Morning Crank: “Madame Chair, I Agree With You Completely.”

1. After a two-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday night, city council member Kshama Sawant cast the lone vote for her own resolution to send interim Human Services Department Jason Johnson’s nomination as HSD director back to the mayor’s office. However, since no one on the human services committee, which Sawant chairs, voted “no,” the resolution will move forward to the full council.

Sawant’s resolution calls for a formal search process by a search committee that includes nonprofit human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees. The resolution does not explicitly express opposition to Johnson or make the case that he is unqualified for the job. However, Sawant—who is up for reelection this year—has made little effort to hide the fact that she is not a fan of the interim director, who took over after former director Catherine Lester resigned almost a year ago, and many of the people who showed up to testify last night expressed their explicit opposition to his appointment.

Prior to last night’s meeting, as she did prior to a last-minute public hearing on Johnson’s appointment in January, Sawant sent out a “Pack City Hall!” rally notice, urging her supporters to show up and “Hold Mayor Durkan accountable to the community and Human Services workers!” Perhaps as a result, the overwhelming majority of the testimony was in favor of Sawant’s resolution.

(In a somewhat novel twist, a few of the speakers opposing Johnson did so because they felt he was too supportive of groups like the Low-Income Housing Institute and SHARE, whose members also showed up to oppose Johnson’s appointment, but for completely different reasons; one of these speakers called Johnson “incompetent,” and another blamed the city for “an extremely drunk woman” he said had been “terrorizing Magnolia.”)

In addition to inviting her supporters to show up and testify, Sawant took the highly unusual step of inviting eight people who supported her resolution  to sit with the council at the committee table as they deliberated and took a vote. This setup gave the advocates an opportunity to echo Sawant’s statements and respond whenever council members Bruce Harrell or Lisa Herbold said anything contrary to Sawant’s position. (A quote from one advocate that paraphrases many others made around the table over the course of the meeting: “Madame Chair, I agree with you completely.”)  The result was an atmosphere in council chambers even more circus-like than most Sawant rally/hearings, with Harrell, in particular, barely able to disguise his frustration when advocates at the table talked over him (“I feel like I have to raise my hand here,” he said) or accused him of being “afraid” of doing a national search.

The advocates, including representatives from the homeless advocacy group SHARE, the Human Services Department,  the Seattle Indian Center, and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, argued that the council should open up the nomination process and, in the words of Tia Jones with the Seattle Silence Breakers, “just make [Johnson] apply—post it on the site and make him apply like everybody else.”

Herbold and Harrell responded that if the process for appointing Johnson was inadequate, the appropriate thing to do would be to revisit the process after Johnson’s nomination moves forward, given that the nomination took place legitimately under rules the council established in 2007. “Those are the rules that we all agreed to,” Herbold said. “I’m appreciative of the idea that the status quo isn’t acceptable.” But, she added, “I’m inclined to consider the individual when we have an individual before us,” and to make that process transparent and accountable, rather than rejecting Johnson’s nomination out of hand. “I feel like sending [the nomination] back is making it about the person,” Herbold said.

Sawant countered that the rules delineating the council’s role in considering mayoral appointments have to be a “living body, meaning, when we hear from hundreds of people, we can’t tell them, ‘These are the rules, so we can’t do what you’re asking us to do.’ … Clearly, we’re hearing loud and clear from people that they want to do something different. How can we ignore that?”

In a final bit of political theater, Sawant opened up the question of whether she should call for a vote on her own resolution to the audience, most of whom had already spoken in favor of the resolution. “All here who are not on council or staff, do you think we should vote for this resolution?” Sawant said. Herbold pointed out that she had received many letters from people who support Johnson and want to move the process forward. “Where are they?” shouted someone in the crowd—suggesting, it seemed, that either Herbold was making up the emails or that the people who showed up in person should count more than the people who wrote emails or called their council members on the phone.

Sawant addressed her supporters again: “Should I call this for a vote? I’m asking members of the public because that’s who I’m accountable to.” After a chorus of “Ayes” from the audience, Sawant called the vote. It passed by a vote of 1, with both Harrell and Herbold abstaining.

The resolution now moves on to the full council, where it faces long odds.

2. Steve Daschle, with the Human Services Coalition, said that the thing he found most “irksome” about Durkan’s human services approach was that she still has not met with the coalition after more than a year in office. “In the 30 years I’ve been involved in the Human Services Coalition, this is the first mayor who has not met with the coalition in a full year and two months of her term, and we think it’s imperative that the chief executive of the city take the time to come and talk to one of the key constituencies that would help shape that decision, and it wasn’t done,” Daschle said.

3. In City Council news, two more candidates entered the race for District 4, the seat currently held by Rob Johnson: Abel Pacheco, a STEM education advocate who sought the same seat in 2015 and received 8.4 percent of the vote, and Cathy Tuttle, the founder of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Pacheco sent out an announcement that he was running Tuesday; Tuttle confirmed that she was running to The C Is for Crank yesterday afternoon.

Also, as I noted on Twitter Monday, nonprofit director Beto Yarce, who was one of the first candidates to challenge Sawant in District 3 (Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake), has dropped out of the race. Yarce drew criticism early on for the fact that he and his partner live in Mill Creek, not Seattle. Yarce said he and his partner, who owns a house in the Snohomish County suburb, were planning to move to Capitol Hill; during his campaign, Yarce was renting a space in the neighborhood from a friend on a short-term basis, his campaign consultant confirmed.

4. The city has finally hired a consultant to conduct outreach on a proposal to make the building that houses the Showbox nightclub a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The city council adopted “emergency” legislation making the Showbox a temporary part of the market last year, in order to prevent the property, which was recently upzoned to allow very dense housing, from being developed as apartments. In response, the owner of the building sued the city). The consultant, Stepherson and Associates, has also done outreach work for the city on the First Hill Streetcar, the downtown seawall replacement project, and the Move Seattle levy. Because the contract is for less than $305,000 and Stepherson and Associates is on the city’s consultant roster, the contract did not have to be bid through an open process.

