Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”

Delridge 

In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route.  Continue reading “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”

Bike Board Member Asks for Encampment Ban Near Bike Lanes, Poll Tests Streetcar Popularity; Council Clarifies “Z-Disposition” for 911 Calls

1. Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Dr. Doug Migden wrote to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office earlier this year to complain about the homeless people he sees while riding his bike, and to suggest legislation that would ban people from sleeping within up to 200 feet of any bike facility or sidewalk.

“First, I voted for Mr. Harrell and the primary reason is that crime and encampment related filth in Seattle is now totally unacceptable,” Migden’s letter begins. “I have lived on the north end of Queen Anne, in a house I own, since 1997. Unfortunately I’ve never seen Seattle in such a mess.”

Council member Alex Pedersen installed Migden on the bike board earlier this year, rejecting a different nominee the board identified through a months-long recruitment and nomination process. The bike board advocates for and advises the city on policies to make Seattle safer and more welcoming to cyclists from all backgrounds, including low-income and homeless people.

Given that “bicycle commuters in West Seattle can’t even safely get to downtown because of encampments and illegal activity such as IV drug use on or adjacent to bicycle pathways,” Migden continued in his letter, “how about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces. This is not too much to ask and it’s certainly doable. Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.”

“How about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces.  Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Doug Migden

Yes, Migden wrote, it’s important to “take care of” truly “vulnerable populations,” but a lot of the homeless people he sees around are able-bodied men who “are not mentally ill,” are “in no distress,” and are well-off enough to “indulge” in cell phones. “[S]tratification and picking apart which illegal campers truly need assistance and which ones are basically freeloading off of responsible citizens who pay taxes etc., is crucial,” Migden wrote.

The mayor’s office, in a standardized response, told Migden they would forward the information about the encampments he reported (including “disgusting RVs” in Fremont and Ballard) to the city’s encampment cleanup squad.

2. A recent poll tested voters’ opinions about completing the long-delayed downtown Seattle streetcar project, along with various local funding options, such as increasing the commercial parking tax, increasing the local vehicle licensing fee, and increasing local sales taxes, already among the highest in the country.

The poll, conducted last week, seems to favor streetcar completion—stating, for example, that federal funding could cut the $350 million estimated cost of the streetcar almost in half, but is only available for a limited time. (Federal funding for the streetcar is far from certain, although, as the Urbanist pointed out earlier this year, a potential $75 million request for federal funding still gets a “high” rating from the Federal Transit Administration.)

“Connecting Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines just makes sense,” one of the poll’s test messages begins. (Many polls test messages that could be used for or against a proposal or person during a future campaign.) “This project will link our busiest transportation hubs serving people coming downtown by bus, light rail, ferry, Sounder, and Amtrak train creating a more seamless and convenient transportation system.”

Former mayor Jenny Durkan paused work on the downtown streetcar connection in 2018, citing cost overruns. Before and since then, streetcar skeptics have argued that the downtown line is redundant with existing bus and light rail service and would not serve enough riders to justify the ballooning cost. Last year, the city council gave the long-moribund streetcar a kickstart by providing $2.4 million in funding to resume work on the project.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll; local political consultants, transit advocates, business groups, and streetcar proponents all told PubliCola it wasn’t them.

3. During an update on the city’s efforts to established an alternative response system for 911 calls that don’t require an armed response, city council public safety committee attempted to clarify an issue that recently confounded a prominent local columnist: The so-called “Z disposition” the Seattle Police Department gives to certain low-priority calls.

Previously, committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, dispatchers would routinely put the 911 system into “priority call status,” meaning that calls that didn’t rank in SPD’s top two “priority” designations (which include violent crimes and crimes in progress) would not get any response at all. Now, an officer reviews lower-priority calls before deciding whether they merit a response before dismissing them. “In my mind, that’s that’s a better approach, because at least you’re having somebody on the ground with law enforcement expertise making that decision,” Herbold said.

In April, she added, the city’s Office of Police Accountability recommended establishing a clearer system for assigning low-priority calls, in response to a high-profile complaint about two officers who ate breakfast near the Ballard library rather than responding immediately to a call about a person asleep inside their car.

Councilmember Sara Nelson said that in her view, the new system is actually worse, because under “priority call status,” police would at least tell low-priority callers to call back or give them a general estimate of when they might hear back about their call. “There is a customer service issue going on with the call with the system right now with no communication and that’s why people are getting upset,” Nelson said.

Efforts to replace police with civilian responders for some 911 calls remain largely stalled, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild has demanded to bargain any changes to the SPD-centric 911 response system.

Council Begins Debate on Parks District Expansion, Tax Increase

People playing pickleball. (Image credit: Jesus Abizanda from Barbastro, Huesca, Spain, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council, meeting as the board of the Metropolitan Parks District, raised questions last Friday about a plan to increase expand funding for the district by about $50 million, nearly doubling the size of the tax and funding more than $30 million in new projects and initiatives, plus funding for “pre-commitments” that the city promised in the past but has not delivered, including the Green Lake Community Center.

