City Accelerates Homeless Encampment Removals, Doubling Pace in 2018

Over the first eight months of 2018, the city’s Navigation Team—a group of cops, human service providers, and other outreach workers who remove encampments the city deems unfit for human habitation—has steadily increased the number of unauthorized encampments they remove from hillsides, parks, and under bridges across the city, according to weekly Navigation Team reports that I obtained from the city and compiled into a searchable spreadsheet. Between January and August of this year, the pace of encampment removals accelerated from fewer than three a week to nearly six a week, meaning that the Navigation Team has roughly doubled the pace of sweeps since the beginning of this year. These numbers do not include removals of encampments or tents that team members deemed an imminent safety hazard, which can be removed without the usual 72-hour notice and are not included in the Navigation Team’s weekly reports.

Note: The city’s data does not specify the exact dates on which each encampment was removed, only the week in which it happened, so that rolling two-month average includes a small amount of bleedover from weeks that included days from two different months. The steady rise in encampment removals is represented by the trendline on the graph.This represents more than just an overall increase since 2017; the city is doing more sweeps, and it is increasing the number of sweeps faster than it did last year, when the pace of encampment removals grew both minimally and slowly. Between August and December of last year, for example, the average number of weekly encampment removals increased from about 2.5 to a little less than 3, using a rolling monthly average.

Rules established during last year’s city budget negotiations say that the Navigation Team is only supposed to force people to leave an encampment if they are violating a specific list of rules, which bar things like illegal activity other than drug use, camping near schools or facilities for the elderly, or creating an active health hazard for encampment residents or the surrounding community. The council also mandated that the Navigation Team start making weekly reports on encampment removals.

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Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the city’s Human Services Department responded to a list of detailed questions about the apparent acceleration of encampment removals, how the pace of removals compares on a monthly basis to last year’s numbers, the geographic locations of encampment removals, and the process by which encampments are targeted for removal by directing me to several posts on the city’s homelessness response blog, which consisted of announcements about tiny house villages, the amount of trash and syringes the city has removed, and Durkan’s plan to increase shelter beds. The Human Services Department followed up (and responded to my list of questions) by sending a copy of an upcoming blog post touting the work of the Navigation Team. The post acknowledges the overall increase in encampment removals between 2017 and 2018, and reads, in part, “Since launching in February of 2017, the Navigation Team has removed a total of 409 unsanctioned encampments. Of these encampments, 271 were given advance notice with repeated outreach including offers of service, storage of possessions, and shelter and 138 of the total encampments removed either posed an obstruction to public use, were located within the City’s designated emphasis areas, or were considered especially hazardous to public health and safety.”

The fact that garbage piles up at encampments is in many respects a product of official city policies. As the city council’s civil rights committee learned last week, Seattle Public Utilities has a pilot program to pick up garbage at just 10 encampments at a time citywide—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of small and large encampments that exist around the city.

In most cases, the Navigation Team reported that they had to remove an encampment because of garbage and waste buildup that was creating a health hazard for people living in the encampment. Of more than 150 encampment removal reports the Navigation Team has filed so far this year, only nine do not cite  the presence of trash or human waste among the reasons the encampment needed to be removed.

However, the fact that garbage piles up at encampments is in many respects a product of official city policies. As the city council’s civil rights committee learned last week, Seattle Public Utilities has a pilot program to pick up garbage at just 10 encampments at a time citywide—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of small and large encampments that exist around the city. Between January 2017 and July of this year, according to the Navigation Team’s most recent report, the pilot program has only served 28 encampments citywide, collecting about 292 tons of trash.

Council member Mike O’Brien pressed the issue last week, asking SPU solid waste director Ken Snipes whether the city’s policy is to “let the garbage accumulate” at encampments where trash piles up and goes uncollected by the city. The response, from both SPU and Navigation Team leaders Jackie St. Louis, was that the city encourages people at the pilot sites to participate in the program but does not emphasize trash cleanup anywhere else, beyond an on-call pickup program that allows encampment residents to put trash in bags on their own and call the city to come pick it up.

