The C Is for Crank Interviews: Mayor Ed Murray

Until a month ago, Mayor Ed Murray had what looked like a clear path to reelection. Critics from the left and right certainly assailed aspects of his record—his response to homelessness, his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the phased-in $15 minimum wage—but no credible candidates had stepped forward to challenge Murray on his record. And, it seemed, none would.

All that changed on April 6, when the Seattle Times broke the news that a 46-year-old man, later identified as Delvonn Heckard, had filed a civil lawsuit accusing Murray of sexually abusing him when Heckard was a teenager and Murray was in his late 20s. In addition to Heckard, two other men had accused Murray previously of sexual misconduct, but neither pursued legal action and Murray vehemently denied their allegations; a fourth accuser stepped forward after Heckard filed his lawsuit. Initially, Murray seemed committed to staying in the race and trying to weather the allegations, but his  polling numbers  apparently suggested that the path to victory was not just narrow but nonexistent. Earlier this month, Murray supporters sought guidance from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission about the feasibility of creating a legal defense fund to help defray the costs of defending against the lawsuit.

I sat down with Murray in his campaign office last Friday. (Incidentally, as I was leaving, Martha Choe—a former council member for whom Murray was once a legislative aide—walked in. Choe, according to the Seattle Times, will oversee the defense fund if it is approved.) The purpose of the interview, at the time, was to talk about the campaign, Murray’s legacy, and whether there was a path to victory in spite of the scandal. But with the news today that Murray he will drop out of the race instead of seeking reelection, I’m highlighting the parts of our conversation that deal with Murray’s legacy—a legacy that has been sidelined, and perhaps made beside the point, by the shocking allegations against him.

ECB: How did the allegations against you sideline your agenda? 

EM: They have certainly made it harder.  But I work a lot, and I work all the time. I’ve had to work since I was 12 years old in one way or another—to buy school clothes, to pay for my dental work—so I just work a lot. I love this job, and yeah, it gets to be a strain, but man, we moved forward with a big announcement on homelessness with the Allen Foundation that we’d been working on for months, we continue to implement [the homelessness strategy] Pathways Home, we continue to work on the arena proposals, we’re doing HALA [the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda], I’m doing Find It, Fix It walks. I’m going to be at something like 6 to 10 events this weekend, as I was last weekend.

ECB: Earlier this year, you announced the formation of a Navigation Team that is supposed to go out when the city clears an encampment and offers shelter and services to the people living there. In the absence of abundant affordable housing and accessible 24/7 shelter, though, it’s inevitable that the city will simply be pushing the majority of those people from place to place. Is there a point at which you would say, “stop the sweeps, it isn’t working”?  

“I think this idea that we’re just doing sweeps is kind of borrowing language form the 1990s, when they did do sweeps. I look at the tents we’ve set up with donuts and coffee and social workers who are there to try to get them out of these encampments, and it’s very, very different than a sweep.”

EM: So first of all, we don’t do sweeps, and I would really encourage you to go back and look at when they used to just go in there, the sheriff and the police department, and just throw everybody out. As you know, the Navigation Teams are made up of folks that are police officers with deescalation training, an outreach worker who’s often a homeless person themselves, somebody with some medical skills, and others that may have addiction-related skills. So what we’ve done is, we have gone out there and tried to connect people with services. And what we have been told by these teams is, you know, you move someone three or four times, they eventually come in and say, ‘I want treatment.’ In fact, a woman I met the other day in one of the encampments, she said she broke her hip, and she decided she had been moved before and she didn’t want to be moved again. She took shelter. But it took moving her two or three times before we were able to get her to take [the shelter and services] she needed in the first place.

ECB: It seems to me that the problem isn’t so much that people refuse shelter, as that we don’t have actual housing and treatment beds for the people who are homeless or need addiction treatment.

EM: We don’t, but remember, I’m the guy who doubled the housing levy and tripled the number of affordable units that are being built. And that can’t be the end of it. My predecessor [McGinn] wasn’t able to get legal authorized encampments on public space; I did. We’re doing tiny houses in conjunction with nonprofits. We’re experimenting to see what we can do to stabilize people. So I think this idea that we’re just doing sweeps is kind of borrowing language form the 1990s, when they did do sweeps. I look at the tents we’ve set up with donuts and coffee and social workers who are there to try to get them out of these encampments, and it’s very, very different than a sweep.

