Morning Crank: “Housing First, Indeed.”

1. Unified Seattle, a group that has created a series of  slick videos opposing “tiny house villages” (authorized encampments where residents sleep in small eight-by-12-foot buildings with locks on the doors, electric light, and heat) has spent between $10,000 and t $50,000 putting those ads on Facebook and targeting them at Seattle residents. However, since the aim of these ads isn’t explicitly related to an upcoming election—the latest ad vaguely blames the “mayor and city council” for “forests of needle caps,” “drug shacks,” and  “rampant prostitution” to—the people funding them don’t have to report their activities to the state and local election authorities. The Freedom Foundation, the libertarian-leaning think tank that funded a lawsuit to stop a temporary tiny house encampment on a piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union, has declined to comment on whether they’re funding the ads, but the rhetoric is certainly consistent with the argument the Freedom Foundation makes in their lawsuit against the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute, which claims that allowing the encampment will “encourag[e] loitering and substandard living conditions” in the area.

2. Speaking of the Freedom Foundation lawsuit: Since the group filed their lawsuit back in June, the original four-week permit for the tiny house village has expired. That, the city of Seattle argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed earlier this month, renders the original lawsuit moot, and they filed a motion to dismiss it earlier this month. LIHI still plans to open the encampment, on Eighth and Aloha, in late October.

3. In other news about unofficial campaigns: Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s Burgers founder Dick Spady and one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat the head tax, doesn’t have to file election-year paperwork with the city and state elections commissions, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Spady, who runs an ad agency called Cre8tive Empowerment, has been soliciting money for a campaign to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy and take on several city council incumbents; has has also reportedly been meeting with council candidates and taking them around to potential donors. Ordinarily, that kind of electioneering would be considered campaigning. However, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Spady hasn’t managed to raise a single dime since September 11, when he sent out an email seeking to raise “$100,000+ in the next month” to defeat the education levy and  “shift the Seattle City council in much needed moderate direction in 2019.” If he does start raising money to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures this year or next, Spady will be required to register his campaign at the state and local levels.

4. One campaign that isn’t having any trouble raising money (besides the pro-Families and Education Levy campaign, which has raised almost $425,000) is Neighbors for Safe Streets, the group that formed in opposition to a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between the Wedgwood and Ravenna neighborhoods. The PAC, led by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association government affairs director Jordan Royer, has raised more than $15,000 so far for its effort to, as the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter put it last month, “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda has argued that people of color don’t need bike lanes, which only  “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.”

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(Meanwhile, far away from the North Seattle enclaves that make up Save 35th Avenue NE,  neighborhood-based bike groups in the Rainier Valley have spent years begging the city to provide safe bike routes for people who live and work in the area—even holding protests to demand modest traffic-calming measures on Rainier Ave. S., the deadliest street in the city). Neighborhoods for Smart Streets has not identified which council candidates it will support next year, when seven seats will be up; so far, only a handful of contenders—including, as of last Friday, former (2013) mayoral candidate Kate Martin, who also headed up a 2016 effort to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct intact and turn it into a park. Martin joins Discovery Institute researcher Christopher Rufo in the competition for the District 6 council seat currently held by Mike O’Brien.

5. As I reported on Twitter, George Scarola—the city’s key outreach person on homelessness, even after an effective demotion from homelessness director to an obscure position in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services—resigned on October 9. In an email to city staff, Scarola praised the city’s Navigation Teams, groups like LIHI that are working on tiny house villages, and “the outreach teams, shelter operators, meal providers and the folks who develop and manage permanent supportive housing.” He concluded the email by noting that the one area where everyone, including opponents of what the city is doing to ameliorate homelessness, agree is that  “we will not solve the crisis of chronic homelessness without more mental health and drug treatment services, coupled with safe housing. Housing First, indeed.”

In a statement, Durkan said Scarola’s knowledge on homelessness was “key to the continuity of the City’s efforts and helped ensure strong connections throughout the community. Altogether, George participated in hundreds of discussions around homelessness – from public meetings to living room chats – and took countless phone calls and emails, always willing to engage with anyone who had a concern, a complaint or a suggested solution.”