The city’s schedule calls for all of the outreach work on the Showbox proposal, as well as a full environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act, to be done by March, with a council vote this June. As I noted when I reported on the search for a contractor in January, that’s a remarkably quick timeline for an expansion of the Market, at least by historical standards:

To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.

AEG Live, which owns the Showbox, is free to close or relocate the venue when its current lease runs out in 2021; the question at hand is whether the building itself is historic, and whether the city can require that it remain a live-music venue in perpetuity.

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal! 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. 

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo me at Erica-Barnett-7, or mail me an old-fashioned check (or fan letter) at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank!

Focus on Affordable Housing, Modest Goals in Mayor’s “City of the Future” Speech

Screen shot from Seattle Channel because the room where Durkan spoke was pitch black inside.

Last year, when she delivered her first State of the City speech after just three months in office, Mayor Jenny Durkan called herself “the Impatient Mayor,” and laid out a laundry list of goals for her first year. On the list: Free college for all high school graduates; “bust[ing] through gridlock” by improving access to transit and making roads and sidewalks safer for cyclists and pedestrians; increasing infrastructure for electric cars and promoting green buildings; and doubling the number of people the city moves from homelessness into permanent housing.

Support

This year, Durkan hit on similar themes—climate; affordability; transit access; affordable housing—and made her best case that the city has made progress on all those fronts during her first year in office. In the past year, Durkan said, the city has passed the Seattle Promise program to give high school graduates two free years at a Seattle community college; offered free ORCA transit passes to thousands of high school students; “invested over $710 million together with our partners in affordable housing”;  made “the largest shelter increase in our city’s history,” and passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which guarantees new minimum wages and rest breaks to Seattle domestic workers. Durkan also said the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” during her first year in office.

The housing numbers are debatable. The $710 million figure comes mostly from non-city funding, such as the state housing trust fund, and private dollars (see chart above).  And, although Durkan can say that she achieved her goal of 500 new shelter spaces, the majority of these are basic shelter (mats on floors or bunk beds in open dorms in places like Harborview Hall, a new nighttime-only King County shelter, run by the Salvation Army) or spots in authorized encampments and “tiny house villages” where people live in small garden-shed-like structures with heating and doors that lock. Enhanced, low-barrier shelter—shelters that provide services, give people a place to be during the day, and allow residents to stay with their partners and pets—have a much higher success rate than other models at getting people into permanent housing. Last year, for example, the city’s Human Services Department reported that 21 percent of people entering enhanced shelter exited shelter into permanent housing; for basic shelter, that number was 4 percent.

Harborview Hall. Beds were scheduled to be installed shortly after this photo was taken last December.

Durkan’s claim to have moved “more than 7,400 households… out of homelessness” also demands scrutiny. The mayor’s office confirms that that number includes not only people who went from homelessness into housing (the city created 360 new affordable housing units last year, Durkan said in her speech) but those who were at risk of homelessness and managed to stay housed. Durkan’s office has not yet responded to a request for a more detailed breakdown of the 7,400 figure.

State of the City speeches are rarely the vehicle for mayors to announce major new initiatives, and Durkan kept her list of new proposals modest: Requiring all new buildings that have off-street parking, including new duplexes and single-family houses, to include charging infrastructure for electric vehicles; a new $1,000 scholarship to help income-eligible participants in the Seattle Promise program pay for non-tuition college expenses; providing free transit passes to about 1,500 low income Seattle Housing Authority tenants; expanding Ride2, King County Metro’s on-demand van program in West Seattle, to serve commuters in South Seattle. And she said she would issue an “executive order to refocus our work on strategies to prevent displacement and displacement” on Wednesday.

Early Morning Crank: Wills Confirms Council Rumors, Johnson Denies Early Departure, Incentive Zoning Delayed

Image result for heidi wills

via Twitter.

1. Former council member Heidi Wills will soon declare her candidacy for city council in District 6, after District 6 incumbent Mike O’Brien announced that he did not plan to run for reelection. The news came courtesy of Wills’ Facebook page over the weekend, when Wills posted the following in the comments to a post by—of all people—former council member Judy Nicastro, who was ousted along with Wills in the wake of the Strippergate scandal in 2003:

Heidi Wills Thank you, Judy! I ❤️ Seattle. We’re growing so fast and facing big issues. I’d like a seat at the table to elevate all our voices for a more common sense, inclusive, equitable and sustainable city. Campaign logistics will be in place soon. Stay tuned!

I first reported on speculation that Wills would run in December. After losing to one-term council member David Della, Wills spent almost 15 years as the  executive director of The First Tee, an organization that teaches golf to disadvantaged youth.

 

Support

2. City council member Rob Johnson denies rumors that he plans to leave his council position to start a new job advising the National Hockey League on transportation issues related to KeyArena as early as May. (A more recent rumor had Johnson leaving as early as next month.) “It’s not true,” Johnson says. “I have no plans to leave early.” However, in the next breath, Johnson appeared to leave the door open for an early departure, adding, “I’ve got a firm commitment from [the NHL] that we won’t even start talking about that until we have concluded MHA”—the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which will allow more density in some areas in exchange for affordable housing. That process is supposed to wrap up in mid-May.

If Johnson (or any of the other three council incumbents who have said they will not seek reelection when their terms end this year) does leave early, the council will have to appoint a replacement; the last time that happened was when Kirsten Harris-Talley replaced Position 8 council member Tim Burgess, who left the council to serve as mayor after former mayor Ed Murray resigned amid child sexual abuse allegations. Harris-Talley served for 51 days.

3. One issue that won’t come before Johnson’s committee before he leaves is a planned update of the city’s Incentive Zoning program—another density-for-public-benefits tradeoff that has been partly supplanted by MHA. Incentive zoning is a catchall term for a patchwork of zoning designations that allow developers to build more densely in exchange for funding or building affordable housing or other public benefits, such as child care, open space, or historic protection through a transfer of development rights (a program that has been used to protect historic buildings, such as Town Hall on First Hill, from demolition.) Once MHA goes through, incentive zoning will still apply in downtown and South Lake Union as well as parts of the University District, Uptown, and North Rainier neighborhoods.

