Tag: housing

Nonprofit Housing Providers Struggle to Pay Bills In COVID Crisis

This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared at Sightline.org, where you can read the entire story.

It’s the first of May. As another rent day arrives, tenants aren’t the only ones seeking relief from the financial fallout of COVID-19, which has led to widespread job loss in nearly every economic sector, and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

Cascadian affordable housing providers that receive funding through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which helps to fund about 90 percent of all new affordable housing in the US, have also been hit hard by the crisis. Nonprofit providers of subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income wage earners report unpaid rent rates of 20 percent or more, a shortfall that has left many struggling to balance their books.

“Our delinquency rate shot way up, and we are now accepting partial payment for rent and doing some payment plans,” said Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which serves communities throughout the Seattle metro area and in Olympia, Washington. “We’re working with tenants and doing partial payment plans for people who’ve recently become unemployed.”

In Oregon, about half the tenants in buildings owned by REACH Community Development earn income from wages. Anthony Petchel, REACH’s philanthropy and public relations director, says about 10 percent of their tenants had asked for rent forbearance as of late April, but he expected that number to go up as people continue to weather the economic collapse. “[The issue] is having the cash to manage the cash flow disruption” from missed rents, and “how long can all the organizations manage that,” Petchel says.

Daniel Delfino, the program and planning development director for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said that once the 60-day rent and mortgage freeze ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy ends, there are few protections for struggling tenants or for nonprofit housing owners with mortgages to pay.

Currently, nonprofit landlords are working out arrangements with tenants on a “case by case basis,” he said, but with more than 40,000 Alaskans unemployed, it’s unclear when or whether rent payments will get back to normal. “There are usually reserves that are put in place to handle four to six months of operating expenses and debt payments. Those aren’t set up to handle something like COVID-19, when the economic occupancy”—the percentage of people who pay their rent—”goes down from 93 percent to 40 percent.”

Enterprise Community Partners, a national low-income housing advocacy and funding group, estimates that a 10 percent income loss among renters could add up to $238 million per month in losses to groups like these that run LIHTC-funded buildings across the US. That’s based on an average loss of $792 in monthly rent from the three million tenants in LIHTC buildings that Enterprise estimates could miss rent payments if they don’t get assistance.

Susan Boyd, the executive director of Seattle nonprofit provider Bellwether Housing, said wage earners had a delinquency rate of about 21 percent as of mid-April, up from 2 to 3 percent in a typical month, as “about 30 percent of the people who were wage earners have lost all or a part of their income.” Likewise, Chris Persons, the director of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Housing, said April rents are falling about 22 percent short.

It’s easy to see why. With a patchy social safety net, hourly wage earners were already on the precipice of financial disaster before a nationwide economic shutdown led to mass unemployment.

A full-time worker making minimum wage in Oregon earns just over $23,000 a year; in Washington, that number is just over $28,000. According to the Urban Institute, the median income for US renters in low-income tax credit buildings was $17,470 before COVID, and about four in ten of these renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In King County, which includes Seattle, about 77,000 people making less than $40,000 a year had lost their jobs as of April 16; in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, about 38,000 low-income jobs had vanished. The pandemic puts the US housing crisis on steroids. Low-income renters often live paycheck to paycheck, and if they lose their jobs they simply can’t pay rent. The eviction moratoriums enacted in many jurisdictions throughout the US only grant a reprieve.

Even organizations whose revenues don’t rely primarily on renter incomes—groups like Plymouth Housing and the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, whose tenants pay their rents using federal vouchers and stable income sources like Social Security Insurance (SSI)—are struggling.

“We rely a lot on local dollars, most of which come from specific local taxes and fees like the [state] document recording fee for housing and homelessness, and of course those could go down if real estate transactions slow down, which seems likely,” DESC director Daniel Malone said. “And as local government taxation goes down, there certainly could be some squeeze on what they choose to fund and what they choose to cut.”

On April 21, Seattle’s City Budget Office released a worst-case revenue forecast that predicts a 2020 funding shortfall of up to $300 million, with some of the biggest revenue losses coming from the construction, retail, and food service sectors. In Portland, a smaller city, the shortfall could be as much as $100 million.

Read the entire story here.

City Auditor: Homelessness Contracts Awarded “Properly,” but Delays, High Turnover, and Inappropriate Metrics Remain Issues

The city auditor issued a report last week on the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, which concluded that while HSI is awarding contracts to homeless service providers “properly, HSD is not executing contracts in a timely manner.” Because the city is awarding budgeted contracts late, providers are being forced to use their own funds to cover services during these delays.

“We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late,” the report says. “Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses[.] …We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late. Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses and needing to use other funding sources to keep programs in operation.”

(The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is considered a homelessness program despite the fact that it focuses on criminal recidivism and quality of life outcomes, not housing, finally received city approval for its 2020 contract in late March).

