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 “It passed a job-killing head-tax that was embarrassingly repealed.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: The “Unique Problem” That Separates Us from Salt Lake City and Houston

1. A line of people and pets snaked along the eastern perimeter of CenturyLink Field yesterday morning as the United Way’s annual Community Resource Exchange, an annual event where volunteers and service providers offer resources, food, dental care, and other services to people experiencing homelessness. Upstairs, in the stadium’s event center, a decidedly more well-heeled crowd gathered for an event called the Changemakers Rally—a series of short speeches, actually, followed by a panel discussion with leaders from Amazon, Starbucks, and Zillow, along with All Home, the Chief Seattle Club, and United Way. The highlight of the odd event wasn’t the anodyne address by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who skirted substance in her speech and during the brief Q&A with remarks like, “We need to commit over time to make this change in people’s lives for every day of their lives” and “We know what works, we just need to do it and have the collective will to do it.” Nor was it an awkward onstage back-and-forth between United Way board chair Kathy Surace-Smith and Justin Butler, a formerly homeless Metropolitan Improvement District Ambassador who moved here from Phoenix and couldn’t be prodded to say much more about the Community Resource Exchange beyond, “Well, it got me a job.”

No, the highlight was when Starbucks VP John Kelly took the mic and used his time to blast the Seattle City Council for considering an employee hours tax to fund investments in homelessness at a cost of up to $75 million a year, a proposal he called an example of the way “our government keeps on targeting [businesses] as a  source of funds rather than innovators and problem solvers.” Starbucks has focused its homelessness spending on family homelessness, as has Ohio homelessness consultant Barb Poppe, whose famous/infamous “Poppe Report” is the blueprint for Seattle’s Pathways Home initiative. Kelly highlighted that report, which calls on the city to move funding away from service-rich transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers to help people rent apartments on the private market. “We know the decisions, we’ve got the Poppe Report with all the solutions, the blueprint is there—we just need to act on reform,” Kelly said. “Barbara Poppe has worked with Salt Lake City and Houston and seen demonstrable progress.”

The “unique problem” that differentiates  Seattle from those two cities, Kelly continued, is that only Seattle has a large number of families living on the streets and in cars. The other difference, of course, is that Seattle apartments cost about twice as much as apartments in either of those cities, thanks in no small part to a housing shortage that is also unlike anything Houston or Salt Lake City is experiencing.

2. A curious addendum to the saga of former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned last year amid accusations that he had sexually abused several minors in the past: Last April, as the scandal was breaking, Murray filed a financial disclosure report showing that he owned just one property—his Seattle house on Capitol Hill, valued at $876,000. (I came across Murray’s financial documents while I was looking into an item related to current Mayor Jenny Durkan’s own investments). That was odd, because a previous financial disclosure report, from 2016, showed that he owned another house—a three-bedroom, two-bath vacation home in the coastal community of Seabrook, which Murray and his husband Michael Shiosaki bought in November 2015 for $470,000.

Murray amended the report to include his second home six weeks after filing the initial report without it. However, those six weeks—from April 14, when he filed the initial report, to May 31, when he corrected it—were critical ones. During April and May, while the press was all over the story, Murray repeatedly pleaded poverty—claiming, for example, that he needed a special dispensation from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission allowing him to raise money from supporters for his own legal defense because as “a lifelong public servant, [he] does not have the personal resources needed to fund his own legal defense.” Murray also told Q13 Fox that he had “no assets.” Referring to his house in Seattle, he said,  “Michael owns the house.” In fact, both Shiosaki and Murray, who are married, are listed as the owners of both houses.

The mis-filed report could have been a simple oversight, and the addition of the house didn’t change Murray’s total assets, which he listed in 2017 as $1.8 million. Murray and Shiosaki still own the Seabrook house, which can be rented for between $148 and $335, depending on the season. One other bit of historical trivia: In 2013, when he was still a state senator, Murray earmarked $437,000 in the state budget for a new bike and pedestrian connection between Pacific Beach and Seabrook—at the time a brand-new planned community—at the request of a longtime friend who owned a house there. Not long afterward, the friend maxed out to Murray’s first campaign. And about two years after that, Murray himself bought a vacation house in the town.

