Morning Crank: Rethinking the Vaunted Neighborhood Plans of the ’90s

In a move that could reveal hard truths about the city’s vaunted 1990s-era neighborhood planning process, city council member Teresa Mosqueda wants the city to do a full race and social justice analysis of the so-called urban village strategy, which concentrates all new development in narrow bands near arterial streets and preserves two-thirds of the city exclusively for detached single-family houses. The urban village strategy was crafted more than 20 years ago by neighborhood groups that were dominated, then as now, by white homeowners who wanted to ensure that the “character” of their neighborhoods would remain unchanged. The monoculture of exclusive single-family zoning, and the “character” of Seattle’s suburban-style neighborhoods, is a legacy of redlining—the process by which people of color and renters were systematically excluded from many parts of Seattle.

Introducing her proposal at Thursday’s council budget hearing, Mosqueda noted that at the time the urban village strategy was adopted, in 1994, there was no Race and Social Justice Initiative. That came in 2004, and “it wasn’t until 10 years after that that the race and social justice strategy was expanded to include policies that impact the urban environment,” Mosqueda said. “One of our questions is whether or not we are investing in urban villages equitably throughout Seattle. … I’m interested in whether or not we are crafting policies that are allowing more people to live here.”

The city recently completed a race and social equity analysis of a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to build second and third units on their property. That analysis found, not surprisingly, that allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments will disproportionately benefit white Seattle residents, because most homeowners in Seattle are white. (See chart, below). However, the analysis (like the environmental impact statement the city recently completed on the proposal) also found that allowing more backyard and basement apartments wouldn’t contribute to displacement; and it suggested several steps the city could take to make it easier for homeowners of color to build accessory units, such as pre-approved building plans and assistance with permits and financing. A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions. Neighborhood activists, in other words, are likely to oppose it. Channeling them Thursday, council member Sally Bagshaw raised objections to Mosqueda’s proposal, which she said might be “duplicative” with work the city has already done. (It isn’t.) “Good heavens, this feels like déjà vu to me,” Bagshaw said. Council member Rob Johnson, who supports Mosqueda’s idea in principle, said, “I think that the issues that council member Mosqueda brings up are very appropriate for us to consider,” but suggested that the council might fund it later in the year.

Neighborhood activists, ironically, actually raised the need for race and social justice analysis in their ongoing attempt to prevent the city from implementing its Mandatory Housing Affordability strategy arguing (disingenuously) that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal to allow slightly denser development on 6 percent of the city’s single-family land. (Developers building under the new rules would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into an affordable housing fund. The new rules have gone into effect in denser parts of the city, including downtown). They’re still fighting that one, a year after the council passed the legislation.

It’s hard to quantify how much funding for affordable housing the city has lost because single-family activists have locked MHA up with a series of seemingly endless appeals. Hard, but not impossible. About a week ago, Johnson asked the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development to do an analysis of how much money the city has forfeited from developments that would have happened under the new rules if they had gone into effect a year ago. “I’ve asked them to run the numbers about projects that might have vested under MHA, had we adopted it when the bill was first sent down to us,” Johnson told me yesterday. “As you can imagine, vesting times really vary, so  it’s difficult analysis for us to do.” However, Johnson hopes that by looking at the development cycle that just ended, the city can get a sense of how much affordable housing Seattle has foregone while activists have filed appeal after appeal.

A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions.

Speaking of appeals, the Queen Anne Community Council filed another one against the accessory dwelling unit proposal yesterday, arguing that the proposal—which would add about 2600 basement and backyard apartments, citywide, over what will likely be built anyway—”ignores, disrespects, and eliminates the citywide Neighborhood Plans.” The appeal, filed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan and his attorney, Jeff Eustis, reiterates Kaplan’s claim that the plan will upzone the entire city, effectively turning single-family neighborhoods into wall-to-wall apartment blocks. The complaint concludes, spaghetti-at-the-wall style, by listing a litany of supposed ills that will befall neighborhoods if the city allows a few thousand more backyard and basement units in a city of 700,000: the “displacement and destruction of older, more modest and
affordable housing, the displacement of populations, the loss of historic buildings, the change in neighborhood character, the unstudied stresses on existing utilities and infrastructure, the amount of available on-street parking. and the ability of
residents and emergency vehicles to circulate through neighborhood streets, and other population pressures among many more.”

Johnson notes one potential bright side to all this delay. If the appeals of MHA and the accessory dwelling legislation drag on indefinitely,  he says, the city’s planning department will have more free time to do the kind of analysis of single-family zoning that Mosqueda is requesting.

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Showbox Property Owners Respond to City, Seek Depositions from Council Members Bagshaw, Sawant

A lot has happened since I wrote about the city’s response to a lawsuit by the owners of the Showbox last month. (The lawsuit, in very brief, alleges that the city council violated land use processes in spot-downzoning the Showbox property when they expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the property on a temporary basis, preventing a 44-story development, and that the historic designation represents a taking of about $40 million—the amount for which the owner, Roger Forbes, planned to sell the land to the Vancouver developer Onni.)

Back in September, the city asked a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss Forbes’s land use claims claims (technically,  an LLC created by Forbes that owns the property, but we’ll stick with Forbes for clarity’s sake) on the grounds that Onni hadn’t formally sought any permits from the city, that inclusion in the historic district didn’t constitute a land use decision restricting how Forbes could use his property,  and that in fact nothing in the “Save the Showbox” legislation said that the Showbox must be saved.

The property owners—sounding spitting mad—filed a brief last week objecting to the city’s motion to dismiss the land use claims in the lawsuit, arguing that the decision to add the Showbox property, and only that property, to the historic district—effectively reducing its development potential from 44 stories to two—constituted a “reverse spot zone” and therefore was a “classic taking.” In their defense, they cite a number of cases that reducing the height of what can be built on one piece of land is considered a zoning decision, regardless of whether a permit has been filed. (The council made it much less likely that Onni would file a permit when they started talking about killing the development immediately after the developer started a pre-application process with the city, and passed fast-track “emergency” legislation barely one week later to ensure that Onni couldn’t go forward with its plans.)

Violating almost all of its own rules for a property use decision, the City enacted an “emergency” ordinance – not to abate a public nuisance – but rather because it wanted a private music venue to be an asset of the City. To try and accomplish that, it had to circumvent and carve this parcel – and only this parcel – out of its own prior and lawful zoning actions that previously upzoned the property and surrounding properties twice for high-rise development. The most recent upzone occurred just last year when the property (and other similarly situated properties) were upzoned by the City to allow additional floors if property owners provided certain financial support to the City’s efforts to increase affordable housing. The City’s reverse spot zoning of this property, stripping only this property of the same development potential similarly situated parcels enjoy, was not an exercise of “police power” to protect the public. It was instead an eminent domain powerplay to appease a vocal “Save the Showbox” group at the expense of a single property’s development and use rights.

