Annual Homeless Count: Redefining “Shelter,” Struggling to Count the Chronically Homeless

The latest annual report on King County’s homeless population from All Home King County found an overall decrease in the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, from 4,488 last year to 3,558 in 2019—a reduction Mayor Jenny Durkan touted in a letter announcing the expansion of the Navigation Team as “the first decrease since 2012″ and evidence that ” our shared work to address our crisis of affordability and homelessness is having an impact.” Over the same time period, the number of people experiencing homelessness who were in some form of shelter or transitional housing increased from 4,000 to 4,239.

This year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category.

However, those numbers conceal a few important details: First, that the number of unsheltered people living in tent encampments actually went up in this year’s count, from 1,034 to 1,162. Second, this year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments that were previously categorized as encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category. (A sixth village, at Northlake, was excluded “until it is up to ADA code,” according to the board minutes.) Including the tiny houses—communities where people live in wooden structures the size of a small garden shed—in the “encampment” count would have raised that number to 1,342. The board vote on the redefinition was split 10-4.

In a letter to the All Home board in March, Seattle Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson requested that the tiny houses be moved to the “shelter” category, arguing that they meet “the most relevant” criteria set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for “shelter”—namely, that the structures are ADA accessible, that there is security on site, that the site has hygiene facilities, that the structures are ventilated, and that they include sanitary food preparation areas. In the letter, Johnson also notes that the five tiny house villages have case management and offer extended hours or 24/7 access.

“If basic shelters, which only allow people to come in overnight and sleep on floor with no services and amenities are classified as shelter, then permitted villages that meet the HUD requirements of shelter, and have amenities, services and outcomes that far exceed that of basic shelter, should also be classified as such,” Johnson wrote.

Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which was responsible for what was then called the One-Night Count until All Home took over in 2017, called the reclassification of tiny house villages as shelter “Orwellian” and out of keeping with decades of established practice.

HUD’s minimum criteria for emergency shelter (Appendix A) also include additional requirements, such as smoke detectors in each unit, structural standards, compliance with fair housing rules, heating and cooling, and other requirements that Johnson did not mention in his letter.

The report also found a reduction in the number of veterans, young people, and chronically homeless people living outdoors. Of those three categories, the decrease in veteran and youth homelessness is a clear result of new investments in shelter and housing targeted at those specific populations. The apparent decline in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, however, could be a result of the methodology used to come up with that number, which is an extrapolation based on in-person interviews with chronically homeless individuals—defined as individuals who have experienced homelessness for a year or more or on four separate periods during a three-year span, and who also have a disabling condition that prevents them from working or going to school.

Extrapolating these numbers to Seattle (based on the percentage of the population , this finding would suggest that the number of chronically homeless unsheltered people—increased from just over 1,200 in 2017 to nearly 1,800 in 2018, then decreased to just over 600 people between 2018 and 2019. Since chronically homeless people are, by definition, people who are homeless year after year, and since there has not been any massive investment in new permanent supportive housing for hundreds of chronically homeless people in Seattle, the obvious conclusion is that these numbers are not an accurate guide to the actual number of unsheltered chronically homeless people in Seattle from year to year. A similar fluctuation can be seen in the number of unsheltered people with mental illness and substance use disorders—a pattern that probably reflects the challenges with the methodology All Home’s researchers use, rather than any wild fluctuation in the number of people living on the streets with mental illness and addiction from year to year.

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, says the surveys that serve as the basis for the counts of unsheltered people in various sub-populations may be to blame. “They survey people, then extrapolate out to the total number of people who are unsheltered, so if one year if you happen to interview a bunch of people who meet the criteria for chronic homelessness, and the next year you interview a bunch of people who don’t, then you’re going to end up multiplying a factor and applying it to the total number of unsheltered people,” Malone says. “I think you naturally have to be much less confident in that kind of demographic extrapolation.”

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Kira Zylstra, All Home’s acting director, acknowledges that “there is fluctuation with all of these numbers” based on survey data, “particularly with more refined slices of the data. … For chronically homeless and people with disabilities and other characteristics and needs, it’s dependent on a representative survey, which has even further limitations, as well as reported data” obtained through other sources.

To put a finer point on it, information obtained on sheltered people through the county’s Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) is generally pretty good, because it’s based on tracking individual people from year to year—a fact that’s reflected in the number of chronically homeless people in shelter, which has fluctuated only slightly between 2017 and now.

Information on chronically homeless people living on the streets is much less reliable for a number of reasons , including the fact that interview subjects are located by formerly homeless people themselves, who may gravitate to people and places they already know; the fact that people with major disabilities may face extra challenges that make them less likely to participate in lengthy, in-person interviews with researcher; and the fact that the survey results are extrapolated to apply to much larger populations, despite the fact that in the case of unsheltered people in particular, the survey itself may be unrepresentative.

