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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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.

Mike O’Brien, 10-Year Council Veteran, Will Not Seek Reelection

Telling a group of supporters that included housing, social justice, and environmental advocates, that he was “going to try to smile,” city council member Mike O’Brien announced Wednesday that he would not run for reelection after 10 years on the council. The announcement, which he made in his office at city hall, capped off months of speculation about whether the embattled environmental-activist-turned-veteran-politician would bow out to avoid what was sure to be a bruising reelection campaign. O’Brien is the fourth of the seven council incumbents whose seats are on the 2019 ballot who has said he will not seek reelection; the others are Bruce Harrell (District 2), Rob Johnson (District 4), and Sally Bagshaw (District 7).

O’Brien, elected in 2009 on the same ballot as his fellow Sierra Club leader and onetime colleague, former mayor Mike McGinn, started his time on the council as a climate change-focused environmental champion and ended as an earnest (if not always effective) advocate for people with few friends in city hall—people experiencing homelessness, opponents of the proposed new youth jail, and people living with addiction and mental illness who, as O’Brien put it in a three-page document outlining his accomplishments, engage in “criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral needs or poverty.”

A poll last year, conducted by O’Brien’s consultant WinPower Strategies, reportedly showed that the incumbent was unpopular in his district, which elected him by a 23-percent margin in 2015. (O’Brien was initially elected citywide, but his seat became a district position when the city switched to district elections for 7 of the 9 council members in 2015.) Dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s leadership was on full display last May, when a meeting to discuss a proposed employee hours tax on large businesses, which O’Brien supported, devolved into a profane, one-sided shouting match. (O’Brien, who is known for showing up at meetings that he knows will be stacked with angry opponents, reportedly almost left.) It may be that O’Brien’s district, which has experienced many of the same challenges as other parts of the city such as visible encampments, open drug use, and rising property crime, had really had enough. Or it could be that O’Brien might have found more support in his district than is evident at public-comment sessions and on forums like Facebook and NextDoor, but didn’t care to spend the next months finding out.

K.C. Golden, of 350 Seattle, and council member Mike O’Brien.

“There are a lot of people that are scared, that are frustrated, and that shows up as fear and hate sometimes in a way that’s kind of ugly, but the base emotions are real,” O’Brien said. “People are nervous about our future is like. I really wish that politics in Seattle weren’t so divisive… because we do need to find ways to come together.”

One reason O’Brien waited as long as he did to announce he wasn’t running, according to several sources close to him, was that he wanted to see if another candidate he could support came forward. So far, it appears that none have. “We need great leadership going forward,” O’Brien said . “I’ll admit that I have some nervousness about the uncertainty of what that leadership looks like.” But, he added, “I feel like I need to step back and trust that the system is going to work.”

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Editor’s note: The caption on a photo accompanying this story originally misspelled the name of 350 Seattle’s K.C. Golden.

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.

Campaign Crank: O’Brien Robopolls, Pedersen Hits Delete, and Rufo Writes His Own Company a Check

1. City council incumbent Mike O’Brien has not said yet whether he plans to run for reelection, although was behind a robopoll testing support for O’Brien as well as two potential candidates, state Rep. Gael Tarleton and Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson, in December.  O’Brien has not released the results of the poll, but the news was reportedly not great; the embattled incumbent has come under heavy fire over the last year from neighborhood activists who disagree with his opposition to homeless encampment removals, his support for density, and his advocacy for the scuttled $275 “head tax” on large businesses, which would have paid for housing and homeless services. All seven of the districted council positions will be on the ballot this year; so far, three of the incumbents—Sally Bagshaw (District 7), Rob Johnson (District 4) and Bruce Harrell (District 2) have announced that they will not seek reelection.

2. One of the candidates for Johnson’s position, former Tim Burgess aide Alex Pedersen, ran a blog and newsletter for several years focusing on family life and businesses in District 4. But Pedersen also used the site, called “4 To Explore,” to expound on his own political views. Although Pedersen has delated the blog’s archives from his website—which now displays a statement saying that the blog is “on hiatus” and that anyone who subscribed to the site as an email newsletter can “simply search your old e-mails”—the site lives on in the Internet archive, where it’s possible to read Pedersen’s past writings on everything from the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure (which he opposed) to local levies (he supported the housing and preschool levies but opposed Move Seattle because, among other reasons, he thought it included too much for bike lanes) to homelessness (he wanted the city to “Make it clear we will prioritize housing and taxpayer-funded services for Seattle and King County residents” because “Seattle is branded across the country as “a Mecca” for services” and “seems to be attracting homeless from around the nation”). In 2015, Pedersen endorsed longtime anti-density activist Bill Bradburd over council incumbent Lorena Gonzalez.

Pedersen also described the downtown streetcar, which Mayor Jenny Durkan has put on hold, as “incredibly expensive and redundant“; referred to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as “former Mayor Ed Murray’s backroom deal for real estate developer upzones”; denouncedCOUNCILMEMBER ROB JOHNSON’S TWISTING OF THE TRUTH” in a post trashing the city’s decision to allow more density in the University District; and supported impact fees on developers who add density to neighborhoods.