3. After the Seattle Times reported last week that, according to King County Metro, the downtown Seattle streetcar will cost 50 percent more to operate than the Seattle Department of Transportation previously claimed, Mayor Durkan requested an independent review of the $177 million megaproject, which is already under construction. On Tuesday, city budget director Ben Noble told the council’s transportation committee that the mayor’s office is concerned about “whether we have accurate information about the operating costs and… potentially the capital costs as well.” That prompted council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime opponent of the streetcar, to suggest “pressing pause” on the project until the city could get a handle on how much it will cost to operate and build (and how the city will pay for any overruns). Goran Sparrman, SDOT’s interim director, suggested that putting the project on ice, even temporarily, could put federal funds at risk and lead to higher costs in the future, since the cost of labor and materials tends to escalate while projects are idle.

Fans of the downtown streetcar, which will link the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, will conclude from today’s discussion that it makes sense to keep plowing ahead with the project; even if the thing is over budget, the costs will only get worse if we wait. Detractors, meanwhile, will see that argument as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy—the idea that because the city has already invested so much in the project, the only option is to keep building, when in fact, there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead.

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.

City Bets Big on Enhanced Shelter, Rapid Rehousing in New Homeless Spending Plan

Mayor Tim Burgess: “Business as usual is not really an option.”

Homeless service providers and the city of Seattle say they’re confident that they can double the number of people moved from homelessness to permanent housing in the next year through a combination of traditional tools like permanent supportive housing and private market-based solutions like rapid rehousing with short-term rent assistance vouchers. Yesterday, the city’s Human Services Department released a list of programs, operated by 30 local organizations and agencies, that will receive $34 million in new homeless service contracts. By this time next year, Mayor Tim Burgess predicted yesterday, the city will have moved “more than twice as many people from homelessness to permanent homes compared to this year.” Burgess added that he has “confidence … that the new approach will be effective. …I recognize this is a huge change, but it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need that we face on the streets of Seattle. Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.” See below for sassy footnote.*

The city also released a list of the dozens of projects that did not receive city dollars because they failed to meet HSD’s new funding standards, which prioritizes low-barrier shelters and programs that promise to get people into housing quickly over longer-term transitional housing and “mats-on-the-floor” shelters that have high barriers to entry and don’t emphasize permanent housing. This year, according to HSD, 56 percent of the city’s shelter funding goes to bare-bones night shelters; as of next year, “mats-on-the-floor” shelters will make up just 15 percent of HSD’s shelter budget, with the remainder going to enhanced shelters. Overall, there will be 300 fewer HSD-funded shelter beds in the city.

Several longstanding programs will be defunded partially or completely, including the SHARE/WHEEL nightly shelter program, which provides high-barrier nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people per night. (SHARE’s shelters are high-barrier because they require adherence to a long list of rules that varies from shelter to shelter, require prospective shelter residents to pass a “screen” by a current member, and restrict residents’ comings and goings—for example, by requiring them to stay at a shelter consistently for a certain number of nights.) HSD deputy director Jason Johnson confirmed yesterday that SHARE’s application for $694,153 to run its shelters ranked dead last among all applications for emergency shelter service funding; its sister organization for women, WHEEL, also ranked poorly, according to HSD.

HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said that in deciding which providers received funding, the agency prioritized “quality” over “quantity,” noting that having to line up every night for a shelter bed is stressful and makes it harder for homeless people to improve their lives.