This year,  the data on all chronically homeless individuals in King County is extrapolated using surveys with about 180 people, some of whom did not respond to all questions. Anything unrepresentative about this population will be multiplied and magnified when the researchers extrapolate from that small sample to the entire homeless population in King County and Seattle. For example, the researchers reached conclusions about the chronically homeless population by figuring out what percentage of survey respondents fit into certain categories—sheltered vs. unsheltered, individual vs. families, etc.—and multiplying that percentage by the total number of people in the general street count in those categories.

Malone, whose organization works primarily with chronically homeless people, says he hopes the extrapolated surveys of unsheltered people won’t be used to dictate policy or funding decisions or to fuel self-congratulatory press releases. He maintains that the best use of the count is as a general comparison of homelessness from year to year—by that standard, he says, the real story is that the unsheltered homeless population has declined as the number of shelter beds in Seattle has increased.

 

Homeless Pilot Project Scuttled: Why Did Durkan Discard Months of Work by Her Own Human Services Department?

According to All Home King County, the number of people living in vehicles jumped 46% between 2017 and 2018.

The city of Seattle has rejected my appeal of its decision to heavily redact a set of documents about a plan—which Mayor Jenny Durkan formally scuttled around March 6—to open a safe parking lot for people living in their vehicles at Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract with the city to operate the lot.

In its letter rejecting my request to see the unredacted discussion about the proposal, the city argued that because “a decision has not been made as to the siting of the potential Safe Parking Pilot program” in general, they have the right (under the “deliberative process” exemption to the state public disclosure act) to withhold the information I requested about the specific proposal the city rejected until they make a decision on whether to move forward with a safe lot at a different location. The redacted information includes a flyer, lists of media contacts, and a communications and outreach plan for the Genesee Park location, which the city is arguing are all part of the “deliberative process” that could eventually lead to a safe parking pilot somewhere else.

If the city never does announce a formal decision, they could refuse to disclose this information to the public indefinitely.

I’ve asked the state attorney general’s office, which deals with potential public records act violations, to take another look at the city’s exemption claims. In my letter, I wrote that the city’s position—that they don’t have to reveal any materials related to the rejected Genesee Park location until and unless they choose a different site for a safe parking lot in the future—leads to “the absurd conclusion that if the mayor’s office and HSD simply never make a formal, declared decision, they can withhold this information from the public forever.”

“By claiming such a broad and sweeping exemption, they are concealing information of value to the public and preventing Seattle residents from having a clear picture of why they made this decision,” I wrote.

I requested information about the process that led to the city choosing, then rejecting, the Genesee Park location for a safe vehicular residency lot, in part, because Durkan’s decision seemed abrupt. The opening date for a safe lot for vehicular residents, which had already been moved back at least twice (from January 1, to January 31, to February 28) was imminent when the first local TV news report that Genesee appeared to be the city’s preferred location hit airwaves on February 25. Pushback on the proposal, led by longtime South End gadfly (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami, was instant and harsh. The mayor’s response was similarly swift—by March 6, she had canceled LIHI’s permit. That same day, her office sent a letter to community members and local media saying that the mayor had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27.

Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.

Given that Durkan tends to be hands-on about both minor and major decisions that come out of her office—particularly decisions that are certain to be controversial, like stopping the downtown streetcar or opening a safe parking lot in a residential neighborhood— seemed implausible that she had never been informed of the safe parking-lot options until right before it was set to open. If HSD had somehow kept all the details of the safe lot proposal away from Durkan’s desk for months while the details of the proposal were being hammered out, then finalized, that would be newsworthy. Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.

The documents I received from the mayor’s office, HSD, and the Department of Neighborhoods make it clear that the mayor’s top staff—including Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, David Moseley, and her top homelessness advisor, Tess Colby—were well aware of plans to open a safe parking lot at one of three locations in South Seattle—Pritchard Beach, the Amy Yee Tennis Center, or Genesee Park—long before February 27. Officials with the Human Services Department began discussing where to site a safe lot as far back as October of last year, and by late January, emails confirm, Colby was pulling together information about the proposal for the mayor’s binder—a set of documents staff puts together for the mayor herself to take home and review.

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The day that Durkan apparently received these briefing materials, January 28, was also the day when Department of Neighborhoods advisor Tom Van Bronkhorst sent an urgent email with the subject line “IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED” to several of his colleagues at HSD, saying that he had just received an email from Pat Murakami—a Southeast Seattle  neighborhood activist who is currently running for City Council—asking detailed questions that indicated she was aware of the three potential locations. Murakami, Van Bronkhorst wrote, “is writing an email to her list that will go out this afternoon asking for their comments on the proposed locations. Someone should give her a call with an update, more information or a request to wait for 24 hours?” Within an hour, HSD communications staffer Lily Rehrmann had responded, and within two hours, she sent a memo about her conversation with Murakami—the details of which are largely blacked out in the documents provided by the city.