The whole program was supposed to get an update this year to consolidate IZ standards across the city, strengthen some green building requirements (barring the use of fossil fuels for heating, for example), and impose minimum green building standards throughout downtown (currently, the city’s standard, which requires buildings to be 15 percent more efficient than what the state requires,  are only mandatory outside the downtown core). The proposed new rules would also remove “shopping corridors” and publicly accessible atriums from the list of public amenities allowed under incentive zoning, since these tend to be public in name only.

Last week, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development sent out a notice saying that “Due to the volume of land use policy and legislation work that the City of Seattle is currently undertaking, the Incentive Zoning Update has been temporarily delayed.” The notice continued, “There is currently no revised schedule for release of public draft legislation or transmission to Council. While there is still a possibility that legislation could be transmitted to Council for consideration in 2019, it is likely that the legislation will be delayed until 2020.”

City staffers say the delay is largely because the city’s law department, which reviews legislation, has been backed up not just with MHA, but with a backlog of litigation, from challenges to city rules allowing backyard apartments to defending legislation gerrymandering the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox. Developers, meanwhile, may be breathing a sigh of relief. In a letter to OPCD last year, NAIOP, which represents commercial real estate developers, objected to the new green standards, arguing that they would  lead to higher housing costs and jeopardize MHA’s ability to produce more density. NAIOP also argued that because the new energy standards have advanced faster than the technology that would enable builders to comply with them, the city should reduce the amount by which it requires new projects to best the state-mandated energy code. OPCD disputes NAIOP’s characterization of the current standards, but acknowledges that there may come a time when they need to be revisited.

Mike O’Brien, 10-Year Council Veteran, Will Not Seek Reelection

Telling a group of supporters that included housing, social justice, and environmental advocates, that he was “going to try to smile,” city council member Mike O’Brien announced Wednesday that he would not run for reelection after 10 years on the council. The announcement, which he made in his office at city hall, capped off months of speculation about whether the embattled environmental-activist-turned-veteran-politician would bow out to avoid what was sure to be a bruising reelection campaign. O’Brien is the fourth of the seven council incumbents whose seats are on the 2019 ballot who has said he will not seek reelection; the others are Bruce Harrell (District 2), Rob Johnson (District 4), and Sally Bagshaw (District 7).

O’Brien, elected in 2009 on the same ballot as his fellow Sierra Club leader and onetime colleague, former mayor Mike McGinn, started his time on the council as a climate change-focused environmental champion and ended as an earnest (if not always effective) advocate for people with few friends in city hall—people experiencing homelessness, opponents of the proposed new youth jail, and people living with addiction and mental illness who, as O’Brien put it in a three-page document outlining his accomplishments, engage in “criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral needs or poverty.”

A poll last year, conducted by O’Brien’s consultant WinPower Strategies, reportedly showed that the incumbent was unpopular in his district, which elected him by a 23-percent margin in 2015. (O’Brien was initially elected citywide, but his seat became a district position when the city switched to district elections for 7 of the 9 council members in 2015.) Dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s leadership was on full display last May, when a meeting to discuss a proposed employee hours tax on large businesses, which O’Brien supported, devolved into a profane, one-sided shouting match. (O’Brien, who is known for showing up at meetings that he knows will be stacked with angry opponents, reportedly almost left.) It may be that O’Brien’s district, which has experienced many of the same challenges as other parts of the city such as visible encampments, open drug use, and rising property crime, had really had enough. Or it could be that O’Brien might have found more support in his district than is evident at public-comment sessions and on forums like Facebook and NextDoor, but didn’t care to spend the next months finding out.

K.C. Golden, of 350 Seattle, and council member Mike O’Brien.

“There are a lot of people that are scared, that are frustrated, and that shows up as fear and hate sometimes in a way that’s kind of ugly, but the base emotions are real,” O’Brien said. “People are nervous about our future is like. I really wish that politics in Seattle weren’t so divisive… because we do need to find ways to come together.”

One reason O’Brien waited as long as he did to announce he wasn’t running, according to several sources close to him, was that he wanted to see if another candidate he could support came forward. So far, it appears that none have. “We need great leadership going forward,” O’Brien said . “I’ll admit that I have some nervousness about the uncertainty of what that leadership looks like.” But, he added, “I feel like I need to step back and trust that the system is going to work.”

Support

Editor’s note: The caption on a photo accompanying this story originally misspelled the name of 350 Seattle’s K.C. Golden.

Why Does This Seattle Affordable Housing Provider Evict So Many Tenants?

Image result for lihi housing seattleThis story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.

“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.

“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.

LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”

It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”

Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.

“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”

See my story on Seattle’s eviction court here.

In Seattle’s Eviction Court, Where the Deck Is Stacked Against Tenants, Eviction Reform Could Change the Game

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Seattle magazine.

The most surprising thing about Seattle’s eviction court is that most of the action doesn’t take place in a courtroom at all—it takes place in a hallway. Along the length of this dim, busy corridor that spans the west wing of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, attorneys broker deals and break bad news to tenants for whom one extra paycheck, or a few hundred dollars, represents the difference between housing and homelessness. The harried suit-clad tenants’ attorneys strike a stark contrast to their clients, who pace or slump on well-worn benches, while the landlords and their attorneys cluster impatiently nearby, waiting to find out if tenants plan to settle or take their cases to court.

This hallway links two poles of the justice system. At one end: the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP), which represents low-income tenants and whose courthouse office is a cluttered, 300-square-foot room. At the other: Courtroom W-325, where tenants who decide not to accept a settlement deal can have their day in court.