Away from the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, which he usually was, Scarola could be surprisingly candid—once asking me, apparently rhetorically, whether people protesting the removal of a specific encampment were “protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions.” On another occasion, Scarola pushed back on the idea, very prevalent at the time, that money spent on emergency shelter and short-term interventions was money wasted, because—according to homeless consultant Barb Poppe—every available resource should go toward permanent housing.  “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—meaning solutions like tiny house villages, authorized tent encampments, and services that address the problems that are keeping people from being able to hang on to housing in the first place.

Late Morning Crank: New Homelessness Policies and New Streetcar Claims

1. Update: The mayor’s office says they have been briefing council members on the four elements of its homelessness strategy (spending and accountability, crisis response/creating safer spaces, regional coordination, and affordable housing) but is not rolling out any major new policies. Mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas says rumors around ramped-up enforcement could be related to the previously announced additional $500,000 the city plans to spend on its Navigation Teams. As for the idea that the city plans to implement involuntary commitment to detox for addicted people who decline assistance from Navigation Team members, Formas pointed to a letter to the co-chairs of the One Table task force signed by the mayors of Auburn, Renton, Kent, Bellevue, and Kirkland suggesting that the leaders of the regional initiative (which has been dormant for months but is meeting again next week), should consider “involuntary treatment for those presenting an imminent likelihood of serious harm to self or others, or who are gravely disabled as a result of substance use disorder” and who refuse to go to treatment. Should this become an element of the One Table implementation strategy, it would mean forcing people into short-term detox, which has not been shown to be effective for treating severe addiction.

Original item: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has reportedly been briefing city council members on a new policy related to homelessness that, rumor has it, involves more strenuous enforcement of the city’s anti-trespassing and no-camping laws. Conversations with folks on the second floor and advocates working on homelessness-related issues indicate that the new policy could involve involuntary commitments for people suffering from addiction under Ricky’s Law, which allows adults to beheld for up to 17 days in “secure withdrawal management and stabilization facilities,” AKA secure detox, if they are available; since the state and King County would ultimately be responsible for actually funding detox beds, this could be a way of putting pressure on the county for ramping up detox funding. Currently, there are only a few dozen detox beds available in all of King County, including a recently opened facility on Beacon Hill that filled an existing gap in care left by the closure of Recovery Centers of King County; that facility has 32 beds for patients needing detox. Formas said they would be “doing some action items on homelessness and affordability next week.”

So far, according to council log-in sheets, the mayor’s office has met with council public safety committee chair Lorena Gonzalez, council president Bruce Harrell (both yesterday), and council members Mike O’Brien  and Sally Bagshaw (this morning). I will update as I learn more.

2. I reported last week on the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenging a tiny house village” encampment in South Lake Union on the grounds that it violates state environmental rules. One thing I didn’t discuss in detail is the fact that the reason the city has been able to authorize so many tiny house villages—seven, at the moment, or four more than are allowed under a city ordinance limiting the total number of authorized encampments to three—is that each of the new authorized camps has been approved on a rolling conditional basis under what’s known as a “type 1 permit.” Such permits, which must be renewed every four weeks, are meant for temporary uses such as temporary fire and police station relocations or farmers’ markets, as well as any other temporary use that’s meant to last four weeks or less. Type 1 permits can be approved administratively, meaning that they don’t have to go through a lengthy public hearing process or the usual environmental review. (The Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenges this premise, and also argues that temporary encampments should be Type 2 decisions, which require more process and are more involved.)

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This struck me as a peculiar way of permitting encampments, given that the city has decided as a matter of policy and law that only three encampments should be allowed citywide. I’m no lawyer, but it also seems like an area where the city could be legally vulnerable—if the city wants to allow more than three encampments, then why not do so through the legislative process, by changing the law, instead of using this workaround? The city attorney’s office had no comment on the legal ramifications of using Type 1 four-week permits to allow tiny house villages.  Wendy Shark, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says temporary permits are only for “encampments that are also in the process of applying for the 6-month temporary use permit.  In every case, encampments needing temporary use permits are applying for the 6-month permit or will soon apply.  Since the 6-month permit is a ‘Type II’ application involving public notice and opportunity to appeal to the City’s Hearing Examiner, the Type I four-week permit is a means to establish an encampment in the short term while the longer public process occurs.”

However, since city law currently restricts the total number of longer-term encampments to three, Shark adds that “legislation will be needed to change the current number of interim use encampments that are permitted.”