On February 1, Rehrmann emailed Van Bronkhorst seeking a list of neighborhood groups near Genesee Park, which she said she needed “for the comms plan for the safe parking pilot per the Mayor’s office.” That plan went out to the mayor’s office, including Colby and the mayor’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, on February 7. That same day, the mayor’s office responded to at least one constituent about the Genesee parking lot. On February 21, HSD interim director Jason Johnson sent a message to Deputy Mayor David Moseley—Durkan’s second-in-command, and her deputy in charge of homelessness—that also included the full outreach and communications plan. (The city provided a mostly redacted copy of this document, one page of which is reproduced below).

If the mayor received briefing materials about the safe lot plan in her binder on January 28, as planned, that means a month passed between the first time she was handed details about the proposal and the date when she said she received her very first briefing on the plan, after which she decided to cancel LIHI’s contract.

In the March 6 letter to community and media stating that she was first briefed on the proposal on February 27, Durkan’s office wrote that “[w]hile there was an initial recommendation of potential sites by City departments prepared for the Mayor, Mayor Durkan felt strongly about the need to evaluate multiple options, and to do meaningful community engagement. While a permit application was initially filed and discussion of various sites did occur before reaching the Mayor, the Mayor has made clear that the City would not move forward on a selecting a site without evaluating alternatives and without meaningful community engagement.”

Let’s consider the first potential scenario—that the mayor was aware of the Genesee Park proposal before February 27, but acted swiftly to kill the plan after her briefing. What might have changed? One thing that definitely happened between late January and late February is that Murakami mobilized, contacting the Human Services Department again on February 26, a message documented in an email from an HSD planning and development specialist telling Rehrmann to call Murakami back to answer her questions. Murakami also scheduled a public meeting of her group, the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, on March 6, the same day Durkan’s office announced that the city had canceled LIHI’s contract. (That meeting did take place, and was by all accounts a shit show.)

HSD, and the mayor’s office, were probably eager to get out in front of that meeting. However, there is something off-putting about their almost frantic response to Murakami, whose work as an activist has mostly involved fighting against affordable housing (and a day-labor center) in Mount Baker and who has a history of making outrageous statements about people of color and the danger of riding transit in the South End after dark.

In response to a list of questions about what Durkan knew about the safe parking pilot and when, the mayor’s office reiterated that the safe parking lot options didn’t land directly on Durkan’s desk until late February, but said that her policy staff were aware of the discussion. “Our policy team and dozens of departments work to prep ahead of briefings with the Mayor and so we can develop recommendations before a topic goes to her,” mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said. “That happened and in late February, the Mayor, HSD, MO, SPD and DON sat down with the Mayor for an hour so she could be briefed on the issue and make a decision on the next steps. The Mayor asked at the briefing for the City to do additional outreach.”

Given the practical realities of running the mayor’s office, this scenario isn’t out of the question: The mayor’s Human Services Department and Department of Neighborhoods worked for months crafting a safe parking lot proposal, with the knowledge of the mayor’s staff, and the mayor herself only became aware of the details right before the proposal was ready to launch. However, if this second version is accurate, it means that Durkan spent an hour or so looking at the proposal that had taken her departments (with buy-in from her HSD director and deputy mayor) months to craft, considered the PR ramifications of opening a safe lot that was unpopular with at least one group of neighborhood activists, and abruptly killed the project.

The mayor’s stated reason for stopping the safe lot—the need for extensive outreach to neighborhoods—does not appear to have led to any action: So far, it does not appear that any additional outreach has occurred. Asked about a series of outreach meetings that had been scheduled for March, Meg Olberding, an HSD spokeswoman, said that it would be premature to start the outreach process now. The mayor, Olberding said,  “has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City.  The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun.”

“Exemption 2”: Heavily Redacted Documents Conceal Details About City’s Plans for Safe Parking Lot for Vehicle Residents

The C Is for Crank has appealed a decision by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Human Services Department to heavily redact records related to a planned safe parking lot for people living in their cars. The city had planned to open a safe lot as a “pilot project” in Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. After Mount Baker neighborhood activist (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami and other South End residents became aware of the plans in late January, however, Durkan intervened, announcing in an email to community members and the media that she had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27 and that she was sending the plan back to the drawing board for further evaluation.

The city redacted the documents on the grounds that the redacted information relates to the “deliberative process” for deciding whether and where to locate such a lot.