ECB: How many sanctioned encampments do you think we’ll ultimately need?

EM: I actually don’t know. The growth of homelessness up and down the I-5 corridor in Washington State has grown exponentially over the last year, and now we have cities up and down the corridor in Washington asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ You have parks being taken over in California and suburban cities. I think the answer is not how many tent cities do you set up or how many little houses do you build. I think we have to have a much more significant conversation about what we’re going to do about housing affordability in this country and how we’re, once again, going to have to subsidize at the federal level.

“We weren’t seeing the county step up, and we weren’t seeing the level of leadership on homelessness from the county. So that’s why we put it in our proposal. Now that will be in a county proposal that will be paid for by, hopefully, county and city residents. So I see us as benefiting from that situation.”

ECB: Do you still stand by the Poppe Report, even though it has been used by people who oppose new taxes as a political weapon to argue that we don’t need more money for homelessness?

EM: First of all, [homelessness consultant Barb Poppe] never said that. You know what she said about the levy I proposed? She said she would vote for it. She recognizes that Seattle does not have enough [housing] stock. We asked her to look at our existing services and our existing programs and how our existing services were funded. So we created a box to put her in, because we wanted to know how to reform what we have, and that’s exactly the report that she offered.

The city is going to stick with Pathways Home. Pathways Home identified housing early on. It identifies diversions before people even become homeless. It wasn’t especially strong on the addiction part, but the county knows this.

There are people, particularly in the business community, who think that the city is the reason we have homelessness, and that if the city reforms its delivery of services, according to Barb Poppe, homelessness will go away. If they believe that, they are seriously spending too much time in our new legal marijuana stores. I mean, that’s seriously missing the entire problem.

ECB: What are they missing?

EM: They’re missing the fact that the middle class in this country has shrunk considerably. They’re missing that literally two-thirds of the housing that allowed working families to live, that kind of money that used to come through HUD for working families—that money is gone. That we have an addiction treatment crisis that’s the largest, at least according to the New York Times, in our country’s history, and we are not treating it. We are not paying for it. That we have a mental health system that we took apart the old fashioned way and we replaced it with nothing. So that’s what we need to be looking at. Homelessness, actually, is a word that does more harm towards trying to solve the underlying problem than any other phrase I can think of because we have more than homelessness crisis.

ECB: Barb Poppe did sort of say that she doesn’t consider homelessness an affordability issue—that she thinks the main problem is just that we aren’t we’re allocating our services efficiently. Do you think it’s an affordability issue?

EM: I believe it is both an affordability issue and an issue about how we’re allocating our resources. Look at our shelter system. One of the things that she pointed out is our shelter system is basically broken. We haven’t competitively bid that system in 10 years. So we just write checks. We don’t ask [providers], ‘Did Jill Smith stay stable when she left your shelter for two years?’ And then we find out we have people living in shelters for 16, 17 years, and we’re calling that housing.

“There are people who think that the city is the reason we have homelessness, and that if the city reforms its delivery of services, homelessness will go away. If they believe that, they are seriously spending too much time in our new legal marijuana stores. I mean, that’s seriously missing the entire problem.”

So she’s absolutely right that there’s a resource issue, that the existing resources are absolutely broken. We definitely have a system that’s disconnected from itself and we can reduce the problem significantly. Just look at the fact that homeless kids—these kids who are first-graders, fifth-graders. who are sleeping in cars or couch-surfing with their parents and going to school every day—those kids would go to the county and be put on a list. And the list, not intentionally, had a perverse incentive that said, ‘You need to be homeless longer.’ We went with the Pathways Home reforms and we now house those people immediately. We have a goal, I think it’s probably an 18-month goal, to try and house all of our school-age children and their families.

ECB: You announced recently that the city is postponing the opening of the Navigation Center [a 24/7, low-barrier shelter for homeless men, women, and pets] because of objections from the Chinatown/International District community. Is the Navigation Center still going to happen, and do you regret how you handled the outreach for that project?

