As City Moves Away from Eviction Prevention, Report Highlights Inequities in Who Gets Evicted, and Why

A new report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project* on who gets evicted in Seattle, and why, concludes that not only are women and people of color more likely to get evicted than white men, but that they often lose their homes over very small amounts of money—just a few hundred dollars in late rent, which is usually compounded by the addition of court and attorney’s fees. Among all the people evicted for failure to pay rent on time, more than half (52.3 percent) owed one month’s rent or less, and more than three-quarters (76.6 percent) owed less than $2,500 ($1,236 on average.) Because evicted tenants are generally required to pay additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other non-rent charges on top of the rent they owe, the median court judgment was $3,129.

Sarah Stewart, a longtime Seattle resident who has been living in her car since she was evicted this past March, said at a press conference today that she lost her apartment, in a low-income building, because her landlord miscalculated her income, which varies from month to month based on her ability to work. Stewart has a degenerative illness that causes pain and fatigue. Despite her family’s efforts to help her pay “the enormous amounts they demanded,” she eventually ended up in eviction court. “In the end,” she said, “the landlord had all the power, and not only were they able to evict me, but they also burdened me with over $2,000 in late fees, attorneys’ fees and non-rent fees. In my current situation, there is no way I will ever be able to pay that back.”

The report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” describes a system heavily weighted in favor of landlords and against tenants, particularly tenants who lack attorneys. The vast majority of people who get evicted (87.5 percent) in Seattle ended up homeless (a category that includes couch surfing or living in shelters in addition to unsheltered homelessness) for the exact reason you might expect: Once you’ve got an eviction on your record, it can be nearly impossible to find someone willing to rent to you. 

Eviction prevention programs in Seattle are virtually nonexistent—in sharp contrast to other cities such as New York, where the Bronx Housing Court, which offers a one-stop shop for rental assistance programs, has helped prevent evictions in 86 percent of cases. (Other cities also give tenants sore time to pay what they owe—in Seattle, the eviction process can begin as soon as you’re three days late on your rent—and offer more discretion to judges to work out deals between landlords and tenants that allow people to stay in their homes). This can be traced, in part, to a 2016 report that recommended diverting funds away from eviction prevention and into programs to help people who are already homeless; that report ended up being the basis of the city’s “Pathways Home” strategy for addressing homelessness.

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According to the report, “The Focus Strategies report acknowledged that ‘[t]raditional prevention generally targets households who have their own rental unit and have received an eviction notice,’ but then discouraged such an approach without providing any support for their recommendation. The Focus Strategies report claimed that ‘since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction, it does not make sense to prioritize sheltering that group of people who are facing eviction; however, this overlooks the collateral consequences of eviction such as poor health, family instability, and higher financial strain on the shelter system.

The problem with ignoring people until they get evicted, Housing Justice Project attorney Ed Witter said today, is that it costs far more—between $15,000 and $17,000—to put someone up in a shelter for a year than it does to pay the $100 or $1,200 or $2,000 that separates them from eviction.  “We don’t help [people] until they’ve lost their housing, and we know this isn’t the most efficient way,” Witter said. A client who lived in low-income housing had just been evicted over $15.67 in late rent, Witter continued. “How did we get to the point that tenants are losing their housing over 15 dollars and 67 cents?”

Read the whole report, which includes detailed demographic data on who gets evicted and why as well as policy recommendations, here.

Lawsuit: Council Violated Numerous Laws When It “Saved the Showbox”

In a move so predictable it hardly even merits an I-told-you-so (but I did tell you so), the owners of the building on First Avenue that houses the Showbox have sued the city in response to a land-use decision that effectively downzones their property from 44 stories to two, arguing (among other things) that the move constitutes an illegal spot zone and a taking of private property worth $40 million—the sum for which the owners had planned to sell the land.

To unpack the story—which David Kroman broke on Crosscut earlier today—it helps to recap a bit of the whirlwind history that led us to this point. Last month, news broke that a Vancouver developer called Onni Group planned to tear down the Showbox and redevelop the property as a 440-foot-tall apartment building with 442 units, which could have included a new ground-floor music venue. The city council had just upzoned  the property as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which grants developers in some areas, including downtown, the right to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable housing. However, a public outcry—spearheaded by music fans and amplified by anti-development council member Kshama Sawant, who saw the controversy as an opportunity to stop a “greedy developer” from profiting from a new high-end development—prompted “emergency” legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox property for at least the next ten months. (The property is owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, who also owns the Deja Vu Showgirls club down the street; the Showbox itself is operated by a tenant, AEG Live, which describes itself as “the world’s second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events.”)  Initially, Sawant proposed a dramatic expansion of the historical district that would have effectively downzoned a dozen existing properties and forced property owners to obtain permission from a historical commission before renting to new tenants or making any visible changes to their property, but that was eventually scaled back and only the Showbox property got the “historical” designation. The new rules last for ten months—long enough for the city to decide whether to extend them and make the two-story Showbox building a permanent part of Pike Place Market, and long enough (or so the “Save the Showbox” crowd hoped) to convince Onni to go away and for supporters to put together a plan to preserve the space as a music venue in perpetuity.

