As City Moves Away from Eviction Prevention, Report Highlights Inequities in Who Gets Evicted, and Why

A new report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project* on who gets evicted in Seattle, and why, concludes that not only are women and people of color more likely to get evicted than white men, but that they often lose their homes over very small amounts of money—just a few hundred dollars in late rent, which is usually compounded by the addition of court and attorney’s fees. Among all the people evicted for failure to pay rent on time, more than half (52.3 percent) owed one month’s rent or less, and more than three-quarters (76.6 percent) owed less than $2,500 ($1,236 on average.) Because evicted tenants are generally required to pay additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other non-rent charges on top of the rent they owe, the median court judgment was $3,129.

Sarah Stewart, a longtime Seattle resident who has been living in her car since she was evicted this past March, said at a press conference today that she lost her apartment, in a low-income building, because her landlord miscalculated her income, which varies from month to month based on her ability to work. Stewart has a degenerative illness that causes pain and fatigue. Despite her family’s efforts to help her pay “the enormous amounts they demanded,” she eventually ended up in eviction court. “In the end,” she said, “the landlord had all the power, and not only were they able to evict me, but they also burdened me with over $2,000 in late fees, attorneys’ fees and non-rent fees. In my current situation, there is no way I will ever be able to pay that back.”

The report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” describes a system heavily weighted in favor of landlords and against tenants, particularly tenants who lack attorneys. The vast majority of people who get evicted (87.5 percent) in Seattle ended up homeless (a category that includes couch surfing or living in shelters in addition to unsheltered homelessness) for the exact reason you might expect: Once you’ve got an eviction on your record, it can be nearly impossible to find someone willing to rent to you. 

Eviction prevention programs in Seattle are virtually nonexistent—in sharp contrast to other cities such as New York, where the Bronx Housing Court, which offers a one-stop shop for rental assistance programs, has helped prevent evictions in 86 percent of cases. (Other cities also give tenants sore time to pay what they owe—in Seattle, the eviction process can begin as soon as you’re three days late on your rent—and offer more discretion to judges to work out deals between landlords and tenants that allow people to stay in their homes). This can be traced, in part, to a 2016 report that recommended diverting funds away from eviction prevention and into programs to help people who are already homeless; that report ended up being the basis of the city’s “Pathways Home” strategy for addressing homelessness.

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According to the report, “The Focus Strategies report acknowledged that ‘[t]raditional prevention generally targets households who have their own rental unit and have received an eviction notice,’ but then discouraged such an approach without providing any support for their recommendation. The Focus Strategies report claimed that ‘since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction, it does not make sense to prioritize sheltering that group of people who are facing eviction; however, this overlooks the collateral consequences of eviction such as poor health, family instability, and higher financial strain on the shelter system.

The problem with ignoring people until they get evicted, Housing Justice Project attorney Ed Witter said today, is that it costs far more—between $15,000 and $17,000—to put someone up in a shelter for a year than it does to pay the $100 or $1,200 or $2,000 that separates them from eviction.  “We don’t help [people] until they’ve lost their housing, and we know this isn’t the most efficient way,” Witter said. A client who lived in low-income housing had just been evicted over $15.67 in late rent, Witter continued. “How did we get to the point that tenants are losing their housing over 15 dollars and 67 cents?”

Read the whole report, which includes detailed demographic data on who gets evicted and why as well as policy recommendations, here.

Morning Crank: “Crime-Infused Shack Encampments”

“URGENT…tell them NO!”—the message of every call to action by anti-homeless groups in Seattle

1. A new group calling itself Unified Seattle has paid for Facebook ads urging people to turn up in force to oppose a new tiny house encampment in South Lake Union. The ads include the line “SOLUTIONS NOT SHACKS,” a reference to the fact that the encampments are made up of small wooden structures rather than tents. The encampment, which was funded as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” strategy, will include 54 “tiny houses” and house up to 65 people; it may or may not be “low-barrier,” meaning that it would people with active mental illness or addiction would be allowed to stay there. A low-barrier encampment at Licton Springs, near Aurora Avenue in North Seattle, has been blamed for increased crime in the area, although a recent review of tiny house villages across Seattle, including Licton Springs, found that the crime rate typically goes down, not up, after such encampments open.

“URGENT community meeting on NEW Shack Encampment this Thursday, June 28!” the ad says. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” Despite the reference to “our neighborhood,” the ads appear to directed at anyone who lives “near Seattle.” Another indication that Unified Seattle is not a homegrown South Lake Union group? Their website indicates that the group is sponsored by the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Safe Seattle, and Speak Out Seattle, all citywide groups in existence long before the South Lake Union tiny house village was ever announced.

“The city has imposed an unconstitutional income tax on residents which was ultimately struck down by the courts,” the website claims. “It passed a job-killing head-tax that was embarrassingly repealed. Now, it has undertaken a campaign to seize valuable land and build crime-infused shack encampments to house city homeless. All this in the course of six months.”  The income tax, which actually passed a year ago and was struck down by a court, was never implemented. The head tax was never implemented, either. And no land is being “seized” to build the encampment; the land is owned by the city of Seattle.

The meeting is on Thursday night at 6pm, at 415 Westlake Avenue N.

2. Overshadowed by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump’s Muslim Ban 3.0 was another ruling that could have significant implications for pregnant women in King County. The Court’s ruling in NIFLA v. California struck down a state law requiring that so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—fake clinics run by anti-choice religious organizations that provide false and misleading information to pregnant women in an effort to talk them out of having abortions—post signs saying what services they do and don’t provide. In its 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the California law violated the center’s First Amendment rights (to lie to women).

Earlier this year, the King County Board of Health adopted a rule requiring so-called crisis pregnancy centers to post signs that say “This facility is not a health care facility” in 10 different languages. Crisis pregnancy centers typically offer sonograms, anti-abortion “counseling,” and misinformation about the risks associated with abortion, including (false) claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer and a higher risk of suicide.

In a statement, Board of Health director and King County Council member Rod Dembowski said that he and the county’s legal team were mindful of the California challenge when drafting the rule. “We intentionally crafted King County’s rule to be less broad than the California … requirements, while still ensuring that women who are or may be pregnant understand that limited service pregnancy centers are not health care facilities,” Dembowski said. “If we need to fine tune the particulars of the form of the disclosure, we will do so.  Regardless, I am optimistic that the County’s more narrow regulation that was supported with a strong factual record is constitutional and will remain in place.”

3. A presentation by the city’s Human Services Department on how well its programs are performing supported the narrative that the Pathways Home approach to getting people off the streets, which emphasizes rapid rehousing and diversion programs over temporary shelter and transitional housing, is working. But it continued to raise a question the city has yet to answer directly: What does the city mean by “permanent housing,” and how does they know that people who get vouchers for private-market apartments through rapid rehousing programs remain in their apartments once their voucher funding runs out?

According to HSD’s first-quarter performance report, which department staffers presented to the council’s housing committee on Tuesday, 83 percent of people in rapid rehousing ended up in “permanent housing” after their vouchers ran out. Meanwhile, according to HSD director Jason Johnson, aggregated data suggests that 95 percent of the people enrolled in rapid rehousing were still housed after six months. In contrast, the department found that just 59 percent of people in transitional housing moved directly into permanent housing, and that just 3.8 percent of people in basic shelter did so, compared to more than 20 percent of people in “enhanced” shelter with 24/7 capacity and case management. Ninety-eight percent of people in permanent supportive housing were counted as “exiting” to permanent housing, giving permanent supportive housing the best success rate of any type of program.

However, there are a few factors that make those numbers somewhat less definitive than they sound. First of all, “permanent housing” is not defined as “housing that a person is able to afford for the long term after his or her voucher runs out”; rather, the term encompasses any housing that isn’t transitional housing or shelter, no matter how long a person actually lives in it. If your voucher runs out and you get evicted after paying the rent for one month, then wind up sleeping on a cousin’s couch for a while, that still counts as an exit to permanent housing, and a rapid rehousing success.

