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

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

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

Image via King of Hearts; Creative Commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for Scooters

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Image via Tony Webster on Flickr

Bike shares have found a welcome home in Seattle, but don’t expect to see another form of shared transportation– electric scooters–in Seattle any time soon. Mayor Jenny Durkan is on record saying she considers the zippy, candy-colored contraptions—which travel up to 15 miles an hour and are as ubiquitous in some US cities as bicycles are in Copenhagen—too dangerous for Seattle streets. At a recent CityClub Civic Cocktail event, Durkan enumerated the many reasons she thinks scooters are a bad idea. Too dangerous: “Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em and, the reason is … every city that has scooters has significant traumatic injuries.” Too frivolous: “I know some people think scooters can be fun, but… ” Too likely to lead to lawsuits: “A couple of cities now are paying out millions of dollars in judgments for people who are hurt.”

Let me offer some counterarguments: Scooters get people from point A to point B really quickly, without firing up a carbon-spewing engine or breaking a sweat. Scooters are easy to ride—if you can walk, you can probably ride a scooter—and have the lowest barrier to entry of any shared mode of transit. Mock if you want, but not everyone wants a workout on their way from one meeting to the next. Previously, people who prefer a cardio-free commute would have jumped in their cars. Now, they can make those short trips on their zero-emission scooters instead.

Critics point out that many of the environmental claims from scooter proponents (usually focused on the reduction of carbon emissions) remain unproven. Fair enough—it’s possible that a significant number of the thousands of people using scooters to get around Austin, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. would have otherwise used public transportation, walked or ridden bikes to their destinations. But it’s almost certain that scooters take at least some vehicles off the road—and doesn’t every little reduction in emissions help, particularly in a region where transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions?

You know what else we don’t know about scooters? Whether they’re actually as dangerous as opponents claim. Durkan cited unspecified mayors and cities that are turning against scooters, but the truth is, no city has had scooters on its streets long enough to have any real idea whether they’re more dangerous than walking, or biking, or—for that matter—driving a car. Anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in emergency room visits for injuries sustained by people riding e-scooters, but that’s not the same as statistical proof of danger: The rate of injuries on e-scooters used to be zero, because they weren’t legal in any city, and now it has risen. Similarly, a few people have died riding shared e-scooters. That represents an increase in deaths of hundreds of percentage points, because the previous number—when scooter-sharing didn’t exist—was zero. One frequently cited Washington Post story claims that there has been a “161 percent spike in [ER] visits involving electric scooters.” Buried in the story is the fact that the increase, at a single hospital in Salt Lake City, was from eight injuries to 21. Cyclists sustain a lot more injuries, and are more likely to be killed while riding, than scooter riders. That isn’t an argument to ban bikes. It’s an argument to make roads safer. 

And speaking of that: You know what the common denominator is in most of those deaths and injuries? Cars. Cars hit cyclists, and pedestrians, and people on scooters, far more often than those people get into accidents on their own. Pedestrians and cyclists accounted for 22 percent of traffic deaths in Washington State last year; a report from the Washington State Department of Transportation blamed speeding drivers, not inattentive pedestrians and cyclists, for most of those deaths. So far, three people have been killed riding scooters—all by people driving cars. There’s certainly a safety argument for regulating the speed scooters can go, but that’s a problem with an easy fix: Lime and Bird, the two biggest scooter-sharing companies, have regulators that limit their scooters to 15 miles an hour, and some cities have proposed lowering that limit further, to 12 mph, or even eight. Meanwhile, cars continue to be allowed on city streets, driving 30, 40, even 50 miles an hour, despite the fact that they cause more than 40,000 fatalities every year.

Durkan is right about one thing: Scooters are fun. Recently, I was in Portland, where scooters are allowed in bike lanes and on city streets, and I warily agreed to try using the Lime scooter my housemate brought home with him one afternoon. After a shaky start, I got the hang of it, and before long, I was zipping all around the city—from the conference venue, to my Airbnb, and to meetups everywhere in between. When there wasn’t a scooter around, I used one of the many bikesharing services. My rental car—which I’d driven down from Seattle and planned to use when I needed to get across town fast—sat in its spot on the street for four straight days. Why drive when there are so many better alternatives?

Can We Toll Our Way Out of Congestion?

This story originally appeared in the print and online editions of Seattle magazine.

Downtown Seattle rush hour traffic

Image credit: Alex Crook, Seattle magazine

January 2020: The downtown Convention Center is under construction, kicking almost 600 buses out of the downtown transit tunnel and closing down the ramps that now give buses direct access to the Interstate 5 express lanes. Those buses now share city streets with more cars than ever, as hundreds of drivers divert to the street grid, avoiding the new Alaskan Way tunnel, which has a $2.50 toll (during nonpeak hours) and no downtown exits. Meanwhile, the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is still being demolished, KeyArena reconstruction is creating traffic chaos in South Lake Union, and a growing number of commuters are choosing Uber and Lyft over buses that are often off schedule or full, adding to congestion.

