Tag: housing

Alarm Over Potential Navigation Team Cuts Leaves Out One Crucial Detail


Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent council members a letter today outlining potential devastating consequences if the city council eliminates or reduces the size of the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and city staffers who remove unauthorized encampments. The letter, signed by the heads of seven executive departments that report to Durkan (plus the director of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health), suggests that between 95 and 476 fewer people will receive referrals to shelter next year if the council reduces funding for the Navigation Team.

“The Navigation Team’s trained police officers, Field Coordinators and System Navigators engage people experiencing homelessness in some of Seattle’s most dangerous and inaccessible locations, establishing the rapport and trust needed to provide critical services,” the memo says.

But the biggest issue with the warning in the mayor’s memo is that no one, except embattled city council member Kshama Sawant, is seeking to “eliminate” the Navigation Team. In fact—alarmist headlines about “draconian budget cuts” aside—no one but Sawant has proposed cutting the program at all, and not one council member has expressed support for Sawant’s idea.

There are a few issues with this analysis. The first is that referrals to shelter matter less than how many people actually end up going to shelter. According to the city’s own numbers (first reported by The C Is for Crank), fewer than a third of all shelter referrals result in a person actually accessing a shelter bed, so the actual number of people who might not access shelter through the Navigation Team is more like 28 to 143 people a year.

The second issue is that the Navigation Team, by the city’s own admission, now focuses primarily on removing encampments it considers “obstructions,” an expansive term that can apply to any tent set up in a park or public right-of-way. According to outreach workers, these zero-notice removals do not establish “rapport” or “trust”; quite the opposite. That’s why the city’s nonprofit outreach provider, REACH, stopped participating in “obstruction” removals earlier this year.

But the biggest issue with the alarming memo is that no one, except embattled city council member Kshama Sawant, is seeking to “eliminate” the Navigation Team. In fact—alarmist headlines about “draconian budget cuts” aside—no one but Sawant has proposed cutting the program at all, and not one council member has expressed support for Sawant’s idea. The only other proposed restriction on the Navigation Team is the renewal of an existing budget proviso that requires the team to produce data on its progress, which isn’t the same thing as a cut. And at least one council member—Debora Juarez—actually wants to make the Navigation Team even bigger.

“I have ongoing concerns about pretending that the Navigation Team is actually connecting people to services and shelter when the numbers, in terms of performance, [are] dismal. If the Navigation Team was a service provider, their contract would have been canceled at this point.” — City Council member Lorena Gonzalez

The real targets for the executive department’s memo may have been council members like Sally Bagshaw, who remarked that she had never seen such consensus among city departments, and the local media, who ran with Durkan’s story line without mentioning that Sawant’s proposal has approximately a zero percent chance of passing. (Bagshaw’s comment about departmental unity led her colleague Lorena Gonzalez to quip, “I don’t disagree that there is consensus amongst the executive.”)

That isn’t to say that council members didn’t have critical things to say about the Navigation Team, which has ballooned in size during the Durkan Administration, from 22 members in 2017 to 38 this year. (After the team’s nonprofit outreach partner, REACH, stopped participating in no-notice “obstruction” removals this summer, Durkan added four more members to the team, funding two of them with one-time funds; her budget proposal, much like last year’s, seeks to make those positions permanent).

Gonzalez suggested that, given the team’s extremely low ratio of “contacts” to shelter acceptance (just 8 percent of those the team contacts end up in shelter), the city should stop pretending it is “navigating” anyone to anywhere and just start calling it a “cleanup” operation.

“I have ongoing concerns about pretending that the Navigation Team is actually connecting people to services and shelter when the numbers, in terms of performance, [are] dismal,” Gonzalez said. “If the Navigation Team was a service provider, their contract would have been canceled at this point.”

Bagshaw countered that the Navigation Team does more than “cleanups”; they also offer services and help combat what she called “a sense of less than safety in a neighborhood. … We’ve got to put our arms around the people in the neighborhoods as well,” she said.

Herbold’s proposed proviso would require the council to approve the Navigation Team’s funding every quarter based on whether it was making progress on responding to a set of recommendations the city auditor made back in 2018, many of which Herbold said the mayor’s office and HSD have “indicated that they have no intention of addressing.” One of those recommendations has to do with the Navigation Team’s staffing model and whether the current structure of the team makes sense. “We have not asked them to change the staffing model; we have asked them to do a staffing assessment. And the reason for that is that the staffing configuration might have an impact on the Navigation Team’s ability to meet our shared objectives,” Herbold said.

Juarez’s proposed budget add, in contrast, would expand the Navigation Team by two more members to serve north Seattle, which Juarez said has seen “a lot more unsanctioned encampments… that are just being ignored.” Gonzalez questioned Juarez’s proposal, asking why the existing Navigation Team couldn’t be deployed to serve the north end if that’s where the need is, and Herbold warned against making decisions about where to deploy the team based on complaints or anecdotes rather than data. “I am concerned that if we look at a geographic focus, that is going to really turn this whole body of work into one that is driven by what locations are getting the most complaints rather than what locations are creating the largest actual, objective problems,” she said.

Continue reading “Alarm Over Potential Navigation Team Cuts Leaves Out One Crucial Detail”

Unanswered Questions from Durkan’s Housing Announcement

On Wednesday, city staffers, supporters of Mayor Jenny Durkan, and members of the media crowded into a  small black-box theater at the 12th Avenue Arts building on Capitol Hill to hear what was billed as a major speech outlining the mayor’s vision for affordable housing in Seattle. (Press, many of whom had expected the event would include an opportunity to ask questions, were relegated to a “reserved” row in the very back.)

Ultimately, the event—which consisted of a State of the City-style address outlining what the city has done on housing recently, followed by an announcement of two initiatives that were already in the works—didn’t make much news. Durkan said that Seattle plans to take advantage of a new state law allowing cities to use a portion of existing state sales tax for housing, by bonding against future revenues to get about $50 million for housing for formerly homeless people up front. And she said the city would extend the multifamily tax exemption program that gives developers a property tax exemption if they agree to set aside 20 percent of new units for low-to-middle-income renters for 12 years. (The city renews the tax break every three to five years).