“We have, in some cases, gone to sites [with accumulated trash] where we’ve cleaned up around individuals and allowed folks to stay there,” St. Louis said, but “that’s not happening in great frequency, because, again, our priority is to help individuals get along the path to getting housed. … If the Navigation Team can get the residents to pick up the trash, the on-call services would be the tool for doing that.”

Thanks to an infusion of $500,000 from the state, the Navigation Team will soon add eight new members—a mix, according to Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, of “officers, outreach workers and data administrators,” plus the addition of former Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta.

Morning Crank: Reminiscences

File:Seattle Streetcar 301 leaving Pacific Place Station.jpg

Streetcar image by Steve Morgan.

1. Earlier this month, 100 representatives from Seattle neighborhood groups, downtown businesses, and advocacy groups—including the interim director of the Transportation Choices Coalition and the head of the Compass Housing Alliance—wrote a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan urging her to move forward with the delayed, over-budget downtown streetcar line, which would connect the two existing streetcars (which go from Chinatown to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union) via a “Center City Connector” running on First Avenue downtown. Durkan pressed pause on the project in March,  directing the city to do its own investigation, and hired a consultant to do an outside review of the $200 million project, setting a self-imposed deadline of June 19 that came and went without a report from the consultant. (According to the Seattle Times, the results of the internal review are expected to be released on Friday).

The letter, which urges Durkan to think of all the small minority-and family-owned businesses that would benefit from the streetcar, is in many ways reminiscent of the public pressure that came to bear on Durkan in two other recent debates: The head tax (a $250-per-employee tax on about 500 high-grossing businesses) and the appointment of a new police chief. In both cases, Durkan took a controversial position, then changed her mind. With the head tax, she opposed the version the city council initially proposed, then reversed course to support it after ostensibly getting Amazon on board, then flipped again to oppose it after a coalition of businesses and developers created a campaign to defeat it at the polls. In the case of the police chief, Durkan initially eliminated interim Chief Carmen Best from the running, citing the recommendation of her appointed search committee, whose chairman, Tim Burgess, said the group agreed “it was best at this point for an outsider to be brought in as the next chief.” Yesterday, in a stunning turnaround, Durkan appointed Best, saying by way of explanation that the thing that had changed between Best’s elimination from the running and her appointment as chief was that “she got on the list of three finalists.”

So will Durkan flip-flop on the streetcar as well—approving the over-budget link between two slow, underutilized lines in response to pressure from community groups that argue the streetcar is the best way to provide “much-needed transit access and enhanced mobility” to people traveling through downtown? Look back in this space after Friday, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the streetcar turns out to be Durkan’s third 180 in as many months.

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2. Late Monday night, the Bellevue City Council approved a process for siting permanent shelters in the city, which is a first step toward the lengthy process of approving a permanent shelter in Bellevue—a process that could still take another several years. Currently, the only shelters in Bellevue are temporary; the land use code amendment adopted Monday creates a land use code designation for a permanent shelter. The arguments for and against the shelter were reminiscent of the debate over shelter in Seattle, writ small—what’s at stake in Bellevue are 100 potential permanent shelter beds, compared to the more than 3,100 shelter beds that currently exist in Seattle.

Among other amendments, the council narrowly rejected a proposal to require a 1,000-foot buffer between the shelter and any residential areas or K-12 schools (the amendment would have also allowed shelters to be located up to one mile away from a transit stop, rather than within a half-mile, which would effectively limit shelters to industrial areas inaccessible by transit. The council also considered, and rejected, the idea of making homeless shelters a temporary, rather than a permanent, use.

The city of Bellevue has been embroiled in debate for years over a proposed men’s shelter in the Eastgate neighborhood, near Bellevue college and a Sound Transit park-and-ride. According to the most recent one-night count of King County’s homeless population, there were at least 393 people living unsheltered in East King County.