But what if there was a way to alleviate all this predicted chaos—a period the city refers to, drily, as the “period of maximum constraint”—without forcing people to get up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic, or work from home? Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, think they may have found a solution in a concept called congestion pricing. The idea is simple: Charge people to drive into the center city during the times when congestion is worst, and use the revenues to fund alternatives to driving, such as increased bus service. Voilà: fewer vehicles, faster transit, improved air quality (car and truck trips account for half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions), and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Most people have already made the decision [not to commute downtown by car],” says City Council member Mike O’Brien, referring to the fact that the majority of those who work downtown don’t get there by driving alone. O’Brien, with the mayor, is leading the congestion-pricing charge. “For those who haven’t [decided], this will give you more options, and for those who want to keep driving, you can keep driving, and your commute’s going to be faster—it’s just going to cost you more.”

In practice, of course, it isn’t so simple. In 2017, the Seattle City Council authorized $200,000 for a study on the effects of tolling downtown streets—an idea that will require voter approval to move forward—as well as other options, such as taxing Uber and Lyft rides, that would not require a public vote. In September, Durkan released a budget that provides another $1 million for the city to study congestion-pricing options in more detail and to conduct outreach to community members and businesses, with the goal of implementing congestion pricing by 2021, when the mayor’s first term ends.

While tolling may be controversial—a 2015 poll by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that 54 percent of King County residents opposed the idea of universal highway tolls—Durkan pointed out that in other cities that have implemented tolling, such as London and Stockholm, “People who have to drive [found] that it’s actually more efficient and more effective” than the previous free-for-all system. However, Durkan warned that before the city puts a tolling plan on the ballot, “We have to engage people deeply…and make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit, because we can’t ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles until there are meaningful alternatives.”

Technologically, congestion tolling is pretty simple: The city would create a cordon of virtual checkpoints at the edges of the tolling area and charge drivers, using special car-mounted transponders, whenever they enter the area during the times when tolls are in effect. This is exactly the system most states, including Washington, already use to toll state highways, such as the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Where it gets more complicated, according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington–affiliated Washington State Transportation Center, is when the city starts making choices about who to charge, and when, and where. If South Lake Union is included in the tolling area, should people who live on Queen Anne get a free pass because they need to go through the neighborhood to get to I-5? If some low-income workers have no choice but to drive downtown, should the city create a low-income or nighttime exemption to the pricing scheme? All of these choices have consequences, and costs.

“The question is really, what do they want to achieve and how will they design the system to achieve it,” Hallenbeck says. “Pricing is a wonderful mechanism, but you have to design the system correctly, and you have to understand where the pain points are and apply money to those pain points. And they have to be the pain points that matter.”

Currently, only about 25 percent of people who work downtown get to and from their jobs by driving alone. That number has declined steadily in recent years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), thanks to improved transit downtown and incentives for employees to commute by bike or bus, such as free transit passes and showers in office buildings. DSA CEO Jon Scholes points to this improvement as evidence that the “carrot” approach to reducing congestion can be as effective as the “stick.”

“It’s not clear to me what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Scholes says. “[Durkan’s announcement] feels a little divorced from any clear strategy or plan. The constraints we have are the need for more transit capacity—more buses are driving by full, and the light rail system is taking longer to build than anyone wants—and the need for more housing. Generally speaking, we think we should focus our efforts there,” not on tolls, Scholes says.

Other skeptics of congestion pricing have expressed concern that tolls will disproportionately harm low-income people who have no choice but to drive to work, often from homes far outside Seattle city limits. “The suburbanization of poverty is real,” says City Council member Rob Johnson, who supports creating a program to reduce costs for low-income drivers, similar to the existing ORCA LIFT low-income transit pass. “We’re pushing people out of the city and we’re not going to be able to build transit” fast enough to serve all the low-income workers who would be impacted by congestion pricing, Johnson says.

It’s unclear exactly how many low-income workers would actually be impacted by congestion pricing. In 2017, a Puget Sound Regional Council report concluded that low-income commuters “were much more likely to walk and take transit than the overall population”—a finding that corroborates a 2009 Washington State Department of Transportation report that found that “The poor are less likely than the non-poor to commute in a personal vehicle and more likely to commute using public transportation or other modes that would not be subject to tolls.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 37 percent of Seattle residents under the poverty line drove to work alone, compared to 48 percent of those making more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

“One of the things you hear whenever you talk about a congestion-pricing scheme is, ‘This will be unfair to low-income people,’ and there are a lot of anecdotes that get brought up that are certainly real,” O’Brien says. “But in a city like Seattle, where parking’s pretty expensive”—as much as $4.50 an hour for on-street parking downtown, and $10 an hour or more in private garages—“my sense is the majority of people who drive downtown are people who have a lot of options.” The way to address the needs of lower-income people who must drive downtown isn’t to reject congestion pricing altogether, O’Brien says, it’s to “design the system around their needs” so they won’t be burdened by extra costs; for example, by making it free to drive downtown at off-peak hours, when many shift workers start their jobs.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, says she sees no inherent contradiction between promoting alternatives to driving alone and creating an equitable, affordable transportation system. “[Congestion pricing] is a big, bold idea, so let’s go big with our policy asks,” she says. “If the goal is building a more equitable transportation system, that will inherently include a lot of things around transit speed and reliability and safe bike and pedestrian access.”