Pedersen’s new campaign website does not yet include an “issues” page.

3. Christopher Rufo, the former District 6 City Council candidate, contributed $10,000 to his own campaign against city council incumbent Mike O’Brien last year. After dropping out of the race in November, and after refunding about $3,700 of the $12,390 he received in contributions, he wrote two more checks—one, for $5,600, to the Union Gospel Mission, and another, for $10,000, to the Documentary Foundation—the California-based nonprofit film company that Rufo runs. In 2017, the Documentary Foundation reported revenues of $123,819 and expenses of $390,065, including Rufo’s $58,285 salary.

Rufo says he gave his contributors the option of getting their money back or having him contribute it to UGM. “After hearing back from donors, I sent checks to everyone who requested a refund, paid down the campaign’s expenses, and sent the remaining $5,600 in donor contributions to Union Gospel Mission (in that order).” Rufo says he gave the rest of the money to the Documentary Foundation “with the goal of continuing to engage on Seattle political issues,” because he could not legally refund it to himself. (Wayne Barnett, the director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, says Rufo could have refunded himself up to $6,000 under state law).

Rufo says he’s now working on a new film, “America Lost,” which, according to the Documentary Foundation’s website, ” shows the dramatic decline of the American heartland through a mosaic of stories including an ex-steelworker scrapping abandoned homes to survive, a recently incarcerated father trying to rebuild his life, and a single mother struggling to escape her blighted urban neighborhood.”

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Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

Support

2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.

Can We Toll Our Way Out of Congestion?

This story originally appeared in the print and online editions of Seattle magazine.

Downtown Seattle rush hour traffic

Image credit: Alex Crook, Seattle magazine

January 2020: The downtown Convention Center is under construction, kicking almost 600 buses out of the downtown transit tunnel and closing down the ramps that now give buses direct access to the Interstate 5 express lanes. Those buses now share city streets with more cars than ever, as hundreds of drivers divert to the street grid, avoiding the new Alaskan Way tunnel, which has a $2.50 toll (during nonpeak hours) and no downtown exits. Meanwhile, the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is still being demolished, KeyArena reconstruction is creating traffic chaos in South Lake Union, and a growing number of commuters are choosing Uber and Lyft over buses that are often off schedule or full, adding to congestion.

But what if there was a way to alleviate all this predicted chaos—a period the city refers to, drily, as the “period of maximum constraint”—without forcing people to get up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic, or work from home? Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, think they may have found a solution in a concept called congestion pricing. The idea is simple: Charge people to drive into the center city during the times when congestion is worst, and use the revenues to fund alternatives to driving, such as increased bus service. Voilà: fewer vehicles, faster transit, improved air quality (car and truck trips account for half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions), and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Most people have already made the decision [not to commute downtown by car],” says City Council member Mike O’Brien, referring to the fact that the majority of those who work downtown don’t get there by driving alone. O’Brien, with the mayor, is leading the congestion-pricing charge. “For those who haven’t [decided], this will give you more options, and for those who want to keep driving, you can keep driving, and your commute’s going to be faster—it’s just going to cost you more.”

In practice, of course, it isn’t so simple. In 2017, the Seattle City Council authorized $200,000 for a study on the effects of tolling downtown streets—an idea that will require voter approval to move forward—as well as other options, such as taxing Uber and Lyft rides, that would not require a public vote. In September, Durkan released a budget that provides another $1 million for the city to study congestion-pricing options in more detail and to conduct outreach to community members and businesses, with the goal of implementing congestion pricing by 2021, when the mayor’s first term ends.

While tolling may be controversial—a 2015 poll by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that 54 percent of King County residents opposed the idea of universal highway tolls—Durkan pointed out that in other cities that have implemented tolling, such as London and Stockholm, “People who have to drive [found] that it’s actually more efficient and more effective” than the previous free-for-all system. However, Durkan warned that before the city puts a tolling plan on the ballot, “We have to engage people deeply…and make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit, because we can’t ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles until there are meaningful alternatives.”

Technologically, congestion tolling is pretty simple: The city would create a cordon of virtual checkpoints at the edges of the tolling area and charge drivers, using special car-mounted transponders, whenever they enter the area during the times when tolls are in effect. This is exactly the system most states, including Washington, already use to toll state highways, such as the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Where it gets more complicated, according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington–affiliated Washington State Transportation Center, is when the city starts making choices about who to charge, and when, and where. If South Lake Union is included in the tolling area, should people who live on Queen Anne get a free pass because they need to go through the neighborhood to get to I-5? If some low-income workers have no choice but to drive downtown, should the city create a low-income or nighttime exemption to the pricing scheme? All of these choices have consequences, and costs.

“The question is really, what do they want to achieve and how will they design the system to achieve it,” Hallenbeck says. “Pricing is a wonderful mechanism, but you have to design the system correctly, and you have to understand where the pain points are and apply money to those pain points. And they have to be the pain points that matter.”