That brings us to the present, and the lawsuit filed last week. The suit claims that the city council violated the owners’ property rights by passing a spot rezone that reduces its value by tens of millions of dollars; that they violated  the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires officials like council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented and to make their deliberations in public, not behind closed doors; that the inclusion of the Showbox in a historical district designed to protect farmers and small-scale artisans is “the definition of arbitrary and capricious”; and that the “illegal spot zone” violates the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for more density in places like downtown Seattle.  “The Decision [to expand the historical district to include just the Showbox] bears no rational relationship to promoting a legitimate public interest; it singles a small area out of a larger area for use and development restrictions that are not in accordance with similarly situated neighboring properties and not in accordance with the City’s Comprehensive Plan.”

The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate.

The argument that the council’s vote to put the Showbox in the Market historical district represents a spot rezone—that is, that it effectively turns a property with a 440-foot height limit into one with a limit of just two stories, the height of the existing Showbox building— is critical. If the court accepts this argument, they may also be inclined to accept the property owners’ argument that council members, particularly Sawant, violated the law by discussing the decision outside the public eye, and participated in a campaign in favor of the rezone. The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate. (If this argument sounds vaguely familiar, you probably remember it from Strippergate—a scandal that contributed to the defeat of two city council members who violated quasi-judicial rules when they discussed, and voted for, a rezone to allow strip-club owner Frank Colicurcio to expand the parking lot at his Rick’s strip club in North Seattle. In an odd turn of fate, Showbox property owner Forbes purchased Rick’s from Colacurcio in 2011.)

The lawsuit echoes a point that I have made numerous times at The C for Crank about basing policy on the wishes of a vocal few—in this case, music fans and industry employees who sign petitions and hold signs that say “Save the Showbox” and write songs bemoaning the inexorable fact that cities change:  “When politicians cater to populist calls – whether those calls are ‘lock her up,’ ‘build the wall’ ‘ban Muslims,’ or ‘Save the Showbox’ – civil and other rights are placed at risk. Populism, and politicians’ desires to appease their loudest constituents and generate headlines must, however, yield to the rule of law. Luckily for those who prefer protection of civil, constitutional and property rights, the courts exist to preserve, protect and enforce the rule of law.”  Indeed, the suit argues that the council caved to public pressure in order “to enhance its political popularity” and “enacted an unlawful ordinance that was intended to, and did, place all the burden of providing a public music venue to City residents onto the shoulders of a private landowner. The ordinance greatly and instantly devalued the property and will scuttle its redevelopment unless the City’s improper spot down zone is declared unlawful.”

The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit. But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.

The complaint also takes a swing at the notion—which several council members, particularly Lisa Herbold, made explicit during the debate over the historical designation—that the squat, repeatedly remodeled Showbox building itself is “historic.” The city, the lawsuit notes, hired a consultant to consider the Showbox for historic landmark status in 2007, but found that the building lacked “any redeeming landmark features.” This, the complaint continues, “was partly because the building had been remodeled during its many uses in the past including as a comedy stage, an adult entertainment arcade, a furniture store and a bingo hall.” When Showbox preservationists talk about “silencing the ghosts of Seattle’s history,” as one of the venue’s bartenders did last month, is that the history they’re thinking of?

One final note. Ordinarily, when the city makes land-use decisions, it puts those decisions through a rigorous Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) analysis to determine what impacts the decision might have, positive or negative, on marginalized and low-income communities. As far as I can tell, the city did no such analysis when it decided to effectively downzone the Showbox block—a decision that also meant foregoing about $5 million in funding for affordable housing under MHA. The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit, perhaps because such goals are hard to quantify (and harder still in the absence of the usual analysis). But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.

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Guest Editorial: Spend County Revenues on Housing, Not a $180 Million Stadium Subsidy

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

The following is a guest editorial about a proposal by King County Executive Dow Constantine to spend $180 million in hotel/motel tax revenues on maintenance and capital improvements to Safeco Field, on which the Seattle Mariners’ lease is about to expire. The Mariners, and Constantine, have argued that the county has an obligation to spend future hotel/motel tax revenues on the stadium; housing advocates have countered that a larger portion of the lodging tax should be spent on affordable, transit-oriented housing. The King County Council meets this morning to discuss, and possibly vote on, the proposal.

Later this morning, the King County Council could decide how to allocate the remaining 25 percent of the county lodging tax revenues. Council members face a stark choice: Use the dollars for affordable housing or offer a $180 million subsidy to a private corporation. The highest value of public and economic benefit the County can create with this revenue is to invest in affordable housing, community development, and good jobs.

Demand for affordable housing in our region is at an all-time high, which is why we should use lodging tax revenues to help address homelessness and promote affordability. To maximize economic benefit from the hotel/motel tax, the County should also create high quality jobs for our communities by utilizing community workforce agreements with housing developers or local housing authorities. These agreements help create apprentice opportunities and ensure dollars flow to the pockets of lower-income workers, which creates a greater economic benefit since low-income households spend a greater percentage of their income on goods and services than higher-income households do.

Multi-billion-dollar for-profit corporations asking for public subsidies must prove that these resources are better spent on their enterprises than other compelling public needs, like affordable housing. And they must commit to transparency and accountability with regard to how those resources are used. The Mariners are a successful team that many people love and support. Yet, for continued public investment, they must demonstrate exactly what they need public resources for and how it will support good jobs in the region. To date, the Mariners ownership have simply not met this benchmark.