For now, the city remains in study mode, with more reports focusing on equity, race and social justice, and priorities for spending toll revenues due out later this year. Then it will have to sell the idea to the public, which could be a heavy lift, and not just because Seattle would be blazing a trail on congestion pricing for the rest of the country. People tend to hate the idea of paying for things that used to be free unless they can see concrete benefits. In Stockholm, leaders actually put tolls in place about seven months before seeking voter approval. Once voters saw how a $2.15 toll to drive downtown impacted the city—reducing traffic in the city center by 20 percent and cutting childhood asthma cases in half—they approved the plan by a majority of 53 percent. In London, where drivers pay about $15 to drive into the center city on weekdays, congestion went down by 30 percent, and public transit gained tens of thousands of new riders.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? O’Brien, the council member who started pushing for congestion pricing back in 2017, says he’s “feeling a lot more optimistic” now that Durkan “has shown that she is very interested in moving forward” with the concept. The trick, he says, will be demonstrating that people won’t get stuck in even worse traffic if they let go of their steering wheels. “Part of it is on [city leaders] to say, ‘We’re going to provide buses that have more space and aren’t stuck in traffic,’” O’Brien says. “If, in this new system, you can see that driving is more expensive and the bus will get you downtown faster, you’re going to see
the benefits.”

Editor’s note: The opening of this story, set in 2020, depicts a hypothetical situation. The Washington State Department of Transportation says that when the tunnel opens early in 2019, time-of-day tolls will vary from $1 on weekends to $2.25 during the afternoon peak. Currently, the Viaduct demolition is scheduled for completion mid-year 2019.

Seattle Magazine’s “Influentials” Include YIMBYs, Mosqueda, and Others Working for a Better City

Credit: Seattle magazine

I was proud this year to once again participate in Seattle magazine’s “Most Influentials” issue, which focuses every year on people and institutions that are making a positive difference in Seattle. At a time when it’s easy to notice only what’s negative about the city—the escalating homelessness crisis, the affordable-housing shortage, debates over whether the city has lost its “soul” (it hasn’t), the issue is a timely reminder that Seattle is actually a pretty great place, with people doing amazing work in fields that don’t always get their due, from bus driver/artist/filmmaker Nathan Vass, whose essays about driving the Route 7 are urban poetry, to TransYouth Project leader and UW psychology professor Kristina Olson.

Here are a couple of my contributions to the issue; read the whole list, along with Rachel Hart’s editor’s note about the issue, at Seattle magazine’s website, or pick up a copy on newsstands now.

The YIMBYs

YIMBY—the acronym stands for “yes in my backyard”—started as a national rebuke to so-called NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”), residents who oppose development in their neighborhoods. Today, the politically diverse movement has an active Seattle presence that is focused on saying yes to new density in urban neighborhoods. In the past year, YIMBYs have helped elect two council members: freshman Teresa Mosqueda and incumbent Lorena González, both of whom faced anti-density opponents.

They’ve advocated to allow homeowners to build second and third units on their property; pushed the city to convert the Talaris Conference Center site in Laurelhurst into affordable, high-density housing; and testified in favor of tiny-house villages to serve as temporary encampments that provide shelter to homeless Seattleites. And they also have helped to reframe the debate about a proposed affordable housing development in Magnolia’s Fort Lawton.

Battles over zoning and housing move slowly, so the true impact of today’s YIMBY activism might not be visible for years. What’s clear is that YIMBYs are framing important debates—and changing what it means to be a neighborhood activist.

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

In her first several months on the council, Mosqueda, an energetic former labor lobbyist elected in 2017, proposed a plan, one that shouldn’t be radical yet is, to give surplus city land to affordable-housing developers, instead of selling it to the highest bidder; cast one of just two votes against repealing the “head tax,” which would have paid for housing and homeless services; passed new city protections for domestic workers; and stuck her neck out as a high-density housing advocate at a time when a revanchist neighborhood movement is ascending. Rarely has a City Council freshman taken a mandate and run with it quite as hard as Mosqueda. In doing so, she’s proving to be a bridge player on an increasingly fractured City Council.

From Jail to Homeless Shelter

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The third floor of the west wing of the King County Corrections Center in downtown Seattle is accessed through a series of heavy metal doors, each one closing with a loud “ka-THUNK” behind visitors as they enter. Walk through a disused lobby, onto an elevator, and up a flight of institutional-looking stairs and you’ll find yourself in the old minimum-security living quarters, where a series of rooms—cells, really—look down on a central staffing station; you can imagine guards sitting behind the semicircular counter, keeping a wary eye on the large security mirrors that overlook the ward. In the rooms, rows of narrow metal bunks beds with chipping blue paint and fake wood-grain headboards are scattered haphazardly, each labeled with a different number. The views from the narrow windows are blocked by bars and glazing that makes it impossible to look outside.

The place feels, unsurprisingly, like a jail—which is just one of many hurdles that King County, and its future, still-unnamed nonprofit partner, will have to surmount before the former jail wing, which has been closed since 2012, can reopen as a 24/7, low-barrier shelter.  Last week, staffers from the county’s Community and Health Services department took reporters on a tour of the building, followed by a press briefing with King County Executive Dow Constantine. Here’s what we currently know about the county’s plans for the shelter, as well as a few questions that remain unanswered.

