Late Afternoon Crank: Resignations

1. Embattled King County Democrats chairman Bailey Stober, who has been accused of sexually harassing an employee he later fired and misappropriating Party funds, was in Eastern Washington this week, hanging out at the office of the Whitman County Democrats and reportedly campaigning for Democratic state House candidate Matthew Sutherland, while three more local Democratic organizations—the 32nd, 34th, and 46th District Democrats—were adopting resolutions that, to varying degrees, call for his removal as chair.

The 34th District Democrats’ resolution turned out to be the most contentious, thanks in part to 34th District chairman David Ginsberg—a Stober ally who told the Seattle  Times he did not believe Stober had harassed the employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo,  because Koss Vallejo had socialized with Stober and seemed “chummy” with him before he fired her. (Stober told me he could not harass a female employee because he is gay.) The day before the meeting, Ginsberg sent a letter to the district’s email list asserting that “any resolution condemning the alleged behavior of Chair Stober cannot be considered tomorrow night.” This led to a watered-down resolution calling on Precinct Committee Officers from the 34th to petition the King County Democrats for a special meeting to vote on Stober’s removal.

Ultimately, that resolution passed, but not before several speakers spoke strongly against it. One, 34th District state committeeman Chris Porter, likened Stober to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her (along with several other civil-rights martyrs). “None of us know the facts,” he added. Porter was followed by another speaker who said Stober was falling victim to “the ‘big black man’ scenario … it’s intimidation.”

Most of the speakers defending Stober were men. One said he had worked with Stober “every day for a couple of hours a day” and “I never saw in all my interactions with him acting inappropriately at all.” Another noted that Stober has said that he has a significant amount of of unspecified “evidence” that will exonerate him.**

At the 32nd, the most notable comment in favor of a more strongly worded resolution calling on Stober to step down came from former Shoreline city council candidate and recovering addict Jin-ah Kim, who said Stober had repeatedly pressured her to drink with him, despite knowing she is in recovery. Koss Vallejo has also said Stober pressured her to drink when she didn’t want to. The 46th would have passed a watered-down resolution similar to the one passed by the 34th if not for the intervention of former 46th District chair Jesse Piedfort, who also happened to be one of the only men at any of the recent district meetings to speak up strongly on behalf of harassment victims. The resolution that ultimately passed combined a call for Stober to resign with a call for a meeting of PCOs to remove him.

The King County Democrats will hold a meeting this coming Monday night to decide how to proceed with the investigation into Stober’s behavior since the group’s one remaining vice chair (the other two have resigned) was unable to find anyone willing to serve on the proposed investigating panel. Pierce County Democrats chair Tim Farrell, who recently called on another accused sexual harasser, state Rep. David Sawyer (D-29), to resign, will preside.

Earlier today, state Rep. Rebecca Saldaña (D-37), whose own district declined to pass a resolution condemning Stober (the chair of the 37th, Alec Stephens, also suggested that there was a “racial element” to the accusations), sent a letter to the King County Democrats saying that she will withhold all contributions to the group until the Stober situation is resolved.

2. Over at city hall, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a major cabinet departure on Friday—Catherine Lester, head of the city’s Human Services Department, will be leaving her position and “returning to her family in Toronto, Canada after seven years with the department.” Deputy director Jason Johnson will replace Lester as interim HSD director starting in May.

During her tenure, Lester oversaw the adoption and implementation of Pathways Home, a new approach to homelessness that relies heavily on the private market and short-term vouchers to move people quickly from the streets to housing, a strategy known as “rapid rehousing.” Pathways Home has been criticized by some political leaders and service providers, as well as by this blog, because it makes some highly optimistic assumptions about people’s ability to transition from homelessness to relative financial independence within just a few months without the kind of wraparound services that are provided in traditional transitional housing.

Lester also oversaw the city’s first competitive bidding process for homeless service contracts in more than a decade. That process, which prioritized programs that move people into permanent housing over those providing transitional housing or traditional shelter and hygiene services, was also controversial.