Currently, the median homeowner in Seattle pays about $155 a year toward the levy; the increase the city is considering would raise that to $307 a year, an amount the city expects to rise to $411 by 2028, assuming a 4 percent annual inflation rate. In addition to inflation, the median cost to taxpayers is influenced by home prices, which have continued to skyrocket in recent years.

The decision to raise park district taxes, and by how much, rests entirely in the hands of Mayor Bruce Harrell (whose proposal this is) and the council, acting as the parks district board. (For ease of understanding, I’m going to refer to the Metropolitan Parks District board as the council from now on, since the membership is the same) That’s because of the way the parks district is structured.  In 2014, voters approved the creation of the parks district to fund park programming above and beyond what the city’s previous voter-approved levy was authorized to fund—for example, operating programs and maintaining parks and community centers. The 2014 measure capped parks district spending at 75 cents per $1,000 of property valuation—anything above that amount, and the MPD board would have to send the plan to voters.

The increase the council is considering is still less than the 75-cent cap, but it does represent a significant property tax hike at a time when many homeowners (and renters, to whom property taxes get passed along) are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic—and on the brink of a potential recession.

It was that potential recession park district planners had in mind, interim Seattle Parks director Christopher Williams told the council Friday, when they proposed including $10 million in ongoing annual funding for parks projects that would ordinarily be funded by the city’s general fund. The city has been supplanting its parks budget with $10 million in levy funds during the pandemic, but this situation was supposed to be temporary; the parks district was created, in fact, specifically to add to existing parks funding, not to pay for ongoing needs.

Explaining the proposal to continue shoring up the parks budget with levy dollars, Williams said the intent was “to anticipate, I think, the situation the city could be in in 2023 and how the park district could provide post COVID relief to the city’s general fund situation,” Williams said. The city is facing an estimated $117 million budget shortfall next year, followed by diminishing but still significant shortfalls for several years after that.

“I am a skeptic of supplementation through the Metropolitan Park District, and that is a no way to say that we don’t have a challenging looming budget cycle,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the president of the MPD board, said. “I do think we need to be cognizant of the fact that …crises will come, and we need to be really careful of the precedent we set on when we we do and don’t dip into the MPD to help balance the general fund situation.” Continue reading “Council Begins Debate on Parks District Expansion, Tax Increase”

Times Columnist Wants Seattle To Have So Many Cops, They’ll Rush Across Town to Arrest IPhone Thieves

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote that the Seattle Police Department was recently forced to adopt a new policy to keep track of all the calls they’re no longer able to respond to. “It’s called the ‘Z protocol,'” Westneat claimed. “I don’t know why they picked the letter ‘Z.’ Maybe because it’s the last stop, the end of the road?”

Westneat’s characterization of the new police policy—as an acknowledgment that police are no longer able to do their jobs— was wrong. In reality, the new “z disposition” (not “protocol,” although that does sound more dystopian) means that more people will have eyes on low-priority calls before the police department decides not to show up. That’s because it replaces an older policy, known as “priority call handling,” that was in place for most days during each of the past three years.

Under that policy, most low-priority calls would never even get to the police department; instead, 911 responders would tell callers to report the incident online or call back later. Now, these low-priority calls get dispatched and screened by a police supervisor, who decides whether they merit a police response and what kind of response is appropriate. For people, like Westneat, who blame slow call response times at least partly on what Westneat calls a “political class hostile to the idea of policing,” this greater police involvement ought to be something to celebrate.

If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to his iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

Prioritizing calls by urgency isn’t some new phenomenon brought on by staffing shortages; it’s a basic part of policing in every city in America. In Seattle, the police have long deprioritized calls that fall into the “Priority 3” and “Priority 4” categories, largely because many of them don’t require an immediate police response.

Priority 4 calls are non-emergency calls that may not require any written report. Priority 3 calls include complaints about illegal parking, fireworks illegal bonfires, and off-leash dogs. Many Priority 3 calls are the kind of situations that tend to resolve themselves; others are crimes that don’t require an immediate response, like package theft and car break-ins. Overall, police response times for these kind of calls have been slow for many years, because the police have more important things to do—like responding to Priority 1 (risk to life or serious injury or crimes in progress) and Priority 2 (altercations or situations that could escalate) calls.

The two examples of “Z-Protocol territory” Westneat describes in his column are good examples of Priority 3 calls—calls the police have always responded to more slowly than higher-priority emergencies. Both involve iPhones whose owners (Westneat and “a guy I know,” respectively) decided to chase down the thieves using the “find my iPhone” function, and were annoyed to learn that police don’t drop whatever they’re doing to rush to the scene of a petty theft.

“Now, with police ranks depleted, and at least a portion of Seattle’s political class hostile to the idea of policing, they seem to be instituting white-flag waving as a regular part of the system,” Westneat complained.

This privileged view of what police are for (“What has this city come to when the cops won’t even show up to arrest a perp I’ve tracked and collared myself?”) is easy to dismiss as a macho version of the Karen complex—the idea that the city should fund cops so lavishly that every low-level complaint would get an instant, in-person response.

