Three Takeaways From the Final One Table Meeting

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last Friday marked the long-awaited, and final, meeting of the One Table regional task force on homelessness—a group of political, nonprofit, business, and philanthropic leaders formed last year to come up with an action plan to address the root causes of homelessness in King County.

Did they do it? Not exactly. One Table’s final work product—a list of recommendations and general timelines (“within one year,” “in 3-10 years,” etc.) with no dollar figures or chains of responsibility for implementation—hasn’t changed substantially since April, when the group last met to discuss a set of “recommended actions.” Those actions include things like funding long-term rental subsidies, expanding opportunities for behavioral health jobs for people of color, creating training programs for high-wage jobs aimed at vulnerable communities, and expediting permits for affordable housing.

With that in mind, here are five key takeaways from the eight-month One Table process.

1. Nothing to see here.

Several media relations folks mentioned to me that they didn’t really publicize the final One Table meeting because, frankly, there wasn’t much news, and that was evident from the opening remarks by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Constantine touted the fact that he was moving up the timeline for issuing $100 million in housing bonds that will be paid back by future proceeds from the county’s hotel/motel tax, which will make the money available slightly earlier but does not represent new funding. (Those funds can only be used for “workforce housing” near transit stops, so it won’t directly impact people living unsheltered or in deep poverty anyway). And Durkan, whose “deal” with Amazon on an employee hours tax that would have brought in $75 million a year for housing and shelter fell through almost instantly, touted her innovation advisory council—a group of tech companies that will advise the city on homelessness, but have not committed any funding to implement whatever “solutions” they come up with—as well as several upcoming Pearl Jam charity concerts and the potential for building modular housing. None of this was news, and it set the stage for a two-hour meeting where basically nothing was announced.

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2. It’s the housing, stupid.

One Table members broke up into small groups—that is, many small tables—to discuss “root cause” areas including affordable housing, behavioral health, criminal justice, child welfare, and employment. They had half an hour to come up with a list of “solutions.” I sat in on a table that included Plymouth Housing director Paul Lambros, Seattle Housing Authority director Andrew Lofton, and Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk. Their primary recommendations? “Build and maintain more affordable housing.” This, they said, could include increasing the federal low-income housing tax credit (not likely given the current Administration’s mission of dismantling HUD and federal programs that benefit the poor), providing incentives for banks to fund construction and ongoing maintenance of low-income apartments; and making it clear to the public that, as Gates Foundation program officer Kollin Min put it, “there’s a direct correlation between the lack of housing and homelessness.”

Other groups came back with the same conclusion: Preventing homelessness and preserving existing affordable housing were important, but the region just needs more funding for housing. A similar conclusion emerged out of the groups focused on behavioral health: Without money for mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and funds to build housing for people when they get out of treatment so they don’t end up right back where they were, addressing “root causes” will be impossible. “Ultimately, the need is housing and money,” a report back from one of the behavioral health tables concluded.

3. Tribalism over regionalism.

It’s pretty clear that for all the lofty talk of “regional solutions,” the leaders of the One Table task force remain starkly divided over what will constitute the right solutions for different parts of the county and who’s to blame. Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus reiterated the points she and the leaders of four other suburban cities made in a letter urging her fellow One Table leaders to support a plan to force homeless people “who refuse treatment” into forced lockdown detox using a state law designed to allow family members to intervene on behalf of people who pose an imminent threat to themselves. “We know these individuals. We might see them on a regular basis. They’re familiar individuals and they’re not willing to accept help. At some point in time, we need to be able to say, you are going to get help,” Backus said. And she touted a church-run food bank in her cities that requires people who are capable of working to “pick up a rag and soap” or clean up garbage as a condition of receiving food.

“The cities outside of Seattle have different needs,” Backus said. “What works for Auburn, what works for Bellevue, isn’t going to work for the city of Seattle, and we have to realize that.” That is pretty much the opposite of a “regional” approach, and is unlikely to fly with the leaders of bigger governments like King County and Seattle who tend to balk at ideas like forced treatment and unpaid labor.

What will become of One Table’s recommendations remains unclear. Rachel Smith, Constantine’s chief of staff, told the group that the county has hired consultant Marc Dones with the Center for Social Innovation to “guide our work with expertise” as the county comes up with an implementation plan for the recommendations. For now, One Table’s work is concluded—and an action plan to address the root causes of homelessness remains unfinished.