Former city council member Kevin Wallace and recently elected council member Jared Nieuwenhaus have suggested that the shelter could be located in an industrial area near Sound Transit’s light rail station in the Bel-Red neighborhood, which would require Sound Transit to create new plans incorporating a shelter into its light rail station. (When he was on the council, Wallace, a developer, frequently tried to delay or alter Sound Transit’s plans to build light rail to Bellevue.)

Council member Jennifer Robertson, an opponent of the changes adopted Monday, claimed she had seen crime statistics that showed that the majority (55 percent) of the property crime in the city of Portland was committed by the 3 percent of its population who are homeless, along with 39 percent of the violent crime. I was unable to track down this statistic; Portland’s crime dashboard, like Seattle’s, does not track crime rates based on a perpetrator’s housing situation.

Deputy mayor Lynnne Robinson, who voted for the land use amendments, said she had never seen a process drag out this long. “We made a commitment to site a permanent men’s shelter, and there [has been] more public process  in this [land use code amendment] than I’ve ever seen in anything else in my five years on the council that we’ve permitted or created a permitting process for,” Robinson said.

The first temporary winter shelter in Bellevue opened in 2008; the city first committed to opening a permanent shelter for men in 2012.

Morning Crank: “Poor People Are People”

KIRO’s Jason Rantz was there, too.

1. A sharply divided standing-room-only crowd gathered last Thursday at 415 Westlake—an airy South Lake Union events center that ordinarily hosts weddings, fundraisers, and bat mitzvahs—and both sides came ready to shout. About 200 people (including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant) crammed into the space, many of them jostling for standing room in the back, to hear a presentation on a proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union and register their support or protest. Representatives from a new group called Unified Seattle handed out fact sheets and glossy campaign-style signs to fellow tiny-house opponents in the audience—a stark contrast to the hand-drawn, crayon-colored reading “We Welcome Our New Neighbors” that supporters of another tiny house village, at 18th and Yesler, held aloft at a similar meeting last month.  Unified Seattle—a group that, according to its website, includes Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and until last week also listed Speak Out Seattle among its backers—purchased Facebook ads to encourage people to show up at the meeting. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” the event page urged.

The “village”—a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that will occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street that was previously used as a parking lot—is the subject of a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, a statewide group that is best known for trying to thwart the Service Employees International Union from organizing home health care workers; according to the Seattle Times, the suit contends that the city did not adequately inform the community of the proposal, did not do a required environmental review, and has exceeded the maximum number of tiny house villages allowed under city law. The opening date for the encampment, (originally scheduled for July, then quietly bumped to November in the latest version of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” plan) could end up getting pushed back even further.

As of January 2018, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle; All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is in reality higher.

Opponents of the tiny house village, which would be run by the Low-Income Housing Institute and would provide temporary shelter to about 65 people, focused on the fact that the encampment will not be an explicitly clean and sober environment; although drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in all common areas (and smoking prohibited throughout the site), LIHI will not go into people’s individual sheds and search for contraband, which means, in practice, that people can drink and use drugs in the houses. When Seattle homelessness strategy division director Tiffany Washington noted that this is precisely the city’s policy for dealing with people who live in regular homes (“If I’m using drugs in my house, how will you know?”)—opponents in the crowd erupted in shouts and boos. “The taxpayers don’t pay for your house!” someone yelled. “I provide my kids with rules,” a speaker said moments later, adding that if he thought they were up to no good, “I might search the room.” That prompted another shout from the back: “They’re not kids!”

Elisabeth James, one of the leaders of Speak Out Seattle, suggested that the city would be foolish to give up the revenue it receives from the parking lot where the village would be located. “I look at this parking lot that generates over a million dollars a year, then we’re going to give up that and pay to house people on a parking lot? That seems like a waste of money to me,” she said. Brandishing a four-page, folded color flyer that LIHI handed out at the meeting, James continued, “I look at this fancy folder that you guys have and I think this is a waste of money! And this is one of the reasons that the neighbors are so upset and frustrated.”