But demands to have police respond in person to every emergency and nonemergency also serve as a counternarrative to the idea that not every situation requires or benefits from the presence of uniformed officers with guns. If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to their iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

This has been amply debated. I would argue that the debate has even been settled—there is now broad consensus on the basic principle that not every call requires a police response. “Defund the police”—which never happened—was always about how to fill the gaps, by setting up and funding alternative systems for responding to situations that should never have fallen to police in the first place, like mental health crises.

Westneat called “z disposition” a “white flag” to criminals. In reality, it’s an acknowledgement that police resources, which will always be limited, have to be prioritized. Not everything is an emergency. The police, and political leaders, could do a better job of making this fact clear, by communicating transparently that the police will not show up for every kind of call, and by providing and promoting alternative options for resolving issues that aren’t actual emergencies. In the long run, many calls should be shifted away from police, and handed off to more appropriate responders at the point of dispatch.

Let’s keep Z disposition, though—and reserve it for people who treat 911 like their personal complaint line.

Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness

1. The campaign for Initiative 135, which would create a new public development authority to build publicly owned “social housing,” announced on Wednesday that it had just turned in 29,000 signatures to qualify their citywide initiative for the November 2022 ballot.

The House Our Neighbors campaign, led by the advocacy group Real Change, used paid signature gatherers to give their effort a boost in its final weeks, but the final count leaves little room for chance: To get on the ballot, a measure must be backed by signatures representing 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election, or about 26,500 names. Because many signatures are typically invalid, campaigns often try to collect as many signatures as possible; House Our Neighbors had hoped to collect around 35,000 names.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Real Change policy director Tiffany McCoy said the campaign combed over its signatures to eliminate as many as possible with non-Seattle addresses or information that was otherwise unclear. “If for some reason we come up five [signatures] short or 100, we do have a 20-day window to gather those requisite signatures and turn those in get on the ballot,” McCoy said. “Even if we don’t succeed this time, we will succeed in the future,” McCoy added. “This is happening one way or another.”

2. During a question-and-answer session sponsored by the business-backed homelessness nonprofit We Are In Tuesday evening, Mayor Bruce Harrell stuck to talking points about “treatment,” “data,” and “compassion” in response to questions about his administration’s progress on homelessness. Instead of covering all his responses to We Are In director Felicia Salcedo’s friendly questions, we thought it would be useful to provide a short fact check on a few of the mayor’s key talking points from Tuesday’s event.

“Housing and Treatment”

As he has at many press events involving homelessness, Harrell said the city’s response to homelessness would focus on ensuring people get the “treatment” they need. Responding to a question about the increase in encampment removals, Harrell said, “I lead with housing and I lead with treatment.”

In fact, even in the handful of cases where the city has done months of focused outreach before sweeping an area, sweeps almost never lead directly to housing or treatment. Instead, the city’s HOPE Team provides referrals to available shelter beds, which include everything from congregate “enhanced” shelter to tiny house villages. (Less than half of shelter referrals, generally speaking, result in someone actually showing up and staying at a shelter for at least one night). The city of Seattle provides very limited funding for programs that can lead to treatment, such as community court, with the overwhelming majority of local treatment dollars coming out of the King County budget.

“An unprecedented level of transparency” 

Earlier this month, Harrell rolled out what he described as an unprecedented public dashboard containing information about where people are living unsheltered, what kind of shelter or housing the city is offering people prior to encampment removals, and new shelter and housing units that are opening up.

Asked about the dashboard, Harrell said that it includes not just “a heat map” of “where people are living [and] where we’re offering people shelter” but a detailed breakdown of what the city is spending on homelessness and information to help the public “as we track our police and fire responses” to encampments.

In reality, the website Harrell announced shows only very high-level and partial information about the state of homelessness in Seattle. For example, the information on emergency responses consists of three high-level, citywide numbers representing information available through April, and the “heat map” includes an obviously incomplete count of tents and RVs by neighborhood; as an example, the map says there are no tents or RVs in the entire University District, and just one in Beacon Hill and South Beacon Hill combined. The information is also incomplete (many former encampments the map highlights include the note “outreach data not available”) and out of date; the most recent update came from information available in mid-May, and the website does not allow viewers to download any data themselves.

Information about what the city spends on homelessness, meanwhile, is misleading; a pie chart and several slides meant to illustrate the city’s contribution to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s budget includes tens of millions of dollars in federal emergency funds that do not come directly from the city, which contributed just under $70 million—not $118 million—to the authority last year.

Suburban Cities

Asked about the role suburban areas can or should be playing in addressing homelessness, Harrell said he would continue helping people who are “not from Seattle” but are moving here because the areas where they live are less “compassionate” toward people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness”

One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success”

By Erica C. Barnett

The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which administers contracts and sets policy for the region’s homelessness response system, has seen its share of hiccups in the two and a half years since the city and county voted to create the agency in December 2019. In addition to the pandemic, the agency has faced budget battles, hiring challenges, and open clashes with homeless service providers over the appropriate response to unsheltered homelessness.