Forbes’ attorneys also lays out the case that the city violated the state appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires officials like council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented and to make their deliberations in public, not behind closed doors. If the court finds that they did, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the need to “Save the Showbox” as a music venue in  perpetuity will have happened in violation of the law.

The response to the city makes one novel point: The Pike Place Market Historical District was not only created to protect small farmers and craftspeople from commercial development in the 1970s, it was formed by the city under the power of eminent domain—and, to this day, almost every single property in the district is publicly owned by the Pike Place Market Public Development Authority. That PDA has the right to regulate virtually every aspect of all businesses in the district, down to which tenants are allowed in each building, the size and materials on their signage, and what their storefronts look like on the inside. The Showbox building across the street, in contrast, is privately owned, making its inclusion in the historic district, the plaintiffs argue, even more of a taking than if the city had simply said Forbes couldn’t sell to a developer for an apartment tower.

This week, Forbes’ attorneys also filed a request to depose five city officials, including city council members Sally Bagshaw and Kshama Sawant, to get “information about the decision to single out this property, and only this property, for inclusion in the Pike Place Market Historical District, the process that the City employed in drafting, introducing and passing the ordinance, and the City’s real intentions in passing the ordinance (to maintain the property as a music venue in perpetuity).

“This information,” the request continues, “is relevant to Plaintiff’s contentions that the ordinance is invalid as an illegal spot zone, is otherwise procedurally invalid, was improperly passed because the Council violated the Appearance of Fairness statute, and violates Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by forcing Plaintiff to maintain the property as a music venue.”

The hearing on that motion will be held next Friday, October 19. The trial is currently scheduled for February.

Note to readers: The reporting I do isn’t free! For example, court records cost 25 cents a page—a charge that can really add up when a case involves hundreds of pages. The time and effort it takes to bring you stories like this one, not to mention all my in-depth, on-the-ground reporting on the Showbox and other city issues, is made possible only by support from people who read this site. So if you enjoy my work and want to see it continue, please continue becoming a sustaining or one-time donor. Thanks for reading, and for your support!

Head Tax Heads for Repeal. What Happened, and What Happens Now?

The city council will hold a special meeting at noon tomorrow—just two days before the deadline for head tax opponents to turn in 17,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to overturn a tax on big businesses to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis—to preemptively repeal the tax. The decision came just weeks after a bruising battle that resulted in the unanimous passage of a “compromise” head tax plan—$275, instead of the original $500—that was supported by all nine council members and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Much like that proposal, today’s surprise repeal announcement emerged after a round of secret weekend negotiations, in which council members who supported the tax just weeks ago concluded that it was time to concede the fight. Polling on the referendum to repeal the tax reportedly spurred council members to reverse their support.

Earlier this afternoon, seven council members signed off on a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office supporting the repeal measure; only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, who denounced the “backroom legislation” during Monday’s full council meeting, did not signal their support for repealing the tax. The statement from the other seven council members said, in part:

“In recent months, we worked with a range of businesses, community groups, advocates, and working families to enact a bill that struck the right balance between meaningful progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis while protecting good, family-wage jobs. Over the last few weeks, these conversations and much public dialogue has continued.  It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. 

“We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”

The $275-per-employee annual tax, which would have applied to the 585 highest-grossing businesses in Seattle,  would have funded $47 million a year in services, shelter, and housing for Seattle’s homeless population. Without the tax, hundreds of new apartments will not be built, hundreds of new shelter beds will not open up at night, and thousands of people who would have received rental assistance, case management, or mental health care through the levy proceeds will continue to go without those services.

Opposition to the tax came not just from the usual suspects in the business community—Amazon, which threatened to pull employees from the city over an earlier version of the tax, pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the repeal effort, as did Starbucks, Kroger, and representatives of the hotel and grocery industries—but from groups with names like Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle, whose members gathered signatures on their own time to repeal a tax on giant corporations. The tax, which was the product of five months of meetings by a 17-member task force, was chosen specifically because it would not directly impact ordinary citizens (unlike a property tax or sales tax), but enough ordinary citizens opposed it to convince at least some council members that their voices represented the majority of Seattle.

“I think it reflects majority sentiment,” council member Sally Bagshaw says. “I do, and I’m sad. … Everywhere I went, clearly businesses were unhappy, but half of labor was unhappy.  Neighborhoods and communities were saying, ‘We don’t see tents being moved off the street. We still see needles. We still see garbage. We’re not happy with this.'” Bagshaw did not mention polling on the head tax, nor did any of her colleagues.

Council member Rob Johnson, who was not directly involved in the weekend negotiations, says his primary concern in supporting a repeal of the head tax is the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds pre-K through college education and is on the ballot in November. A referendum to repeal the head tax, he worried, might have put voters in an anti-tax mood and swept preschool funding away with it.

“As the person trying to get the [FEPP] levy across the finish line in November, I’m obviously excited about the opportunity to have a laser-like focus on that, as opposed to a potential referendum and the  [FEPP] levy at the same time,” Johnson says. “I signed on because I think it gives us a much clearer pathway for success in November.” The last time the families and education levy was on the ballot, in 2011, it passed by more than 63 percent.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been targeted with an outsized share of the criticism from activists who oppose spending more money on homelessness (including a “town hall” in Ballard that immediately devolved into a profane one-way screaming match), says it became “increasingly clear” over the past couple of months “that the public is aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” which has run a well-funded campaign to reframe the employee hours tax, which would be paid by employers, as a “tax on jobs,” which would harm employees and the city as a whole.

In a statement, council member Lisa Herbold—who signed the joint statement supporting repeal—denounced the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which she said “has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites 1) of the tired, old conservative trope that increased levels of human suffering we see in our city is caused by government inefficiency rather than by the Gilded Age level income inequality in Seattle and elsewhere, and 2) that leading first with a regional funding approach, reliant on higher property or sales taxes for all taxpayers, is preferable to resources from those most benefiting from income inequality in Seattle paying their fair share.” Asked why she issued such a scathing statement after signing off on the joint statement supporting repeal, Herbold said, “I’m acting based on what I’m hearing” about the lack of support for the tax, but “I don’t agree with” repealing the tax.