Recent letters from Craig Kinzer (current) and Terrence Carroll (former), members of the Public Facilities District (the committee that has been in lease negotiations with the Mariners) reveal that the proposed lease is simply a bad deal that should be revisited.

The Mariners are a successful team that many people love and support. Yet, for continued public investment, they must demonstrate exactly what they need public resources for and how it will support good jobs in the region. To date, the Mariners ownership have simply not met this benchmark.

The Mariners’ owners even want to do away with the annual requirement that they publicize financial information about where the public dollars go, so we won’t know until after the fact whether the dollars were used appropriately. The new lease deal must include financial transparency so that the public can understand how investment in a stadium would maximize public benefit and support good jobs. Instead of a win-win deal for the public, the lease and subsidy appear to be a win-more for the Mariners ownership.

We recommend the following uses and requirements of the County’s lodging taxes.

1. The vast majority of the remaining 25 percent of future lodging tax revenue should be committed to affordable housing. Funding should also be considered for community-based economic development that creates even more jobs and stability for communities at risk of displacement. By investing in community development, we will create good jobs, apprenticeship opportunities, and net income for our communities as families find more money in their pockets for basic needs.

2. Any projects funded by lodging tax revenues must be covered by a community workforce agreement (CWA) that guarantees good jobs, worker retention, high-quality apprenticeship opportunities, and a priority to hire local residents most in need of those opportunities. Both the City of Seattle and King County have highly successful priority hire programs that show tremendous public value when done right.

3. Any use of lodging tax revenues must have the highest level of transparency and accountability. While nonprofit housing developers typically must account for every public dime that they spend, we do not apply the same scrutiny to private corporations that receive public resources. Any money that goes to the ball park should require that the Mariners ownership open their books to the public and show the number and quality of jobs that they are creating with public support.

As a result of our upside-down tax code, where low-income people pay up to seven times more of their income in taxes as the top one percent, state and local revenues for needed services and community development are scarce. We must take care on how our region allocates funds, and ensure that new investments maximize public and economic benefit. Like the other groups who are also interested in these funds, the Mariners must demonstrate clear need and a clear financial case for their request.

Many of the King County Councilmembers have not yet decided how to prioritize investments from the lodging tax. Now is the time to let them know that housing, good jobs and meeting community needs is the highest priority.

Nicole Vallestero Keenan-Lai is the Executive Director at Puget Sound Sage. She has more than a decade of experience in research, advocacy, civic engagement, racial justice organizing, social services, and community and business outreach.

David Rolf is the founding president of SEIU 775, which represents more than 45,000 long-term care workers in the Pacific Northwest. He serves as an International Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Misha Werschkul is the executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, where she guides the organization’s strategic vision and ensures its position as a leading voice shaping the debate around budget priorities.

Claim: Affordable and Family Housing Proposal Would “Cause Irreparable harm to the Entire Phinney Ridge Neighborhood if

Two Phinney Ridge homeowners—longtime Phinney Ridge Community Council activist Irene Wall and former Seattle City Council central staffer Bob Morgan—have filed an appeal in King County Superior Court seeking to stop a proposed 55-foot-tall, five-story apartment building at 70th and Greenwood. The land use petition claims that a site-specific zoning change approved by the city council earlier this month is illegal and will allow developer Chad Dale to construct a building that is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood. Wall and Morgan filed their petition after the city’s hearing examiner rejected their arguments and recommended that the council adopt the rezone.

The site of the proposed development, where a long-closed Oroweat Bakery outlet used to stand, abuts a single-family area and is flanked by lots where 40-foot-tall apartment buildings are already allowed. Under the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would require developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for denser zoning in designated urban villages like Greenwood Ave., the entire site and the adjoining land are supposed to be upzoned to allow 55-foot buildings. That upzone, however, is also being delayed by homeowner litigation—which is why the council granted the contract rezone, allowing the project (in play since 2016) to move forward.

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Although the project isn’t subject to MHA rules, the developer plans to participate in the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which provides a 12-year tax break to developers who agree to set aside 20 percent of units to people making less than 80 percent of the Seattle median income. Sixty percent of the units would have two or more bedrooms—a rare commodity in Seattle, where most new apartments are studios and one-bedrooms—and there would be less than one parking space per unit. That’s another likely point of contention in a neighborhood where activists have consistently and adamantly argued against developments that fail to provide  far more parking than the city requires, though not an argument Wall and Morgan make directly in their land use petition. Phinney Ridge homeowners successfully stalled a proposed four-story apartment building down the street from the building Wall and Morgan are suing to stop, arguing in appeal after appeal that the new apartments would block neighbors’ sunlight, lead to noise from rooftop parties, and make it impossible for homeowners to park their cars on the street.

 

 

In their petition, Wall and Morgan argue that there isn’t enough of a  height transition between the proposed 55-story developments and adjacent single-family houses directly behind the Greenwood Avenue property;  that the new building would “block Olympic Mountain views from the commercial lots to the east’; that a five-story building would restrict neighbors’ access to “light and air”; and that, furthermore, any building on Greenwood Avenue that’s adjacent to a single-family lot on either side of the street should be kept as small as possible—in this case, the current, pre-MHA 40 feet. “The Council’s approval of the 7009 contract rezone … allows for construction of a five story building right on the property line shared with the single family zone (except for a minimal setback on the fifth floor) when the Code requires a gradual transition between zones and specifies substantially greater setbacks,” Wall and Morgan’s petition says, creating “a structure out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.”