 

“Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” HSD director Catherine Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

 

In response to yesterday’s announcement, SHARE released a portion of the application it submitted to HSD (the full applications will be unavailable, HSD officials said, until after an appeal period concludes on December 12), which asserted that the city’s goal of drastically increasing the rate at which people move from homelessness to permanent housing “is a painful impossibility considering the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.  Demanding it forces competition, false promises, and a practice commonly called ‘creaming’—programs rejecting hard-to-serve folks to gain better housing outcomes.” SHARE has been vocal during the city council’s budget deliberations, and will almost certainly show up at city hall to protest the cuts; they will still receive funding to operate the city’s six sanctioned tent encampments.

Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

HSD’s prediction about how successful its new approach will be does appear optimistic in light of the high, and growing, cost of living in Seattle, where a one-bedroom market-rate apartment might cost $1,800 to $2,000. As Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization lost funding for two transitional housing projects in the Central District and Georgetown, noted pointedly, permanent housing is always the ultimate goal—but vouchers for formerly homeless people to rent on the private market will only work if people can go from minimal or no income to a relatively high income extremely quickly. If, as seems more likely, they can’t, they may end up worse off than when they accepted the voucher—homeless again, but now with a broken lease or eviction on their record.

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold,” Lee said. “I think there is a way to lie with statistics. I think they say, ‘We put someone into market-rate housing, and if they don’t show up in the [Homeless Management Information System] later, then it is successful,’ but they haven’t checked” to see if that person is still living in the “permanent housing” after their rent subsidy runs out. Lee said that about 80 percent of the people who live in LIHI-owned and -operated transitional housing would not be good candidates for rapid rehousing, because they are living with physical and developmental disabilities, PTSD, or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing would be the solution, but we don’t have enough permanent supportive housing”—long-term housing with wraparound services. (Interestingly, as SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield points out, HSD appears to estimate the cost of each “exit” to permanent supportive housing as just $1,778 per household, which is far less than any other program, including diversion, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing.).

Enhanced shelters, like the 24-hour, low-barrier Navigation Center that opened earlier this year, are also key to HSD’s plan to permanently house 7,400 people by the end of 2018. The goal is to move most clients through enhanced shelter and into permanent housing within 60 days—but that goal, as I’ve reported, has been harder to achieve in practice than the city predicted. (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it should be noted, has issued a mandate saying people should move through enhanced shelters and into permanent housing in no more than 30 days.) As of October, the Navigation Center, which is run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center had housed just one person—in transitional housing, not the permanent housing the city hopes will be the key to solving the homelessness crisis. (Another person left town, saying they planned to move in with family.)

 

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold.”—Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

 

Asked why they have confidence that other low-barrier, high-service shelters will be able to rapidly move people from homelessness to permanent housing when the Navigation Centers has struggled, HSD staffers said only that they have faith in the organizations that were chosen for funding and that the 7,400 number is actually a lowball, based on the assumption that most enhanced shelters will need some amount of “ramp-up time.” Johnson also alluded to the need for the Navigation Center to show “fidelity to the San Francisco model,” a reference to the original Navigation Center in that city, on which Seattle’s Navigation Center is modeled. But San Francisco’s Navigation Center benefited early on from the fact that San Francisco was able to steer clients into units the city owned, which meant that people exiting the center didn’t have to find units in the private market; now those units are full, and recent reports suggest that three-quarters of that Navigation Center’s clients have failed to find permanent housing and that most have returned to homelessness.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like LIHI’s Lee, points to high rents in the Seattle area as a key barrier to moving people from shelter to housing in the private market. “While some of the resources in this plan will help pay for people to get into housing, I do believe we still have a major problem in this community with the accessibility and availability of housing that’s affordable to low-income people, so I think we’ve got to address both the navigation”—steering people toward the services that can help them—”and the availability of housing in order to achieve the goals that we all share, and I worry that we haven’t paid enough attention to that second part.”