Had Durkan brought the Chamber into the head tax negotiations earlier this year, instead of focusing on getting Amazon to stand down, the campaign might have looked much different, or not existed in the first place. But as things played out, “don’t tax jobs” became a rallying cry for both businesses and, importantly, citizen activists, who also glommed on to the idea that the city could get by without additional revenues by auditing its homelessness programs  and “spending our existing dollars more efficiently.”

O’Brien says that with thousands of people sleeping outside and in shelters and transitional housing across Seattle and King County, “finding efficiencies” isn’t enough to make a dent in the crisis. “We absolutely need more funding for housing and  services. We would have to make devastating cuts to other programs that everyone cares about to fund what we need to do with existing resources, so that’s just not possible,” he says. With the head tax, which the task force chose after rejecting other options as impractical or open to legal challenge, off the table, “there’s nothing that stands out that’s remotely promising, and that’s discouraging.” A city income tax is locked up in court, sales and property taxes are regressive and unpopular, and other options—like a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, or a tax on corporate profits—are prohibited by law. There really just aren’t many options that aren’t either political suicide or downright illegal.

For months, the mayor and council have talked about the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness—that is, a tax that would not be borne solely by Seattle. But the region has shown little interest, so far, in coming up with such solutions. Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a countywide sales tax as a replacement for a Seattle-only property tax measure floated by then-mayor Ed Murray, but that proposal has not been seen or heard from since. Meanwhile, a regional task force called One Table, which was supposed to come up with recommendations for funding homelessness services earlier this year, has canceled several meetings and is reportedly stalled. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed an earlier, larger version of the head tax and signed the council’s legislation for the “compromise” that will be repealed tomorrow, but has never come forward with an alternative proposal of her own, leaving the council in the driver’s seat on spending, for better or worse.

Mosqueda, one of the two council members who did not sign off on the statement advocating repeal, said today that the head tax the council approved was “the best idea at the time”—better, at least, than nothing, which is what the city is left with now. “I am happy to support an alternative strategy, but I need to know that there’s a proposal, so that folks have light at the end of the tunnel, so that there is housing on the horizon, so people can get off the streets and not continue to suffer and live outside.”

O’Brien expressed a sentiment that has been bubbling for weeks at city hall, on homelessness and other issues: “We need leadership from the mayor. We can’t say we’re not going to do anything. If there’s not a regional solution, we have to do something else. She’s been here six months now, and she needs to make this her top priority.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment beyond the joint statement. But she did not present a plan to deal with the defeat of the head tax, which would have funded her proposal to add 1,000 new beds at shelters around the city, announced last week. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Durkan joked at the time. And here we are.

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Sawant’s City Printer Usage: 26 Hours, One “Tax Amazon” Rally, 4,000 Copies

A little over a week ago, during the council debate over the head tax, council member Sally Bagshaw called out her colleague, council member Kshama Sawant, for using the legislative department’s shared printer to print out a huge number of bright red posters advertising a rally Sawant was holding over the weekend to protest Amazon and create public pressure on the council to support the highest possible tax. “I just don’t think it is right for us to be using city resources or the copy machines to promote something that not all of us agree to,” Bagshaw said.

I wondered just what kind of resources Bagshaw was talking about, so I filed a records request to find out how Sawant’s printer usage compared to other council offices’. (Each office has its own printer, but big jobs—like, say, 11-by-17 color posters for political rallies—must be done on a large color printer in the second-floor printer room).

Unfortunately, the city wasn’t able to provide the most recent month’s invoice to its printer company, Ricoh, because that invoice wasn’t available yet. Printer costs have accelerated steadily through the year, however, growing from $493.86 in January to $1,231.46 in February to about $1,300 in March (the exact total is hard to extrapolate because the March bill includes rent for the copier itself, plus various taxes whose rates are unspecified).

Fortunately, the printer itself does save records for the most recent several days, broken down by document name and the name of the staffer requesting the print job. I made my request on May 14, the day  Bagshaw chided Sawant for using the council’s shared, city-funded printer to create her rally posters, and got records showing all print jobs between 11:02 am on May 10 and 10:19 am on May 14. (According to the council’s public disclosure officer, the printer does not store print records long-term.) Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” rally was on Saturday, May 12.

The documents show that Sawant’s office—specifically, her legislative assistants Ted Virdone and Adam Ziemkowski—printed several thousand posters and other documents related to the rally, including hundreds of chant sheets to guide rally participants during the “March on Amazon.” The printing jobs dwarf other council office’s print requests; moreover, the council offices that did relatively large print jobs during the time when Sawant’s office was using the city printer to produce her rally posters were printing presentations, copies of studies, and agendas for council meetings—not posters for weekend demonstrations against Amazon aimed at pressuring council members to adopt a larger tax.

Between around 2:00 in the afternoon on May 10 and 4:00 in the afternoon on May 11, the day before the rally, Sawant’s office printed:

  • 1,004 copies of a document called “March On Amazon.doc.”
  • 50 copies of a document called “fight bezos bullying.pdf”
  • 75 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no loopholes, no sunset.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon – fund housing and services.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, 75 million, no extortion2.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “150m EHT.pdf” (Sawant was pushing for a head tax, or Employee Hours Tax, that would raise $150 million a year)
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no bezos durkan deal.pdf”
  • 400 copies of a document called “Tax Amazon chantsheet2.doc”
  • 2,198 copies of a document called “may 11 (two sided).pdf.

It’s unclear, given the limited period of time the records cover, whether Sawant’s office printed other posters and rally-related before 11am on May 10, the earliest time for which printer records are available. It’s unclear from the records which documents were large 11-by-17 posters and which were in full color. However, demonstrators at last Monday’s council meetings on the head tax held signs bearing the same slogans as those in the file names Sawant’s office printed out the previous Friday, and Sawant herself defended her use of the city’s official printer to produce anti-Amazon materials, telling Bagshaw, “You can choose not to use your office for really fighting for the interests of working people and to build movements. I strongly believe that council resources absolutely should be used to further social movements and not for the protection of the interests of the chamber of commerce.”

Overall, Sawant’s office printed out more than 4,000 copies in the approximately 24 hours between the afternoon of May 10 and the afternoon of May 11. (After the rally, their printing needs returned to a normal level—about 40 pages between May 12 and May 14).  No other office came close. Council member Rob Johnson’s office was in second place, with just over 600 copies in the same period (none of them posters), but that was skewed by a single 465-page printout—copies of a PowerPoint presentation on the Families and Education Levy for council members.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett told me that he considered Sawant’s use of the city’s printer to produce her rally signs acceptable under city ethics rules, because she was using the posters “to pass legislation.”

