Morning Crank: Isn’t It Weird That…

Image: Low-Income Housing Institute

As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…

So: Isn’t It Weird That…

The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?

The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.

In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”

When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites,  he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.

But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.

Speaking of LIHI,  Isn’t It Weird That…

Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee?  What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.

“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”

Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other  Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):

• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation

• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation

•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation

• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.

And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”

Support

Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and  growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?

Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-daily updates on an unsightly encampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:

1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco,  one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That  quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that  “our city is out of control.”

2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.

3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.

It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.

* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.

Buses May Leave Downtown Tunnel for Surface Streets As Soon as March 2019

Dozens of buses per hour may move from downtown transit tunnel and onto surface streets as soon as next March, thanks to an amendment  adopted by the city council’s transportation committee on Tuesday. The amendment, proposed by council member Rob Johnson, alters legislation vacating several public alleys for the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center,  which will require buses to move from the tunnel onto surface streets sometime next year. Johnson’s amendment, which passed 4-3, struck language that would have barred the convention center  from kicking buses out of the tunnel until September 2019, which bill sponsor Mike O’Brien said was intended to give the city and King County Metro more time to implement transit improvements downtown. The amended legislation would allow the developers to evict buses from the tunnel as early as March 2019,  adding 40 more buses  to downtown streets in each direction during rush hour. (March and September were the two possibilities because those are the months when Metro implements its service updates.)

Although a group of Seattle Department of Transportation and council staffers warned committee members that the city and  county might not be able to implement all the improvements they need to make by March, Johnson countered that it was time to “hold SDOT’s feet to the fire on getting some of these transit pathways up and running in a more aggressive timeline.” If the council gives SDOT an additional six months, he added, they are likely to take it. Johnson also echoed comments made earlier by convention center developer Matt Griffin about the need to avoid unnecessary delays that could increase the cost of the project and forestall job creation and affordable housing construction.

On Tuesday, O’Brien argued that adding so many buses to surface streets in March will result in unnecessary traffic chaos at a time—known as the “period of maximum constraint”—when downtown streets will be most impacted by various downtown construction projects, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the opening of the new  tunnel on the downtown waterfront. March 2019, he added, may be an unrealistic deadline for the city and county to coordinate and complete all the improvements planned as part of the delayed One Center City project, including the implementation of off-board payment for all buses that travel on Third Avenue and the reconfiguration of Fifth and Sixth Avenues for buses, which will require new bus lanes and tricky signal timing changes.

“Next March, I think we’re all going to wish we had six more months of buses operating in the tunnel,” O’Brien said. “Even with buses operating in the tunnel, we’re going to have some major chaos on the streets downtown. … We’ll survive. The city won’t end. But I think it’s going to be a real mess.”

Contacted after the vote, Johnson said he isn’t convinced that the “period of maximum constraint” will be as cataclysmic as some of his colleagues, and SDOT, seem to think. As evidence, he points to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carried 120,000 cars a day as recently as 2009, when the city, county, and state signed an agreement to build a four-lane bypass tunnel and a wide surface Alaskan Way to replace the aging bridge that spans the downtown waterfront. At the time, advocates for building a bigger tunnel or rebuilding the viaduct said the number of cars driving through downtown would only grow. Instead, the number has steadily shrunk—to just over 90,000 in 2016, according to Johnson.

“I’m cognizant of the doomsday period of maximum constraint that everyone’s talking about, but also, I look at downtown, with its 24-plus lanes going north-south, and I think, that’s plenty of capacity, if we could just do a better job at managing that capacity,” Johnson said. “I get frustrated by the delay of projects that could have real benefits for transit pathways. I  really want to light a fire under SDOT to make some of these projects happen and not just take as long as we give them to do it.”

O’Brien says it’s unfair to lay every delay at SDOT’s feet; in the case of implementing off-board payment for buses on Third Avenue, for example, King County Metro is equally responsible.  “The frustrating thing for me is that Rob is just saying, ‘We think SDOT needs to work harder,’ and I’m like, Our experts just showed up and said we can’t do it in six months. And Rob is just saying, ‘You better.’

“This is all in the context of the new tunnel and tolling and rebuilding Alaskan Way. It’s not like SDOT just has nothing going on,” O’Brien says.

On Tuesday, the developer, Griffin, suggested that if the city allows buses to stay in the tunnel until September, it will result in costly delays, the elimination of tens of thousands of “bed hours” in affordable housing his firm has agreed to build as part of its deal with the city, and could potentially scuttle the project. O’Brien says that when Griffin made that last claim, he thought, “we’re outside [the realm of] rational thought—now you’re just making threats.”  He added: “Matt’s a powerful guy who has some influence about other things that other people care about.”

Griffin gave the maximum contribution, $700, to Johnson’s 2015 campaign, and contributed $10,000 that year to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, which was the largest contributor (at $46,500) to an independent expenditure campaign supporting Johnson. Griffin did not contribute to O’Brien’s campaign.

There’s still another situation, by the way, in which the convention center could be forced to let buses stay in the tunnel until September of next year: The legislation the committee adopted requires the convention center developer to obtain all its construction permits by July 1 of this year; if that doesn’t happen, buses must stay in the tunnel until September 2019.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the convention center street vacation agreement today at 2:00.