Second, the six-month data is aggregated data on how many people reenter King County’s formal homelessness system; the fact that a person gets a voucher and is not back in a shelter within six months does not automatically mean that they were able to afford market rent on their apartment after their voucher ran out (which, after all, is the promise of rapid rehousing.)

Third, the fact that permanent supportive housing received a 98 percent “success” rate highlights the difficulty of basing performance ratings on “exits to permanent housing”; success, in the case of a program that consists entirely of permanent housing, means people simply stayed in the program. To give an even odder example, HSD notes an 89 percent rate of “exits to permanent housing” from diversion programs, which are by definition targeted at people who are already housed but at risk of slipping into homelessness. “Prevention is successful when people maintain housing and don’t become homeless,” the presentation says. It’s unclear how the city counts “exits to permanent housing” among a population that is, by definition, not homeless to begin with. I’ll update if and when I get more information from HSD about how people who are already housed are being counted toward HSD’s “exits to permanent housing” rate.

4 .Last week, after months of inaction from One Table—a regional task force that was charged with coming up with regional solutions to the homelessness crisis—King County Executive Dow Constantine announced plans to issue $100 million in bonds to pay for housing for people earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle-area median income (AMI), calling the move an “immediate ste[p] to tackle the region’s homelessness crisis.”

That sounds like an impressive amount of money, and it is, with a few major caveats: First, the money isn’t new. Constantine is just bumping up the timeline for issuing bonds that will be paid back with future proceeds from the existing tax on hotel and motel stays in King County. Second, the $100 million—like an earlier bond issuance estimated at $87 million—won’t be available until 2021, when the debt on CenturyLink Field (for which the hotel/motel tax was originally intended) is paid off. King County has been providing some funds to housing developers since 2016 by borrowing from itself now and promising to pay itself back later. Both the $87 million figure and the new $100 million figure are based on county forecasts of future tourism revenue. And third, the amount of hotel/motel tax revenue dedicated to affordable housing could, under state law, be much higher—two-thirds more than what Constantine proposed last week—if the county weren’t planning to spend up to $190 million on improvements at Safeco Field that include luxury suite upgrades and improvements to the concession stands. That’s because although state law dictates that at least 37.5 percent of the hotel/motel tax be spent on arts and affordable housing, and that whatever money remains be spent on tourism, it does not limit the amount that can be spent on either arts or housing. Theoretically, the county could dedicate 37.5 percent of its revenues to arts spending and the remaining 62.5 percent to housing.

The fact  that Constantine is describing the new bonds as a solution to homelessness is itself a matter of some debate. Under state law, the hotel/motel tax can only be used to build “workforce housing” near transit stops, which the county interprets to mean housing for people making between 30 and 80 percent of AMI. Homeless people generally don’t earn anywhere close to that. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that although “taking steps that will help to address the critical need for affordable housing for low-wage workers and people who can afford housing at 30 to 80 percent is a good  thing, unless there’s a plan to prioritize those units for people experiencing homelessness, along with resources to help buy down some of the rents for people for whom 30 to 80 percent is out of reach, I’m not sure how that helps address homelessness.”

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Afternoon Crank: Competing for a Limited Number of Units

1. While the city of Seattle was debating over the merits of the head tax last week, the King County Auditor’s Office quietly released a report on the region’s response to homelessness that concluded, among other things, that “rapid rehousing”—which provides short-term rent vouchers to low-income households to find housing in the private market—isn’t working in King County. The city of Seattle’s adopted Pathways Home approach to homelessness suggests investing heavily in rapid rehousing, which assumes that formerly homeless people will be able to pay full market rent on a private apartment within just a few months of receiving their vouchers.

For this system to work, either: a) formerly homeless people must get jobs that pay enough to afford full market rent in Seattle, currently over* $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment, before their three-to-12-month vouchers run out, or b) formerly homeless people must find housing that will still be affordable after they no longer have the subsidy. The problem, the King County report found, is that there are only about 470 private units available throughout the entire county, on average, that are affordable to people making just 30 percent of the area median income—and the competition for those units includes not just the hundreds of rapid rehousing clients who are currently looking for housing at any given time, but all the other low-income people seeking affordable housing in King County. Seattle’s Pathways Home plan would dramatically increase the number of rapid rehousing clients competing for those same several hundred units.

“Given market constraints, difficulties facilitating housing move-ins could limit rapid rehousing success,” the auditor’s report says. “As local funders increase their funding for RRH, it is possible that move-in rates will go down as more households compete for a limited number of units. Given the importance of client move-ins to later success, if this occurs additional funding spent on RRH may have diminishing benefits relative to its costs.” Additionally, the report notes that a proposed “housing resource center” to link landlords and low-income clients seeking housing with vouchers has not materialized since a consultant to the city of Seattle, Focus Strategies, recommended establishing such a center in 2016. In a tight housing market, with rents perpetually on the increase, landlords have little incentive to go out of their way to seek out low-income voucher recipients as potential renters.

2. Learn to trust the Crank: As I predicted when he initially announced his candidacy at the end of April, former King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober, who was ousted as both chair of the King County Democrats and spokesman for King County Assessor John Wilson after separate investigations concluded that he had engaged in unprofessional conduct as head of the Democrats by, among other things, bullying an employee, pressuring her to drink excessively, and calling her demeaning and sexist names, will not run for state legislature in the 47th District.

Fresh off his ouster from his $98,000-a-year job at King County, and with a $37,700 county payoff in hand, Stober told the Seattle Times‘ Jim Brunner that he planned to run for the state house seat currently held by Republican Mark Hargrove. Stober’s splashy “surprise” announcement (his word) came just days before a candidate with broad Democratic support, Debra Entenman, was planning to announce, a fact that was widely known in local Democratic Party circles. In a self-congratulatory Facebook announcement/press release, Stober said that he decided not to run after “conversations with friends, family, and supporters,” as well as “informal internal polling.” Stober went on to say that his “many supporters” had “weathered nasty phone calls and texts; awful online comments; and rude emails from those who opposed my candidacy. We chose not to respond in kind. They went low and my supporters went high.” In addition to routinely calling his employee a “bitch” “both verbally and in writing,” the official King County report found that Stober “made inappropriate and offensive statements about women,” “did state that Republicans could ‘suck his cock,'” and “more likely than not” referred to state Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski as “bitch, cunt, and ‘Waddles.'”

3. On Monday morning, Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman announced $1.2 million in funding for prepaid-postage ballots for the 2018 election. The only county that won’t receive state funding? King County, which funded postage-paid ballots for the 2018 elections, at a cost of $600,000, over Wyman’s objections last week. 

County council chairman Joe McDermott, a Democrat (the council is officially nonpartisan but includes de facto Democratic and Republican caucuses), says he was “really disappointed” that Inslee and Wyman decided to keep King County on the hook for paying for its own prepaid ballots, particularly given Wyman’s objection that the decision should be left up to the state legislature.

“She was against it before she was for it,” McDermott told me yesterday. Wyman’s office, McDermott says, “wasn’t working on the issue last year in the legislature, and yet all of a sudden she can find emergency money and appeal to the governor when King County takes the lead.”

In their announcement yesterday, Wyman and Inslee said they will “ask” the legislature to reimburse King County for the $600,000 it will spend on postage-paid ballots this year, but that funding is far from guaranteed. Still, McDermott says their decision to backfill funding for postage-paid ballots for Washington’s remaining 38 counties could set a precedent that will create pressure on legislators to take action next year. If the state believes it’s important to make it easier for people to vote in 2018, he says, “why would they argue that they’re not going to do it in the future? If it’s valuable this year, it should be valuable going forward.”

