McDermott says, “wasn’t working on the issue last year in the legislature, and yet all of a sudden she can find emergency money and appeal to the governor when King County takes the lead.”

In their announcement yesterday, Wyman and Inslee said they will “ask” the legislature to reimburse King County for the $600,000 it will spend on postage-paid ballots this year, but that funding is far from guaranteed. Still, McDermott says their decision to backfill funding for postage-paid ballots for Washington’s remaining 38 counties could set a precedent that will create pressure on legislators to take action next year. If the state believes it’s important to make it easier for people to vote in 2018, he says, “why would they argue that they’re not going to do it in the future? If it’s valuable this year, it should be valuable going forward.”

4. Dozens of waterfront condo owners spoke this afternoon against a proposed Local Improvement District, which has been in the works since the Greg Nickels administration, which many called an illegal tax on homeowners for the benefit of corporate landowners on the downtown waterfront. The one-time assessment, which homeowners could choose to pay over 20 years, is based on the increase in waterfront property values that the city anticipates will result from park and street improvements that the LID will pay for. Several homeowners who spoke this afternoon said they rarely or never visit the downtown waterfront despite living inside the LID assessment district, either because they live too far away (one condo owner said he lived on Fifth Avenue, and considered the hill leading down to the waterfront “too steep” to traverse) or because the waterfront is always clogged with tourists. Another, homeowner Jonathan Mark, said the city was failing to account for the decrease in property values that could result from “turning Alaskan Way into a freight highway.”

The median assessment on residential property owners, who own about 13 percent of the property that would be subject to the assessment, would be $2,379, according to the city’s Office of the Waterfront.

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.

Controversial Head Tax Passes After Weeks of Bruising Debate

After a weekend of negotiations between city council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan (and, according to council president Bruce Harrell, “conversations with Amazon, big business, small business, [and] homeless advocates”) the city council unanimously approved a new version of the controversial employee hours tax today, imposing a $275-per-employee tax on about 585 businesses with gross receipts of more than $20 million a year.  The $275 figure was a  “compromise” between the $500 tax passed out of committee last week by a slim majority of council members and the $250 tax proposed by Harrell and Durkan, which emphasized short-term shelter and garbage cleanup over permanent housing, and would have built just 250 new units of housing over five years. Durkan had threatened to veto the larger tax proposal, and as several council members noted on the dais this afternoon, the council majority was unable to convince one of their colleagues (such as council member Rob Johnson) to switch sides and give them a veto-proof majority. The $500 head tax proposal was the result of months of work by the city’s progressive revenue task force, which was appointed after a last year’s budget process and charged with coming up with a proposal to tax businesses to pay for homeless services and affordable housing. (Johnson, who was seen as a potential swing vote, cited the need for a process like the one the task force went through in voting against an early head tax proposal last year.) The task force issued their report in March.

The tax, which sunsets after five years (and which will no longer be replaced, as in previous versions of the legislation, with a business payroll tax), would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. According to the spending plan the council also adopted this afternoon, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median. (The full spending plan is available here.) The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, more parking lots for people living in their cars, and sanitation facilities. The adopted spending plan, which allocates about two-thirds of the head tax revenues to housing, reverses the priorities in the spending plan proposed last week by Mayor Jenny Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell, which would have spent 70 percent of the revenues from the head tax in years 1 and 2 (and 60 percent in years 3 through 5) on short-term emergency shelter, garbage cleanup, and a new Navigation Team to coordinate the removal of unauthorized encampments and the people in them.

Prior to their vote for the tax, several council members expressed regret that they failed to come up with a compromise that could convince at least one of their colleagues to join them in a veto-proof majority in favor of a larger tax, such as the $350 compromise council member Lisa Herbold floated Friday. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who was one of the co-chairs, along with Herbold, on the progressive revenue task force, said, “While I’m excited that we will be taking this vote… to reestablish a head tax… it’s regrettable that we were unable to find a path amongst our colleagues and with the mayor that they would be willing to support a higher taxation rate than $275.” Council member Mike O’Brien, who recently weathered hours of verbal abuse at an out-of-control forum on the head tax in Ballard, sounded grim as he conceded, “I’m settling for this level of service.”

Business leaders continued to grumble about the tax. The Downtown Seattle Association issued a statement decrying the tax as “bad economic policy [that] will negatively impact Seattle’s economy and city tax revenues,” and Amazon said in a statement that the “tax on jobs” makes the company “very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

The next battle for homeless advocates at city hall will be over the spending plan for the tax—a component of the plan that is in many ways more critical than the amount of money the tax produces. Durkan’s proposed spending plan, with its emphasis on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and tiny houses, would have largely backfilled spending on programs for which funding is about to run out (the plan contained a $15 million-$16 million annual line item to “continu[e] programs which had one-time funding in the 2018 budget, or insufficient funding, plus unspecified “new emergency, temporary, and enhanced shelters, navigation centers… and/or service and safe parking for vehicular living”), reducing the impact of the new revenues to whatever is left over once all the programs that are running out of money are funded. Although the council adopted the spending plan, that vote was narrow (5-4, along the same lines as Friday’s vote) and the actual implementation plan will have to be proposed by Durkan and adopted by the council as part of this year’s budget process.

Before the vote, council member Teresa Mosqueda said the new revenues from the head tax “are supposed to be in addition to” existing spending, not a replacement for it. Asked specifically about this concern at a press conference after the vote, Durkan pivoted to talking about the need to examine the council’s proposed spending plan itself, which she said would fund “a number of programs, such as shelter and supportive housing,” for which long-term funding is not secure. She did not answer the question about whether she would push for a spending plan that used new dollars to pay for existing funding commitments.

The insistence on funding existing shelter beds, from some of the four-member council minority as well as Mayor Durkan, is somewhat ironic. After all, it was the city council itself (with then-mayor Tim Burgess’ support) who adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers last year that eliminated funding for many basic shelters, on the grounds that they failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. The new standards for shelter providers, for example, withhold funding if those shelters fail to move 40 percent of their clients into housing within three months, a standard that few emergency shelters can meet, particularly those serving the clients who are hardest to house.

The emphasis in the Durkan/Harrell plan on funding shelters rather than housing also flies in the face of what virtually every expert, from the city’s homelessness consultant Barb Poppe to the city’s Human Services Department to a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce-commissioned report to former All Home King County director Mark Putnam, which is that a solution to homelessness requires getting people into housing, not tents and “tiny houses” (which Putnam recently referred to as “glorified garden sheds.”) Asked why she supported a split that favored spending on shelters over housing, Durkan responded, “because I think the people of Seattle think that we’ve got to make a difference in homelessness tomorrow. We need to get  people off the streets and get them a safe place to live. None of this housing will come online for years.”

