Tag: city council

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

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

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.

State Buys Central District Nursing Home for Hospital Relief, City Hall Shelter Clients Still Sleeping Inches Apart, and More COVID News

1. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services has purchased the former Paramount Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Seattle’s Central District to serve as a hospital for people without COVID-19, at a cost of $13.5 million, The C Is for Crank has learned. The 165-bed nursing home closed down last month, after an analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services called it one of the worst-performing nursing homes in the country.

Chris Wright, a spokesman for the state COVID Joint Information Center, said the goal of the purchase is “to free up beds in hospitals during the crisis by finding patients who are currently in hospitals, but could receive the same level of care in this nursing home.” He says the state is “trying to find a contractor to run the facility and hope to open by the end of April.” The facility will create about 100 job openings, for nurses, food service workers, maintenance workers, and supervisors, Wright says.

2. As homeless shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit groups “de-intensified” their existing shelters by moving some clients to new locations, people are still sleeping inches apart at the nighttime-only shelter at City Hall, which is run by the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center. Staffing is apparently an issue; expanding the shelter to the red-glass lobby on Fourth Avenue (as has been discussed) or moving some shelter clients elsewhere would require additional Salvation Army employees or other staff.

A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said that “Many shelter operators, including the operator at the City Hall shelters, are facing staffing capacity constraints that make it challenging to split operations between multiple sites quickly. City staff have been stepping in to help staff shelters to meet this need, and we are working with the service provider to identify solutions.” A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said the group had nothing new to announce about the shelter.

The basic shelter at City Hall consists of 75 mats on the floor inside the Fifth Avenue lobby, which is open daily from 7pm until 7 in the morning.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

3. Staff at the city’s Human Services, Parks, and Seattle Center departments are being reassigned to front-line positions working in some of the new shelter spaces that have been opened for residents at  as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and distributing food through HSD’s division of Youth and Family Empowerment. These reassignments apply not just to the approximately 70 workers who have been specially trained to work in shelters, but also to other staffers who will be reassigned as part of the departments’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs), which shut down certain city facilities and functions while defining others as “mission essential.”

It’s unclear what, if any, long-term plan exists for city employees who would ordinarily be reassigned to front-line jobs but are in a high-risk group for COVID exposure. The mayor’s order authorizes departments to provide “full or partial compensation” to these workers, but the city did not provide any specific details about what that will look like, or whether some employees may eventually have to be furloughed until front-line services can open again.

4. Governor Jay Inslee confirmed on Saturday that the state is using prison labor to make hospital gowns during the COVID crisis. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the gowns are being produced by inmates at the Coyote Ridge medium-security prison in Franklin County. Inslee said Saturday that the prisoners were “very eager for this job, and we’re eager for their success in this regard.” Prisoners in Washington State make a fraction of the state minimum wage.

Prison reform advocates across the country, including in Washington State, have argued that state prison systems should release many incarcerated people to protect their health during the COVID crisis. Inslee said Saturday that “we have a commitment … to keeping these incarcerated individuals as safe as humanly possible” during the pandemic.

5. The Seattle City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution this afternoon asking Gov. Inslee to use his emergency powers to implement a moratorium on all residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments in the state, and to forgive any debt accumulated by renters and property owners after the COVID crisis has passed. The resolution, which also calls on the federal government to enact a similar policy nationwide, passed unanimously, though not without a bit of incredulous guffawing from council member Debora Juarez, who (along with her colleague Alex Pedersen) seemed skeptical about the idea of effectively canceling all rent and mortgage payments for the indefinite future.

“So you’re saying that a commercial [landlord] that owns 20-plus units, or apartments, who also has a mortgage to pay … that we are lobbying for them as well, under this administration and to our governor, that they too don’t have to pay their mortgage to the bank?” Juarez asked.

“That’s right,” the resolution’s sponsor, council member Tammy Morales, responded.

Pedersen expressed doubt about the legality of preemptively forgiving all rent and mortgage debt, and seemed to question whether renters would really need the help. “I’m concerned that [if] people are getting other relief, why would we want to then suspend the payments that are due when they’re getting relief from other angles?” he said. On the other hand, Pedersen said, “I have received lots of emails from constituents who are expressing their major concern and fear and pain that they’re suffering during this crisis, so I wish we had more time to think this through.”

Evening Crank Part 1: Hunker Down Edition

Cracks visible in the girders supporting the West Seattle Bridge. SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe says the discolored areas visible around the damage are “a result of the preventive maintenance we’ve done over the past few years, so don’t in and of themselves illustrate all of the issues we are concerned about right now.”