Currently, only about 25 percent of people who work downtown get to and from their jobs by driving alone. That number has declined steadily in recent years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), thanks to improved transit downtown and incentives for employees to commute by bike or bus, such as free transit passes and showers in office buildings. DSA CEO Jon Scholes points to this improvement as evidence that the “carrot” approach to reducing congestion can be as effective as the “stick.”

“It’s not clear to me what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Scholes says. “[Durkan’s announcement] feels a little divorced from any clear strategy or plan. The constraints we have are the need for more transit capacity—more buses are driving by full, and the light rail system is taking longer to build than anyone wants—and the need for more housing. Generally speaking, we think we should focus our efforts there,” not on tolls, Scholes says.

Other skeptics of congestion pricing have expressed concern that tolls will disproportionately harm low-income people who have no choice but to drive to work, often from homes far outside Seattle city limits. “The suburbanization of poverty is real,” says City Council member Rob Johnson, who supports creating a program to reduce costs for low-income drivers, similar to the existing ORCA LIFT low-income transit pass. “We’re pushing people out of the city and we’re not going to be able to build transit” fast enough to serve all the low-income workers who would be impacted by congestion pricing, Johnson says.

It’s unclear exactly how many low-income workers would actually be impacted by congestion pricing. In 2017, a Puget Sound Regional Council report concluded that low-income commuters “were much more likely to walk and take transit than the overall population”—a finding that corroborates a 2009 Washington State Department of Transportation report that found that “The poor are less likely than the non-poor to commute in a personal vehicle and more likely to commute using public transportation or other modes that would not be subject to tolls.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 37 percent of Seattle residents under the poverty line drove to work alone, compared to 48 percent of those making more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

“One of the things you hear whenever you talk about a congestion-pricing scheme is, ‘This will be unfair to low-income people,’ and there are a lot of anecdotes that get brought up that are certainly real,” O’Brien says. “But in a city like Seattle, where parking’s pretty expensive”—as much as $4.50 an hour for on-street parking downtown, and $10 an hour or more in private garages—“my sense is the majority of people who drive downtown are people who have a lot of options.” The way to address the needs of lower-income people who must drive downtown isn’t to reject congestion pricing altogether, O’Brien says, it’s to “design the system around their needs” so they won’t be burdened by extra costs; for example, by making it free to drive downtown at off-peak hours, when many shift workers start their jobs.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, says she sees no inherent contradiction between promoting alternatives to driving alone and creating an equitable, affordable transportation system. “[Congestion pricing] is a big, bold idea, so let’s go big with our policy asks,” she says. “If the goal is building a more equitable transportation system, that will inherently include a lot of things around transit speed and reliability and safe bike and pedestrian access.”

For now, the city remains in study mode, with more reports focusing on equity, race and social justice, and priorities for spending toll revenues due out later this year. Then it will have to sell the idea to the public, which could be a heavy lift, and not just because Seattle would be blazing a trail on congestion pricing for the rest of the country. People tend to hate the idea of paying for things that used to be free unless they can see concrete benefits. In Stockholm, leaders actually put tolls in place about seven months before seeking voter approval. Once voters saw how a $2.15 toll to drive downtown impacted the city—reducing traffic in the city center by 20 percent and cutting childhood asthma cases in half—they approved the plan by a majority of 53 percent. In London, where drivers pay about $15 to drive into the center city on weekdays, congestion went down by 30 percent, and public transit gained tens of thousands of new riders.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? O’Brien, the council member who started pushing for congestion pricing back in 2017, says he’s “feeling a lot more optimistic” now that Durkan “has shown that she is very interested in moving forward” with the concept. The trick, he says, will be demonstrating that people won’t get stuck in even worse traffic if they let go of their steering wheels. “Part of it is on [city leaders] to say, ‘We’re going to provide buses that have more space and aren’t stuck in traffic,’” O’Brien says. “If, in this new system, you can see that driving is more expensive and the bus will get you downtown faster, you’re going to see
the benefits.”

Editor’s note: The opening of this story, set in 2020, depicts a hypothetical situation. The Washington State Department of Transportation says that when the tunnel opens early in 2019, time-of-day tolls will vary from $1 on weekends to $2.25 during the afternoon peak. Currently, the Viaduct demolition is scheduled for completion mid-year 2019.

Morning Crank: Ruling Bolsters Housing Plan, Chides City for Failing to Do “Granular” Analysis Neighborhood Activists Demanded

1. Urbanists celebrated a ruling yesterday that could allow a long-delayed plan to increase density and fund affordable housing to move forward. The ruling by city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, which mostly affirms that an environmental impact statement on the plan was adequate, came in response to a challenge by a group of homeowners, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), who have long opposed the plan. The plan, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, would allow modest density increases in urban villages and urban centers, and would rezone six percent of the land current zoned exclusively for single-family houses—currently, two-thirds of the city’s land—to allow townhouses and small apartments. Developers who build under the new rules will have to include affordable housing in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund.