The Basics

The new shelter, which Constantine said he hopes will open sometime before this coming winter, will include dormitories, storage space, case management, showers, and laundry facilities for up to 150 people. The county hasn’t chosen a partner to operate the facility, which county officials said would cost about $2 million to renovate and $2 million a year to operate. (That funding is included in Constantine’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, which the King County Council is considering now.) The shelter will be open 24/7, allowing people to leave some of their stuff on site during the day and giving those without daytime jobs a place to be during the daytime hours other than on the street.

“As I look around and I see the number of people who are continuing to be out on the streets… and then I see a vacant building right here in the middle of downtown Seattle., it seems to me that we really have a moral obligation to open that up and provide the opportunity for people to get out of the weather and to get the services they need,” Constantine said Thursday. “This is an element of what we need to do. This is not the solution. The solution is the heavy lifting we’ve been doing on root causes, on housing, on behavioral health treatment, on job connectedness, on all of these other root causes. But meanwhile there are people on the streets and that is a humanitarian crisis that we absolutely must deal with.”

Jurors and county court employees have complained about people congregating in parks and on sidewalks near the downtown courthouse, which sits in close proximity to several shelters that require people to leave first thing in the morning. King King County Housing and Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook said the new shelter will include indoor areas and a courtyard where clients will be able to spend time during the day, and will be connected to a new day center just a block away, at a county-owned building on Fourth and Jefferson that currently serves as a winter shelter.

A recent City of Seattle report on homeless services found that enhanced shelter is several times more effective at getting people  into permanent housing than basic shelters that only offer mats on the floor, which are mostly a basic survival tool for people who would otherwise be sleeping out in the elements. “There’s no real opportunity to connect folks with services in that environment,” Ellerbrook said.

The Optics

Opening a shelter inside a jail building presents what a political consultant might call some challenging optics—and not just because homelessness is not a crime. People experiencing homelessness are more likely than other groups to have past experience in the criminal justice system, and to want to avoid any place that feels like jail. Asked how the county planned to overcome the obvious association between the jail and the shelter, which will not connect directly but will share an emergency stairwell, Constantine responded, “Clearly, this is not ideal … for people who have been incarcerated and may have been traumatized by that experience. This would not be the ideal choice for them to go to, and they don’t have to. Nobody’s going to make them. But for others, it is a very good alternative to being out on the street, to be able to be in a place that is well built, that’s warm and dry and has all of the facilities they need.”

On the flip side, many people who leave jail depart directly into homelessness; prior incarceration is one of many factors that make it difficult for people to find a place to live or a job to lift them out of homelessness, according to the county’s most one-night homeless count. Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose organization is one of several in the running to operate the shelter, said, “I certainly can see it as sort of a swords to plowshares situation, where you could repurpose a facility that previously had really negative connotations into something much more positive for people’s lives, but that said, I think there remains some work to be done that would really examine, will people who would be the intended recipients of the help use it in a facility like that?”

Constantine said he sees the new shelter as an opportunity to divert people leaving jail directly to services and “interrupt that process when people are coming out of the jail and to be able to bring them next door to a, set them up with the services they need to be able to be successful. … It gives us a unique opportunity for those who have been justice involved to help them get their lives back on track and not fall into homelessness and then be another person who ends up back in the justice system.”

The Unknowns

Constantine said he wants to open the new shelter before this winter. That leaves a lot of details to be hammered out in a short period of time, including who will run the shelter and who it will serve. Constantine said last week that the new facility will house “primarily men,” but Ellerbrook said the county would try to allow partners, possessions, and pets to the extent possible, which means—among other things—that parts of it might be coed. The shelter will be low-barrier—meaning, as Constantine put it, that “this is not going to be a situation where you have to solve life’s problems before you’re offered a safe place to sleep—but to what extent people with major mental health and addiction issues will be targeted is unclear.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose group runs the Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue across the street from the King County Courthouse, says DESC will be most interested in running the new shelter if it “prioritizes people with longer-term homelessness and more complicated types of situations that would [require] the more robust set of services that we would like to deliver. Ideally,” he adds, you’d want to build in as few barriers as possible, so making it coed would be in support of that.”

How Backyard Cottages Could Help Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

Photo by Hayley Young, Seattle magazine.

Of all the proposed solutions to Seattle’s homelessness problem, the Block Project is surely one of the most audacious. But one Seattle family is giving it a try, opening its heart—and backyard—to a homeless man. And more than 100 families are waiting in the wings.

In most respects, Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum are the owners of an ordinary Seattle home: a modest green bungalow with a small garden in the planting strip, on a quiet street of single-family homes on Beacon Hill. Walking by, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about it.

The surprise is in the backyard: a tiny, ultramodern wood-frame home occupied by a formerly homeless man named Robert “Bobby” Desjarlais. It represents one organization’s utopian vision of how Seattle can make a dent in its homeless problem.

The story of how this small structure came to be in the owners’ backyard, and how Desjarlais came to live here, begins about two years ago. That was when architect and activist Rex Hohlbein began pitching a new idea: What if one person on every block in Seattle built a tiny house in their backyard to house a single homeless neighbor?