In fairness, the MFTE announcement did include a bit of real news: Under Durkan’s plan, the city will cap rent increases at MFTE units at 4.5 percent a year. Under federal rules, potential (though not necessarily actual) rent increases for these units track to area median income—when median income goes up, say, 10 percent because a bunch of high-paid tech workers move into the city, rents for low-income people living in tax-exempt buildings can go up 10 percent as well, even though the people living in those units obviously aren’t seeing their incomes rise 10 percent every year. (In practice, huge annual rent increases for existing units would be out of scale with the overall market in many parts of town, although it does happen). Last year, the city used some creative math to freeze rent increases at MFTE properties to prevent apartment owners from raising rents at the rate of median income increases, but the 4.5 percent cap puts a firm limit on how much landlords can charge.

Otherwise, though, Durkan’s “Seattle Housing Now” announcement raised more questions than it answered. Here are some of those questions, along with a few potential answers.

• What’s going on with the pending sale of the Mercer Megablock?

Durkan provided a few sparse details about the pending sale of the Mercer Megablock, a three-acre city-owned site in South Lake Union that could bring in upward of $100 million. The mayor will likely announce a plan and buyer—reportedly Alexandria Real Estate Investment, Inc., a real estate investment trust that focuses on life science campuses—in the next two weeks. The mayor’s office recently briefed council members on the deal, sort of: Staffers reportedly showed council members a PowerPoint that contained few specifics, and took the document with them when they left.

What we do know from the mayor’s speech is that the new development will include some housing on site (the request for proposals for the project called for at least 175 rent-restricted units), and that the city will use some of the revenues from the sale to buy properties in areas with a high risk of displacement, to provide low-interest loans to struggling homeowners who want to build cottages in their backyards, and to fund homeownership opportunities.

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What was unclear from Durkan’s pre-announcement announcement was how she will propose splitting up those revenues among programs that help low-income renters, middle-income workers (the “teachers, nurses and firefighters” that are a frequent Durkan talking point) and higher-income homebuyers and homeowners. Some housing advocates had argued that the city should hang on to the megablock property and build affordable housing on the site, or, failing that, invest heavily in housing for low-income people who are being driven out of the city by rising rents. It remains to be seen how much Durkan took their pleas to heart, but programs for homebuyers and homeowners tend to be aimed at people making as much as 120 percent of median income, or about $130,000 for a family of four. (For a single person, 120 percent of median works out to $91,000). If Durkan’s plan for the megablock money is skewed toward subsidizing people making six-figure salaries, it will likely come under fire from the council; on seeing an early draft of the mayor’s ADU plan, council member Lorena Gonzalez reportedly responded that the high-income subsidy (a loan product aimed at people making up to 120 percent of median) would end up disproportionately benefiting  white homeowners, not people of color facing displacement in areas like the Central District. Her office says they’ve asked the mayor’s office to do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal, and that they’ve said they will.

The mayor will likely announce a plan and buyer—reportedly Alexandria Real Estate Investment, Inc., a real estate investment trust that focuses on life science campuses—in the next two weeks.

• Why didn’t the MFTE plan go further?

One perennial question about the multifamily tax exemption program is whether it results in enough  affordable housing to justify the cost, which amounts to about $26 million in lost taxes every year, according to the most recent program status report. The program ensures that between 20 and 25 percent of new units are available to people making between 65 and 85 percent of median income (a number that varies depending on the size of the unit and where it is in the city). The idea behind the 12-year tax break is that by the time the tax expires, new development elsewhere will have been built to meet demand at the top of the market, and the MFTE units will have depreciated in value to the point that rents will be affordable relative to the rest of the market. Because housing development hasn’t kept up with population growth, this hasn’t happened, raising the question of whether the subsidy is deep enough to justify the tax break for developers.

One perennial question about the multifamily tax exemption program is whether it results in enough  affordable housing to justify the cost, which amounts to about $26 million in lost taxes every year,

Options the mayor and her middle-income advisory council, which advised Durkan on the plan, could have proposed include lowering the income eligibility so that lower-income people could participate in the program, which would lower rents (currently, MFTE landlords can charge someone making 80 percent of median income $1,737 for a one-bedroom apartment, which is basically market rent); placing a more stringent cap on rent increases; or limiting the program to larger “family” units, on the grounds that the market is already producing lots of small units at rents basically equivalent to the units the program subsidizes with tax breaks.

• What’s up with the Uber/Lyft tax?

Durkan has been working since last year on a plan to tax Uber and Lyft rides to pay for a laundry list of transportation and housing programs, but the proposal has been slow to get off the ground. Uber and Lyft generally have opposed the plan, arguing that it won’t reduce congestion downtown, because ride-hailing services only amount to a small percentage of car trips downtown and because of a phenomenon called induced demand, where small reductions in congestion lead people to drive when they ordinarily wouldn’t have. The ride-hailing companies have called for broad congestion pricing on all downtown drivers, which (unlike a tax targeting them specifically) would require voter approval.

Durkan’s latest plan would reportedly fund new investments in housing with the tax. But  it’s unclear when—or whether—the mayor will actually release a final proposal. Another question, if Durkan does end up proposing the tax, is whether the revenues will go to capital investments (building new units) or operations and maintenance (the less flashy but critical work of running them). Permanent supportive housing units for very low-income people (like the ones that would be funded through the new sales tax revenues) are expensive to run because they (unlike regular apartments) require full-time staffing and case management. If the ride-hailing tax passes, that money could be used to build housing around transit stations (providing a nexus, sort of, to justify using a transportation tax to pay for housing) while the money from the sales tax can go toward O&M. Without the Uber/Lyft tax, that equation becomes more challenging.

Durkan’s latest plan would reportedly fund new investments in housing with a new tax on ride-hailing services. But  it’s unclear when—or whether—the mayor will actually release a final proposal.

• When is Durkan going to announce a new Office of Housing director?

Durkan told OH director Steve Walker (whose final day is today) he was out back in March. His deputy director, Miriam Roskin, went on sabbatical shortly after that and is not expected to return. Durkan has had four months to appoint a replacement for Walker, but has not yet done so. It’s unclear when the mayor will announce Walker’s replacement. In June, 30 housing advocacy groups sent a letter to the mayor outlining their values and recommendations for the hiring process—an effort, according to Puget Sound Sage policy and research analyst Giulia Pascuito, to “push back on [the] narrative we’ve seen from the Mayor’s office around ‘middle-income housing’ and to let the city know that advocates are paying attention” to the appointment.