The argument that mixed-use apartment buildings are inappropriate for commercial corridors located directly on bus lines, such as Greenwood Avenue, is particularly bitter, given that the city kept urban villages as shallow as possible—typically the half-block immediately adjacent to major commercial arterials—specifically at the request of single-family neighborhood groups, which did not want apartments to encroach on the city’s exclusive single-family areas. (This happened during the vaunted neighborhood planning process of the 1990s, whose result was that nearly two-thirds of the city’s buildable land are preserved exclusively for single-family housing.) Now, that decision to ban apartments from all but a sliver of the city’s residential land is being used to justify a legal challenge that would restrict developers’ ability to build apartments on that sliver.

The petition asks the King County Superior court to place a stay on the council’s legislation allowing the rezone on the grounds that, if the project were allowed to move forward (after being on hold for two years, thanks largely to Wall and Morgan’s repeated appeals), it would “cause irreparable harm to Petitioners and the entire Phinney Ridge neighborhood.”

How Backyard Cottages Could Help Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

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

Photo by Hayley Young, Seattle magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The J Is for Judge: Save the Past, Jeopardize the Future

It turns out it wasn’t a NIMBY uprising in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods that successfully blitzed new housing development in Seattle. Embraced by our supposedly progressive council and Mayor Jenny Durkan, a reactionary stand in the heart of downtown Seattle to save a two-story music venue, the Showbox, has set the precedent for successful self-centered obstructionism.

In 2017, the city council passed a series of six neighborhood upzones: five in densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers  including downtown, South Lake Union, Chinatown International District, Uptown,  and the University District, and one in a  Residential Urban Village, 23rd & Union-Jackson, a less dense but still bustling multifamily combo residential/commercial zone. The unanimous council votes to upzone these multifamily, transit-rich neighborhoods were mostly embraced by neighborhood groups—most notably on 23rd, where community relations with the city had initially been tense.

The upzones, under a policy known as MHA (Mandatory Housing Affordability), tied new development to building affordable housing, trading increased density for affordable housing requirements; MHA has a goal of creating 6,000 affordable units in 10 years. Any developer that builds in these upzoned neighborhoods  has to either make a commensurate payment into a city affordable housing fund or build a corresponding amount of affordable housing on site.

What I didn’t expect was that a pro-housing, pro-density urban center like downtown, where the upzone is already on the books, would turn out to be the Seattle NIMBYs’ Battle of Yorktown.

Following up this year, the city turned to a comprehensive upzone in Seattle’s remaining Urban Centers and Urban Villages, multifamily areas of varying density ranging from the rest of the city’s more dense Urban Centers like Northgate and Capitol Hill to Residential Urban Villages such as Rainier Beach and Crown Hill. This larger rezone, which ultimately includes 27 neighborhoods, also encompasses additional multi-family and commercial zones on the outskirts of the city’s single-family zones. The 27 upzones would slightly expand ten of the Urban Center and Urban Village zones. The result: About six percent of the adjacent SFZs, where only detached single-family housing is currently allowed, would be rezoned into slightly denser Residential Small Lot zones, Lowrise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones, adding what pro-housing urbanists call “Missing Middle” housing—small-scale developments that fit in seamlessly with single-family housing.

Like the original six hub urban center upzones, the broader upzones all came with MHA requirements to build or fund affordable housing.

Given that SFZs take up a lopsided 65 percent of the city’s developable land, rezoning a slender six percent of the SFZs for multifamily housing seems more than reasonable, especially at a time when Seattle isn’t building enough housing to keep up with our dramatic population growth.

However, the upzones have stalled: A coalition of appellants representing single family zones are currently fighting the upzone in front of the city hearing examiner. And it drags on and on.

Despite the welcoming “In this House” signs that are ubiquitous throughout Seattle’s SFZs, the foot-stomping intransigence from exclusive single-family neighborhoods against adding housing to their suburban-style enclaves is hardly surprising. Seattle’s liberal hypocrisy rolls that way.

What I didn’t expect was that a pro-housing, pro-density urban center like downtown— where the upzone is already on the books—would turn out to be the Seattle NIMBYs’ Battle of Yorktown. The fight to “Save the Showbox” has stalled one of the first building proposals to come under the new progressive MHA policy—Vancouver developer Onni’s proposal to replace the Showbox with a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail that would have raised $5 million in one fell swoop for affordable housing.

In yet another city hall 180, the council voted yesterday to turn last year’s unanimous yea vote to upzone downtown, into a unanimous nay vote for Rock and Roll NIMBYism. The city council voted this week to renege on downtown MHA by making the two-story Showbox off-limits.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this either. With its 2018 Pearl Jam mania, Seattle idles in nostalgia.

I understand that unchecked hyper development comes with serious problems like gentrification. But the way to fight gentrification isn’t through symbolic battles on behalf of specific, popular businesses. The way to fight gentrification is by having integrated development and land-use policies that keep affordable housing in the mix in the first place. With the MHA upzones, the city had that very policy in place.