Hohlbein’s organization, Facing Homelessness, works to break down the boundaries between housed and homeless people in Seattle; its slogan, “Just Say Hello,” exemplifies its belief that the first step toward fixing homelessness is decreasing the social distance between people who have housing and people who don’t. Last year, he pitched his plan to a group of about 30 Seattleites at the Cloud Room, a bar and coworking space on Capitol Hill. At the end of his presentation, Hohlbein asked how many of those in the room would consider volunteering for his experiment. Not a single hand went up.

But Hohlbein didn’t give up, and today, the project he started with his daughter Jenn LaFreniere, also an architect—now known as the Block Project—has more than 100 homeowners on its waiting list.

It has taken time for the Block Project to get off the ground—so far, just the Beacon Hill home is complete, and another is under construction in Greenwood. But Hohlbein hopes that once the project starts to gain acceptance, it will be possible to expedite the construction process so that those 100 homeowners can host Block homes of their own, and be followed by another 100, and another.

Currently, each home is funded by contributions from Facing Homelessness donors and built with volunteer labor and materials. For the future, Hohlbein envisions the basic components of each tiny home—essentially, four walls, a roof and a large window—being constructed off-site and then trucked in for quick assembly. For now, though, construction can take many weeks.

The homes themselves are all designed to be energy-independent and eventually water-independent as well, with composting toilets and subsurface irrigation. “We’re not just giving people shelter; we’re also putting them into the most advanced home on the block,” Hohlbein says.

Hohlbein predicts that as neighbors and the city become aware of the project and its potential, the psychological barriers to taking the program citywide will start to fall, much as they did for other sharing concepts, like Airbnb.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue. We don’t have to create compassion—I believe that’s there already in each and every one of us. We have to create a connection.”

For the Block Project, creating that connection starts with involving the surrounding community in the process.

Hohlbein has designed the Block Project process to begin well before the construction of a home. One of the early steps is for potential hosts to reach out to every neighbor on their block to let them know about the project, address concerns and answer questions.

Does the Block Project allow residents to use illegal drugs? No. Participants sign a legally binding contract that prohibits illegal drug use in the houses. Will a violent felon or sex offender be moving in next door? No. Insurance requirements prohibit it. What happens if there’s a problem? Each resident will have a case manager through a local service provider, and if an issue becomes truly intractable, the resident can be asked to leave. Do they pay rent? No. Facing Homelessness owns the homes and does not charge rent.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue.

After a series of one-on-one conversations and a community meeting, neighbors have an opportunity to formally object to the project; if even one person on the block objects, the Block home won’t be built. The idea isn’t just to get community buy-in, Hohlbein says, but to turn “NIMBYs” into “YIMBYs”—people who say, “Yes in My Backyard” and actively pitch in to make the Block Project work. A psychiatric nurse, for example, might agree to be a contact in case a resident who suffers from mental illness has a crisis, or a neighbor who owns a masonry shop might offer a part-time job to someone who always wanted to become a mason.

By creating contacts between formerly homeless people and neighborhood residents, the thinking goes, the Block Project will inspire people to think about homelessness in a different way—as a challenge they can do something to address, rather than someone else’s problem to solve.

“People need to have their lens corrected,” Hohlbein says. “Whenever someone who initially voiced fear or concern learns about the larger social good, or they learn the actual answers to the questions that they have, almost across the board, every time, it goes away.”

Bobby Desjarlais’ 125-square-foot home includes a small porch.

The first volunteers who stepped up to test this utopian vision were Sherman and Tenenbaum. They had spent years walking past tent encampments on their way to work and wondering what they could do to help. The backdrop was the 2016 election and news that hate crimes were on the rise.

“We were feeling like this was just not the world we wanted to live in,” Sherman says. Then she heard a presentation by Hohlbein about the Block Project at the firm where she works, FSi consulting engineers. “This [seemed] like an opportunity to push back against that a little bit and support something that makes the city more compassionate and caring—all those things that felt like they were in short supply,” Sherman says. (FSi now provides pro bono support to the Block Project.)

Sherman still remembers rehearsing how she would talk her husband into hosting the first Block home in their backyard. “Dan and I are pretty private, and sharing space is kind of a big deal for people who are introverted, so I was preparing the speech in my head,” Sherman says.

Colleen Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.” 

As it turned out, she didn’t have to do much convincing. “I got about two sentences into my spiel, and Dan said, ‘Oh. We should do that!’ That was the entire conversation.”

Getting from that initial conversation to move-in day turned out to be a slower process. To find its first resident—and in recognition of the fact that Native Americans experience homelessness at rates that vastly exceed their representation in the population—the Block Project turned to the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that provides culturally appropriate services and assistance to homeless and low-income Native Americans. (All Block Project residents must come to the project through an organization that provides case management. Besides the Chief Seattle Club, Hohlbein says, the project is working with Mary’s Place, The Sophia Way and the Community Psychiatric Clinic.) Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk says the group vetted a number of people, but decided that Desjarlais—a member of the Cree Tribe and a Canadian native who had been homeless for more than a decade—would be an ideal fit.

“He’s just one of the most wonderful people, with crazy amounts of joy and love for people,” Echohawk says. Tenenbaum and Sherman clicked with the 76-year-old Desjarlais right away. “I remember saying to Kim that I had a really good feeling about him,” Tenenbaum says. Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.”