Mosqueda told me before the vote that she was “not interested” in a spending plan that funds temporary shelter “that evicts people in five years and fails to build the housing we need.” The problem in Seattle, Mosqueda argued, is not so much lack of mats on the floor as a lack of affordable housing, and providing more temporary shelter beds is only a “Band-Aid” that fails to address the larger affordability problem at the root of Seattle’s inability to move people from shelter to housing. In a memo released earlier today, Mosqueda staffer Michael Maddux wrote that in the Durkan/Harrell plan, “There does not seem to be increased capacity in funding to support short-term enhanced shelter, and with the draconian cuts to the housing component, no plan appears in place to provide permanent housing for people moved into the few new beds created (about 1,000) by the Mayor’s plan.”

One thing everyone on both sides agreed on is that homelessness is a regional, not a Seattle-only, problem. “Seattle can’t go it alone,” Durkan said during her press conference. “This is a regional crisis that demands a regional response.” That quote might have been lifted verbatim from any other number of press conferences by any number of Seattle officials, past or present. Seattle officials routinely implore “the region,” usually meaning King County, to step up and pay their fair share to address every challenging problem, whether it’s inadequate transit or inadequate funds for housing.  Whether that additional funding will materialize is uncertain. Durkan announced this morning that the state has come up with an additional $40 million for behavioral health services in 2018, and $18 million to $20 million a year after that, and that King County has said it will provide the city with $5.7 million to expand shelter and “safe alternatives for people living outdoors” in 2018. Little is currently known about what strings are attached to this funding or how it can be spent.

Beyond the $5.7 million announced this morning, the county has been parsimonious with its funding to address the crisis. (It did adopt a resolution today declaring May 14-20 “Affordable Housing Week” in King County,  “all county residents” are encouraged “to embrace affordable housing opportunities in their communities.”) Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine suggested last week that the city needs to slow down and work on a regional approach through the massive “One Table” task force, which began meeting back in January. One Table was supposed to have finished up its meetings and announced its recommendations for a regional approach to addressing homelessness by now; instead, they have canceled their past two meetings and have been very quiet since April. One Table may ultimately come back with a recommendation for a countywide levy, or a sales tax to pay for housing and services (two of the only options available to local governments in Washington State), or it may not. Either way, Seattle is moving forward with what is at least an attempt to address the crisis of homelessness within its borders. Whether the scaled-back proposal adopted today makes a perceptible, measurable dent in homelessness, or whether it merely provides more fodder for anti-tax activists who insist that the city is wasting its money because the problem isn’t getting any better, will be clear soon enough.

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.

Tonight In Ballard: Two Hours Hate

I wanted to write about a lot of other things tonight—the council meeting to discuss potential changes to the proposed employee hours tax, a heated council committee discussion about the downtown bus tunnel, a meeting tonight where Democratic Party members ousted former King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober from yet another position and endorsed his opponent —but instead, I’m writing about this:

What I witnessed in Ballard tonight, at what was supposed to be a panel discussion, with a moderated Q&A,  on a proposed business tax to pay for homeless services, was not just a crowd of angry neighbors wanting to be heard by their elected representatives. It was an organized mob that showed up with a single goal: To shut down dialogue, create chaos, and prevent people with opposing views from having a voice. The Two Hours Hate began before the meeting even began, as audience members tried to shout town the Rev. Kathleen Weber—pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, where the event was held—during her introductory remarks. (The gist was that people should try to be respectful, a request the crowd ignored even as she was making it.) It got worse when the panel, which included three members of the city’s Progressive Revenue Task force and four city council members—tried to stick to the announced format, a moderated panel with written questions from the audience. “O-PEN MIC! O-PEN MIC!” the crowd screamed in unison—a wall-to-wall, full-volume chant that bore an eerie similarity to a phrase often shouted by Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign.

(I recorded and posted a snippet of last night’s meeting here—in it, audience members can be heard attempting to shout down council member Mike O’Brien and then loudly mocking progressive revenue task force member Kirsten Harris-Talley when she mentioned that she, like many of them, had been up since 6am getting her kid to school and working her job before coming to the meeting.)

The mob got its way—it’s hard to imagine what they would have done if they hadn’t, or if any member of the panel had decided to leave the stage—and the forum, which was to have included questions and answers from the seven panel members, turned into the one-way shoutfest the audience apparently came for.

“We’re entitled to have a house!” one man screamed from the audience. “Free from drugs!” he added. “FUCK YOU!” another shouted in the panel’s direction. Others chimed in, from around the room: “BULLSHIT!” “BULLSHIT!” And, memorably, “BULLSHIT!” “We didn’t come here to talk about taxes!” someone yelled. “RESIGN NOW!” several others screamed, as a homeless woman tried to speak. “Let’s have a highly publicized event where we round up some of them,” a speaker said, referring to homeless people struggling with mental illness and addiction.

When the crowd wasn’t hurling invectives at the panel or cheering Alex Tsimerman, the omnipresent Nazi salute-throwing public commenter who is routinely kicked out of meetings for spewing obscenities, they were screaming the same short phrases over and over, like toddlers who didn’t want to take a nap. “NOOOOOOOOO!” they yelled. “RESIGN!” they bellowed .”SHUT UP!” they screamed, when the panel asked if they would like information about the tax proposal or the rationale behind it. They didn’t come to learn. They came to howl.

Perhaps that’s why so many of them seemed so ill-acquainted with basic facts. When Katie Wilson, head of the Transit Riders Union and a tax panel member, observed that “the shortage of affordable housing is a major driver of homelessness,” people in the crowd shouted “NOT TRUE!” When a homeless woman stood up to speak, a man behind her yelled, “Stand up and speak, coward!” A man claimed that when he calls 911 to report a crime, the “police” on the other end tell him their hands are tied and they can’t respond. A woman said the city council has prevented police from investigating  rapes by homeless people. A speaker who supported the tax pointed out that, contrary to what several speakers before him had claimed, the proposal involved a tax on businesses, not individuals. “LIES!” several people screamed. A speaker said he owned a home in Ballard and supported the tax. “SHILL!” “PLANT!” “PHONY!” the crowd roared.

By the time the forum ended at 8:00, the screaming had died down a bit. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the presence of real hate—a kind of hate I’ve never felt at a public meeting in Seattle before. When I sat down at the start of the meeting, the guy behind me grinned, “Those cops outside had better get in here quick, because there’s gonna be action,” I smiled politely because I thought he was joking. It was only later, when he was screaming into my ears so loudly that I asked him to calm down (and when he snarled, with a look of pure rage, “If you don’t like it , you can leave!”) that it dawned on me that he might be hoping for a riot. At the end of the meeting, I asked a male colleague to walk me out; I was shaking. I walked down the street, past the bottles of piss and the giant junk structure had left on the grass to make a point about how homeless people are “trashing” the city with their presence. Then I got in the car and cried.