The deliberative process exemption to the state public records act, also known as “exemption 2,” allows cities to black out records when they relate to “Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended, except that a specific record shall not be exempt when publicly cited by an agency in connection with an agency action.”

The exemption only applies to discussions that involve setting policy (e.g., whether the city should create safe parking lots where people living in their cars to sleep); it does not, according to the state Open Government Resource Manual, apply to the implementation of policy or to “matters that are factual, or that are assumed to be factual for discussion purposes.” Additionally, cities can’t withhold information about a decision-making process once that decision has been made. In general, cities are directed to interpret the public records act as liberally as possible in the interest of disclosure.

The information Durkan’s Human Services Department has redacted for being related to ongoing policy deliberations and exchanges of opinion about policy decisions includes:

• The location of the city’s preferred site for a safe parking site, which the city has already acknowledged was Genesee Park. This location is blacked out in several places throughout the documents the city provided, including in a list of “Key Audiences and Stakeholders” that places Murakami at the very top of the list;

• Most of the details of a communications and outreach plan for the pilot;

• The responses to a list of FAQs from the community, which presumably consist of the factual information, along with some of the frequently asked questions themselves;

• An “about the pilot” list of bullet points (above) that presumably included much the same information HSD made public in an email to community members and local media back in February, which stated that the pilot “would serve no more than 30 vehicles, not RVs… open this spring and run through the end of the 2019… be overnight only, with no permanent infrastructure on the property, and offe[r] a safe place to stay overnight and a connection to a place to shower and use the restroom” as well as “services and case management to participants to assist in finding permanent housing.”

• Every media outlet on a list of “specific media targets” as well as every community member or group on  list of “specific community outreach targets”;

• The entire timeline for doing outreach to the community and eventually opening the lot;

• Every item on a list of “Tactics” as well as every item on a list of “Communications and Outreach Assets”; and

• Finally, the entire outreach timeline for the Genesee Park safe-lot proposal, all of which is, it is safe to assume, in the past.

The redactions include the location of a planned community meeting  as well as details about the pilot that HSD officials have discussed in some detail, including at that same public meeting. (Note: The mayor’s office clarified that the meeting the redacted documents referred to was not a community meeting that received widespread coverage, but a different planned meeting. They did not respond to questions about that meeting or any other meetings with community members that, according to unredacted internal emails between city officials, were planned for March, including questions about whether any of those meetings ever actually occurred.)

HSD directed questions about the redactions to the mayor’s office, which has not responded to a list of questions sent on Monday.

According to a city public disclosure officer, the mayor’s office may claim that because the city hasn’t decided on when, whether, or where to open a safe parking lot, the “deliberations” about the overall issue are technically still ongoing—an interpretation that could allow the city to exempt from disclosure, in perpetuity, any documents related to decisions they decided not to make, actions they never took, or policies they just left hanging. If the city just decides to never open a safe lot at all—which is basically what’s happening with a proposed mobile safe injection site, and there are plenty of other precedents—will that make every document related to that non-decision forever nondisclosable, existing in a permanent limbo of black lines and “Exemption No. 2″s? It seems ridiculous—but maybe.

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For now, I’m waiting to hear back from the city on my appeal, and will decide whether to take further action at that point.

If you’re wondering, by the way, what’s going on with the proposal for a safe lot, which was originally supposed to open on January 1 and was pushed back several times before the plans for the Genesee Park location were scuttled, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding provided this response to a detailed list of questions about the pilot:

“The Mayor has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City. The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun. We are moving it along, but have no precise timeline.”

I hope to have another update on this story later today.

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.

HSD Director Nomination Stalls Out; Library Levy Moves Forward

1. The nomination process for interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson appears to be stalled due to a lack of support from city council members, who have the final say on mayoral department director nominations. It’s unclear whether or when the city council will revive the confirmation hearings.

Last week, council member Sally Bagshaw canceled a scheduled meeting of the council’s select committee on homelessness and housing affordability, which included consideration of Johnson’s nomination, and has not rescheduled it. Some council members were reportedly unsatisfied with Johnson’s responses to their questions about inclusivity, Johnson’s personal commitment to race and social justice, independence, and his vision for the department.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has been criticized by HSD’s own internal Change Team (which leads the department’s implementation of the Race and Social Justice Initiative), as well as the Seattle Silence Breakers and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, for nominating Johnson without a “transparent and inclusive process” for selecting a new HSD leader. Earlier this year, city council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution to halt Johnson’s nomination and start a new search for a new HSD director. That resolution failed, with Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and Teresa Mosqueda casting the dissenting votes. But concerns about the process and about whether Johnson is the right person for the job seem to have grown since the council began holding hearings in March.