A big reason for the delays, according to the auditor’s report, is that most contracts start on January 1, which gives the city’s grants and contracts administrators only a few weeks after the budget is adopted in November to execute these contracts. Another issue is that turnover among the grants and contracts specialists who are in charge of monitoring contract compliance is extremely high—30 percent in the first half of 2019, according to the audit—and new hires are being trained by their coworkers instead of through any formal training program. In his response to the audit report, acting HSD director Jason Johnson, who has announced he will leave in June, said HSD has hired temporary workers to help grants and contracts specialists who are “working beyond their capacity.” These are among the workers who are being trained on the job by their peers.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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

As I reported last year, the Human Services Department dismantled its formal contracts compliance unit and directed contract specialists in each division to have “a high level of individual accountability” to catch errors in contracts. HSD set up the unit in 2014 after a scathing state audit found that the HSD lacked “adequate controls” to monitor how contracts were being written as well as how human service providers were spending grant money.

The city auditor did not report on specific errors that had escaped contract reviewers’ attention, but did note that many large contracts were being reviewed through “desk reviews” that do not involve on-site visits, meetings with program staff, or reviews of client files.

The auditor also highlighted an issue homeless advocates have been pointing out since before the city implemented “performance-based contracting,” which allows the city to withhold funding from providers if they fail to meet certain milestones: Requiring homeless service providers to produce a high number of “exits to permanent housing” in order to get full funding is unrealistic in a city that is not building enough of this type of housing to serve the need, and ignores other types of success stories that do not involve, say, a person leaving emergency shelter and moving directly into permanent housing.

For example, the city’s performance metrics penalize programs that move clients into “foster care, nursing homes, hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing and transitional living programs for youth” by counting those as “negative” rather than positive exits from the programs. In its response to this criticism, included in the audit, HSD said that it chose exits to permanent housing as a performance metric “because the goal of the homeless response system is to end an individual’s experience of homelessness and HSD is committed to ensuring investments work towards this goal”—a response that ignores the fact that the city’s homeless population far outnumbers the number of units that are available to house it.

Additionally, the audit found that the fact that the city has no way of tracking how many shelter beds are available in real time “creates inefficiencies for overworked shelter staff” who are forced to call around to other shelters when clients show up at shelters that are full. And it concluded that the current system for tracking client’s “vulnerability,” which puts some people on track for housing while leaving others in limbo indefinitely, exacerbates the existing racial inequities in the homeless service system, particularly for undocumented people.

With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process

The Standard towers in the University District, one of dozens of projects caught in limbo when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of all public meetings.

Nonprofit affordable housing providers and other developers were alarmed when a proposal from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that would make it possible for their projects to move forward during the COVID crisis was abruptly removed from this week’s city council agenda. The legislation would allow projects to go through the shorter “administrative” design review process, in which projects are reviewed and approved by trained city staff, instead of the usual “full” design review, which involves public meetings and sometimes-lengthy deliberations. Similarly, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer would be empowered to approve or deny changes to landmarked buildings for six months.

The changes would last for six months, or until the city has developed a system for design-review and landmarks board meetings to take place online. Without a process for projects to move forward, land-use attorney Jack McCullough says, a lot of planned developments could be “dead in the water.”

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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

“If we have to tell everyone who’s in the pipeline or ready to get in, ‘We can’t tell you when you’ll ever be able to move forward,’ people will mothball their projects. They may not kill them, but they’re going to say, ‘If there’s not a path, why am I spending money money on this?”

The council was prepared to adopt the proposal on Monday, but after an executive session at which the city’s law department reportedly expressed concerns that it could open up the city to appeals to the state Growth Management Board, the legislation was yanked from the agenda. (City council president Lorena Gonzalez was unable for comment Thursday, and a city council spokeswoman did not return a call.) On Thursday, after both for-profit developers and low-income housing builders raised a ruckus, it’s back on next week’s agenda.

The city’s eight design review boards are supposed to ensure that their designs are high-quality, comply with regulations, and are appropriate for the neighborhoods where they’re being built. (This process, of course, can be quite contentious and subjective.) Twenty-nine projects, totaling 3,500 new housing units, were supposed to get hearings between March 11 and May 4, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and another 30 were starting the community outreach process that precedes design review.  SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens says many of these projects will provide affordable housing funds through the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Program or include affordable units through the Multifamily Tax Exemption program. The 30 projects that were just starting out include four affordable-housing buildings.

Chris Persons, the head of Capitol Hill Housing, says he has two projects in the development pipeline, including one that requires approval by the landmarks board. “It’s stuck, but it could be resolved by this legislation,” Persons says. Continue reading “With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process”

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

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.

Support The C Is for Crank
Hey there! Just a quick reminder that this entire site, including the post you’re reading, is supported by generous contributions from readers like you, without which this site would quite literally cease to exist. If you enjoy reading The C Is for Crank and would like to keep it going, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter. 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 my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a supporter now! If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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.

Support The C Is for Crank
If you enjoyed reading this post, and would like to support my work on an ongoing basis, please consider supporting 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 my full-time job, and it’s funded entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. 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.

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.

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.

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.