Another neighbor, condo owner and retired police officer Greg Williams, suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment. “They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us to offset” what they cost the community Williams said. “We don’t live free. Why should they live free? If they want to do something, get that experience of a job. Get that experience having to be somewhere on time every day.” According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home King County, 20 percent of King County’s homeless residents have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they became homeless; and 45 percent were actively looking for work.

Many people wanted to know whether LIHI or the city would be doing “background checks” on the people who want to live in the village, either to see whether they have active warrants inside or outside Washington State, or to determine whether they are local residents, as a way of weeding out homeless people who aren’t “from here.” The short answer to each question is that the city won’t exclude anyone, except registered sex offenders, from shelter because of their criminal history, and they can’t exclude people based on where they came from, because that would be housing discrimination. The longer answer is that homeless people frequently have criminal records because of minor, nonviolent offenses, either because they committed low-level crimes like shoplifting or because they violated laws against loitering, lying down, sleeping, urinating, or having an open container in public. (Open containers are illegal for everybody, but homeless people are uniquely unable to drink, or perform many other activities housed people take for granted anywhere but in public.) Basically any activity that housed people do in the privacy of their own homes becomes illegal when you do it in public; denying shelter to every homeless person who has been caught doing one of these things and locking them in jail instead would be a logistical and civil-rights nightmare, not to mention a tremendous burden on public resources.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort. Hodes made an impassioned plea for the people who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out  that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.” “She’s saying nasty things! She’s attacking us!” members of the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience shouted.

Image via Fourth and Madison Building, fourthandmadison.com

2. The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is proposing changes to the existing incentive zoning program for commercial properties, which allows developers to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable child care and housing. OCPD strategic advisor Brennon Staley presented the proposed changes, which are aimed at making the city’s various incentive zoning programs more consistent and easier to use, to the Seattle Planning Commission last Thursday.

Although most of the changes won’t have an immediate, dramatic impact on the street level in places like downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District (making it easier for developers to preserve historic buildings and affordable housing through transfers of development rights, for example, will have the result of keeping the streetscape the same), one change that could make a visible impact is the proposed update to the city’s privately owned public space (POPS) program. POPS, which developers are required to provide as part of any new development, are often hard to find, hostile to the general public, and inaccessible outside business hours. (The quintessential example is the 7th-floor plaza at the Fourth and Madison Building, accessible only from inside the building and marked only by a small sign  at the building’s base. Thank former city council member Nick Licata for that modest marker!)

The proposed changes would provide more flexibility for developers to build smaller, more flexible open spaces, allow cafes, movable seating, and games to help “activate” smaller public spaces, and require that all privately owned public spaces be open between 6am and 10pm, the same hours as public parks. One commissioner, Amy Shumann, suggested that OCPD require larger signs than the small, green-and-white markers that currently point pedestrians to these spaces; another, David Goldberg, asked whether developers might be able to pay a fee instead of providing open space on site, an idea Staley shot down by pointing out that when the city has tried to do this kind of program in the past, they’ve ended up having to give the money back because they haven’t been able to collect enough money to build the spaces elsewhere.

Morning Crank: “Crime-Infused Shack Encampments”

“URGENT…tell them NO!”—the message of every call to action by anti-homeless groups in Seattle

1. A new group calling itself Unified Seattle has paid for Facebook ads urging people to turn up in force to oppose a new tiny house encampment in South Lake Union. The ads include the line “SOLUTIONS NOT SHACKS,” a reference to the fact that the encampments are made up of small wooden structures rather than tents. The encampment, which was funded as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” strategy, will include 54 “tiny houses” and house up to 65 people; it may or may not be “low-barrier,” meaning that it would people with active mental illness or addiction would be allowed to stay there. A low-barrier encampment at Licton Springs, near Aurora Avenue in North Seattle, has been blamed for increased crime in the area, although a recent review of tiny house villages across Seattle, including Licton Springs, found that the crime rate typically goes down, not up, after such encampments open.