About half of the landlords in Seattle—both nonprofit agencies, such as the Low-Income Housing Institute and the YWCA of Seattle, and private companies, such as Epic Asset Management, which collectively own hundreds of apartments around the city—are represented by a single law firm, Seattle-based Puckett & Redford. The firm’s pugnacious litigator Ryan Weatherstone paces back and forth in the hallway, occasionally poking his head in the door of the HJP office to yell at the organization’s managing attorney, Edmund Witter. “Stop [expletive] sandbagging me, Ed!” Weatherstone shouts late one morning, when it’s clear that the day’s cases will drag on into the afternoon. Witter rolls his eyes. It’s unclear how much of this is performance, how much genuine frustration.

The stakes are high. What happens here often means the difference between housing and homelessness to the hundreds of tenants who show up to respond to an eviction notice. In King County, where the most recent one-night count found more than 12,000 people living in shelters or on the streets, hundreds of people become newly homeless through eviction every year, contributing to a crisis that local political leaders have been trying, and mostly failing, to address for years.

To become a HJP client, a family must must make no more than two times the federal poverty level, which is $32,480 for a family of two, and be in the eviction process or at risk of imminent eviction. In Seattle, and throughout Washington, a landlord can begin the eviction process as soon as a tenant’s rent is more than three days late, and judges have little authority to force landlords to accept rent after that point.

Landlords can also serve a 10-day notice for lease violations, such as unauthorized guests, a three-day notice to vacate for nuisance activity, or—outside Seattle, whose Just Cause Eviction Ordinance prohibits this—a 20-day notice ending a tenancy for any reason, or no reason at all. These are several of the ways in which Washington differs from other states, many of which offer tenants more time to catch up on rent and give judges discretion to set up payment plans while a tenant remains in his or her home. Another challenge for tenants undergoing eviction: Fees for landlords’ attorneys, which vary widely and are usually paid by tenants, can run to thousands of dollars; court costs, plus late fees and other charges, can add hundreds more. A recent report by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the HJP found that the median court judgment against tenants evicted in Seattle in 2017 was $3,129.73.

“Say you underpay your rent by $20,” says state Representative Nicole Macri (D-43rd), who is also the deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. “The [state] statute allows a three-day notice to go up on your door at the moment the late day comes up on your lease. You can be in court the very next week after the three days expire, and within a week and a half or two weeks a sheriff could come to remove your possessions.” According to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 86.5 percent of evictions were for nonpayment of rent, and more than a quarter of all eviction proceedings in Seattle began on or before the sixth of the month, or five days after rent is typically due.

It’s common for people to be evicted for small amounts of overdue rent. In 2017, of the 2,072 formal evictions filed in Seattle, more than 76 percent were for less than $2,500, and 21 were for less than $100. The Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a large Seattle housing nonprofit, frequently files eviction notices over small amounts of money, including one, in 2018, for just $4. (LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says court records don’t reflect prior warnings or other reasons for evictions, such as violence or damage by the tenant.) The number of people evicted through informal means—those who received a notice to vacate and simply left, or who left after a dispute over rent or other issue that did not make it into the formal court record—is likely much higher, the report notes.

Many, if not most, HJP clients end up losing their homes—if not by eviction, then through court settlements that only allow an extra week or two before they need to vacate. Even those who strike a deal with their landlords—getting an order of limited dissemination, for example, which keeps an eviction from showing up on standard credit reports—end up being evicted, and most of those become homeless. According to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 87.5 percent of all people evicted in Seattle in 2017 became homeless immediately after their evictions. A big reason for that, according to the report, is that most landlords won’t take tenants with evictions on their record.

If a client takes her case to court, the outcome can be much worse. According to Witter, most cases that go to a hearing end up in eviction, with bigger judgments and harsher legal penalties than cases in which a tenant agrees to pay his back rent and leave.

On a recent Tuesday morning, two HJP clients, Peter and Danielle, wait in the hallway for news from an attorney who volunteers with HJP. While they wait, they explain how they ended up at the courthouse—a story of cascading misfortunes that includes struggles with addiction, homelessness and serious medical conditions. Peter, a former machinist, is awaiting surgery for a hernia; Danielle has late-stage liver disease. They say that a local charity paid part of their rent in an apartment building on Capitol Hill, but they’re still behind by about $3,000—a daunting amount for two people who haven’t worked in months. “I don’t want to sound like a victim, because we’re not,” Danielle says. “We just got caught in a real bad situation.” Peter adds: “I’m hoping that some more time will be allotted to us.”

Down the hallway, another drama is playing out: A tiny, frail woman named Rose (not her real name) is being turned out of an apartment run by a different social service agency over $430 in unpaid rent. Although she slipped a money order for half the rent under her property manager’s door several weeks ago, the landlord declined to deposit the money and taped an eviction notice on Rose’s door while she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for late-stage kidney disease. Rose’s apartment is in a building designated specifically for women, like her, who are battling addiction; before landing an apartment there a year ago, she was on the streets for more than a decade.

Unlike many tenants who come through eviction court, Rose is accompanied by two caseworkers, who both say that putting her back out on the street is tantamount to a death sentence. “There are already thousands of people living on the streets,” one of the caseworkers, a former case manager at Rose’s building, says. “What good is it going to do to put one more out there?” African-American tenants like Rose are evicted far out of proportion to their presence in the Seattle population; according to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 31.2 percent of tenants evicted in Seattle last year were black in a city where, according to the federal government, African Americans make up only 7 percent of the population.

A DAY IN COURT: Housing Justice Project attorney Edmund Witter spends much of his time in this hallway in the King County Courthouse, often with clients. At one end is the HJP office; at the other, the courtroom where eviction cases are decided. Photo by Hayley Young

Witter comes back with Weatherstone’s offer: If Rose pays all the back rent, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees, she will have a few weeks before she will have to move out. The eviction will still go on her record and she will probably go back to being homeless. “This isn’t a great deal,” Witter tells her candidly. Rose wants to take her case to court and Witter thinks she stands a chance: She tried to pay rent repeatedly, and can prove that she was in the hospital when her landlord left the eviction notice on her door. But in the small courtroom—from which a judge or appointed court commissioner presides—Weatherstone and Rose’s landlord introduce new information.