After I got home, I checked my Twitter notifications and found that plenty of people were eager to inform me that this was what democracy looks like—a mass of humanity screaming in unison, with the goal of making sure other voices are literally drowned out—and that if I didn’t like it, I just needed to grow up. I disagree. I maintain—in fact, I know—that there are ways to express strongly held opinions without terrorizing or demonizing those who happen to hold opposing views, turning meetings over to the control of whoever screams the loudest, or dehumanizing people who are suffering by suggesting they be “rounded up.”. The fact that we have gotten to this point in Seattle makes my heart hurt. It should make everybody’s heart hurt.  I would love to blame what happened tonight on a crowd of carpetbaggers whipped into a frenzy by a mendacious right-wing provocateur like Dori Monson, but the behavior I saw tonight must be laid squarely at Seattle’s feet. And Seattle won’t begin to solve its problems with homelessness, inequality, and all the other issues the city is struggling to address unless we can figure out a way to speak to each other without shouting each other down.

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.

Meet Seattle’s Reformer-in-Chief, Lisa Daugaard

This story first ran in the print and online editions of Seattle Magazine.

Image credit: Hayley Young, Seattle Magazine

It’s a little before 10 a.m. in the courtroom of King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galván, and the crowd is getting restless. Dozens of spectators, many wearing red scarves to indicate their opposition to supervised drug consumption sites, are murmuring quietly, waiting for Alicea-Galván to emerge from her chambers. Advocates say the sites—safe spaces for people to consume illegal drugs and access medical care and treatment—will save lives and put drug users on the road to recovery; opponents say they will enable drug users and lead to crime.

What’s at stake today is a ruling on an initiative, filed by Bothell City Council member Joshua Freed, that would preemptively ban the controversial sites throughout King County.

Suddenly, Lisa Daugaard, the 5-foot-2, 51-year-old director of the nonprofit Public Defender Association (PDA), which advocates for criminal justice and drug policy reform, bounds from her seat in the second row and makes a beeline for Freed, who is sitting at the defendants’ table. Before Freed can process what’s happening, Daugaard is pumping his hand, politely forcing the antidrug activist (he once told KVI-AM’s Dori Monson that safe consumption sites would make Seattle a magnet for the nation’s heroin users) into a bit of friendly courtroom small talk.

Daugaard’s friendliness is strategic. “I always go talk to the opposite side,” she says, laughing. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m not afraid of you. I get where you’re coming from.’”

For Daugaard, who has spent decades waging legal battles on behalf of people with few advocates in the criminal justice system, maintaining an open dialogue with the “opposite side” is a key part of the formula that has helped her win some of the most significant political and legal victories for civil rights in Seattle of the past 20 years.

The era isn’t long past when Seattle police officers set up “buy-and-bust” operations (undercover stings in which an officer buys drugs from a suspect, then arrests him) to put addicts behind bars, arrested people for sitting on the sidewalk and seized people’s cars for failing to pay their parking tickets. Today, that kind of draconian enforcement is unheard-of, and Daugaard is a big part of the reason why.

As Seattle has shifted leftward (from a place where people were arrested for smoking weed in parks to one where the big drug debate is about safe consumption sites), Daugaard’s focus has shifted, too. Instead of fighting on behalf of individuals against overreaching police, she’s advocating for policies that “advance the common interests of people who have suffered a lot of harm as a consequence of traditional policing,” such as progressive drug policy reform, and fighting against homeless encampment sweeps and for increased civilian involvement in how the Seattle Police Department conducts its business.

Daugaard cut her teeth as an activist during the South African apartheid era, when she was a grad student at Cornell. She found defending activists arrested and expelled during the anti-apartheid movement more interesting—and transformative—than writing her thesis on the criminalization of homelessness, and she decided to go to law school to pursue “a career trajectory where [activism] was the work rather than a distraction from the work.”

She has been at the center of many of the key civil rights battles of the past two decades, starting in the early 2000s, when thousands of low-income Seattleites lost their cars due to an initiative called “Operation Impound.” Daugaard, then a founding attorney of the PDA’s Racial Disparity Project, which worked to promote police accountability and reduce racially biased policing, says it took her a while to connect the dots between the thousands of seemingly routine license suspensions and the impoundment cases she came across through her work. The cases seemed unrelated—a litany of individual injustices.

“I knew the relationship between race, poverty and the justice system, but before I worked in public defense, I hadn’t realized the systematic way in which people of color were being deprived, as a generation, of the ability to drive,” Daugaard says. Over time, however, Daugaard started to see a pattern: Poor people, overwhelmingly people of color, were losing their licenses over moving and equipment violations or unpaid parking tickets, then losing their cars under a city law that allowed the city to seize the car of anyone caught driving it whose license had been suspended. This fed a cycle of poverty, as people who couldn’t afford to pay their tickets lost their cars, and then, with no way to get to work, their jobs.

 

“She’s an organizer, an analyst, an advocate, a strategist, an academic, an orator, a social worker and a spin doctor. You don’t come across that very often.”—Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

 

Supporters of Operation Impound presented the issue as a simple question of personal responsibility, but Daugaard, along with a community group called Drive to Survive, reframed the impoundment law as an assault on the rights of low-income people and people of color. They packed public meetings with people who had lost their cars, putting a human face on what had been a fairly obscure administrative issue. And they won. By the early 2000s, Operation Impound was a thing of the past.

This kind of no-holds-barred, uncompromising activism earned Daugaard accolades from unlikely corners. “Nobody I’ve met in my professional career can negotiate as effectively, and has the stamina and persistence that Lisa has,” says Scott Lindsay, a former candidate for city attorney who worked as a criminal justice adviser to former Mayor Ed Murray. City Council member Lisa Herbold, who worked with Daugaard on numerous issues when she was an aide to former council member Nick Licata, describes her as the full package. “She’s an organizer, an analyst, an advocate, a strategist, an academic, an orator, a social worker and a spin doctor. You don’t come across that very often,” Herbold says.

Daugaard’s status as a child prodigy—she started classes at the University of Washington at age 12, leaving at age 17 to study at Cornell and earn a law degree at Yale—is one of the first things people mention when talking about her. But her longtime employee and close friend Patricia Sully, who works at the PDA running a drug policy group called VOCAL (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders), argues that it’s the least interesting thing about her. The two met shortly after Sully graduated from law school, when they were both working with legal teams defending clients arrested during the Occupy Seattle protests. What’s most unusual about Daugaard, Sully says, is her ability to relate to a wide variety of people. “There’s no one I’ve met who is as comfortable being in a board room and talking to people in suits, and walking straight from that board room into an encampment and having a totally authentic relationship to the people in that encampment.”

Daugaard hasn’t always been so comfortable working both sides of the fence. In her early days as a public defender, some issues just seemed black and white—you either supported taking away people’s cars because they were poor or you didn’t.

But in 2005, when the PDA was fighting the police department over buy-and-busts, an SPD precinct commander challenged Daugaard to come up with a better plan, and she realized she didn’t have one. “That was a wake-up call for me,” she says. Instead of fighting the cops, she realized she needed to work with them; and instead of dismissing neighborhood concerns about public safety, she needed to find a solution that addressed those concerns.