• Why didn’t Durkan acknowledge state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in her speech?

An oversight, perhaps—her official press release mentions Macri by name—but it was somewhat jarring that Durkan didn’t shout out one of the prime sponsors of HB 1406, the legislation that made it possible for the city to use sales tax revenues to fund housing, during her speech, which included praise for Macri’s co-sponsor, June Robinson, as well as house speaker Frank Chopp and state Sen. David Frockt.

Families Come In All Sizes. Housing Choices Should, Too.

Editor’s note: This is a guest op/ed by More Options for Accessory Residences, a group that advocates for accessory dwelling units, such as backyard cottages and basement apartments. The city council’s Sustainability and Transportation committee will hold a public hearing on legislation making it easier for single-family property owners to build second and third units on Tuesday evening at 5:30.—ECB

Seattle needs thousands of homes for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds over the next 10 years. Families come in all shapes and sizesand housing choices should, too. Some families love the convenience, coziness and price of an accessory dwelling unit. There’s a lot of names for a second home within, or next to, an existing house: Granny Flats, Fonzie Flats, Pool Houses, Coach Houses, Kitchenette Units, Backyard Cottages, Basement Apartments, and so many more.

MOAR – More Options for Accessory Residents—supports more accessory dwelling units for the following reasons:

  • Climate Change: (D)ADUs are one way to add new neighbors to areas with frequent transit service. This means that people can live closer to their jobs, cultural communities, and more—which means less sprawl and less dependence on cars. (D)ADUs are also much more energy-efficient then single-family houses, cutting carbon emissions by as much as half.
  • Walkable Communities: (D)ADUs support small businesses by making it possible for more people to live within walking, biking, and easy transit distance of local mom-and-pop shops.
  • Aging in place:  The new legislation has built-in flexibility for people who want to build a one-story backyard unit, making it much easier to create opportunities to age in place. In cities that make it easy to build backyard apartments, many people move into the backyard cottage and rent out the front home to offset rising property taxes.
  • Intergenerational Living: (D)ADUs help create additional living spaces for children who need an affordable place to stay during or after college, aging parents, a relative who can babysit or fill in for child-care needs, or a relative who might need at-home care.
  • Parking Requirements: Let’s prioritize housing for people, not storage for cars. The proposed legislation takes away the requirement that homeowners add a new parking space to build a second unit. And it doesn’t count interior parking or storage space against the size limit. 

  • Affordability: Right now 75 percent of Seattle is off limits to new neighbors who can’t rent a whole house or come up with a down payment to buy one. ADUs & DADUs are one way to induce mixed-income neighborhoods and more equity without changing the zoning.
  • Land Owners, Home Owners, and Neighbors Who Rent: Right now, 20 percent of Seattle’s single-family houses are occupied by renters. Under the current rules, property owners with ADUs must live on site six months out of every year—a biased policy that prevents renters from accessing this housing and takes away property owners’ flexibility to live elsewhere. The proposed legislation will allow anyone, including renters, to live on a property with an attached or detached ADU. 
  • Out-of-scale homes: Right now, the city incentivizes removing small houses so the largest possible house—sometimes referred to as a “McMansions”—can be constructed. Based on census data, the average household size is declining but the average square footage of a house isn’t. The legislation would limit the size of new homes while encouraging ADUs and DADUs by not counting second and third units against development limits.

Adding 2,000 additional homes over the next ten years by reforming the city’s approach to ADUs is a very small step on the path to making our region affordable for all our neighbors, including the ones who haven’t moved here yet. If you support this vision, please show up to City Hall June 11 at 5:15 pm to rally for MOAR Housing.

MOAR (More Options for Accessory Residences; @moarseattle) is a group of Seattle residents concerned with the future of the city, housing availability and affordability. We have diverse backgrounds, experiences and housing situations, but we’re all Seattleites who want our city to allow more options for accessory residences—for us, our neighbors, and future generations.

Dueling Motions Filed as Both Sides Prepare for Preliminary Hearing in Showbox Case Next Month

The owners of the Showbox building on First Ave. downtown filed a motion for partial summary judgment in its ongoing case against the city today, seeking to void an ordinance passed last year expanding the boundaries of Pike Place Market to include the two-story, unreinforced masonry building, which also houses a pawn shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a pub.

The motion argues that the ordinance, which halted the owners’ plans to sell the land to the Canadian apartment developer Onni,  violates the land owners’ due process and equal protection rights and constitutes an illegal spot rezone of a single property, and seeks to have the ordinance overturned immediately, whether or not the case goes to trial.

Back in 2017, as part of the pro-density Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the city council upzoned the Showbox property, along with others on First Ave, to encourage housing development downtown. The original plan for the property—a $40 million, 40-story apartment building—was exactly the kind of building the new zoning on First Avenue was meant to facilitate. When the plans became public, however, music fans—joined by council member Kshama Sawant and her supporters, who tagged Onni as a “greedy corporate developer”—rallied to “Save the Showbox” and the city council adopted legislation that prohibited the owners and Onni from moving forward with their plans.

The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building. AEG’s lease expires in 2021, and the company is under no mandate to renew.

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Also today, the city of Seattle filed its own motion asking a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the city council was within its rights to call “a brief time-out to preserve the status quo in light of news of the Showbox’s potential destruction” last August. That “time-out,” which was supposed to expire in July ,has since been extended another six months. Among other claims, the city’s motion argues that because the Pike Place Market extension doesn’t change the underlying 440-foot-high zoning (it just prohibits any changes to the existing, two-story building and the use of the building as a live-music venue  without the approval of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission), it doesn’t constitute an illegal spot rezone.

Neither the city’s nor the Showbox owners’ motion includes much that’s substantively new, but they do lay out some of the arguments that both sides are likely to raise if the case goes to trial.

One point that has not come up in previous court arguments is that if the reason people want to “Save the Showbox” is to preserve live-music venues (as opposed to, say, preserving a nostalgic set piece for people who miss how Seattle used to be in the ’90s), then they ought to be arguing to “save” the Triple Door, or Tula’s, or El Corazon—the latter two already threatened by redevelopment, and the former at risk by virtue of its prime downtown location.