1. How long has the COVID-19 epidemic been going on? Only six years, you say? Well, in the words of Gov. Jay Inslee, hunker down…

It was a big news day, and not just because Gov. Jay Inslee finally told us all to go to our rooms and not come out until he said so. (Find a list of “essential” businesses that will stay open, which includes everything from veterinarians to food banks to recreational pot stores, here). Earlier in the day, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the high West Seattle Bridge will be completely closed to traffic until further notice, due to cracks in the concrete girders that support the bridge’s weight. Durkan said the new discoveries mean that the bridge “cannot safely support vehicular traffic.”

During a press conference conducted via Skype, Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe said the closure could last weeks or months. Zimbabwe said there hadn’t been a single incident or catastrophic event that led to the new damage; rather, crews inspecting the bridge last night discovered that cracks in the girders that had already allowed “incursions” of water and air had grown dramatically wider. Most of the weight of the bridge—about 80 percent—consists of the bridge itself, but heavier vehicles, and more of them, may have contributed to the damage, Zimbabwe said.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Drivers hoping to use the lower West Seattle bridge are out of luck; the secondary bridge will be open only to first responders, transit, and freight. People who choose to commute by car will have to go far afield of their usual routes, using West Marginal Way, First Ave. S., or SR 509 to get off the peninsula.

The announcement was so sudden that the two city council members who live in West Seattle, Lisa Herbold (District 1) and Lorena Gonzalez (Position 9) found out about the closure just a few hours before the public did. (The same was true of King County Council member Joe McDermott, who said in an email to constituents  this evening that he just found out about the closure “this afternoon.”) Mayor Durkan did not specify exactly why the closure had to happen with so little notice.

In a statement, Herbold, who represents West Seattle, questioned the decision to completely shut down the lower bridge to private auto traffic, saying she wanted  to know “how soon it can be opened for traffic given lower traffic volumes in Seattle” because of the COVID-19 epidemic and stay-at-home order. “My office has requested that SDOT appeal to the Coast Guard to make fewer bridge openings of the lower level bridge to allow for more buses and cars to cross, like they did in early 2019 when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed and the SR99 tunnel was not yet open.”

A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.”

2. At a city council briefing this morning, Position 8 city council member Teresa Mosqueda expressed optimism that “downtown boutique hotels” would soon begin offering rooms to people who were healthy but needed to self-isolate because they are members of a vulnerable group. “I really want to thank some of the hotel owners, especially some of the downtown boutique hotel owners,” for offering to help house people impacted by the COVID epidemic, Mosqueda said.

Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district (7) includes downtown, also said he hoped that downtown hotels would be able to offer rooms “to get people off the street and get people inside quickly on a temporary basis,” an arrangement that could also “give a boon to our struggling hospitality industry that has suffered from a massive dropoff in tourism” because of COVID-19. Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and Palladian hotels downtown, has reportedly been in contact with city about providing rooms for this purpose.

The city’s Office of Labor Standards has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

However, it was unclear Monday whether any hotels had actually stepped up and offered rooms, either for people experiencing homelessness or for first responders and others who need to be isolated because of potential COVID-19 exposure. A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.” The spokeswoman, Brandyn Hull, added that the hotels “have offered to support the city with very low rates” for first responders, medical workers, and representatives of the CDC.

3. After getting reports that restaurants and other businesses that had to lay off workers during the COVID crisis had failed to pay employees for time they’d already worked, I contacted the city’s Office of Labor Standards to see what recourse people in this situation might have. After initially writing that “All media inquires must go through the Mayor’s office,” they got back to me with more specific responses  this morning.

If you’ve been laid off and your employer did not pay you for time you worked—for example, if your boss told you they couldn’t pay your last paycheck—that “may be considered administrative wage theft,” so try contacting OLS or the state Department of Labor and Industries to see if they can resolve it. If you didn’t get paid for vacation or sick time you accrued, you’re probably out of luck, unless you can prove that getting paid out was a condition of your employment.

OLS has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

 

Worker Benefits Expanded, Sweeps Suspended For Now, Navigation Team’s Future In Doubt

Ballard Business District, March 17, 2020

1. Governor Jay Inslee did not announce a statewide order to shelter in place on Wednesday afternoon, nor did he the bait when a reporter asked him whether he planned on doing so later this week. Instead, at a press conference in Olympia that was broadcast statewide, with reporters participating by teleconference, Inslee said he was issuing several new orders to ease the financial burdens the COVID-19 outbreak has placed on renters, small business owners, and workers statewide.