That epiphany led to the development of a program that has become a model for criminal-justice reform around the nation. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which began as a grant-funded pilot project in Belltown and has expanded throughout downtown and to the Chinatown/International District and the East Precinct area (Capitol Hill, the Central District and Little Saigon), gave beat cops the opportunity to offer people engaged in drug activity an alternative to arrest.

“Ten years ago, she might have thought [prosecutors] were the enemy, and now we’re important partners. She’s a formidable adversary, but she’s an even better friend.” —King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg

 

Instead of cycling through jail again and again, those people can enroll in LEAD, where they are connected to mental health and drug counseling, housing assistance, and education and job opportunities, among other services. Crucially, LEAD doesn’t require that participants stop engaging in whatever criminal behavior made them eligible for the program; instead, it gives people stuck in the cycle of addiction opportunities to access a better life, while recognizing that transformation doesn’t happen overnight. The program has been shown to reduce recidivism by as much as 60 percent. It’s also made arrests for minor drug possession essentially a thing of the past. “It’s a genuine paradigm shift,” Daugaard says.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, initially a LEAD skeptic, says Daugaard didn’t just convince him to give her long-shot proposal a try; she changed his mind about how the criminal justice system should respond to drug-related offenses. “She’s taught me a lot about harm reduction and how a community-based response can be a lot more effective than just dragging someone into the courtroom, where we don’t have the tools to change people who are in a drug-dependent state,” Satterberg says. “Ten years ago, she might have thought [prosecutors] were the enemy, and now we’re important partners. She’s a formidable adversary, but she’s an even better friend.”

Today, Daugaard believes that the way to reach consensus on contentious issues is to identify the 90 percent of the issue on which both sides agree—the “goals and values” that underlie the two sides’ common search for a solution. As for the 10 percent where there’s fundamental disagreement? Set that aside, Daugaard says, and “by the time you’re done, the 10 percent has been transformed. That’s the formula, and it always works.”

It certainly worked with LEAD. Since the program launched in 2011, the question for the city hasn’t been whether to expand the program outside central Seattle, but which neighborhood will get it first.

Daugaard believes her 90 percent approach will work with safe drug consumption sites, too. The common ground is a shared desire to do something about the opioid epidemic; the experiment will be a single safe consumption site in a neighborhood that supports it; and the measure of success will be how quickly other parts of the city and region start clamoring for safe consumption sites of their own.

Sully says working for Daugaard has changed her attitude toward political adversaries. “People have legitimate concerns, and we need to actually grapple with that,” Sully says.

But Daugaard’s willingness to compromise has its limits, and it has caused friction with some allies.

As co-chair (from 2013‒2016) and now a commissioner of the Community Police Commission (CPC)—the civilian group charged with overseeing the implementation of police reform in Seattle—Daugaard says she saw the city make good strides toward police accountability. However, she has clashed with city attorney Pete Holmes over the role of the CPC and how much power it should have over the police department. Holmes, Daugaard says, “inexplicably chose not to work in support of the approach to the police reform process that community leaders wanted to take.”

The police-accountability issue helped drive a wedge between the longtime allies, so much so that during last November’s election, Daugaard endorsed Holmes’ opponent, Scott Lindsay (Holmes was reelected). While Holmes is quick to acknowledge Daugaard’s success in pushing through reforms like LEAD, he takes issue with what he calls a “take-no-prisoners approach” once she’s decided how things should go.

“If you’re not completely on board with every element of her program, then you’re the enemy,” he says. As for her endorsement of his opponent, Holmes says: “People are going to have to think that if you’re going to work with Lisa, remember that she may turn on you, even if it’s a good-faith disagreement.”

Daugaard says her dispute with Holmes wasn’t personal, and she doesn’t regret her endorsement. “I did so for specific reasons based on how the last four years actually went,” she says bluntly. Despite Holmes’ dark assessment of the way she does business, Daugaard does not think the relationship is beyond repair. “I have told him I’m glad to work with him during his new term,” she says. “Hopefully, he will prove I was wrong.”

Morning Crank: I Don’t Want That Rumor to Be Perpetuated

1. Sitting at the year’s first meeting of the Progressive Revenue task force Thursday morning, it was hard not to flash back to a press conference the previous day, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would spend some of the $11 million it expects to receive from the sale of a city-owned property in South Lake Union (a different property than the “teardrop” site council members discussed as part of their budget deliberations last year). At that briefing, held in front of two “tiny houses” under construction at the Seattle Vocational Institute, Durkan said it would take time to build all the housing that will ultimately be funded by the $290 million 2016 housing levy, and that in the meantime, a $5.5 million investment in “bridge housing”—or, in the clunky title Durkan chose for the initiative, “building a bridge to housing for all”—would give people living on the street slightly better options. “In an ideal world, we would not need to be building tiny houses,” Durkan said. Then she acknowledged that state and federal support for affordable housing is about to fall off a cliff.

The rest of the money would pay for rental assistance for people on SHA’s Section 8 voucher waiting list—”we’re going to focus on the people who need that assistance the most,” Durkan said— design of a new fire station, and city expenses related to the land sale. The developer buying the property would also provide $2 million of a total $7.7 million payment toward affordable housing projects elsewhere, required as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, to build actual affordable housing.

The reason I was thinking about Durkan’s announcement Thursday morning is that it was basically a rounding error—what government staffers sometimes call “budget dust”— in the funding needed to actually address the city’s homelessness problem, which has been growing every year since at least 2013. According to task force co-chair Kirsten Harris-Talley, if every unit of affordable housing requires $160,000 in capital expenditures from the city (more on how advocates for a higher employee hours tax arrived at that number in a minute), and the city will need around 20,000 new units for very low-income people in the next 10 years, that means the city will need to spend around $3.2 billion over that time. As you can probably imagine, the city isn’t spending anywhere close to that right now—according to the presentation, the city spent just under $95 million from all sources on capital housing investments last year. At that rate, it would take more than 33 years to come up with $3.2 billion (and that’s assuming housing costs stayed flat).

Obviously, none of this is an exact science. The $160,000 figure is an estimate provided by council member Kshama Sawant’s office, of what the city would need to contribute if it ramped up its affordable housing production and was unable to find a significant amount of new funding from other sources to help pay for all the new units. (Currently, each new unit costs the city about $93,000 in capital costs, but the programs that pay for the difference between the city’s contribution and the total cost to build a new unit, about $311,000, are only committed to a certain number of units, requiring the city—theoretically—to pay more for each additional unit out of its own pockets.)

If Harris-Talley and Sawant’s figures are correct, that provides a ready-made argument for the employee hours tax (effectively a flat annual tax for each full-time employee on every business over a certain revenue threshold) that they’ve wanted to pass all along. Today, the task force looked at potential revenues from the so-called head tax at different levels and with different sizes of business exempt from the tax, which I’ve copied below. (Last year’s proposed head tax would have exempted businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenues, up from $5 million in the initial proposal; some businesses argued that basing the tax on gross revenues was unfair because it didn’t take into account thin profit margins in certain industries, like restaurants.)

