Tag: mike o’brien

More City Hall Churn, Council Staffers Organize, Farewell to a “Feisty” Neighborhood Activist, and More

Seattle City Hall

Image via OZinOH on Flickr.

In keeping with how quickly news piles up the moment after Labor Day ends, here are a few quick-hit items—in two parts!—from City Hall and beyond.

Round 1, City Hall edition:

1. This week, the city’s Human Services Department posted an announcement for a new deputy director overseeing homelessness, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding confirmed. The position is separate from the job of homelessness division director, a job filled by Diana Salazar last month after the former director, Tiffany Washington, left for a job in the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning. Asked why HSD needed to hire two new high-level employees to oversee homelessness at a time when the city plans to hand most of its homelessness programs over to a new regional agency, Olberding said that the city will continue to oversee homelessness until at least 2021 and that the position would be temporary.

2. Barb Graff, the longtime director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, is retiring at the beginning of next year after 15 years in that position. OEM oversees disaster and emergency preparedness for the city, including physical disasters such as earthquakes and declared emergencies like the homelessness crisis, which prompted a nine-month activation of the city’s Emergency Operations Center. The city posted the job publicly yesterday.

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3. The Seattle City Council’s central staff—the policy shop for all nine council members—is trying to unionize. Protec17, which represents other city employees, filed a petition to represent the staffers to the Public Employee Relations Commission this week after central staffers submitted enough signatures to form a bargaining unit. The staffers’ exact grievance is unclear, but it reportedly relates to concerns that their work—providing unbiased and apolitical advice and analysis to all nine council members, regardless of what they want to hear—has been politicized. Central staffers make between about $58 and $64 an hour, putting them among the highest-paid workers at the city.

In response to questions about central staffers’ organizing efforts, council spokeswoman Dana Robinson Slote provided this statement: “Council recognizes employees’ right to seek representation and is aware of the petition to represent Central Staff Legislative analysts in the Council Central Staff division. A Labor Relations negotiator has been assigned the matter.  Out of respect for the process, Council has been advised against making any public statements at this time.”

4. Faye Garneau, the North Seattle businesswoman, Aurora Avenue Merchants Association leader, transit funding opponent, district elections advocate, antagonist to urbanists, and “feisty” neighborhood fixture for many decades, has died. Garneau—a garrulous, strong-willed, and committed advocate to the causes she believed in—was 85.

5. Learn to trust the Crank: As I reported last week, city council member Mike O’Brien is proposing legislation to ban new natural gas hookups as of July 1, 2020. O’Brien plans to discuss the legislation in his Sustainability and Transportation Committee this Friday, September 6.

 

Durkan Legislation Would Fine Anyone Who “Allows” Another Person to Live in “Extensively Damaged” Vehicle


Mayor Jenny Durkan just sent legislation down to the city council that would give the city the authority to fine and prosecute anyone who “allow” other people “to occupy any motor vehicle or recreational vehicle… that is extensively damaged.”

Durkan first announced that she would be proposing a crackdown on junk RVs back in June, on the grounds that unethical RV owners are exploiting homeless people by charging them exorbitant rates to live in inoperable and dangerous vehicles. At the time, the mayor’s office also instituted a new policy that makes it easier for the city to confiscate and destroy “derelict” vehicles instead of allowing them to go back on the market. Durkan’s office provided no data suggesting the extent of this practice, known “RV ranching” or “car farming,” and the legislation doesn’t specify how common it actually is, using phrases like “has increased in frequency over time” and words like “many” to suggest that the problem is widespread. (I’ve asked the mayor’s office for any analysis they used in crafting the legislation.)

The bill, which will likely be amended by the council, would impose a fine of $250 a day on anyone who “allows” people to live in a derelict vehicle, a definition that encompasses everything from cracked windows to leaking fluids to inadequate interior waterproofing.

One thing that is certain is that residents and businesses—particularly in the SoDo industrial area, which is one of a limited number of places in Seattle where parking RVs is legal—have complained repeatedly about the proliferation of RVs near their properties.