Now, by caving to the first reactionary uprising against the exact policy outcomes MHA was enacted to produce—more housing and more affordable housing—the council has shown that crowd politics informed by nostalgia and resistance-to-change have trumped (ahem) a well-calibrated policy.

I feel like Johnny Rotten walking around London in 1975 in his “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt when I say this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ the Showbox.

Someone who supports saving the Showbox asked me if I would ever take the side of historic preservation over development. Of course. I visited the reclaimed Lorraine Motel in Memphis earlier this year. American History. Amazing. But arts venues with cool marquees are hardly a rare breed; the Moore, the Paramount, the Egyptian, and the Neptune all come to mind. And there’s plenty of great places to see music in Seattle. I’ve been to a ton of great shows already this year—DoNormaal and Nightspace (Kremwerk), Umami Goddess (Vermillion), Serpent With Feet (Barboza), Wayne Horvitz (the Royal Room), Lorde (Key Arena), Liz Phair and Lisa Prank (the Crocodile), Stas Thee Boss (Chop Suey), Mortuary Drape (The Highline), Mourn and Chastity (Barboza), Orpheus and Eurydice (Seattle Opera Studios).

But when it comes to stopping legal development that includes $5 million for affordable housing  because you want to save a club whose historic value is as omnipresent as 90s nostalgia? You lost me at NIMBY.

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

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Morning Crank: Slipping and Sliding

1. With the loss of an estimated $47.5 million in annual revenues from the head tax, the city is in the unenviable position of not only figuring out how to pay for new housing and services that would have been funded by the tax, but funding ongoing commitments that would have been backfilled with head tax funding. In addition to about $15 million in programs that were funded during in the 201 8 budget using one-time funding sources (I’ve asked the city’s budget office for a complete list), there’s Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” program, which was originally supposed to have funded 500 new shelter and “tiny house” encampment slots this year. The bridge housing program, which the council’s finance committee approved on Wednesday, will be funded through 2018 by  about $5.5 million from the sale of a piece of city property in South Lake Union but will cost about $9.5 million a year starting in 2019, according to City Budget Office Director Ben Noble.

The latest version of the plan would pay for 475 shelter beds (down from 500), with 100 of those now officially “TBD,” with no provider or timeline identified.  The timeline for some of the new projects has slipped, too, from late July to November in the case of the controversial proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, and from July to “TBD” in the case of the 100 shelter beds for which no provider is identified. (See below for a comparison between the mayor’s original proposal, announced May 30, and the plan as it stands this week.)

Mary’s Place, which the mayor’s office originally said would contribute 100 new beds by building out an upper floor of its North Seattle shelter, “had a change of situation because they bought a large facility in Burien that put them in a more difficult financial situation,” deputy mayor David Moseley told council members Wednesday, and has “offered us a different proposal that’s more of a diversion proposal,” one that would focus on prevention rather than shelter. “We’re working with them on that proposal,” Moseley continued. “At the same time, we’re working on backfilling those 100 shelter beds.”

HSD had previously denied that Mary’s Place was planning to substitute diversion for its 100 bed commitment. One day before Moseley told the council that Mary’s Place would no longer be able to contribute 100 of the new 500 shelter beds, I asked an HSD spokeswoman if Mary’s Place had proposed fulfilling its commitment through diversion rather than actual shelter beds, as I had heard. The spokeswoman told me that I was incorrect and that there had been no such proposal. Moseley’s comments Wednesday confirmed the existence of the proposal I had asked HSD about (and whose existence their spokeswoman denied) the previous day.

On Wednesday, I asked the spokeswoman for more details about the Mary’s Place beds and what will replace them. In response, she cut and pasted a section of Durkan’s Wednesday press release about the plan that did not include this information. I have followed up and will update this post if I get any more detailed information about how the city plans to replace those 100 beds.

Durkan has asked all city departments to come up with budget cuts of 2 to 5 percent for the 2019 budget cycle that begins this fall. Noble, the city’s budget director, told council members Wednesday that if the city wants to continue funding the new shelter beds after this year, “it will be because they are prioritized above other things, and at the moment, above existing city services. … This will be  a difficult fall with difficult decisions ahead.”

Bridge Housing plan, May 30, 2018

Bridge Housing Plan, June 13, 2018

2. A poll that apparently helped seal the fate of the head tax over the past weekend was reportedly conducted not by business interests, but by Bring Seattle Home, the SEIU-backed coalition that formed to oppose a potential referendum on the tax. The group’s latest expenditure report includes a $20,000 debt to EMC Research, a Seattle-based polling firm.

A spokesman for Bring Seattle Home didn’t return a call for comment. But the poll reportedly found that not only did voters oppose the head tax by wide margins (as previous polls had concluded), they had strong negative opinions of the city council, where the idea for the head tax originated. All seven of the council members who are elected by district are up for reelection next year, and although this poll didn’t ask respondents what they thought of their specific council representative, council members are well aware of this looming deadline. So far, none of the seven have filed their reelection paperwork with the city. Although Mayor Jenny Durkan supported and ultimately signed the “compromise” head tax bill that reduced the size of the head tax from $500 to $275 per employee for businesses with gross receipts above $20 million, poll respondents apparently blamed the council, not the mayor, for the tax, expressing much more favorable views of Durkan than council members.