Rose, they say, has threatened staff members and other tenants, sending one staffer a text message that her landlord describes in excruciating detail. This kind of testimony isn’t admissible: In one of many made-for-TV courtroom moments, Rose’s HJP attorney, Ben Dickson, shouts “Hearsay!” every time Weatherstone brings up Rose’s behavior—but the damage is done. Judges and commissioners aren’t supposed to consider evidence that isn’t included in the eviction claim when deciding how to rule, but they’re human, and they sometimes do. Commissioner Henry Judson says the best he can do is to give Rose an order of limited dissemination if she pays the $860 she owes in rent and $911 in court costs, which one of Rose’s caseworker thinks he can pull together by the following day. But Rose must vacate her apartment in two weeks.

Tenants aren’t allowed to say much, if anything, in court—something that Witter says surprises many clients—and the process is brisk and formal, with testimony and arguments limited to the bare facts of the case. Personal grievances are generally not allowed. “We go into the hearing, and they find out how bad the process is and that they weren’t even allowed to talk, and then they get mad at us for that,” Witter says. “I’m not blaming the tenants; I’m just saying the system is not conducive for us to be able to provide adequate assistance of counsel or for the tenant to really even be able to make an informed decision. It’s basically a gun being held to someone’s head.”

He adds, “This isn’t the best way to do these proceedings, period. We’re going in and doing daytime Court TV and basically having this pissing contest between a landlord and a tenant in front of a person who doesn’t know this area of the law,” he says, referring to the commissioners and judges who hear the cases. Because Seattle has no dedicated housing court, eviction cases are heard by judges whose dockets are also crammed with probate cases, divorces and restraining orders, and who may not have a background in housing law, Witter says.

Witter says he often sees clients with mental health or addiction problems so severe that HJP can’t represent them (with stakes so high, tenants have to know what they’re signing and be able to understand what’s happening), and there are gray cases, like one I witnessed in court on another occasion, in which a man with a diagnosed mental disorder went back and forth for hours about whether he wanted to take his shaky case to a hearing, then backed out and agreed to the eviction while standing on the literal threshold of the courthouse door.

In New York City, where Witter was a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, tenants have a right to legal counsel, and cases are heard in a specialized housing court, with judges who are experts in landlord-tenant law. Witter says tenants “don’t get evicted just for simple nonpayment of rent—you have to be not trying at all.” Tenants can request assistance paying their arrears from multiple human services agencies right in the courthouse.

Contrast that with Seattle’s system, which requires tenants to go to one (or many) of more than two dozen decentralized private and nonprofit charities, such as churches, the West Seattle Helpline or Solid Ground. Solid Ground can provide as much as $2,000 in back rent for low-income clients. But the clients must agree to participate in case management, write a budget and set financial goals—a lengthy process that several renter advocates described as paternalistic and patronizing. Even so, Solid Ground interim homelessness prevention manager Theresa Curry Almuti says the group gets between 1,200 and 1,600 calls a month for about 80 slots in its assistance program, of which several hundred are eligible. “We could get three times as much funding and still have people eligible,” Curry Almuti says.

Weatherstone, the landlords’ attorney, spent years working as a tenant advocate, including as a volunteer at the HJP, and he sees problems with housing laws that lead to so many evictions, too. “Ultimately, we care about the people who come through here,” he says, referring to the tenants. “Not every single case is a case that we want to go ahead and evict, but sometimes—a lot of times—it’s required. Management has given them a lot of opportunities to comply with the [rental] agreement, and they don’t comply with it.” Weatherstone adds that landlords, especially small-business landlords, can’t always afford to let rent go unpaid while they wait for a tenant to come through with what they owe. “Our clients have their obligations to meet as well,” he says.

Still, it’s hard to deny that in a county where more than 12,000 people were homeless in 2017, evicting thousands of tenants a year only exacerbates the homelessness crisis. Legislators at the city and state levels are working to mitigate Seattle’s high eviction rate, using the Women’s Commission/HJP report as a guide. Macri, the 43rd District state representative, is proposing legislation in the current legislative session that would take protections that already exist in Seattle and extend them statewide—preventing landlords from evicting tenants without cause, for example. Macri’s bills would also give tenants more time to pay back rent they owe and provide discretion to judges to broker deals between landlords and tenants.

At the municipal level, City Council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien have directed city departments to look at ways of centralizing the rent assistance system and to make it easier for tenants to address habitability issues, which are often at the center of rent disputes, on a funding timeline. Longer-term solutions include allocating more of the city’s homelessness prevention system toward eviction prevention. Pathways Home, the overarching approach to homelessness adopted under former Mayor Ed Murray, directs the lion’s share of city homelessness funding to agencies that help people who are already homeless. Referring to the eviction report, O’Brien noted, “When you look at this data, around 550 households were $1,000 or less behind on their rent, and 87 percent of the people that went through an eviction ended up homeless.” Doing the math, for about $500,000, 500 fewer people could have wound up homeless, he says. “That is probably one of the most cost-effective things we could do.”

Weeks after their court dates, I followed up with several of the tenants whose cases I followed. Danielle and Peter were ultimately evicted, and had broken up under the stress; Danielle was living on the streets. Mike, the tenant who had wanted to go to court, agreed to leave the apartment where he had lived for a decade by the end of the month; in exchange, he got an order of limited dissemination. And Rose, whose caseworker said she paid her back rent and attorneys’ fees, was ultimately evicted anyway due to extenuating circumstances. At press time, her whereabouts were unknown.

Audit Calls Seattle’s Approach to Homelessness “A Dangerous Guess”

A new city audit of the Navigation Team, which looks at data that the city’s Human Services Department collected during the second quarter of 2018, concludes that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies who do outreach to people living unsheltered; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time (and who would be prime candidates for low-cost diversion programs); does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. Data from the executive branch has lagged significantly, which is one reason the auditor is just now releasing a report on the second quarter of last year.

The Navigation Team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, consists of uniformed police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and provide referrals to available shelter beds and services. Although most people living in encampments simply move along to the next place (or return to the same place), some do accept services or go in to shelters, and when those shelters are enhanced shelters—shelters that accept people as they are, with active addictions and partners and possessions they don’t want to give up—they sometimes lead to permanent housing.