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Employee Hours Tax Passes Over Durkan, Amazon Objections, But Veto Looms

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

With the city council poised to pass a proposed $500-per-employee “head tax” on Seattle’s 600 largest businesses, and Mayor Jenny Durkan equally prepared to veto the proposal in its current form, the question now is: What’s next?

With council members heading into a weekend of negotiations, it’s possible that both sides could emerge on Monday with a compromise solution that splits the difference between the tax that passed on Friday and the “compromise” version that Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell support, which would cut the council’s proposal in half. However, if the two sides fail to reach a compromise, the larger version of the head tax will almost certainly pass on Monday by a 5-4 majority, which is one vote shy of the 6-3 margin supporters need to override a mayoral veto.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Durkan made it clear that she would veto the tax in its current form, but said she still held out hope that the council “will pass a bill that I can sign.” However, Durkan’s ally Harrell, also made it clear on Friday that he would not support a compromise floated by council member Lisa Herbold to lower the tax to $350 per employee, indicating that he and Durkan may not be open to a proposal that merely closes the gap between what Durkan and the council majority want. It’s possible, in other words, that when Durkan says “a bill that I can sign,” she merely means a bill that cuts the tax to $250 per employee—the amount Amazon, which has threatened to stop construction on its Seattle headquarters if the tax passes in its original form, has said they are willing to accept. Amazon contributed $350,000 to a pro-Durkan PAC in last year’s mayoral election.

A quick backgrounder on the tax: Last year, at the end of its annual budget process, the council formed a task force to come up with a progressive tax to pay for housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population. After several months of meetings, and numerous compromises in response to objections from small and low-margin businesses, the task force came up with a plan that would generate about $75 million a year—a $500-per-employee annual tax on businesses with gross revenues above $20 million, a threshold that excludes companies with high gross revenues but tight margins, such as restaurants. The proposal also came with a spending plan that emphasized long-term affordable housing over short-term emergency shelter services, and a provision that would convert the head tax into a business payroll tax starting in 2021, with no sunset date.

On Thursday night, Mayor Durkan released her own “compromise” head-tax proposal, which would cut the recommended head tax in half, to $250 per employee, ditch the provision transitioning the head tax into a business payroll tax, and sunset the whole thing in five years unless the council voted proactively to renew it. On Friday, Harrell introduced a proposal identical to the Durkan plan, along with a spending plan that emphasizes shelter over permanent housing and would pay for just 250 new rental units over five years. The Durkan/Harrell plan also includes a four percent wage increase for social service workers (many of whom make just over $15 an hour) and funding for a second Navigation Team to remove tent encampments and refer their residents to services.

When a council vote is 5 to 4 and a veto hangs in the balance, talk inevitably turns to “swing votes”—that is, who can be swayed to join the council majority to make the bill veto-proof?

Right now, it appears unlikely that anyone in the council’s four-person minority will budge over the weekend to support the full $500 tax, or even Lisa Herbold’s proffered $350 compromise, but a lot can change in the course of two days. So perhaps there will be a compromise that convinces one of the council members who opposes the larger tax to join the council majority. (The opposite scenario—that one of the five members who voted for the original $500 tax will join the four-member minority that wants to cut it in half—seems highly unlikely, since all five council members have consistently supported the proposal that came out of the task force, and since they stand to gain more, politically speaking, by forcing Durkan into a veto fight than by switching sides and handing the mayor a bloodless victory.)

However: If, as seems more likely as of Friday afternoon, the vote remains 5-4, the question becomes what will happen in the 30 days after Durkan vetoes it.

Judging from council members’ past positions and their comments Friday, the most likely “swing vote” when the decision comes down to passing something or doing nothing appears to be council member Rob Johnson, who seemed more tentative in his position than either Debora Juarez (“If we tax jobs to build houses and the jobs leave because of the tax, then no houses get built”) or Sally Bagshaw, who said virtually nothing at Friday’s meeting but is typically not the first council member to make dramatic vote switches.

Last year, when the council was debating whether to include the head tax in the budget, Johnson argued that proponents needed to come up with a more detailed spending plan to justify such a substantial tax. They did exactly that—and Johnson voted instead for a hastily sketched-out proposal that some council members didn’t see for the first time until this morning. On Friday, the most enthusiastic comment Johnson managed to muster about Durkan’s proposal was that it “allows for us to continue that pay-as-you-go process that has been a hallmark of most of the affordable housing investments that we’ve made as a city.”  If tax proponents are looking for a swing vote to help them override Durkan’s veto (and there is precedent for this kind of vote-switching), Johnson may be their best bet.

The council will be in discussions all this weekend, and will meet again on Monday morning to discuss the proposal (and any compromises reached over the next two days). A final vote on the head tax is scheduled for 2:00 Monday in council chambers.

 

Morning Crank: I Don’t Want That Rumor to Be Perpetuated

1. Sitting at the year’s first meeting of the Progressive Revenue task force Thursday morning, it was hard not to flash back to a press conference the previous day, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would spend some of the $11 million it expects to receive from the sale of a city-owned property in South Lake Union (a different property than the “teardrop” site council members discussed as part of their budget deliberations last year). At that briefing, held in front of two “tiny houses” under construction at the Seattle Vocational Institute, Durkan said it would take time to build all the housing that will ultimately be funded by the $290 million 2016 housing levy, and that in the meantime, a $5.5 million investment in “bridge housing”—or, in the clunky title Durkan chose for the initiative, “building a bridge to housing for all”—would give people living on the street slightly better options. “In an ideal world, we would not need to be building tiny houses,” Durkan said. Then she acknowledged that state and federal support for affordable housing is about to fall off a cliff.

The rest of the money would pay for rental assistance for people on SHA’s Section 8 voucher waiting list—”we’re going to focus on the people who need that assistance the most,” Durkan said— design of a new fire station, and city expenses related to the land sale. The developer buying the property would also provide $2 million of a total $7.7 million payment toward affordable housing projects elsewhere, required as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, to build actual affordable housing.

The reason I was thinking about Durkan’s announcement Thursday morning is that it was basically a rounding error—what government staffers sometimes call “budget dust”— in the funding needed to actually address the city’s homelessness problem, which has been growing every year since at least 2013. According to task force co-chair Kirsten Harris-Talley, if every unit of affordable housing requires $160,000 in capital expenditures from the city (more on how advocates for a higher employee hours tax arrived at that number in a minute), and the city will need around 20,000 new units for very low-income people in the next 10 years, that means the city will need to spend around $3.2 billion over that time. As you can probably imagine, the city isn’t spending anywhere close to that right now—according to the presentation, the city spent just under $95 million from all sources on capital housing investments last year. At that rate, it would take more than 33 years to come up with $3.2 billion (and that’s assuming housing costs stayed flat).