“URGENT community meeting on NEW Shack Encampment this Thursday, June 28!” the ad says. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” Despite the reference to “our neighborhood,” the ads appear to directed at anyone who lives “near Seattle.” Another indication that Unified Seattle is not a homegrown South Lake Union group? Their website indicates that the group is sponsored by the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Safe Seattle, and Speak Out Seattle, all citywide groups in existence long before the South Lake Union tiny house village was ever announced.

“The city has imposed an unconstitutional income tax on residents which was ultimately struck down by the courts,” the website claims. “It passed a job-killing head-tax that was embarrassingly repealed. Now, it has undertaken a campaign to seize valuable land and build crime-infused shack encampments to house city homeless. All this in the course of six months.”  The income tax, which actually passed a year ago and was struck down by a court, was never implemented. The head tax was never implemented, either. And no land is being “seized” to build the encampment; the land is owned by the city of Seattle.

The meeting is on Thursday night at 6pm, at 415 Westlake Avenue N.

2. Overshadowed by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump’s Muslim Ban 3.0 was another ruling that could have significant implications for pregnant women in King County. The Court’s ruling in NIFLA v. California struck down a state law requiring that so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—fake clinics run by anti-choice religious organizations that provide false and misleading information to pregnant women in an effort to talk them out of having abortions—post signs saying what services they do and don’t provide. In its 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the California law violated the center’s First Amendment rights (to lie to women).

Earlier this year, the King County Board of Health adopted a rule requiring so-called crisis pregnancy centers to post signs that say “This facility is not a health care facility” in 10 different languages. Crisis pregnancy centers typically offer sonograms, anti-abortion “counseling,” and misinformation about the risks associated with abortion, including (false) claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer and a higher risk of suicide.

In a statement, Board of Health director and King County Council member Rod Dembowski said that he and the county’s legal team were mindful of the California challenge when drafting the rule. “We intentionally crafted King County’s rule to be less broad than the California … requirements, while still ensuring that women who are or may be pregnant understand that limited service pregnancy centers are not health care facilities,” Dembowski said. “If we need to fine tune the particulars of the form of the disclosure, we will do so.  Regardless, I am optimistic that the County’s more narrow regulation that was supported with a strong factual record is constitutional and will remain in place.”

3. A presentation by the city’s Human Services Department on how well its programs are performing supported the narrative that the Pathways Home approach to getting people off the streets, which emphasizes rapid rehousing and diversion programs over temporary shelter and transitional housing, is working. But it continued to raise a question the city has yet to answer directly: What does the city mean by “permanent housing,” and how does they know that people who get vouchers for private-market apartments through rapid rehousing programs remain in their apartments once their voucher funding runs out?

According to HSD’s first-quarter performance report, which department staffers presented to the council’s housing committee on Tuesday, 83 percent of people in rapid rehousing ended up in “permanent housing” after their vouchers ran out. Meanwhile, according to HSD director Jason Johnson, aggregated data suggests that 95 percent of the people enrolled in rapid rehousing were still housed after six months. In contrast, the department found that just 59 percent of people in transitional housing moved directly into permanent housing, and that just 3.8 percent of people in basic shelter did so, compared to more than 20 percent of people in “enhanced” shelter with 24/7 capacity and case management. Ninety-eight percent of people in permanent supportive housing were counted as “exiting” to permanent housing, giving permanent supportive housing the best success rate of any type of program.

However, there are a few factors that make those numbers somewhat less definitive than they sound. First of all, “permanent housing” is not defined as “housing that a person is able to afford for the long term after his or her voucher runs out”; rather, the term encompasses any housing that isn’t transitional housing or shelter, no matter how long a person actually lives in it. If your voucher runs out and you get evicted after paying the rent for one month, then wind up sleeping on a cousin’s couch for a while, that still counts as an exit to permanent housing, and a rapid rehousing success.

Second, the six-month data is aggregated data on how many people reenter King County’s formal homelessness system; the fact that a person gets a voucher and is not back in a shelter within six months does not automatically mean that they were able to afford market rent on their apartment after their voucher ran out (which, after all, is the promise of rapid rehousing.)