3. On Thursday, with none of the angry public comments about “triplexes on every block” that often precede such decisions—even Marty Kaplan wasn’t there—the Seattle Planning Commission approved a letter endorsing key aspects of the city’s preferred plan to make it easier for single-family  homeowners to build backyard cottages and create living spaces in their basements. (This alternative is identified as option 2 in the environmental impact statement on the proposal, which the city was required to produce after Kaplan sued. The EIS confirms that backyard cottages promote equity and do not harm the environment.) The letter expresses the commission’s strong support for allowing both a basement apartment and a freestanding backyard unit (subject to the same lot coverage requirements that already exist); eliminating the requirement that homeowners add parking for their extra unit whether they will use it or not; and allowing up to 12 unrelated people to live on lots that have both a backyard cottage and a basement apartment.

The letter also urges the city not to force homeowners building a second additional unit to pay into the city’s mandatory housing affordability fund, a requirement supported by some opponents of backyard cottages, because the additional cost “could suppress production of these units and be counterproductive to the intent of the proposed legislation.” (The point of requiring developers to provide affordable housing is, in part, to offset the impacts of displacement and gentrification that can be side effects of large new developments in previously affordable neighborhoods; the planning commission’s point is that treating individual homeowners like massive developers discourages them from providing housing. It also implies that adding units for renters in single-family areas somehow contributes to gentrification and displacement, when it does the opposite.) The planning commission also recommended setting size limits for new houses to prevent the development of McMansions, and reducing development charges for accessory units, such as sewer hookup fees, and creating a sliding scale for some fees so that lower-income people could afford to build second units on their properties.

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Six Things to Think About When Thinking About the Head Tax

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

Weeks of tense negotiations, heated yelling sessions, and a high-stakes game of chicken between the biggest employer in the city and the city council culminated in a unanimous city council vote to approve a $275-per-employee “head tax” on Monday afternoon. But what does the vote mean? Is Amazon’s threat to abandon the city off the table? And where does Seattle go from here?

We’ve put together a handy primer to answer these and other pressing questions about this latest effort to address the growing homelessness crisis in Seattle.

1. The $275-per-head tax the council passed Monday was not the tax a majority of the council wanted to pass. Last Friday, in fact, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee (made up, on this occasion, of all nine council members) approved a much larger tax of $500 per employee, which would have raised around $75 million a year. That vote, however, was too narrow (at 5-4) to withstand a likely veto by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who offered up a $250 version of the tax as a counterproposal last week. The “compromise” most council members agreed to over the weekend raised the total size of the tax by just $25 per employee, enough for Durkan to cheerfully declare victory on Monday evening and for council members who wanted a larger tax, such as council member Mike O’Brien, to say that they had done everything they could.

2. The original $500 tax proposal didn’t come out of nowhere—it was recommended by the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, a group that was established after a group of council members failed to pass a smaller, but similar, business tax during the city council’s 2017 budget process. The task force was charged with coming up with a tax that would produce between $25 million and $75 million in revenues; they ended up proposing a $500-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues after considering, and rejecting, lower tax levels that would apply to a larger number of businesses. By targeting the tax at businesses at the very top of the city’s revenue scale, the task force was attempting to respond to objections by smaller businesses (those with more than $5 million but less than $20 million in gross revenues) operate on narrow profit margins and shouldn’t really count as “big businesses.” The more businesses the task force exempted from the tax, the larger the tax had to be to yield the same revenues, which is how the task force arrived at $500

3. The head tax isn’t enough to address the problem. The tax, which sunsets after five years, would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. Under the spending plan adopted by the council, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median.  The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, and more money for safe parking lots and sanitation stations.

A few hundred housing units is obviously far from adequate to house the more than 8,500 people who were homeless in Seattle at the beginning of 2017, when All Home did its most recent homeless census—a number that has likely only grown since then. In fact, a report commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., concluded that the county needs an additional 14,000 units of affordable just to address the current needs of people experiencing homelessness in King County. Building that much housing and addressing the other needs of King County’s homeless population would cost the public and private sectors $410 million a year, the independent report concluded, and that’s only if the annual rate of people falling into homelessness does not increase. King County would need to spend between $164 million and $215 million a year to pay its “share” of that $410 million total.

Michael Maddux, a staffer for council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office, crunched the numbers in the report and determined that Seattle’s “share” of that countywide total would be somewhere between $59 million and $79 million. The $47 million in annual spending that the $275 head tax would provide falls short of the bottom end of that range.

4. The tax that passed Monday is just the beginning of the story. Although the national news crews packed up their cameras and left before the council could begin discussing how to spend the new revenues on Monday, the spending plan is in many ways more critical than the size of the tax. The plan Durkan proposed for her $250 tax would have focused the vast majority of its spending on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and other stopgap solutions, rather than housing, building just 250 units of new affordable housing over five years.

On Monday, the council approved a spending plan that took the opposite approach, emphasizing housing over temporary shelter. However, the real debate will come later this year, when Durkan proposes an implementation plan for the tax as part of the city’s annual budget process. (The spending plan adopted this week sets the council’s priorities, but is itself a nonbinding resolution.) That plan, and the budget process, will give proponents of the Durkan spending model another opportunity to attempt to recalibrate the spending balance in the tax proposal.