The city’s grants for rapid rehousing providers did not say that the vouchers needed to pay for housing in Seattle, making it a near-certainty that many voucher recipients who would prefer to live close to their current homes, jobs, and communities may be forced to move to suburbs where rent is cheaper. Given that one of the key criteria HSD considered in the grant process was racial equity—the groups that will receive funding include several organizations that serve Native Americans, African Americans, and African immigrants—I was surprised that HSD was so blithe about pushing more low-income people, especially people of color, out of the city. Lester, the HSD director, said it was a question of priorities: Is it more important to make sure people can find housing in Seattle, or to get them off of the streets or out of their cars? “Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

As readers of this blog may recall, the city council is still discussing ways to put more funding into homeless services, after rejecting a $125-per-employee tax on the city’s largest 1,100 or so employers. If that funding comes through, HSD staffers said yesterday, the agency already has a list of “tier two” projects that didn’t quite make the cut for this round of funding.

A full list of the projects that received funding is available here.

* Permanent housing, by the way, doesn’t always mean a room or an apartment; it also includes things like crashing on a couch with friends or moving out of the state to live with family; the thing that makes it “permanent” is that it isn’t time-limited, and the thing that makes it “successful” in the city’s eyes is that a person doesn’t re-register as officially homeless with the county, so people who pack up to be homeless elsewhere are out of sight, out of mind.

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.

Rapid Rehousing Didn’t Work Out. Now Lisa Sawyer May Face Eviction.

Image via Facing Homelessness.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before.  They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a  black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.

Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”

The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.

In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.

Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.

“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking.  We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)

“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?'”

Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.

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.

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 New Homelessness Count Numbers Are Bad. But What Do They Tell Us?

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!

The latest homelessness count is out, the numbers are (as expected) bad—although the methodology this year is different, making direct comparisons somewhat dicey, the total number of homeless King County residents is up, and more people are living on Seattle and King County streets unsheltered than in any previous count.

But what does the King County Point-In-Time Count (formerly known as the One Night Count) reveal about our county’s population? What does it say about how well our efforts to address the homelessness crisis are working? And what conclusions can we draw from its findings, which show progress on some fronts but stagnation on others? And finally, how much do the numbers give a true picture of the crisis—and what do they obscure?

First, the numbers. The PIT count, which was conducted for King County’s coordinating agency for homeless services, All Home, by the California Company Applied Survey Research at a cost of $120,000, found 11,643 people living in shelters, on the streets, or in transitional housing across King County; of those, 5,845 were living unsheltered—on the streets, in vehicles, in tents, or in abandoned buildings. In Seattle, those numbers were 3,857 and 4,665, respectively. Last year’s count found 4,505 people living unsheltered in King County, and 2,942 in Seattle, although All Home director Mark Putnam pointed out yesterday that the different methodology the two counts used make  a side-by-side comparison difficult.

“We think we did a better job this year of counting,” Putnam said. “We saw more people counted in some of the encampments, because last year we did not count in the Duwamish Greenbelt, or ‘the Jungle,’ and we were out in Covington and all over the county counting.” Previous counts, which were done by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, zeroed in on areas where people were known to be living unsheltered, rather than surveying every single one of the county’s 398 Census districts (Putnam said this year’s count got to 396 of them). Surveying Southeast King County—a vast geographic areas that includes Covington, Black Diamond, and Enumclaw—added 70 people to the unsheltered count, and including Northeast King County, an even larger area encompassing towns like North Bend, Issaquah, and Sammamish, added 119 people. All told, counting the largely unincorporated far eastern portion of the county contributed about 2 percent to the total unsheltered homeless population count.

This year’s count also used paid “guides”—people who were previously homeless and were familiar with the areas they were surveying—to assist volunteers in getting an accurate count. (Skeptics of the new methodology noted that parts of Seattle had fewer people counting this year, and pointed out that some areas were counted by car, rather than on foot, which could have skewed the count. The previous methodology also included survey data, although it was compiled by shelter and transitional housing staff, not a survey company. Critics—like Real Change vendor and board member Shelly Cohen, who testified yesterday at a joint city-county briefing on the numbers—have also argued that All Home should have released the raw count data as soon as they knew the numbers back in January, instead of waiting four months to analyze the data; “you don’t need all the fancy details” to release the preliminary numbers, Cohen said. Putnam responded to such criticism yesterday by noting that other communities that have used similar methodology have yet to release their own detailed homeless data from counts that were also performed in January).