Support

The problem, the audit says, is that the city does not have a rigorous system of analysis in place for tracking the Navigation Team’s success at getting people into housing, so it’s difficult to say whether the team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, has been successful. As council member Lisa Herbold put it in a letter to acting HSD director Jason Johnson last month, “[I] continue to be concerned that a considerable and sizable uptick in removals is happening in the absence of any [demonstrable] outcomes. Without the latter, the former is just perpetuating a situation where people reoccupy the same places or new places that are equally problematic.”

Mayor Durkan, the audit says, still has not agreed to allow an independent assessment of the Navigation Team’s success at getting people off the street and into permanent housing. The audit notes that a similar report, back in 2017, listed “possible low-cost and no-cost opportunities for rigorous independent evaluation for the City,” but that “[t]he Executive’s Quarter 2 Response concluded that, ‘many of the rigorous academic evaluation options suggested by the City Auditor would incur a high cost and are only utilized after a program has been through a few years of practice.'”

The report continues:

The Executive’s resistance to pursuing rigorous independent evaluation, even at no-cost or low-cost to the City, is concerning. As noted above by the criminologist Joan McCord, 32 without rigorous evaluation, the City’s approach to addressing unsheltered homelessness remains “a dangerous guess.” Our 2017 report raised questions about the potential for unintended consequences as a result of the City’s current approaches. These include the potential public health and safety consequences from a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene strategies and potential traumatic exposure for unsheltered individuals from the use of police in an outreach capacity.

What do those public health and safety consequences look like? Well, according to the audit, they include a lack of access to basic hygiene facilities (like showers) and restrooms that are open outside normal business hours. Only six city-funded restrooms are available all day and night, the report found—and four of those are port-a-potties that are “poorly-lit and [with] no running water,” according to the report. (Three of those four, moreover, “were damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability (e.g., no toilet seat, no sanitizer dispenser, broken ADA rail)” and at least one had not been cleaned in more than a week. In contrast, UN human-rights standards would require at least 224 public restrooms distributed throughout Seattle to adequately serve the city’s homeless population.

When council members and advocates have brought up the lack of restrooms and showers accessible to homeless people in the past, the mayor’s office and HSD have distributed lists of all the restrooms and showers that are available, and suggested that people who need to use these facilities seek shelter at “enhanced shelters” that provide 24/7 access. However, as the report confirms, there simply aren’t enough of these shelters across enough of the city to actually serve the thousands of homeless people sleeping outdoors on any given night.

“Given that the 2018 point in time count found that, in Seattle, 4,488 people were unsheltered (i.e., they were sleeping in tents, vehicles and RVs, and on the street), the current availability of 24-hour restrooms should be examined,” the report concludes. Homeless advocates have also argued that because the need for restrooms is universal, people should not be required to enter the formal shelter system as a prerequisite for going to the bathroom or accessing shower and laundry facilities. The audit also found that most of the city’s drop-in showers are open limited hours and concentrated downtown; Council District 5, in far north Seattle, does not have a single drop-in shower station. (Additionally, some “free” public showers do not provide towels or charge for towels, the audit found.) In contrast, other cities have mobile restrooms and showers and offer more 24/7 facilities outside the formal shelter system.

The audit also faulted the executive for decentralizing the city’s homelessness response, starting in late 2017 when it decommissioned  the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which began meeting after the declaration of a homelessness “emergency,” in 2015, but was deactivated in late 2017. The city’s homeless outreach strategy is spread across several departments with confusing and messy chains of command. The audit criticizes the city for having “no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers [and] not currently thinking of homeless outreach ‘as a complete system.’ This lack of coordination limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.” The city simply doesn’t have a coordinated strategy for reaching people who have just become homeless, who are prime candidates for low-cost diversion tactics such as family reunification, the audit found; instead, the Navigation Team encounters newly homeless people only haphazardly, as it investigates and removes encampments that are deemed to be dangerous. “We recommend that the City consider improving its capacity for receiving reports of newly unsheltered individuals and quickly dispatching outreach.”

Herbold’s letter notes that people who are referred to shelters through the Navigation Team tend to stay in shelters longer than other clients, tying up beds, and suggests that one reason for this is that the Navigation Team doesn’t assess people for their housing eligibility prior to sending them to shelter (at which point their score on a standardized scoring tool used to determine their eligibility for housing goes down, because they are no longer unsheltered.) In response to Herbold’s questions, an HSD spokeswoman said that the Navigation Team often has to act quickly and “forgo a field assessment as it will be later conducted at shelter intake and through subsequent case management. This approach capitalizes on the team making connections to shelter resources in a timely manner before an opportunity disappears.”

The audit recommends that the city consider coordination models pioneered by other US jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Snohomish County, which use a coordination approach developed by FEMA called Incident Command System (ICS). The city used to use some elements of ICS to coordinate its response to homelessness, but stopped doing so in 2017 when it discontinued the use of the emergency operations center.

Read the whole audit here (skip page 23 if you want to avoid one really gross restroom photo). The mayor’s office did not respond to an email seeking responses  the audit.

Light Rail Riders Will Have to Switch Trains to Get Through Downtown Tunnel During East Link Construction

Sound Transit light rail riders traveling through the downtown Seattle transit tunnel will have to switch trains on a new, temporary center platform at the Pioneer Square station for ten weeks in early 2020 to accommodate construction to move tracks and install switches for the new East Link train line, which opens in 2023, into the existing rail system. During those ten weeks, people traveling through the tunnel in either direction will stop at Pioneer Square, deboard on a 14-foot-wide platform in the middle of the tunnel, and switch to the train that has just arrived from the opposite direction. After two minutes—an amount of time Sound Transit planners say is necessary to allow passengers on each train to get across the platform and reboard, and for train drivers to get from one end of the train to the other—the trains will continue in the same direction from which they came.