4. Dozens of waterfront condo owners spoke this afternoon against a proposed Local Improvement District, which has been in the works since the Greg Nickels administration, which many called an illegal tax on homeowners for the benefit of corporate landowners on the downtown waterfront. The one-time assessment, which homeowners could choose to pay over 20 years, is based on the increase in waterfront property values that the city anticipates will result from park and street improvements that the LID will pay for. Several homeowners who spoke this afternoon said they rarely or never visit the downtown waterfront despite living inside the LID assessment district, either because they live too far away (one condo owner said he lived on Fifth Avenue, and considered the hill leading down to the waterfront “too steep” to traverse) or because the waterfront is always clogged with tourists. Another, homeowner Jonathan Mark, said the city was failing to account for the decrease in property values that could result from “turning Alaskan Way into a freight highway.”

The median assessment on residential property owners, who own about 13 percent of the property that would be subject to the assessment, would be $2,379, according to the city’s Office of the Waterfront.

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: Bags and Bags of Shredded Ballots

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The new version looks just like a mailbox.

1. The King County council voted 7-2—with one Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, joining the council’s six Democrats—to spend up to $381,000 next year on postage-paid ballots for this year’s midterm and general elections. King County voters have voted exclusively by mail, or by dropping their ballots at designated drop boxes, since 2009, but it has been voters’ responsibility to buy stamps for their ballots. Voting rights advocates have argued that the postage requirement is burdensome for younger voters (who are less likely to have stamps) and very low-income voters (for whom a 49-cent stamp represents a real impediment to voting); those who oppose providing postage say that it’s voters’ responsibility to make the minimal effort required to buy a stamp, and that those who feel they can’t afford it can just trek to their nearest ballot box.

Before the measure passed, County Council members Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn offered several amendments that would have watered down or placed conditions on the legislation, including a proposal by Lambert to clarify that the county measure did not set any “precedent” for the rest of the state. Lambert argued that if voters in King County were able to vote more easily than voters in the rest of the state, it would put other counties, particularly more rural counties with fewer resources that are “hanging on by their fingernails,” at a disadvantage—essentially the same argument offered by Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman when she urged the council to reject the measure one week ago. That amendment failed, as did another Lambert proposal that would have required the county elections office to turn around a complicated report about turnout and ballot box usage three days after the November election was certified. Another, from Republican Reagan Dunn, would put language on the outside of every prepaid ballot encouraging people to put stamps on their ballot anyway, ostensibly in an effort to save King County money. Although King County Elections director Julie Wise made it clear that Dunn’s amendment would almost certainly cost the county far more than it saves (election workers would have to pore over hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand, photocopy them, and mail them to the post office for a refund), the amendment actually passed, after Dunn said the language in his amendment left some wiggle room for the county to reject the idea if it cost too much.

“I like the voters’ drop boxes [because] it’s not shredded, I know it’s in, it’s going to get counted, and I know that there are very few people that are going to handle it.”—King County Council member Kathy Lambert  

Before the final vote, Lambert  offered a strange, last-ditch anecdote to explain why she opposed voting by mail. “I pay my property taxes in person,” Lambert began, because one year when she sent them by mail—she knows it was her anniversary, she said, because she was about to go to Hawaii—and they never made it to the tax assessor’s office. When she went to the post office to find out what had happened, she said, “they brought me out two huge bags of mail that had been shredded, and they said, ‘If you find your check in here, you can take it out and prove that you have found it.’ I hope that we won’t find out later on that there are bags and bags of shredded ballots that have gotten caught in the machinery,” Lambert continued. “I like the voters’ drop boxes [because] it’s not shredded, I know it’s in, it’s going to get counted, and I know that there are very few people that are going to handle it.”

Lambert did not note that voters can track their ballots, and find out whether theirs was counted or “shredded,” at the King County Elections website.

2. A rumor was circulating yesterday that ousted King County Democrats chair (AKA ousted King County Assessor’s office spokesman) Bailey Stober will announce today (or this week) that he is not running for 47th District state representative, despite announcing that he plans to do so in an interview with the Seattle Times. As I reported last week, Stober’s announcement came just two days before Debra Entenman, a deputy field director for Congressman Adam Smith, was planning to formally announce that she would seek the same position with the full support of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. The announcement gave Stober some positive press shortly after he was forced out of two positions of power when four separate investigations concluded he had engaged in sexual harassment, bullying, and multiple acts of workplace and financial misconduct. (Each of the investigations upheld a different combination of allegations).

Stober received a $37,700 settlement from King County in exchange for resigning from his $98,000-a-year position, from which he had been on fully paid leave for most of 2018. On Friday, he posted a photo on Facebook of what he said was his brand-new jeep. “New life new car 💁🏽‍♂️😏 #adulting,” the caption read.

3. Three low-barrier shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which were all scheduled to shut down this month, will stay open for the rest of the year, though their fate after that remains uncertain. The shelters—an overnight men’s shelter on Lower Queen Anne, the Kerner-Scott House for mentally ill women in South Lake Union, and DESC’s auxiliary shelter at the Morrison Hotel downtown—lost funding under the new “Pathways Home” approach to funding homeless services, which prioritizes 24/7 “enhanced” shelters over traditional overnight shelters and withholds funding (see page 7) from agencies that fail to move at least 40 percent of their clients from emergency shelter into permanent housing. When the city issued grants under the new criteria, it increased DESC’s overall funding but eliminated funding for the three overnight shelters. All told, about 163 shelter beds were scheduled to disappear in May unless DESC could come up with the money to keep them open or another operator stepped forward.

Oddly, the decision to close at least one of the shelters does not appear to have been strictly about money, but about DESC itself. According to a letter HSD sent to concerned community members in mid-April, the city had “HSD reached out to Salvation Army to discuss the possibility of taking over operations of the Roy Street Queen Anne shelter in June when the DESC contract ends. Salvation Army has agreed and is going to have a May-Dec contract so there is some overlap time during the transition.  Shifting operations to the Salvation Army would have required a special budget allocation from the City Council to keep the shelter running under new management for the rest of the year.

DESC’s overall budget request included significant pay increases for all of the agency’s staff, who are unionized but remain notoriously underpaid, even by human service provider standards. DESC’s $8.6 million budget request for its enhanced shelter program included more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. Even those higher salaries remain paltry by private-market standards, but by proposing to implement the raises all at once, DESC inflated its budget request dramatically at precisely the time when the city was looking to cut “fat” from the system and reward programs that promised fast results and cost savings for the city.

The good news for DESC (and the men and women) who use its overnight shelters) is that funding for the shelters appears to be secure for at least the rest of 2018. The bad news is that the reprieve is temporary, and major issues, including low salaries for shelter workers, remain unresolved.

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.

Homeless Service Opponents Seek Homeless Service Funding from City

Poring through a pile of requests for funding by homeless services providers under the new Pathways Home criteria for funding (more about that here), I came across this application (and associated budget proposal) from Safe and Affordable Seattle, a group headed up by Elizabeth Campbell (a Magnolia homeowner and pro-viaduct activist who opposes low-income housing near Discovery Park) and Gretchen Taylor (a Magnolia homeowner and neighborhood activist who co-founded the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, argues that homeless people just want to take advantage of the system, and went to this event.) In its previous incarnation, Safe and Affordable Seattle was a group, also headed up by Campbell, that filed papers with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to oppose a levy for homeless services that never happened. The group/Campbell now runs a website dedicated to banning homeless encampments and pursuing “s legal actions against the City and its elected officials who have failed in their very basic duties to keep all Seattlelites safe.”

SAS asked for $264,000 in city funding (including $175,000 for “consultant services”) to produce [sic throughout] a “book and video documentary about the past and present history of 1) homeless individuals and populations in Seattle, the society and culture of homeless-ness, and associated counter cultures or societies associated thereto, 2) solutions and providers organization and local personalitiies that work with homeless people or homeless related matters, 3) City of Seattle policies, programs, and activities related to homeless people or homeless related matters; all between the years 2007 to 2018.”