“My dad used to tell me, when you’re going through hell, keep going,” Inslee said, before announcing his latest statewide COVID financial relief package, which includes: 

• A statewide moratorium on evictions for residential tenants who are unable to pay their rent. Unlike a similar temporary eviction ban in Seattle, the statewide moratorium leaves some leeway for landlords to evict tenants for other reasons. “We just can’t have a big spike in homelessness … with this epidemic raging,” Inslee said. Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said that the order left room for landlords to evict tenants who were engaged in criminal activity or creating environmental hazards, for example.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

• A waiver of the usual one-week waiting period before people can receive unemployment benefits, retroactive to March 8, when Inslee expanded eligibility for unemployment to part-time workers. Inslee said today that he is waiting for the White House and Congress to declare a federal disaster in Washington State, making more employees, as well as some independent contractors, eligible for unemployment.

Employment Security Department commissioner Suzi LeVine said unemployment claims were up 150% last week, and claims for shared work arrangements (where people go to part time but also get unemployment) have spiked 500%. “There has been a tsunami of demand,” LeVine said.

• Small grants to small businesses that have been impacted by the epidemic, plus tax relief for businesses that are unable to pay their taxes on time, retroactive to February 29. This will include interest waivers and the suspension of tax liens and forced collections by seizing bank accounts.

• The extension of Emergency Family Assistance (cash assistance) eligibility to families without children.

“Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible [to COVID-19] than a lot of the general public.” — Steve, who lived in a trailer that was towed away by the Navigation Team last week

2. Yesterday, after declining to respond to questions from reporters about whether the Navigation Team planned to continue removing encampments and disposing of homeless people’s belongings during the pandemic, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post announcing the suspension of most sweeps, except in an “extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard.”

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said examples of an extreme circumstance would include any encampment that is “blocking the entire sidewalk, prohibits access to a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor says that both the Navigation Team and other city staffers authorized and trained to remove encampments on their own, such as community police officers and some parks employees, will abide by the moratorium. The blog post included a detailed itemization of the number of hygiene kits the city has distributed, the number of sites the team has visited, and the number of flyers about COVID they have handed out. But when it came to the number of encampments that have been removed since the beginning of March, when several people in the Seattle area had already died from the virus, the blog post said simply that they were “limited.”

Asked for a more specific number, the mayor’s office responded that the city removed just 15 encampments that were deemed “obstructions,” total, between March 1 and March 17.

3. I found out about one of those 15 removals on March 11, when Bailey Boyd, a North Seattle resident, took photos of its what was left after the Navigation Team towed away a trailer that was parked on the street near her home and posted them on Twitter. Boyd said and her roommate watched as the team tossed all of the items inside the trailer onto the street, where many of them remained until the couple who had been living there moved to a different location.

Source: Alliance for a HealthY Washington

“I went and got coffee in the morning, and when I came back, there was a squad car and another car there and the Navigation Team was going through all their stuff and throwing it on the ground,” Boyd said. “Then they brought a tow truck in and towed the trailer, and they just left all of their stuff on the side of the road.”

One of the two people who had been living in the trailer, whose first name is Steve, said the Navigation Team told him they could call a shelter for him and his girlfriend, who is disabled and uses a cane, and see if they had space. Steve says he told them not to bother. “I’m not going to a shelter. I’m with my girlfriend and I’m not going to split up from her,” he said. He also wants to avoid close contact with potentially infected people—something he doesn’t have to deal with living in a trailer. “Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible than a lot of the general public,” he said.

Another issue, for Steve and his girlfriend, is that they don’t want to lose all their personal items—something Steve said has happened to him repeatedly after the Navigation Team has made him move. According to the city, the Navigation Team places all personal items removed from encampments in storage for a minimum of 70 days. However, according to the “site journals” posted on the city’s encampment abatement page, which has not been updated since the end of January, the last time the Navigation Team stored any property at all was last October.

4. This year’s city budget will need to be cut dramatically to deal with the economic impact of the COVID epidemic. Last week, the head of the city budget office, Ben Noble, estimated that the budget could take a $100 million hit. One place council members may look for savings is the Navigation Team, which has been expanded every year since Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in 2017. The team, at 38 members, now costs the city $8.4 million a year.

District 2 council member Tammy Morales, who vowed during her campaign to “stop the sweeps,” told me this week that the council had already started looking at the team’s budget before the current crisis hit. “Even before this emergency, our office was working to stop the sweeps,” Morales said. Expect the council to take a critical lens to the program once the dust settles and it’s clear how much the city has to cut.

Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever

1. Seattle Police Department Lt. Sina Ebinger, the Navigation Team leader who ordered a private trash contractor to haul away items from her house earlier this month, has reportedly been reassigned to other duties while the Office of Police Accountability conducts an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Sili Kalepo, the field coordinator who reportedly oversaw the trash pickup at Ebinger’s house, has reportedly been put on administrative leave by the Human Services Department.

SPD spokesman Patrick Michaud said the department isn’t “going to have any further comment on this investigation until it is complete” and suggested I could find out Lt. Ebinger’s current employment status with the department by filing a public disclosure request, which I have done. A spokesman for HSD said he couldn’t provide any details on an ongoing investigation but confirmed that Kalepo’s conduct is under review.

2. The Navigation Team’s encampment removal practices will come under scrutiny from the council’s special committee on homelessness Wednesday, when HSD director Jason Johnson and team director Tara Beck present a report responding to a number of council questions, including how the Navigation Team determines that an encampment is an “obstruction” that must be removed right away and how the team plans to increase the number of displaced encampment residents who actually show up to shelter. (These quarterly reports, which always cover a different set of questions, are required under a budget proviso adopted several years back.)

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has moved away from providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments—the “navigation” part of the equation—to a model where encampments are routinely designated as “obstructions” and removed without warning.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way.

The latest quarterly report confirms the continued escalation of this trend, noting that in the last three months of 2019, the team provided the once-standard 72 hours’ notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. Put another way, the Navigation Team deemed 96 percent of the encampments it removed in 2019 to be exempt from the once-standard outreach and notification rules adopted in 2017. At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier.

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These numbers only account for encampments removed by the Navigation Team; as I’ve reported, some police officers have also been trained to remove encampments directly, without providing outreach or shelter referrals; during a three-month period last year, police authorized to remove encampments reported 515 “interactions” with people living in unsanctioned encampments, and made just nine referrals to shelter.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way. Citing the definition of “obstruction” from the city’s rules on unauthorized encampments, which includes “people, tents, personal property, garbage, debris or other objects related to an encampment that: are in a City park or on a public sidewalk,” the Navigation Team’s report argues: “Each of the items in the list above stand independently from one another, meaning only one statement needs to be true for an encampment to qualify as an obstruction.” As I’ve reported, this rule has already been interpreted broadly; for example, one encampment slated for removal last year was located down a steep, dangerous slope inside a grove of trees far away from any public path.

Only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter.

The Navigation Team did not respond to the council’s request for detailed information about each “obstruction” that justified an encampment removal. Instead, it provided a list of locations where “obstruction” encampments were removed, along with the number of “contacts” the team made at each encampment in the weeks before removing it. What’s most notable about this list is that the “contacts” column is a sea of “N/A”s—”not applicable,” meaning that the team removed tents, trash and personal property without talking to anyone who lived on-site at all.

When the Navigation Team did make contacts, the report shows, fewer than one in four accepted referrals to shelter, and of those, fewer than one in four actually showed up at the shelter to which they were referred. Put another way, only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter. This contrasts sharply with HSD’s own “performance-based contracting” standards for other outreach providers, who must refer at least 60 percent of their clients to shelter. According to the central staff memo, “There is no data to indicate that the Navigation Team’s effectiveness in connecting people with shelter improved” in the past quarter. Continue reading “Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever”

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

Trees currently cover between 28 and 33 percent of Seattle’s land, making us one of the nation’s greenest cities. But advocates for a new, stronger tree protection ordinance believe the city should go further to protect its canopy, by restricting tree removal in ways that could prevent new housing development in the single-family neighborhoods where most of Seattle’s large trees are located. In doing so, they have insisted that the only way to mitigate climate change is to take actions that prevent development in their exclusive neighborhoods—a literal example of failing to see the forest for the trees.

The city is currently considering amendments to the city’s existing tree protection ordinance that would add new protections for significant trees, create a “fee in lieu” of preserving specific trees that would fund new tree plantings elsewhere, and require property owners to replace any tree they remove that’s more than six inches in diameter, among other new rules. Advocates want the city to go further, by reducing the maximum size and number of trees that can be removed from vacant lots, for redevelopment, and by individual homeowners.

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One impact of greater tree protections would likely be less development in areas where density is allowed, including both urban villages (which were just modestly expanded under the Mandatory Housing Affordability act) and single-family areas where homeowners just gained the ability to build auxiliary units, including backyard cottages. Trees, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in areas of Seattle that are wealthy and white, and scarce in areas that are not; a 2016 city analysis found that in “census tracts with high numbers of people of color, tree canopy is as low as 11% while in areas with not many people of color there is 55% canopy cover.”