“This ruling is a step forward for more affordable housing in Seattle,” Durkan said in a statement. Meanwhile, Seattle for Everyone, the group that formed in 2015 to support then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, planned a celebration party and issued a statement, titled “Yay for MHA!” celebrating the ruling as “a win for affordable housing.”

We’ll see. Toby Thaler, the leader of the group that challenged the  Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), told the Seattle Times that he plans to keep fighting against the MHA legislation, although it was unclear in what venue (the courthouse or city council chambers) he intends to do so. (Thaler did not immediately return an email last night, but I will update this post if I hear back from him.) Meanwhile, the city will have to do more analysis of how allowing more density will impact designated city landmarks;  according to the ruling, the city failed to consider impacts on historic properties other than those on the National Register of Historic Places, which Vancil called inadequate.

“The more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.” — Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil

Vancil’s ruling also chides the city for failing to include detailed, “granular” analysis of the impact the zoning changes would have on individual neighborhoods in the environmental impact statement, and suggested that including this kind of analysis could have forestalled the whole drawn-out appeal. “[I]t is certainly the case, at least in part, that the choice not to tell a more detailed story of the City’s neighborhoods contributed to why the City faced a very protracted appeal and hearing process from representatives in many of its neighborhoods,” Vancil writes. “While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.”

Whether you believe that a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of the upzone’s impact would have made neighborhood opposition evaporate (dubious, given that challenging the EIS for a project is one of the most common obstructionist tactics in the Seattle neighborhood activist playbook), what’s undeniable is that while the upzones have been tied up in appeals, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing—and hundreds of units of market-rate housing needed for the thousands of people moving to Seattle every year—remained unbuilt.

“Unfortunately …  this appeal has cost Seattle at least $87 million worth of affordable housing that we could have brought in during the year since the appeal was filed,” council member Rob Johnson, who has led the charge for MHA as head of the council’s land use committee, said in a statement. (Johnson asked for this analysis last month). “Had we been able to adopt MHA across the city without this delay, more neighborhoods would be receiving the investment in affordable housing they need, and more families in our city would have an affordable place to call home.”

2. On Tuesday, Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan sent out a bombastic email blast (subject line: “Single-Family Rezone: Negotiation Rejected!”) announcing his intention to “proceed full-speed ahead in preparing and proving our case” against the city, in the ongoing battle over new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build basement and backyard units on their property.

The “negotiation” Kaplan’s email refers to is apparently a meeting he had on Monday with council member Mike O’Brien, who led the charge to liberalize Seattle rules governing backyard and mother-in-law units, about a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) concluding that the proposal would not have a detrimental environmental impact on the city. was sufficient to allow the long-delayed rules to move forward. The new rules, which would allow homeowners to add up to one unit inside an existing house and one detached unit in the backyard, subject to existing height and lot coverage limits, would produce about 2,500 additional units of housing citywide.

“Unfortunately, I must inform you that CM O’Brien has closed the door to negotiating.,” Kaplan wrote. “He relat[ed] to me unequivocally that the EIS spoke to all his issues leaving no room to consider any compromise.  He remains firmly entrenched in every line-item of his legislation to eliminate every Seattle single-family neighborhood without considering any important neighborhood, property, infrastructure or economic differentiations.  One-size-fits-all!” 

“In addition,” Kaplan’s email continues, “he shared his confidence that every councilmember firmly supports him and his legislation.  He left no door open and even told me directly that there was no reason for us to withdraw our appeal – nothing would change!”

On Wednesday, O’Brien put up a blog post responding to Kaplan’s email. (The post appears to have since been taken down.) In the post, O’Brien wrote that during their conversation over the weekend, “I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process.  Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable.  …If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing.  … Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.”

The email concludes with “a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications,” which, O’Brien says, represented “our friendly conversation as a divisive fight.  Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics.  As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.” 

Kaplan responded more warmly to comments Mayor Jenny Durkan made about the proposal over the weekend, at a community meeting on Queen Anne. According to the  Queen Anne News, when a constituent asked what should happen with the appeal, Durkan said “she’d like to get all parties in a room to hash out a compromise” rather than moving forward with the “litigation” process. (Kaplan’s challenge is currently before the hearing examiner, but litigation is an option if the hearing examiner rejects his argument that the FEIS is inadequate). Durkan, according to the Queen Anne News, expressed concern at the meeting that loosening the rules too much could “fuel a more expensive Seattle by letting people speculate on that land.” That argument—that “developers” will snap up single-family houses and turn the land into triplexes—is belied not only by the FEIS, which concludes, again, that the changes would result in just 2,500 new units citywide, but by the economic logic of development. To wit: If you’re a developer (or, as Kaplan and the mayor suggest, a “speculator”), are you going to build a house with a basement apartment and a small backyard cottage in a single-family zone? Or a 20-unit apartment complex in a multifamily area?

Kaplan did not attend the meeting with Durkan, but says that from conversations with another community council member who was there, “the take-away was that she [opposes] what I have called a one-size-fits-all rezoning of single-family throughout the city.”