I’m stunned, of course, that this completely sincere and totally professional application for public funding did not receive the due consideration it deserved from the city. Perhaps Campbell and Taylor can dip into their own funds to produce a “book” on homeless “personalitiies” and “sub cultures” themselves.

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2018 City Budget Passes Without Head Tax. Now What?

Seattle may be rolling in tax revenues thanks to an economic boom that just won’t quit, but this year’s budget process played out like a recession-year knock-down-drag-out battle. It started when the council’s new budget chair, Lisa Herbold, proposed a budget that presumed the council would agree to a head tax on large employers (and made their top-priority projects dependent on the tax). When the tax failed on a (somewhat predictable) 5-4 vote, council members were left scrambling to come up with a new “Plan B” that would preserve their top priorities. This plan—call it Plan C—included deep cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, without commensurate cuts to the legislative branch, whose budget included some literal padding in the form of $250,000 for new carpet in council members’ offices.

Over the weekend, though, council members decided to have mercy on the mayor, reducing the proposed cuts to her office by half (and sacrificing their top-dollar carpet in the process). That change would have meant less new funding for the Human Services Department, but a last-minute amendment by council member Kirsten Harris-Talley increased HSD’s funding by dipping into the budget for the Department of Construction and Inspections, which administers permits and inspects buildings (including rental housing) for code compliance. That change, along with numerous other last-minute amendments, happened almost in the moment, and council members who hadn’t seen the proposed changes before today appeared to be reading them on the fly in the moments before voting them up or down. The public, meanwhile, had no way to read or absorb many of the proposed amendments unless they were physically in council chambers, where staffers made hard copies of (some of) the amendments available as the council discussed and voted on them.

Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley

The debate over how much additional funding the council should allocate for HSD—which administers all the city’s grants for homeless services, a job that has grown in scope as the city’s budget for those services has increased—broke down along somewhat surprising lines. On the center left-to-socialist spectrum of Seattle politics, HSD’s mission is strictly centrist, and its director, Catherine Lester—appointed by former mayor Ed Murray in 2015—is a staunch defender of that mission. This year, HSD rebid all its homeless service provider contracts under a new system known as “performance-based contracting”—a process critics say favors large, established service providers that prioritize people who are easier to house at the expense of smaller, scrappier groups that focus on more challenging clients. The agency’s job next year will be to administer those projects and implement Pathways Home, a controversial plan developed in collaboration with Ohio-based consultant Barb Poppe. In 2016, Poppe did a report that concluded that Seattle already has plenty of resources to house every person living outdoors, a conclusion many (including this blog) have contested.  Pathways Home, which is based on that report, directs HSD to shift spending away from transitional housing programs that provide long-term assistance and toward more “cost-effective” solutions like  “rapid rehousing”—short-term rent subsidies to move people directly from homelessness into market-rate apartments. Critics of this approach have argued that expecting people to move from homelessness to full self-sufficiency in a matter of months is unrealistic in a city  where the average one-bedroom apartment now rents for around $1,800.

Murray and Lester butted heads with the left wing of the council (as well as many homeless advocates) over rapid rehousing, performance-based contracting, and Pathways Home, but you wouldn’t know that from this month’s budget debate, in which HSD was often portrayed as a direct social service provider rather than a contract administrator. (This happened a lot earlier in the process, too, when hundreds of thousands of dollars were shifted from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services to HSD). On Monday, Harris-Talley described Lester as “a jewel of the community” and said she had “deep concerns about what has happened in regards to HSD, how that department has been treated.” It was disappointing. she added, “to see a department with a black woman at the helm” taking on significant additional responsibility without a commensurate amount of additional funding. It’s unclear whether Durkan—who supports Pathways Home—will appoint her own HSD director or keep Lester on board.

Comic Sans and public opinion in the ladies’ room.

The employee hours tax tax isn’t dead. In fact, several council members attempted to forcibly resurrect it yesterday, by proposing a budget amendment that would have required the council to pass the head tax after going through the motions of a four-month process to come up with a sustainable revenue source for homelessness. The five council members who voted against the head tax, unsurprisingly, weren’t interested in committing in advance to the same tax they just rejected, and they (also unsurprisingly) prevailed, inserting language into the amendment that commits the council instead to coming up with “progressive taxes” of some sort that will yield at least $25 million for homeless services. Any proposal they come up with will likely include a head tax, because the council’s taxing authority is quite limited, and council members made that clear. That didn’t stop the crowd from screaming “Bad!” and “Shame!” and booing council members so loudly they had to repeatedly stop the proceedings. (A couple of people were kicked out). Sawant, too, repeatedly denounced her council colleagues, as she has throughout the budget process, as “corporate politicians” kowtowing to their masters at the Chamber of Commerce. This kind of rhetoric definitely riles up the base, but it doesn’t win any currency with people like Rob Johnson, an earnest liberal who fought (against Herbold!) to ensure that supervised consumption sites were fully funded in this year’s budget, a position that I’m betting scored him zero points in his Northeast Seattle council district.

Social service and safe consumption site advocates line up hours early for yesterday’s 2pm council meeting—as they do whenever they know council member Kshama Sawant has invited her supporters to “pack city hall”

A cynical observer might point out that by keeping the discussion over the head tax alive, council members who did not prevail last week got another opportunity to make rousing speeches and rally the base on Monday. The council’s resident (official) socialist, Kshama Sawant, has encouraged her supporters (on social media and through her official city council email list) to “pack city hall” for every budget discussion and vote, and they have done exactly that, showing up at every budget meeting to wave red “stop the sweeps” signs, applaud Sawant’s lengthy speeches (one of many she made yesterday stretched nearly 15 minutes) and shout down council members who voted against her proposals.

A word about the screaming. It may be directed at the three women and two men who vote the “wrong” way, but it has the effect, in the moment, of shutting down all discussion. When you use brute verbal force against political opponents (both those on the dais and those who are scared to speak because, well, they’re worried about screamed at) it goes beyond merely “disrupting business as usual.” It’s disrespectful, counterproductive, and, most importantly, intimidating—social service advocates whose programs are in the budget still show up (hours early, to get ahead of Sawant’s supporters) to speak at council meetings, but otherwise, public comment is overwhelmingly dominated by a single set of voices. People who used to show up don’t show up. Dissent—the normal give and take of democracy playing out in public—is almost literally drowned out when one side asserts their right to own a public space by shouting everyone else out of the room. This year, I was disturbed to hear council members explicitly equate “the people here in the room today” with “the community” at large. Most of the 700,000 people in Seattle, and indeed most of the much smaller group of people who have an opinion about the 2018 city budget, weren’t represented in council chambers, and rarely are. This, even under ordinary circumstances, is perfectly understandable—most people have to work during the day, for one thing—but council members should take that into account, and not conflate “people with time to sit in council chambers day after day” with “a representative sample of the community at large.”

It will be interesting to see what happens to the council’s left wing—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien—once council member-elect Teresa Mosqueda takes office, replacing Harris-Talley, next week. Mosqueda defeated the far left’s preferred candidate, Jon Grant, and will not be a reliable vote for the Sawant wing of the council, who couldn’t muster a majority for the head-tax-based budget even with Harris-Talley on the council.

Sawant, who represents council District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District), was the only council member to vote against the budget—as she has since her election in 2013.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Cary Moon

Civic activist, engineer, and first-time candidate Cary Moon isn’t much of a political brawler; during the 2007 campaign against the waterfront deep-bore tunnel, when most Seattle voters first got to know her, Moon’s style was more “convince them on the merits” than “bury the opposition.” But this year, aided by her pugnacious consultants at Moxie Media, Moon has come out swinging, accusing her opponent, Jenny Durkan, of knowingly accepting “illegal contributions” claiming that Durkan wants to protect “profiteers and Wall Street interests,” and issuing a celebratory press release when the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce declined to endorse her. At the same time, Moon (who is white) has aggressively courted supporters of Nikkita Oliver, a black activist, poet, and attorney who finished third in the primary, by pledging to  “share power” with Oliver’s supporters. In carving out an ideological niche on the left, Moon has earned enthusiastic support from the Stranger, which mocks Durkan as a status-quo Hillary clone who will say anything to get elected, but has yet to win an endorsement from Oliver or the candidate who ended up in fourth place, former state legislator Jessyn Farrell.