A partnership with businesses that aims to eliminate all tents from downtown Seattle by providing intensive case management from people who have been homeless themselves sparked controversy, as did the authority’s request—the second in two years—for significantly more city funding than Seattle leaders said they could provide.

Recently, the agency’s CEO, Marc Dones, stood side by side with Mayor Bruce Harrell at an event celebrating the closure of an encampment at Woodland Park, which Dones distinguished from a traditional encampment sweep because most of the people living there received extensive outreach and shelter referrals. As a matter of official policy, KCRHA opposes sweeps—a position that puts the agency in constant tension with the city, which has dramatically accelerated encampment removals since Harrell became mayor.

I sat down with Dones in their bare-bones office in Pioneer Square last week to discuss some of the controversies they’ve encountered in their first year on the job, the authority’s relationship with the city, and where they believe the region is making progress on homelessness.

We started out by discussing the emergency housing vouchers provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its COVID relief efforts last year. HUD set up a complex, multi-layer process for delivering these vouchers to people who need them; as a result, many nonprofit service providers across the country have struggled to get the vouchers in their clients’ hands and ultimately get their clients into housing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PubliCola: To start us off, can you talk a little bit about where the region has made progress on homelessness in the year since you took over at the agency?

Marc Dones: I would say we have made really significant progress on engaging, for lack of a better term, non-standard providers, and I think our emergency housing voucher work is the best example of that. Our emergency housing voucher program is trending above national [rates], in terms of lease-up, by almost half. I think we’re at 60 percent, and the country’s at something like 33.

I’m using ‘provider’ really broadly here, because a lot of these folks who are linked to the EHV program were not funded by the system at all. They’re folks who do more mutual aid-style work, where they are supporting people who are experiencing homelessness, often through relational work, and case management activities. How we have been able to connect people with the vouchers as a resource, and then support them through lease-up and then into housing, has really hinged on this idea that if we went to where people have their relationships, and use that as the primary vehicle, we would see success. And I think that we are seeing success.

I [also] think of our severe weather response, because we tapped into who’s supporting people outside, and how can we get the money to better support people who are outside, instead of hyper-focusing on this idea that we have to open up 10 more severe weather shelters downtown that people probably aren’t going to use, because they don’t provide parking, or you can’t store your stuff, or it’s only overnight. [So we focused on], how do we get stuff to people that it’s going to meaningfully interrupt potential harm, like just straight-up supplies.

Some of the other stuff that I’m particularly proud of—controversial in some spaces though it is—is our ability to engage philanthropy and business and to be able to begin to migrate towards being on the same page as some of those folks who have historically been positioned as external to the narrative, and then securing their buy-in in to put a significant chunk of change into the system for single adults. Which, not for nothing, it’s always families [who get support through philanthropy]. And so being able to work with the team of folks to get that much buy-in around single adults felt like a really big deal for me.

“If timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public.”

PC: In implementing the public-private Partnership for Zero, how is the authority ensuring that KCRHA is not prioritizing people in one geographic area for beds in the whole system or for units in the whole system?

MD: I get this question from everybody. And I keep having to say, well, no, that kind of will happen to some degree, because we don’t have enough stuff. Full stop. And so part of what the authority is looking to do is create geographic areas of focus, where we drive a ton of good outcomes for people who need us.

Downtown was selected because it has the highest concentration of unsheltered homelessness in the county, particularly for chronically homeless folks. And my expectation is that the vast majority of the folks that we are going to be engaging with—because of how prioritization currently works in terms of having a severe and persistent disability, being eligible for permanent supportive housing, etc.—are folks who we know would rise to the top of lists if they were engaged anyway.

But I think that what we have said is, until such a time as we have enough resources to activate countywide, we are going to have to make choices about where is our specific focus, and then we’re going to have to drive real hard and then shift, and drive real hard and then shift. And I will not defend it as the best way to do this work.  But I will defend it as what is possible for us inside the resource scarcity that we have.

PC: Do you think that you’re on track for “functional zero” [no permanent downtown homeless population] on the timeline you rolled out back in March?

MD: So far so good. I think we’re on track. [That said,] I do want this to feel less opaque to the general public. And I want timeline shifts to not be government failure, particularly when we’re doing complex, human-centered work. And it might take longer as we learn more about who those folks are. I think that if timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public so that when those shifts happen, they should have enough insight into what we do, so that their reaction isn’t ‘The government is out here playing with the timelines.’ We have to get that level of trust. And I know we don’t have it, but we have to get it.

PC: There has been a dramatic increase in encampment sweeps during the new administration. What the KCRHA’s role leading up to and during encampment removals?

MD: Our role is relatively limited. We play a role, but that role is outreach. Currently, we are in receipt of the removal calendar between 30 and 60 days in advance. And that is in part because the mayor’s office has done, I think, some good policy work to help prioritize which encampments are prioritized and why, so that it begins to skew away from what we’ve traditionally seen, if we’re just being totally, brutally honest, which is someone who’s elected or someone who is in a wealthy neighborhood is able to generate enough outcry about someone who’s experiencing homelessness.