Support

After Acrimony and Battles, Council Passes Mayor’s Budget Mostly Intact

L-R: David Helde, Downtown Emergency Service Center; Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez, Seattle City Council

After a surprising amount of acrimony for a document that contained so little fiscal wiggle room, the city council adopted a 2019-2020 budget today that increases the size of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, grants modest wages to front-line human service workers, spends tens of millions of dollars on retroactive back pay for police who have been working without a contract since 2015, and funds projects in every council district.

The debate over this year’s budget—during much of which I was out of town—centered largely on a few million dollars in human services funding, including, in the last few days, funding for the Navigation Team, which removes homeless encampments and offers services to people displaced by their activities. After council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed using some of the funds Durkan earmarked for Navigation Team expansion to broaden a 2 percent “inflationary” pay increase for city-contracted human services providers to include all such workers (rather than only general fund-supported workers, as Durkan initially proposed), Durkan denounced the move.

Describing the reduced expansion as a “cut” that would harm neighborhoods, Durkan’s office claimed that the new positions that she had proposed in her budget had already been filled and that reducing the amount of new funds would “cut” those critically needed jobs—a statement that local conservative media took as a cue to write largely inaccurate pieces claiming, for example, that Mosqueda was “slow[ing] tent cleanups with huge staff cut to Nav Team.” (Durkan also reportedly contacted council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, it would be on them to explain to their constituents why they had allowed crime to increase in their districts; all seven district council positions are on the ballot next year. UPDATE: Durkan’s office categorically denied that any such calls took place.) However, this turned out not to be the case; as a central staffer told the council in a followup memo, the positions have only been filled on a temporary or emergency basis. “These are all short term actions that are funded with the $500k [in one-time funding] from the County and would be discontinued” once the budget passes, the central staffer wrote.

No matter—despite all the drama, the council figured out a way to fund the full Navigation Team expansion and add one mental health counselor to the team while also giving service providers their 2 percent increase (which is actually below the local inflation rate). The money, a little less than $500,000 a year, came from eliminating the a business and occupation tax exemption for life sciences companies, which Mosqueda said has been dormant since 2017.

In a press conference between the morning’s budget meeting and the final adoption of the budget at 2pm, four council members, plus 43rd District state representative and former Downtown Emergency Service Center director Nicole Macri, joined several front-line human service workers and representatives from housing and human-service nonprofits at DESC’s offices in the basement of the Morrison Hotel homeless shelter.

David Helde, an assistant housing case manager at DESC,  said that since he started at the agency three years ago, every single person who worked in his position when he started had left the agency. Jobs at DESC start at just over $16 an hour, or slightly more than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. “The rewards do not outweigh the benefits,” Helde said. Recalling a client with a traumatic brain injury who had short-term memory impairment but still remembered him when she returned to the shelter after a year away, Helde continued, “that is why the staff turnover is unacceptable—because it affects the quality of life for the most vulnerable people in this city.”

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been raising the issue of human service worker pay for several years, said the city needed to figure out a way to “normalize” cost-of-living increases for employees at nonprofit human service agencies, in addition to city employees (and cops.) However, asked about how the city would ensure that (as Mosqueda put it) “we’re not back here every year,” O’Brien acknowledged that “the level of specificity is not extensive” about how to ensure future COLAs. “This is about expectation-setting,” O’Brien said. “In a budget where we have finite resources and we’re making tradeoffs, we have to figure out how we identify a three-, five-, ten-year [plan] to make changes” so that human-service workers can have not just sub-inflationary pay hikes, but living wages, in the future.

Although Durkan did (mostly) get what she wanted on the Navigation Team, the group will be required to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council will release funding for the coming quarter—a significant change that amplifies the council’s power over the team.

Other notable changes the council made to Durkan’s budget included:

• Additional funding for food banks, which will come from excess revenues from the city’s sweetened beverage tax. Council member O’Brien wanted to use some of the excess money from the tax—which Durkan had proposed using to replace general fund revenues that were paying for healthy-food programs, rather than increasing funding for those programs—to fund outreach programs, as a community advisory board had recommended. The budget puts a hold on the outreach spending, a total of about $270,000, but keeps it alive for future years; today, Juarez objected to this provision, arguing that  spending $270,000 promoting healthy food when the soda industry spent $22 million to pass the anti-soda-tax Initiative 1634 was tantamount to “wast[ing]” the money. “Why are we attempting to counter corporations prepared to spend millions of dollars on advertisements with a $250,000 campaign?” she asked.

• A total of $1.4 million for a supervised drug consumption site, which council member Rob Johnson—who sponsored the additional funding—said should be enough to allow the city to actually open a “fixed-mobile” site this year. Durkan’s initial budget simply held over $1.3 million in funding for a site that was not spent the previous year, with the expectation that no site would be opened this year.

Support

• About $100,000 for a new attorney to help low-income clients facing eviction. Council member Kshama Sawant had sought $600,000 for six more attorneys, but the rest of the council voted that down.