Sound Transit staffers said train doors will not open until another train has arrived from the opposite direction, to prevent riders from succumbing to the “temptation” to rush across the open trackway to the opposite station platform. The temporary center platform will be staffed with security and Sound Transit wayfinding staff during all hours when trains are running.

“This is a necessary inconvenience so we can enjoy the massive convenience of having access to 10 stations on the Eastside in 2023.” – Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff

If you have trouble visualizing how this would work, Sound Transit has created a couple of animations that I found extremely helpful. Essentially, trains that go to the University District station will be traveling to Pioneer Square and turning back, and trains coming from Angle Lake and the airport will be doing the same thing from the south. Four stations will operate with only one platform at a time during construction—Stadium, Chinatown/ID, University, and Westlake.

Additionally, the tunnel will be shut down altogether for three weekends during the construction period; during that time, riders will have to transfer to street-level buses between the Westlake and SoDo stations.

While construction is going on, four-car trains will operate at 12-minute frequencies all day (currently, Sound Transit runs three-car trains more frequently during rush hour and less often when demand is lower.) The result will be more crowding during busy periods—trains will have about 23 percent less capacity during the weekday peak—and less crowding during off hours, when there will be 11 percent more room for riders to spread out. Sound Transit staffers say they’re working on a plan to accommodate bikes and luggage when trains are more crowded than usual.

At a meeting of Sound Transit’s newly christened Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting Thursday, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff called the 10-week partial closure “a necessary inconvenience so we can enjoy the massive convenience of having access to 10 stations on the Eastside in 2023,” and predicted that riders would “scarcely remember the inconvenience of the 10 weeks in 2020, given the benefits that the whole region will get when East Link is done.”

Support

Morning Crank: Streetcar Questioned, Sawant Challenged, and Fort Lawton Moves Forward

1. Ever since Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was moving forward with the stalled First Avenue streetcar last month, supporters and skeptics have been honing their arguments. Fans of the project, which a recent report costed out at $286 million, say it will create a critical link between two disconnected streetcars that each stop on the outskirts of downtown, boosting ridership dramatically while traveling swiftly in its own dedicated right-of-way; skeptics point to a $65 million funding gap, the need for ongoing operating subsidies from the city, and past ridership numbers that have been consistently optimistic.

Today, council members on both sides of the streetcar divide got their first chance to respond publicly to the latest numbers, and to question Seattle Department of Transportation and budget staffers about the viability of the project.  I covered some of the basic issues and streetcar background in this FAQ; here are several additional questions council members raised on Tuesday.

Q: Has the city secured the $75 million in federal funding it needs to build the streetcar?

A: No; the Federal Transit Administration has allocated $50 million to the project through its Small Starts grant process (the next best thing to a signed agreement), and the city has not yet secured the additional $25 million.

Q: Will the fact that the new downtown streetcar will parallel an existing light rail line two blocks to the east be good or bad for ridership? (Herbold implied that the two lines might be redundant, and Sally Bagshaw noted that “if I was at Westlake and I wanted to get to Broadway, I would jump on light rail, not the streetcar.” Rob Johnson countered that “redundancy in the transportation system is a good thing,” and suggested the two lines could have “network effects” as people transferred from one to the other.)

A: This is a critical question, because the city’s ridership projections for the two existing streetcar lines were consistently optimistic. (Ridership is important because riders are what justify the cost of a project, and because the more people ride the streetcar, the less the city will have to subsidize its operations budget). The city’s answer, basically, is that it’s hard to say. Lines that are too redundant can compete with each other; on the other hand, the existence of multiple north-south bus lines throughout downtown has probably helped ridership on light rail, and vice versa. SDOT’s Karen Melanson said the city took the existence of light rail (including future light rail lines) into account when coming up with its ridership projections, which predict about 18,000 rides a day on the combined streetcar route, or about 5.7 million rides a year.

Q. Can the city afford to operate the streetcar, especially when subsidies from other transit agencies run out? King County Metro has been paying the city $1.5 million a year to help operate the existing streetcars, and Sound Transit has kicked in another $5 million a year. Those subsidies are set to end in 2019 and 2023, respectively. If both funding sources do dry up (city budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the city could make a case for the Metro funding to continue), the city will have to find some other source that funding as part of an ongoing operating subsidy of between $18 million and $19 million a year.

A: It’s unclear exactly where the additional funding for ongoing streetcar operating costs would come from; options include the commercial parking tax and street use fees. Streetcar supporters cautioned against thinking of the ongoing city contribution as a “subsidy.” Instead, Johnson said, council members should think of it as “an investment in infrastructure that our citizens support,” much like funding for King County Metro through the city’s  Transportation Benefit District—or, as O’Brien chimed in, roads. “Roads are heavily subsidized,” O’Brien said. “When we talk about roads, we don’t talk about farebox recovery, because we don’t have a farebox.”

Support

2. In response to reporting by Kevin Schofield at SCC Insight, which revealed that the Socialist Alternative party decides how District 3 Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant will vote and makes all the hiring and firing decisions for her council office, an anonymous person has filed an ethics complaint against Sawant at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The complaint, signed, “District 3 Resident,” charges that Sawant:

• Violated her obligation to represent her constituents by allowing Socialist Alternative to determine her actions on the council;

• Misused her position as a council member by allowing SA to make employment decisions for her council office;

• Improperly “assisted”  SA in matters involving her office by allowing them to determine her council votes;

• Accepted gifts in exchange for giving SA special access and “consideration,” including extensive travel on the party’s dime; and

• Either disclosed or withheld public information by discussing personnel matters on private email accounts, depending on whether that information turns out to have been disclosable (in which case, the complaint charges, she withheld it from the public by using a private account) or confidential (in which case Sawant violated the law by showing confidential information to outside parties, namely the SA members who, according to SCC Insight’s reporting, decide who she hires and fires.)

“Sawant is not independent, not impartial, and not responsible to her constituents,” the complaint concludes. “Her decisions are not made through the proper channels, and due to her actions, the public does not have confidence in the integrity of its government.”