If the city goes through a recession, of course, the amount it can expect to collect will shrink. However, recessions tend to actually lower rents; Downtown Emergency Service Center director and task force member Daniel Malone pointed out that during the last recession, the county’s annual point in time count of people living outdoors tends to stagnate or even decrease, as it did between 2010 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2012. That’s one of the paradoxes of a weakening economy: Although revenues from taxes that are less stable, like direct taxes on businesses, tend to decline, so do rents, making it possible for some people forced onto the street by an impossible housing market to actually find a place to live.

2. In a King County Board of Health discussion about the possibility of a Hepatitis A outbreak in Seattle yesterday (a nationwide outbreak, ongoing now, began in California and was widely blamed on lack of access to handwashing facilities for the state’s homeless population), King County Health Department Director Patty Hayes expressed concern about the city’s decision last year to cut funding for three downtown hygiene centers that provide restrooms, showers, and handwashing and laundry facilities for homeless people living and moving through downtown.

City council and Board of Health member Sally Bagshaw—a vocal proponent for cutting funding to the facilities as part of the city’s new “performance-based” approach to homeless service contracts—objected to Hayes’ characterization of the problem.

“I think that [problem with the closure of the hygiene centers] is more apparent than real,” Bagshaw said. “We’re putting huge investments into new 24/7 shelters …  I’m working with those 24-hours shelters to say, ‘Can you open these up for people who aren’t [staying] here tonight” to take showers, she said. “We opened up community centers [for people to shower]. There are more facilities open now than before. It’s just that the money’s being shifted. I don’t want that rumor to be perpetuated. There were some organizations that didn’t get funded” because the city went to a competitive process, Bagshaw said.

I covered the cuts to funding for hygiene centers, and the reason some advocates believe community centers and shelters are not an adequate substitute for public restrooms and dedicated hygiene facilities, here.

3. The Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank that researches and covers of housing, transportation, and environmental policy from a green, pro-transit, pro-housing perspective, just brought on a new (unpaid) fellow to cover “issues of infrastructure, technology and energy with a view towards sustainability.” His name: Daniel Malarkey.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. (If it doesn’t, you weren’t following Seattle politics in the early 2000s.) He was the finance director for the Seattle Monorail Project, the transportation agency that was going to build a monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle. That project was doomed to failure after Malarkey’s revenue projections overshot the mark by about 50 percent, and after the agency compounded the problem by trying to paper over the error. (The error Malarkey made was counting revenues from taxes on every single car in Seattle, when in reality, thanks to heavy lobbying from the auto industry, all new cars and cars brought to the city by people moving here from out of state were exempt from the monorail tax. The result was that Malarkey overestimated the monorail’s tax base by a third) When he resigned at the end of 2003, I wrote this. Interestingly, it looks like his three years consulting or working directly for the monorail agency aren’t on his official Sightline bio.

Anyway, it looks like he’ll be writing about autonomous cars.

Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Sightline and often use their research in my reporting.

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Best of Crank 2017: Candidate Interviews

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This year, I sat down for interviews (in some cases, multiple interviews) with the top six candidates for mayor as well as the two candidates for city attorney and the top two candidates for City Council Positions 8 and 9, which were both on the ballot this year. This post is a compendium of my pre-primary mayoral interviews, which included conversations with former mayor Mike McGinn, former state legislator Jessyn Farrell, current state legislator Bob Hasegawa, educator and activist Nikkita Oliver, and the two candidates who made it through the primary, now-Mayor Jenny Durkan and urban planner Cary Moon. Each excerpt links to my full interview with each candidate.

This piece ran on July 31.

Election Day Is Tomorrow. If You Haven’t Voted, Read This.

If you haven’t voted yet, you still have until tomorrow, August 1, at 8pm to get your ballot into a King County Elections drop box (locations here); if you’re planning to mail your ballot, do it today so you won’t miss the August 1 postmark deadline.

And if you haven’t decided who you’re voting for in the mayoral election, check out my interviews with the top six candidates, which cover topics ranging from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to the controversial North Precinct building to gender and transportation equity. Or check out  a few key moments from each of those interviews below.

Former mayor Mike McGinn

ECB: One specific thing Murray has done is to distance the city from the neighborhood councils, and as you know, there was a backlash to that. His response to that backlash, and I think it was a appropriate one, was to say, ‘We’re not excluding you, we’re just including other people too.

MM: I personally was bothered by the way Ed kind of got rid of them. I do think they have a place but—you should go reread the article I wrote on Crosscut. I expressed that there were weaknesses. But I think that [cutting ties with the councils] was a divisive act. It was perceived by those folks as an attack. And I think there’s a way to say, ‘Look, you’re a voice and we’re going to continue to solicit your views, but we’re also going to invite more people in. That’s a process issue as well.

ECB: But I feel like those people hated you anyway. So how are you going to convince people that Ed is divisive but you’re not?

MM: You have to define what you mean when you say [divisive]. Are there are people in every neighborhood who are resistant to changes? Sure. But I think there are also people in every neighborhood who are open to change. I’ll give you an example: Bicycling in the the city. When it was portrayed as, the mayor is imposing his will on neighborhoods on biking, that was not something that went so well. That was one of the beauties of the road safety action plan. We actually brought folks in the room and we found a different way of talking about and approaching the issue. That helped change the debate. Now I’m not saying that all of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m for a bike lane.’ There are going to always be some people who hate a bike lane. But when you have neighbors talking to neighbors about what an outcome should be, you remove the process objection. I look at the HALA focus groups. The reason people dropped out is that ultimately, it didn’t feel meaningful to them, for whatever reason. And so that’s what I’m trying to get at, is you need to have that engagement on the front end. When I went to a town hall and had a group of people saying we can’t do something on this street, and we had other people saying, ‘I live in this neighborhood, and I do those things.’ That fundamentally changes the debate.

ECB: It’s my impression that the neighborhood-versus-city or homeowner-versus-renter divide is much sharper now than it was when you were mayor. What’s the breaking point, when you have to say, ‘Sorry, you might not like this policy, but we’re going to do it anyway’?

MM: Ultimately, you have to make the call, but first you have to listen.

And I walked into rooms with hundreds of people yelling at me, and I brought my staff with me and I brought my department heads with me. Has [Murray] ever just walked into the room and said, ‘Anybody in the neighborhood who wants to ask me a question, go, one after the other’? I did. And what I learned was, the first meeting, people really unload. And the second meeting, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s showing up again.’ And by the third meeting, maybe you feel like you’re starting to make some progress. But you need to show that you’re going to have a continued commitment to showing up in the room, and the next time you show up in the room, you show that that you’ve delivered something, and that you’ve heard what they say and you’re trying to deliver an outcome. Who you speak to, who you let question you, changes what you do, and if you’re just in the room with the lobbyists, if you’re just in the room with the donors, certain things are going to become priorities. If  you don’t hold yourself accountable to the neighborhoods, other things become priorities.