3. Lester defended the city’s efforts to provide restrooms and showers for unsheltered people this week to the Seattle/King County Board of Health, which adopted a resolution calling for additional investments in handwashing facilities, showers, and toilets across King County, while also acknowledging that “there are improvements to be made.” The city recently cut, then partially restored, funding for hygiene centers that serve some of the city’s homeless population, and has appeared sensitive to the issue of whether it is doing enough to ensure that people on the streets can wash their hands or relieve themselves. In a memo that Lester echoed in her comments to the Board of Health, the city enumerated 117 restrooms “available to all members of the public,” including Port-a-Potties near five transit stops and restrooms at libraries, community centers and parks, as well as restrooms at enhanced shelters, which are currently open only to those who stay at those shelters. The resolution notes that King County is currently experiencing a strep outbreak “that is particularly affecting those experiencing homelessness and injection drug users” and that other diseases that hit homeless populations hardest, like hepatitis A, can be controlled simply by giving people places to wash their hands.

* Ginsberg’s letter went on to denounce “some pretty bad reporting on the situation by local bloggers which has only made the entre [sic] situation worse” (ahem). It continued: “Bloggers have made a big deal out of the fact that the Chair got to select 2 of the 5 committee members, but failed to mention that the Vice Chair, operating on behalf of the accuser, also got to choose 2 of the 5. Bloggers have an understandable need to drive people to read their writing with salacious narratives to gain the ad revenue they depend on. But that doesn’t always serve the truth, and in this case it has not.” In fact, this blog—the one that has been reporting on the Stober situation—has mentioned consistently that the vice chairs were asked to appoint two of the four investigating panel members. They are not acting “on behalf of the accused,” and are meant to be a neutral party. The fact that Stober was allowed to choose two of the people who were going to investigate him for a workplace misconduct allegation is highly unusual, to put it very mildly. Finally, as anyone who has ever visited my site can see, I do not have any ads, and therefore have no ad revenues. I look forward to Ginsberg’s explanation of why he feels my ongoing reporting on city hall, land use, transportation, and local elections is “salacious.”

** I have seen at least one piece of this “evidence”—a message from Koss Vallejo making a fat joke about an unspecified person. Stober sent me a screen shot of the message when I asked about this text exchange, between him and King County Committeeman Jon Culver. The two men are expressing frustration about an event planned by the organizers of the Women’s March that apparently conflicted with a King County Democrats event:

Asked about this and similar exchanges, Stober told me, “I’m not going to have this trial occur in the media-it doesn’t respect my board, the process or due process. But I will say this-my close circle of friends and advisors  have engaged in internal jokes and conversations that could have and should have been avoided and we will address that and improve. But for Natalia to pretend that is one sided is a far stretch. Here is one of MANY screenshots I’ll be turning over to investigators to show Natalia engaging in the same behavior she’s now accusing others of. This should at least ensure fair reporting. The rest I’ll give to investigators and will provide to you as appropriate.” The screen shot followed. As I’ve mentioned many times, women who play along with men who make inappropriate “jokes” in workplace situations, particularly when those men are their bosses, often do so as a coping mechanism. In any case, “But so-and-so did it too!” is not a generally recognized excuse for workplace misconduct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 City Budget Passes Without Head Tax. Now What?

Seattle may be rolling in tax revenues thanks to an economic boom that just won’t quit, but this year’s budget process played out like a recession-year knock-down-drag-out battle. It started when the council’s new budget chair, Lisa Herbold, proposed a budget that presumed the council would agree to a head tax on large employers (and made their top-priority projects dependent on the tax). When the tax failed on a (somewhat predictable) 5-4 vote, council members were left scrambling to come up with a new “Plan B” that would preserve their top priorities. This plan—call it Plan C—included deep cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, without commensurate cuts to the legislative branch, whose budget included some literal padding in the form of $250,000 for new carpet in council members’ offices.

Over the weekend, though, council members decided to have mercy on the mayor, reducing the proposed cuts to her office by half (and sacrificing their top-dollar carpet in the process). That change would have meant less new funding for the Human Services Department, but a last-minute amendment by council member Kirsten Harris-Talley increased HSD’s funding by dipping into the budget for the Department of Construction and Inspections, which administers permits and inspects buildings (including rental housing) for code compliance. That change, along with numerous other last-minute amendments, happened almost in the moment, and council members who hadn’t seen the proposed changes before today appeared to be reading them on the fly in the moments before voting them up or down. The public, meanwhile, had no way to read or absorb many of the proposed amendments unless they were physically in council chambers, where staffers made hard copies of (some of) the amendments available as the council discussed and voted on them.

Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley

The debate over how much additional funding the council should allocate for HSD—which administers all the city’s grants for homeless services, a job that has grown in scope as the city’s budget for those services has increased—broke down along somewhat surprising lines. On the center left-to-socialist spectrum of Seattle politics, HSD’s mission is strictly centrist, and its director, Catherine Lester—appointed by former mayor Ed Murray in 2015—is a staunch defender of that mission. This year, HSD rebid all its homeless service provider contracts under a new system known as “performance-based contracting”—a process critics say favors large, established service providers that prioritize people who are easier to house at the expense of smaller, scrappier groups that focus on more challenging clients. The agency’s job next year will be to administer those projects and implement Pathways Home, a controversial plan developed in collaboration with Ohio-based consultant Barb Poppe. In 2016, Poppe did a report that concluded that Seattle already has plenty of resources to house every person living outdoors, a conclusion many (including this blog) have contested.  Pathways Home, which is based on that report, directs HSD to shift spending away from transitional housing programs that provide long-term assistance and toward more “cost-effective” solutions like  “rapid rehousing”—short-term rent subsidies to move people directly from homelessness into market-rate apartments. Critics of this approach have argued that expecting people to move from homelessness to full self-sufficiency in a matter of months is unrealistic in a city  where the average one-bedroom apartment now rents for around $1,800.

Murray and Lester butted heads with the left wing of the council (as well as many homeless advocates) over rapid rehousing, performance-based contracting, and Pathways Home, but you wouldn’t know that from this month’s budget debate, in which HSD was often portrayed as a direct social service provider rather than a contract administrator. (This happened a lot earlier in the process, too, when hundreds of thousands of dollars were shifted from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services to HSD). On Monday, Harris-Talley described Lester as “a jewel of the community” and said she had “deep concerns about what has happened in regards to HSD, how that department has been treated.” It was disappointing. she added, “to see a department with a black woman at the helm” taking on significant additional responsibility without a commensurate amount of additional funding. It’s unclear whether Durkan—who supports Pathways Home—will appoint her own HSD director or keep Lester on board.

Comic Sans and public opinion in the ladies’ room.

The employee hours tax tax isn’t dead. In fact, several council members attempted to forcibly resurrect it yesterday, by proposing a budget amendment that would have required the council to pass the head tax after going through the motions of a four-month process to come up with a sustainable revenue source for homelessness. The five council members who voted against the head tax, unsurprisingly, weren’t interested in committing in advance to the same tax they just rejected, and they (also unsurprisingly) prevailed, inserting language into the amendment that commits the council instead to coming up with “progressive taxes” of some sort that will yield at least $25 million for homeless services. Any proposal they come up with will likely include a head tax, because the council’s taxing authority is quite limited, and council members made that clear. That didn’t stop the crowd from screaming “Bad!” and “Shame!” and booing council members so loudly they had to repeatedly stop the proceedings. (A couple of people were kicked out). Sawant, too, repeatedly denounced her council colleagues, as she has throughout the budget process, as “corporate politicians” kowtowing to their masters at the Chamber of Commerce. This kind of rhetoric definitely riles up the base, but it doesn’t win any currency with people like Rob Johnson, an earnest liberal who fought (against Herbold!) to ensure that supervised consumption sites were fully funded in this year’s budget, a position that I’m betting scored him zero points in his Northeast Seattle council district.

Social service and safe consumption site advocates line up hours early for yesterday’s 2pm council meeting—as they do whenever they know council member Kshama Sawant has invited her supporters to “pack city hall”

A cynical observer might point out that by keeping the discussion over the head tax alive, council members who did not prevail last week got another opportunity to make rousing speeches and rally the base on Monday. The council’s resident (official) socialist, Kshama Sawant, has encouraged her supporters (on social media and through her official city council email list) to “pack city hall” for every budget discussion and vote, and they have done exactly that, showing up at every budget meeting to wave red “stop the sweeps” signs, applaud Sawant’s lengthy speeches (one of many she made yesterday stretched nearly 15 minutes) and shout down council members who voted against her proposals.

