Tag: Lisa Herbold

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”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 1 Incumbent Lisa Herbold

Image via Lisa Herbold campaign

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: District 1 City Council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and South Park.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Because so many council members are leaving, if you’re reelected, you’ll be one of the senior members of the city council. What are some of your top priorities for a second term?

Lisa Herbold (LH): I’m interested in working with council member [Teresa] Mosqueda on the work that she plans to do on the comprehensive plan—revisiting single-family neighborhood zoning, and looking at how we can do that in a way that brings people together and doesn’t become another big wedge issue for the city. And I think it’s important to figure out a way to have those conversations that doesn’t put people into camps—either NIMBYs or urbanists. So I want to play a role in that, because I think there’s a right way of having those conversations.

For instance, [Mandatory Housing Affordability], as it relates to single-family zoning, is focused on single-family zoning only within urban villages. The planning commission has made a set of recommendations for single-family zoning outside of urban villages, and I know that council member Mosqueda is very interested in the issue. I’m really concerned that the conversation won’t be held in a way that brings people together, because it hasn’t in the past. And then there’s the whole question of neighborhood planning around our urban village strategy. She has, for instance, asked for a [racial equity toolkit] on the urban village strategies. I imagine there’s going to be some recommendations that come out of that.

I think that we should have neighborhood-based input. I’m supportive of the direction that [the Department of Neighborhoods] has moved in [toward including communities that have been traditionally excluded from neighborhood planning], but not as a replacement for some sort of geographic-based engagement. In the efforts to involve people in these conversations that haven’t historically been at the table, I think that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

I think for instance, when you’re talking about neighborhood matching funds or the neighborhood street fund, these participatory budgeting-type programs that seek to empower community to make decisions about improvements in their communities, I’m just concerned that, in our efforts to model our values of equity, we’ve alienated people who have something to contribute to our city, who care deeply about their communities.

“I’m supportive of the direction that [the Department of Neighborhoods] has moved in, but not as a replacement for some sort of geographic-based engagement. In the efforts to involve people in these conversations that haven’t historically been at the table, I think that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”

ECB: The mayor’s budget continues the expansion of the Navigation Team [which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces, often with no notice or offers of services to their displaced residents.] Are you going to be pushing for changes to the team’s current model or way of doing things?

LH: I’ve been working on implementing the recommendations of the city auditor, particularly on hygiene and garbage pickup. So for instance, I helped pilot the purple bag program [which provides purple trash bags and trash pickup to some encampments], but [Seattle Public Utilities] only visits 12 sites at any given time. I believe that our need to prioritize sites for removal might be mitigated if we make it possible for people that are living unsheltered to pick up their own garbage. I know Seattle Public Utilities feels good about the work that they’re doing. And this program has been replicated in Austin.

One of the things that the city auditor is doing is mapping all of the removed encampments over the last year, to find out where people return. Maybe the locations where people return aren’t locations that are inherently dangerous. Maybe there’s some logic for why people return there. Maybe for those locations, rather than chasing them away from them, we should make it possible for people to clean them.

I’m going to be working with the campaign that Real Change is doing in March, called Everybody Poops. It comes out of the recommendations of the city auditor that we ought to have a mobile pit stop like other cities do. It’s a way of providing people with something that they need and also providing opportunities for engaging in case management services. There’s also a slate of recommendations related to hygiene that the city auditor made. We have some of our community centers that have showers that have made them available to all members of the public, whether or not you’re signed up for programs, and so one of the recommendations is to open all of them. Another recommendation is to staff a couple of the standalone bathrooms in parks. And then of course there’s making sure that our permanent Urban Rest Stops are able to find spaces.

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ECB: The mayor has proposed legislation that would crack down on people renting run-down RVs to people who would otherwise be unsheltered. What do you think of the legislation as proposed? [Editor’s note: After our conversation, the council dramatically revised the legislation to add tenant relocation funding and to limit the scope of the proposal; further amendments are expected when the council takes the proposal up again after budget deliberations, which end in November]

LH: We have a way to pay tenants of rental housing that the city is shutting down under emergency order because there are life safety issues that are so severe that somebody can’t continue to live there. The city advances the relocation assistance and then they work on pursuing the landlord later. But they pay first.

So I actually see this very similar to that, depending on how it’s administered. People could say about that rental housing, ‘Well, it’s better than living unsheltered.’ Okay, but nevertheless, it is the city’s policy to not let rental housing providers exploit tenants by collecting rent and forcing them to live in places that they have refused to fix and that have significant life safety violations. That is the city’s policy. So I see this as in many ways being very consistent with that. But the thing I’m worried about is whether or not the city is going to be looking for these instances as a way to accomplish a different objective [getting RVs off the street].

Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 1 Incumbent Lisa Herbold”

Morning Crank Part 2: Homelessness Division Loses Another Key Player; Burgess Can’t Quit the Council

1. As I mentioned on Twitter last week, Navigation Team outreach leader Jackie St. Louis announced his resignation last month and his last day was last Friday. St. Louis did not return my calls asking about his decision to leave the city back in June, but he had recently been reassigned to a new position as “manager of unsheltered crisis response” in the Homelessness Strategy and Outreach division—a reassignment that could be interpreted as a demotion. Tiffany Washington, the erstwhile director of the homelessness division, also quit recently to become deputy director of the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning.

“So, this is where this part of my story ends. Not how I would have intended it to. Not how I would have envisioned it, but I accept that this is the way that it is supposed to be. Because a good name is worth more than any earthly reward, and integrity should never be entrusted to those who it is a stranger to.” – Former Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis, whose last day was last Friday

St. Louis told homeless service providers about his departure in a brief email. It read: “I wanted to take the time to thank you for your partnership over the years under what have been trying circumstances. I also want to wish you well and offer well wishes as you forge ahead with your respective missions. Though differing, they all help to try and create a better community for all those who call it home. Today will be my last day at the city.”

His departure letter to colleagues was significantly more dramatic. “To live is to wage war: war with the external forces that threaten our existence but even more so the war we wage with our own selves,” it began. “They tell us that history is told from the perspective of those who survive to recount that which has transpired. I challenge that assertion, because amongst us live and toil those who bear the scars of battles long since waged.

“It is not those who survive who tell those stories as much as it is those who still retain the desire of sharing the morbid details of things which they have most likely experienced as an observer. …

“The jury is still out on whether my ‘work’ here resulted in any significant impact for those whom it was intended. Yet, I am certain of the fact that I have been deeply impacted by your word and deeds. They have moved me toward being a better, more humble, more courageous, and resilient version of myself. …

“So, this is where this part of my story ends. Not how I would have intended it to. Not how I would have envisioned it, but I accept that this is the way that it is supposed to be. Because a good name is worth more than any earthly reward, and integrity should never be entrusted to those who it is a stranger to.”