Scratching Your Head Over Today’s Head Tax Defeat? Here Are Some Answers.

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After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?

Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.

So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.

Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?

Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.

Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.

Is this really all about Amazon? 

No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.

But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.

This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.

So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?

Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.

So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed? 

Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.

If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.

Morning Crank: A “Reset” for Move Seattle

1. The Seattle Department of Transportation and the Durkan administration will soon propose what is being called a “reset” for Move Seattle, the $930 million levy that passed in 2015, to reflect the reality that the federal funding that the city assumed would be available for many of the projects has not come through from the Trump Administration, as well as increased cost estimates for some projects on the levy list.

The “reset” will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The City Budget Office and the Seattle Department of Transportation are still having conversations about what the cuts might look like, but according to multiple current and former city staffers familiar with the situation, one possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be dramatically scaled back, but not eliminated entirely. A third possibility is that some projects could be delayed until a future levy (or Presidential administration) or paid for with other funding sources .Move Seattle taxes will be collected through 2024. The mayor and SDOT are expected to release details of the “reset” in the several weeks.

One possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be scaled back, but not eliminated entirely.  

The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the voter-approved levy, but since the 2016 election, all bets are off. (Seattle’s sanctuary city status has prompted several threats from the Trump Administration to withhold federal grant funding from the city.)  SDOT has not released a 2017 financial report for Move Seattle, so it’s difficult to say how much federal money came in during the first full year under the new federal regime, but in 2016, the city received and spent just $16.3 million in federal funds on Move Seattle projects—a tiny fraction of that $564 million total. I have requested the 2017 spending report for Move Seattle from SDOT and will update this post if I receive it.

The projects on this list that could be particularly at risk for cuts include those that rely heavily on federal funding, including not just the seven RapidRide lines but bridge safety improvements, pedestrian safety projects, and sidewalks in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. The percentage of federal funds assumed for each category of projects ranges from none to 86.7 percent.

“We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.” – Council member Rob Johnson  

It’s a particularly inopportune time for more bad news from SDOT. Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was putting the Center City Streetcar on “pause” because of dramatic cost overruns, and earlier this week, Durkan announced that the city would delay a long-planned protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle until 2021, when the Northgate light rail station opens, ostensibly to avoid eliminating motorized traffic lanes on Fourth during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint” downtown. Interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman got an earful about the delayed bike safety improvements from both O’Brien and council member (and former Transportation Choices Coalition director) Rob Johnson during his presentation on the One Center City plan earlier this week; Johnson said that one of his “frustrations” was that although the city says it prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders over cars, its actions downtown have done exactly the opposite. “It’s not just that we aren’t dedicating enough of the center city to bicycle facilities, but ditto on the transit side of things, Goran,” Johnson said. “We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.”

2. On Wednesday, with little fanfare, One Table—the 91-member work group tasked with coming up with recommendations to address the regional homelessness crisis—released its recommendations, in a nine-page document that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. The city of Seattle’s progressive revenue task force, which recommended a tax on employers that could raise up to $75 million annually, has said that it would wait until One Table to release its recommendations before recommending additional taxes, with the ultimate goal of raising a total of $150 million a year.

The recommendations, which were released jointly by King County and the cities of Seattle and Auburn, are mostly familiar: Providing 5,000 units of affordable housing across the county over three years, by building new housing and by “increasing access to existing housing choices”; treatment on demand; financial assistance for housing, including short-term help for people in crisis; and increased investment in job programs for people at risk of homelessness. Since the list of “actions” doesn’t include any dollar amounts, it’s hard to assess how ambitious the proposal truly is, but 5,000 units in three years throughout King County (to say nothing of the three-county Puget Sound region) will house fewer than half of the 12,000 people living outdoors or in sanctioned encampments or shelters in King County alone. Job programs and homelessness prevention efforts will undoubtedly prevent some people from falling into homelessness and making that number even larger, but until it’s clear how the recommendations would cost and where the money would come from, it’s hard to say what impact the proposals will have, and whether One Table will live up to its promise to “best tackle this problem to ensure expansive and lasting solutions,” as Mayor Jenny Durkan put it when the work group held its first meeting in January.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: By the Numbers

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

1. $1 million: The amount of money Mayor Jenny Durkan said Pearl Jam has agreed to donate from the proceeds of two reunion shows in August to support the cause of ending homelessness .