Desjarlais did not want to be interviewed for this story—the couple says he has been overwhelmed by media attention—but he did allow a tour of his house, which is tidy and feels much larger than its 125-square-foot footprint. Inside, a tiny bathroom is separated by a curtain from a cleverly designed living area with a cooktop and refrigerator, built-in shelves, and a pull-out bed and desk. Outside, there’s a locked storage space and a small covered porch that looks out on the couple’s compact backyard—a peaceful space filled with sunlight, flowers and one slightly grumpy cat.

Sherman says one of the biggest things she’s learned in the six months or so of sharing their space with Desjarlais is how many things people with stable housing take for granted. “When Bobby first went into his house, we’d taken all this time to make everything perfect and all cute and arranged and homey, and he walked in and the first thing he said was, ‘Wow, pillows! I haven’t had pillows in 10 years! I’ve had to sleep with my coat and my shoes as a pillow,’” Sherman recalls. “And for some reason, I guess because that’s something that I completely take for granted, that really got to me emotionally—the idea that something as simple as a pillow can really impact the quality of your life.”

Although all their neighbors supported their plan to host a formerly homeless resident in their backyard, Sherman and Tenenbaum say that the Block Project’s vision—a network of neighbors pitching in to welcome Desjarlais and help him be a part of the community—hasn’t quite panned out. “Most people on our block haven’t been super involved,” Tenenbaum says.

Nor has Desjarlais drastically changed his routine; he still goes to the Chief Seattle Club in the morning and hangs out with his friends downtown during the day. In other ways, though, his life is completely different. He quit drinking and has gotten his diabetes under control. He gets to sleep in past 6 in the morning. And, of course, he has a home—one where, Tenenbaum and Sherman say, he is welcome to live “forever” if he chooses. Unlike many programs that offer housing to the homeless, there is no expectation that participants in this program move on to other housing.

Even after six months, Sherman says, “Bobby will send us a little text message every morning saying, ‘I can’t believe I slept so well—I slept until 7 a.m. and now I’m having cornflakes for breakfast.’ After living in a shelter where he was in a room full of 150 snoring men for so many years, just being able to sleep well has been a real luxury for him.”

At press time, the second Block home was still under construction, in the backyard of a house in Greenwood owned by Dave and Visala Hohlbein, Rex Hohlbein’s sister. On a recent weekend, volunteers swarmed the property, hand-digging a trench for a sewer line and stapling VaproShield to the exterior of the structure. When it’s complete, it will house a formerly homeless man named C’zar Carter, who is currently staying in Sherman and Tenenbaum’s basement.

It will, of course, take more than two Block homes to make this project a success, and more than one of these small houses on every block in Seattle to house the estimated 12,000 people in King County who lack a permanent place to call home. But elected officials who have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the homelessness crisis welcome all potential solutions—particularly those, like the Block Project, that rely on donations rather than government subsidies.

City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who has advocated for the Block Project and calls Hohlbein a visionary, says she sees the project as part of a “silver buckshot”—rather than a “silver bullet”—strategy for addressing homelessness. But she’s realistic about the financial and psychological challenges the project will face in scaling up to anything approaching Hohlbein’s vision.

Homeowners across the city will have to accept the idea of having formerly homeless people as neighbors; the Block Project will have to figure out how to pay for dozens or hundreds of tiny homes, which cost about $40,000 each for materials alone (though some materials are likely to be donated). “The fact is that we’ve got to work within a system and with neighbors who are saying, ‘We don’t want those people in our neighborhood,’ which is very discouraging,” Bagshaw says. “And that is what Rex is changing.”

Sherman and Tenenbaum have more modest goals—to house one person, and “put the idea in people’s heads to think of different solutions,” as Sherman puts it. Tenenbaum adds: “A lot of people want to help. They want to do good things. And I’m all for huge amounts of spending and government assistance. But there also need to be ways for people to express their need to help.”

“It feels better to be doing something than doing nothing,” Sherman says.

 

Saving the Showbox Just Took a Big Step Forward, But What’s Next?

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Efforts to “save the Showbox” theater moved forward Wednesday, though not in quite the way council member Kshama Sawant envisioned when she proposed legislation on Monday to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District on a two-year “interim” basis to include more than a dozen buildings on the east side of First Avenue, including the Showbox.

On Wednesday, council members Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw whittled down Sawant’s legislation to expand the historic district to encompass just one new property—the Showbox—and for just ten months, rather than two years. The amended legislation passed the committee unanimously, and could go before the full council on Monday.

The council got its first look at the plan to “Save the Showbox” by expanding the Market on Monday when Sawant introduced a proposal to increase the size of the Pike Place Market Historical District to include all the properties on the east side of First Avenue downtown between Virginia and Union Streets—the largest expansion in the history of the district, which was expanded twice in the 1980s.

Sawant said the council needed to pass her proposal quickly—just one week after it was introduced—in order to halt Vancouver, B.C.-based developer Onni from building a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

By Monday afternoon, dozens of Showbox supporters had mobilized at city hall, waving signs (distributed by Sawant’s staff) that read “Save the Showbox” and “Music for People, not Profits for Onni Group” and testifying about the importance of preserving the historic venue, which first opened as a dance hall in 1939. Since then, it has served as a bingo hall, a party room, an adult “amusement arcade,” a storage facility, and a live music venue with a rich history.