When we sat down at Moon’s temporary office at Moxie Media HQ in September, I started out by asking Moon about her early support for a tax on foreign homebuyers, which Durkan (who has some pugnacious consultants of her own) has portrayed as a racist attack on Chinese investors.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Your opponent argues that your proposal to tax non-resident property buyers is an attack on Chinese people, because a large percentage of foreign investors in the Northwest are from China. How do you respond?

Cary Moon [CM]: It feels fairly desperate and way off target.

ECB: How so?

CM: Our housing market used to be local—local buyers, local builders, local bankers. That’s how housing markets worked for decades and decades. When we have a housing market that’s hot because of our growth, and because tech workers are moving here, and we’re building more housing, and prices are going up because of natural demand, We’re attracting outside capital and we need to understand that dynamic.  How much of it is private equity firms, real estate investment trusts, or LLCs? How much of it is wealthy Seattleites buying second, third, and fourth homes for rental properties? How much of it is global money that is looking for a safe place to park capital that they need to invest somewhere and they’re like, ‘Oh, look, Seattle’s a nice city with escalating property values, so let’s put our money there’? We need to understand exactly the dynamic of, what is the activity and what would be an effective way to create a disincentive to block it.

 

“Could we do a special real estate excise tax or a capital gains tax on the sale of that property that was a non-primary residence? We need to look at the whole dynamic of what the problem is and we need to look at what is legal, but I think  a foreign buyers tax was never the right approach or the right question to ask.”

 

ECB: I know there’s no definitive data on this, but the indication seems to be that foreign investment is not a huge reason for rising housing prices in Seattle right now.

CM: We need to look at the data. Something’s going on. It could be that because of our condo code and the problems around liability [Washington State law exposes developers and builders to significant legal liability for actual and potential construction defects], we aren’t building very many condos, which are the starter homes that people can usually first buy. [There are conflicting accounts about whether liability really represents a significant barrier to construction.] We have an Airbnb  issue and we don’t really know how big it is. Maybe homes are coming off the market for use by commercial Airbnb operators. It’s just shrinking the available supply of homes for people who do want to live here. And even a fairly small number in each of those categories can have a big, dramatic effect, because it affects price levels at every single tier. So if you take luxury homes off the market and you take starter homes off the market, everything shifts up and it just becomes more and more desperate. The more money there is chasing fewer homes, the more that encourages [price] escalation.

ECB :The city attorney has argued that taxing foreign buyers or vacant homes is illegal. Do you disagree?

CM: I don’t think that’s the right approach. It’s not the foreignness of the buyers that’s the problem–it’s the activity. So maybe if it’s a corporate or nonresident owner and a vacant property. Could we do a special real estate excise tax or a capital gains tax on the sale of that property that was a non-primary residence? We need to look at the whole dynamic of what the problem is and we need to look at what is legal, but I think  a foreign buyers tax was never the right approach or the right question to ask.

ECB: Vancouver has a tax on home sales to nonresident buyers, and it doesn’t seem to have stabilized prices.

CM: It did for a while. For the first six eight months, it stabilized prices and sales dropped dramatically. But what happened there is there is so much capital trying to get out of China right now that even at a 15 percent fee [on sales], it’s still better than leaving the money in China. They’re so motivated to get it out that they’re willing to pay the 15 percent fee.

ECB: What are some other measures you’d support to increase housing supply and reduce housing costs?

CM: We have to keep funding flowing to nonprofit housing production. Get the housing trust fund back up to $200 million, like it used to be before the recession. Look at using surplus city land for very low-income affordable housing production. Look at how do we get more community land trusts going, because that is an excellent step toward homeownership for so many folks. There’s a lot of infill, like multifamily lowrise, that we could be doing in neighborhoods. We need to restart that conversation again, on a more constructive note, about how can we grow in each neighborhood in a way that welcomes people from all income levels and all ages and stages of life into the neighborhoods, so it’s not exclusive by economic class.

ECB: Tell me what do you mean by ‘on a more constructive note.’ Because a lot of the stuff you’re talking about seem very much like things that were on Ed Murray’s agenda.

CM: So HALA had identified 65 different strategies, and we got hung up on the [Mandatory Housing Affordability] upzones because of the way it got leaked. [Ed: Seattle Times reporter Danny Westneat published a column in 2015 that claimed Murray was planning to “get rid of single-family zoning,” prompting a homeowner backlash that ultimately led Murray to walk back a proposal to allow modest density increases, such as duplexes, in single-family areas.]  I think we still need to have those conversations, and I’d like to hit the reset button and start those conversations over again.

“We can’t do what San Francisco did and falsely limit supply, because that escalates prices. But I also want to recognize that only expecting the free market to solve this is not going to work.”

 

ECB: Would you eliminate exclusive single-family zoning, as Murray initially proposed?

CM: I would really look at all the zones and say, would it makes sense for a Single Family 5000 zone, for instance [where housing is restricted to detached single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots] to allow backyard cottages or clustered housing, and look at, how do we add row houses, duplexes, or low-rise multifamily in some places? How do we add a little bit more density at each level? So, yes, I would like to take another look at all the zoning and find a way to add infill development in all zones.

ECB: I’m trying to get a better sense of how you differ from your opponent on affordable housing and the need for more housing supply, because I hear her saying very similar things.

CM: I have a very firm belief that the free market is not going to be the only answer. Yes, we need to keep up with demand for people who want to move here. No question. We can’t do what San Francisco did and falsely limit supply, because that escalates prices. But I also want to recognize that only expecting the free market to solve this is not going to work. We have to have a strong component of public and market and affordable housing to balance the volatility that will happen in the housing market. We need rent stabilization.

ECB: What do you mean by rent stabilization? Do you have a proposal to restrict rent increases?

CM: Not yet. I have to look at best practices and what’s working in other cities. You hear the stories that most of us live, of having to move year after year, having to be more and more downwardly mobile, because apartments are increasingly unaffordable and you have to just keep moving to find a place you can afford. It’s causing tremendous housing insecurity. For folks who can afford to keep an apartment, it’s stressful, and for folks who can’t, it’s toxic. So we’ve got to do something, and rent stabilization looks like it’s part of the answer, as well as increasing tenants’ rights and making sure that everybody facing eviction or a huge rent increase has access to a lawyer. It makes a really big difference, because the folks who are getting taken advantage of can get help.

ECB: You’ve said that you think “rapid rehousing” with temporary vouchers, which the city is emphasizing as a key solution to homelessness, is inadequate. Can you elaborate on that comment, and what are some other solutions you would support?

CM: I think the starting point for that set of solutions was that the housing affordability crisis and the homelessness crisis are unrelated, and we all know that’s not true. That’s just stupid. That’s not reality. We have to come up with solutions that acknowledge that two of the main drivers of the homelessness crisis are the defunding of behavioral health services and addiction services, and the housing affordability crisis.

So the solutions I would put forward are: how can we get more funding into those services? How can we build more low-barrier shelters? How can we get more funding for long-term supportive housing, because a lot of the folks in shelters now really do need long-term help? How can we look at some of the emergency solutions, like the RV parks that Mike O’Brien’s feeling out how to implement? How can we build more tiny house villages, because for folks who are currently on the streets, having a roof over your head and a door to lock is pretty much essential?