Another difference this year is that ASR interviewed a sample of the county’s homeless population to get a sense of their demographics, including race, sexual orientation, and the reasons they became homeless. The survey also asked people who said they slept in vehicles or tents how many people they lived with, producing a set of multipliers (for example, 1.3 people per tent, or 1.4 per car) that replaced the old multiplier of 2; a lower multiplier, obviously, yields a lower estimate for people living in cars, tents, RVs, vans, and abandoned buildings than a higher one does, which could indicate that the actual number of people living unsheltered has gone up even more precipitously than this year’s numbers indicate.

ASR’s survey for King County largely mirrors the findings of a similar, but separate, survey the company performed for the city of Seattle earlier this year. The new survey, which duplicates the company’s previous efforts and expands them to include the rest of the county, once again punctures several myths about King County’s homeless population. The vast majority (77 percent) were living in permanent housing in King County when they became homeless, and just 9 percent became homeless out of state before moving to King County. Fifty-seven percent have lived in King County for five years or more. People of color are overrepresented in the homeless population, with 55 percent identifying as people of color, and a large number of homeless youth (28 percent) identified as LGBTQ, compared to 14 percent in the rest of the homeless population.

Forty percent of the respondents to ASR’s survey reported a history of domestic violence, including 7 percent who said they were currently in an abusive relationship. Nineteen percent reported a history of foster care. Half said they had at least one physical disability or disabling behavioral health condition, such as psychiatric or emotional conditions (45 percent), drug or alcohol abuse (36 percent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (34 percent).

Forty percent of the respondents to ASR’s survey reported a history of domestic violence, including 7 percent who said they were currently in an abusive relationship. Nineteen percent reported a history of foster care. Half said they had at least one physical disability or disabling behavioral health condition, such as psychiatric or emotional conditions (45 percent), drug or alcohol abuse (36 percent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (34 percent). About 29 percent were employed full-time, part-time, or seasonally, and about 37 percent of those who were unemployed said they had had a job within the last six months.

At a briefing yesterday on the numbers, Putnam, Seattle Human Services Department Director Catherine Lester, and King County Community and Human Services Adrienne Quinn touted the sharp reduction in family homelessness—according to the count, just 3 percent of the county’s unsheltered homeless population consisted of families with children, the result, Quinn said, of “a significant community-wide effort to make sure that no family in this community is unsheltered.” Amazon, for example, recently announced plans to provide Mary’s Place Family Shelter a permanent shelter for 200 homeless women, children, and families on its campus. Similarly, Putnam said yesterday, “All the increase in permanent housing … was on the family side.”

HSD Director Catherine Lester, All Home director Mark Putnam, King County department of Community and Human Services director Adrienne Quinn

But siting shelters for homeless men, who make up almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the county’s homeless population and 71 percent of the chronically homeless population, defined as those who have been homeless for a year or longer, who have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years, and who have a condition that prevents them from maintaining work or housing. These men, Quinn noted, are the hardest and most controversial group to house. Housed people are generally fine living next to women with babies, but when the county wants to site a shelter for single men, “we get pushback [and] it becomes a highly controversial issue.”

“We have tried to site those facilities, and we do have a number of them, but this is where a broader community effort could really facilitate getting people indoors and stabilizing people and helping them to connect with the services that they need,” Quinn said. “We’ve put an ask out to the business community to say, are there spaces we could convert to single adult shelters, particularly in non-residential areas?” So far, the business community has not responded.

“Permanent,” Putnam told me, means that you’ve signed a lease in your own name—not that you’re able to maintain it. In other words, people who are cut off from rapid rehousing vouchers—which happens, Putnam said, after an average of five months—could be almost anywhere.