For its part, the city is now arguing that the ordinance—which effectively prohibits the development of the prime downtown site as housing and preserves it as a two-story music venue in perpetuity—”is beneficial, not detrimental to the community and is consistent with comprehensive planning goals and policies.”

King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi will hear oral arguments from both sides at 10am on Friday, June 21.

 

Morning Crank: Forgiving and Forgetting In Ballard, Renting In Seattle

1. After watching the King County Young Democrats’ three-hour candidate forum online last Sunday, I was struck by the response of the candidates in the most crowded race so far—District 6, where 11 candidates are running to replace retiring incumbent Mike O’Brien—to a question about the organized mob that shut down what was supposed to be a community discussion last year in Ballard. Moderator LaKecia Farmer, who is black, recalled her visceral reaction when watching hundreds of white Northwest Seattle residents screaming down a panel made up primarily of women of color, silencing council members and moderators by screaming “FUCK YOU!” “BULLSHIT!” and “RESIGN NOW!” before suggesting that the city, for example, “round up” homeless people in “a highly publicized event.”

How quickly we forget (or perhaps the candidates didn’t watch the footage in the first place.) All four invited candidates—Heidi Wills, Jay Fathi, Dan Strauss, and Melissa Hall—responded to Farmer’s question with variations on the statement, “I would listen more,” ignoring, perhaps, the fact that it’s hard to listen when several hundred people are screaming “O-PEN MIC! O-PEN MIC!” in your face.

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Fathi, a doctor, compared the crowd in Ballard to a patient seeking advice from a physician, whose job is primarily to listen and take the patient seriously before suggesting a course of action. Strauss said that after council members listen, they need to “follow up” with action; nobody likes getting yelled at, the lifelong District 6 resident added, but “I can tell you that Ballardites have been yelling at me my whole life. When I was a referee in middle school, I got yelled off the field by grown adults, and I can tell you I earned their endorsement yesterday.” Hall said the “problem is that we haven’t painted that hopeful vision of the future that these people can get on board with,” then pivoted to the need for walkable cities and an anecdote about an argument she once had over a chicken coop. And Wills, who is swiftly positioning herself as the candidate for angry neighbors who were frustrated that O’Brien didn’t support crackdowns on homeless residents, said she would open an office in the district and staff it at least one day a week, so that it’s easier for constituents “to have face time with the person who represents them in city hall.” (Although most district city council members have regular “office hours” in their districts, they typically hold them in public places, such as libraries and community centers, due to the cost of office space.) No word on how Wills, or any of the other candidates to replace O’Brien, would respond if constituents showed up and started screaming “NOOOOOOO!” in their faces or screamed “NOT TRUE!” when they tried to establish a baseline of basic facts.

2. On Wednesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan sent out a press release touting the city’s new “Renting in Seattle” portal, an online one-stop shop for people who rent (and the landlords who rent to them) to learn about landlord-tenant laws, periodic trainings, and tenant protections in Seattle. In her press release, Durkan announced that that the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections had, “after deep consultation across departments, and with community… identified the need for a dedicated, centralized resource” for tenants and landlords.

Perhaps it’s an indication of how the relationship between the mayor and council has deteriorated that multiple council sources immediately reached out to remind The C Is for Crank of the fact that the tenant portal is not actually “new”—it has actually been around in some form since last year, and was originally a council initiative, born in a Statement of Legislative Intent during the 2016 budget process, long before Durkan was in office. That SLI, which set a March 31, 2017 due date, directed SDCI to “develop a proposal, with resource needs identified, to launch a public facing tenant landlord resource center, in coordination with the Office of Housing (OH), the Department of Neighborhoods (DON), the Human Services Department (HSD), the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), and the Customer Service Bureau.” The work on the tenant portal continued through the rest of 2017 and 2018, and the portal has been up in its current form since March.

In addition to the new portal, Durkan announced that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections would be  “administering more than $600,000 in grants to community partners who provide assistance to renters such as education, counseling, and legal services for eviction defense.” (SDCI spokeswoman Wendy Shark says the grants will be announced “in the coming weeks.”) The reason the grants are being allocated by SDCI, rather than HSD, is because of a budget action last year by city council member Mike O’Brien, who moved the $600,000 allocation from HSD to SDCI after HSD ignored the council’s 2017 directive to spend the money on grants to community-based groups that do proactive outreach to tenants at risk of eviction. As I reported last year, the money allocated to the grants in 2018 “was inexplicably spent expanding a hotline tenants can call when they need help, rather than letting tenants know that the hotline and other resources exist.”

According to Shark, “Managing tenant grants in SDCI where both the program and rental regulation enforcement are housed means a closer working partnership with service providers and better outcomes for renters.”

Morning Crank: Perverse Incentives

FEMA tent in New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons

1. Interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson looked visibly shaken at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness and housing affordability this past Monday, hours after Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she was pulling his nomination to serve as permanent director. Johnson’s inability to secure council approval came up only once during the meeting—committee chair Sally Bagshaw mentioned briefly that “I know that today is a tough day in particular”—but the fact that he is serving without council approval will almost certainly be a factor in his relationship with the council at least through the next council election.

Although Durkan has the authority to keep Johnson on as an interim director indefinitely, council member Lorena González said this week that he will need to answer some of the questions that were raised during his appointment process about the culture at HSD and the relationship between management and employees. (A recent survey of HSD staff found that employees, especially those in the homelessness division, felt unappreciated, unheard, and out of the loop).

“Regardless of what [interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson’s] title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out.” —Council member Lorena González

“Regardless of what his title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out in HSD,”  González told me. “The HSD director serves at the pleasure of the mayor. The mayor is his direct supervisor. And as a council member, it’s my expectation that the mayor provide Jason with the direction and the support he needs to be able to address some of the reasonable, legitimate concerns that I heard from HSD employees about the culture” of the department.

2. The subject of Monday’s meeting was how the city measures “success” among homeless service providers and when and how HSD will provide publicly accessible information about its performance metrics and how well providers are meeting them. As council member Teresa Mosqueda noted, the council has been requesting a “dashboard” showing which programs are working and which are underperforming. Johnson noted that while the city has been “laser-focused” on “exits from homelessness”—a term that refers to the number of exits from programs that get logged in King County’s homeless tracking system—”there is also debate about whether that is the right metric to pay attention to,” or whether returns to homelessness—a term that refers to people who leave the homelessness system in King County and then reenter the homelessness system in King County—is a better measure.