EM: I have regretted things about the outreach in every single neighborhood that we’ve tried to place services for the homeless, because every single neighborhood has had a problem. So I have not found yet, as mayor, the way that you get people to approve a homelessness facility in a process that doesn’t veto the facility itself.

I believe it will be built. We are having discussions with the community. We are identifying issues that we can work with. And I have also made a commitment to the community, as I’ve made around all these things: If it doesn’t work, we’ll close it down. It’s an experiment. It’s a pilot project. Maybe it works in San Francisco and it doesn’t work in Seattle .

ECB: Does the pushback you’ve received on the Navigation Center, and the delay on that project, bode poorly for a safe drug consumption site, if neighborhood protests are enough to derail a controversial project?

EM: I think it makes it very difficult. It’s going to be a really difficult discussion, and it’s not just difficult because of the siting problems.

But it was very interesting in Canada, talking to people who deal with this issue, they saw it as a value, because at least it keeps the person alive. They leave hope for another day for treatment. What I hear a lot in Seattle, or maybe just up and down the radios on the West Coast, is that there’s some kind of, like, Puritan aspect in our DNA. It’s like, ‘Well, if they’re using it, it’s immoral. It’s this idea that if you’re using something that might kill you, that’s your choice. So I think there’s going to be a pretty significant battle over this issue.

ECB: Do you feel that HALA has accomplished everything you wanted it to, given all the compromises you ended up making, such as taking small-scale density increases like backyard cottages off the tbale?

EM: When a version of the proposal was leaked before it was even written or even in a final form, the issue of accessory dwellings—ADU, DADU, whatever you want to call them—was the first issue to blow up, and [council members] Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess and the Times thought we might need to take another look at it. We get most of our growth not from ADUs or DADUs—we get most of our growth and most of our affordability from the [HALA] Grand Bargain. I didn’t want to let anything upset the Grand Bargain. We are proceeding now on a separate track on the ADU/DADU thing. And you know, I have done this before—you break things in pieces and you do it incrementally and you get the whole. And we’re really close to getting the whole.

ECB: Traditional neighborhood groups were furious at you when you cut ties with the neighborhood district councils. What are you hearing from them now, and how have the city’s efforts at community engagement worked out since then?

EM: It’s probably the thing I’ve heard the least amount of criticism about, maybe because the different techniques we’ve been using to engage people in civic and city issues seem to be getting people excited.

 We used to have a town hall meeting when I was in the legislature, with whoever my seatmate was—Pat Thibadeau and Frank [Chopp], and then Frank and Jamie [Pedersen], and every year we’d have 100 people from one side of the spectrum, very, very, very loud and often very, vert angry. And then we started doing these telephone town hall meetings, both in the legislature and on issues like HALA, where you’d have 3,000 to 7000 people on the phone, who stay on the phone for an hour and ask questions and give you input. That’s very, very different than the people who show up in one room.

Let me just give you one example: Millennials don’t give up summer evenings to sit in a room of people yelling at each other. We have to change. The world is changing how it communicates and we in the city need to change how we communicate. And the fact that [the district councils] took it as a threat—they shouldn’t have. They should have taken it as an opportunity to say, ‘Wow, we can do something really exciting. And in regards to [the funding the city provided district councils], it didn’t meet our [Race and Social Justice Initiative] demographic requirements for when we spend money. We were basically asking a group of people like me –older white homeowners, almost entirely—to make all these decisions, and to me, that is a violation of our own city policy.

ECB: Bike sharing is starting or expanding across the country—except here. Was the failure of Pronto a failure on your part? Why did you abandon it rather than trying to emulate what other successful cities have done?

EM: I’ll take responsibility. We chose the wrong model. We chose a nonprofit model that didn’t work. The way it was run, the administrative cost overheads of that nonprofit, their financial model didn’t work, and probably we should have had a better understanding of that from the very beginning.

We probably have read  20 articles on a loss of a million and a half dollars to the city of Seattle [on Pronto] versus a 70-and-a-half-million dollar loss on the seawall that sort of had a one-page article [in the Seattle Times] on my first day in office and then disappeared. So yeah, we made a mistake. But will Seattle have bikeshare? Yeah, Seattle will have bikeshare some day, and it’ll be bikeshare that is based on a much better model, a financial model that pencils out—and also, I think, an equipment model that pencils out and is more usable in a city that has topography like we do.