Obviously, none of this is an exact science. The $160,000 figure is an estimate provided by council member Kshama Sawant’s office, of what the city would need to contribute if it ramped up its affordable housing production and was unable to find a significant amount of new funding from other sources to help pay for all the new units. (Currently, each new unit costs the city about $93,000 in capital costs, but the programs that pay for the difference between the city’s contribution and the total cost to build a new unit, about $311,000, are only committed to a certain number of units, requiring the city—theoretically—to pay more for each additional unit out of its own pockets.)

If Harris-Talley and Sawant’s figures are correct, that provides a ready-made argument for the employee hours tax (effectively a flat annual tax for each full-time employee on every business over a certain revenue threshold) that they’ve wanted to pass all along. Today, the task force looked at potential revenues from the so-called head tax at different levels and with different sizes of business exempt from the tax, which I’ve copied below. (Last year’s proposed head tax would have exempted businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenues, up from $5 million in the initial proposal; some businesses argued that basing the tax on gross revenues was unfair because it didn’t take into account thin profit margins in certain industries, like restaurants.)

If the city goes through a recession, of course, the amount it can expect to collect will shrink. However, recessions tend to actually lower rents; Downtown Emergency Service Center director and task force member Daniel Malone pointed out that during the last recession, the county’s annual point in time count of people living outdoors tends to stagnate or even decrease, as it did between 2010 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2012. That’s one of the paradoxes of a weakening economy: Although revenues from taxes that are less stable, like direct taxes on businesses, tend to decline, so do rents, making it possible for some people forced onto the street by an impossible housing market to actually find a place to live.

2. In a King County Board of Health discussion about the possibility of a Hepatitis A outbreak in Seattle yesterday (a nationwide outbreak, ongoing now, began in California and was widely blamed on lack of access to handwashing facilities for the state’s homeless population), King County Health Department Director Patty Hayes expressed concern about the city’s decision last year to cut funding for three downtown hygiene centers that provide restrooms, showers, and handwashing and laundry facilities for homeless people living and moving through downtown.

City council and Board of Health member Sally Bagshaw—a vocal proponent for cutting funding to the facilities as part of the city’s new “performance-based” approach to homeless service contracts—objected to Hayes’ characterization of the problem.

“I think that [problem with the closure of the hygiene centers] is more apparent than real,” Bagshaw said. “We’re putting huge investments into new 24/7 shelters …  I’m working with those 24-hours shelters to say, ‘Can you open these up for people who aren’t [staying] here tonight” to take showers, she said. “We opened up community centers [for people to shower]. There are more facilities open now than before. It’s just that the money’s being shifted. I don’t want that rumor to be perpetuated. There were some organizations that didn’t get funded” because the city went to a competitive process, Bagshaw said.

I covered the cuts to funding for hygiene centers, and the reason some advocates believe community centers and shelters are not an adequate substitute for public restrooms and dedicated hygiene facilities, here.

3. The Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank that researches and covers of housing, transportation, and environmental policy from a green, pro-transit, pro-housing perspective, just brought on a new (unpaid) fellow to cover “issues of infrastructure, technology and energy with a view towards sustainability.” His name: Daniel Malarkey.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. (If it doesn’t, you weren’t following Seattle politics in the early 2000s.) He was the finance director for the Seattle Monorail Project, the transportation agency that was going to build a monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle. That project was doomed to failure after Malarkey’s revenue projections overshot the mark by about 50 percent, and after the agency compounded the problem by trying to paper over the error. (The error Malarkey made was counting revenues from taxes on every single car in Seattle, when in reality, thanks to heavy lobbying from the auto industry, all new cars and cars brought to the city by people moving here from out of state were exempt from the monorail tax. The result was that Malarkey overestimated the monorail’s tax base by a third) When he resigned at the end of 2003, I wrote this. Interestingly, it looks like his three years consulting or working directly for the monorail agency aren’t on his official Sightline bio.

Anyway, it looks like he’ll be writing about autonomous cars.

Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Sightline and often use their research in my reporting.

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: “Somebody Is Going to Write Their Ph.D. Thesis on This.”

1. I sat down with Mayor Ed Murray at his campaign office last Friday, four days before he announced that he would not run for reelection. At the time, the mayor put on a game face, outlining what he saw as his path to victory and sounding very much like a man who planned to fight at least until the primary, where he would have faced a dozen or more opponents. I have no way of knowing what was going on in the mayor’s mind during that interview, or whether he had decided not to run (although sources close to the mayor tell me he made the decision sometime over the weekend), but there were moments when he seemed to dwell on the past—and the counterfactual world in which he still could look forward to easy victory. Here’s a bit of that portion of our conversation.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Since the scandal broke, you went from a pretty safe race to a primary where you could have a dozen or more opponents by the filing deadline. You’ve made it clear so far that you aren’t dropping out of this race, despite the allegations against you. What is your path to victory at this point?

Mayor Ed Murray (EM): More opponents.

ECB: How does that help you?

EM: Well, that’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If the field gets so crowded, it allows me to be the person with the highest name recognition in the city—in good times as well as bad times —and I’m the one who’s actually producing. And our road to victory is to tell my story. It’s to go to every single one of these forums, every single one of these debates, and talk about what I did as a legislator, what I’ve done as mayor, why I’m one of the most liberal mayors in America, and how I get things done.

There are other aspects of this, [like] the [new] $500 limit [on campaign contributions], which is even lower than last time. We had a strong grassroots effort before and we’ll need a stronger one now that the limits have gone down. [And] we made a really clear decision that the people in the office would work and run the government, that people on the campaign side are still on the campaign side, and then we set up a group of folks who’ve been managing the allegations. So that’s basically how we’ve tried to deal with it.

ECB: Will responding to these allegations make it more difficult for you to concentrate on your job as mayor?

EM: A lot of the case itself involves issues that only lawyers can handle. Depositions will take up some time and a jury trial will take up time, but if everybody who’s ever been sued, whether elected or otherwise, had to stop their job, there’d be a lot of people not working.

ECB: Three of the last four mayors served just one term, and Nickels didn’t get a third. It seems obvious that you’re in an even more challenging situation.

EM: I would have said a month ago that I was in the best situation of any of us.

ECB: But this is the world you’re in now.

EM: [Pause] OK, sorry.