• An expansion of the city’s vacant building inspection program, which keeps tabs on vacant buildings that are slated for redevelopment to ensure that they aren’t taken over by squatters or allowed to fall into disrepair. The proposal, by council member Lisa Herbold (who proposed the original legislation creating the program last year) would ramp up monitoring and inspections of vacant buildings that have failed previous inspections, and would not take effect until next June. Council member Johnson continued to oppose Herbold’s proposal, on the grounds that it represented a sweeping and burdensome policy change that was inappropriate for the budget process; but council president Bruce Harrell reiterated his support for the plan, noting that the council would have time to hammer out the details next year before it took effect. “We’ll have, I think, ample time to work with the department [of Construction and Inspections, which sent a letter to council members last week raising concerns about the bill) to get their feedback,” Harrell said, and “if there has to be some tweaks there will be time to make tweaks.”

City Budget Office director Ben Noble sent a memo to council members today opposing the budget item, which Noble said would force the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections to expand the program too much, too fast. “As proposed, the enhanced program would likely be over 25 times the size of the current program,” Noble wrote, comparing the number of inspections last year—179—to a possible 5,000 inspections that would be required under the new program.  Noble said Herbold’s proposal did not reflect all the costs associated with increasing vacant building inspections so dramatically.

The budget put off the issue of long-term funding for additional affordable housing, which lost a major potential source of revenue when the council and mayor overturned the employee hours tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues earlier this year. Council member Sally Bagshaw has said that her priority in her final year on the council (she is not expected to run again next year) will be creating aregional funding plan to pay for thousands of units of new housing every year. Such a proposal might be modeled, she suggested recently, after a tax on very large businesses that was just approved by voters in San Francisco.

Budget dissident Kshama Sawant—who had earlier proposed numerous dead-on-arrival proposals to fund about $50 million in housing bonds by making cuts to various parts of the budget—delivered a 13-minute speech denouncing her colleagues for passing an “austerity budget” before voting against the whole thing. The room was noticeably subdued as Sawant quoted MLK and demonized Jeff Bezos—the red-shirted members of “the Movement,” whose efforts she cited repeatedly during her oration, were mostly absent, and instead of the usual applause, shouts, and cheers, Sawant spoke to a silent chamber.

City Budget Roundup, Part 1: Soda, Short-Term Rentals, and Legacy Businesses

I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,

This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.

Sweetened Beverage Tax 

As I reported on Twitter (and Daniel Beekman reported in the Times), council member Mike O’Brien has expressed frustration at Mayor Jenny Durkan for using higher-than-expected revenues from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which is supposed to pay for healthy food initiatives in neighborhoods that are most impacted by both the tax and health problems such as diabetes and obesity, to balance out the budget as a whole. In a bit of budgetary sleight-of-hand, Durkan’s plan takes away general-fund revenues that were paying for those programs and replaces them with the “extra” soda tax revenues, which flatlines spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) aimed at reducing consumption of unhealthy food… like soda.

“The intent was pretty clear when we passed the legislation last year about how the funding would be spent,” O’Brien said last week. “What we saw in this year’s budget was [a proposal] that may have technically met the letter of it, but certainly not the spirit.”

O’Brien’s proposal would create a separate fund for soda-tax proceeds and stipulate that the city should use the money from the tax in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory board that was appointed for that purpose, rather than reallocating them among the programs the tax is supposed to fund, as Durkan’s budget also does. (See chart above). The idea is to protect the soda tax from being used to help pay for general budget needs in future years, and to ensure that the city follows the recommendations of its own soda tax advisory group.

Airbnb Tax

When the city passed a local tax on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, the legislation explicitly said that $5 million of the proceeds were to be spent on community-led equitable development projects through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative. This year, state legislators passed a statewide tax that replaced Seattle’s local legislation, but council members say the requirement didn’t go away. Nonetheless, Durkan’s budget proposal stripped the EDI of more than $1 million a year, redirecting those funds to pay for city staff and consultants, prompting council members including O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, and council president Bruce Harrell to propose two measures restoring the funding back to the promised $5 million level and creating a separate equitable development fund that would include “explicit restrictions” requiring that the first $5 million generated by the tax go toward EDI projects, not consultants or overhead.

“I think the mayor did this intentionally,” O’Brien said last week. “I don’t think she doesn’t like the equitable development initiative—I think she’s just struggling to make the budget balance—but this is a priority. We’ve seen with the sweetened beverage and the short-term rental tax that …  when we say we are going to impose a new revenue stream and here’s how we’re going to dedicate it, and then less than a year later someone says we’re going to dedicate it a different way, I think that is highly problematic on a much larger scale than just these programs.”

The council appeared likely to reject a separate, tangentially related proposal by council member Rob Johnson to exempt all short-term rental units that existed prior to September 2017, when the council first adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, from the new rule restricting the number of units any property owner could operate to a maximum of two. Currently, this exemption only applies to short-term rental units downtown and some units in Capitol Hill and First Hill; by providing the same exemption to short-term rentals across the city, Johnson said, the council could provide some certainty that the city would actually bring in $10.5 million in annual revenues, which is what the state projected and what Durkan assumed in her 2019 budget.