The bill, which will likely be amended by the council, would impose a fine of $250 a day on anyone who “allows” people to live in a derelict vehicle, a definition that encompasses everything from cracked windows to leaking fluids to inadequate interior waterproofing. That person—presumably, but not explicitly, a “landlord” who actually owns the vehicle—would also be required to pay up to $2,000 in restitution to the person or people living in the vehicle. The second offense would be a misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. Continue reading “Durkan Legislation Would Fine Anyone Who “Allows” Another Person to Live in “Extensively Damaged” Vehicle”

“We Are Intentionally Tying Our Hands”: Council Passes Soda Tax Spending Plan with 7-Vote Majority

 

The simmering tension between the mayor’s office and the city council boiled over this afternoon, as the council passed (and Mayor Jenny Durkan immediately vowed to veto) legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien that creates  a dedicated fund for excess revenues from the sweetened beverage tax, and stipulating that this money can only be used for new or expanded programs benefiting the low-income communities most heavily impacted by the tax. The vote was a veto-proof 7-1, with Debora Juarez (D5) absent and interim District 4 council member Abel Pacheco voting no.

“We are intentionally tying our hands,” O’Brien said Monday afternoon, by “making a clear policy statement that this money should be off limits except for the stated purposes” laid out in the legislation.

This debate has a long history. In 2017,  the council passed the controversial tax with the stipulation that the revenues from the tax would be poured back into programs promoting equitable food access in the communities most impacted by the tax—low-income communities and communities of color that lack access to affordable, healthy food. One year later, with soda tax revenues coming in higher than anticipated, Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed (and the council approved) a budget that used those “extra” dollars to fund food-access and education programs that had previously been funded through the city’s general fund. The budget swap came with a caveat: By 2019, the council said, Durkan needed to come up with a plan to ensure that soda tax revenues were used to fund healthy-food initiatives, not used to free up funding for other mayoral priorities.

Durkan expressed her “disappointment in the City Council’s vote to pass legislation that creates a significant hole in the City’s budget and cuts funding for critical low-income programs”

That didn’t happen, which brings us to the latest impasse. Last week, Durkan’s departments of Human Services and Education and Early Learning sent letters to providers warning them that the council planned to “cut” their funding. As I reported, dozens of service providers responded with letters rejecting this framing, condemning the mayor for (as they saw it) holding their funding hostage to a political battle over revenues that shouldn’t have been used to supplant general-fund dollars in the first place. On Monday, representatives from these groups showed up at city hall to support O’Brien’s legislation. For Durkan “to end funding for basic needs and services is the unthinkable and simply cruel,” El Centro de la Raza human services director Denise Perez Lally told the council—an especially blunt, but by no means isolated, assessment of Durkan’s position.

At the same time—and completely unbeknownst to the council—the Senior Action Coalition, a group that represents Chinese American seniors with limited English proficiency, showed up in force to oppose O’Brien’s legislation. It was unclear how many of the dozens of seniors who filled the council chambers were familiar with the details of the proposal. Several spoke generally, in English, in favor of preserving funding for food banks, but there were no translators for the non-English speakers in the crowd. “We weren’t told they were coming,” a surprised-looking council staffer said. Tanika Thompson, a food access organizer with Got Green, addressed the group directly during public comment. “I want you to know that the mayor has the power to fund your programs and is working on her budget right now,” Thompson said. “This is a scare tactic to pit our united organizations against each other.”

Pacheco, who was appointed to serve the remainder of former council member Rob Johnson’s position back in April, tried to introduce an amendment that would push back the effective date of the legislation until 2021, arguing that because the council “endorsed” a tentative 2020 budget last year as part of the normal budget process, any changes now would amount to “cuts.” (This is exactly the argument Durkan has made, arguing that O’Brien’s legislation “directly cuts” programs funded through 2020 in the endorsed version of the budget.) In fact, the mayor proposes a new budget every year; the “endorsed” second-year budget always changes—sometimes dramatically—based on a mayor’s priorities, available funding, and spending obligations created during the intervening year, making this an unusual and arguably tenuous argument that ignores the ordinary push-and-pull of the annual budget process.

“I don’t think that those of us who are sitting here now imagined a world in which we would be put in this unfortunate situation of manufactured division among communities of color and disadvantaged communities.” — Council member Lorena Gonzalez

After his amendments failed, Pacheco apologized to human services providers on behalf of the council for failing (before he was appointed) to secure long-term funding for the programs Durkan moved out of the general fund last year. This prompted a stinging rebuke from council member Lorena Gonzalez, who said, “The only apology that I’m going to give to the community is that we didn’t catch this when we passed it back in 2017, because it has always been our intent to have this be a dedicated revenue source.” Back then, Gonzalez continued, “I don’t think that those of us who are sitting here now imagined a world in which we would be put in this unfortunate situation of manufactured division among communities of color and disadvantaged communities and the pumping out of terribly inaccurate information that has resulted  in creating a tremendous amount of fear in community-based organizations.”

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.”