3. Local transportation Twitter was buzzing this week over a couple of articles about Seattle projects aimed at improving mobility for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. I covered the first, a Crosscut editorial claiming that bike lanes are only for rich white people,  on Wednesday. The second, an article by Times reporter David Gutman, repeated claims from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the delayed downtown streetcar may be too bulky, and use the wrong track gauge, to connect to the existing South Lake Union and First Hill lines. I reported on the same claims in a brief item Wednesday morning, noting that if the claims turned out to be true, it would represent a significant embarrassment for the city along the lines of the time when Sound Transit had to go in and remove tracks installed by King County Metro in the downtown transit tunnel because they were the wrong size for light rail.

Yesterday, however, transit advocates began to dispute the mayor’s claims, and Gutman’s story, pointing out that both of the two types of streetcar bodies that would run along the connected line use the same standard gauge (1435-millimeter) track, and that the difference in the car widths is relatively trivial. The new cars, built by CAF USA, would be about ten feet longer than existing streetcars, which were manufactured by Inekon. The print and current online editions of Gutman’s story include context about the likely actual size of the vehicles and the fact that the gauge of the tracks is compatible with both cars, contrary to what Durkan implied in her statement, which suggested that the city does not even know if “the new vehicles [are] compatible with the current track gauge.”

However, the story that the  Times initially ran online did not include any of that information. After it went up, both FOX News and local conservative radio host Dori Monson latched on to what FOX calls the “streetcar fiasco,” which FOX described, in typical FOX fashion, as the latest setback for a left-wing mayor trying to raise her national profile with “fervent attacks against the Trump administration over immigration, climate change and abortion.”  Monson, meanwhile, suggested that former SDOT director Scott Kubly “should be in prison” and that former King County executive Ron Sims is a fake “man of God” who is destined for hell.

When I asked mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas about the mayor’s statement Tuesday night, she said, “we do know that the cars are heavier, wider, and longer than the current cars, but engineers are looking at all the facts in the context of these cars running on the full system.” On Wednesday, Formas followed up with more details, acknowledging that the tracks are technically compatible with the new cars and that the new vehicles are actually slightly narrower than the existing streetcars, but adding that “evaluation of the existing conditions related to track gauge is necessary to provide accurate data to CAF so that they can account for these differences in the design of the track and wheel profile for the CAF vehicle.”

In addition to concerns about whether the new streetcars would fit into the existing maintenance barn, Formas said that the “dynamic envelope” of the streetcar, which includes both width and length, raised concerns about the vehicles “hit[ting] other elements in the ROW, such as trees, signage, curbs, and poles as they travel along the track.” The streetcar will be still about six inches narrower than a typical King County Metro bus, which are eight and a half feet wide (compared to eight feet, .038 inches for the new streetcars and eight feet, .085 inches for the existing ones.)

Why Is a Statewide Anti-Union Group Trying to Stop a Tiny House Village in Seattle?

Image via Low Income Housing Institute

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

When the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation—a conservative group that has spent the bulk of its energy over the past decade fighting against health care workers’ right to organize—filed a lawsuit to stop a Low Income Housing Institute-run “tiny house village” for homeless people from opening in South Lake Union, it raised some eyebrows.

The encampment, like other tiny house villages, would consist of a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that would occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street. Why, union members and homeless advocates wondered, was a statewide think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government” get involved in a local land use dispute about a homeless encampment on a single block in Seattle?

“When we saw [the lawsuit], we thought, ‘That’s weird,’” says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775 spokesman Adam Glickman. “Back in the mid-2000s, the Freedom Foundation was involved in the statewide initiative to get rid of the Growth Management Act (GMA), but recently they’ve been pretty laser-focused on attacking unions and, to a lesser degree, taxes.”

The SEIU represents home health care workers and has spent many years embroiled in legal and political battles with the Freedom Foundation over the union’s right to organize home health care employees and other quasi-public workers.

Glickman says that other than the anti-GMA campaign, he can’t remember the Freedom Foundation ever getting involved in a land use dispute, and certainly not one at such a hyperlocal level.

Neither, for that matter, can the Freedom Foundation’s own attorney, Richard Stephens, to whom a spokesman for the group referred all questions about the lawsuit.