Given that disparity, it was hardly surprising that the people who showed up at city hall this morning to advocate for more stringent tree protections/development restrictions were people who identified themselves as residents of neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Ballard, and North Seattle. One by one, they came up to make their case. A group was given extra time to sing a song decrying development, and then a member of that group, dressed up as a tree, shouted “I am a magnificent tree! … Every tree counts, especially us mature trees!” into the microphone. A man said developers who were building “million-dollar townhouses and large apartment buildings” in his neighborhood probably go home to neighborhoods with “very nice trees.” A woman said that development and the resultant tree removal is destroying “opportunities for tire swings, hammocks, tree climbing, playing with sticks, cool spots to place your picnic blanket [and] piles of leaves to jump into.” And a man asked the council if they had thought about drivers, asking rhetorically, “When it’s hot, where do you want to park?” and argued that “you need the trees” to keep cars cool.

Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards.

All this absurdity was just the precursor for what will likely be a lengthy debate over the proposed new tree protections. None of the proposals are especially unreasonable on their face. But it would be a shame if, taken together, they made it harder to build housing for the people that are moving here, the people who already live here, and the people who are being driven out by housing scarcity. Continue reading “I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees”

Who’s Up, Who’s Down, and What’s Changing as the City Council Returns

The city council, now headed up by council president Lorena Gonzalez, announced its roster of standing committees on Thursday. While committee structures are far from the only power map for the council, a few things are clear from the leadership and membership of the council’s new committees, starting with the fact that there are now eight regular committees—for nine council members. Andrew Lewis, who was just elected to represent District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, Queen Anne) is the odd man out, with the chairmanship of the council’s select committee on homelessness as a consolation prize. It’s worth noting that the homelessness committee met less than once a month in 2019, when the council was negotiating the details of a regional homelessness authority, and will have even fewer duties once the city’s homelessness response transfers to that authority this year.

More highlights of who’s up, who’s down, and who gets to spend more time away from Seattle in a moment, but first, it’s worth looking at the broader context for some of this year’s committee changes. Last year, open government activists sued the city for violating the state Open Public Meetings Act when Mayor Jenny Durkan and eight council members privately negotiated the repeal of the controversial “head tax.” The open meetings act prohibits a quorum of a governing body like the city council or one of its committees from deliberating privately. Under the previous committee structure, each committee had just three members, meaning that any discussion between two or more committee members could constitute an open meetings act violation.

The new rules will force council members to actually show up at meetings, and it will discourage one-off special meetings like council member Kshama Sawant’s frequent “pack city hall” rallies, at which Sawant was often the only council member present.

The new committee rules address this issue in a couple of ways. First, every committee must have at least four members (and, in practice, each current committee has five), increasing the size of a quorum from two members to three. Second, the new rules require that at least three members of a committee be present just to hold a committee meeting, a significant shift from previous years, when council members frequently held meetings with only the committee chair present and voting. This will force council members to actually show up at meetings, and it will discourage one-off special meetings like council member Kshama Sawant’s frequent “pack city hall” rallies, at which Sawant was often the only council member present.

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The rules offset these new attendance requirements in a couple of ways as well. First, half of the committees will meet just once a month, a change that reduces the total number of monthly meetings from 18 to 12. Second, regular meetings will be confined to two days a week, giving council members two days free of mandatory public meetings. Finally, the rules bar council members from just showing up at committees they don’t belong to. Non-committee members can only attend committee meetings at the request of the chair, and can’t vote—a change that eliminates the incentive for council members to simply drop by committees when they want to influence an issue on the agenda.

Returning to the details, the new committees are imbalanced in a couple of obvious ways. First, newcomer Alex Pedersen is starting his term with an unusually large portfolio, overseeing three of the city’s biggest departments (transportation, City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities) as chair of a single mega-committee called Transportation and Utilities. Advocates for transportation alternatives have raised alarms that Pedersen—a Sound Transit opponent who also backed efforts to kill a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE—will be heading up transportation. But it’s also worth noting that his fellow committee members include newcomer Dan Strauss and Gonzalez, who could serve as moderating influences. Gonzalez may also be wagering that it’s best to keep Pedersen busy.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Sawant, who—despite being the council’s most senior member—will oversee just two issue areas, sustainability and renters’ rights, and will head up a committee that meets monthly rather than twice a month. (Housing is the subject of another committee headed up, along with budget, by Teresa Mosqueda.) It’s easy to interpret this as a diminishment of Sawant’s power on the council, but bear in mind that holding regular committee meetings has never been the way Sawant has exercised her influence; in 2019, she held just nine regular meetings of the human services committee (out of 24 scheduled), fewer than any other committee chair. Instead, she used her chairmanship to call special meetings on single issues important to her political base, such rent control (which is prohibited by state law) tiny house encampments. Sawant’s new assignment, along with the rule changes, will make it harder for her to hold such meetings through the council’s official committee structure; on the other hand, the changes could free her up to spend more time holding rallies, events, and  outside the confines of city hall, or to do more work building her party, Socialist Alternative, outside the city.