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However, members of a second panel, which included representatives from Family Works, Solid Ground, and the Public Defender Association, pointed out that the “returns to homelessness” metric is incomplete, and may actually discourage providers from accurately reporting information about those they serve. “When we look at returns to homelessness, I think it’s an important metric to look at, but we also have to keep in mind that it is an inaccurate number, because it only includes people that are coming back into homelessness that then go into another program” in King County, Solid Ground’s Shannon Rae said. “Folks that returned to the street and [are] not actually accessing other services… don’t show up” in the system—that is, the city may be counting them as “successes” when they have simply given up on trying to use local services. Additionally, a lot of the folks who Solid Ground serves end up homeless in neighboring counties, “so we’re not capturing all the returns to homelessness,” Rae said. On the flip side, she said, service providers get dinged by the new performance metrics—which determine whether agencies receive full funding or have a portion of their funding withheld by the city—when families decide to move in with other people, go into transitional housing, or do something else that’s “best for them” but doesn’t count in the system as an “exit to permanent housing.”

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, added that the current measures of “success” create a perverse incentive for providers to serve people who are the easiest to serve, because clients who are the hardest to house—for example, chronically homeless men with severe addiction and criminal records related to that addiction—are also, by definition, the ones who are the least likely to result in “success” by the city’s measures. (They also tend to rank lowest on the county’s “vulnerability index,” putting them at the back of the line for housing and services.)

Instead of rewarding providers who manage to get the most difficult-to-serve people into better living situations, the city penalizes and rewards providers on the basis of how many bodies they get into permanent housing, without regard for the difficulty of housing certain populations, and no matter how much impact they have on neighborhoods, property crime rates, and the kind of general “disorder” that was highlighted (sensationalistically and misleadingly) in KOMO’s viral “Seattle Is Dying” report. As a result, Daugaard said, service providers end up “run[ning] away from the most difficult folks out there” for fear of getting dinged. “We should flip that on its head.” That, in fact, is one of the key recommendations homelessness consultant Barb Poppe made in 2016, when she advised the city of Seattle to “[p]rioritize for housing interventions those families and individuals who have the longest histories of homelessness and highest housing barriers” even if they don’t score highest on the vulnerability index.

The city did not put this recommendation into practice, and continues to penalize human service providers for falling short on five measures, which include exits to housing and returns to homelessness. This year, 20 of 46 service providers with HSD contracts failed to meet HSD’s standards and had 12 percent of their funding temporarily withheld by the city. “Financial incentives in contracts to do hard and important work should be true incentives rather than penalties,” Daugaard said Tuesday. “This really was one of the important national realizations in No Child Left Behind”—the George W. Bush-era law that withheld funding from schools that failed to meet testing-based performance standards—”that taking money away from  an institution that’s struggling to do hard work is generally not the best way to improve their ability to do that work.”

3. The question of how to measure success was on my mind when I watched a District 6 city council candidate forum held by the activist group Speak Out Seattle on Tuesday night. The questions for this forum, which featured ten of the candidates running for the Northwest Seattle’s seat, were similar to those at previous SOS forums—written, generally speaking, in a way that implied that homelessness is a choice caused primarily by the decision to become addicted to illegal drugs, and that the most effective solutions to homelessness tend to involve some kind of involuntary commitment. (One question at a recent SOS forum, written by an audience member and read verbatim by KIRO Radio’s Mike Lewis, was: “How do you plan to get the drug-using free campers off the streets? Will you enforce current ordinances about vagrancy, littering, public urination, [and] public drug use?”) Such questions can provoke interesting discussions if candidates are willing to pivot (as council member Lisa Herbold did, skillfully, at SOS’s forum in District 1); but sometimes they’re just the wrong questions.

A good case in point was a question at Tuesday’s forum, about whether the candidates would support erecting “FEMA-style tents or other emergency-type shelters to get people out of their vehicles”—which, practically speaking, would mean leaving their cars or RVs behind.

The assumption behind this question, as well as the city’s outreach to people living in vehicles, is that rational people will give up their last asset for a mat on the ground. The reason this is the wrong framing is not only because this isn’t what rational people will do—given the choice, most people would prefer the autonomy and relative dignity of sleeping in their own vehicle—but because people living in their vehicles consistently say that they don’t want to give them up to move into a shelter. When outreach workers (or policy makers, or candidates for office) offer a mat on the ground in a large group tent as an “alternative” to vehicular living, they’re actively insulting people living in their cars by ignoring their wishes. This is dehumanizing, and if you don’t care about that, it also doesn’t work. People experiencing homelessness, like people who are housed, do things for reasons, and when we listen to those reasons, we can craft solutions that actually help.

Creating safe lots for people living in their cars is a much better option than taking people’s cars away and relocating them into camps, because it respects people’s stated wishes and doesn’t require them to give up their last remaining asset, which happens to double as their home. (Someone living in their car could, theoretically, stay in a shelter as long as they make sure to return to their car and move it every 72 hours, but it’s pretty hard to justify adding another poverty chore to the long list faced by people existing on the margins of society, just because we don’t think people should sleep in cars.) And there’s another reason safe lots make more sense than FEMA tents, too: People living in vehicles tend to need fewer services than chronically homeless folks or those who run a circuit from treatment to shelter to jail. Given limited resources, it makes little sense to pour millions into “wraparound services”—another popular buzzword among the candidates at Tuesday’s District 6 forum—for people who really just need some help paying rent.

Morning Crank: “As a Seattle Native”

If we allow backyard cottages, it could open the door to neighborhood character-destroying duplexes like this

1. The city’s hearing examiner heard final arguments late last month in the latest effort by Queen Anne activist Marty Kaplan to prevent homeowners from building mother-in-law units and backyard cottages (accessory dwelling units, or ADUs) on their property. (Kaplan has been filing legal challenges “as a Seattle native” since 2016, arguing that allowing two ADUs—e.g., a backyard cottage plus a basement apartment—will destroy the character of Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods and lead to rampant speculation by developers). The preferred alternative (there’s no actual legislation yet, since the proposal has been locked up in litigation) would also remove the existing parking mandate; establish restrictions on the size of new single-family houses in an effort to thwart McMansion-style developments; and lift the current owner-occupancy requirement in favor of a new rule requiring that a homeowner who has one ADU and wants to build a second must own the property for at least a year before beginning to build.