O’Brien, who drafted the original short-term rental regulations, suggested Durkan had jumped the gun by assuming the state’s projections were right before the legislation had even taken effect. “Typically, we try to be conservative when we have new revenue sources,” he said. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Belltown, said she had heard from constituents who bought downtown condos as retirement homes who told her their buildings have turned into 24/7 party hotels with few permanent residents. “The idea of opening this up just for budget reasons is disturbing,” Bagshaw said.”

Totem poles

Photograph by Rick Shu via Wikimedia Commons

As Crosscut has reported, local Native American leaders want the city to remove the totem poles erected in Victor Steinbrueck Park, because they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people who have long populated the area in and around what is now Seattle. Other totem poles in Seattle, including the Tlinget pole in Pioneer Square, are similarly controversial. Council member Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is sponsoring an item that would direct the city’s Office of Arts and Culture to address the issue—not by simply removing the offending poles (which is controversial among some historic preservationists and Pike Place Market advocates) but by reviewing and making recommendations about all the Native American art on all city-owned land in Seattle. In response to Juarez’s proposal, budget chair Sally Bagshaw cautioned that she didn’t “want to get bogged down” in a massive study if the problem of offensive or inappropriate art could be addressed on a case by case basis “when they come to our attention. Otherwise,” Bagshaw continued, “I can imagine someone [stalling the process by] saying, ‘Well, we haven’t looked at our 6,000 acres of parks.'”

Legacy Businesses 

In announcing a proposed $170,000 add for the legacy business program—a plan to protect longstanding neighborhood businesses by providing cash assistance and incentives for landlords to keep renting to them—council member Lisa Herbold called it the policy for which she is willing to “fall on [her] sword” this year. Previous budgets have provided funding to study such a program, but Herbold’s proposal this year would actually get it off the ground, by providing startup and marketing costs for the program. “Much like landmarks are a bridge to our city’s culture and history because of their physical form, sometimes businesses as gathering places are also a bridge to our city’s history and culture,” Herbold said.

Support

Critics have said Herbold’s proposal, like similar programs in other cities, could prevent the development of badly needed housing by saving struggling businesses out of a misguided sense of nostalgia.

In response to a question from council member Teresa Mosqueda about whether the program might allow businesses to relocate or reopen in new developments, Herbold said yes, citing the Capitol Hill writers’ center Hugo House as an example. However, it’s worth noting that the Hugo House is a nonprofit, not a for-profit business, and it was “saved” not by government intervention but by the  private owners of the old house in which Hugo House was originally located, who promised to provide the organization with a new space when they redeveloped their property.

 

Homelessness Funding Could Be Flash Point in Upcoming City Budget Discussions

Things are fairly quiet on the city budget front this week as council members draft their first-found wish lists—ideas that may or may not see the light of day as full-fledged “green sheets,” proposed budget changes that require two co-sponsors and proposed cuts to balance any new expenditures—but council members did give a preview of their thinking on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s stay-the-course budget for homelessness last week. Meanwhile, advocates for homeless Seattle residents have presented a list of requests for the council’s consideration that includes $33 million in additional spending on housing, front-line workers’ pay, and SHARE’S basic indoor shelters, which the mayor’s budget assumes will close in June.

At briefings on the proposed budget for homelessness and the expansion of the city’s Navigation Team (which removes encampments and provides information about services to people living outdoors) last week, council members appeared concerned by the fact that Durkan’s budget proposal does not increase funding for actual housing production, focusing primarily on emergency shelter instead. The issue, council members said, is that when there is no housing for people to go to, the city ends up just shuffling them around and around—either from illegal encampment to illegal encampment (as Navigation Team leader Fred Podesta openly acknowledged the city is doing already) or in and out of the shelter system.

“[The budget] really places an emphasis on enhanced funding for immediate day to day assistance vs. those longer-term housing needs,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said last week, addressing her comments at Office of Housing director Steve Walker. “I don’t understand how we are goimg to be able to serve the number of people we have talked about today unless we provide housing [for them].” Durkan’s 2019 budget includes $24.9 million for all “housing” programs, including diversion (which usually involves helping a person identify somewhere they can stay for the time being, such as a relative’s house, rather than permanent housing); emergency services, which includes temporary transitional housing, totals $46.4 million, or more than half of Durkan’s proposed budget for homelessness.

Durkan’s proposal quietly extends a “rental housing assistance” program, originally begun as a pilot in 2017, which provides vouchers for up to three months for people on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority. Noting that a high percentage of households that receive Section 8 vouchers end up having to return them because they can’t find an affordable rental unit with their voucher, Mosqueda asked why the Human Services Department would still consider it a “success” when “people maintain housing until they receive their Housing Choice voucher.” Would the city still consider the program a success if people stayed in their apartment for three months, got their voucher, and still ended up homeless because they couldn’t find a place to use it? HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said the city was using a HUD standard for defining success and added that the city has “seen an improved rate of exits to permanent housing in 2018 compared to the same time last year, and an increase in households served”—something Durkan also touted in her budget speech.