The new committees give new power to other (relative) council veterans such as Mosqueda, who will go head to head with Durkan during this year’s budget process, and police reform advocate Lisa Herbold, who will head up the public safety committee. Strauss, who identifies as an urbanist, will oversee land use and neighborhoods, while the council’s other newcomer, District 2 (South Seattle)’s Tammy Morales, will head up a smaller committee overseeing community economic development that meets just once a month. One additional factor to be determined is how much power vice chairs and committee members will have over the committees on which they serve; with the new attendance requirements, council members could decide to share duties more broadly than they did under the previous structure.

As County Heads Into Homelessness Vote, City Council Considers Putting On the Brakes

As King County’s Regional Policy Committee heads into a vote on the much-altered regional homelessness authority proposal on Thursday morning, the fate of the plan remains far from clear. Although the proposal has enough votes to pass the RPC, Seattle City Council members have expressed major concerns, and could ultimately end up sending the county, Seattle, and suburban cities back to the drawing board. The RPC, King County Council, and Seattle City Council all have to vote to approve the plan for it to go into effect.

Council member Deborah Juarez, who sits on the RPC, will reportedly vote for the plan tomorrow morning but will make a formal statement that the city has outstanding concerns about the plan. (Juarez did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday night). The city council will discuss potential amendments to the plan itself at their meeting tomorrow afternoon, and could introduce amendments formally on December 12, four days before the deadline to move the proposal forward this year. If the council amends the plan, negotiations with the county will start all over again next year.

A majority of the King County Council, with the approval of Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, have agreed on significant changes to the proposal—which has been in the works for most of the last year—over the last few weeks.

Seattle council members, as well as representatives for Human Service Department employees who will eventually work for the new authority, have raised concerns about what they consider a rush to pass the dramatically altered proposal before they’ve had a chance to consider the impacts of the changes. Perhaps most significantly, the new plan would shift budgeting and policy authority away from a board of experts and onto a panel of elected officials, including representatives of suburban cities that aren’t paying into the plan. Seattle has pledged to pay for $73 million, or 57 percent, of the new authority’s budget.

A memo from the city council’s central staff explained the differences between the original plan and the new proposal, which has emerged over the past few weeks.  I’ve outlined the changes before, but here are a few of the most significant:

• The new plan would create a 12-member governing board made up primarily of elected officials from Seattle (three members), King County (three members), the Sound Cities Association of suburban cities (three members), plus three members with lived experience of homelessness, one of whom must live outside Seattle. Previously, this group was known as the steering committee and would have had seven or eight members, including two with lived experience.

The changes would mean that, in theory, the board could have as few as three Seattle representatives—compared to a minimum of four suburban representatives— despite the fact that Seattle is contributing 57 percent of the funding for the new authority while suburban cities are contributing nothing. Potential amendments could change some of the geographic requirements to give Seattle more mandatory representation on the board.

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• A lower-level “implementation board” made up of experts and people with lived experience would be appointed by the governing board and a new advisory committee.

This board would be stripped of most of the authority it had in the original plan, proposing budgets and policy plans that could then be amended by as few as six members of the 12-member governing board. (For example, if only the minimum quorum of nine members showed up to a meeting, a six-member supermajority of that quorum could vote its preferred policies through. Even if all 12 members were present and voting, the nine elected officials could overrule the three members with lived experience on any vote.) The only decision that would require more than this six-vote minimum is a vote to fire the executive director. Potential amendments, hinted at in the council memo, might make it more difficult for the board of elected officials to amend budget and policy decisions.

• The new plan requires “sub-regional planning” (meaning that suburban cities can have localized plans with policies that differ from Seattle’s) and removes a mandate that these plans be evidence-based and informed by race and social justice principles, in line with a still-incomplete Regional Action Plan. Low-barrier shelters and Housing First policies are examples of evidence-based practices that some suburban cities may be reluctant to embrace. “Given the exclusion of such language, it is possible that a five-year plan that includes sub-regional planning will not reflect a uniform, defragmented approach to ending homelessness,” the central staff memo says. A potential amendment might require these sub-regional plans to align with the goals and principles of the RAP.