Another qualified success has been in the area of rapid rehousing—the strategy of giving homeless people short-term vouchers for privately owned apartments with the expectation that they will make enough money to pay full market rent within a few months. Yesterday, Putnam touted the success of the county’s current rapid rehousing programs—of those who sign up for the program, he said, 61 percent are able to find housing within four months, and 95 percent “are in permanent housing” after their subsidy ends—but those numbers require some parsing.

First, 61 percent after four months means that people are remaining homeless for four months before signing up for a housing voucher—and that one in four aren’t getting housing through the program at all.

Second, about that 95 percent success rate: It took some prodding, but eventually, both Putnam and Quinn acknowledged that when they say people in the program were able to stay in “permanent” housing, they don’t actually know how long any of the people in the county’s rapid rehousing programs were able to maintain housing, because no one tracks that data. “Permanent,” Putnam told me, means that you’ve signed a lease in your own name—not that you’re able to maintain it. In other words, people who are cut off from rapid rehousing vouchers—which happens, Putnam said, after an average of five months—could be almost anywhere.

“We track returns to homelessness,” Quinn said, but that only counts people who reenter the county’s formal homelessness system—which means it may not account for most who have been evicted, broken their lease, or ended up couch-surfing, living with family,  or homeless in a different jurisdiction. Sleeping on a friend’s couch is undoubtedly better than sleeping in a doorway, but it isn’t “permanent housing” by any stretch. Quinn said the county simply doesn’t “have the evaluation dollars to track them long-term. We do have some studies that we’re doing with the Gates Foundation” that will provide more clarity on where voucher recipients end up, “but those studies are very expensive,” she says.

Ultimately, the agencies acknowledged, the problem comes down to the lack of affordable housing in King County; indeed, 92 percent of survey respondents said they would move into housing immediately if it was affordable and available, and 23 percent said they became homeless because of issues related to housing affordability. And even as the county continues to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on homelessness, the problem keeps getting worse—Quinn said yesterday that about 40 percent of the people counted in this year’s number were newly homeless. “We saw many people really needing rental assistance rents [as] rose in King County,” Quinn said. “We need more housing that people can afford. That’s the crux of the issue.”

Seattle Goes All In on Rapid Rehousing. D.C. Already Tried That. Here’s What Happened.

Since declaring a homelessness emergency in 2015, the city of Seattle has gone all-in on an a set of recommendations based on a report by Ohio homelessness consultant Barb Poppe called Pathways Home. The strategy, based on the laudable principle that people need housing before they can deal effectively with the other problems that may be keeping them homeless, relies heavily on so-called rapid rehousing—rental assistance vouchers that help formerly homeless people rent market-rate apartments. The idea is to give individuals and families some time to stabilize and, if necessary, find employment before releasing them into the regular rental market. The strategy has been successful at reducing homelessness in other cities, like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Houston, and those successes have frequently been cited as evidence that rapid rehousing can work in Seattle, too.

Critics, including this blog, have pointed out that Seattle is different from those cities in one key respect: Rents here are a lot higher—about double—what they are in Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City If the city provides a voucher for a four-person family to live in an typical $2,700-dollar two-bedroom Seattle apartment, and that family is earning $500 a month when they move in, that means their total income will have to rise by $8,500 a month for that apartment to be affordable under federal affordability guidelines, which stipulate that tenants should pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

Or let’s assume a much cheaper, smaller apartment—say, a $1,500 one-bedroom, shared by that same four-person family—and change the definition of “affordable” to assume that family will pay 40 percent of their income on rent, their income would still have to rise by $3,250 a month to pay the full rent when their voucher runs its course in three, six, or 12 months.