PC: How do does the uptick in obstruction removals [encampment removals with less than 72 hours’ notice] affect the KCRHA’s ability to be trusted, and outreach workers that are contracted with your agency to be trusted?

MD: My responses are limited because we’re just not in that stuff. And where we have aligned with the mayor’s office is around what we are able to provide, in terms of engagement and support. On the obstructions, there is currently no authority role there. We have been very clear that a displacement-based strategy is not how we want to work. And recognizing that sometimes where an encampment is, for many reasons, including for the people who live there, doesn’t work. We want to work on timelines that make sense to get people inside.

PC: And did the mayor’s office ask the authority to participate in those removals or have any role?

MD: It was a conversation. And I think what I have pushed for is, give us time to engage people so that we can do right by them with what the system can currently offer. And [Deputy Mayor] Tiffany [Washington] was super open to that. And then it became, okay, on what cycle? And that’s how we’ve gotten to this 30-to-60-day, maybe even beyond, structure that gives us the capacity to engage people. So I do really want to say there was real collaborative work there.

“You can’t sunset [the HOPE Team], and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, ‘go away.'”

PC: What do you think of the fact that the HOPE Team has remained at the city as a kind of vestigial outreach team, while almost every other function of the city’s homelessness apparatus has moved over to the authority? Do they still serve a purpose?

MD: Currently, I would say yes. And I would say that part of it has to do with what we understand to be the case about when outreach teams don’t want to engage [during a sweep]. They have said very clearly that, after [removal signs are posted], our efficacy drops, and for reasons that are at this point nationally recognized as true. So I think that the [HOPE team] remains an important today feature. I don’t know if it’s going to make sense next year. I’m really trying to get it become vestigial over the next three-ish years, as we turn this around.

PC: Should the HOPE Team continue to have exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds that aren’t available to service providers?

MD: When we talk about the set-aside beds, I don’t think that there’s actually an argument about whether or not the set-aside beds are the best way to manage bed availability. But in order to fully step away from set-asides, we need a better way to manage real-time bed availability across the whole system. And we’re working on that here—it is a hot topic around these halls. But we’re not quite there yet. And so there’s some stuff that I think we can talk about in the community as not ideal, and acknowledge that there will be a moment where we can say, ‘Okay, now we can turn that off.’

But I think it’s also really important to be really clear that you can’t sunset one thing, and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, go away, because then there’s chaos in that space, which is harmful. Again, we do still need to meet some of those functions to help people.

PC: It’s almost summer. Can you preview the authority’s plan for getting people inside during hot weather and smoke? Continue reading “One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success””

City Resumes RV Sweeps; Another High-Level Staffer Leaves Homelessness Authority

Yellow eco-blocks line a street in West Seattle where RVs used to park.
After sweeping an RV encampment in West Seattle, someone installed bright-yellow “eco blocks” to prevent people from returning.

1. After the city announced it would begin enforcing the long-suspended “72-hour rule”—which requires vehicle owners to move their car, truck, or RV every three days—back in May, it was only a matter of time before the Harrell Administration started cracking down on people living in their vehicles. Less than two weeks later, workers arrived to clear out a group of people living in their RVs at Ruby Chow Park in Georgetown, towing away vehicular homes that could not be moved and sending some residents off to emergency shelters across town.

Last week, the same story played out at a longtime RV encampment on SW Andover Street in West Seattle, when the city gave residents 72 hours to leave the site. According to a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Utilities, which conducts what the city calls “RV remediations,” there were 15 RVs, 11 vehicles, one tent, and one trailer on site when the removal signs went up.

On Thursday, when workers showed up to clear the site, the SPU spokeswoman said “six RVs, three trailers, one box truck, three vehicles, two tents and 13 people” remained. Overall, three people accepted referrals to shelter, in addition to nine who left with shelter referrals over the previous month. That leaves nine people who were on site when crews came out who “self-relocated” to unknown locations.

In a recent newsletter, West Seattle city council representative Lisa Herbold noted that when people lose the RVs where they have been living, they lose not just a parking space but their actual home; emergency shelter, where people live in close proximity with no privacy or space to store personal belongings, isn’t an equivalent substitute for a private space with a locking door. “RV residents are a different group, with different needs, from other folks experiencing homelessness. They quite literally already have a home,” Herbold wrote.

A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.
A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.

Once the city towed the last remaining vehicles and hauled off what SPU describes as more than 50,000 pounds of trash, workers  replaced the RVs with large concrete “eco-blocks” meant to prevent RVs from parking at this location in the future. According to the West Seattle Blog, nearby Nucor Steel installed the blocks (illegally) in the public right-of-way. We have asked the city why they have not removed the blocks or required Nucor to remove them.

Parking an oversize vehicle on public streets overnight is illegal almost everywhere in the city, with the exception of small swathes of industrial land in Ballard, Georgetown, Interbay, and West Seattle.