At the most recent committee meeting, on March 28, Johnson attributed the results of a survey showing widespread dissatisfaction among HSD employees, particularly those in the homelessness division, to the “instability” and “immense change” that comes with every new mayoral administration. Johnson also responded to questions about whether he’d be “independent” from Durkan—first saying that the department always 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 an issue. Council president Bruce Harrell then asked Johnson if he had considered the ways in which white privilege had greased his path to the nomination. Johnson said yes, he was aware “that I was going to have a much easier time” than his African-American predecessor, Catherine Lester, then noted that Lester  “brought me to this organization and… when she resigned and was talking about next steps, offer[ed] her full confidence in my abilities to the mayor.”

Mayor Durkan’s office declined to answer questions about the nomination process or the reason for the delay. They also repeatedly requested the names of specific council members opposed to Johnson’s nomination.

An audit earlier this year concluded that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the agencies that do outreach to unsheltered people; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time; does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping  outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. (Last year, the city and county announced plans to create a new, merged agency to address homelessness, which could help address concerns about coordination; at the same time, the lack of certainty around what that agency will look like, and where current HSD employees will fit in the new structure, has likely contributed to low morale in HSD’s homelessness division.)

It’s unclear exactly how many council members would vote against Johnson if his nomination came up for a vote today (Sawant, of course, looks like a pretty hard no), but sources inside and outside city hall say that he does not currently have the votes to secure the permanent appointment. Johnson has served on an interim basis for nearly a year—a fact to which Durkan has pointed as evidence that he’s qualified for the permanent position.

Bagshaw, who would have to reconvene the committee to revive the nomination process, said she had no comment “yet” about the nomination, and other council members declined to speak on the record.

Support The C Is for Crank
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2. The council added several million dollars to Durkan’s proposed $213 million library levy Wednesday and moved it one step closer to the ballot. The special committee on the library levy adopted the proposal after adding amendments that will, if the levy passes, expand the bilingual “Play and Learn” early-literacy program ($2.1 million); keep branch libraries, but not the downtown library, open an additional hour every day ($2.5 million); and add a youth services support social worker and a part-time case worker to do outreach to library patrons experiencing homelessness ($1.1 million). A couple of amendments that didn’t make it into the legislation: A study that would look into the feasibility of locating child-care facilities at library branches, and funding for two additional security officers.

The levy proposal goes to the full council next Monday, April 22.

For the basics on the levy, which would add library hours and eliminate library fines, check out my primer at Seattle magazine.

Afternoon Crank: More Precise Homelessness Exit Numbers, More Library Levy Asks

1. After initially saying it would require a “700-page PowerPoint” to explain how many actual people moved from homelessness into housing last year, the city’s Human Services Department has done just that, producing numbers from 2017 and 2018 that show precisely how many households and how many individual human beings have exited from city-funded homelessness programs.

In her State of the City speech, Mayor Jenny Durkan claimed the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing”; after I reported that this number actually accounted for exits from programs rather than “households,” resulting in duplication,  HSD’s deputy director suggested that the actual number mattered less than the trajectory; “no matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” she said. On Tuesday, at a meeting of the council’s human services committee, interim HSD director Jason Johnson confirmed another way households could be duplicated—if someone exits from a shelter with a rapid rehousing voucher, then uses the voucher until it runs out, that person counts as two “exits.”

This number is a far more precise (though still imperfect) way of looking at exits from homelessness. And it actually confirms HSD’s contention that the city’s focus on new strategies such as enhanced shelter, with case management and services, is paying off. In 2018, HSD-funded programs helped move 3,559 households, representing 5,792 individual people, into housing from homelessness. That’s an increase from 2017, when HSD-funded programs moved 3,374 households, representing 4,447 people, into housing. (The numbers in the chart HSD provided when I requested year-over-year data, below, don’t quite add up because 36 households used homeless prevention programs and, at another point in the year, were homeless and then exited from homelessness. And, as Kshama Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone confirmed ) City-funded homeless prevention programs served 71 fewer people last year than in 2017, which HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrman attributes to the fact that six prevention programs—Chief Seattle Club Prevention, Mother Nation Prevention, Seattle Indian Health Board Prevention, St. Vincent de Paul Prevention, United Indians Prevention, and Somali Youth and Family Club (SYFC) Prevention—were new last year.

HSD’s presentation to the council committee earlier this week also showed that the while the total number of basic shelter beds declined by 296, the total number of shelter beds overall went up by 366, thanks to 662 new enhanced shelter beds—a term that, according to the city, refers to shelters with “extended or 24/7 service” that offer “many services” such as meals, storage, and case management.

2. The city council’s special library levy committee had its first evening hearing on the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $213 million levy renewal Thursday night, and the conversation was almost entirely free from the topic that dominated the committee’s discussion on Monday: Whether the library should do away with fines for late returns, which disproportionately impact people in the city’s most diverse and least wealthy areas.