2. Homelessness director George Scarola and Seattle Police Department Lieutenant Jason Verhoff had good news for city council member Sally Bagshaw’s health and human services committee yesterday: Of 499 people the city’s new Navigation Team has contacted since it began doing outreach to unsheltered people and people living in encampments last month, 342, or about 69 percent, agreed to accept “some sort of services,” Verhoff said. “That’s a staggering number—staggeringly high,” Verhoff said. “That’s amazing, in my opinion.”

Bagshaw agreed, asking Scarola and Verhoff, “Who’s writing this up? This is a case study for somebody.” She continued, “Seriously—I would reach out [to the] University of Washington … and let people know this is going on. … I think that somebody is going to write their Ph.D. thesis on this.” 

The lovefest continued as Verhoff recounted several stories of individual homeless people who were helped by the Navigation Team’s outreach efforts—a woman who commuted every day from the tent she shared with her husband in Seattle to her job in Redmond, until the Navigation Team found her a spot in a tent city in Issaquah; the man who “looked like a West Virginia coal miner” when the team first made contact with him but is doing well now that he’s “away from the addiction and the other drug users down there who might have contributed to his lifestyle”; and the man who was “very, very addicted to methamphetamine” but has reconnected with his mother and “by all accounts is no longer using meth.” 

If you’ll indulge a bit of skepticism, I have few issues with these tidy stories. First, I’m not sure a tent in Issaquah is a marked improvement on a tent in Seattle, except that it reduces the commute of the woman living in that tent by some minutes. (In other words: We need abundant, low-barrier housing, not tents.) Second, addiction stories don’t typically end with “and then he moved back in with his mother and kicked meth”—meth addiction, in particular, typically requires lengthy, intensive treatment and often medical intervention, not just gumption and a new place to live. And finally, all of these success stories are so recent—the Navigation Team started doing outreach less than three months ago—that it’s hard to say whether these interventions will be successful in the long run, or even in the short-to-medium term. My hope is that the city will keep tabs on all those “contacts” for longer than the time it takes to put them on the path to a new tent or a room in Mom’s basement or a bed at the Union Gospel Mission. Real success is different for every person, but the one thing every success has in common is that it’s sustainable.

3. A few items of note from Murray’s April campaign reports, which he filed yesterday: In April, when it appeared he was still in the running, Murray raised less than half of what he raised in March—$30,468, compared to $69,054 a month earlier. That’s tens of thousands less than Murray spent in April on consulting from Sound View Strategies ($12,000), Strategies 360 ($34,500, including $4,500 for video production), and Northwest Passage ($21,000). Murray also spent $25,300 for the EMC poll that apparently helped convince him that he could not win. Murray’s April report also includes $775 in returned contributions from five campaign contributors.

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.

Murray Unveils $275 Million Levy Proposal for Homeless Housing, Shelter, and Treatment

mayor-homeless-levy-announce

At a news conference in the common room of a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run permanent supportive housing facility this afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray released details of his five-year, $275-million proposal to address homelessness, which includes short- and long-term housing vouchers, new funding for 24-hour shelters, expanded medication treatment for opioid addiction, and permanent housing for people who need intensive services. What the proposal doesn’t include is funding for transitional housing, traditional overnight shelters, or a broad expansion of inpatient treatment for people whose addictions can’t be treated by medication.

Acknowledging that the $55 million annual commercial and residential property tax levy would represent an additional burden for Seattle taxpayers, Murray said he had hoped the federal government would pick up some of the tab for addressing what is also a national emergency. “When I announced the [homelessness] state of emergency, when we announced [the homelessness response plan] Pathways Home, I emphasized … that we could not do it alone; we needed the federal government,” Murray said. “In my State of the City address, I basically conceded a point that many of you in the media have challenged me on: that federal help is not coming.” In fact, Murray said, “we will probably see less money than we see today.”

The briefing came just one day after the city removed the few remaining stragglers from the SoDo homeless encampment known as the Field, to which the city itself directed people five months ago when it cleared the vast encampment under I-5 called the Jungle. Earlier this week, residents of the camp and their supporters showed up to the 2pm city council meeting to ask the council to delay the sweep, arguing that the city had failed to respond to repeated requests for things like sawdust, additional port-a-potties, fire extinguishers, and trash pickup, making the squalor at the camp inevitable. The city argued that the camp was not just unsanitary but unsafe, citing the arrest last week of a camp resident for rape and sex trafficking of teenage girls.

Murray’s proposal emphasizes getting people indoors through “rapid rehousing” in the form of temporary rental subsidies for housing on the private market; the mayor’s proposal would divide those subsidies into “short-term, medium-term, and long-term vouchers,” Murray said today. (The proposals are based on a set of recommendations called Pathways Home, which in turn is based on a report by Columbus, Ohio consultant Barb Poppe, and another firm called Focus Strategies). Short-term vouchers could provide rental assistance for as little as three months, while medium-term vouchers could last 18 months or longer, and long-term vouchers would effectively be permanent.

A slightly more detailed breakdown of the measure provided by the city reveals that the vast majority of the housing vouchers it would pay for would be either short- or medium-term, meaning that when they run out, formerly homeless renters will need to make enough money to pay for a market-rate apartment. (Currently, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is just under $2000). About 4,250 of the 5,100 “housing exits” the proposal aims to accomplish over five years take the form of short- or medium-term housing vouchers; another 475 people would receive long-term vouchers, and 373 would be moved into permanent supportive housing.  The proposal also aims to prevent 1,750 people from becoming homeless through diversion programs, and to provide subsidies for 1,500 people to move into clean-and-sober Oxford Houses over the next five years.

housing-exits-chart

Other than the subsidies for Oxford housing, the mayor’s proposal includes no new funding for transitional housing, temporary housing that’s somewhere between a shelter and a private apartment. It does include 200 new beds at 24-hour, low-barrier shelters, which would replace some funding for traditional overnight-only shelters in the city’s 2018 budget, according to details provided by the city.

Although rapid rehousing hasn’t been implemented on the scale Murray is proposing in a city with a comparably unaffordable rental market (in the cities most commonly cited as rapid-rehousing success stories, Salt Lake City and Houston, a one-bedroom apartment costs about half what a comparable unit rents for in Seattle), council human services committee chair Sally Bagshaw said it was time to stop asking questions and start taking action. “We can debate, we can continue to study, or we can do what our experts have recommended to us,” Bagshaw said. “Do we just keep studying it, or do we invest big in what we know works?”

The proposal also includes a $10 million “housing innovation fund”—unallocated dollars that will go toward finding new housing models and building types that might be cheaper and faster to bring online than conventional low-income housing. Murray’s housing policy advisor Leslie Brinson Price said today that the fund is meant to “spur new thinking and provide a way to pilot projects” that the city might not try otherwise, like modular construction and cohousing.