Educator and attorney Nikkita Oliver

ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?

NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.

The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’

What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.

And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.

And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.

ECB: Did you support the housing levy? Because Murray touts that as a big achievement in that direction, in the direction of providing for zero to 30 [percent of Area Median Income]– you know, whatever you think of AMI, because I know it is like $70,000 or something like that—*

NO: Which levy?

ECB: Sorry, the $290 million one—

[Oliver campaign manager Gyasi Ross]: You mean the one he retracted? [Murray initially proposed, then retracted, a property tax to pay for shelter, housing, and services for homeless Seattle residents.]

ECB: No, no, no, we’ll talk about that in a sec, but no, the one to actually build affordable housing.

NO: Honestly, I don’t remember.

ECB: Because that was aimed at building that kind of housing, you know, and it was a property tax levy.

NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.

* Although I usually edit interviews for length and clarity (adding or removing explanatory information from the questions, omitting redundant answers, etc.), this portion of my interview with Oliver has been repeatedly called into question by some of her supporters, who have accused me of misquoting or misrepresenting our conversation to do a “gotcha” on the candidate. For this reason, I have transcribed the interview to include a background comment from Oliver’s campaign manager, sentences that trail off, and verbal tics like “you know.” The question followed immediately on Oliver’s previous answer about the need for the city to provide affordable housing; I was pointing out that the city did just vote to spend $290 million on affordable housing, and asking if Oliver had supported that ballot measure. 

Urban planner Cary Moon

ECB: To what do you attribute rising housing prices?

CM: If you look at what’s happening in other world-class cities, you see this phenomenon of outside investors piling on and taking advantage of everyone wanting to move here. It’s just like Wall Street—when Wall Street sees a stock go up two days in a row, all of Wall Street piles on to that stock. That same phenomenon is going on in our housing market.

Housing used to be local. It used to be local players, building housing for local people. Now they’re acting more and more like Wall Street, where outside predators are piling on just left and right.

ECB:  You’ve mentioned this theory before—that foreign investors from places like China are snapping up properties here as investments and leaving them vacant, which helps drive up housing prices. But all the available data seems to show that while this is happening in Vancouver, it isn’t happening here. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen in the future, but what evidence do you have that so-called hot money is driving up housing prices now?

CM: I don’t have any secret information that nobody else has, but the dynamic is there. I’ve read enough articles that have said that investors that have been in Vancouver are now looking at other cities, and Seattle is one of their choices. It’s not just hot money, it’s not just foreign investors, but everything has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be, you buy property, you build a building, you get a certain rate of return, and you get your money back, maybe 7 percent in 20  years. It’s completely different now. Now, you buy a building and sell it right away, and the return on investment comes not from the slow, long revenue stream of rents coming in, but from the quick turn of selling at a higher rate and doing the same thing again and again and again and again. Our development world is behaving more like Wall Street than it used to. It’s developers leaving buildings vacant, it’s people buying investment properties, it’s Airbnb, it’s people building second and third and fourth homes that might not have anybody living in them for most of the year. Real estate is a great place to put your money, if you have money.

Former US Attorney Jenny Durkan

ECB: Do you support the idea of a supervised drug-consumption site?

JD: Here’s what I think. We have a huge injectable heroin problem in this city. You go to any city park, alley, street, or neighborhood in any part of the city and you can see that it’s there. The battle and the discussions we’re having now almost mirror exactly the debates around safe needle sites. I mean it is the same arguments: ‘Its legitimizes heroin.’ ‘It’s saying it’s okay to shoot up.’ It’s not. It was harm reduction and this is a harm reduction measure now. It makes no sense that we can have a site where we can have someone come in for a needle exchange, and you hand them the clean needle and you say, ‘Okay, go to the alley. Go to the park. Go to the street where you might OD and die in the middle of the night.’ And you have no access to health care treatment services or even someone to talk to. It is not a solution standing by itself, but I think it is part of a humane health care solution for dealing with a very real problem.

ECB: You said recently that you’re skeptical that a citywide income tax would be legal. Can you elaborate on why you think it might not be, and would you pursue it further if elected?

JD: If I could wave my wand, we would have a statewide income tax tomorrow.

ECB: OK, you don’t have a wand.

JD: Nobody does, but that’s what they’re trying to do, is wave a wand.

Look: I think if there’s a time to make a test case, now’s the time to do it. I am not persuaded that the legal landscape has changed. You have two barriers. The first is the RCW, the state law that prohibits cities from establishing an income tax. Then you have the state constitution, and in multiple cases, the [Washington State] Supreme Court has held that an income tax is unconstitutional. People think the makeup of our state Supreme Court might change that second outcome, but you still have to get around the first one. I’m skeptical that it will meet the legal test.

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Former state legislator (D-46) Jessyn Farrell

ECB: There’s been a lot of debate over the payments developers will be required to make under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program; some social justice advocates say they’re too low to make a dent in displacement, while some urbanists, including the Sightline Institute, say they’re so high they discourage development. What do you think? Would you change anything about MHA, or the mayor’s larger Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)?

JF: I am fundamentally supportive of HALA. I deeply believe that Seattle needs to increase its housing stock and housing options across the economic spectrum in a really significant way. I think the zoning changes, though, are only one piece of the affordability puzzle, and I would like to go much beyond that.

We need to inventory all the surplus property in the city—whether it’s WSDOT, Sound Transit, Seattle Public Utilities—all publicly held property, and land bank it as the cornerstone for a major new investment in public housing. That has traditionally been a really important strategy for providing housing stability and economic mobility for people, especially in Seattle. And it then becomes an effort around matchmaking, so that you find the nonprofit or private developer resources to do the development.

Just as we allocate population growth across the region through [the Puget Sound Regional Council’s] 2040 plan, I think we need to set a target of $1 billion in affordable housing and allocate affordability targets across the entire city, so you’re not really letting any neighborhood off the hook. Then you create neighborhood-based plans that use an array of affordability tools, so some neighborhoods are going to focus more on rental vouchers so that people who are living in current housing can stay there; some neighborhoods are going to focus more on [accessory dwelling units]; some neighborhoods are going to have more traditional density. We need a strategic plan for the city that allows us to hold ourselves accountable, and then we can create programs within every single neighborhood.

That, obviously, is not easy. There are neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily going to want it. But here’s what I see: There are people in every single neighborhood who are worried about affordability, whether it is their kids not being able to buy into Seattle, whether they’re worried about property taxes or whether they’ve been in their houses for 40 years and now they’re on a fixed income. Clearly, renters are worried. And I think that you appeal to people from that perspective: Look, we are all in this together. We cannot solve this problem in traditional ways. Our traditional frame in Seattle has been around zoning, and that is a piece of the puzzle, but it cannot be the only piece. We need major public-sector investment, and then we need to really open up all of the different tools. And I think it becomes really micro, property-by-property, arterial-by-arterial planning. Part of that is preserving cultural spaces in neighborhoods and preserving environmental spaces in neighborhoods. Upzoning certainly has a role, and there are places where we need to do it, but there are so many other affordability tools that we can use and that I think neighborhoods would embrace.