“I think the starting point for [Pathways Home] was that the housing affordability crisis and the homelessness crisis are unrelated, and we all know that’s not true. That’s just stupid. That’s not reality.”

 

ECB: Some of the changes the city is implementing, like requiring that all providers go through a competitive bidding process that emphasizes permanent housing, could move city funding away from providers that focus on more temporary solutions, like low-barrier shelter and tiny houses. Do you think the city is moving in the right direction with this new bidding process?

CM: I want to be careful here, because I have never worked at a homeless service provider and I am not sure really how to talk about it, except that there always is room for more efficiency in any organization. So if we can figure out a way to get more program delivered for less money, we should definitely be doing that. I think we’re in the middle of the process, so we should continue with the process and see where it gets us.

ECB: One aspect of the new bidding process that has been controversial is that it’s performance-based—meaning, providers get ranked largely on whether they get people out of shelter and into ‘permanent’ housing. There’s a concern that this will result in service providers focusing on the people who are the easiest to serve, rather than the hardest to house.

CM: That’s a good point. Some of the supportive housing for folks in need—for survivors of domestic abuse, for kids coming out of foster care, for people coming back from the criminal justice system—they need more supportive help. If we can afford it, permanent supportive housing is the right approach, but there are certain populations that do need transitional housing, and I don’t want to move way from it completely for those populations.

ECB: Nikkita Oliver has declined to endorse you. How did you feel when you heard about her decision?

CM: The People’s Party [the organization that ran Oliver as its first candidate] is a really important movement in our city, and I want to honor everything that they’ve done and will do, because building black and brown power and building black and brown voices is an essential part of turning the corner and becoming a more just and inclusive city. I feel patient. I don’t question that it’s going to take some time to figure out if and what to do in the mayor’s race. So I honor the process that they’re going through, and I have faith that we’ll reestablish dialogue.

ECB: So you haven’t actually spoken to Nikkita since the election?

CM: No, just texting and voice mail.

ECB: How do you respond to the criticism that, as a wealthy white woman,  you can’t adequately represent low-income black and brown people?

CM: I mean, the reality is that too much power is held by wealthy white people who have access to privilege like I have my whole life. So they’re not wrong. My commitment to building a more just world is true, and I know that means tackling systemic racism. It means changing who has power. It means including the voices of the folks most marginalized and most impacted by inequality and centering their needs and their power as we make the transition.  I’m ready to help do that work from this position, but I own my privilege. I know I’m in a position where I had a lot of doors open for me, and I have a lot of advantages. It’s okay for them to call me out on that.

ECB: Beyond calling you out on your privilege, Oliver and her supporters raised a lot of issues during the campaign that just might not be top of mind for you, like displacement, gentrification police violence, and restorative justice. You’ve talked a lot about wanting to focus on those issues and ‘share power’ with people who have been marginalized. What will that look like in practice?

CM: What it looks like to me is, the campaign cabinet I put together is majority people of color, women, and LGBT people.I’ve made commitments about my leadership team and boards and commissions. I believe that’s the right path to get there. [Ed: Moon has pledged that her “leadership team will be at least half women, LGBTQ and people of color.”] And using a racial equity lens in the budgeting process is really important, [as is] continuing the Race and Social Justice Initiative within the city departments and expanding that and resourcing it so it really can be meaningful in terms of changing how the city operates.

ECB: This is another privilege question, and it’s about your campaign funding. Between campaign contributions and spending by PACs, Durkan is going to be able to raise far more money than you. You spent more than $110,000 of your own money getting through the primary. How much are you planning self-finance to win in November?

CM: I’m hoping not at all anymore. I’m hoping to raise all the money I need for the general from donations, and I’m working my ass off to do that. It’s hard with a $500 limit, and most of the people on my side are not $500 donors. So I’m working really hard to raise as much as I can, because you’re right, we will be outspent two to one, if not three to one. So we need to make up for it in people power and smarts.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue doing interviews like this one, which take an average of about 8-10 hours from start to finish. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers like you. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Homeless Service Priorities Shift in First Competitive Bid for Services in More than a Decade

All Home director Mark Putnam, Human Services Department Director Catherine Lester, Mayor Ed Murray

A more detailed version of this story, with information and quotes from a press briefing yesterday, is now available at Seattle Magazine

The city’s Human Services Department will issue a request for proposals today for $30 million in homeless services—the first time in more than a decade that a majority of of the city’s homelessness contracts have been put out for competitive bids. (The remaining $20 million the city spends on homeless services has either already been rebid under a different process or wouldn’t qualify under the new criteria, such as hygiene centers.) The request focuses on programs that get people who are “literally homeless” into shelter “permanent housing”—largely through “rapid rehousing” with short-term rental assistance vouchers. According to HUD, a person is “literally homeless if they have a primary “residence” that is not fit for human habitation (e.g., a doorway or a vacant house), live in a shelter, or are leaving a jail, hospital or other institution after a stay of 90 days or less and were homeless when they first came in. (Widening the definition of homelessness to include people who are about to lose their housing and have nowhere to go and people experiencing extreme housing instability would roughly double the homeless count in Seattle).

In keeping with the Pathways Home plan released last year, which emphasizes “right-sizing” the homeless system by balancing survival services and permanent housing, the RFP will prioritize proposals that provide “permanent housing”—that is, housing on the private market, paid for with temporary vouchers. The new bidding process puts longtime city partners who provide transitional housing—nonprofits like the Low-Income Housing Institute, which provides longer-term temporary housing aimed at immigrants, veterans, and women fleeing domestic violence—at a relative disadvantage, because it focuses on “exits to permanent housing” and transitional housing isn’t permanent. The target transitional housing programs will eventually have to meet is for clients to stay in transitional housing units no more than 150 days (270 for young adults) and that 80 percent of their clients exit into permanent housing. This alone will be a shock to the current system; according to the Focus Strategies report on which many of the Pathways Home recommendations were based, “the majority of programs in Seattle/King County are designed for 12 to 18 month stays” and only about 63 percent of adult transitional housing residents exit into permanent housing (the rate for families is a little better, at 73 percent).

The RFP will grade providers on their performance for the first six months of 2017 on whether they meet five new minimum standards, as well as their answers to questions about their proposals. Providers who meet not just the minimums, but the targets, will get priority for funding. If a project gets funding but doesn’t show progress toward meeting its targets, the city can decide not to provide further funding even after a contract is granted. In future years, providers will be expected to start hitting their targets, rather than just meeting the minimums.

The targets set goals for: Exits to permanent housing; average length of shelter stays; entries from homelessness; return rates to homelessness; and how many shelter beds are occupied on any given night. An agency applying for funding must have met one of these minimum requirements between January and June 2017 to qualify for funding. The proposed systemwide targets and minimum standards are detailed in these next two charts:

It’s still unclear exactly what sort of vouchers people exiting homelessness into permanent housing will be provided, but in the past, HSD has said that they will pay some portion of a person’s rent for between three and 12 months; once the subsidy runs out, it will be up to that person to come up with the money to pay full rent. In an expensive housing market like Seattle’s, where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for about $2,000, this will probably mean that a lot of people end up living in unincorporated King County or even further from Seattle, far away from services, employment opportunities, and any community they may have had when they lived in the city.

According to the RFP, “Data does not currently show us if people are being housed in their communities of choice or displaced to other locations.” Pathways Home, however, explicitly states that part of solving homelessness in Seattle may involve moving people to “housing that is a considerable distance from work or which creates a substantial rent burden”—in other words, housing that may be unaffordable and far away from Seattle. “While these are not ideal situations, they are all better than the alternative of homelessness,” the report concludes.