The city’s adopted Pathways Home plan, which directs the city to focus its homeless service spending on programs that get people off the streets and into “permanent housing” as quickly as possible, recommends that the city do the exact opposite of what Durkan recommended in her original spending plan. Last year, the city adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers that actually eliminated funding for a large number of basic shelter beds, on the grounds that those shelter providers failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. Pathways Home is controversial, in part, because it penalizes nonprofits that serve the hardest to house, but the “housing first” principles that underlie it are right in line with the McKinsey report that suggested a lack of housing is the fundamental problem underlying Seattle’s homelessness crisis.

5. Seattle has continued to insist that it won’t continue to “go it alone” on funding for homelessness, but King County has yet to step up and propose its own tax plan to supplement Seattle’s. Although Durkan announced Monday that King County will provide $5.7 million in one-time funding to help keep shelters and authorized encampments open in 2018, the county has been noticeably quiet about what it will do to fund housing and services on an ongoing basis. One Table,” a regional task force made up of elected officials, advocates, and business leaders from across King County, began meeting in January. So far, they have announced that Pearl Jam will hold two concerts in Seattle to raise at least $1 million for homelessness—and not much else. The group’s last two public meetings were canceled with minimal public notice, and the closest they have gotten to a set of recommendations is nine-page document, released quietly last month, that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. That document no longer appears to be available on King County’s website.

6. Finally, the passage of the head tax is unlikely to end the vitriol that has accompanied the debate over homelessness in the past few months, exemplified by a recent town hall meeting at a church in Ballard where homeowners shouted down a panel of elected leaders and progressive revenue task force members with bellows of “BULLSHIT!” “FUCK YOU!” and “RESIGN NOW!”  The problem with any spending plan that fails to house enough people to make an appreciable dent in homelessness is that it leaves too many people on the streets, opening the city up to the predictable objection that “no matter how much money we give them, the problem keeps getting worse”  and the problem with any spending plan that takes a large number of people off the streets and stuffs them into new “tiny house” camps and shelters is that those people have nowhere to go and shelter becomes a way of warehousing people indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the problem with spending the amount that experts consider “enough” is that it tends to inspire fierce pushback from the business community. (According to Maddux’s report, a thorough response may require about $69 million per year from Seattle and $120 million from the rest of the county.)  Amazon threatened to stop construction on one of its downtown projects over the original $75 million head tax proposal, and said on Monday that the adopted $47 million tax “causes us to question our growth here” in Seattle. That kind of talk tends to send those who have benefited from the recent Amazon-fueled boom, such as homeowners who have seen the value of their properties skyrocket to an average of $820,000 over the last few years, into a tizzy. Amazon may not leave Seattle, or even slow its growth here—Fast Company, the business magazine, called the company’s latest statement “passive-aggressive and vaguely threatening”—but the possibility that the company, which just reported $1.6 billion in quarterly profits, might retaliate against the city remains a guillotine that the company is more than happy to hold over the heads of those who have benefited from its success.

Controversial Head Tax Passes After Weeks of Bruising Debate

After a weekend of negotiations between city council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan (and, according to council president Bruce Harrell, “conversations with Amazon, big business, small business, [and] homeless advocates”) the city council unanimously approved a new version of the controversial employee hours tax today, imposing a $275-per-employee tax on about 585 businesses with gross receipts of more than $20 million a year.  The $275 figure was a  “compromise” between the $500 tax passed out of committee last week by a slim majority of council members and the $250 tax proposed by Harrell and Durkan, which emphasized short-term shelter and garbage cleanup over permanent housing, and would have built just 250 new units of housing over five years. Durkan had threatened to veto the larger tax proposal, and as several council members noted on the dais this afternoon, the council majority was unable to convince one of their colleagues (such as council member Rob Johnson) to switch sides and give them a veto-proof majority. The $500 head tax proposal was the result of months of work by the city’s progressive revenue task force, which was appointed after a last year’s budget process and charged with coming up with a proposal to tax businesses to pay for homeless services and affordable housing. (Johnson, who was seen as a potential swing vote, cited the need for a process like the one the task force went through in voting against an early head tax proposal last year.) The task force issued their report in March.

The tax, which sunsets after five years (and which will no longer be replaced, as in previous versions of the legislation, with a business payroll tax), would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. According to the spending plan the council also adopted this afternoon, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median. (The full spending plan is available here.) The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, more parking lots for people living in their cars, and sanitation facilities. The adopted spending plan, which allocates about two-thirds of the head tax revenues to housing, reverses the priorities in the spending plan proposed last week by Mayor Jenny Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell, which would have spent 70 percent of the revenues from the head tax in years 1 and 2 (and 60 percent in years 3 through 5) on short-term emergency shelter, garbage cleanup, and a new Navigation Team to coordinate the removal of unauthorized encampments and the people in them.

Prior to their vote for the tax, several council members expressed regret that they failed to come up with a compromise that could convince at least one of their colleagues to join them in a veto-proof majority in favor of a larger tax, such as the $350 compromise council member Lisa Herbold floated Friday. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who was one of the co-chairs, along with Herbold, on the progressive revenue task force, said, “While I’m excited that we will be taking this vote… to reestablish a head tax… it’s regrettable that we were unable to find a path amongst our colleagues and with the mayor that they would be willing to support a higher taxation rate than $275.” Council member Mike O’Brien, who recently weathered hours of verbal abuse at an out-of-control forum on the head tax in Ballard, sounded grim as he conceded, “I’m settling for this level of service.”