A word about the screaming. It may be directed at the three women and two men who vote the “wrong” way, but it has the effect, in the moment, of shutting down all discussion. When you use brute verbal force against political opponents (both those on the dais and those who are scared to speak because, well, they’re worried about screamed at) it goes beyond merely “disrupting business as usual.” It’s disrespectful, counterproductive, and, most importantly, intimidating—social service advocates whose programs are in the budget still show up (hours early, to get ahead of Sawant’s supporters) to speak at council meetings, but otherwise, public comment is overwhelmingly dominated by a single set of voices. People who used to show up don’t show up. Dissent—the normal give and take of democracy playing out in public—is almost literally drowned out when one side asserts their right to own a public space by shouting everyone else out of the room. This year, I was disturbed to hear council members explicitly equate “the people here in the room today” with “the community” at large. Most of the 700,000 people in Seattle, and indeed most of the much smaller group of people who have an opinion about the 2018 city budget, weren’t represented in council chambers, and rarely are. This, even under ordinary circumstances, is perfectly understandable—most people have to work during the day, for one thing—but council members should take that into account, and not conflate “people with time to sit in council chambers day after day” with “a representative sample of the community at large.”

It will be interesting to see what happens to the council’s left wing—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien—once council member-elect Teresa Mosqueda takes office, replacing Harris-Talley, next week. Mosqueda defeated the far left’s preferred candidate, Jon Grant, and will not be a reliable vote for the Sawant wing of the council, who couldn’t muster a majority for the head-tax-based budget even with Harris-Talley on the council.

Sawant, who represents council District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District), was the only council member to vote against the budget—as she has since her election in 2013.

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

Morning Crank: There Has Been One Bump in the Road

Lauren McGowan, Marty Hartman, Barb Poppe

1. The third of three panel discussions on homelessness in Seattle (sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Chamber, Visit Seattle, and the Alliance for Pioneer Square) featured an all-female panel (KIRO radio host Dave Ross, who moderated, made a cringeworthy joke about bringing “gender diversity” to the stage) that covered a lot of the same territory as the previous two. The panelists (consultant Barb Poppe, King County Human Services director Adrienne Quinn, Seattle Human Services Department director Catherine Lester, Mary’s Place director Marty Hartman, and United Way of King County financial stability director Lauren McGowan) agreed on the need for more accountability and better data; lamented the fact that homelessness is growing faster than the city or county’s ability to place people in housing; and disputed the notion, suggested by some audience members, that arresting people for sleeping in tents and panhandling was a good solution. I livetweeted the event and Storified those tweets here.

One new theme in yesterday morning’s discussion, which I hadn’t heard leaders acknowledge openly before, was the city’s inability to convince private landlords to voluntarily rent their units to formerly homeless individuals and families. The city’s Pathways Home homelessness strategy, which is based on a report Poppe produced last year, relies heavily on landlords to decide to participate voluntarily in a “housing resource center” that will, in theory, link people experiencing homelessness, including those with histories of eviction or criminal records, to landlords. The idea is to entice landlords to rent to people who might not meet their usual screening criteria by providing incentives such as on-call emergency assistance, a “mitigation fund” to pay for any damage caused by tenants, or flat financial payments to landlords who take on formerly homeless tenants. The center, Lester acknowledged, “has been an area where we have not been able to accelerate as quickly as we would like to.”

The view from Belltown: “I feel like I’m living in a war zone.”

Poppe appealed to landlords’ sense of obligation to help their communities. “There has been one bump in the road, which is the housing resource center, and they need your help on this,” Poppe told the audience of business community members. “They need those landlords to come forward. I really encourage the business community to engage and help get back on track.” Without much larger incentives, or a market crash that drastically slows or reverses population growth, that strikes me as wishful thinking—as things stands, landlords clearly see no reason to voluntarily rent to high-risk tenants in a market where they can easily find tenants with stable jobs and perfect credit.