St. Louis concluded by thanking a long list of colleagues. They did not, notably, include either Washington or Johnson.

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2. The Navigation Team also came up in a recent mailer from former mayor Tim Burgess’ PAC targeting city council incumbent (and Burgess’ former colleague) Lisa Herbold, who is running for reelection. In the mailer, Burgess’ group, People for Seattle, accuses Herbold of “vot[ing] to cut funding for the Navigation Teams tasked with reducing homeless camps.” This is inaccurate—as I reported at the time, although Herbold joined other council members in seeking a smaller permanent increase in the size of the team than Durkan initially requested, they ultimately gave the mayor everything she wanted, finding funds to marginally increase human service provider pay while preserve the increase in funding Durkan requested.

Burgess, who retired in 2017, has remained unusually active for a former elected official. Burgess’ PAC, which has raised more than a quarter-million dollars, has also sent out mailers accusing Kshama Sawant challenger Zach DeWolf of offering “more of the same” in an effort to boost Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce-endorsed candidate Egan Orion through the primary. This week, Burgess also sent an email to council members admonishing them directly for defying Durkan with their vote to create a dedicated fund for the soda tax, providing the language of the original bill establishing the soda tax, and suggesting four things the council “could have” done instead of creating the dedicated fund.

Burgess’ attempts to influence not only council votes, but the makeup of the council itself, have prompted some on the council to joke that he should probably just run for council again.

Morning Crank: “I Have Not Seen Any Speculative ADU Bubble”

1. The city council finally adopted legislation to loosen regulations on backyard and basement apartment construction Monday, 13 years after the city allowed homeowners to build backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle on a “pilot” basis in 2006.  The city’s analysis found that the new rules, which would allow homeowners to build up to two accessory units (such as a basement apartment and a backyard cottage) on their property, will add up to 440 new units a year across Seattle, or about one unit for every 80 acres of single-family land.

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The city expanded its initial backyard cottage pilot to include the rest of Seattle in 2009, but it never took off in a major way, thanks in large part to restrictions on lot and unit size, owner-occupancy requirement, and parking mandates that made accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, difficult and expensive to build. Efforts to make it easier to build second and third units ran against the usual objections from single-family homeowner activists, who claimed that changing the law would turn Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods into triplex canyons, and from left-leaning development opponents, who claimed  that loosening the rules would lead to a frenzy of speculative development, with builders snatching up affordable single-family rental houses and destroying them to make way for new houses with two additional units, which they would rent out at higher prices or turn into Airbnbs.

Litigation by a group of homeowner activists dragged the process out for years, but the city prevailed in May, enabling the legislation to finally move forward. Although council members generally supported the proposal, some of them wanted to add new restrictions, such as owner occupancy and ownership requirements and even a ban on leasing the units as short-term rentals, which would have subjected backyard cottages and basement apartments to more stringent anti-Airbnb rules  than any other kind of housing in the city.

Ultimately, the only one of those amendments that saw the light of day on Monday was Lisa Herbold’s proposal to require homeowners to own a property for one year before building a second accessory unit—a provision Herbold said was necessary “to address the speculative market that will flip these units”—with even socialist council member Kshama Sawant saying that she saw no reason for the restriction. While she is concerned about “corporate developers” building luxury apartment towers, Sawant said, “I have not seen any speculative ADU bubble anywhere.”

The legislation, which Sightline called “the best rules in America for backyard cottages,” passed 8-0, with council member Bruce Harrell absent.

2. Often, when the council passes a piece of legislation they have been working on for some time, Mayor Jenny Durkan sends out a press release praising the council for passing “the Mayor’s legislation.” That didn’t happen with the ADU bill that passed yesterday—not because Durkan didn’t have her own version of the proposal, but because she never sent her own version of the ADU legislation to the council. Instead, after a team of staffers spent months working on draft legislation and crafting an outreach plan for an alternative proposal, the mayor apparently decided to support O’Brien’s legislation after all.

It’s hard to quantify how much staff time the mayor’s office and city departments dedicated to drafting legislation that never saw the light of day, but the sheer volume of communications in the first three months of 2019 suggests it was a substantial body of work. (I filed my request at the end of March and received redacted records in mid-June, which is why I don’t have any documents dated later than March 31).

At the moment, it’s also hard to know what problems Durkan had with O’Brien’s proposal, since most of the documents her office provided about her strategy and legislation look like this:

I would show more, but it just goes on like this.However, series of text messages between two mayoral staffers that were provided without redactions shows that one of the changes Durkan was considering was an even longer ownership requirement than what  Herbold proposed—two years, rather than one, before a homeowner could build a second accessory unit.

I’ve asked the mayor’s office for unredacted versions of the documents I received in  and will post more details about her proposal  when I receive them. In the meantime, here’s one more page from those redacted documents—this one a list of ideas the mayor’s office had to “further allay concerns” about “speculative development.”

Morning Crank: Litmus Tests and Red Meat in West Seattle

The audience at Speak Out Seattle’s council forum in West Seattle (screen shot)

1. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites in Seattle, kicked off the 2019 local campaign season with a forum last night in West Seattle. All five candidates—attorney Phillip Tavel, popcorn entrepreneur Jesse Greene, police lieutenant Brendan Kolding, and Isaiah Willoughby, plus incumbent Lisa Herbold.

It was probably inevitable that I’d be frustrated with this forum, though not for the reasons you might expect. Sure, I get frustrated with misconceptions about homelessness, and I’ve heard enough people who have never held public office (and never will) call for harsh law-and-order policies for several lifetimes. But my real issues with this forum—the first of several SOS plans to hold this year—were unrelated to the group’s conservative policy prescriptions.

First, many of the questions had little to do with policies the candidates would fight for if they were elected; instead, they were simplistic, red-meat, litmus-test questions, things like “What did you think of the ‘Seattle Is Dying report on KOMO?; “What grade would you give the city council?”; and “Do you support a state income tax?” Not only was there only one “right” answer to these questions (“I agreed with it completely”; “F”; and “no,” respectively), the answers meant very little, beyond giving an audience that came with its mind made up an opportunity to cheer or boo.