Despite what certain radio talk-show hosts and the Seattle Times editorial board might have you believe, there was no evidence of public outrage at the idea that kids might no longer punished for failing to return their books on time. Instead, most public commenters spoke about about the importance of the library in general (one speaker, historian Paula Becker, described how important the library was as a refuge for her late son, Hunter, during his active heroin addiction) or in favor of specific programs they used, like a book club for people with sight impairment. (Council president Bruce Harrell, who suggested earlier this week that fines send an important message about civic responsibility, did get in one plug for fines as a way to pay for some of the items his colleagues have suggested adding to the proposal). The bulk of the meeting was about five proposed amendments that would increase the cost of the proposal, and other ideas that aren’t formal amendments but could add millions more to the plan.

Those amendments include:

• A proposal by council member Lorena Gonzalez to fund existing programs for kids under 4  and youth through high school with levy funds, rather than through the Seattle Library Foundation, at a cost of $4.2 million over seven years;

• An amendment by council member Mike O’Brien to keep libraries open one hour later on weeknights throughout the system (on top of the additional hours in Durkan’s proposal, which would add morning and evening hours to three branches and open four libraries on Fridays), at a cost of $6.2 million over seven years;

• An proposal by council member Teresa Mosqueda to study the feasibility of co-locating child care services at library branches, at an unknown cost;

• Another proposal by Mosqueda that would add two more security officers to the library system, bringing the total from 19 to 21, at a cost of $1.3 million over seven years; and

• A final proposal by Mosqueda to fund three more case managers and a youth services support worker from the Downtown Emergency Service Center to connect patrons experiencing homelessness to housing and services, at a cost of $2.1 million over seven years.

In addition, the council will consider adding more funding for digital materials like e-books to reflect their rising cost; adding air conditioning and/or elevators at the Columbia City, Green Lake, and University branches; funding a small new South Lake Union library branch in the new Denny Substation.

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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.

City council member Debora Juarez, who chairs the library committee, said the amendments “all make sense and are great, but that “we still have to be mindful that we are in levy mode; we are not in general budget mode. … We don’t want to put a poison pill where [the levy] goes down because taxpayers are not going to be comfortable” with the amount. “We’re not voting on a child care levy. We’re not voting on a public safety levy. We are voting on a library levy. So we have to keep that in mind.”

3. Learn to trust the Crank: As I first reported on Twitter yesterday, council member Juarez is King County Executive Dow Constantine’s pick to replace former council member Rob Johnson (who left the council before the end of his term for a job as the transportation planner for NHL Seattle). The King County Council will have to approve Juarez’s appointment (technically, she will represent North King County on the regional board). One question that will likely come up is whether Juarez, who fought tooth and nail for the N. 130th St. light rail station in her council district, will be able to broaden her horizons as a member of the regional Sound Transit board. Perhaps anticipating such questions, Juarez said in her announcement, “I plan on working as hard for the people of the tri-county Sound Transit service area as I do for my North Seattle district.”

“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: HSD Changes Homeless Contract Requirements; 35th Ave Bike Lane Approaches Resolution

1. The city’s Human Services Department is revising its benchmarks for withholding funds from underperforming homeless service providers after 20 of 46 service providers who received contracts with the city last year failed to meet new standards adopted in 2017. The new benchmarks will reduce the total amount of contracted pay HSD can withhold from 12 percent to 8 percent per year, and will reward providers for improvement over the course of a year, even if providers don’t hit their targets for things like exits to permanent housing and returns to homelessness.

As I reported last month, 20 of 46 city-contracted homeless service programs failed to meet the city’s new performance standards by the end of 2018, and were docked part of their pay under a new contracting system adopted by HSD in 2017. That system, which represented a major shift in how HSD contracts with human-services providers, enables the city to withhold 12 percent of a service provider’s contract if they fail to hit specific numbers on five metrics, including the percentage of clients who exit to permanent housing and the number of clients who end up back in the county’s homelessness system (a metric known colloquially, and somewhat imprecisely, as “returns to homelessness.”) Officials with the city refer to this system as “performance pay,” and say it’s meant as a reward for good results; providers have argued that withholding contracted funds makes it harder for them to meet the city’s ambitious new goals for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing.

A look through the performance improvement plans (PIPs) for the 16 programs that initially failed to receive their full contract pay last year, which I obtained through a records request, shows that many are falling far short of their targets—so far, in some cases, that it’s difficult to see how they will ever catch up.