ECB: You were a supporter of the tunnel project. Even though Bertha has broken through, there is still heated debate about who will pay for the cost overruns on the project. Do you consider the tunnel project a success, and will the city ultimately be on the hook for overruns?

EM: I think it was the right move. This is a city that has grown exponentially since this project was conceived, and if we’re going to keep that corridor moving, we need the tunnel. We need the street level [roadway]. We need the transit that’s going to come through that corridor between West Seattle and Ballard. That’s the only way that system is going to work. We’re going to get a world-class park that will become the most iconic thing that’s happened to Seattle since the World’s Fair.

The attorney general of the state of Washington at the time [the tunnel was approved], a Republican [Rob McKenna], issued an opinion that said that you cannot make a local jurisdiction pay for a state road. And by the way, I would love to see this pass the legislature, and all those Republican legislators would have to realize, ‘Oh, if we’re going to enforce this, we’re going to have to do some follow-up legislation based on the attorney general’s opinion which means I’m going to put my small city in my rural Republican district on the hook for having to pay for a state road.’ It’s not happening. As someone who spent most of my legislative career on transit, I feel pretty strongly that Seattle will not pay for the cost overruns for a state road.

ECB: What are your biggest regrets from your term?

My biggest regret is that one of the thing I focused on in my inaugural address was the need to focus on partnerships for education. And while the Education Summit was a success—as successful as the one 25 years ago under Norm Rice—part of the work we haven’t gotten to is taking it to scale—identifying the money, building a different relationship with the private sector in our school system, and taking it to the next step. We made some good progress in building a relationship with the school district—[Seattle School Board member] Betty Patu told me this was the best relationship she’s ever seen between the city and the school district —but these things are all in just their beginning stages. I had thought this, not homelessness, would be one of the key issues I would be working on reforming.

ECB: And your legacy? What do you want to be remembered for?

EM: I ran it [the office of the mayor] equity. Ninety percent of that growth you’ve seen out there was permitted before I became mayor, but we had no successful plan to grow affordably. HALA is a huge accomplishment in getting towards affordability. The minimum wage could easily have turned into a ballot measure; instead, we phased it in and we had a process that other cities are hoping to copy. The police department has gone from a city with a mayor that was fighting with a justice department – the Obama justice department – and the federal court and the federal monitors, to a city with the new chief and new leadership cooperating with the federal monitor, cooperating with the federal judge. Again and again, we have seen progress, and we have seen that progress recognized. A lot of public pensions are sideways. Ours isn’t. I inherited a seawall that had $71 million in cost overruns because they basically hid the numbers. We now have that back on target and balanced.

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, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

With Transitional Housing Under Fire, Rapid Rehousing Remains Unproven

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-1-20-45-pm

Graphic from Seattle Human Services Coalition letter responding to Murray’s Pathways Home proposal.

As the city council indicates it will delay any decision about how to address the issue of homeless encampments until December (a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to officially bar camping in parks appears to be the template on which the council will work once they adopt a budget), another, more sweeping homelessness proposal moves to the front burner.

Pathways Home, Murray’s response to two consultants’ reports suggesting a move away from transitional housing (a fairly structured, and costly, form of housing that includes supportive services) to “rapid rehousing,” would mandate a major shift in the way the city funds housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition to shifting funds away from transitional housing, the proposal would change the city’s funding model from a provider-centered framework (in which housing providers create programs to serve the specific groups that are their clients, such as veterans) to a funder-centered model (in which funders, including the city and United Way, determine the best way to allocate funds and providers must adapt.)

On the ground, it means that less-“efficient” programs, like the Low-Income Housing Institute’s transitional apartments for veterans and Muslims, will be cut and replaced with “rapid rehousing” funds to provide homeless people from all backgrounds with temporary (three-to-nine-month) vouchers for housing in the private market. After the vouchers run out, most recipients will be on their own.