2. The discovery of $3.4 million in “missing” money from the city’s incentive zoning program—which required developers in certain neighborhoods to build affordable housing or pay into a fund in exchange for greater density—wasn’t quite the bombshell news some media made it out to be; the error was discovered by the city auditor and corrected last year. However, the news raised obvious concerns about both accountability—are developers fulfilling their affordable-housing obligations?—and transparency—how do citizens know developers are fulfilling their obligations?— and both issues were on the table yesterday morning, when the council’s planning, land use, and zoning committee looked at the audit findings and a list of recommendations aimed at ensuring no more multi-million-dollar obligations slip through the cracks. The city is replacing the old incentive zoning program, which allowed developers to build taller as an incentive for affordable housing payment or production, with a new mandatory affordable housing program, which requires developers across the city to build affordable housing or pay into the affordable housing fund.

In addition to the need for better controls and more frequent checks to make sure that developers pay what they owe the city, council members pointed to the need to make sure developers are producing the housing they say they’re producing under the new program—and to ensure that the public can easily access that information as well.

“When I’m in the community talking about the MHA program, there’s a skepticism around the payments,” District 6 council member Mike O’Brien said. “I hear from folks in the community that they just pay and who knows where that money goes? The reality is that that money is going to a bunch of cool program, but the more clarity we can provide to people so they can see that ‘that project next to me or down the street is producing this many units or they wrote this check and we can actually see that project—it’s down the street,” the better. “My goal is not to create an overwhelming burden on the process or slow it down, but just to make sure that folks who are trying to access this information can look at that,” O’Brien said.

Office of Housing director Steve Walker said his office had made progress toward creating a public system that tracks new units built under various affordable housing programs, and Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson said DCI was working on a system to track how new developments plan to meet their MHA obligations, and where those developments are in “the pipeline.”

“I know the audit turned up, certainly, a couple of high-profile things that we’re all embarrassed by, and should be,” O’Brien said. “While this isn’t a shining moment of how everything worked perfectly at the city, I think it’s an example of how checks and balances are in place, and we have people dedicated to working through the process and informing the public” in the future.

3. Tensions in council chambers were high Monday morning,  when the council met for the first time as the Select Committee on Civic Arenas, a committee that was formed after the council voting against handing control of a public right-of-way over to billionaire hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, who wants to build a new NBA arena in SoDo.

The street vacation went down by a 5-4 vote, which happened to break down along gender lines, prompting an awful lot of grown men (and a few women) to spend an awful lot of time and mental energy thinking up creative new ways to call the majority of the city council bitches and cunts. One of those women, Lorena Gonzalez, said yesterday that she’s hopeful that having a whole committee dedicated to the arena discussion will give people an opportunity to air substantive issues related to the arena debate issues “in a way that is more public and transparent” than last year’s street vacation discussion, which took place in the transportation committee, to which most council members do not belong.  “My hope is that the pro-SoDo arena crowd will, at a minimum, recognize that there is an effort by this council to air out potential issues early and to have conversations about those issues and concerns in a way that is productive,” Gonzalez said.

Fingers crossed.

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

HSD Director: RV Camps for Homeless Won’t Solve the Crisis

On Tuesday, Mayor Ed Murray announced the location of the two RV encampments. (I first reported the announcement was coming last week). The camps, which will include space for about 50 and other large vehicles, will be located in Highland Park in West Seattle and in Ballard.

Murray announced the camps by executive order, allowing him to bypass the city council as well as the usual lengthy public-comment and outreach process that has slowed the opening of other facilities for the homeless, like the controversial tent city in Ballard. Today, the city council voted to approve the executive order, adding some amendments that will allow a third camp and six-month extensions for both camps proposed in Murray’s order.

Last week, city council member Mike O’Brien, whose district includes one of the proposed RV parks, told me he was skeptical that the parks would satisfy neighbors (who have demanded that the city impose a total ban on all RVs in the city), given that there are far more RVs in the city than could possibly fit in the camps, and that Seattle’s homeless population is growing every day.