Looking at those numbers, it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to conclude that many of those new renters, still getting their feet under them after weeks, months, or years on the streets, would end up homeless again once their vouchers expired. And in at least one city with housing prices very similar to Seattle, that’s exactly what has happened. A new report by the D.C.-based Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, “Set Up to Fail: Rapid Rehousing in the District of Columbia,” concludes that D.C.’s $31 million-a-year experiment in rapid rehousing has failed. The program, which provided up to 12 months of rental assistance to formerly homeless families, left many families worse off than they were before they entered the program. Although D.C. says the program has an 85 percent success rate, the study’s author, attorney Max Tipping, says that number is illusory—all it indicates is that only 15 percent of the program participants have ended up in D.C. homeless shelters, and does not account for whether clients were evicted, ended up living with friends or family, moved into their vehicles, or ended up homeless in another area.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that families that start out with almost no income are usually unable to start making enough to afford market rents within even 12 months, especially in a very high-cost area like D.C. On average, the report concludes, only about 10 percent of families in the D.C. program increased their income at all—by an average of $68 a month. The result was that families in the program only had enough income, on average, to cover 40 percent of the market rent when their subsidies expired.  Tipping calls this the “rapid rehousing cliff”—the point when a rapid rehousing subsidy ends and a family is left unable to fend for themselves.  “After being  terminated from rapid re-housing, many return to homelessness, now with an eviction or rental debt on their record,” the report concludes.

D.C. and Seattle’s housing prices are roughly comparable; according to the tracking website Rentjungle,  the average two-bedroom in the District is $2,741 a month (compared to $2,734 in Seattle) the average one-bedroom, $2,081 (compared to $2,004 in Seattle).

“The unfortunate reality is that temporary housing subsidies are not a solution to family homelessness in the District’s expensive housing market. The math simply does not add up,” the report concludes.

As Seattle moves toward requiring that homeless service providers follow a rapid-rehousing model, and the dollars the city spends on combating homelessness shift toward temporary vouchers and away from more expensive transitional housing, program planners will encounter many of the same challenges as Washington, D.C., such as the need for more intensive case management, attempts by landlords to abuse the system, and the potential that short-term vouchers will exacerbate segregation. Many of those problems are solvable through targeted spending and regulations. But one factor that’s unlikely to change is Seattle’s rental market, which, like D.C.’s, grows less affordable every year. Perhaps one of the lessons for Seattle is that we shouldn’t divest from long-term housing assistance and permanently affordable housing until we’re sure that the short-term “hand-up” programs we’re relying on to reduce homelessness don’t leave families worse off.

(Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Meg Olberding said HSD director Catherine Lester was aware of the D.C. report, but “has not had time to read” it.)

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Morning Crank: There Has Been One Bump in the Road

Lauren McGowan, Marty Hartman, Barb Poppe

1. The third of three panel discussions on homelessness in Seattle (sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Chamber, Visit Seattle, and the Alliance for Pioneer Square) featured an all-female panel (KIRO radio host Dave Ross, who moderated, made a cringeworthy joke about bringing “gender diversity” to the stage) that covered a lot of the same territory as the previous two. The panelists (consultant Barb Poppe, King County Human Services director Adrienne Quinn, Seattle Human Services Department director Catherine Lester, Mary’s Place director Marty Hartman, and United Way of King County financial stability director Lauren McGowan) agreed on the need for more accountability and better data; lamented the fact that homelessness is growing faster than the city or county’s ability to place people in housing; and disputed the notion, suggested by some audience members, that arresting people for sleeping in tents and panhandling was a good solution. I livetweeted the event and Storified those tweets here.

One new theme in yesterday morning’s discussion, which I hadn’t heard leaders acknowledge openly before, was the city’s inability to convince private landlords to voluntarily rent their units to formerly homeless individuals and families. The city’s Pathways Home homelessness strategy, which is based on a report Poppe produced last year, relies heavily on landlords to decide to participate voluntarily in a “housing resource center” that will, in theory, link people experiencing homelessness, including those with histories of eviction or criminal records, to landlords. The idea is to entice landlords to rent to people who might not meet their usual screening criteria by providing incentives such as on-call emergency assistance, a “mitigation fund” to pay for any damage caused by tenants, or flat financial payments to landlords who take on formerly homeless tenants. The center, Lester acknowledged, “has been an area where we have not been able to accelerate as quickly as we would like to.”