Second, facts didn’t seem to matter very much. (I know, I know—but wouldn’t it be nice if they sometimes did?) Herbold, who is not just the incumbent but a 20-year city hall veteran with a deep understanding of a vast range of city issues, had no opportunity to respond to false or misleading claims—like when her opponents referred to former mayoral staffer Scott Lindsay’s alarmist spreadsheet detailing crimes by 100 hand-picked offenders as a “study” that proved the need for harsher policies, or when Greene claimed that police can’t arrest people who have fewer than 30 “hits of methamphetamine or heroin” on their person. The one time Herbold did get a chance to respond directly to a piece of misinformation, it came from the moderator, KOMO’s Mike Lewis, who asked why, when the city council “radically increased business license fees” a few years back, didn’t they spend any of that money hiring new police officers. (Answer: They did.) Herbold also pushed back on an irrelevant question about whether she would support a “safe injection site” in West Seattle, pointing out that no one had ever suggested or even brought up such a proposal, and brandishing a fake flyer advertising an injection site in Pigeon Point—a sleepy area north of Delridge—as an example of how false rumors create panic.

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The result wasn’t a shitshow, exactly (the crowd only shouted Herbold down once, when she gave the city council a B-minus grade), but neither was it an opportunity for undecided voters to find out what the candidates would actually do if they were elected. Knowing what challengers think of a head tax that was defeated last year might provide some information about their views on taxes (though not much, since all of Herbold’s challengers said they hated it), and questions like “Why does Seattle have such a high property crime rate?” might give candidates a chance to pontificate for 60 seconds on that very broad issue, but to what end? Speak Out Seattle is a relatively new group, still struggling to escape its association with Safe Seattle, the volatile online group that recently claimed—falsely—that the Seattle Police Department was trying to cover up a grisly “beheading” at a homeless encampment in South Seattle. One way to accomplish that would be to ask, “Is the premise of this question true?” before posing it to candidates. Another would be to treat candidate forums not as an opportunity to quiz candidates on their top-five general issues (What causes homelessness? Is property crime getting worse?) but to find out what specific policies they would fight for on the council, and how they would work with other council members to make them happen. Elections aren’t about ideas; they’re about people. Candidate forums should be too.

2. With Rob Johnson leaving the city council on April 5 (sooner than I predicted here, since Johnson has apparently decided he does not need to stick around until Sound Transit’s Elected Leadership Group makes its Ballard-to-West-Seattle route recommendations), the council will need to pick a new member—and King County Executive Dow Constantine will need to pick a new Sound Transit board member.

The council’s process, outlined by council president Bruce Harrell here, will likely result in the appointment of a “caretaker”—someone who will serve out the rest of Johnson’s single term through the budget in November, and agree not to run for the position. Constantine’s process is more of a wild card. Under state law, the county executive must appoint a representative from North King County to Johnson’s position; historically, this has been a member of the Seattle City Council, and it would be unusual for Constantine to break from this tradition for a short-term appointment.

Currently, the two most likely candidates appear to be council member Lorena Gonzalez and council member Debora Juarez—Gonzalez because she’s a council veteran who represents the whole city (and, not for nothing, a West Seattleite like Constantine), Juarez because of her enthusiasm for getting into the weeds of the project in her North Seattle district, which includes two future light rail stations. Two other factors: Gonzalez, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, may have too much on her plate to take over a big new transportation job; Juarez, meanwhile, is up for reelection, and will be spending much of her time over the next few months on the campaign trail. Mike O’Brien, who was displaced from the board by Johnson in 2016, could be a dark-horse candidate, but given his previous conflict with Constantine over the proposed new King County juvenile jail, his appointment looks like the longest of long shots.

3. Leaders of the Seattle Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, and King County Metro watched as workers carefully lowered a new gunmetal-colored bus shelter into place on Fifth Avenue on Thursday, one of the final touches on a new northbound transit priority lane that will open this coming Saturday, when all bus routes come out of the downtown transit tunnel and 15 routes are redirected onto different streets. Northbound and soutbound transit lanes on Fifth Avenue will pair with southbound lane a northbound transit priority lane on Sixth Ave. (Info on Metro services changes here, and Sound Transit service changes here.)

Also Thursday, the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition called for the immediate implementation of a temporary bus priority lane on Third Avenue between Stewart and Denny Streets to meet transit demand in Belltown and South Lake Union when the buses come out of the tunnel. MASS formed last year to push for more city investments in safe nonmotorized transportation infrastructure (including the completion of the downtown bike network.) In a statement, the coalition noted that 100,000 riders use that section of Third Avenue every day, yet “this section of 3rd Avenue still prioritizes single-occupant vehicles and parking — even though it carries only 7300 cars a day.

Asked about the proposal, Zimbabwe said it was the first he’d heard of it. “We’re looking at all sort of things as we continue to monitor the situation, he said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen right away.” Heather Marx, the director of downtown mobility for the city, said after the press conference that the city’s transportation operations center, which opened last year in anticipation of a Viadoom that never came, has remained open on a 24-7 basis ever since it opened, and would continue to stay open on a constant basis indefinitely, or at least through 2019, when the current budget cycle ends. Marx said the city still has some tricks up its sleeve if the buses get stuck in traffic, including adding more bus lanes, signal timing to give buses priority, and rerouting buses again.

“Not Factual”: Human Services Department Pushes Back on Critical Navigation Team Audit

Representatives from the Human Services Department, including Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis, were on the defensive yesterday after the city auditor presented a report finding significant shortcomings in the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness. The auditor’s report, which I covered in more detail earlier this month, found that it’s hard to know whether the Navigation Team—which removes unauthorized encampments and informs their residents about available shelter beds and services—has been successful at getting unsheltered people into safer situations, because HSD doesn’t have a rigorous system for tracking that information and has refused to allow an independent assessment of its performance. The audit also criticized the city for still failing to provide for the most basic needs of the unsheltered Seattleites it serves, such as restrooms and showers; across the city, just six public restrooms (including four Port-a-Potties) are open at night, and the audit team found three of the six were “damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability.”

“Without adequate access to bathrooms, it’s understandable that we would see the things that we saw on our site observations—human waste on sidewalks, human waste in buckets, human waste in greenspaces,” Claudia Gross-Shader from the auditor’s office said. “The cleanups conducted by the Navigation Team often involved removing human waste. … However, letting human waste accumulate to the point at which it may be removed by the Navigation Team is not an effective strategy for mitigating the negative impacts that unauthorized encampments can have in public spaces and adjacent neighborhoods.”

“Without adequate access to bathrooms, it’s understandable that we would see the things that we saw on our site observations—human waste on sidewalks, human waste in buckets, human waste in greenspaces.”

Gross-Shader also expressed frustration at the fact that HSD has resisted allowing a “rigorous independent evaluation” of how the Navigation Team is doing. “At this time,  tgthe executive concludes that [such reports are] costly and that they should be done after many years of implementation. We have provided examples of low-cost and no cost [evaluation options]… and they should be started sooner rather than later. A really great example of a rigorous evaluation is the LEAD program,” which diverts low-level offenders from prosecution, Gross-Shader continued. “When it was first getting started, the [evaluation] found that 58 percent of the LEAD clients did not get rearrested compared to the control group of clients, and they’ve used those evaluation results to help inform their program and make course corrections over time.”

