Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban

exterior of Union Gospel Mission, downtown Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit that runs shelter and feeding programs and provides supplies to people sleeping outside, sued to evict one of the homeless women living at its Re:Novo transitional housing building in West Seattle at the height of the pandemic, arguing that the group was exempt from local renter protections because their work helping and housing homeless people is “incidental” to their primary mission—proselytizing and promoting “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Last week, a state appeals court rejected the last of UGM’s arguments against Re:Novo resident Rebecca Bauer, whom the organization started trying to evict in March 2020, shortly after the state and local eviction moratoriums began.

The ruling, which prevents UGM’s eviction motion from showing up in tenant screening reports, concludes UGM’s two-year-long effort to evict Bauer, and contrasts the nonprofit with other religious housing and shelter programs operating in Seattle, such as Catholic Housing Services and Mercy Housing, which complied with the state and local bans on evictions during the pandemic. The group can seek to evict Bauer in the future, but has not tried to do so since last year.

Bauer moved into Re:Novo in July 2018, after moving to Seattle from Minnesota. She found out about the program from UGM’s Hope shelter in Kent. When she asked about the program, she told PubliCola “they said, ‘This is a Christian program,’ and I was like, ‘Hold up, first of all, I’m not a Christian,'” Bauer said. “And they told me, ‘that’s no problem.'”

In its formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed)), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans.

Bauer moved in to her new apartment—a $500-a-month “apodment” style unit that shared a kitchen and common area with four other rooms—in 2018, but didn’t sign her housing agreement until the following year. That agreement, amended by a staffer to exempt Bauer from program requirements like mandatory church attendance and religious counseling, was at the heart of UGM’s case to evict her. It says the length of the Re:Novo program is “one to two years … decided on a case-by-case basis for each resident.”

Re:Novo’s rules go far beyond a typical shelter or housing program. In addition to a ban on alcohol and “addictive drugs” (a category that, for UGM, includes medication to treat opiate addiction as well as poppy seeds) Re:Nov bans women living at the building from having any sexual relationships, watching movies rated PG-13 or R-rated movies, participating in “occult activity,” and leaving their rooms without “proper clothing,” including “bras underneath their clothes.”

The program also requires residents to attend services at Trinity West Seattle, a conservative church that believes in heterosexual marriage, with the wife serving in “submission” to her husband, as the only “normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women.” Bauer said that on several occasions, a program staffer asked invasive questions about her dating life, implying she was a lesbian. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined to take up UGM’s appeal in a discrimination case filed in 2017 by a lawyer the group refused to hire after discovering he was in a same-sex relationship.

The eviction notice came at a difficult time for Bauer. Since moving to Seattle, she had started to get back on her feet. With the help of the YWCA, which featured her as a speaker at its annual luncheon in 2019, she got her license as a certified nursing assistant and went to work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle, “which I loved because it was something new. I had always worked in nursing homes, and [the VA] was completely different. It was so exciting.”

Then COVID hit. Bauer got sick, landing in emergency room three times, and on March 30, 2020, UGM told her she had to be out by May. Their initial explanation was that she had failed to comply with program requirements by leaving her room at least once to cook food while she was sick and waiting for her COVID test results, putting the safety of other residents at risk.

Later, in a formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans. UGM’s eviction motion also claimed that Bauer was rude to staff, moved to a downstairs unit without permission, and left a stove burner on, and that her behavior ultimately forced UGM to abandon the entire half of the building where Bauer lived, leaving several units vacant. 

Rebecca Bauer’s program agreement exempted her from requirements that she attend church and participate in counseling—two issues Union Gospel Mission would later bring up when seeking to evict her.

These conditions, UGM argued, constituted an “imminent threat” to the health and safety of other tenants and staff, one of the only explicit exemptions to the city’s eviction ban.

UGM did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement responding to PubliCola’s questions about the lawsuit, UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor focused on Bauer’s alleged health and safety violations.

“The entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.”—UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor

“The Mission offered multiple times to help relocate Ms. Bauer to a more suitable housing situation, which she repeatedly declined,” Taylor said. “Most of the participants in the Re:novo recovery program are highly vulnerable, often fleeing domestic violence or recovering from addiction and susceptible to relapse. Ms. Bauer’s conduct put others at risk and the Mission felt that legal action was the only remaining option for protecting other program participants.”