If the hearing examiner rules that the environmental review of the ADU proposal, sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, was adequate, the council can move forward with actual legislation as early as next month. Their goal is to finalize and vote on the legislation no later than August.

But hold up. Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly hopes to negotiate with the council to get some amendments to the legislation, starting with the owner-occupancy requirement. ADU opponents, including Kaplan, have argued that allowing up to two secondary units on a lot will open single-family neighborhoods up to “speculative development,” unless the city mandates that any homeowner who wants to build an ADU has to live on that property in perpetuity. The specter of developers descending greedily upon single-family property for the privilege of building a secondary unit (and then, after owning the property for a full year after that, building a third) might strike anyone familiar with Seattle’s existing real-estate market as absurd, but to spell it out: There’s no evidence of a speculative boom in backyard apartments in other cities, like Portland and Vancouver, where they’re easier to build; the scenario in which developers build backyard apartments, then sit on those properties for the year before building another unit, makes little financial sense; and fans of missing-middle housing for middle-class people who can no longer afford to buy anything in Seattle might consider a little development a good thing. Nonetheless, Durkan reportedly wants to put owner-occupancy requirements back on the table, and to reopen the discussion about parking requirements. Council sources say the parking idea in particular is probably a nonstarter.

The hearing examiner is expected to make his ruling by mid-May.

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. The city’s Human Services Department found itself on the defensive in late February, after Mayor Durkan claimed in her state of the city speech that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing.” As I first reported, that number was misleading at best—the city actually counted 7,400 exits from programs, a number that almost certainly overstates the number of actual people who have gotten out of homelessness because it counts every program as an exit (so that, for example, a household of two who stopped using five homelessness programs would count as five “exits.”)

At the time, HSD officials and the mayor’s office expressed frustration to reporters who asked questions about the discrepancy, insisting that they should have “known all along” that when the city said “households,” they really meant “exits from programs,” and that reporters should focus not on what the numbers specifically represent, but on the fact that they’re going up.  “No matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said. Nonetheless, several other reporters considered it newsworthy that the city did not know how many people it was actually helping, despite the city’s insistence that it was not a revelation.

Even as the city was telling reporters that they shouldn’t have been surprised that “households” does not mean “households,” internal communications between mayoral and HSD staffers, which I obtained through a records request, show that prior to the mayor’s press conference to discuss the numbers the Monday after my story ran, the city decided to remove all references to “households” in a talking-points memo bound for the mayor’s desk.

The shift was fairly abrupt. On Thursday, February 21, for example, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding wrote in an internal email that one of the department’s top speaking points was “30% More Households Exit (Maintain) to Permanent Housing.” One day later, and several hours after my initial story on the “households” vs. “exits” discrepancy, the mayor’s homelessness advisor, Tess Colby, emailed the mayor’s office and HSD staff to say that she had “revised the memo to Mayor to replace ‘HHs’ with ‘exits’ solely in the interest of precision.”

In all, 12 references to “households” were removed from the memo. For example, the top bullet point, which referred to “the 7,400-goal … for exiting households from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients” was changed to “exits from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients.” A sentence that originally read, “In 2018 431 Native American/Alaska Native households exited  homeless services programs …and 2,979 Black/African Americans households exited homeless services programs” was changed to read, “In 2018 there were 431 exits among Native Americans/Alaska Natives from homeless services programs …  and exits of Black/African Americans increased to 2,979.” And a reference to enhanced shelters “exiting nearly twice as many households” in 2018 than the previous year was changed to say, “Exits to permanent housing increased nearly two-fold.”

These changes may seem minor, but they (and their timing) are significant. The mayor’s office got called out for overstating its success in responding to homelessness. Publicly, they went on the defensive, telling reporters they were making a big deal out of nothing. Privately, though, the mayor’s office appeared to realize the confusion was warranted.

3. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites,  held a forum for District 2 council candidates Thursday night, although only four of the seven declared candidates decided to attend. (Two, Tammy Morales and Christopher Peguero, had previously stated their intent to boycott the forum). The remaining candidates were bounce-house rental company owner Ari Hoffman, Socialist Workers Party Henry Dennison, Seattle Police Department crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon, and Rainier Valley community organizer Phyllis Porter.

I live-tweeted the event, which was attended by an incongruously white audience given that D2 is the least-white district in the city. I’ve included a few key moments below, and collected all my tweets in a Twitter moment here.

“Intentional Healing”: Council Members (Including Sawant) Grill Human Services Nominee

City council member Kshama Sawant finally got an opportunity to question interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson last week, when the council’s select committee on homelessness and housing held the first official hearing on his nomination as permanent director on Friday.

Johnson’s nomination was moved to the special committee, which is chaired by council member Sally Bagshaw and includes the entire council, after human services committee chair Kshama Sawant refused to schedule the nomination for a hearing.

Sawant opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan had failed to conduct a “transparent and inclusive process,” and held multiple rally-style hearings to which she invited Johnson opponents to voice their concerns about the nomination. Only one proponent of Johnson’s nomination showed up at those meetings; in contrast, a number of people spoke on his behalf during public comment last week.

“I don’t have a bias for or against SHARE/WHEEL. What I do have a bias for is performance and stewardship.” – HSD Interim Director Jason Johnson

Sawant also proposed a resolution that would delay the appointment of an HSD director—a position Johnson has held on an interim basis for 11 months—until the appointment of a committee consisting of human service providers, HSD employees, and people experiencing homelessness to recommend a nominee. That resolution failed 7-2.

On Friday, Sawant addressed Johnson publicly for the first time, saying, “We have to recognize how much courage it takes for workers to speak against their leadership and… against the direction of the leadership. It is really unfortunate that the mayor, in her press conference. chose to characterize the meetings where hundreds of employees [had] courage … and spoke openly, as ‘circus-like.’”

At a press conference on February 25, Durkan criticized Sawant’s decision not to hold hearings on Johnson’s nomination, leading the council to move the nomination to the special committee, saying, “It does a disservice to the department … to have a continued circus instead of a substantive discussion on what we need to do as a city, and I am disappointed that the current chair of the committee basically was AWOL month after month after month and had no hearings whatsoever.”