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority awarded $1.9 million to the Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates most of the city’s tiny house villages, to open a safe parking lot for up to 50 RVs later this year. The funding, and the spaces themselves, represent a very small umbrella against a deluge of need: According to the most recent census of people experiencing homelessness, about 2,700 people were living in cars or RVs in King County in 2020, before the COVID pandemic.

The city has scheduled six RV removals in June; the next two on the schedule are on N Northlake Way, near Gasworks Park on June 28 and 4th Ave. S. in Georgetown on June 29. So far, seven RV sweeps are on the schedule for July.

2. Dawn Shepard, a former outreach director at REACH who took a high-profile job as co-director of the KCRHA’s peer navigator program earlier this year, has left the agency after just three months—the latest in a wave of high-level departures from the homelessness authority.

Peer navigators, now known as “system advocates,” are case managers with lived experience of homelessness who will work with people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle, with the goal of connecting them to services and appropriate shelter or housing—and “drawing down” the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero.” The privately funded effort got underway earlier this year.

As one of four co-directors of the system advocates program, Shepard shared her personal story at public meetings and to press outlets like Crosscut, which presented the concept of hiring people with lived experience as a unique new approach to unsheltered homelessness. Shepard is hardly the only KCRHA employee to describe her traumatic experiences in public; agency director Marc Dones frequently talks about their past struggles with mental illness and brushes with homelessness.

Some longtime direct-service providers and others doing on-the-ground work with homeless people in Seattle have quietly criticized this approach, noting that most of their employees also have lived experience with the homelessness and criminal justice systems. They’ve also objected to the idea that lived experience in itself is the most important qualification for jobs working with vulnerable people, and raised concerns about the need to protect employees from being retraumatized by telling their stories publicly as part of their jobs.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens acknowledged that most homeless service providers “hire many people with lived experience, and lived experience is often what draws people to wanting to do the work of helping others and creating change.” Although several KCRHA employees do share their past experiences publicly as part of their jobs, Martens says it’s entirely their choice to do so. “It’s important to recognize that people self-identify as people with lived experience,” Martens said. “We are very sensitive to people’s individual comfort levels and conscious of the risks of re-traumatization—I would never push people on that.”

Shepard did not return a call for comment, and Martens said she couldn’t provide any details about why she left. REACH program director Chloe Gale, Shepard’s former boss, noted that REACH has several open positions at the director level and recently increased its salaries to a level closer to what the KCRHA offers its own outreach workers. The pay differential between the new government agency and nonprofit service providers has been a bit of a sore spot, since most nonprofits can’t compete with the salaries KCRHA can offer.
Other high-ranking KCRHA employees who have left this year include senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, who returned to the Seattle Human Services Department; special assistant Naomi See, who left for a position in Washington, D.C.; and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer, who headed up the agency’s new interview-based homeless population count and returned to the Seattle Housing Authority. “Given that we are a start-up, some turnover is to be expected and I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary,” Martens said.

First Hill Fire Displaces Dozens of Very Low-Income Tenants, Shutters Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge

Image via Yelp

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of very low-income residents of a subsidized apartment building on First Hill, the Madison Apartments, have been displaced, possibly permanently, by a massive fire that broke out last Sunday night. The five-alarm fire badly damaged the third and fourth stories of the four-story 1902 brick building and forced residents of all 75 studio and one-bedroom units to leave their homes.

A relatively small number of residents have been staying at a temporary shelter run by the Red Cross at Garfield Community Center; the city had no information about where the rest of the residents, who are considered homeless until and unless they find new permanent housing, have gone.

According to Office of Housing (OH) spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco, 38 apartments on the top two floors of the building “sustained fire damage and are uninhabitable. …OH is working with the Seattle Housing Authority to identify new permanent housing options for residents of the third and fourth floors, as they will be unable to re-occupy those units in the near term.” At the moment, no one is supposed to return to their apartments (although some may be doing so against the advice of the city and building management).

Although Velasco said the “current target for [basement, first-, and second-floor] residents to re-occupy some parts of the building is early July,” that could be optimistic. Because of the building’s age, the fire may have exposed asbestos insulation, contaminating apartments with the airborne carcinogen. We’ve asked the city for more information about contamination from asbestos and other hazards.

Units at the Madison Apartments are subsidized through a number of programs, including federal Housing Choice (AKA) Section 8) vouchers, and are restricted to people making less than half the Seattle area median income, or around $45,000 for a single person.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Housing Authority, Kerry Coughlin, said SHA is helping displaced residents with Housing Choice vouchers holders to find new apartments through an expedited process.  However, Coughlin added, “That process is all we can ‘expedite.’ We can’t issue new vouchers to residents at the Madison building. If and when we can issue new general purpose vouchers (not restricted to special populations), we draw in order from our wait list.”