Third, the fact that permanent supportive housing received a 98 percent “success” rate highlights the difficulty of basing performance ratings on “exits to permanent housing”; success, in the case of a program that consists entirely of permanent housing, means people simply stayed in the program. To give an even odder example, HSD notes an 89 percent rate of “exits to permanent housing” from diversion programs, which are by definition targeted at people who are already housed but at risk of slipping into homelessness. “Prevention is successful when people maintain housing and don’t become homeless,” the presentation says. It’s unclear how the city counts “exits to permanent housing” among a population that is, by definition, not homeless to begin with. I’ll update if and when I get more information from HSD about how people who are already housed are being counted toward HSD’s “exits to permanent housing” rate.

4 .Last week, after months of inaction from One Table—a regional task force that was charged with coming up with regional solutions to the homelessness crisis—King County Executive Dow Constantine announced plans to issue $100 million in bonds to pay for housing for people earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle-area median income (AMI), calling the move an “immediate ste[p] to tackle the region’s homelessness crisis.”

That sounds like an impressive amount of money, and it is, with a few major caveats: First, the money isn’t new. Constantine is just bumping up the timeline for issuing bonds that will be paid back with future proceeds from the existing tax on hotel and motel stays in King County. Second, the $100 million—like an earlier bond issuance estimated at $87 million—won’t be available until 2021, when the debt on CenturyLink Field (for which the hotel/motel tax was originally intended) is paid off. King County has been providing some funds to housing developers since 2016 by borrowing from itself now and promising to pay itself back later. Both the $87 million figure and the new $100 million figure are based on county forecasts of future tourism revenue. And third, the amount of hotel/motel tax revenue dedicated to affordable housing could, under state law, be much higher—two-thirds more than what Constantine proposed last week—if the county weren’t planning to spend up to $190 million on improvements at Safeco Field that include luxury suite upgrades and improvements to the concession stands. That’s because although state law dictates that at least 37.5 percent of the hotel/motel tax be spent on arts and affordable housing, and that whatever money remains be spent on tourism, it does not limit the amount that can be spent on either arts or housing. Theoretically, the county could dedicate 37.5 percent of its revenues to arts spending and the remaining 62.5 percent to housing.

The fact  that Constantine is describing the new bonds as a solution to homelessness is itself a matter of some debate. Under state law, the hotel/motel tax can only be used to build “workforce housing” near transit stops, which the county interprets to mean housing for people making between 30 and 80 percent of AMI. Homeless people generally don’t earn anywhere close to that. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that although “taking steps that will help to address the critical need for affordable housing for low-wage workers and people who can afford housing at 30 to 80 percent is a good  thing, unless there’s a plan to prioritize those units for people experiencing homelessness, along with resources to help buy down some of the rents for people for whom 30 to 80 percent is out of reach, I’m not sure how that helps address homelessness.”

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Morning Crank: A “Bike Lane” Gone Wild

 

SDOT’s revised bus mobility estimates, which dial back sharply on RapidRide promises

1. On Thursday night, the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee got a few new details about the “reset” the Seattle Department of Transportation is proposing for the $930 million Move Seattle levy, which will fail to meet most of its goals for pedestrian, bike, and transit projects due to cost overruns and a lack of anticipated federal funding.

I first wrote about the “reset” in early April, when I reported that “The ‘reset’ will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The Seattle Times covered the story a few weeks later, noting that when SDOT presented its initial report on the shortfall to the levy oversight committee, the agency “gave no actual numbers or estimates of the size of the funding shortfall.” The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the levy, but much of that funding has since fallen through or remains in doubt.

The report presented last night gives a better, though still incomplete, sense of what the likely shortfall will look like, and how the city is proposing to scale back the projects it promised. It also, importantly, represents a point of view about both what type of projects are important and what the city assumes about the future. The “reset” plan, if implemented, will undoubtedly make life easier for SDOT. But there will be a cost in lost goodwill among the communities that eagerly campaigned for, and voted for, Move Seattle, including bike and pedestrian advocacy groups that have already been burned by a department willing to (mis)characterize a curb-to-curb street rebuild on Second Avenue as a “bike lane” gone wild.