The view from Belltown: “I feel like I’m living in a war zone.”

Poppe appealed to landlords’ sense of obligation to help their communities. “There has been one bump in the road, which is the housing resource center, and they need your help on this,” Poppe told the audience of business community members. “They need those landlords to come forward. I really encourage the business community to engage and help get back on track.” Without much larger incentives, or a market crash that drastically slows or reverses population growth, that strikes me as wishful thinking—as things stands, landlords clearly see no reason to voluntarily rent to high-risk tenants in a market where they can easily find tenants with stable jobs and perfect credit.

2. The discovery of $3.4 million in “missing” money from the city’s incentive zoning program—which required developers in certain neighborhoods to build affordable housing or pay into a fund in exchange for greater density—wasn’t quite the bombshell news some media made it out to be; the error was discovered by the city auditor and corrected last year. However, the news raised obvious concerns about both accountability—are developers fulfilling their affordable-housing obligations?—and transparency—how do citizens know developers are fulfilling their obligations?— and both issues were on the table yesterday morning, when the council’s planning, land use, and zoning committee looked at the audit findings and a list of recommendations aimed at ensuring no more multi-million-dollar obligations slip through the cracks. The city is replacing the old incentive zoning program, which allowed developers to build taller as an incentive for affordable housing payment or production, with a new mandatory affordable housing program, which requires developers across the city to build affordable housing or pay into the affordable housing fund.

In addition to the need for better controls and more frequent checks to make sure that developers pay what they owe the city, council members pointed to the need to make sure developers are producing the housing they say they’re producing under the new program—and to ensure that the public can easily access that information as well.

“When I’m in the community talking about the MHA program, there’s a skepticism around the payments,” District 6 council member Mike O’Brien said. “I hear from folks in the community that they just pay and who knows where that money goes? The reality is that that money is going to a bunch of cool program, but the more clarity we can provide to people so they can see that ‘that project next to me or down the street is producing this many units or they wrote this check and we can actually see that project—it’s down the street,” the better. “My goal is not to create an overwhelming burden on the process or slow it down, but just to make sure that folks who are trying to access this information can look at that,” O’Brien said.

Office of Housing director Steve Walker said his office had made progress toward creating a public system that tracks new units built under various affordable housing programs, and Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson said DCI was working on a system to track how new developments plan to meet their MHA obligations, and where those developments are in “the pipeline.”

“I know the audit turned up, certainly, a couple of high-profile things that we’re all embarrassed by, and should be,” O’Brien said. “While this isn’t a shining moment of how everything worked perfectly at the city, I think it’s an example of how checks and balances are in place, and we have people dedicated to working through the process and informing the public” in the future.

3. Tensions in council chambers were high Monday morning,  when the council met for the first time as the Select Committee on Civic Arenas, a committee that was formed after the council voting against handing control of a public right-of-way over to billionaire hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, who wants to build a new NBA arena in SoDo.

The street vacation went down by a 5-4 vote, which happened to break down along gender lines, prompting an awful lot of grown men (and a few women) to spend an awful lot of time and mental energy thinking up creative new ways to call the majority of the city council bitches and cunts. One of those women, Lorena Gonzalez, said yesterday that she’s hopeful that having a whole committee dedicated to the arena discussion will give people an opportunity to air substantive issues related to the arena debate issues “in a way that is more public and transparent” than last year’s street vacation discussion, which took place in the transportation committee, to which most council members do not belong.  “My hope is that the pro-SoDo arena crowd will, at a minimum, recognize that there is an effort by this council to air out potential issues early and to have conversations about those issues and concerns in a way that is productive,” Gonzalez said.

Fingers crossed.

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.