Supporters’ comments focused on the Showbox’s value as a music venue, but the legislation Sawant proposed would have had implications far beyond the Showbox property, rendering brand-new buildings like the Thompson Hotel on First and Stewart as well as vacant parking lots, a 1985 condo tower, and the Deja Vu strip club “historic” by virtue of their inclusion in the historical district.

Buildings in the district, which was established in 1971 to protect small farmers, artisans, and retail businesses that were threatened by plans to bulldoze the Market, are subject to a long list of restrictions that regulate everything from which tenants are allowed to the color of first-floor interior walls to the wattage of exterior lighting and signage. (More on what the new strictures would have meant for the buildings on the east side of First Avenue here.)

Sawant said it was urgent to rush her proposal through in just one week, without the usual process that a large expansion of a historic district would ordinarily require, because Onni was scheduled to vest the project “in about three weeks’ time,” which would make it subject only to current land use laws, which allow it to build an apartment building on First Avenue.

“I’m convinced that there’s a reason to rush,” Sawant said Monday. “I don’t think we should be misleading community members into thinking they have the time” to “save the Showbox” in a more deliberate way, she added. Historic designation would give “breathing room to the community and prevent Onni’s luxury project from becoming a fait accompli.”

Things moved quickly from there. Sawant’s office sent out emails calling on her supporters to “pack city hall” before a Wednesday meeting of the city council’s finance and neighborhoods committee to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

By Wednesday afternoon, when the committee met, city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Sally Bagshaw had countered with amendments to Sawant’s proposal that would reduce the size of the historical district expansion area to eliminate everything but only the Showbox property and reduce the amount of time the new controls would be in place from two years to ten months.

This amended legislation passed out of Bagshaw’s committee unanimously on Wednesday and headed to full council, where it could be heard on Monday.

On Wednesday, the timeline to pass the legislation was officially moved more than two months into the future, when Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, told council members that Onni will not submit its application for early design guidance, a necessary step in the approval process, until October 17, meaning the absolute earliest the project could vest is October 18.

That gives the council some breathing room to come up with some kind of agreement to preserve the Showbox as a music venue in a number of ways: 1) by permanently expanding the historic district to include the building, 2) by landmarking the building and arranging for a nonprofit to purchase and run it—possibly, as council member Lisa Herbold suggested, as part of the city’s existing historic theater district, or 3) by coming up with a compromise in which Onni agrees to reopen the Showbox in a new space on the ground floor of its new development, preserving any significant interior features of the current concert hall.

This proposed new expansion of the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the Showbox would give the Pike Place Market Historical Commission broad authority over both the physical building and its use, down to the choice of food and beverage vendors and any interior alterations or improvements. “If someone is selling bags in the market and they want to sell shoes instead, the commission reviews that,” Heather McAuliffe, the city’s coordinator for the historic district, told the council committee Wednesday.

Landmarking the building, in contrast, would preserve just the structure, without dictating how it could be used. Late on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that three historic preservation groups— Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown—had filed an application to landmark the venue, potentially circumventing a parallel application from Onni. The developer announced plans to seek landmark status for the building shortly after announcing plans to replace it with a 44-story apartment tower last month—a fairly routine practice for developers that want to expedite approval of their permits—but apparently had not yet filed its application with the city.

The third option—save the Showbox, demolish the building—would likely present the fewest legal issues for the city.

Landmarking the architecturally unremarkable two-story building where the Showbox is located or expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox would amount to a selective downzone in a part of town where the city just adopted new zoning guidelines designed to encourage more housing construction. Barring Onni from building its apartment tower would also mean foregoing the approximately $5 million the developer would be required to contribute to affordable housing under those new guidelines.

That would likely lead to a protracted legal battle involving the property owner, Roger Forbes, who also owns Deja Vu, and Onni, who could argue that taking away the value represented by 44 stories of development potential amounts to a taking of private property. A compromise that would allow the Showbox to stay on First Avenue but does not restrict the owner’s ability to sell to Onni or Onni’s ability to build apartments could circumvent that potential legal dispute.

Building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself likely isn’t an option. The building, which is made of unreinforced masonry and covers basically the entire property on which it sits, would have to undergo a massive seismic upgrade to support a 44-story tower, if such an upgrade is even possible. Developer Kevin Daniels did a less significant seismic upgrade to preserve the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church building on Fifth and Marion, which did not involve placing a building on top of the church, and that cost an estimated $40 million.

Of course, no historic district or landmark designation can force the Showbox to remain the Showbox. Forbes, the owner, could decide to sell the building. AEG Live, the subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group that operates the Showbox, could decide not to renew its lease, which expires in 2021. Forbes could also decline to renew AEG’s lease.

Neither Forbes nor AEG responded to requests for comment.

If the building became an official part of the Market, the market historical commission could stipulate that it had to remain a music venue in perpetuity—and the building’s owners could fail to find a suitable tenant. There are many scenarios, in other words, in which the Showbox might close even after a successful effort to “save” it.