There’s a lot to unpack in this radical shift from the current model to the new voucher-based system, but let’s start at the top: With HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD determines federal housing policy, which filters down to states and municipalities, and right now, they’re all about rapid rehousing. That’s understandable: According to the Focus Strategies report on which (along with a set of recommendations known as the Poppe Report) Pathways Home is partly based, transitional housing “is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city, respectively, is $924, $967, and $949. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.)

So what does this purported cost savings mean for homeless people? That’s unclear, in part because rapid rehousing is such a new strategy—just five or six years old. According to Rachel Fyall, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who is studying rapid rehousing, the best study on rapid rehousing, called Family Options, only includes 18 months of data and only evaluated families with children; in Seattle, rapid rehousing is being touted as the best option specifically for single men, who tend to be the hardest to house. In other words, the study most commonly cited as evidence that rapid rehousing works to get people out of homelessness is short-term and didn’t study the very population for whom it’s supposed to work in Seattle.

“Rapid rehousing is very new,” Fyall says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this, and I’m sometimes frustrated by claims that this is evidence based and proven.”

Fyall (who stipulates bluntly that “transitional housing is not a good idea” for getting people into permanent housing either) is currently finishing up work on a study of a new rapid rehousing program run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle. Looking at the data so far, she says “the jury is out” on whether rapid rehousing actually gets people into “permanent housing” long-term, or whether people are forced back into homelessness once their subsidies run out. “We don’t know what happens to them, and that is the big unknown of rapid rehousing generally,” Fyall says.

Another big unknown is whether rapid rehousing actually houses people who wouldn’t have been able to exit homelessness on their own, or whether most of those who are quickly able to get by in the private rental market would have done so anyway.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like Fyall a skeptic of both approaches, says that DESC’s rapid rehousing program “by and large ends up being used for the higher-functioning folks who will move into an apartment, get an agreement with a landlord, and make it work for a few months.” What the studies haven’t done, he says, is compare people who receive temporary subsidies to those “who have not gotten rapid rehousing assistance and got out out of homelessness anyway. That’s the crux of the matter: Is rapid rehousing doing anything that wasn’t going to happen naturally?”

Malone also notes that the small amount of data that exists on rapid rehousing programs indicates that while people on vouchers don’t immediately fall back into homelessness once their rent subsidies run out, they also don’t tend to stay in their original, subsidized apartments. Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI and someone whose programs stand to lose a lot of funding under Pathways Home, says, “If they would just say rapid rehousing is a shelter—’rapid rehousing means we’ll get you off the street, and you can have three months of being off the street in market-rate housing’—that would be more honest.”

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that manages homelessness policy across King County, says he understands Lee’s frustration but adds that right now, the county and city are under a HUD mandate to shift away from longer-term transitional housing and “just house people any way we can, wherever we can while we are fighting the advocacy battle to get our [housing] trust fund funded” by the state and federal governments. “It’s the reality of where we are right now. … We need more resources, but these are also reality-based recommendations. Can we house more people with [our current] resources? The answer is yes.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city is $924, $967, and $949, respectively. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.) What that means in practice is that formerly homeless people will be cast out after a few months of subsidy into a private market that is unaffordable even for many middle-class people.

Pathways Home brushes aside concerns about the relative unaffordability of Seattle by suggesting that people may just have to make some tough choices—like paying much larger proportions of their income in rent (current HUD standards for “affordability” say you should spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and utilities), or by moving out of town. From the Focus Strategies report:

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County. RRH is not an anti-poverty program, so households may pay a significant portion of their income for rent if it makes the difference between being unsheltered and being housed. Households should have the option of sharing units if that makes their rental budget stretch further. Clients should also have the option to move to areas where housing is cheaper. In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments.”

That may sound fine when you’re moving widgets around a map. But when you’re moving people around a region—particularly a region in which poor people, people of color, immigrant communities, and many other marginalized populations are being pushed out of an ever-wealthier Seattle—such a strategy raises huge questions about equity and economic inequality. Is it fair to say that poor people just have to live where we tell them to, even if that means they’re torn away from their jobs, friends, family, social structures, and community supports? Should immigrants who want to live among people who speak their language, or single moms who rely on family members for child care, or low-income workers who rely on public transit, be required to move to isolated areas away from those supports? And at a time when Seattle is setting up programs to help low-income residents, such as the pilot “universal preschool” initiative, does it make sense to tell many of those same residents that their only option may be moving to another county?