Lindsey Garrity, with HSD, says the city will provide performance pay in increments of 25 percent, depending on how much progress providers are making toward their goals. “We have room to move around how we structure the performance pay and how we look at rewarding programs as they move toward performance,” as opposed to the previous “all or nothing approach,” Garrity says. “As it was structured, we weren’t rewarding improved performance and that is something we’re going to change in 2019.”  HSD’s Lily Rehrmann adds. The standards, which vary by program type, will remain the same.

Whether the programs that failed to meet HSD’s stringent new standards in 2019 will be able to do so next year remains an open question. A look through the performance improvement plans (PIPs) for the 16 programs that initially failed to receive their full contract pay last year, which I obtained through a records request, shows that many are falling far short of their targets—so far, in some cases, that it’s difficult to see how they will ever catch up.

A shelter run by Compass Housing Alliance, for example, is supposed to move a minimum of 40 percent of its clients into permanent housing when they leave. Throughout 2017, and during the first three quarters of 2018, that number never rose above 19 percent. Youthcare’s Catalyst shelter for young adults, from which no more than 20 percent of clients are supposed to return to homelessness, had a homelessness return rate, in one quarter, of 67 percent (and the number never went below the 20 percent target.) Santos Place, a transitional housing program run by Solid Ground, has an average stay in 2017 of 844 days, a number that had declined to 705 by the second quarter of last year. The target length of stay is no more than 150 days.

In some cases, the performance improvement plans, which are largely boilerplate, provide a glimpse at providers’ objections to the one-size-fits-all performance metrics. Catholic Community Services, for example, argued that their nighttime-only shelter for homeless men over 50 lacked funding for the kind of intensive case management that would allow to hit the target of 40 percent exits to permanent housing. Compass Housing Alliance pointed out that their rate of exits to permanent housing at the Peter’s Place shelter was artificially low (between 8 and 19 percent last year, against a goal of 40 percent). because the shelter accepts a high volume of one-night-only referrals from Operation Night Watch—people who stay at the shelter for one night and leave without accessing the services that are provided to regular guests. The Downtown Emergency Service Center raised a similar concern about its downtown night shelter, noting that many overnight clients are one-time-only direct referrals from Harborview and the Seattle Police Department who are “often not interested in engaging with services.” And several organizations cited staffing shortages as a major challenge—a problem that presumably requires  more funding, not less.

Garrity says HSD is committed to making sure its contractors succeed. “The city cannot do the work it does without the providers. Our goal is to always keep it moving forward and keep it a relationship that works for both entities,” she says. “Sometimes performance pay is talked about as if its purpose is very punitive, but we need [providers] to succeed in order for us to be successful.”

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. Advocates and opponents of a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE are meeting Tuesday with new Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe and staff from the mayor’s office to discuss the resolution of the debate over the lane. Bike lane proponents have told me that they anticipate Mayor Jenny Durkan to side with bike lane opponents and agree to eliminate the lane. Neither the mayor’s office nor SDOT provided any details about the meeting, which will reportedly also include the mediator hired by the city last September.

Some background: The city’s official Bike Master Plan has included a separated bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between Wedgwood and Ravenna since it was last updated in 2014. The project has already been both designed and contracted, and was supposed to be completed in 2018. Last year, however, opponents of the bike path began a concerted effort to convince Mayor Jenny Durkan to kill the proposal. Their efforts included both standard-issue arguments (eliminating on-street parking will destroy businesses; cyclists can just shift their route six blocks to the east or west) and more novel approaches, like arguing that bike lanes are only “for the privileged”—a claim that is surely news to groups like Rainier Valley Greenways, which have been begging the city for safe bike infrastructure on or near the most dangerous street in the city, which happens to run through many of Seattle’s least-privileged neighborhoods.

After death threats, vandalism, a bomb scare, and the creation of a single-issue PAC dedicated to supporting to “transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning” (they’ve raised $21,125 so far), the city hired mediator John Howell, at a cost of nearly $14,000, to “explore areas of concern” between opponents and advocates of the bike lane. The result, ultimately, was the creation of a new “compromise” plan that did not include any bike lanes at all, including any kind of alternative path for bike commuters. Strangely, the city’s proposed compromise eliminated just as much parking as the city’s original designed and contracted plan.

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?

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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.

Evening Crank: “There Is No Plan to Close SHARE Shelters.”

Image via Seattle City Council on Flickr

1. City council member Rob Johnson, who has already accepted a post-council position as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL, has carefully dodged rumors that he will be leaving the council much sooner than the end of his term. But here are the facts: Johnson’s signature legislation, the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, will pass on March 18. Another major milestone—the final meeting of Sound Transit’s Elected Leadership Group, which will issue recommendations on route and station locations for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle—takes place April 26. After that, Johnson has nothing scheduled.  (He’s actually the one who pointed this out to me, while refusing to officially confirm he’s leaving early.) Meanwhile, council members are quietly discussing who might replace him. All of which leads to the conclusion that Johnson will probably leave in May, sparking a potentially contentious process for appointing someone to fill his seat for the remaining seven or so months of his term.