Under the revised Move Seattle plan, pedestrian, and bus priority-related projects will take the biggest hits, while repaving of arterial streets to enhance the physical travel experience of “all people in cars, trucks, and buses” will see the least dramatic cuts. That’s also a choice. SDOT could have invested more heavily in mobility projects for non-vehicular users (or bus riders, for that matter) or chosen not to require the bike mobility program, for example, to pay for non-bike-related improvements such as new traffic signals for cars. (Seriously, read Tom Fucoloro’s report on this, which breaks down the reasons “$12 million for a bike lane” is a canard).

Some highlights from the new report:

• Protected bike lanes and greenways—the gold standard for bike lanes, because they separate riders from cars and make it easier for people at a ride variety of skill levels to bike safely—are more expensive (between $650,000 and $2 million a mile) than simply painting a stripe on the ground. With an estimated shortfall of $36 million, SDOT is recommending that many proposed PBLs and greenways be replaced “using lower-cost design treatments (i.e. paint striping and posts in lieu of concrete curbs) to deliver the maximum amount of bicycle network connectivity.”

• Sidewalk construction, as David Gutman of the Seattle Times has reported, will be scaled back. Specifically, according to yesterday’s update, the city thinks it will have to build the 250 blocks of new sidewalks it promised in 2015 through a combination of traditional concrete sidewalks with curb ramps and “low-cost sidewalks” that use materials such as stamped  concrete and asphalt to cut down on the cost of materials.

• The seven new RapidRide corridors promised in the original Move Seattle plan are, as expected, unlikely to happen, thanks to a funding shortfall SDOT now estimates at $130 million. Instead of making the capital improvements that would be required to extend RapidRide to Southeast Seattle, Delridge, and the Central District, the city may instead make small improvements such as consolidating (eliminating) bus stops, dedicating some existing lanes to buses, and “upgrades to bus stops, boarding platforms and pedestrian crossing features.”

• The city believes it will still be able to meet its original goal of repaving up to 180 lane-miles on arterial streets—a $235 million line item in the original $930 million levy—by “deferring higher-cost reconstruction projects” and repaving some new streets with asphalt, rather than more-expensive (and longer-lasting) concrete.

2. Back in April, the Seattle Public Library system decided to install sharps containers in the restrooms at several branches in response to an uptick in improper needle disposal by injection drug users. The decision represented a 180-degree reversal in policy for the library. Back in March, after a custodial workers was jabbed by a needle while changing the trash in the women’s restroom at the Ballard branch, library spokeswoman Andra Addison told me that installing sharps disposal containers would be tantamount to condoning illegal drug use. Drug users, Addison added, might pull the containers off the wall and break into them to get at the needles inside, causing “a big mess.”

Earlier this month, the library sent out an update on how the pilot program is performing. (I obtained the report through a public records request). The report covers four weeks between April 6 and May 4. During those weeks, visitors to the Ballard, Capitol Hill, University, and Central library branch restrooms deposited 179 needles in the 14 sharps containers installed at those four locations—a number that is slightly skewed by a bag of 50 unused needles that was dropped in a container at the Capitol Hill branch.

Interestingly, given that Addison initially said that the library had considered installing sharps containers but decided that “we really just don’t have a need for” them, library staffers reported picking up improperly discarded used needles at branches across the system throughout the same period, including branches that did not get sharps containers. Systemwide, library workers picked up 112 improperly discarded needles during the pilot period, including a total of 50 between the Ballard, Capitol Hill, and University branches. There’s no control data to compare those collection numbers to, but it’s a fair assumption that if there were no sharps disposal containers at those four branches, that number would include the 179 needles that were left in the boxes, demonstrating not only that the Seattle Public Library does have a major problem with people discarding used needles on library property, but that the containers are working. Other branches where staffers found a significant number of needles lying around include Broadview (18), Fremont (11), and Greenwood (9).

Read the full update from the library here.

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

Morning Crank: Needles are a Longstanding Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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