HUD’s definition of “literal homelessness,” it’s worth noting, does not include people who are sleeping temporarily on friends’ or relatives’ couches, people who have to move frequently from place to place, or people coming out of prison with no place to go, unless they were in shelter immediately prior to their incarceration. It also doesn’t include people who are evicted from “permanent housing” when their subsidies run out and they can’t make rent, unless they end up back in the county’s formal homeless shelter system; those who end up moving out of the county or doubling or tripling up in cheaper housing are still counted as permanent housing “successes.” A report from a homeless advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which implemented a Pathways Home-style rapid rehousing system, found that many families fell off the “rapid rehousing cliff” when their vouchers ran out and they had to pay full market rent for their apartments; indeed, all the studies that have concluded that rapid rehousing is a success were in markets where rents are a fraction of what they cost in Seattle, such as Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

The deadline for service providers to respond to the city’s RFP is September 5.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please considerbecoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Homelessness Consultant Barb Poppe

Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced a $275 million levy to address the city’s homelessness crisis that emphasizes temporary housing vouchers on the private market, rather than more-intensive strategies like service-rich transitional housing, to get people off the streets and on their feet. The levy also funds some mental-health and drug treatment services, which Murray noted are “new lines of business” for the city.

The proposal is based largely on recommendations from a Columbus, Ohio-based consultant named Barb Poppe, whose  2016 report on Seattle’s homelessness crisis became the basis for the set of recommendations known as Pathways Home. Poppe’s report and Pathways Home are based on a larger federal shift toward the concept of “housing first”—the idea that housing homeless people should be cities’ top priority, above sobriety, employment, and other metrics that have historically served as barriers to housing—and away from the concept of “housing readiness,” which assumed, paternalistically, that homeless people need to jump through multiple hoops before being “ready” to move indoors.

Rapid rehousing has been somewhat controversial because it assumes that most homeless people will be able to afford market rents within months of moving indoors, which, in Seattle, works out to just under $2,000 a month for the average one-bedroom. Rapid rehousing also represents a shift away from transitional housing, programs that are more expensive and come with more services than a housing voucher, but are less service-intense than permanent supportive housing programs.

Poppe has also been a harsh critic of the city’s policy of creating sanctioned encampments and allowing children to live unsheltered, whether in vans, or encampments, or “tiny houses,” and has spoken out against allowing any additional encampments in city limits—statements that have put her in conflict with the city, in particular homelessness director George Scarola, who has said he has a “professional disagreement” with Poppe about the need for encampments as an interim solution.

I talked with Poppe by phone on Friday.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Have you had a chance to look at the homelessness levy the mayor proposed this week? Any initial thoughts on the mix of projects the levy would and wouldn’t fund?

Barb Poppe [BP]: I did. I know the mental health and behavioral health stuff is a really Washington-specific issue, because I think you have one of the worst mental health systems in the nation. If  you were another community, I’d say that doesn’t seem like it really fits with addressing homelessness, but I know that’s a current issue [for Seattle]. It looked like the all the other things they were going to invest in were similar to the recommendations that Focus Strategies and I made. It didn’t seem like it was going to be putting up more encampments or RV parks and other things like that. It looked very much like housing plus services.

In my recommendations, I recommended conversion of all the existing shelters to 24/7, low-barrier, housing-focused programs. When I visited Seattle and understood the number of places that you had that were just nighttime-only shelters, what that does is, one, it’s very difficult for people who are staying in them to get back on their feet, because they’re always in transit. And it increases the number of folks who are visibly homeless on your streets because they have nowhere to go. They have all the same problems of someone who has no shelter at all, whether it’s access to phones or meals or sanitation. They have to navigate those all in the course of the day.

ECB: Is it realistic for all the shelters in Seattle to convert to low-barrier, 24-hour shelters?

BP: In a lot of places in the country, that is the model. In Columbus, when I first came here in 1990, we had some nighttime-only shelters, but we moved to all of them being 24/7. I had mistakenly assumed that most places in the country had also done that, but in fact as I traveled the country as head of [the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness] I found that it was a fairly common model that was used with single adults. Families were mostly in 24/7 shelters, but there were places that required families to leave during the day, which I found even more distressing. A lot of the big mass shelters that are run by mission-based groups are going to be nighttime-only, and it’s just not good. What I understood as I talked to the city and All Home [the agency that administers homeless programs in the county] is that there were some unique challenges in that some of the 12-hour shelters were in buildings that were not available during the day, so they expected that in order to do some of those programs, they would have to move locations.

I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it. 

ECB: The city seems on board with moving in that direction, but they’ve also said that in the meantime, it’s better to have people sleeping in staffed, sanctioned encampments rather than in ad hoc illegal camps throughout the city. You’ve been opposed to that policy. Why?

BP:  I don’t find that an acceptable response to homelessness and would not encourage that, because you don’t get folks in out of the weather. Sanctioned encampments don’t solve anything. They’re not solution-focused. They’re often not good places to be. And they’re a burden on the neighborhoods as well.

Your public dollars should not be used to provide places where people live that don’t even meet the basic UN convention on human rights standards. The fact is that these are places that don’t have sanitation, that don’t have water, that don’t have electricity, that don’t have heat, and that don’t meet basic building codes. And in particular, I was alarmed by the number of children I saw in those places, including quite a few newborn babies. It’s a policy choice. All of those families could be brought inside if that was the choice that was made to do that. The data was showing that you weren’t fully utilizing the family shelters and that you weren’t exiting people to stable housing. It’s just a really ineffective approach.

Family homelessness is a problem in many states and many communities. The concern I had in Seattle was it was the only place where I saw so many children and felt that there wasn’t a lot of community alarm about the notion that infants were in encampments or that children were in tents. It was abnormal compared to other cities I had worked in, like Los Angeles, which has lots and lots of struggles and large numbers of people, but they are very focused on offering and making sure there is same-day shelter for families. What I believe is that the more acceptable this is to your community, the more that your community believes that these sanctioned encampments are a solution to homelessness, and the more you’re going to have to build them. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces. 

In other communities I’ve gone to,  if you have a room that would accommodate two moms and two kids, they would take two moms and two kids, rather than say we’re going to turn that other mom away. Their priority is that no child be outside, whereas in your community, it just seems like you make the choice that families will be on the street. The flow out of the shelters to housing is not good. It’s really, really low results, which indicates that they aren’t housing-focused shelters. It’s not just that the shelters aren’t accommodating families, it’s that they aren’t working to get people into housing. I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it. 

ECB: Another one of the recommendations that came out of your report was that we may have to accept the fact that some people will have to spend more than a third of their income on rent. But that flies in the face of how HUD and every city and state agency in the country sets affordability rates. What’s the reasoning behind saying we may have to stretch our concept of affordability in that manner?

BP: The definition of affordability isn’t that they have a voucher and they get it for life and they only pay 30 percent of income. [Formerly homeless people served by rapid rehousing] are still going to have a housing cost burden. All poor people in your community live with a housing burden unless they have a voucher. You have lots of low-income workers who have a housing cost burden. They make it, and they don’t fall into homelessness. Rapid rehousing gets them back on their feet, and in an ideal world, their income goes up and their housing is affordable at 30 percent, but the reality that we’re living in right now is that low-income workers are cost-burdened, but they’re housed. They’re not on the streets. They’re not in shelters. Their kids can go to the same schools. All of those things are much more possible if you’re not homeless. In Seattle, the goal of the homeless programs was to get people to the point that they aren’t cost-burdened, which is an unrealistic expectation in your market. It’s really hard to live [cost-burdened], and I’m not saying that it’s not, but because we don’t have a national policy that says everyone who has a housing need gets a housing voucher and never has to pay more than 30 percent, our goal in the homelessness system has to be to get everyone housed, and hopefully they’re going to be on an income path that provides them some stability.

ECB: The city has said it wants to make it possible for people who are homeless to find housing here, rather than having to move to far-flung suburban parts of the county or nearby counties. But your report and the Focus Strategies report say explicitly that for rapid rehousing to work, a lot of people may have to leave Seattle. How do you respond to the charge that this is furthering the suburbanization of poverty? Don’t people do better when they’re able to stay in their communities, where they’re near job centers, family, and frequent, reliable transit?