Business leaders continued to grumble about the tax. The Downtown Seattle Association issued a statement decrying the tax as “bad economic policy [that] will negatively impact Seattle’s economy and city tax revenues,” and Amazon said in a statement that the “tax on jobs” makes the company “very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

The next battle for homeless advocates at city hall will be over the spending plan for the tax—a component of the plan that is in many ways more critical than the amount of money the tax produces. Durkan’s proposed spending plan, with its emphasis on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and tiny houses, would have largely backfilled spending on programs for which funding is about to run out (the plan contained a $15 million-$16 million annual line item to “continu[e] programs which had one-time funding in the 2018 budget, or insufficient funding, plus unspecified “new emergency, temporary, and enhanced shelters, navigation centers… and/or service and safe parking for vehicular living”), reducing the impact of the new revenues to whatever is left over once all the programs that are running out of money are funded. Although the council adopted the spending plan, that vote was narrow (5-4, along the same lines as Friday’s vote) and the actual implementation plan will have to be proposed by Durkan and adopted by the council as part of this year’s budget process.

Before the vote, council member Teresa Mosqueda said the new revenues from the head tax “are supposed to be in addition to” existing spending, not a replacement for it. Asked specifically about this concern at a press conference after the vote, Durkan pivoted to talking about the need to examine the council’s proposed spending plan itself, which she said would fund “a number of programs, such as shelter and supportive housing,” for which long-term funding is not secure. She did not answer the question about whether she would push for a spending plan that used new dollars to pay for existing funding commitments.

The insistence on funding existing shelter beds, from some of the four-member council minority as well as Mayor Durkan, is somewhat ironic. After all, it was the city council itself (with then-mayor Tim Burgess’ support) who adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers last year that eliminated funding for many basic shelters, on the grounds that they failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. The new standards for shelter providers, for example, withhold funding if those shelters fail to move 40 percent of their clients into housing within three months, a standard that few emergency shelters can meet, particularly those serving the clients who are hardest to house.

The emphasis in the Durkan/Harrell plan on funding shelters rather than housing also flies in the face of what virtually every expert, from the city’s homelessness consultant Barb Poppe to the city’s Human Services Department to a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce-commissioned report to former All Home King County director Mark Putnam, which is that a solution to homelessness requires getting people into housing, not tents and “tiny houses” (which Putnam recently referred to as “glorified garden sheds.”) Asked why she supported a split that favored spending on shelters over housing, Durkan responded, “because I think the people of Seattle think that we’ve got to make a difference in homelessness tomorrow. We need to get  people off the streets and get them a safe place to live. None of this housing will come online for years.”

Mosqueda told me before the vote that she was “not interested” in a spending plan that funds temporary shelter “that evicts people in five years and fails to build the housing we need.” The problem in Seattle, Mosqueda argued, is not so much lack of mats on the floor as a lack of affordable housing, and providing more temporary shelter beds is only a “Band-Aid” that fails to address the larger affordability problem at the root of Seattle’s inability to move people from shelter to housing. In a memo released earlier today, Mosqueda staffer Michael Maddux wrote that in the Durkan/Harrell plan, “There does not seem to be increased capacity in funding to support short-term enhanced shelter, and with the draconian cuts to the housing component, no plan appears in place to provide permanent housing for people moved into the few new beds created (about 1,000) by the Mayor’s plan.”

One thing everyone on both sides agreed on is that homelessness is a regional, not a Seattle-only, problem. “Seattle can’t go it alone,” Durkan said during her press conference. “This is a regional crisis that demands a regional response.” That quote might have been lifted verbatim from any other number of press conferences by any number of Seattle officials, past or present. Seattle officials routinely implore “the region,” usually meaning King County, to step up and pay their fair share to address every challenging problem, whether it’s inadequate transit or inadequate funds for housing.  Whether that additional funding will materialize is uncertain. Durkan announced this morning that the state has come up with an additional $40 million for behavioral health services in 2018, and $18 million to $20 million a year after that, and that King County has said it will provide the city with $5.7 million to expand shelter and “safe alternatives for people living outdoors” in 2018. Little is currently known about what strings are attached to this funding or how it can be spent.

Beyond the $5.7 million announced this morning, the county has been parsimonious with its funding to address the crisis. (It did adopt a resolution today declaring May 14-20 “Affordable Housing Week” in King County,  “all county residents” are encouraged “to embrace affordable housing opportunities in their communities.”) Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine suggested last week that the city needs to slow down and work on a regional approach through the massive “One Table” task force, which began meeting back in January. One Table was supposed to have finished up its meetings and announced its recommendations for a regional approach to addressing homelessness by now; instead, they have canceled their past two meetings and have been very quiet since April. One Table may ultimately come back with a recommendation for a countywide levy, or a sales tax to pay for housing and services (two of the only options available to local governments in Washington State), or it may not. Either way, Seattle is moving forward with what is at least an attempt to address the crisis of homelessness within its borders. Whether the scaled-back proposal adopted today makes a perceptible, measurable dent in homelessness, or whether it merely provides more fodder for anti-tax activists who insist that the city is wasting its money because the problem isn’t getting any better, will be clear soon enough.

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