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Moments after the auditor’s staff concluded their presentation, HSD division director Tiffany Washington assailed some of the auditor’s conclusions as “not factual”—particularly a slide (above) showing the fractured and (in the auditor’s view) uncoordinated system of outreach and services for people living unsheltered. (The report found that “City-funded homeless outreach is decentralized, and there is no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers, which “limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.”) “It’s not disjointed—it’s created that way by design,” Washington said. “We we don’t’ want 90 percent of our outreach workers to be in the field responding to cleans; we want 90 percent of our outreach workers to be in the field developing relationships with people who are unsheltered, so that by the time the Nav Team gets there, they have a connection and it’ll be easier to connect those folks to resources.”

“I don’t want a connection to be made that if you stop doing cleans and you just focus your efforts on getting people to come inside that they will just magically accept.”

The Navigation Team is charged with, among other things, removing encampments that pose a health and safety hazard to their occupants; the team is supposed to provide 72 hours’ notice of a removal to encampment residents, but can remove an encampment without any notice if the team decides that the encampment is an “obstruction” or poses an “immediate hazard” to its occupants or surrounding residents. In practice, during the fourth quarter of 2018, only a quarter of encampment removals qualified for advance notice. Of 109 encampment removals (or “cleans,” as HSD is now calling them), 81 were deemed immediate hazards or obstructions and exempt from the 72-hour requirement.

Committee chair Lisa Herbold pointed out two specific times when the need to clear “immediate hazards” right away appeared to slow down appreciably: During the recent snowstorm, when the Navigation Team suspended sweeps and focused entirely on getting people inside, and during November and December, when encampment removals slowed to a crawl. (According to my own review of the Navigation Team’s weekly reports for the last six months, there were no encampment sweeps at all between November 22 and December 2, from December 18 to December 25, and from December 29 to January 7. (One encampment was removed between Christmas and December 28.)

Encampment removals picked right back up after the holidays, when they returned to a level similar to the summer months, which calls into question the notion that “weather” and “rain”-related “safety” concerns are the primary reasons the Navigation Team lightens up on removals during those two months.

Why, Herbold wondered rhetorically, did removals slow down so much right at the end of the year?

“There is a ramp-down that happens during the final months of the year, particularly some of December. There’s generally less operations that happen. Generally, you find in November, December, there’s less activity,” St. Louis said.

“And why is that?” Herbold asked.

“There’s just a ramp-down—the weather, too, as well,” St. Louis said. “There’s some encampments that can’t be engaged based on safety reasons. There’s more rain. There’s cold. And also, I think human beings, too, have the tendency, after working a very long year, to want to take some time off.” In other words: Encampment removals became apparently less urgent during Thanksgiving and Christmas, in other words, because the people doing the removals got those weeks off. (They picked right back up after the beginning of the year, when removals returned to similar levels to the number of removals the team does during the summer months, which calls into question the notion that “weather” and “rain”-related “safety” concerns are the primary reasons the Navigation Team lightens up on removals during those two months.)

St. Louis and Washington both confirmed that the Navigation Team stopped doing sweeps during the snowstorm because their primary goal was ensuring people were safe and getting them inside; however, Washington said, it would be a mistake to read too much into the Navigation Team’s success at getting people inside during the snowstorm even without the looming threat of sweeps. “I don’t want a connection to be made that if you stop doing cleans and you just focus your efforts on getting people to come inside that they will just magically accept,” Washington said.

Takeaways From Seattle’s Upzoning Endgame

After another epic committee meeting—lengthened, this time, not by public comment but by a barrage of amendments intended to chip away at modest density increases on the edges of urban villages—the city council moved one big step closer yesterday to finalizing the remaining citywide portion of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which has been in the works for the past four years. (MHA has already been implemented in several neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and parts of the University District).

City of Seattle

The plan, on the whole, is modest. It allows developers to build taller, denser buildings inside multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages, and expands some urban villages (areas where, under the neighborhood plans first adopted in the 1990s, density is intensely concentrated as a way of “protecting” single-family areas) to include about 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family use. One reason the plan is modest is that the upzones are small, generally increasing density by one zoning step (from Neighborhood Commercial-65, for example, to NC-75, a height increase of 10 feet) in exchange for various affordability contributions. The second reason is that by continuing to concentrate density along arterial slivers instead of legalizing condos, townhouses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings in the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential area that’s preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses, the changes can’t be anything but modest: 6 percent of 65 percent is still just a sliver.

Most of the amendments the council passed yesterday—generally with opposition from the two at-large council members, Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda, and District 5 (North Seattle) member Debora Juarez—were aimed at decreasing the size of even that tiny concession.

For example: All of the amendments proposed by District 6 representative Mike O’Brien in the Crown Hill neighborhood, as well as his proposal to create a new, entirely speculative protection for a strip of houses in Fremont’s tech center that some people feel might have historic potential, were downzones from the MHA proposal. O’Brien, who was unable to attend yesterday’s meeting, has said that the proposals to shrink MHA in Crown Hill and Fremont came at the behest of “the community,” and that they were all offset by increased density along 15th Ave. NW, making them a win-win for density proponents and the Crown Hill community. (Lisa Herbold, in District 1, made a similar argument for her own proposal to downzone parts of the Morgan Junction neighborhood from the MHA proposal, saying that “I feel really strongly that the work, not just that I’ve done with the community, but that community leaders have done with other folks that have engaged with this effort, should be honored.”)

O’Brien’s Crown Hill downzones all passed, along with corresponding upzones that will further concentrate density (to put a human point on it, apartment buildings occupied by renters) on the noisy, dirty quasi-highway that is 15th Ave. NW, where it intersects with NW 85th St.:

The intersection where “the Crown Hill community” says they will allow renters to live.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda—who told me before the vote that the revelation that 56 affordable units would be lost if all the downzones passed increased her resolve to vote against all of them—pointed out the environmental justice implications of banning renters in the heart of a neighborhood and restricting them to large buildings on busy arterials: “When we look at neighborhood changes that would squish the zoning changes to an area along 15th, which we know to be a high traffic area with noise and pollution… it doesn’t feel like an equitable way to best serve our community. … I think it’s important that we take the opportunity to create not just access to housing along 15th, but really talk about how we equitably spread housing throughout the neighborhood.”