Substance abuse treatment makes up a relatively small portion of the proposed levy, about $20 million of the $275 million total. That treatment consists primarily of programs that expand access to buprenorphine, brand name Suboxone, a replacement opiate that reduces cravings in people who are addicted to heroin and other opioids, and “housing with intensive outpatient substance use disorder treatment,” which Price said would also focus on buprenorphine distribution.

The measure would add 16 new inpatient treatment beds as part of a pilot project based on Philadelphia’s Journey of Hope project, which offers long-term residential treatment for chronically homeless individuals. The proposal does not appear to explicitly include treatment for alcohol addiction, which is also extremely pre homeless people as as addiction to heroin and other opiates, or other drugs with more complicated courses of treatment than taking a daily dose of Suboxone.

Asked about the relatively small emphasis on treatment—a subject that comes up often in discussions about homelessness—Murray said, “Remember, addiction treatment is not a city function, it is a county function. … We are getting into new lines of business that I hoped we wouldn’t get into, but again, if you look at the restricted nature of the county’s funding and the fact that they constantly find themselves cutting budgets, that’s why we’re getting into buying some services from them.”

sally-bagshaw

As I noted earlier this week, by gathering enough signatures to take his measure directly the ballot, Murray is effectively bypassing the city council, which tends to tinker with (and often reduce) mayoral spending proposals. Asked why he chose this tactic over the more traditional course of sending the ballot measure to the council for approval, Murray said, “I thought it was important for this to come from the community, for signatures to be gathered through a grassroots effort, rather than the usual model of doing things where the council puts it on the ballot. .. It gives people the chance to think about whether they want to sign that measure and whether they want to vote for that measure.” Then, smiling slightly, Murray added, “I mean, I’m a former legislator. [Legislators] always change the executive’s budget.”

Assuming supporters gather the requisite 20,000 valid signatures, the measure will be on the August 1 ballot—alongside Ed Murray, who is running for reelection.

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.

Morning Crank: “Not Gonna Happen”

1024x10241. Update on an item earlier this week about the Washington State Democrats’ Executive Committee had about possibly reducing the salary of the party chair now that Tina Podlodowski has been elected to that position. According to several Democrats who were present at the meeting (including members of the executive board itself), the person who raised the possibility of reducing Podlodowski’s salary was executive board member Ed Cote, who suggested reexamining the salaries for both the chair of the party and its executive director. After some discussion, another male board member, Don Schwerin, reportedly asked Podlodowski point-blank if she was willing to take a pay cut; she said no. Folks I talked to who were in the room said they were “horrified,” “appalled,” and “shocked” at both Cote’s line of questioning and Schwerin’s request.

The former party chair, Jaxon Ravens, was paid about $120,000, according to board members, plus a car allowance.

Cote says he raised the question of Podlodowski’s salary as part of a broader conversation about whether both the party chair and executive director should be paid, and how much. But it wasn’t lost on many in the room that Podlodowski is only the second woman to ever serve as state Democratic Party chair—and that the board discussing the possibility that she didn’t deserve the same salary as her male predecessors, Jaxon Ravens and Dwight Pelz, was two-thirds men.

“I just brought up that when [Podlodowski] presents a [Party] budget, I thought it would be good that we have a conversation around the right administrative structure going forward,” Cote says. “We have a paid chair and a paid executive director, and many states have one or the other. … I wasn’t suggesting that the chair was paid too much. … I wasn’t trying to suggest that she was overpaid or anything of that nature.”

Podlodowski says she thinks it’s possible that Cote didn’t think about how his question would come across (and indeed, those who questioned Cote’s suggestion reportedly did so by discussing what similar positions paid at other large nonprofits, rather than observing that the whole conversation was sexist). But, she adds, “when someone did ask me if I would take a pay cut, I was like, ‘Not gonna happen,’ and I’m certainly not going to cut pay of anybody who’s female. But I am going to look at the budget, because it’s always important to make sure that we’re paying people appropriately.”

Podlodowski says that when she signed up for her new insurance plan, she learned that it didn’t cover children, only spouses. (Podlodowski and her wife have three children.) That’s another example, she says, of “why women should rule.”

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2. If you think you’re confused about what to do with the four “democracy vouchers,” worth a total of $100, that appeared in your mailbox earlier this year, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Seattle City Council members and staffed grilled Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett on some basic details of the program yesterday—details that were all laid out in the language of Initiative 122, which voters passed last year, but which, in fairness, you might have missed in the 15 pages of fine print. Some of the council members’ questions, answered:

  • Why is the city mailing vouchers to 508,000 people—are there even that many voters in Seattle? Under the initiative, vouchers must be mailed to every registered voter in the city, which includes “inactive” voters who have long since moved away.
  • Could the city cover the cost if all 508,000 voters tried to “spend” their vouchers at once? The cost of the program, which will cost the city $3 million a year, is limited by campaign spending limits, not the number of vouchers; I-122 specifically says that there must be enough in the budget to pay for three council races in which a total of 18 candidates run using voucher money exclusively. That works out to around $3 million.
  • Can organizations or employers bundle contributions from their members or employees and make a big contribution to a single candidate that way? Not that way—bundling, where a person collects many individual donations and then writes a big check for the entire amount—is illegal, but a campaign is free to ask the members or employees of a large group or company to spend their vouchers on a particular candidate.
  • Since the requirement to qualify for voucher funding is a minimum of 400 contributions of $10 each, couldn’t a candidate just get someone to write them a check for $4,000? No, because viability is determined by how many contributions (100 or more), not the total (a minimum of $4,000, but in all likelihood more).

3. All Home, the coalition that coordinates efforts to reduce homelessness in King County, used a different approach and a different vendor to conduct its point-in-time count of people living unsheltered this year, and homeless advocates like Tim Harris at Real Change have questioned one major change this year: Unlike in every previous year, All Home won’t announce the number of people it counted right away. Previously, All Home and its former partner, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, released the number the day after the count; this year, the number won’t be released until June. All Home says it needs the extra time to survey people experiencing homelessness to get a better count of people living in vehicles and tents.

The delay also isn’t sitting easy with Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s human services committee. She said yesterday that she wrote a email to Putnam asking him for the raw count number now, figuring that even if a more accurate number is issued later, at least the city would have a baseline for comparison when discussing its strategy for addressing homelessness. “Mark, I’d love an informal update on how the count went and how you’re doing with data when you get a chance,” Bagshaw wrote. “It’s important that we have a baseline and provide my committee with some trend information.”