11th District State Senator Bob Hasegawa

ECB: What do you think of Mayor Murray’s decision to cut ties with the neighborhood councils? That was an effort to get more new voices included in city planning, including, importantly, people of color.

BH: I think we need to be going the opposite direction from dismantling the neighborhood councils to empowering them more. The city’s argument was that the community councils don’t necessarily represent the diversity of the people in the community, and I think that’s true. They’re pretty much white, middle-class, older—even in the Rainier Valley. That’s the people that have the time to do it. I think grassroots organizing is the hardest job in the world, and the most underappreciated, and that’s why it never gets done. But it is the only way democracy can succeed. So if we are going to reverse our top-down structure, which is what the city has become, to a more bottom-up structure, we have to put a lot of work into it. So I want to fund the neighborhood councils so they can go into the neighborhoods and start organizing.

ECB: What is your definition of gentrification and how would you deal with it?

BH: I don’t know if there is a definition. It’s the loss of the economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity—what the city has always had. The income inequality that’s facing the whole country right now is being demonstrated to an extreme in Seattle, because you’ve got so many people making six-figure salaries moving in and displacing minimum-wage people.

When you look at the [Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda] set-aside for South Lake Union, they only require 2 percent of the units to be affordable, whatever affordable is. I think other cities are at 25 percent or above.

ECB: So what’s your alternative?

HB: A public bank.

This year, The C Is for Crank also made endorsements in two races—the mayor’s race and Seattle City Council Position 8. Read my endorsement of Jessyn Farrell for mayor here, and my endorsement of Teresa Mosqueda for council here. And look for more endorsements for the general election in October.

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.

City Bets Big on Enhanced Shelter, Rapid Rehousing in New Homeless Spending Plan

Mayor Tim Burgess: “Business as usual is not really an option.”

Homeless service providers and the city of Seattle say they’re confident that they can double the number of people moved from homelessness to permanent housing in the next year through a combination of traditional tools like permanent supportive housing and private market-based solutions like rapid rehousing with short-term rent assistance vouchers. Yesterday, the city’s Human Services Department released a list of programs, operated by 30 local organizations and agencies, that will receive $34 million in new homeless service contracts. By this time next year, Mayor Tim Burgess predicted yesterday, the city will have moved “more than twice as many people from homelessness to permanent homes compared to this year.” Burgess added that he has “confidence … that the new approach will be effective. …I recognize this is a huge change, but it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need that we face on the streets of Seattle. Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.” See below for sassy footnote.*

The city also released a list of the dozens of projects that did not receive city dollars because they failed to meet HSD’s new funding standards, which prioritizes low-barrier shelters and programs that promise to get people into housing quickly over longer-term transitional housing and “mats-on-the-floor” shelters that have high barriers to entry and don’t emphasize permanent housing. This year, according to HSD, 56 percent of the city’s shelter funding goes to bare-bones night shelters; as of next year, “mats-on-the-floor” shelters will make up just 15 percent of HSD’s shelter budget, with the remainder going to enhanced shelters. Overall, there will be 300 fewer HSD-funded shelter beds in the city.

Several longstanding programs will be defunded partially or completely, including the SHARE/WHEEL nightly shelter program, which provides high-barrier nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people per night. (SHARE’s shelters are high-barrier because they require adherence to a long list of rules that varies from shelter to shelter, require prospective shelter residents to pass a “screen” by a current member, and restrict residents’ comings and goings—for example, by requiring them to stay at a shelter consistently for a certain number of nights.) HSD deputy director Jason Johnson confirmed yesterday that SHARE’s application for $694,153 to run its shelters ranked dead last among all applications for emergency shelter service funding; its sister organization for women, WHEEL, also ranked poorly, according to HSD.

HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said that in deciding which providers received funding, the agency prioritized “quality” over “quantity,” noting that having to line up every night for a shelter bed is stressful and makes it harder for homeless people to improve their lives.

 

“Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” HSD director Catherine Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

 

In response to yesterday’s announcement, SHARE released a portion of the application it submitted to HSD (the full applications will be unavailable, HSD officials said, until after an appeal period concludes on December 12), which asserted that the city’s goal of drastically increasing the rate at which people move from homelessness to permanent housing “is a painful impossibility considering the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.  Demanding it forces competition, false promises, and a practice commonly called ‘creaming’—programs rejecting hard-to-serve folks to gain better housing outcomes.” SHARE has been vocal during the city council’s budget deliberations, and will almost certainly show up at city hall to protest the cuts; they will still receive funding to operate the city’s six sanctioned tent encampments.

Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

HSD’s prediction about how successful its new approach will be does appear optimistic in light of the high, and growing, cost of living in Seattle, where a one-bedroom market-rate apartment might cost $1,800 to $2,000. As Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization lost funding for two transitional housing projects in the Central District and Georgetown, noted pointedly, permanent housing is always the ultimate goal—but vouchers for formerly homeless people to rent on the private market will only work if people can go from minimal or no income to a relatively high income extremely quickly. If, as seems more likely, they can’t, they may end up worse off than when they accepted the voucher—homeless again, but now with a broken lease or eviction on their record.

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold,” Lee said. “I think there is a way to lie with statistics. I think they say, ‘We put someone into market-rate housing, and if they don’t show up in the [Homeless Management Information System] later, then it is successful,’ but they haven’t checked” to see if that person is still living in the “permanent housing” after their rent subsidy runs out. Lee said that about 80 percent of the people who live in LIHI-owned and -operated transitional housing would not be good candidates for rapid rehousing, because they are living with physical and developmental disabilities, PTSD, or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing would be the solution, but we don’t have enough permanent supportive housing”—long-term housing with wraparound services. (Interestingly, as SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield points out, HSD appears to estimate the cost of each “exit” to permanent supportive housing as just $1,778 per household, which is far less than any other program, including diversion, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing.).

Enhanced shelters, like the 24-hour, low-barrier Navigation Center that opened earlier this year, are also key to HSD’s plan to permanently house 7,400 people by the end of 2018. The goal is to move most clients through enhanced shelter and into permanent housing within 60 days—but that goal, as I’ve reported, has been harder to achieve in practice than the city predicted. (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it should be noted, has issued a mandate saying people should move through enhanced shelters and into permanent housing in no more than 30 days.) As of October, the Navigation Center, which is run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center had housed just one person—in transitional housing, not the permanent housing the city hopes will be the key to solving the homelessness crisis. (Another person left town, saying they planned to move in with family.)