It was unclear after Wednesday’s vote whether the council would vote on the Showbox legislation on Monday, as Sawant originally proposed, or wait a few weeks to let discussions with Onni play out.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who initially supported Sawant’s proposal to move quickly because he believed the council only had three weeks to act, said he now believes “it would be prudent” to look at other models for saving the Showbox before going with the plan Sawant proposed. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that whatever happens, she plans to draft a resolution “that lays out in clearer form what we expect to occur over the next nine to 12 months.”

The Showbox isn’t “saved” just yet. But it might have just bought some time, and gained a few new routes to salvation.

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

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other highlights from this year’s report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Employee Hours Tax Passes Over Durkan, Amazon Objections, But Veto Looms

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

With the city council poised to pass a proposed $500-per-employee “head tax” on Seattle’s 600 largest businesses, and Mayor Jenny Durkan equally prepared to veto the proposal in its current form, the question now is: What’s next?

With council members heading into a weekend of negotiations, it’s possible that both sides could emerge on Monday with a compromise solution that splits the difference between the tax that passed on Friday and the “compromise” version that Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell support, which would cut the council’s proposal in half. However, if the two sides fail to reach a compromise, the larger version of the head tax will almost certainly pass on Monday by a 5-4 majority, which is one vote shy of the 6-3 margin supporters need to override a mayoral veto.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Durkan made it clear that she would veto the tax in its current form, but said she still held out hope that the council “will pass a bill that I can sign.” However, Durkan’s ally Harrell, also made it clear on Friday that he would not support a compromise floated by council member Lisa Herbold to lower the tax to $350 per employee, indicating that he and Durkan may not be open to a proposal that merely closes the gap between what Durkan and the council majority want. It’s possible, in other words, that when Durkan says “a bill that I can sign,” she merely means a bill that cuts the tax to $250 per employee—the amount Amazon, which has threatened to stop construction on its Seattle headquarters if the tax passes in its original form, has said they are willing to accept. Amazon contributed $350,000 to a pro-Durkan PAC in last year’s mayoral election.

A quick backgrounder on the tax: Last year, at the end of its annual budget process, the council formed a task force to come up with a progressive tax to pay for housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population. After several months of meetings, and numerous compromises in response to objections from small and low-margin businesses, the task force came up with a plan that would generate about $75 million a year—a $500-per-employee annual tax on businesses with gross revenues above $20 million, a threshold that excludes companies with high gross revenues but tight margins, such as restaurants. The proposal also came with a spending plan that emphasized long-term affordable housing over short-term emergency shelter services, and a provision that would convert the head tax into a business payroll tax starting in 2021, with no sunset date.

On Thursday night, Mayor Durkan released her own “compromise” head-tax proposal, which would cut the recommended head tax in half, to $250 per employee, ditch the provision transitioning the head tax into a business payroll tax, and sunset the whole thing in five years unless the council voted proactively to renew it. On Friday, Harrell introduced a proposal identical to the Durkan plan, along with a spending plan that emphasizes shelter over permanent housing and would pay for just 250 new rental units over five years. The Durkan/Harrell plan also includes a four percent wage increase for social service workers (many of whom make just over $15 an hour) and funding for a second Navigation Team to remove tent encampments and refer their residents to services.

When a council vote is 5 to 4 and a veto hangs in the balance, talk inevitably turns to “swing votes”—that is, who can be swayed to join the council majority to make the bill veto-proof?

Right now, it appears unlikely that anyone in the council’s four-person minority will budge over the weekend to support the full $500 tax, or even Lisa Herbold’s proffered $350 compromise, but a lot can change in the course of two days. So perhaps there will be a compromise that convinces one of the council members who opposes the larger tax to join the council majority. (The opposite scenario—that one of the five members who voted for the original $500 tax will join the four-member minority that wants to cut it in half—seems highly unlikely, since all five council members have consistently supported the proposal that came out of the task force, and since they stand to gain more, politically speaking, by forcing Durkan into a veto fight than by switching sides and handing the mayor a bloodless victory.)

However: If, as seems more likely as of Friday afternoon, the vote remains 5-4, the question becomes what will happen in the 30 days after Durkan vetoes it.

Judging from council members’ past positions and their comments Friday, the most likely “swing vote” when the decision comes down to passing something or doing nothing appears to be council member Rob Johnson, who seemed more tentative in his position than either Debora Juarez (“If we tax jobs to build houses and the jobs leave because of the tax, then no houses get built”) or Sally Bagshaw, who said virtually nothing at Friday’s meeting but is typically not the first council member to make dramatic vote switches.

Last year, when the council was debating whether to include the head tax in the budget, Johnson argued that proponents needed to come up with a more detailed spending plan to justify such a substantial tax. They did exactly that—and Johnson voted instead for a hastily sketched-out proposal that some council members didn’t see for the first time until this morning. On Friday, the most enthusiastic comment Johnson managed to muster about Durkan’s proposal was that it “allows for us to continue that pay-as-you-go process that has been a hallmark of most of the affordable housing investments that we’ve made as a city.”  If tax proponents are looking for a swing vote to help them override Durkan’s veto (and there is precedent for this kind of vote-switching), Johnson may be their best bet.

The council will be in discussions all this weekend, and will meet again on Monday morning to discuss the proposal (and any compromises reached over the next two days). A final vote on the head tax is scheduled for 2:00 Monday in council chambers.