If Johnson left the council after the filing deadline for the November election, which is May 17, the appointee would serve as a placeholder—filling the position until the next elected council member could be sworn in, most likely in November rather than January 2020, when other elected council members will take office. This happened, most recently, in October 2017, when Kirsten Harris-Talley was appointed to replace at-large council member Tim Burgess, who became mayor after incumbent Ed Murray resigned and was not running for reelection. Teresa Mosqueda won the seat formerly held by Burgess and was sworn in on November 28.

If Johnson decides to leave earlier, whoever gets the appointment could theoretically enter the race for his position, although they would probably face pressure to agree not to run.

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2. A fight over funding for the controversial shelter and housing provider SHARE/WHEEL continued to play out in council chambers this morning, with council member Lisa Herbold curtly correcting council member Kshama Sawant’s assertion that Mayor Jenny Durkan had “threaten[ed] the closure of the SHARE/WHEEL shelters at the end of June.”

Last week, Sawant accused Durkan of retaliating against SHARE for opposing the nomination of Jason Johnson as director of the Human Services Department by ending the organization’s city contract early, in June, with further funding contingent on improved performance. (This is what Sawant was characterizing as a “threaten[ed] closure.”) Specifically, SHARE supported a Sawant resolution (which failed today) that would have blocked Johnson’s nomination and established a new process, led by a committee including HSD employees and service providers who receive HSD contracts, to find a director.

God forbid we talk to each other and try to make something good, something better, something that doesn’t violate our charter or our responsibilities.

Herbold, a longtime SHARE supporter, said, “There is no planned closure of SHARE shelters in June,. It is true that they have been given only a half-year contract and [HSD has] identified specific  areas of desired improvement.” But, she reiterated, “There is no proposal for SHARE shelters to close in June.”

SHARE’s basic shelters, which provide high-barrier, nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people every night, failed to qualify for any funding last year under the city’s new performance standards, which require programs to demonstrate progress toward moving people in to permanent housing. Nonetheless, the council and mayor agreed to fund its shelters on a temporary basis through this year.

Last week, the city’s Human Services Department announced in a memo that funding for SHARE’s shelters after June would depend on whether the organization continued to improve its data collection practices, which “directly impact the ability of the SHARE/WHEEL shelters to serve the most vulnerable population.” Herbold called the memo “a sincere statement on behalf of HSD, not that they are intending to end provision of this service in June, but rather that they are trying to work… to improve the number of people who are participating in the HMIS system.”

Sawant is holding a special meeting of the city’s special committee on homelessness to discuss SHARE funding next Tuesday, in lieu of her regularly canceled human services committee meeting. Sawant has not held a regular committee meeting since last September. She does have another “community speak-out”/”special committee meeting” scheduled for Saturday, March 16, to rally supporters against the demolition of the Chateau Apartments, a 21-unit Section 8 apartment complex in the Central District.

3. Sawant’s resolution to reject Johnson and start a new process may have failed (council member Lisa Herbold said she might have felt “differently” if “council member Sawant had made her expectations known [to Mayor Durkan] prior to the nomination process”), but council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant, has proposed a kind of alternative: A resolution outlining the steps that mayors must follow for department director nominations in the future.

The resolution requires the mayor to describe the process she wants to use to make an appointment in advance, including any advisory groups she wants to appoint; gives the council authority to review the appointment process prior to any nomination, using on a list of criteria that focuses on inclusion and race and social justice; and lays out evaluation criteria for the council to use in the future.

The contents of Mosqueda’s resolution, as council member Lorena Gonzalez pointed out, are not “earth-shaking”; in fact, they’re “pretty run-of-the-mill, ordinary pieces of information that are traditionally transmitted from the mayor to whoever the committee chair responsible for the confirmation process is.” Her comment, which Gonzalez suggested was aimed at the mayor, also read as a subtle dig at Sawant, who has claimed repeatedly that she reached out to the mayor prior to Johnson’s nomination and never heard back. (The mayor’s office maintains that Sawant has not shown up for any of their scheduled monthly check-ins since Durkan took office in 2017).

Debora Juarez, no fan of Sawant’s efforts to derail Johnson’s appointment by forcing Durkan to launch an entirely new appointment process, was less circumspect. Thanking Mosqueda for distributing the legislation in advance and asking her council colleagues for feedback, she said, “I think it’s the height of good government when you give your colleagues an opportunity, notice, an opportunity to question, to discuss. God forbid we talk to each other and try to make something good, something better, something that doesn’t violate our charter or our responsibilities, and is also very clear about our role in the legislative branch.”