“[Rapid rehousing] programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” — Focus Strategies

Merril Cousin, director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, says while the city tries to save money and move people indoors, they should consider those people’s individual circumstances, rather than treating them as problems to be solved through increased efficiencies. For the domestic violence victims she works with, for example, “being able to maintain social support is really important to a survivor’s ability to get safe and heal from the the abuse,” and Cousin says that need for social support extends to lots of other communities.

“If we want to have a diverse and vibrant community, we can’t just say to people, ‘Just go somewhere else.’ Families are already fleeing Seattle because it’s not affordable here, and now we’re saying, ‘Veterans, you can’t afford to live here, go somewhere else. Poor people, go somewhere else,'” Cousin says. “To say, ‘Your only option is to move away from a community where you may have social support and services’—that doesn’t lead to self-sufficiency and wholeness. Social support is an incredibly important part of that.”

 

Putnam, with All Home, says he doesn’t disagree, but argues that without additional funding from the state and the feds, the city and county have to do whatever houses the most people, even if that means dislocating them from their communities.

“Moving them away—that’s a tough thing for the city to feel okay about,” Putnam says. “If everybody needs to leave Seattle or leave King County, that’s not the ideal, but my job is to get people into housing. To me, equity is about getting people housed.”

“One of the calls for us at the systems level is that we’re trying to house as many people as we can with the resources that we have,” Putnam adds, and “It seems like the choice right now between people living in tents in Seattle versus apartments somewhere else.”

Lee, whose organization runs transitional housing for teenagers, vets, immigrants, and other groups, says All Home assumes, unfairly, that the system for housing homeless people can be “fixed” simply by reshuffling money and people around, rather than by adding funds for all sorts of housing, including transitional programs. “I think the problem with Mark Putnam is that he thinks it’s a zero- sum game: We should ‘right-size’ [a term that appears several times in the Focus Strategies report] and therefore if we want to do more rapid rehousing, we have to take away from someplace else. He’s constructed his own problem. [He’s saying], ‘We shouldn’t be spending more; let’s just find creative ways of doing more with less,’ which can only take you so far.”

Lee notes that one of the longstanding criticisms of groups like hers is that they historically engaged in “creaming”—taking in the easiest-to-serve clients in order to demonstrate high success rates to funders like HUD. She predicts rapid rehousing will have the same effect: Providing apartments for those who were almost able to make it in the private market already, while leaving the most vulnerable, including those who are currently served by “inefficient” transitional housing, behind.

Funders, Lee says, “used to say, ‘You’re only taking people who are going to be successful.’ Well, we know that recent immigrants and refugees are not going to be able to exit transitional housing in three to six months and be successful so you’re setting them up to fail. If Mark Putnam overlays the same requirements [on rapid rehousing], then he’s incentivizing going back to the old way, which is, you’re only going to want to work with people who are going to be successful.

“That’s the problem of feeling like you have to cut services to fund rapid rehousing. If you’ve got 3,000 people on the street, and some of them are homeless young adults and homeless families with multiple [Child Protective Services] involvements around the care of their children, and people with issues around not just income but mental health, you’re going to need more services tied to the housing, and sticking them in market rate housing with just short term rent subsidy isn’t the answer.”

 

Putnam and Lee differ on the issue of whether HUD’s shift away from transitional housing is a mandate on Seattle or an unproven idea from which Seattle can deviate. Lee points to the Seattle Housing Authority’s Stepping Forward program—a Pathways Home-style initiative that would have increased some public housing residents’ rent up to 400 percent—as a time when Seattle decided to go its own way and abandon a market-based strategy that was pushed by the feds. Putnam says funding from HUD is contingent on adopting “performance-based contracting” and moving away from transitional housing, so Lee’s strategy is unrealistic.

Fyall, the UW researcher, suggest that the real solution may be long-term housing subsidies—especially in a market, like Seattle’s, where people who work multiple jobs find it hard to stay afloat.