Council members also zeroed in on the fact that the mayor’s proposed budget doesn’t increase funding for preventing homelessness in the first place, which is generally a much cheaper and less daunting prospect than helping people find housing once they’ve lost it. (What looks like a significant cut to prevention programs in 2019—from $6.5 million to $4.4 million— is actually an accounting quirk that reflects the fact that a program to move people off SHA’s waitlists was funded in 2018, but spent over two years. However, that program will expire in 2020, when the city will have to decide whether to fund it again.) Pointing to a recent report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project that faulted the city’s lack of any integrated system for people facing eviction to get rent assistance, council member Lisa Herbold said, “We need some kind of collaboration or cooperation between [assistance] programs, because it happens so quickly. The reality is that your landlord is not under any requirement to accept rent from you after three days even if you have the total amount and the ability to pay.”

Two other sticking points were the future of the Seattle Housing And Resource Effort and Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (SHARE/WHEEL) shelters that were defunded, then re-funded on a temporary basis, last year. SHARE’s high-barrier, nighttime-only shelters ranked dead last among shelter applications during last year’s competitive bidding process for HSD contracts, and the groups were given a grace period to come up with a plan to transition their shelter clients to other service providers or into housing. Herbold and her colleagues Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien pressed Washington on SHARE’s rate of success in getting people into housing (which is a matter of much dispute; SHARE claims a rate four times higher than the city average, which HSD says is not correct), as well as what the plan is to help its clients find other living or sleeping arrangements.

“I just want to make sure we remember why SHARE and WHEEL are not provided funding,” Washington said. “It’s actually not a cut—it was bridge funding from the mayor’s office to continue them through this year and for six months next year. … We asked all the agencies who weren’t funded to submit a transition plan to us. All of the agencies did except for SHARE and WHEEL,” who said they weren’t planning to close down. This issue of SHARE’s shelter funding, like the issue of whether the city will keep paying for bus tickets for its clients, has become something of an annual ritual—and every year, the council finds a few hundred thousand dollars to keep them going. If this year is any different, it will be a notable departure from tradition.

A few final quick-hit observations:

• The plan for the growing number of people living in their vehicles—a group that now makes up more than half the people living unsheltered in Seattle grew 46 percent this year, according to King County’s annual count—appears to be … well, it isn’t actually clear. The budget adds a mere $250,000 a year for a vaguely defined “new program” that “is still under development and will be informed by a workgroup made up of people with lived experience, a racial equity analysis using the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) strategy chart, as well as service providers, the City’s Navigation Team, other outreach workers, the Seattle Police Department and Parking Enforcement Officers, and officials working on similar programs in other jurisdictions.” Whatever the new program is, it will have to split that funding with yet another new pilot for a safe parking lot for people living in their cars, this one aimed specifically at “individuals living in vehicles who are largely self-sufficient and require a relatively low level of services.” The city budget adopted last year included $50,000 specifically to conduct “a needs assessment to identify programs and services most likely to help individuals living in their vehicles find permanent housing”; when O’Brien asked if that money had been spent, Washington replied, “Yes and no… how much of the $50,000 we’ll spend we don’t know, but we’ll definitely satisfy the intent.”

Support

• Low-barrier encampments like the one at Licton Springs, which is closing after months of complaints from neighbors about drug use on the premises (and drug dealers in the vicinity), may be too much of a hassle for the city, which is working to “reassess” the residents of that encampment and move them “to the top of the [housing prioritization] list,” according to Washington. Washington insisted that the encampment isn’t “closing”—”‘closing’ is not reflective, so what we’ve come up with is ‘shifting capacity'”—but the SHARE-managed encampment is in fact going away, thanks largely to neighbors who considered it an unwelcome or menacing presence. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Magnolia, appeared last week to agree. “One of the keys that I have heard over and over again is that the drug dealers have got to be arrested,” she said—a position that actually represents a departure from the city’s support for the LEAD arrest-diversion program, which focuses on low-level drug offenders and just expanded to North Seattle.

• As I mentioned above, the head of the Navigation Team himself acknowledged that the team is often reduced to moving encampments around and around—and that “there are more encampments that we’re not engaging with than we are engaging with; that’s just a fact”—reflecting the reality that as long as the city has a shortage of affordable housing, some people are going to prefer even the tenuous community and safety of an unauthorized encampment to a shelter system that can be chaotic and dehumanizing. Enhanced shelters—those that allow people to keep their possessions, offer case management, and don’t enforce sobriety requirements at the door—do a better job of getting people to come in off the streets, but there aren’t enough, and the city is creating more homeless people every day. (The eviction cases on the King County Superior Court’s weekly docket represent a steady drip-drip-drip of people being kicked out of homes and onto the streets.) “The team is no more interested in moving people around than anybody else,” Podesta said. “There are cases where we’ve had apartments [available] and they haven’t chosen to accept that”; however, he added, “no one should interpret that as anything but an exception.”

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