 

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold.”—Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

 

Asked why they have confidence that other low-barrier, high-service shelters will be able to rapidly move people from homelessness to permanent housing when the Navigation Centers has struggled, HSD staffers said only that they have faith in the organizations that were chosen for funding and that the 7,400 number is actually a lowball, based on the assumption that most enhanced shelters will need some amount of “ramp-up time.” Johnson also alluded to the need for the Navigation Center to show “fidelity to the San Francisco model,” a reference to the original Navigation Center in that city, on which Seattle’s Navigation Center is modeled. But San Francisco’s Navigation Center benefited early on from the fact that San Francisco was able to steer clients into units the city owned, which meant that people exiting the center didn’t have to find units in the private market; now those units are full, and recent reports suggest that three-quarters of that Navigation Center’s clients have failed to find permanent housing and that most have returned to homelessness.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like LIHI’s Lee, points to high rents in the Seattle area as a key barrier to moving people from shelter to housing in the private market. “While some of the resources in this plan will help pay for people to get into housing, I do believe we still have a major problem in this community with the accessibility and availability of housing that’s affordable to low-income people, so I think we’ve got to address both the navigation”—steering people toward the services that can help them—”and the availability of housing in order to achieve the goals that we all share, and I worry that we haven’t paid enough attention to that second part.”

The city’s grants for rapid rehousing providers did not say that the vouchers needed to pay for housing in Seattle, making it a near-certainty that many voucher recipients who would prefer to live close to their current homes, jobs, and communities may be forced to move to suburbs where rent is cheaper. Given that one of the key criteria HSD considered in the grant process was racial equity—the groups that will receive funding include several organizations that serve Native Americans, African Americans, and African immigrants—I was surprised that HSD was so blithe about pushing more low-income people, especially people of color, out of the city. Lester, the HSD director, said it was a question of priorities: Is it more important to make sure people can find housing in Seattle, or to get them off of the streets or out of their cars? “Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

As readers of this blog may recall, the city council is still discussing ways to put more funding into homeless services, after rejecting a $125-per-employee tax on the city’s largest 1,100 or so employers. If that funding comes through, HSD staffers said yesterday, the agency already has a list of “tier two” projects that didn’t quite make the cut for this round of funding.

A full list of the projects that received funding is available here.

* Permanent housing, by the way, doesn’t always mean a room or an apartment; it also includes things like crashing on a couch with friends or moving out of the state to live with family; the thing that makes it “permanent” is that it isn’t time-limited, and the thing that makes it “successful” in the city’s eyes is that a person doesn’t re-register as officially homeless with the county, so people who pack up to be homeless elsewhere are out of sight, out of mind.

Is the “Head Tax” Half-Baked—or Long Overdue?

A plan to tax businesses with gross receipts above $5 million to pay for homeless housing and services faced intense scrutiny from several skeptical city council members yesterday at the first budget briefing since council members Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley first floated the HOMES (Housing, Outreach and Mass-Entry Shelter) Act last week. (The proposal would resurrect the so-called “head tax,” a tax for each hour an employee works, that was repealed in 2009). Council member Rob Johnson called the proposal a “false choice” between a head tax and doing nothing, and council president Bruce Harrell took umbrage with council member Kshama Sawant’s suggestion that council members who oppose the head tax are “beholden to the Chamber of Commerce.” After the meeting, Johnson told me that his goal is “to stay focused on the outcomes” and figure out how much money service providers need first, rather than to “reverse engineer” a set of solutions based on a specific revenue source like the head tax.

So far, the proposal comes with a big number—$24 million a year—but few details. Here’s what we do know: The HOMES Act would impose a 4.8-cent tax on every hour worked by employees for companies with gross receipts of $5 million or more. The math works out to about $100 per employee, per year, and the council members estimate it will raise about $24 million annually, which would include $5 million for shelters, new authorized encampments, and safe lots for people living in cars and RVs; $18 million for new housing construction and long-term housing vouchers for people with very little to no income; and $1 million to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for low-level drug offenders, into the North Precinct. The number of new units the package could build depends on whether the city can rely on state subsidies through the housing trust fund, which cut the cost of construction dramatically, but O’Brien estimates the measure could permanently house 1,000 people over the next ten years.

The Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association condemned the proposal, calling it a “tax on jobs” that sends a hostile message to businesses hoping to expand or move here. (Amazon came up a lot in the initial press coverage of the proposal, but the tax would actually affect about 2,200 businesses, not just so-called big corporations) O’Brien calls that a false narrative; he says the tax represents a tiny fraction of the cost of doing business—”0.3 percent of your labor cost if you pay your workers $15 an hour”—and that if business groups had a better idea, they would have proposed it by now. “We’ve been dancing around this for years— they hate [the head tax], but they haven’t come up with anything better,” O’Brien says. “It’s the only business tax we have access to, and so there’s a question: Do they hate it because they would like a different business tax better, or do they hate it because they hate business taxes, and this is the one we’re going for, so they hate this one?”

DSA president Jon Scholes insists the downtown business group doesn’t just reflexively “hate” all business taxes; what they hate, he says, is being left out of the loop. Case in point: Scholes says O’Brien contacted him on Thursday to let the DSA know that he was “exploring” the idea of resurrecting the head tax; less than 24 hours later, O’Brien was calling a press conference to announce his plan. The move blindsided the business community, Scholes says. “This was not developed with the input of [O’Brien’s] colleagues on the council or other folks who care deeply about this issue,” Scholes says. “We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be new resources, but we think the resources that are going to go to this issue should be thoughtful and discussed out in the open, not decided behind closed doors and foisted upon businesses and the community.”

Seattle’s business community is unusually progressive by business-community standards—the DSA, for example, was a critical partner in making LEAD a reality, back when there was widespread skepticism about any program that would allow drug offenders to go free. Could the council risk losing business support for progressive ideas like LEAD if it alienates them by imposing taxes they hate? Council member Harris-Talley says she doubts it. “I am hard-pressed to think that the businesses that are in our community are going to set aside their values to have a pissing match with elected officials who want to find resources for solutions” to homelessness, Harris-Talley says. “They know it impacts their bottom line” to allow homelessness to get worse, she adds.

The tax, if it passes, will be based on businesses’ gross receipts, not their net profits, which business groups argue could penalize companies that have thin profit margins and create a perverse incentive for businesses to pay their workers less or avoiding growing past the $5 million threshold. (To get a sense of what businesses would be impacted, they include groups of restaurants, like those owned by Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas, but not individual Subway franchises or your local dry cleaner.) “Five million in gross revenues—there’s going to be a lot of people wrapped into that,” Scholes says. “Let’s say you’re a business making $4.5 million. If you grow the business [above $5 million], you get to pay tax to the city because you created jobs.”

O’Brien says he’s open to other revenue alternatives, if the business community will help him come up with some. “If we can come up with something better in the next few months, I’m happy to change my support to something better and undo this,” O’Brien says. However, he isn’t willing to shuffle around existing funding for homeless services and hope a new spending scheme will make the numbers pencil out. “Historically, four percent of people in shelters have exited to permanent housing, and to get that number to 40 percent [without additional revenue] is ludicrous. The challenge isn’t that we have a bunch of affordable housing that we’re not using—it’s that there’s nowhere to put them.”

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

Image via Facing Homelessness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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