“A key component of homelessness is the inability to afford housing, and for many people, affordability”—not mental health or addiction or any other personal issue—”is really the number one difference between people who are homeless and pole who are housed: They can’t afford a place to live,” Fyall says. She says some groups cite the 18-month Family Options study (which will be updated with 37 months of data in December) as “the success of rapid rehousing, which I find bogus, because my read on the study is that the only thing that works permanently is a permanent subsidy, and the rest of it is just spitting people back into homelessness.”

“When I think about the homelessness problem in our region, everything that’s happening at a intervention level is really just bailing out buckets of water from the ocean of rising rents,” Fyall says. “When you have people at all income levels struggling to find housing that is affordable to them, that is what I would consider the root cause of homelessness.”

And here’s what Focus Strategies has to say about affordability. “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in Seattle/King County is critical to the community making progress towards ending homelessness.”

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time 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.

Rapid Rehousing: A Word of Caution

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-1-14-42-pm

Something about the proposed shift away from transitional housing (which provides supportive services like job and life skills training, as well as help getting jobs, benefits, and child care for those who need it) toward “rapid rehousing” (“a relatively new program type that provides homeless individuals and families with a short term rental subsidy (usually up to about six months), after which they take over responsibility for paying their own rent,” according to the city’s Focus Strategies report“) reminds me of welfare reform.

Remember welfare reform? (Millennials: “Nope!”) The idea, promoted by Republicans and championed by then-President Bill Clinton, was to get people off cash assistance and into jobs as quickly as possible, by cutting off assistance after two years and most welfare recipients to get jobs. Like rapid rehousing (and Section 8 housing vouchers, which replaced most public housing projects), welfare reform was supposed to be “a hand up, not a hand out.” It was also supposed to include guaranteed jobs for people who couldn’t find employment in the private sector, but the Republicans who controlled Congress in the mid-1990s made short work of that. Ultimately, the number of families receiving direct cash benefits from the government was cut in half (even as need for these benefits increased), and the number of people living in extreme poverty doubled.

That’s the issue with getting rid of, or even drastically reducing, funding for transitional housing. It looks great on paper—rapid rehousing costs a fraction of the cost of transitional housing, $11,507 compared to $32,627 per household—but what happens to all those people who are left to fend for themselves on the private market after three, six, or nine months? Is it realistic to believe that someone who can pay $100 in rent when they enter the system will be able to pay for a $1,500 apartment six months later? The Poppe and Focus Strategies reports, which look at just five rapid rehousing projects in Seattle, conclude triumphantly that rapid rehousing is far less expensive than more intensive transitional housing, but even they have to acknowledge that the rate of exit to permanent housing in those programs, at 52 percent, “is well below what is common in high-performing RRH programs.”

Nationally, even those “high-performing” programs are scarce and graded on a curve. In a survey of the few rapid rehousing programs that are up and running in the US, only a quarter of participants were in the same apartment one year after their subsidies ended, meaning that they couldn’t afford their rent after their subsidies ran out, not surprising since their incomes increased only marginally ($15 a month for every month a family was in rapid rehousing in a Philadelphia survey). The survey does conclude that rapid rehousing reduces the number of people who return to unsheltered homelessness with a year compared to transitional housing, but those numbers were already low: from 9 percent of those leaving transitional housing to 4 percent of those leaving rapid rehousing programs.

And remember, rapid rehousing is “relatively new.” We don’t know that rapid rehousing “works” long term. What we do know for certain is that it’s cheaper.

Cheaper, at least, for the government agencies that fund housing providers. But for renters experiencing homelessness, it can have profound consequences. If circumstances, job loss, family disruption, or other factors prevent newly “rehoused” renters from being able to make their payments, they may face eviction, which will not only render them homeless (or unstably housed) again but will make it much harder for them to rent in the future. (Advocates for rapid rehousing say people who can’t make it on the private market will have access to other options, like permanent supportive housing with extensive—and expensive—wraparound services, but not all families and individuals will qualify for, or need, such intensive care; many just need affordable housing).

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County,” the Focus Strategies report concludes.

The Focus Strategies and Poppe reports make clear that when they talk about rapid rehousing, they don’t mean affordable housing, nor do they mean housing that an individual would pick for herself. For all their talk of taking a “person-centered approach,” the reports suggest strongly that individuals and families should be required to accept whatever housing becomes available on a first-come, first-served basis, even if that housing is many miles removed from their community, job, extended family, services, and other support systems. “RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County,” the Focus Strategies report concludes.