District 5 council member Debora Juarez added, “Of course [residents of a neighborhood] can organize, and of course they’re going to find a way to opt out or reduce their responsibility or their role or how they would like to see their neighborhoods grow. I know what happens when you do that, because then the burden shifts to those neighborhoods that we are trying to protect particularly from displacement.” Although District 3 council member Kshama Sawant countered that the people in Crown Hill are largely “working-class homeowners” at high risk for displacement, citywide council member Lorena Gonzalez quickly put that notion to rest, pointing out that the city’s own analysis found that Crown Hill is a neighborhood with high access to opportunity and a low displacement risk.

O’Brien’s amendments passed 5-3.

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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.

Other amendments that came up yesterday:

Although several of District 4 council member Rob Johnson’s amendments to reduce density in the Roosevelt and Ravenna-Cowen neighborhoods passed, a proposal to preserve a single-family designation for a single block of houses in Roosevelt failed, sparking some pointed comments from both Mosqueda and Gonzalez about the need to build housing near transit corridors and future light rail stations like the one four blocks from the block Johnson proposed keeping single-family. “We have to, as a city, either be committed to the urban village growth model or not, and to me this is an example where we need to be committed to that urban village growth strategy,” Gonzalez said.

• A proposal by O’Brien to reduce the proposed zoning along N 36th Street near the Fremont Troll statue by two full stops (from Low-Rise 3, which allows apartments, to Low-Rise 1, which allows townhouses), lost on a unanimous vote. Council members pointed out that not only is the street O’Brien wanted to downzone within spitting distance of high-tech companies like Google and Tableau, making it a prime location for new housing, the houses on it do not have any historic designation, which was one of O’Brien’s primary justifications for the amendment. “This is quite literally a dense area,” an exasperated Mosqueda said.

• A suite of Herbold amendments to reduces some of the proposed upzones near the West Seattle Junction, and the site of the future Link Light Rail station, from low-rise (1 through 3, depending on the lot) to residential small lot all passed. Herbold justified the downzones from the MHA proposal by noting that Sound Transit hasn’t finalized its alignment through West Seattle yet, and expressing her “commitment” to come back and adopt some kind of upzone in the area once they do. As she has before, Herbold suggested that not upzoning would be a cost-saving measure, because Sound Transit will have to purchase some land in the area for station construction, and land zoned for higher density typically costs more. When Juarez, whose district includes two future light rail stations (at Northgate and N. 130th St.), noted that her district clamored for more density around the stations, not less, Herbold said that Sound Transit currently has “three different options, and they’re spread across about 10 different blocks.” Mosqueda chimed in, saying that her “argument would be that it’s precisely because we have a new [light rail] line… that we should be doing everything we can now to raise the bar, so that when a decision is made [any new density] would be in addition to that baseline.

The committee declined to reduce a proposed height increase in southwest Delridge, in an area that, Herbold said, “provides a very wonderful view of Mount Rainier… in a low-income neighborhood in an area that doesn’t see a lot of city investment.” Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda pointed out that the downzone from MHA that Herbold was requesting wouldn’t actually reduce heights at all—the only difference would be how much low-rise housing property owners could build on private property—and District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw said she had been swayed by Mosqueda’s argument that the point of MHA is “build back in the opportunity for people to live in areas that they were excluded form living in.” However, Bagshaw added, she had already committed to supporting the amendment, which ultimately failed on a 4-4 vote.

• Two other Herbold amendments—one sweeping, the other potentially precedent-setting—are worth noting. The first, which supporters referred to as “the claw-back provision,” would nullify all the MHA upzones if a court overturns MHA’s affordability requirements at any point in the future. Mosqueda argued forcefully against the provision, saying, “I am not interested in sending a message that we would have some sort of moratorium [on development]. I think that could have adverse impacts on our ability to build affordable housing.” Johnson, who said that he “philosophically agreed” with Mosqueda, argued nonetheless that the amendment was “purely intent language”; it would only go into effect if a court overturned MHA’s affordability requirements in the future. That amendment passed.

The second, an amendment that triggers a new neighborhood planning process whenever “more than 25 percent of the [Morgan Junction] urban village could be affected by proposed zoning changes,” impacts a small area but could set a precedent for throwing MHA zoning changes (or other future zoning changes) back to community groups whenever they start to appreciably change the way an area looks and feels (which is, some might argue, the entire point of zoning changes). “I’m not hearing a rational basis for the establishment of a 25 percent benchmark,” Gonzalez said. “I’m worried about the establishment of a benchmark … based on a feeling or a sense that that that seems to be the right place to engage in the conversation. I’m not sure that’s wise policy. I’m not really sure how we even quantify what 25 percent” means.

That amendment passed 6-2, with Juarez and Mosqueda voting against.

The full MHA package passed the committee unanimously, with O’Brien absent. It now heads to the full council for a vote on March 18.

Morning Crank: “Madame Chair, I Agree With You Completely.”

1. After a two-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday night, city council member Kshama Sawant cast the lone vote for her own resolution to send interim Human Services Department Jason Johnson’s nomination as HSD director back to the mayor’s office. However, since no one on the human services committee, which Sawant chairs, voted “no,” the resolution will move forward to the full council.

Sawant’s resolution calls for a formal search process by a search committee that includes nonprofit human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees. The resolution does not explicitly express opposition to Johnson or make the case that he is unqualified for the job. However, Sawant—who is up for reelection this year—has made little effort to hide the fact that she is not a fan of the interim director, who took over after former director Catherine Lester resigned almost a year ago, and many of the people who showed up to testify last night expressed their explicit opposition to his appointment.

Prior to last night’s meeting, as she did prior to a last-minute public hearing on Johnson’s appointment in January, Sawant sent out a “Pack City Hall!” rally notice, urging her supporters to show up and “Hold Mayor Durkan accountable to the community and Human Services workers!” Perhaps as a result, the overwhelming majority of the testimony was in favor of Sawant’s resolution.

(In a somewhat novel twist, a few of the speakers opposing Johnson did so because they felt he was too supportive of groups like the Low-Income Housing Institute and SHARE, whose members also showed up to oppose Johnson’s appointment, but for completely different reasons; one of these speakers called Johnson “incompetent,” and another blamed the city for “an extremely drunk woman” he said had been “terrorizing Magnolia.”)

In addition to inviting her supporters to show up and testify, Sawant took the highly unusual step of inviting eight people who supported her resolution  to sit with the council at the committee table as they deliberated and took a vote. This setup gave the advocates an opportunity to echo Sawant’s statements and respond whenever council members Bruce Harrell or Lisa Herbold said anything contrary to Sawant’s position. (A quote from one advocate that paraphrases many others made around the table over the course of the meeting: “Madame Chair, I agree with you completely.”)  The result was an atmosphere in council chambers even more circus-like than most Sawant rally/hearings, with Harrell, in particular, barely able to disguise his frustration when advocates at the table talked over him (“I feel like I have to raise my hand here,” he said) or accused him of being “afraid” of doing a national search.