Although Bauer vehemently denied all of those charges, both in court and in a lengthy conversation with PubliCola—in particular, she said her housing manager told her she could move into a unit another woman was vacating if she helped to clean it out—UGM didn’t actually make the “imminent threat” argument a centerpiece of its lawsuit.

Instead, they argued that they didn’t have to comply with the eviction bans because the housing UGM provides is just “incidental” to its central purpose of “proclaim[ing] the gospel and love of Jesus Christ to women.” As UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor put it in his argument before a King County Superior Court judge last year, “the entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.” Continue reading “Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban”

Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year

1. The Seattle Hearing Examiner is expected to rule as soon as next week on a case in which the Master Builders Association of King County and Seattle—a business group that represents housing developers—is seeking a more thorough review of a new tree ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees on private property. The goal of the new restrictions, MBAKS argues, isn’t to protect Seattle’s tree canopy (which includes many trees on public property that wouldn’t be subject to the new restrictions); it’s to prevent new housing in historically exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

“There are people and groups in our City that care deeply about trees and about the health of Seattle’s urban forest,” MBAKS wrote in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell last week. “Those are the people and groups we’d like to work with. However, the loudest voices are anti-development groups that have weaponized tree protection to support their singular goal of stopping development in their beloved single-family neighborhoods.”

The new tree ordinance would lower the size threshold for regulated “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

Technically, the appeal questions the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s “determination of non-significance” under the State Environmental Policy Act—essentially a conclusion that imposing new restrictions on tree removal (and thus development) will have no significant impact on the city’s environmental policies or its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development and land use decisions in the city. SDCI and TreePAC are the two groups opposing the Master Builders’ appeal.

The comprehensive plan encourages density inside neighborhoods as a bulwark against suburban sprawl and social inequity, since Seattle’s tree canopy is heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods that were historically redlined to keep people of color out. In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

Chart showing Seattle City Attorney's Office Case Filing decisions (filed or declined), January-June 2022

2. City attorney Ann Davison, who announced in February that she would decide whether to file charges in her office receives from the police department within five days, decided to file charges in just over 56 percent of cases between the day she announced the new policy and late June of this year, records PubliCola obtained through a disclosure request show.

This represents a significant uptick in the percentage of cases Davison’s office filed compared to her predecessor, Pete Holmes’, filing rate during the pandemic, but is similar to Holmes’ pre-COVID filing rates when compared to data provided (in chart form) in a report from Davison’s office earlier this year. The overall number of cases coming in from SPD is lower than before 2020 because of a number of factors, including SPD’s decision to stop pulling people over for some minor traffic violations; Davison’s report suggests the cause is “the loss of a significant number of SPD officers.”

The charges Davison declined to file most frequently after announcing the close-in-time filing policy on February 7 included assault, assault with sexual motivation, theft, and property destruction; the charges she has filed most frequently also included assault and theft along with trespassing, harassment, and charges that involve driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Case filings declined during the pandemic, in part, because the court shut down during COVID, creating a massive backlog that the municipal court is still struggling to work through. King County’s jails, meanwhile, remain understaffed even as jail populations rise, leading to conditions that both jail staffers and defense attorneys have described to PubliCola as inhumane. The more misdemeanor cases Seattle sends into this system, the greater the downstream backlog becomes.

Maybe Metropolis: The Solution Is More Density, Not Just More Taxes

Image of three developments allowed in some former single-family areas, from least to most dense: residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2.
MHA’s modest upzones on a sliver of Seattle’s single-family land include (l-r) residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2. Images via City of Seattle.

By Josh Feit

The JumpStart tax, city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s payroll tax on big employers like Amazon, is posting standout numbers. This year, JumpStart will fund $97 million in affordable housing investments, including nearly $80 million for 1,769 units of affordable rental housing. Last year, the $71.4 million it provided toward affordable housing amounted to almost half the $153 million total raised by all the city’s affordable housing funding streams.

The Jump Start tax teases out the nexus between surging tech job growth and housing prices by capturing nouveau corporate Seattle’s impact on the market. That is: As the hyper growth of tech companies like Amazon inflate local housing prices, the city is taxing them to help fund affordable housing. It’s a good look, and it seems like a logical offset for the influx of high-earning tech employees. And, let’s be honest: It also feels good.