“I’m going back a while, and I can’t remember any other cases like this,” Stephen says. “Most of what [the Freedom Foundation is] doing now is labor law, free speech, freedom of association kinds of things, but historically, they’ve had kind of a broad scope.”

In fact, the lawsuit itself asserts that the reason the Freedom Foundation has standing to sue over a proposed encampment in Seattle in the first place is on the grounds that it claims to generally represent the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.”

The lawsuit claims that the city failed to do an environmental review of the encampment, which the group claims will lead to “loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area”; that the city didn’t sufficiently inform the community about its plans to authorize the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) encampment; and that the encampment is illegal, anyway, because the legislation allowing the city to authorize sanctioned encampments only allows three such encampments at any one time.

Of those three arguments, Stephens says the third, involving the law that limits the number of authorized encampments to three, is “the cleanest,” because the law is explicit: “No more than three transitional encampment interim use encampments shall be permitted and operating at any one time,” not counting those located next to religious facilities.

“When the city council adopts an ordinance that says … we’re only going to allow three of them to operate at any one time, then it seems clear that the city staff is just ignoring what the city council did,” Stephens says. “That is sort of the clearest violation. But the other problem is the city council also said when you approve these, you’ve got to ensure there’s the right community outreach and public participation, and it seems like the city and the applicant [LIHI] are scrambling around to do it after the fact.”

Currently, the city has six permitted encampments. Lily Rehrman, a strategic advisor at the city’s Human Services Department, says the new encampments have been authorized under Type 1 Master Use Permits, which are four-week permits that must be periodically renewed. This distinguishes them from the permits used for the first three authorized encampments, in Ballard, Othello, and Interbay.

“Under this type of permit, temporary land uses, like permitted villages, are allowable,” Rehrman says, a claim the Freedom Foundation disputes. LIHI has applied for a four-week Type 1 permit, and LIHI director Sharon Lee says that if the tiny house village is approved, she will apply for periodic renewals.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a state of emergency,” Lee says, referring to the state of emergency on homelessness that former mayor Ed Murray declared in November 2015.

According to the most recent count of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle. All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is, in reality, higher.

Lee calls the Freedom Foundation’s claim that there wasn’t enough public outreach before the city approved the encampment specious.

“The whole point of having the two community meetings—one in May, the other earlier this month—was to get people to volunteer for the community advisory committee that is required in the legislation allowing encampments,” Lee says. “And not only were there two community meetings, there were also presentations to the chamber of commerce and other organizations.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan formally announced plans to fund the tiny house village in South Lake Union through the “Bridge Housing” program in May, but the idea of sheltering hundreds of homeless people in tiny house villages across the city has been around since at least last February, when Durkan first announced the plan.

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, beyond a brief statement from spokesman Dan Nolte: “We fully intend to defend the City in this suit, and we’re currently assessing the claims.”

Data analysis “does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Before the Freedom Foundation got involved, the debate over the encampment centered largely on whether the camp would impose a danger to neighboring residents and harm property values in the surrounding area. The proposed site is three blocks north of Mercer Avenue and sits in the epicenter of South Lake Union gentrification. Earlier this month, at a standing-room-only meeting in South Lake Union, opponents focused on the fact that the encampment will not be explicitly clean-and-sober, although drugs and alcohol will be banned in common areas.

The comments from opponents drew guffaws and shouts from tiny house village supporters in the crowd. One neighbor, condo owner Betty Wright, said South Lake Union was “too crowded to handle 100 additional people—I don’t want to say ‘poor people’—people with issues. I was hoping to move to a safe place where I don’t have to worry about crime. I used to run down to the garage in my jammies. I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore.”

Wright’s neighbor and fellow condo owner Greg Williams suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment.

“They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us,” Williams said.

“That’s called slavery!” someone shouted from the back.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort.

Hodes asked the people in the room who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.”

According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home, 20 percent of King County’s residents living outdoors have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they lost access to shelter; and 45 percent were actively looking for work. Moreover, there is little evidence that authorized encampments actually increase crime in neighborhoods.

Although the Seattle Police Department (SPD) says it’s difficult to attribute the rise and fall in crime statistics in and around authorized encampments to any single factor, SPD Sergeant Eric Zerr, who heads up the Navigation Team that removes unauthorized encampments and offers services to their inhabitants, says there’s no comparison between the “criminality” around unsanctioned encampments and camps like those run by LIHI, which include case management, 24/7 security, and basic necessities such as food, restrooms, and showers.