In Seattle, rent-restricted and affordable units can be extremely hard to come by; the “affordable” rent for a person making 50 percent of median ranges from $1,123 for a studio to $1,416 for a one-bedroom, including utilities, according to the Office of Housing. Meanwhile, the list to apply for Section 8 vouchers is closed due to excess demand, and people who have vouchers in hand often end up returning them because they can’t find an affordable apartment. Currently, the lottery to get on SHA’s wait list for vouchers is closed; the last time it was open, in 2015, 3,500 households were added to the list.

According to Velasco, SHA is “coordinating with American Red Cross to assist residents with Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers, with the intent to help expedite the process of voucher reissuance and relocation for residents needing relocation.” People without vouchers, or who can’t afford market-rate apartments, will have to seek shelter or temporary housing through already overburdened local nonprofits.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there. We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done… in order to reopen.”—Greg Lundgren, co-owner, Vito’s Lounge

Residents at the Madison Apartments were not required to have renters’ insurance.

On the first floor of the building, the longtime First Hill institution Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge is another temporary casualty of the fire. Co-owner Greg Lundgren said the business sustained major water damage from efforts to put out the fire and that it will probably be at least a month, if not longer, before Vito’s can reopen.

“Our electronics were fried, our hood ventilation was cooked in the fire (it runs up through the center of the building and was exposed to the fire on the fifth floor), our ceilings are water damaged and most likely need replacement, and everyday another issue is revealed,” Lundgren said. “We are also focused on our staff, the musicians that we have programmed and support, and try and get better clarity ourselves on the extent of the damage and the road back to operating.”

Vito’s first opened in 1953. It closed in 2009 after a shooting inside the restaurant. In 2010, Lundgren and his business partner, Jeff Scott, bought the bar and reopened it, leaving the interior—with its red vinyl banquettes and taxidermied back-room cougar—largely unchanged.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there,” Lundgren said. “We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done—while we did not see smoke or fire damage, there is extensive water damage, and we have a professional service cleaning, drying and addressing a long list of concerns and work that needs to happen in order to reopen.”

According to the Seattle Fire Department, the fire was “caused by an open flame that tipped over onto a mattress and ignited it. The fire spread to other combustible materials, then burned through the roof and void spaces.”

Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps

1. A new audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office found significant racial disparities in use of force, arrests, and who becomes a “suspect” in areas where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency.

Residents and sheriff’s deputies “reported Black people as suspects and officers arrested Black people at rates nearly four times higher than expected given their proportion of the county population,” according to the audit report.

Although the county’s data on use of force was limited—619 calls led to a use of force between 2019 and 2021—the audit found that “overall, White officers as a group used force twice as often as Black or Asian officers. Additionally, both Black and Hispanic people were subjected to uses of force more often than White people.”

As the chart above shows, there were also major disparities in arrests—specifically, Black people were three and a half times more likely to be arrested than their proportion of the population would predict. In some areas, such as Sammamish and Woodinville, Black people were arrested at a rate more than ten times out of proportion to their population.

After “controlling” for overall arrest rates between various racial groups, that differential more or less disappears, but it still illustrates major upstream disparities, principal management auditor Peter Heineccius told the King County Council on Tuesday: Black, brown, and Native American people are far more likely than white and Asian people to become suspects (in part because people call police on them more), and more likely to be arrested as the result of a 911 call.

“This shows the risk of how an analysis that controls for certain factors might explain away racial disparities because it removes analysis of how [people of] different races become suspects,” he said.

Another factor that makes it hard to grasp the scope of racial disparities in stops and detentions: The sheriff’s office does not collect information about race during the vast majority of encounters with the public. Under the department’s interpretation of a law intended to protect immigrants from ICE, the county council would need to change county law to allow officers to start routinely recording the race of people they encounter.

“Previous Sheriff’s Office leadership has also stated that officers should not collect information about race, limiting the ability to quantify and ultimately reduce racial disparities,” the audit says.

Calling in to the council meeting on Tuesday, county Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she “was heartened to see that while the report did say there are racial disparities, the amount of force that we use, based on the number of contracts was very, very minimal”—about 0.06 percent of all calls for service result in force, according to the audit.

2. The city’s decision to refund around $5 million in parking fines, and drop the equivalent of another $5 million in tickets, is not the only issue parking enforcement officers have raised during their transition from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Parking officers, who are considered “special police officers” under the commission from SPD that was at the center of the parking ticket snafu, want to retain access to the Criminal Justice Information System, a that allows police to do background checks on vehicle owners, via radio, before making a stop.

Now, the union that represents the parking enforcement officers, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG), filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to CJIS without bargaining the changes with the union. CJIS is only available to law enforcement officers; the state Public Employment Relations Commission is currently considering their claim.

“We sill have access to radio—it’s that the information is not the same as when we were at SPD,” said SPEOG president Chrisanne Sapp. “We are able to read between the lines, but with the body of work that we do, I don’t find that reading between the lines is an acceptable response.”

PERC hearings are not public; however, representatives from the city have argued that parking enforcement officers can still call in plates and find out if they should avoid a parked vehicle, even without access to the information system.