The council memo also suggests that in lieu of approving the new proposal or adopting amendments in the next week—the council has scheduled its last special homelessness committee meeting for December 12, with a final vote on December 16—council members could adopt a resolution committing to continue work on the plan in 2020 and directing the city’s Human Services Department to move forward on the 2020 contracting process with the county.

Delaying until next year would mean that outgoing homelessness committee chair Sally Bagshaw wouldn’t get to vote on the final plan (which she characterized as “all good” at a briefing earlier this week), and would force the county to regroup and hold additional public meetings as well. But a month or two of delay could give the city a chance to take a closer look at a plan that looks far less “transformative” than proponents of regional governance—who’ve been pushing for major governance changes not for months, but years—have hoped.

“All Good” or “Backroom Deal”? New Regional Homelessness Plan Goes Under the Microscope

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles

UPDATE: I’ve posted a brief update to this morning’s post on Twitter, including details of more changes that grant additional power to suburban cities.

A new regional homelessness plan that would give elected officials, including representatives of suburban cities, more direct control over the new authority has been moving forward rapidly over the past week—so fast, in fact, that several Seattle City Council members indicated they wouldn’t mind (gently) tapping the brakes. On Monday, as council member Sally Bagshaw laid out a two-week timeline for the council to approve a plan that many of them hadn’t even seen, several of her colleagues protested that they felt pressured to rush the proposal through without thoroughly considering what’s in it.

“While I appreciate the desire to try to avoid avoidable delay, I also don’t want us to … unnecessarily rush our decision-making process and our review of whatever it is the King County Council is considering this week,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said. Debora Juarez added that the plan “has changed at least four times in the last week, and so I’m a little bit concerned as well.”

While that discussion was going on, the union that represents staffers for the city’s Homelessness Investment and Strategy division, PROTEC17, was also getting up to speed. On Monday, PROTEC17 union rep Shaun van Eyk sent an email urging HSI staffers to flag concerns about the new proposal at upcoming meetings of the county’s Regional Policy Committee, the King County Council, and the Seattle City Council. “Each one of these hearings are opportunities to comment and/or attempt to delay this move,” van Eyk wrote.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

“There has been months and months and months of work—constituency-building, engaging with community, engaging with service providers, and all of that engagement was filtered into the proposal, and now, at the 11th hour, the city’s going to cut a backroom deal with the county to completely upend all that coalition building,” Van Eyk told me Monday. “And for what? It’s a political move.”

As I reported last week, the latest proposal to create a consolidated regional homelessness authority differs significantly from the plan King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Jenny Durkan rolled out in September. Under the original plan, all major budget, policy, and hiring decisions would have been made by an 11-member “governing board” of experts with no connections to elected officials or organizations that receive government funding. A 7-or-8-member “steering committee” would oversee the governing board, but their duties would be limited to appointing the initial members of the board (which would become self-perpetuating after five years) and approving or rejecting budgets and policy plans without amendment. Continue reading ““All Good” or “Backroom Deal”? New Regional Homelessness Plan Goes Under the Microscope”

Council Whittles Budget Wish List Under Shadow of Eyman’s Anti-Transportation Funding Measure

Although an analysis by the city council’s central staff shows that Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, which appears to be passing, could reduce the Seattle Department of Transportation’s current funding for buses and road maintenance by as much as $33 million next year (when Seattle’s local $60 car tab measure is set to expire), the council moved ahead with next year’s budget on Wednesday without resolving the question of whether and how to fund the shortfall. Mayor Jenny Durkan and city attorney Pete Holmes are holding a press conference on Thursday to announce a lawsuit challenging the initiative, which overturned the vehicle license fees that fund roads, bridges, maintenance, and transit projects throughout Washington state.

(UPDATE: In a press conference Thursday morning, Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe said the council and SDOT were still figuring out how to fund the 2020 transportation if a court does not grant the injunction against implementation of I-976 when the city files its lawsuit challenging the initiative as unconstitutional next week.)

Here’s a first look at some of what’s in and out in council budget chair Sally Bagshaw’s initial “balancing package,” which—unlike the wish lists council members have been presenting until now—has to be balanced.

What’s In: 

• Funding to expand the successful Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which provides outreach and services to people committing low-level street crimes, often because of mental illness and addiction. Although the group that runs LEAD, the Public Defender Association, had asked for $4.7 million to keep up with growing caseloads, the council settled on $3.5 million. (Mayor Jenny Durkan’s initial budget provided essentially no new funding for the program, which the city has expanded geographically several times.) PDA director Lisa Daugaard told me the group has secured private funding for the remaining $1.2 million but declined to name the funder yet.