BP: The core of the rapid rehousing model is family choice, and that you should never say to a family, ‘You have to move here.’ In the same way that you wouldn’t say, ‘You have to stay in Seattle,’  the city shouldn’t say, ‘We’re not going to move you to Tacoma,’ or wherever. In these other high-cost cities, they do have families who say, ‘I don’t see that our family is going to do well in San Francisco; we’ll be better if we move to an East Bay community where the housing is more affordable.’ So in designing the city’s rapid rehousing program, I think they have to allow that families have choices about where they want to live, and families will have to weigh the pluses and minuses. It’s not our job to be paternalistic. Old-school transitional housing programs are very paternalistic. They say, ‘You will live in this neighborhood, you will go to this program for three days a week, your kids will be in this preschool program.’ Rapid rehousing lets families determine the choices they want to make. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces. 

ECB: Right now, HUD is largely dictating the current move toward rapid rehousing. Do you anticipate that federal guidelines for homeless investments will remain the same with Ben Carson at HUD?

BP: I have no crystal ball on what Carson’s going to do. It’s not even clear to what extent Secretary Carson gets to call the shots. We have made significant progress across the country. We have almost reduced veterans’ homelessness by half, chronic homelessness by large percentage, and family homelessness by 10 percent. My hope is because the homeless assistance programs have been well-managed and produced good results, that they won’t tinker and roll back to the old housing-readiness model, which largely excluded folks who had had any barriers or challenges in their life before they experienced homelessness. And the larger budget issues are really alarming to think about. If we preserve all the homeless programs but lose all the other [housing] programs, that’s terrible as well, because if the Carson-Trump administration cuts the [Section 8 housing] voucher program and the families who are stably housed with housing choice vouchers lose their housing, that’s devastating.

 

 

 

 

Survey Results Challenge Stereotypes of Seattle’s Homeless Population

would-move-insideToday, the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) released the results of a survey conducted by Applied Survey Research as a followup to the annual point-in-time count of people living unsheltered in King County.

UPDATE: Here’s a copy of the survey itself.

Departing from its usual practice of announcing the results of the count immediately after conducting it in January, All Home—the agency that coordinates homelessness efforts across the county—says it needs several months to crunch the numbers and won’t release them until late spring. HSD and ASR commissioned homeless and formerly homeless people to survey about 1,050 people staying in cars, shelters, transitional housing, encampments, and in public spaces, paying recruits $7 cash for every survey they returned. (Those who participated in the survey received a $5 McDonald’s gift card.) ASR also conducted small focus groups with 80 people experiencing homelessness across the city.

Watch for the city to use the survey, which cost $100,000, to make its case that homeless people living in Seattle are not, contrary to one common contention, just lazy, able-bodied freeloaders who came here from somewhere else to lounge in Seattle’s generous social safety net. Whether people who trade in those stereotypes will be swayed by a new data set based on self-reporting by homeless people is another question; so far, the sweep-’em-up-and-ship-’em-out crowd hasn’t been moved by surveys showing that most homeless people who live here are from here, or that most homeless people say they’re homeless not because of laziness or addiction but because they can’t find affordable housing.

where-lived-previously

Some highlights of the survey:

• Seventy percent of those surveyed said they became homeless after living in King County, and 49 percent said they were living in Seattle just before they lost their housing; just 15 percent said they came here from another state or country. That breakdown isn’t much different than the sheltered population—52 percent lived in Seattle before moving into their current residence, and 16 percent moved to their current home from another country or out of state. More than half of those surveyed said they have lived in Seattle for more than five years.

• Most of the homeless people surveyed said they came here to be near family or friends (35 percent) or for a job (34 percent). On the other hand, 15 percent said they came here to access homeless services, and nearly 10 percent said they moved to Seattle because pot is legal here. (I’ve requested the specific survey questions, but HSD staff said yesterday that legal marijuana was on a prewritten list of possible responses; it wasn’t a respondent-generated answer).

• Defying another stereotype—the common belief that most homeless people are homeless by choice—93 percent of survey respondents said they would move into safe, affordable housing if it became available.  According to the ASR report, “This … suggests that the ‘traveler’ or ‘nomadic’ sojourner does not represent a significant group.”

• One reason people camp in greenbelts and fields is that they don’t want to stay in shelter, not because they’re stubborn or lazy but because shelters are often dirty, always crowded, and sometimes dangerous; in addition, they separate couples and don’t allow people with pets or more than a backpack full of possessions. According to the survey, of those not using shelters, 36 percent said they didn’t use shelters because they’re too crowded, 30 percent because of bugs, and 29 percent because the shelters were full. Twenty percent said they didn’t use shelters because they don’t allow pets, and 21 percent because they don’t allow couples.

• More than 40 percent of those who responded to the survey said they had a job—13 percent said they were employed full-time, and 28 percent said they worked part-time or in temporary or seasonal jobs.

addiction-mental-health

• Forty-five percent of respondents said they didn’t use drugs or alcohol; 29 percent said they drank, and 12.2 percent reported using heroin. HSD staffers acknowledged that because drug and alcohol use was self-reported, those numbers could be low—the same way many people lowball how much they drink or smoke when asked by their doctor. Thirteen percent identified drug or alcohol use as the primary cause of their homelessness. “Respondents agreed that not all persons experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and that this misconception about homeless communities has adverse consequences. However, they also agreed that drug use is linked to dealing with the stresses of being homeless, and self-medicating to manage pain.”

• Eighteen percent of survey respondents said they were under 18 when they first experienced homelessness, and almost a quarter of those surveyed said they had been through the foster care system. Eleven percent of the women surveyed said they were pregnant, and many of them already had children.

• Pathways Home emphasizes the need to house people who are chronically homeless—that is, people who have been homeless a year or more and who have a disabling mental or physical condition. Half the survey respondents reported they had been homeless for a year or more, and 30 percent met the criteria for chronic homelessness—twice the average national rate, and in line with other West Coast cities, where homelessness is more common than in areas with more inclement weather and fewer services.

• More than half the women surveyed—58 percent—said they had been victims of domestic violence. Transgender and other gender non-conforming individuals were even more likely to have experienced domestic violence—63 percent and 78 percent, respectively—and 30 percent of homeless men said they were domestic violence victims. Overall, just under 5 percent said domestic violence was the primary reason they became homeless.

• Some of the survey’s findings seemed to contraindicate some of the solutions advocated in Pathways Home, the city’s road map for future spending on homelessness. For example, Pathways Home recommends investing heavily in short-term rental vouchers that run out after a few months, leaving formerly homeless renters at the mercy of a brutal rental housing market. However, according to the survey, many respondents said they worried about “how to make ends meet past the initial deposit and first/last month’s rent and whether that meant they might end up without a home again after a few months.

“Long-term support was also identified as a key element of a well-designed program,” the survey report continues, “especially in relation to housing assistance programs, particularly in relation to rapid re-housing programs and the challenges of keeping up with rent. One participant elaborated on this recurring theme, ‘I don’t understand why they leave you after 2 months, why can’t they just [help]  6 months to a year if you need it. Then people find themselves right back in the same position that they were in, homeless because they something out of their control happens.”

Pathways Home also recommends getting people into housing wherever they can find something they can afford, even if that means they’re uprooted from communities and support systems and unable to access services and employment because they can’t afford cars.  According to the report, “When asked about housing options outside the City, responses were mixed. While some participants shared that they just wanted ‘to get off the streets,’ others worried about commuting to jobs if they were too far outside the City if they lacked access to public transportation, as well as furthering the effects of gentrification.”

On Wednesday, HSD staff said they don’t want to displace people from Seattle to far-flung suburban communities that are inaccessible by transit, but added that they did not plan to deviate from the Pathways Home recommendations.

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