Sawant also asked Johnson his reaction to a survey of HSD employees that found high dissatisfaction with management, particularly within the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Employees have also complained about harassment and intimidation within the department.

Johnson said that a similar survey in 2014—also a time of “immense change” and “instability,” including a new mayor and a new department director—revealed a similar rate of dissatisfaction among employees. “I’m not saying those are [the] exclusive [reason], but  they are a part of the reality when I look at this data,” Johnson said. “It also gives me a baseline understanding [of] things I need to work on,” including communication with staff, recognizing employees’ achievements, and the need for “real, intentional healing” between management and staff.

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Sawant pressed Johnson about the department’s decision to cut off a contract with the homeless shelter and tent city operator SHARE/WHEEL in June unless it shows clear improvement on the city’s performance metrics. “Why do we continue nickel and diming these services?” she asked. (It’s worth noting that even one of SHARE’s most stalwart proponents, council member Lisa Herbold, felt the need to correct the record on Sawant’s claim that the city was “closing” SHARE’s shelters in June.) Johnson responded by noting that, under new performance standards adopted in 2017, which include specific targets for data collection and success moving people into permanent housing, SHARE/WHEEL did not qualify for any contract. In its application, SHARE wrote that the city’s permanent housing goals were “painfully impossible” and declined to provide a plan for moving its clients into housing. (HSD changed the way it enforces those standards for 2019, as I reported on Tuesday). SHARE received temporary “bridge” funding for 2018 after advocates complained, but refused to create a transition plan for its clients to move to other shelters once the bridge funding ran out, which was a  condition of that funding. Last year, Durkan’s budget again extended SHARE’s funding; the announcement last month makes additional funding contingent on continued improvement.

“This is in no way retaliation for anything that has been said inside of this chamber” by SHARE’s clients and proponents,” Johnson said. “Likewise, it wasn’t an isolated enforcement. Because SHARE/WHEEL … was not selected [for funding in the first place], we are going to pay careful attention to how this program is funded. … I don’t have a bias for or against SHARE/WHEEL. What I do have a bias for is performance and stewardship.” Under HSD’s new performance standards, which reward programs that move people into permanent housing, enhanced shelter programs tend to do better than basic shelter programs like SHARE’s, which don’t include case management and often offer little more than mats on the floor.

Johnson dodged cross-examination from council member Lorena Gonzalez on whether he would be “independent” from Durkan—first saying that the department, as a whole, employs “evidence-based strategies,” then acknowledging that he wouldn’t say it’s “my way or the highway” if Durkan disagreed with his recommendations on a policy. “There are times when politics win, and I will need to be really clear, as a leader of this organization, what I think the impacts of that are going to be and then start planning for that end result.”

HSD has become one of the city’s highest-profile departments in the last few years, as Seattle’s homelessness crisis has continued to worsen. Last month, as The C Is for Crank first reported, Durkan was forced to acknowledge that the city does not know how many individuals have actually been moved from homelessness into housing. Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine recently announced plans to consolidate the city and county’s homelessness response into a new regional agency. The exact structure of that agency, which would exist alongside HSD, remains unclear.

Morning Crank: “We Have Zoned Our City Backwards”

“I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of …  housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history.”

After nearly five years of public hearings, open houses, legal challenges, amendments, and debate, the city council adopted the “citywide” Mandatory Housing Affordability plan on Monday by a 9-0 vote. The legislation (which does not actually apply citywide) will allow developers to build more housing in parts of the city where density is already allowed, and will allow additional housing, ranging from a second house to small apartment buildings, on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay a fee to build housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. The amount developers will pay to build will be higher in areas where the city has determined the risk of displacement is high and access to opportunities is low, and lower in areas with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes.

Public comment on Monday was dominated, as usual, by homeowners who argued that the proposed changes will “destroy” neighborhoods, rob property owners of their views, and—a perennial favorite—”ghettoize” places like Rainier Beach by forcing low-income people of color to live there.

The specter of “ghettos” was both explicit—two white speakers mentioned “ghettos” or “ghettoization” in their comments—and implicit, in comments from several white homeowners who expressed concern that their (unnamed, absent) friends and family of color would be displaced from their current neighborhoods. “I want to provide affordable housing to my children and grandchildren, who are of all colors, but I want to protect her [Seattle’s] natural beauty,” one speaker said, after inveighing against the potential loss of views from North Capitol Hill. Another speaker (also white) invoked her “many… friends and family of color [who] have been displaced from the Central District and particularly from Columbia City… to the Rainier Beach area, and now it s up for upzoning.” Where, she wondered, would these anonymous friends and family be forced to move next?

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

After listening to more than an hour of such comments—including one white speaker who claimed that “upzoning is the new redlining”—the council’s women of color were eager to correct the record. Lorena González, whose own Mexican-American family would have been excluded from much of the city under both the formal racial covenants that ended in the 1940s and the unofficial redlining that replaced them, noted first that “this legislation is not even close to citywide—there are approximately 127 neighborhoods in the city, and this legislation only relates to 27 of them.” The remaining 100 neighborhoods, she said, are still “currently and strictly zoned exclusively single-family.”

She continued: “I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am, however, calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of implementing and preserving housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history and to support legislation to begin the process of dismantling… laws that are intended to exclude people who look like me from owning or living in a single-family home.”

Teresa Mosqueda added more historical context. “What we have done over the last few decades is we have zoned our city backwards,” she said, referring to the fact that as recently as the middle of the last century, multifamily housing was allowed on much of the land Seattle now preserves for exclusive single-family use. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes. That is the next conversation we need to have.”

“The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.” – Council member Rob Johnson

Today’s vote served as a bit of a swan song for council member Rob Johnson, who is widely expected to step down after the end of April to start his new job as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL. Johnson, who spent much of his single term shepherding the legislation, sounded a bit wistful as he closed out debate and called for a vote. After thanking city staffers, other council members, and his wife Katie, Johnson  noted the signs all over Seattle that oppose “build the wall” rhetoric. “Well, zoning is building a metaphorical wall around our city.” By adopting MHA, he said, “We’re starting the process of dismantling walls around our neighborhoods that have given exclusive groups sole access to the resource-rich communities around our city. … The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.”