• About $1.3 million for mobile restrooms like the ones that have been successfully operating in San Francisco for severa6l years; the restrooms would include toilets, a drop box for needles, and a place to dispose pet waste.

• $1.8 million in funding for two new tiny house village encampments, which would bring the total number of tiny house villages to ten. One of the new villages would be designed for people referred from LEAD (which serves some homeless clients but is not primarily a homeless services organization) and the city’s Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces.

• A small amount of funding—$158,000—for the use of the University Heights Center parking lot in the University District as overnight parking for five to 10 people or families living in their cars. The most recent point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness found more than 2,000 people living in their vehicles across King County, a number that was lower in the latest count, in part, because All Home King County adopted different (lower) assumptions about how many people are sleeping in a single vehicle.

Earlier this year, Mayor Durkan scuttled plans to open several larger “safe lots” for people living in their cars around the city. In lieu of larger lots where people living in their cars can access services and showers, Durkan has proposed spending $375,000 to open up to 40 spaces citywide by persuading religious institutions to host a few cars at a time. The budget action, from District 4 council member Abel Pacheco, redirects $125,000 of that money to the U District community center.

Once downloaded, the app pings when a homeless person wearing one of the company’s bluetooth-equipped “beacons” is nearby, providing information to about their story and what they need. If the smartphone owner decides to donate, the homeless person can receive vouchers for goods and food (though not alcohol) at participating retailers, but only if he or she has agreed to go to counseling with a nonprofit case manager once a month.

• $75,000—down from the $175,000 proposed by council president Bruce Harrell—to fund a company called Samaritan that has developed an app-based homeless donation system. Once downloaded, the app pings when a homeless person wearing one of the company’s bluetooth-equipped “beacons” is nearby, providing information to about their story and what they need. If the smartphone owner decides to donate, the homeless person can receive vouchers for goods and food (though not alcohol) at participating retailers, but only if he or she has agreed to go to counseling with a nonprofit case manager once a month. (Specific details about clients’ case management visits is provided to anyone who downloads the app, including medical information that they choose to mention in their summaries.) Case management is free, but “career counseling” costs $20 an hour, according to media reports.

The proposal is controversial. The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness says it’s “flat out unacceptable to put public [money] into [a] for profit private enterprise,” especially one that charges for “career counseling.” They’re pushing for the council to remove the spending—which, council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, does not include funding for the mandatory case management obligations the program creates for its clients—in the next budget round.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

• Reflecting the fact that the regional homelessness agency likely will not be in place by the beginning of next year as originally planned, the balancing package eliminates $345,000 earmarked to fund staff for the new agency. The document describing the budget cut mentions an April 1, 2020 start date for one of the positions, but it’s unclear whether the new authority will be in place by then; members of the Sound Cities Association, which represents King County’s suburban cities, plan to discuss the proposal at their November 20 Public Issues Committee Meeting, which is one day after the November meeting of the King County Regional Policy Committee, which must approve any plan before it goes to the full King County Council. Suburban cities have expressed concern that the proposed governance structure is too Seattle-centric, that the governing board is unaccountable, and that the proposed public development authority isn’t the appropriate structure for merging the city and county’s homelessness agencies.

• Taking $12.75 million from several programs Durkan had planned to fund with the sale of the Mercer Megablock and reallocating it to low-income housing projects that are shovel-ready but unfunded under the city’s annual Notice of Funding Availability, which always gets far more appilcations for housing projects than it has money to fund. The budget edit would cut funding from Durkan’s proposed Strategic Acquisition Fund (intended to buy land for future projects near transit) and homeownership and accessory dwelling unit loan programs that are aimed at helping moderate-income home buyers and existing homeowners get loans to buy houses or build affordable rental units on their property.

• Fully funding at least one safe bike connection between Southeast Seattle and downtown, as proposed in the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan and endorsed this year by the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board. Durkan’s Department of Transportation dramatically scaled back the BMP Implementation Plan in response to soaring costs earlier this year, but her proposed cuts seemed to center disproportionately on Southeast Seattle, the poorest and most diverse part of the city. A $2 million 2020 add from council member Mike O’Brien would enable SDOT to complete a bike lane on Beacon Ave. S. or one on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way S. before the levy expires in 2024.

What’s out: 

• In conjunction with the new funding for tiny house villages, the balancing package eliminates $1 million Durkan had proposed spending to relocate a tiny house village in Georgetown, which has the support of neighbors but has been on its current site longer than the two-year limit imposed by the city. The council could choose to change the law to allow the village to stay in Georgetown, help residents relocate to a property owned by a faith institution (which would not be subject to the limit) or close the village, which is operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.