“If you’re living in a tent [in an unsanctioned encampment] and you don’t have any source of income, there’s criminality that goes along with that,” particularly if the people living in encampments are addicted to drugs, Zerr says. “When you have [drug] usage, there’s prostitution, there’s the property crimes, there are domestic violence issues, trafficking issues, serious assaults, rapes, gunplay, that type of thing.”

A review of recent police reports from unsanctioned encampments in greenbelts along I-5 confirms that violent crime is still a regular occurrence in these encampments, although SPD provided no specific evidence connecting unauthorized encampments to crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If you’re living in a community, and you have the life-sustaining things that we consider to be a normal part of life, [plus] case managers and a defined space, you move into a different kind of mindset,” even if, as with the proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union, drugs and alcohol aren’t strictly prohibited, Zerr says of life in a sanctioned, monitored encampment with case management and other basic services.

SPD said it was unable to provide crime statistics demonstrating crime rates in the areas immediately around every sanctioned encampment in the city before and after those encampments opened. Detailed information about specific incidents in and around encampments used to be available online, but is no longer. That data was unreliable when it was available, however, because it included many duplicate incidents, and excluded some incident reports for privacy reasons.

SPD’s Crime Dashboard breaks down crime statistics into 58 neighborhoods, like “Lakewood/Seward Park” and “Rainier View,” but because these are large geographic areas, it’s difficult to attribute changing crime rates specifically to the presence of sanctioned or unsanctioned encampments. However, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says it just stands to reason that “if you’ve got organization and structure, it’s going to be safer, and if you don’t have organization and structure, and it’s just random, then it’s going to be less safe.”

SPD did create a document summarizing the rate of crime in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the authorized encampment in Licton Springs, which—unlike LIHI’s proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union—is explicitly low-barrier, meaning that people in active addiction can live, and use drugs and alcohol, on the premises. LIHI owns the Licton Springs property, but the encampment is operated by a separate group, SHARE/WHEEL, which is not involved in the proposed South Lake Union encampment.

According to the SPD document, “the block containing Licton Springs Village (N 85 to N 88 and Aurora to Nesbitt) remains one of the busiest areas in the North Precinct, both in police proactivity and calls for service.”

The document shows that crime has increased by some metrics and decreased in others, but cautions that the “data analysis … does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Zerr, the Navigation Team leader, says he would personally “feel fine” if a tiny house village opened in his neighborhood, but adds that he supports “energized and maybe even contentious debate” like the one that’s currently taking place in South Lake Union.

“I’d be going down asking those same questions, to make sure the city has thought everything through and that the residents have a voice. Those are things that a responsive government should offer its citizens when they’re going to change the living conditions of their neighborhood,” Zerr says.

Lee, the LIHI director, says she remains optimistic that the South Lake Union tiny house village will be able to open on August 15, as scheduled. “We’re optimistic,” Lee says. “We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter.”

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Morning Crank: Isn’t It Weird That…

Image: Low-Income Housing Institute

As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…

So: Isn’t It Weird That…

The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?

The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.

In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”

When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites,  he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.

But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.

Speaking of LIHI,  Isn’t It Weird That…

Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee?  What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.

“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”

Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other  Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):

• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation

• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation

•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation

• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.

And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”

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Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and  growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?

Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-daily updates on an unsightly encampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:

1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco,  one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That  quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that  “our city is out of control.”

2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.

3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.

It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.

* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.

As Labor Loses Clout Nationwide, This Seattle Health Care Workers’ Union Keeps Thriving

This story originally ran in the December 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

It’s 10:30 on a Friday morning in September, and the crowd at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle is on its feet, cheering uproariously as the keynote speaker bounds out onto the stage, “I Am the Fire” by Halestorm blaring over the loudspeakers. Many of the people in the darkened ballroom are sleep-deprived, having arrived by bus late last night or in the early morning hours. But you wouldn’t know it to watch them now—hundreds of them, mostly women of color, wearing Service Employees International Union (SEIU) purple and clapping noisemakers as SEIU 775 president David Rolf emerges to deliver a characteristic barn-burning speech.