2. 75: The number of people appointed to serve on One Table, a group of business, civic, nonprofit, activist, and elected leaders from around the region that is charged with coming up with solutions for the “root causes” of homelessness, identified as a lack of affordable housing, inadequate access to behavioral health treatment, negative impacts on kids in foster care,  criminal history that impacts many people’s ability to find housing and employment, and “education and employment gaps making housing unattainable and unaffordable.” The committee met for the first time on Monday morning.  They sat at many different tables.

3. 200,000: The approximate number of people in King County who live below the federal poverty level, currently $16,240 for a two-person household).

4. 29,462; 24,952 The number of people King County says became homeless in 2016, and the number who exited homelessness that year, respectively. After a press conference following the One Table event Monday, King County Department of Community and Human Services director Adrienne Quinn acknowledged that the number of people who are no longer listed the county’s Homeless Management Information System doesn’t necessarily reflect the number of people who are currently housed, either permanently or temporarily; 11,767 of the 24,952 recorded “exits” are listed as “destination not reported,” which means that they could be in jail, in an institution, in drug or alcohol rehab, or on the street. The only criteria for an “exit” from homelessness is that a person hasn’t sought any housing or services in King County in the past three months. “Exits from homelessness” also include hundreds of people who left the shelter system voluntarily to go back on the street; those are listed, paradoxically, as an exit from homelessness into the category “unsheltered.”

5. 35,000: The approximate reduction between 2007 and 2016 in the number of housing units that were affordable to eople making less than 50 percent of the Seattle area median income, which was $33,600 for an individual, $48,000 for a family of four, last year.

6. Three: Number of times reporters asked King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan if they planned to dissolve All Home, the agency that nominally coordinates efforts to address homelessness throughout the county, and replace it with a regional agency that would have the authority to actually implement policies, which All Home (whose director, Mark Putnam, recently resigned) does not.

7. Zero: Number of times either official answered the question directly. (Constantine also deflected questions about whether there would be a tax measure on the next November ballot to fund whatever solutions the group proposes.)

One (metaphorical) table.

8. 94: The percentage of people who have been booked into jail four or more times in the past year who suffer from some behavioral health condition, according to Brook Buettner, who manages the county’s “Familiar Faces” initiative.

9. $250. The amount Seattle CityClub, the civic engagement organization that holds monthly “Civic Cocktail” panels at the Palace Ballroom, is charging for its “Civic Boot Camp” on “Housing the Homeless,” part of a series of immersive, one-day trainings that take people who want to get involved in Seattle’s civic life on a deep dive into a single issue. Past boot camps have covered immigration, livable neighborhoods, and the waterfront. The high price of entry raised the eyebrows of some advocates for Seattle’s homeless residents, who wondered if that money would be going to agencies that provide housing and services or into CityClub’s coffers.

Diane Douglas, CityClub’s executive director, says the admission fees pay for scholarships for people who can’t afford to pay full price, stipends for the people who give presentations to the boot campers, food purchased from neighborhood businesses, and to rent space for the day from organizations working on the issue. In the case of the homelessness boot camp, she says, it makes more sense to spend the remainder of the fee supporting CityClub’s mission to get people engaged in the community by volunteering, campaigning for candidates, or donating to groups that provide direct services than to donate the proceeds directly to those groups. “When we survey people six months or a year later, we know that they’re volunteering more, they’re donating money, they’re communicating with elected officials,” Douglas says. “The purpose is really to get them engaged in the community. It’s a substantial amount of money for a day of training, but the idea is to leverage all those people so they’re all giving $250, so they’re volunteering, so they’re voting on the issues and causes that they’ve learned about.”

10. 77.4 cents: The amount a woman currently earns in Seattle for every dollar made by a man doing equivalent work, according to a presentation the Economic Opportunity Institute gave to the city council’s Housing, Health, Energy, and Workers’ Rights committee last week. Non-white women make significantly less than white women across the board, with black women, on average, earning the least; the wage gap is largest, at 29.3 percent, between Asian-American men and women.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.