Nor does this purely utilitarian view take into account the fact that if we focus on those who’ve been unsheltered the longest (generally older, single men with criminal histories and issues with mental health, addiction, or both), we risk letting other vulnerable people (women fleeing domestic violence, kids who just ran away from home) fall through the cracks. These issues should raise concern for council members considering whether to adopt a purely “performance-based” approach to housing the 4,000-plus people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Homeless people are still people with preferences and autonomy; they should not be manipulated like chess pieces to satisfy empty promises like “ending unsheltered homelessness through increased efficiency.”

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Council Skeptical of Plan That Could Require Moving Homeless Out of Town

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-49-36-pm

The city council started getting into the details of Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget for homelessness-related programs yesterday, and it was clear from the start of the meeting that many of them don’t plan to let the mayor ram his Pathways Home proposal, which would radically reshape the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness, through without careful scrutiny.

I’ve written before about Pathways Home and the so-called Poppe Report on which it’s based, but here’s the gist: The proposal, which hews to new federal guidelines that encourage cities to shift away from funding more expensive (and longer-term) transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers that subsidize rent on the private market, would eliminate funding for “low-performance” programs and emphasize housing for those who have been homeless the longest, as opposed to those who are most vulnerable or are merely unstably housed.

The proposal also has the potential to eliminate or ignore personal agency in choosing where to live; according to a report by the consulting firm Focus Strategies, on which the Poppe report and Pathways home are largely based, “In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments. … While this may feel unsatisfying to providers and runs contrary to community goals relating to diversity and combatting gentrification and displacement, the alternative is leaving families and individuals with long stays in shelters or living in tents or sleeping in cars.” The report also recommends a shift away from transitional housing programs that serve specific populations, such as veterans (who may benefit from living with other veterans rather than scattered in isolated apartments across the county), domestic-violence survivors, and immigrants and refugees.

This concept—that homeless people who live in high-cost housing markets like Seattle should be willing to leave behind their communities, support systems, services, and employment opportunities just to get a roof over their heads— didn’t slip past council members Friday.

Council member Kshama Sawant pointed to a footnote in the Focus Strategies report noting that “in San Francisco, where rents are extremely high, it is common practice for [rapid rehousing programs to assist families to re-locate upwards of 60 miles from the City to other counties where rents are lower.” (Side note: The report explicitly says it is not concerned with affordability, and that if people end up having to spend half their income or more on housing, at least that’s better than sleeping outside. The current federal, county, and city standard for “affordability” is that a person spend no more than 30 percent of his or her income on housing.)

“I don’t think, in any reasonable definition of housing people effectively, does this count, because where are they going to go?” Sawant said. “Sixty miles away? We know what the housing situation is in San Francisco.” Indeed, the Focus Strategies report points to Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Hennepin County, MN as examples where a shift to rapid rehousing in the private rental market has been effective at housing people who had lived in shelters for months or years—all places where median rent is a fraction of what it is in Seattle.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-45-41-pm

Lisa Herbold, another skeptic of the Pathways Home proposal, pointed to Hennepin County as an example in which government funders and service providers tried rapid rehousing on a trial basis before closing down shelters and transitional housing programs to test whether that was the right approach, and provided supportive services to assist those moving from shelter to voucher-subsidized housing in the private market.

“I’m concerned that the Pathways Home approach, as we’re looking at it right now, will mean pathways home for people who are staying outside unsheltered, but it will mean a pathway out of town for other people who are using [transitional and shelter] housing services,” Herbold said. Moreover, “I don’t feel like the Poppe Report recommendations really did a really good job of identifying solutions and strategies that match our high-cost housing.”

Murray’s proposed budget includes nearly a half-million dollars in additional spending in 2017 and 2018 to “staff Pathways Home implementation,” which implies that the city council is supposed to embrace the Poppe recommendations in next year’s city budget, which the council will adopt next month. The skepticism some council members expressed on Friday suggests that Murray may be in for another battle.

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 run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.