“When we were born, 15 years ago, if you worked full-time as a caregiver, you were under the federal poverty line. By the end of this new contract, if you work full-time as a caregiver, you will not be under the federal poverty line!” Rolf thunders. “It doesn’t mean we’ve reached the promised land. It doesn’t mean we’re living in the lap of luxury, checking in to the Four Seasons, flying around in our jets. But what a difference the union can make!”

What a difference 15 years can make. Since SEIU 775 was chartered in 2002—after a bruising legislative battle that culminated in a ballot measure, Initiative 775, giving home care workers the right to unionize, and for the union to negotiate with the state on its members’ behalf—it’s grown from a scrappy, unconventional union representing 1,600 long-term caregivers to arguably the most influential labor organization in state and local politics with 45,000 members, including home care providers, nursing home employees and adult day health care workers. (The group also represents about 1,000 workers in Montana.) That growth has happened during a time when unions’ memberships and influence have been declining precipitously nationwide; currently, just 7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. Today, SEIU’s members contribute 3.2 percent of their paychecks to the union, which uses the money to negotiate for a contract on their behalf and lobby for other pro-worker policies.

In that time, SEIU’s political agenda has also expanded, from an advocate for low-wage, often isolated workers caring for elderly and disabled clients in their homes to a force to be reckoned with on issues ranging from fast-food workers’ wages to Seattle zoning laws.

Rolf has been there through it all. When the 775 chapter was started, Rolf says, home care aides made minimum wage—$7.18 an hour—with no benefits. Although these workers are hired by individuals, they’re paid by Medicaid through a contract with the state, which sets their wages. As individual employees who worked inside private homes, they lacked the ability to organize for better working conditions—until the union came along.

Over time, using tactics such as flooding lawmakers’ fax machines with messages and blocking the door to the governor’s office, that changed, as SEIU 775 won higher wages from the state Legislature, passed an initiative requiring paid training for home care workers and fought back efforts by what Rolf calls “radical extreme groups” to interfere with union organizing.

Sitting in his office in Pioneer Square, the youthful, 48-year-old Rolf recounts war stories from the union’s early years. Like in 2003, when then state Senate majority leader Jim West of Spokane denounced home care workers as “perpetual pathetics,” prompting the union to stage a prayer vigil in front of his house. The following year, when West was running for mayor of Spokane, SEIU 775 sent workers door to door to get out the vote in low-turnout Republican districts helping West win and clearing the way for a more union-friendly Republican, Bill Finkbeiner, to take his place in the Legislature.

“We weren’t necessarily polite, but neither were they,” Rolf says of legislators. “The state had made a set of policy decisions to keep these women in a state of life-threatening poverty as a condition of them being caregivers. Now we had a union. We had some hope. Expectations were raised, and people wanted the Legislature to do the right thing.”

Sherry Byrum, a home care worker whose goddaughter has spina bifida and needs round-the-clock care, has been a member of SEIU 775 since its early days. She says the work that home health workers do is important, but that isn’t reflected in their wages and benefits. “I’ve seen people lose their homes because they couldn’t pay their medical bills when they got hurt on the job,” Byrum says. “A lot of people do [these jobs] pretty much 24/7, 365 days a year.”

SEIU’s tactics—including confronting legislators directly—have been so effective that they’re now mimicked by other unions and community groups. They’ve also been willing to support union-friendly legislators across traditional party lines, endorsing Republicans like former state Sen. Steve Litzow, former state Sen. Don Benton and the late Sen. Andy Hill.

Teresa Mosqueda, a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council and a candidate for Position 8 on the Seattle City Council (election results were not available at press time), says these tactics have served a larger purpose: forcing legislators to recognize that marginalized workers are professionals and a force to be reckoned with. “I think when those in power can kind of close their doors, we have to figure out a way for our voices to be heard through those doors or through the walls, and I think they have done a really good job of that,” Mosqueda says.

Over the past 15 years, SEIU 775 has expanded its portfolio significantly beyond its original mission, throwing its considerable weight around on issues ranging from public subsidies for sports arenas (2006’s Initiative 91, which the union supported) to former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (in a Seattle Times op-ed, Rolf described opponents’ position as “selfishness raised to an art form”).