The advocates, including representatives from the homeless advocacy group SHARE, the Human Services Department,  the Seattle Indian Center, and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, argued that the council should open up the nomination process and, in the words of Tia Jones with the Seattle Silence Breakers, “just make [Johnson] apply—post it on the site and make him apply like everybody else.”

Herbold and Harrell responded that if the process for appointing Johnson was inadequate, the appropriate thing to do would be to revisit the process after Johnson’s nomination moves forward, given that the nomination took place legitimately under rules the council established in 2007. “Those are the rules that we all agreed to,” Herbold said. “I’m appreciative of the idea that the status quo isn’t acceptable.” But, she added, “I’m inclined to consider the individual when we have an individual before us,” and to make that process transparent and accountable, rather than rejecting Johnson’s nomination out of hand. “I feel like sending [the nomination] back is making it about the person,” Herbold said.

Sawant countered that the rules delineating the council’s role in considering mayoral appointments have to be a “living body, meaning, when we hear from hundreds of people, we can’t tell them, ‘These are the rules, so we can’t do what you’re asking us to do.’ … Clearly, we’re hearing loud and clear from people that they want to do something different. How can we ignore that?”

In a final bit of political theater, Sawant opened up the question of whether she should call for a vote on her own resolution to the audience, most of whom had already spoken in favor of the resolution. “All here who are not on council or staff, do you think we should vote for this resolution?” Sawant said. Herbold pointed out that she had received many letters from people who support Johnson and want to move the process forward. “Where are they?” shouted someone in the crowd—suggesting, it seemed, that either Herbold was making up the emails or that the people who showed up in person should count more than the people who wrote emails or called their council members on the phone.

Sawant addressed her supporters again: “Should I call this for a vote? I’m asking members of the public because that’s who I’m accountable to.” After a chorus of “Ayes” from the audience, Sawant called the vote. It passed by a vote of 1, with both Harrell and Herbold abstaining.

The resolution now moves on to the full council, where it faces long odds.

2. Steve Daschle, with the Human Services Coalition, said that the thing he found most “irksome” about Durkan’s human services approach was that she still has not met with the coalition after more than a year in office. “In the 30 years I’ve been involved in the Human Services Coalition, this is the first mayor who has not met with the coalition in a full year and two months of her term, and we think it’s imperative that the chief executive of the city take the time to come and talk to one of the key constituencies that would help shape that decision, and it wasn’t done,” Daschle said.

3. In City Council news, two more candidates entered the race for District 4, the seat currently held by Rob Johnson: Abel Pacheco, a STEM education advocate who sought the same seat in 2015 and received 8.4 percent of the vote, and Cathy Tuttle, the founder of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Pacheco sent out an announcement that he was running Tuesday; Tuttle confirmed that she was running to The C Is for Crank yesterday afternoon.

Also, as I noted on Twitter Monday, nonprofit director Beto Yarce, who was one of the first candidates to challenge Sawant in District 3 (Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake), has dropped out of the race. Yarce drew criticism early on for the fact that he and his partner live in Mill Creek, not Seattle. Yarce said he and his partner, who owns a house in the Snohomish County suburb, were planning to move to Capitol Hill; during his campaign, Yarce was renting a space in the neighborhood from a friend on a short-term basis, his campaign consultant confirmed.

4. The city has finally hired a consultant to conduct outreach on a proposal to make the building that houses the Showbox nightclub a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The city council adopted “emergency” legislation making the Showbox a temporary part of the market last year, in order to prevent the property, which was recently upzoned to allow very dense housing, from being developed as apartments. In response, the owner of the building sued the city). The consultant, Stepherson and Associates, has also done outreach work for the city on the First Hill Streetcar, the downtown seawall replacement project, and the Move Seattle levy. Because the contract is for less than $305,000 and Stepherson and Associates is on the city’s consultant roster, the contract did not have to be bid through an open process.

The city’s schedule calls for all of the outreach work on the Showbox proposal, as well as a full environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act, to be done by March, with a council vote this June. As I noted when I reported on the search for a contractor in January, that’s a remarkably quick timeline for an expansion of the Market, at least by historical standards:

To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.

AEG Live, which owns the Showbox, is free to close or relocate the venue when its current lease runs out in 2021; the question at hand is whether the building itself is historic, and whether the city can require that it remain a live-music venue in perpetuity.

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 me at Erica-Barnett-7, or mail me an old-fashioned check (or fan letter) at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank!

In Seattle’s Eviction Court, Where the Deck Is Stacked Against Tenants, Eviction Reform Could Change the Game

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Seattle magazine.

The most surprising thing about Seattle’s eviction court is that most of the action doesn’t take place in a courtroom at all—it takes place in a hallway. Along the length of this dim, busy corridor that spans the west wing of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, attorneys broker deals and break bad news to tenants for whom one extra paycheck, or a few hundred dollars, represents the difference between housing and homelessness. The harried suit-clad tenants’ attorneys strike a stark contrast to their clients, who pace or slump on well-worn benches, while the landlords and their attorneys cluster impatiently nearby, waiting to find out if tenants plan to settle or take their cases to court.

This hallway links two poles of the justice system. At one end: the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP), which represents low-income tenants and whose courthouse office is a cluttered, 300-square-foot room. At the other: Courtroom W-325, where tenants who decide not to accept a settlement deal can have their day in court.

About half of the landlords in Seattle—both nonprofit agencies, such as the Low-Income Housing Institute and the YWCA of Seattle, and private companies, such as Epic Asset Management, which collectively own hundreds of apartments around the city—are represented by a single law firm, Seattle-based Puckett & Redford. The firm’s pugnacious litigator Ryan Weatherstone paces back and forth in the hallway, occasionally poking his head in the door of the HJP office to yell at the organization’s managing attorney, Edmund Witter. “Stop [expletive] sandbagging me, Ed!” Weatherstone shouts late one morning, when it’s clear that the day’s cases will drag on into the afternoon. Witter rolls his eyes. It’s unclear how much of this is performance, how much genuine frustration.

The stakes are high. What happens here often means the difference between housing and homelessness to the hundreds of tenants who show up to respond to an eviction notice. In King County, where the most recent one-night count found more than 12,000 people living in shelters or on the streets, hundreds of people become newly homeless through eviction every year, contributing to a crisis that local political leaders have been trying, and mostly failing, to address for years.