Afternoon Crank: Bike Lanes and Backyard Cottages

A backyard cottage in Ballard
Image via City of Seattle.

1. City council member Abel Pacheco, who is filling out former District 4 representative Rob Johnson’s term,  did some political calculus before deciding to seek the temporary appointment rather than staying in the crowded race for a four-year term, but urbanists are probably wishing they could have him longer.

Yesterday, Pacheco was instrumental in shooting down two amendments from council member Lisa Herbold that would have, respectively, barred homeowners who build accessory dwelling units (such as a basement apartment) from renting them out on a short-term basis through a platform like Airbnb, and required a homeowner to live on the property for at least a year before building a second accessory unit (such as a backyard cottage.)

Herbold said banning Airbnbs in ADUs would prevent the construction of ADUs for the purpose of providing short-term rentals rather than as “rental housing” for Seattle residents. Pacheco countered that in his district (which includes the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital) a high percentage of renters only need housing during the school year or a short-term residency, and that Herbold’s amendment would make it impossible for them to rent their units during off seasons. (City law limits Airbnb operators to two units—one inside their primary residence and one offsite).

“Having lived in two ADUs, I know how great an opportunity it is to provide for folks not just in my district but around the city,” Pacheco said. Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the legislation and has shepherded it through the council through years of legal challenges, added that if Herbold’s amendment passed, it would put ADUs in a separate category from all other types of rentals, so that someone who owned two houses side by side could rent out the second house as a short-term rental, but someone who owned a house and built a garage apartment on the same lot could not. “I don’t think that’s necessarily fair,” O’Brien said.

The legislation, which passed out of committee 5-0 (council member Kshama Sawant, who might have voted with Herbold on her amendments, was excused to go to a labor rally), will move forward to the full council on Monday, July 1.

“We don’t have constructable plans [for a two-way Fourth Ave. bike lane] right now.” — SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe

2. Pacheco also asked some blunt questions of Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe during a committee discussion about the diminished Bicycle Master Plan, which SDOT is now describing as an “accountability document” that only promises what the city can actually pay for. (The bike plan was scaled back in response to higher cost estimates on a number of projects that were supposed to be funded by the Move Seattle Levy. After bike advocates protested that the bulk of the projects that got cut were top-priority projects in Southeast Seattle and downtown, SDOT updated the plan by putting some of those projects back in as areas for “study,” while also scaling back a long-planned, and already delayed, protected bike lane on Fourth Ave. downtown). Pacheco asked Zimbabwe why the latest version of the Fourth Avenue bike lane is only northbound, rather than the two-way bike lane that has been in every previous version of the plan.

Zimbabwe said that SDOT has every intention of “designing a two-way facility, but the traffic impacts of that, and frankly the costs of that, have never been fully studied,” including the cost of signal infrastructure to allow left-hand turns across the bike lanes from Fourth Avenue. “That wasn’t part of the planning process previously,” he said. “We are committed to designing [it] to better understand what the cost implications are.”

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After the meeting, I asked Zimbabwe how it was possible that there was no design yet for Fourth Ave., given that it was originally supposed to open at the beginning of 2018. He said that his understanding was that the two-way bike lane was “designed to about 30 percent [without] a full budget development. … We don’t have constructable plans right now.” SDOT’s previous reasons for delaying the two-way bike lane have included costs, impacts on transit during the “period of maximum constraint” downtown, traffic impacts during major traffic incidents such as when a fish truck overturned on SR 99 in 2015, and (most recently) “parking impacts.”

I also asked Zimbabwe about whether SDOT planned to revisit its decision to eliminate another long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE in light of two recent collisions between drivers and vulnerable users (a cyclist and a motorcyclist, who was killed by a driver in a pickup truck turning left into his path). On Monday, as I first reported on Twitter, council member Sally Bagshaw said she was horrified by videos showing drivers zooming past cyclists at close range, using a newly added turn lane as a passing lane.

Zimbabwe said there were no plans to revive the protected bike lane—which was included in earlier versions of the Bike Master Plan but killed by Mayor Jenny Durkan after “concerns … from the community” —but that SDOT was “making some tweaks to make sure pedestrian crossings are safe” and adding flexible barriers to create “turn pockets at the intersections to keep [drivers] from overtaking” cyclists. In a statement to KING 5, SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergserson said that the upcoming changes, “as well as any others, should not be viewed as an indication of shortcomings but as part of SDOT’s ongoing data-driven approach to roadway improvements.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those amendments include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Crank: “We Have Zoned Our City Backwards”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.