Perhaps no battle has so defined SEIU 775 to the public as the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which began with contract baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and expanded to fast-food workers in Seattle. It culminated in a joint business-labor agreement to bring a phased-in $15/hour minimum wage to Seattle. (Rolf even wrote a book about it, called The Fight for $15.) After victory at Sea-Tac, where an SEIU-backed minimum-wage initiative passed by a mere 77 votes in 2013, the battle moved to Seattle, where fast-food worker strikes and mass demonstrations led then Mayor Murray to put together a joint business-labor task force that crafted a compromise bill that would phase in a $15/hour minimum wage over several years. Rolf served on that task force.

“The fight for $15 originated in an industry outside our own, but we joyfully embraced it and took it up as our cause,” Rolf says. “And whether it’s housing policy or tax policy or immigration policy or Black Lives Matter or subsidies to basketball teams, we’ve always tried to be a civically conscious organization and to not only be on the cutting edges of the industry and issues in our direct line of sight, but also income inequality as a whole.”

SEIU 775’s rise, of course, has not been without controversy. Other progressive groups have grumbled that the union—and Rolf in particular—gets more than its share of credit for battles that were won by coalitions, not individual unions or their charismatic leaders. Former Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who had a front-row seat for the $15 wage debate at city hall, says SEIU’s work on the minimum wage was “necessary, but not sufficient” to pass the compromise. “[United Food and Commercial Workers] and the Economic Opportunity Institute [a progressive think tank] also played major roles, and I don’t think it would have happened without all of them,” Licata says.

Conservative groups have also taken aim at the union. The Freedom Foundation, a think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government,” has spent years waging legal war against SEIU 775, seeking to tame its influence by convincing its members to stop paying their dues, which would cripple the group’s influence in Olympia and Seattle. For years, the Freedom Foundation has been Wile E. Coyote to SEIU’s Roadrunner, almost forcing the union into a corner, only to be outsmarted at the last moment with an unexpected roadblock.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory union fees violated the free speech rights of home health care workers in Illinois, dealing a blow to unions like SEIU 775 that represent “quasi-public” employees. SEIU has since made union dues voluntary, but the Freedom Foundation and other conservative groups argue that they haven’t done enough to let their members know they can opt out. In 2014, the Freedom Foundation began canvassing SEIU’s members to urge them to stop paying dues, and SEIU lost a lawsuit seeking to keep its membership list private.

The twist? In 2016, the union struck back with Initiative 1501. While it was billed on the ballot as an initiative to protect seniors from abuse and privacy violations, what it actually does is exempt SEIU’s membership list from state public disclosure law. It was approved by 71 percent of voters.  “Initiative 1501 was one of the most effective ballot measures that any of us have ever seen,” says Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation. “I’m not surprised that it passed by the margin it did, but it’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of voters were not cued in to the details of the measure.”

Rolf says the tactics of groups like the Freedom Foundation give SEIU no choice but to get, as Nelsen puts it, “clever.” “When people knock on your door and say you should drop out of the union, is it because someone’s paying them to help you save $30 a month on union dues,” Rolf asks rhetorically, “or is it because they have an agenda that’s about undermining the only democratic voice that workers in our country still have?”

That voice, as anyone who has observed the U.S. economy in the past 50 years knows, is shrinking, and SEIU is not exempt from the larger forces that are making that happen, including an increasingly fractured workforce, the rise of involuntary part-time and contract work, and the growing divide between information-sector millionaires and the workforce that serves them lattes and picks up their trash. The U.S. labor movement formed at a time when most people worked for large companies and most industries were unionized; today, in a globalized economy that places shareholder value above all else, that system no longer functions the way it did.

Rolf argues that like all unions, SEIU will have to adapt and figure out new ways to organize if it hopes to survive in the 21st-century economy. Going back, he insists, is not an option. “Every time unions get smaller, the middle class gets smaller,” he told the crowd at the convention center. “For 40 years, American workers have been getting screwed because they don’t have the collective power to stand up for ourselves, and our failed system of industrial relations, built for the factory economy of 1935, is just not going to cut it in the 21st century. We have to invent something new.”

Rolf doesn’t know exactly what that will look like, but his work organizing a disenfranchised group of independent contractors into a statewide powerhouse has convinced him that even in an increasingly fractured 21st-century economy, unions will be part of that solution.