It’s unclear when the ethics commission will take up the complaint, which was filed on January 8. The agenda for their committee meeting tomorrow, which includes a discussion of the rule requiring candidates who participate in the “democracy voucher” public-financing program to participate in at least one debate to which every candidate is invited, does not include any discussion of the complaint against Sawant.

According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections website, “Seattle’s Ethics Code is a statement of our shared values — integrity, impartiality, independence, transparency. It is our pledge to the people of Seattle that our only allegiance is to them when we conduct City business.”

3. On Monday, the city’s Office of Housing published a draft of the redevelopment plan for Fort Lawton, a decommissioned Army base next to Discovery Park in Magnolia, moving the long-delayed project one step closer to completion. For years, the project, which will include about 200 units of affordable housing, has stagnated, stymied first by a lawsuit, from Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, and then by the recession. In 2017, when the latest version of the plan started moving forward, I called the debate over Fort Lawton “a tipping point in Seattle’s affordable housing crisis,” predicting, perhaps optimistically, that Seattle residents, including Fort Lawton’s neighbors in Magnolia, were more likely to support the project than oppose it, in part because the scale of the housing crisis had grown so immensely in the last ten years.

The plan is far more modest than the lengthy debate might lead you to expect—85 studio apartments for homeless seniors, including veterans, at a total cost of $28.3 million; 100 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle median income, at a cost of $40.2 million; and 52 row homes and townhouses for purchase, at a total cost of $18.4 million. Overall, about $21.5 million of the total cost would come from the city. Construction would start, if all goes according to the latest schedule, in 2021, with the first apartments opening in 2026—exactly 20 years, coincidentally, after the city council adopted legislation designating the city of Seattle as the local redevelopment authority for the property.

Anxious About Durkan’s Decision, Council Members and Housing Advocates Scheduled Last-Minute Press Conference on Density Plan

Image via City of Seattle

For months, advocates for a denser, more affordable city have been waiting with gritted teeth to see how Mayor Jenny Durkan would put her imprint on the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which was developed under her predecessor, Ed Murray. The plan, which has already been implemented in a handful of neighborhoods, allows more types of housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings—in more parts of the city, including 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Given Durkan’s somewhat spotty record on key urbanist issues—stalling bike lanes downtown and in North Seattle, siding with housing opponents on the Showbox, and delaying the First Avenue streetcar—density advocates worried that any changes Durkan made would only water down the proposal.

Last week, it looked like the advocates were about to get the bad news they were expecting: Durkan, under pressure from the city attorney’s office, was reportedly poised to call for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to examine the plan’s potential impacts on historic resources (like the Admiral Theatre, above)—an additional layer of process that would have added months of delay and created new avenues for MHA opponents to appeal the plan, perhaps into oblivion. Instead, MHA advocates wanted the city to limit its additional historical-resources analysis—required by an otherwise favorable ruling by the city’s hearing examiner last November—to an addendum to the final environmental impact statement, which would require only a 14-day public comment period and could not be challenged. The ruling marked the conclusion of a yearlong appeal by single-family neighborhood activists, who argued that MHA should not go forward because of its supposed negative environmental impacts.

The city attorney, whose spokesman said he could not comment on any legal advice the office provides to the mayor, reportedly expressed concern that doing an addendum, rather than a full SEIS, could open the city up to legal liability.

Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about whether she initially leaned toward recommending the more arduous, time-consuming EIS process. But representatives from the Housing Development Consortium, Vulcan, the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority, and several city council members were apparently concerned enough about the potential for more delay that they planned a press conference this past Friday morning at Sound Transit’s Union Station to encourage the mayor to move forward quickly with the plan.

According to a planning email obtained by The C Is for Crank, pro-MHA city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office billed the event—officially a kickoff to Affordable Housing Month— as an opportunity for participating organizations “to speak directly with members of the press about the importance of moving MHA forward by March… and why you and/or your organization is excited to support this legislation that has been years in the making!” In addition to Mosqueda, council members Rob Johnson and Lorena Gonzalez were scheduled to speak.

Support

And then, without notice, the press conference was called off. One participant says they showed up to find no one there. Mosqueda would not comment on why the event was canceled; nor would Johnson, the chairman of the council’s land use committee and a longtime vocal MHA proponent.

However, sources inside and outside city hall who spoke on background say that Durkan met last week with a coalition of MHA advocates, including developers whose plans would be impacted by more delay, who strongly urged her to go with the less onerous addendum option. As, indeed, she ultimately did: The city’s Office of Planning and Development will publish the addendum on Thursday, eliminating one of the last potential roadblocks to MHA’s approval. At some point between now and March, the council will approve the plan (with amendments) and a companion resolution, which could call for mitigation plans to protect historical resources inside the MHA boundaries.

The mayor’s office provided a statement about the decision to move MHA forward:

Mayor Durkan believes the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements are critical to building more affordable housing while ensuring that our fastest-growing neighborhoods can be vibrant, livable places for the next generation. In November 2018, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled that the environmental analysis of MHA conducted by the City adequately addressed the impacts of the proposal with the exception of the analysis of historic resources. As required by the Hearing Examiner’s remand, the City has been working diligently to conduct a thorough environmental review of historic resources, and this week OPCD will publish the addendum in order to move forward on a path for the City Council to pass MHA this Spring. Understanding appellants have challenged MHA every step of the way, the City will continue to successfully work to increase development capacity and support affordable housing requirements.

If MHA does move forward in March, it will mark the end of delay tactics that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing, worth an estimated $87 million, over the year that MHA has been locked up in appeals. It will also represent a significant moment in the Durkan administration—a decision to move forward, rather than delay, a program that will create a significant amount of new housing despite the fact that it’s controversial with the single-family homeowners who helped the mayor get elected.

It’s not clear exactly why Durkan made this decision when she did—whether, for example, she was swayed by the specter of a big press conference starring three council members, Vulcan, and the county’s largest affordable housing coalition, or by direct appeals from developers themselves. But tensions were reportedly high at City Hall right up until Friday, after Durkan decided to support the fast-track option— if you can say that a process that has taken nearly two years is on a fast track.