Navigation Center Behind Schedule, Fourth Encampment Off Table


A proposed low-barrier, 24/7 shelter called the Navigation Center won’t open by the end of the year as planned because of issues with site selection, city officials told the city council’s human services committee Monday. A second planned 24/7 shelter will be much more like a bare-bones traditional shelter—not pets, property, or partners allowed. Four planned encampments may now be three, since the city has had trouble locating a suitable site for the fourth. And ongoing sweeps to “clean up” unauthorized tent encampments will no longer be monitored by the Office of Civil Rights, whose work revamping protocols for tearing down encampments the mayor’s office says is now complete.

Oh, and those trash cleanups at encampments that neighbors fed up with seeing litter and needles have been demanding? They’re not exactly working out as planned, in part because some trash contractors hired by the city are refusing to venture into the encampments.

The mayor’s director of homelessness and officials from the Human Services Department, Finance and Administrative Services, and Seattle Public Utilities briefed the council on the status of what the mayor’s office is now calling “Bridging the Gap”—the plan to add new encampments and shelter beds while the city ramps up its large-scale plan to address homelessness, a voucher-based “rapid rehousing” proposal called Pathways Home. As homelessness director George Scarola described it today, Bridging the Gap is “an interim plan that is how the city responds not just to encampments, but to the issues of garbage, needles, and crime that community members associate with encampments.”

george-scarola

George Scarola, the mayor’s homelessness director

There’s a lot to unpack from today’s status report, starting with the news that the Navigation Center is behind schedule.

The contract to operate the Navigation Center went to the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the most experienced provider of low-barrier shelter services in Seattle, last month. Despite initial plans to open the center in November or December —in time to get some hard-to-house people inside for the winter—the city has yet to announce a site, which pushes the project back at least a couple of months. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” said Jason Johnson, HSD’s deputy director, today.

When we spoke last week, Johnson told me that the Navigation Center will be designed to shelter people with barriers (including active problems with substance abuse) that have kept them out of traditional shelters, and won’t be a traditional first-come, first-served facility like DESC’s large shelter at the Morrison Hotel downtown; outreach workers will identify candidates for the center at homeless encampments and on the streets (in San Francisco, the Navigation Center typically identifies new “guests” when the city sweeps homeless encampments there)and bring them to the center. When they arrive, Johnson continued, they’ll get notice of the center’s “30-day expectation”—that is, the understanding that guests are expected to leave the center within 30 days of their arrival. “It’s not that on day 29, someone’s going to be given an eviction notice, but yes, we set a 30-day expectation on all our shelter programs,” Johnson said. The average shelter stay in King County is around 200 days.

Johnson mentioned the 30-day expectation in today’s council meeting, calling the Navigation Center “a place where people can remain in a shelter with a roof over their head, but the entire time they’re there, we’re working on their exit.”

Those who don’t qualify for the Navigation Center, or can’t find a space in the new encampments or existing shelters, would also have the option of spending the night in one of the new low-barrier shelters the city said it also hoped to open next year. These lower-cost facilities  would include lockers, but people wouldn’t be able to hold on to large quantities of possessions or bring their pets or partners with them. Most likely, these shelters would look similar to DESC’s current facilities, which include small lockers and gender-segregated dorms with metal bunk beds set up head-to-foot across a large, warehouse-style room.

Alternately, they could apply for a spot at one of the city’s three new sanctioned encampments, in North Seattle, South Seattle, and South Park. However, those new camps will house fewer than 200 people, leaving thousands still outside. Originally, Mayor Ed Murray had announced that the city would open four new sanctioned camps, but Scarola said the city had had trouble siting a fourth, and anyway, “They will fill gradually, they won’t fill overnight, and we’ll see what the market [need] is for the fourth site.

Ultimately, city staffers emphasized, the goal is to transition the county’s entire human services and homeless housing infrastructure over to the framework described in Pathways Home, a plan touted by Mayor Ed Murray and most council members that would provide homeless people with short-term vouchers to help them rent apartments on the private market, and assumes that many people will have to be severely rent-burdened or move far away from the city of Seattle to find a place they can afford.

(At a public forum on rapid rehousing the other night, several service providers and housing experts panned this plan for imposing de facto segregation on low-income people, and suggested the real problem was not a lack of flexibility on the part of homeless people, but a lack of affordable housing. In response to those critiques. HSD director Katherine Lester shot back, “Are we waiting for a perfect situation? Or do we want people to get indoors?”)

The Navigation Center will shelter about 75 people. The three new encampments might add (substandard) shelter for another 150 to 200. That still leaves thousands of people sleeping outside, in doorways and alleys and the unsanctioned encampments that cause neighborhoods such consternation. To address these perceived public safety issues—including, council members and staffers noted pointedly, the safety of people living in encampments—the city plans to continue its practice of periodic sweeps, under protocols that are still being hashed out by the mayor’s office.

“One of the most contentious topics that [the mayor’s] task force [on encampments] took up was the protocols on where and when city would be cleaning up encampments,” said FAS director Chris Potter. “We embrace the need for, and process of, having other people weigh in on the [protocols], and I fully expect that will be a very extensive and contentious process.” Potter said council members could expect to see a draft of the sweeps protocols by the end of January.

Council member Lisa Herbold said she had been told back in November that whatever the protocols end up being, the Seattle Office of Civil Rights—which was charged with monitoring encampment removals and making sure workers were complying with rules about notice and disposal of people’s possessions—will no longer be monitoring the sweeps. A Seattle Times report yesterday detailed many apparent violations of existing protocols for encampment removal between September and November of this year, and described several sweeps that were shut down after SOCR monitors observed violations of the rules.

“I want to know if the executive feels there is not value to be added by the unique perspective that SOCR brings to monitoring this work, and if an FAS staffer can adequately replace that value,” Herbold said. Potter responded that, basically, SOCR has been helpful at suggesting new practices, like posting stickers on tents to give their occupants advance notice of sweeps, but “we want to operationalize and routinize the process of encampment removal.” Then he changed the subject to the reports FAS plans to publish detailing the outcome of each future encampment sweep.

Despite what sounded like an awful lot of bad news—no more civil-rights monitoring of sweeps, fewer encampments than anticipated, delays to the Navigation Center, a huge unmet need—both Scarola and committee chair Sally Bagshaw seemed remarkably bullish on the city’s homelessness efforts. “We are at the point where big changes are going to happen, and people in our city are going to be able to see that big changes are happening,” Bagshaw said. It was unclear to which people she was referring.

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