2. The recent removal of a small encampment from a park near the West Seattle Golf Course illustrates the problem with the city’s approach to sweeps, according to Keith Hughes, a neighbor who runs a day center at the nearby American Legion hall: Without housing and meaningful services, people just come back.

All five people who were living in Totem Pole Park a week ago returned to the area within three days, according to Hughes, including a couple who moved their tent temporarily to another location and three single men who stayed a couple nights in a large downtown shelter and came back to West Seattle days after they left. One of the men subsequently attacked Hughes physically, he said, punching the 74-year-old in the face and leaving him with a droopy eye, a large cut, and bruises on his left shoulder. Continue reading “Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps”

One Thing We Learned During the Pandemic: Transit’s Not Dead

SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

There’s a stat in the latest report from Commute Seattle that offers a glimmer of hope for transit advocates. In a report that otherwise shows a stark drop in transit commutes between 2019 and 2021, coupled with a dramatic rise in telecommuting—arguably a double whammy of bad news for future transit investments—there is one finding that points toward a potential transit renaissance.

The survey showed that a key bloc of downtown workers, employees at small businesses (between 1 and 49 employees), represent the greatest untapped market for transit.

According to the City’s Office of Economic Development, small business—places with 50 employees or less—make up 95 percent of Seattle’s companies. Given small businesses’ big footprint, it’s time for the city to make policy that not only serves this important workforce, but also serves Seattle’s goal to be a sustainable, green city.

In its report, Commute Seattle, the local nonprofit that facilitates alternatives to solo car commuting, describes the encouraging news this way: “Unmet demand for employer-paid transit is higher among employees at smaller worksites than their counterparts in larger ones.” In other words, despite all the doom and gloom soothsaying about transit, the untapped demand is actually there.

At a time when some urbanists are anxious about a post-pandemic world that sidelines train and bus commuting, the news that employees at small businesses would like to ride transit, but aren’t, is particularly welcome because small businesses employ an outsized percentage of the downtown workforce. The most recent info on downtown employment comes from a November 2020 report from the Office of Economic Development, which, in addition to the 95 percent number noted above, also found that businesses with fewer than 50 employees make up provide nearly 200,000 jobs, about a third of all jobs in the city.

The numbers about transit demand tell the story: At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, more than 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use them” if they were. For companies with 10 to 49 employees, the number was 25 percent. Based on Commute Seattle’s outreach work, the people who work at small businesses citywide are overwhelmingly hospitality, restaurant, health care, and in-home health care workers, they say.

Just 23 percent of employees at the smallest companies and 32 percent of workers at larger small businesses report that subsidized transit programs are actually available and that they use them. This means that interest in transit at these small businesses totals 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, as the chart above indicates.

At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use ‘them'” if they were.

By the way, at the city’s largest companies, 100 or more employees, transit benefit usage is high, at 60 percent. This high use is easy to explain: State law requires large employers to make a “good faith effort” to use commute trip reduction plans to meet state environmental and traffic congestion goals. What jumps out about this number is that it’s about equal to the pro-transit number among employees at Seattle’s smallest businesses. This raises a question: Why is public policy only about getting white-collar workers to the job, but not employees at smaller businesses, including working-class people?

It’s worth pointing out that the high demand for transit benefits from workers at smaller businesses is coming from people who’ve yet to experience the practical benefits of transit—no gas bills, for one—at their current jobs. Just imagine how those numbers would climb if these employers offered to subsidize their ORCA cards and word spread among coworkers about the benefits. As Commute Seattle’s communication manager Madeline Feig puts it: “The best way to get people to know if transit will work for them is to get transit passes in their hands—it makes the decision easy. It is difficult for folks to know whether they would use that type of benefit if they have never had it.” In short, total interest in riding transit may be much higher than what Commute Seattle’s report suggests.

The data about the intense demand at small worksites overlaps with another reality that became clear during the pandemic: Ridership data for transit agencies nationally, including Sound Transit and Metro, showed that that people in working-class communities and communities with high BIPOC populations continued to ride, or returned more quickly to transit, during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m tying these two blocs of commuters together—those who work at small businesses and low-income and essential workers—because it reveals a strategy that could bring public transportation back to the forefront of our city vision, even as hybrid work models in the corporate world seem poised to undermine it. The strategy: Investing in public policy that brings transit to those who want it most.

“One of the most immediate actions we can take to address transportation inequities,” says Commute Seattle’s longtime program manager Nick Abel, “is offering transit opportunities to essential employees.”

Of course, subsidizing transit—or providing free transit— for 200,000 workers costs money. The good news is: Big employers are already paying. Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019.

Given that status quo, given the environmental and city planning pluses of getting more people on transit, and given the unmet demand, it would make sense to replace this private cost with a broader, progressive business tax (smaller businesses pay less) to cover both the current cost at big companies and the cost to bring in new riders from small businesses.

Josh@publicola.com

Editor’s note: Columnist Josh Feit is an employee of Sound Transit, the regional transit agency. His views do not represent the agency’s.