I was (and remain) skeptical as well. Even if the city managed to set up enough camps for everyone living in RVs in Seattle (a proposal nobody is making), not everyone would move into them. Even if the city rounded up everyone who stayed away from the camps because they were dealing drugs, running chop shops, or were unwilling to follow camp rules against drinking and drug use, more people would inevitably take their place. (Last year, the One-Night Count of the Homeless found nearly 4,000 people living unsheltered on King County streets; this year’s, which takes place next week, is expected to be even higher.) And even if most of the RV-dwelling homeless had their homes impounded, relocated to camps, or moved on to another place (perhaps a small town where RVs are permitted but services are lacking), history shows that a group of highly motivated homeowners would continue to complain about any visible poverty in their midst.

So what’s the point of the RV lots, other than making it appear that the city is doing something about the problem? And does the city have a long-term vision for responding to homelessness, other than rounding people into RV and tent camps and sweeping up all “unauthorized encampments,” leaving desperate people even more vulnerable?

I asked Catherine Lester, head of the city’s Human Services Department and the official who explained the mayor’s policy on homeless encampment sweeps on Tuesday, to answer some of those questions.

On how neighbors in Ballard and West Seattle were likely to react to the announcement:

I’ve had an opportunity to talk to a variety of folks leading up to the mayor’s announcement. I think people collectively realize that people who are living in their vehicles represent a unique challenge and that they are just as vulnerable as people living on the street. This action is an attempt to balance the immediate needs that those without shelter are experiencing as well as the neighborhood concerns about people being parked throughout their neighborhoods.

We were trying to find locations where there seemed to be already a fair amount of those living in vehicles. Also, there are only so many lots available.

On the upsurge in homelessness and the likelihood that the camps will barely make a dent in RV parking and other visible homelessness in Seattle: 

I think [the RV parks] highlight the importance: This is a crisis that can’t be solved by us alone at the local level. It highlights the importance of us partnering with our state and federal partners and elevating this conversation to our state and federal partners. There are some resources that cities cannot generate or control. The second thing is that we often assume that one size fits all, and that everyone wants to move to a shelter or that being inside means going to a shelter, and I definitely think being able to access shelter is one piece of it, which is why being able to bring on 288 additional shelter beds since the declaration of emergency in October is a critical part of this conversation.

The other part is, how do we help open up the back doors? How do we create housing so that people who are currently residing in shelters can move somewhere more permanent? We need the ability to think about permanency more broadly than just shelter in our outreach and engagement work. There have been people who have expressed wanting to reunify with their families. Sometimes that’s family that lives locally and sometimes it’s family that lives in another state.

On what “permanency” looks like for people who don’t want to give up their RVs or move into camps: 

When people are living in their vehicle, one of the things we’re cognizant of is that oftentimes it’s the last remaining resource or asset that people have. I don’t think the intention is to make people give up their vehicles so that they can move into shelter. We want to listen to what people need and be responsive to that need instead of forcing people to take that option.

[One example of being responsive might be] providing flexible funds to say, if you need travel assistance to help you reunify with family members, we want to be able to make that happen. If you need access to medicine and medical treatment which will help you get indoors, we will make that happen. If you need rental assistance getting first and last month’s rent together, we will make that happen. If you need documentation or help with the costs associated with getting your vehicle operational, we will make that happen.

Mental health and chemical dependency are often a barrier to people being permanently housed. We want to make those resources available. We do really want to be very assertive in making resources and case management available. The ultimate goal is not for the city to be setting up these safe lots so that people will move there indefinitely. It’s more about creating a temporary space to make services available.

At this point, this is very much an immediate crisis response. It’s not a long-term solution to ending homelessness. It provides a safer environment for people who are living in their vehicles. It’s a way to help them navigate the system in way that helps them achieve permanency. I’m not in a position to speculate about whether this becomes a long-term, permanent option in our city.

On how the city will respond to RV owners who violate parking laws or have expired tabs going forward:

I would say that the city is going to continue to enforce parking laws across the city. The goal is to be patient and very much consistent in terms of how the parking laws are enforced. Our intention is to be patient. If there are people engaging in criminal behavior, however, it’s the city’s responsibility to be attentive to criminal activity. But we also recognize that the opening of these lots does not mean that there will not be people still remaining on the streets.

In terms of trash and the human condition on the street, I think there is an opportunity for the city to be more responsive. [Lester later clarified that Seattle Public Utilities has not been ordered to make more frequent trash pickups at existing on-street RV parking sites.]