To become a HJP client, a family must must make no more than two times the federal poverty level, which is $32,480 for a family of two, and be in the eviction process or at risk of imminent eviction. In Seattle, and throughout Washington, a landlord can begin the eviction process as soon as a tenant’s rent is more than three days late, and judges have little authority to force landlords to accept rent after that point.

Landlords can also serve a 10-day notice for lease violations, such as unauthorized guests, a three-day notice to vacate for nuisance activity, or—outside Seattle, whose Just Cause Eviction Ordinance prohibits this—a 20-day notice ending a tenancy for any reason, or no reason at all. These are several of the ways in which Washington differs from other states, many of which offer tenants more time to catch up on rent and give judges discretion to set up payment plans while a tenant remains in his or her home. Another challenge for tenants undergoing eviction: Fees for landlords’ attorneys, which vary widely and are usually paid by tenants, can run to thousands of dollars; court costs, plus late fees and other charges, can add hundreds more. A recent report by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the HJP found that the median court judgment against tenants evicted in Seattle in 2017 was $3,129.73.

“Say you underpay your rent by $20,” says state Representative Nicole Macri (D-43rd), who is also the deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. “The [state] statute allows a three-day notice to go up on your door at the moment the late day comes up on your lease. You can be in court the very next week after the three days expire, and within a week and a half or two weeks a sheriff could come to remove your possessions.” According to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 86.5 percent of evictions were for nonpayment of rent, and more than a quarter of all eviction proceedings in Seattle began on or before the sixth of the month, or five days after rent is typically due.

It’s common for people to be evicted for small amounts of overdue rent. In 2017, of the 2,072 formal evictions filed in Seattle, more than 76 percent were for less than $2,500, and 21 were for less than $100. The Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a large Seattle housing nonprofit, frequently files eviction notices over small amounts of money, including one, in 2018, for just $4. (LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says court records don’t reflect prior warnings or other reasons for evictions, such as violence or damage by the tenant.) The number of people evicted through informal means—those who received a notice to vacate and simply left, or who left after a dispute over rent or other issue that did not make it into the formal court record—is likely much higher, the report notes.

Many, if not most, HJP clients end up losing their homes—if not by eviction, then through court settlements that only allow an extra week or two before they need to vacate. Even those who strike a deal with their landlords—getting an order of limited dissemination, for example, which keeps an eviction from showing up on standard credit reports—end up being evicted, and most of those become homeless. According to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 87.5 percent of all people evicted in Seattle in 2017 became homeless immediately after their evictions. A big reason for that, according to the report, is that most landlords won’t take tenants with evictions on their record.

If a client takes her case to court, the outcome can be much worse. According to Witter, most cases that go to a hearing end up in eviction, with bigger judgments and harsher legal penalties than cases in which a tenant agrees to pay his back rent and leave.

On a recent Tuesday morning, two HJP clients, Peter and Danielle, wait in the hallway for news from an attorney who volunteers with HJP. While they wait, they explain how they ended up at the courthouse—a story of cascading misfortunes that includes struggles with addiction, homelessness and serious medical conditions. Peter, a former machinist, is awaiting surgery for a hernia; Danielle has late-stage liver disease. They say that a local charity paid part of their rent in an apartment building on Capitol Hill, but they’re still behind by about $3,000—a daunting amount for two people who haven’t worked in months. “I don’t want to sound like a victim, because we’re not,” Danielle says. “We just got caught in a real bad situation.” Peter adds: “I’m hoping that some more time will be allotted to us.”

Down the hallway, another drama is playing out: A tiny, frail woman named Rose (not her real name) is being turned out of an apartment run by a different social service agency over $430 in unpaid rent. Although she slipped a money order for half the rent under her property manager’s door several weeks ago, the landlord declined to deposit the money and taped an eviction notice on Rose’s door while she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for late-stage kidney disease. Rose’s apartment is in a building designated specifically for women, like her, who are battling addiction; before landing an apartment there a year ago, she was on the streets for more than a decade.

Unlike many tenants who come through eviction court, Rose is accompanied by two caseworkers, who both say that putting her back out on the street is tantamount to a death sentence. “There are already thousands of people living on the streets,” one of the caseworkers, a former case manager at Rose’s building, says. “What good is it going to do to put one more out there?” African-American tenants like Rose are evicted far out of proportion to their presence in the Seattle population; according to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 31.2 percent of tenants evicted in Seattle last year were black in a city where, according to the federal government, African Americans make up only 7 percent of the population.

A DAY IN COURT: Housing Justice Project attorney Edmund Witter spends much of his time in this hallway in the King County Courthouse, often with clients. At one end is the HJP office; at the other, the courtroom where eviction cases are decided. Photo by Hayley Young

Witter comes back with Weatherstone’s offer: If Rose pays all the back rent, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees, she will have a few weeks before she will have to move out. The eviction will still go on her record and she will probably go back to being homeless. “This isn’t a great deal,” Witter tells her candidly. Rose wants to take her case to court and Witter thinks she stands a chance: She tried to pay rent repeatedly, and can prove that she was in the hospital when her landlord left the eviction notice on her door. But in the small courtroom—from which a judge or appointed court commissioner presides—Weatherstone and Rose’s landlord introduce new information.

Rose, they say, has threatened staff members and other tenants, sending one staffer a text message that her landlord describes in excruciating detail. This kind of testimony isn’t admissible: In one of many made-for-TV courtroom moments, Rose’s HJP attorney, Ben Dickson, shouts “Hearsay!” every time Weatherstone brings up Rose’s behavior—but the damage is done. Judges and commissioners aren’t supposed to consider evidence that isn’t included in the eviction claim when deciding how to rule, but they’re human, and they sometimes do. Commissioner Henry Judson says the best he can do is to give Rose an order of limited dissemination if she pays the $860 she owes in rent and $911 in court costs, which one of Rose’s caseworker thinks he can pull together by the following day. But Rose must vacate her apartment in two weeks.

Tenants aren’t allowed to say much, if anything, in court—something that Witter says surprises many clients—and the process is brisk and formal, with testimony and arguments limited to the bare facts of the case. Personal grievances are generally not allowed. “We go into the hearing, and they find out how bad the process is and that they weren’t even allowed to talk, and then they get mad at us for that,” Witter says. “I’m not blaming the tenants; I’m just saying the system is not conducive for us to be able to provide adequate assistance of counsel or for the tenant to really even be able to make an informed decision. It’s basically a gun being held to someone’s head.”

He adds, “This isn’t the best way to do these proceedings, period. We’re going in and doing daytime Court TV and basically having this pissing contest between a landlord and a tenant in front of a person who doesn’t know this area of the law,” he says, referring to the commissioners and judges who hear the cases. Because Seattle has no dedicated housing court, eviction cases are heard by judges whose dockets are also crammed with probate cases, divorces and restraining orders, and who may not have a background in housing law, Witter says.