The battle over MHA is not over, of course. SCALE, the group that spent much of the last year and a half appealing the plan in front of the city’s hearing examiner, said in a statement Monday that they were “considering appealing the inadequately considered impacts of the MHA legislation to the [state] Growth Management Hearings Board.”

2. González and Mosqueda weren’t the only ones feeling salty before Monday’s big vote. Sally Bagshaw, who is also leaving the council after this year, took the opportunity to correct an op/ed by Queen Anne homeowner and anti-density activist Marty Kaplan that ran in this Sunday’s Seattle Times. Kaplan has spent much of the last several years appealing a city proposal that would allow homeowners to add up to two accessory dwelling units (one attached, one in the backyard) to their properties. The Times ran Kaplan’s factually challenged rant alongside a pro-MHA piece by Johnson, suggesting that an elected city council member and a neighborhood activist who spends his time fighting people’s right to build garage apartments are on roughly the same level.

“Here’s what makes me grumpy,” Bagshaw began. “There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make  something so.” Kaplan’s piece, Bagshaw continued, said that the city was “railroading” neighborhoods and would “eliminate all single-family zoning,” and “nothing could be further from the truth. We are going to be retaining 94 percent of the single-family zones,” Bagshaw said.

“Here’s what makes me grumpy. There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make  something so.” – Council member Sally Bagshaw

Bagshaw didn’t get around to demolishing all of the false and absurd claims in Kaplan’s editorial one by one, so I’ll add a couple more. Kaplan claims in his piece that allowing homeowners to build backyard or mother-in-law apartments on their own property will “eliminate single-family housing regulations citywide, erasing 150 years of our history.” Single-family zoning didn’t even exist 100 years ago, much less in 1869, 15 years after the Denny Party landed at Alki. Moreover, allowing people to retrofit their basements to produce rental income or add an apartment for an aging relative does not constitute a “threat to single-family neighborhoods”; rather, it’s a way for homeowners to stay in the neighborhoods where they live, and provide new people with access to those neighborhoods—a rare commodity in a city where the typical single-family house costs more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Kaplan even  suggested that “lame-duck politicians, who know they can’t get reelected” (four of the nine council members who voted for MHA are not running again) should not be “allowed” to vote on zoning policy, as if only universally popular politicians who plan to keep their seats forever should be allowed to vote in a democracy.

Kaplan isn’t done with his own fight against density. In an email to supporters last week, he vowed to continue appealing the environmental impact statement on the accessory dwelling unit proposal. Unlike some of Monday’s public commenters, Kaplan didn’t couch his opposition to density in concern for low-income homeowners or renters at risk for displacement. Instead, he was straightforward (not for the first time) about whose interests he cared about (emphasis mine): “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners,” Kaplan wrote. “Representing every Seattle neighborhood, our team of volunteers, professional consultants, and attorneys continue to advance our appeal to prove that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is deficient and inadequate in studying and transparently revealing the true impacts to every Seattle property owner.

3. Right at the beginning of yesterday’s meeting, council members voted to move the nomination of interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson as permanent director out of Kshama Sawant’s human services committee and into the select committee on homelessness and housing, which is chaired by Bagshaw and includes the entire city council. Sawant has opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan did not institute a “transparent and inclusive process” for choosing an HSD director, and has held multiple hearings to give Johnson’s opponents opportunities to denounce him publicly. On Monday, she cited the results of a survey of HSD employees that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with management, particularly among workers in the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Sawant said the council was “stabbing [communities] in the back” with the “shameful” decision to move the appointment out of her committee. Bagshaw’s proposal passed 7-2, with Mike O’Brien joining Sawant in opposition to the move.

After Five Years, Seattle’s Scaled-Back Density Plan Moves Forward

Seattle's density plan gets a green light
Image credit: iStock

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

After almost five years, dozens of hearings, hundreds of public comments, multiple legal challenges, and enough environmental and legal analysis to fill a small apartment, the Seattle City Council is finally poised to pass the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan, which has been in the works, as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, since 2014.

The city council passed the plan out of committee on a unanimous 8-0 vote last Monday, February 25, a fact that is remarkable in itself. The council spent hours debating some final nuances of the legislation (and ultimately rolled back upzones in some areas), but all nine council members fundamentally agreed on the overall goal of building more housing, including affordable housing, throughout the city—a notable turnaround from just four and a half years ago, when Seattle Times story on a leaked draft of the plan sparked so much backlash that then-mayor Ed Murray decided to scale back the proposal.

MHA allows developers to build taller, denser residential and commercial buildings in the city’s multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages—neighborhood centers, typically located along major arterial streets, that have long been designated for future growth because of their proximity to transit, jobs, and services. It also expands some of those urban villages to allow second houses, townhomes, duplexes, and small apartment buildings on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes. This was a major point of contention during the MHA deliberations. Urbanists pointed to Seattle’s history of redlining and studies showing that exclusive single-family zoning perpetuates racial and income inequality to argue that the city should get rid of single-family zoning altogether.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay into a fund to build housing that is affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income—currently $48,150 for a family of two. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago. The legislation the council has been considering for much of the last year concerns the rest of the city.

The plan, on the whole, is modest, and its impacts won’t be visible right away. In most places, it bumps land up just one or two zoning designations—allowing two-story stacked flats, for example, in areas where only townhouses are allowed today, or raising the maximum height for apartment buildings from 30 feet to 40. It also restricts most of the biggest changes to major arterials, which already tend to be pretty dense. And since many of the changes in MHA are subtle (houses built under a new type of zoning called Residential Small Lot, for example, may be virtually indistinguishable from houses built under the previous zoning), people living in single-family areas that get upzoned might not even notice the difference.

The city has prevailed against legal challenges to the plan so far. The most recent of these was in November, when a city hearing examiner ruled against neighborhood activists who claimed the city didn’t do a sufficient environmental analysis of the proposal. But the final legislation does include a “clawback” provision, supported by MHA opponents and sponsored by West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold. It states the council’s intent to invalidate any upzones implemented under the plan if a court finds MHA’s affordability requirements invalid in the future.

This was another point of contention. Opponents said including the clawback provision in the bill was an invitation to lawsuits, while proponents argued that the provision ensured that developers wouldn’t get “something for nothing”—that is, if a court ruled against the city’s affordable-housing requirement, they wouldn’t be allowed to build denser housing anyway.

The full council is expected to approve the final MHA plan on March 18.