Witter says he often sees clients with mental health or addiction problems so severe that HJP can’t represent them (with stakes so high, tenants have to know what they’re signing and be able to understand what’s happening), and there are gray cases, like one I witnessed in court on another occasion, in which a man with a diagnosed mental disorder went back and forth for hours about whether he wanted to take his shaky case to a hearing, then backed out and agreed to the eviction while standing on the literal threshold of the courthouse door.

In New York City, where Witter was a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, tenants have a right to legal counsel, and cases are heard in a specialized housing court, with judges who are experts in landlord-tenant law. Witter says tenants “don’t get evicted just for simple nonpayment of rent—you have to be not trying at all.” Tenants can request assistance paying their arrears from multiple human services agencies right in the courthouse.

Contrast that with Seattle’s system, which requires tenants to go to one (or many) of more than two dozen decentralized private and nonprofit charities, such as churches, the West Seattle Helpline or Solid Ground. Solid Ground can provide as much as $2,000 in back rent for low-income clients. But the clients must agree to participate in case management, write a budget and set financial goals—a lengthy process that several renter advocates described as paternalistic and patronizing. Even so, Solid Ground interim homelessness prevention manager Theresa Curry Almuti says the group gets between 1,200 and 1,600 calls a month for about 80 slots in its assistance program, of which several hundred are eligible. “We could get three times as much funding and still have people eligible,” Curry Almuti says.

Weatherstone, the landlords’ attorney, spent years working as a tenant advocate, including as a volunteer at the HJP, and he sees problems with housing laws that lead to so many evictions, too. “Ultimately, we care about the people who come through here,” he says, referring to the tenants. “Not every single case is a case that we want to go ahead and evict, but sometimes—a lot of times—it’s required. Management has given them a lot of opportunities to comply with the [rental] agreement, and they don’t comply with it.” Weatherstone adds that landlords, especially small-business landlords, can’t always afford to let rent go unpaid while they wait for a tenant to come through with what they owe. “Our clients have their obligations to meet as well,” he says.

Still, it’s hard to deny that in a county where more than 12,000 people were homeless in 2017, evicting thousands of tenants a year only exacerbates the homelessness crisis. Legislators at the city and state levels are working to mitigate Seattle’s high eviction rate, using the Women’s Commission/HJP report as a guide. Macri, the 43rd District state representative, is proposing legislation in the current legislative session that would take protections that already exist in Seattle and extend them statewide—preventing landlords from evicting tenants without cause, for example. Macri’s bills would also give tenants more time to pay back rent they owe and provide discretion to judges to broker deals between landlords and tenants.

At the municipal level, City Council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien have directed city departments to look at ways of centralizing the rent assistance system and to make it easier for tenants to address habitability issues, which are often at the center of rent disputes, on a funding timeline. Longer-term solutions include allocating more of the city’s homelessness prevention system toward eviction prevention. Pathways Home, the overarching approach to homelessness adopted under former Mayor Ed Murray, directs the lion’s share of city homelessness funding to agencies that help people who are already homeless. Referring to the eviction report, O’Brien noted, “When you look at this data, around 550 households were $1,000 or less behind on their rent, and 87 percent of the people that went through an eviction ended up homeless.” Doing the math, for about $500,000, 500 fewer people could have wound up homeless, he says. “That is probably one of the most cost-effective things we could do.”

Weeks after their court dates, I followed up with several of the tenants whose cases I followed. Danielle and Peter were ultimately evicted, and had broken up under the stress; Danielle was living on the streets. Mike, the tenant who had wanted to go to court, agreed to leave the apartment where he had lived for a decade by the end of the month; in exchange, he got an order of limited dissemination. And Rose, whose caseworker said she paid her back rent and attorneys’ fees, was ultimately evicted anyway due to extenuating circumstances. At press time, her whereabouts were unknown.

Council Members Talk Amazon in NYC: “Don’t Flinch Every Time a Corporation Flexes Its Muscles”

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

File:Long Island City New York May 2015 panorama 3.jpg
Image via King of Hearts; Creative Commons license

As New York City braces itself against the potential “Seattleization” of Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon recently announced it will build one of two satellite “HQ2”s, two Seattle City councilmembers arrived in New York City Monday morning with a dual message: It’s going to be every bit as bad as you imagined. And: There’s still time to prepare.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold spoke at the headquarters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Monday morning, following a succession of local elected officials and progressive activists who denounced the company. (RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum, for example, described Amazon as “one of the worst employers not just in the United States but anywhere in the world.”)

Herbold read a letter from an Amazon contractor who described a desperate, daily scramble for shifts in a job with no benefits, no job security, and no health care—just an 800 number staffed by a nurse who “will tell you to see a doctor that you can’t afford.” Her advice for New Yorkers who want to extract some benefits from Amazon, which will receive an estimated $3 billion in tax breaks for the project? Mobilize early, align with small businesses, and be prepared for Amazon to try to change the conversation.

“We simply weren’t able to counter the influence of big money on public opinion” in Seattle, Herbold said, referring to the failure of the city’s $275-per-employee “head tax,” which would have funded housing and homeless services. “In Seattle, Amazon used small businesses as a stalking horse. … You have to remind small businesses that they, too, are victims of regressive tax structures.”

After telling Seattle leaders  they would support a scaled back “compromise” version of the tax, Amazon helped fund the “No Tax on Jobs” campaign, which planned to run a referendum to overturn the measure. Eventually, the council voted to overturn the tax, with Herbold voting with the majority and Mosqueda voting no.

Mosqueda offered the head tax experience as a cautionary tale, and warned the New York activists, “Don’t be the city or the state that flinches every time a corporation flexes its muscles, threatens to move out of town, tries to say that they’re going to cut jobs or stop construction, and pulls back on investing on the very system and infrastructure that they refuse to pay into.” Amazon’s outsize presence in Seattle, Mosqueda said, has “had a dramatic impact on who can afford to live in the city,” contributing to homelessness, gentrification, and “people not being able to keep the homes that they grew up in.”

Finally, Herbold cautioned that activists should brace themselves for Amazon and its supporters to suggest that private philanthropists, not the government, should be responsible for creating an adequate social safety net. Herbold recalled that when she wrote an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to participate in a national conversation about how to meet workers’ basic needs in the “gig economy.” The response, she said Monday, was “basically [that we need] more philanthropy.”

“We are in a modern Gilded Era,” Herbold said. “There is no accountability for private philanthropy, and charitable gifts don’t solve infrastructure issues or inequality.”