However, as much as I agree with the logic of an Amazon tax, and as much as it’s bringing in, I think there’s a more germane and effective way to raise affordable housing dollars. Luckily, it’s already part of our affordable housing strategy—sort of.

I’m talking about 2019’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, a fee on new development in designated parts of the city, which brought in an impressive $50 million in 2021 itself.

Given that Jump Start outpaced MHA by $20 million, why am I focusing on  MHA as the smarter policy? For starters, MHA, which came with a series of targeted upzones that allow more housing in more places, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city. These historical zoning laws cordon off nearly 75 percent of the city from multifamily housing, pinching supply and thus fueling steep housing prices.

While conventional wisdom holds that upzones and new development inflate housing costs, a 2021 UCLA report found that the latest studies show the opposite: Five out of six studies looking at the impact of market-rate housing determined that new market-rate density “makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units.”

Conversely, those who warn that upzones lead to gentrification, have a hard time explaining why gentrification is alreday happening in Seattle today, under our status-quo zoning that prohibits the very density urbanists are calling for. More logically, the prohibition on new development in so much of the city is spiking prices for the limited housing that is available.

Seattle gained 130,000 people between 2010 and 2020 (13,000 a year) and another 8,400 during the first year of the pandemic, many of them tech transplants. These newcomers didn’t cause the housing shortage, though—they merely brought it into sharper relief. The MHA strategy, which encourages housing development, is actually in the position to do something about it.

MHA, which came with a series of targeted up-zones, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city.

And MHA might be worth more money than JumpStart. The MHA data point that interests me most is $13.4 million, a subset of MHA dollars raised. This figure represents the amount of money MHA raised specifically from developments built on land where it was previously prohibited: multifamily housing built on land that was upzoned in Seattle’s previously exclusive single-family zones.

Passed in 2019, MHA didn’t merely tack a fee onto new development; it also upzoned tracts along the edges of 27 single-family zones, allowing small-scale density in some previously single-family-only neighborhoods by expanding low-rise and neighborhood commercial zones and creating a new “residential small lot” zoning designation. These modest upzones, which the city adopted on just 6 percent of single-family land, allow new housing that fits in seamlessly with single-family houses.

Interestingly, this modest bit of geography— 6% of the single-family zones, or  4% of the city’s total developable land—accounted for nearly 20 percent of all MHA dollars. This outsized production could represent an upward trend. Last year, the same modestly upzoned fraction of single-family areas brought in 12 percent of the money raised from MHA overall, $8.3 million out of MHA’s $68.3 million.

This disproportionate performance indicates that pent-up demand for development on formerly cordoned-off land could be a spigot of affordable housing cash. Consider: There’s a lot more developable land where that 6 percent came from, and the city could increase the potential density of those areas more dramatically than it has to allow multifamily and commercial development, for example. If the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell had the courage to stand up to Seattle’s NIMBY class by extending the upzones further into exclusive single-family areas and by opting for denser upzones, Seattle would generate far more cash for affordable housing.

Sure, $80 million from the JumpStart tax  is helping a lot. But the truth is, we need far more money for housing. According to the Office of Housing, MHA helped fund 990 units in 2021. But, according to the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force , we need 12,000 a year. Unfortunately, JumpStart’s impressive figures could dampen any move to expand the more on-point MHA approach, which raises money for affordable housing (and could raise a lot more) while actually addressing the crux of the housing problem by freeing up land for development.

In this way, JumpStart could unwittingly play to the interests of single-family homeowners (and their ever-appreciating property values) by shifting the focus away from the central role these homeowners play in the housing crisis, holding them harmless and avoiding bold policy solutions by taking their communities off the table.

According to the MHA numbers, the 4 percent of Seattle that we timidly opened up to more housing construction is trying to tell us something: The table is bigger than we think.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Ruling Orders UW to Reinstate Police Patrols at Dorms, COVID Hits Home at SPD and City Hall

1. The state Public Employee Relations Commission, which arbitrates labor disputes within state agencies, reversed a decision that allowed unarmed “campus responders” to provide public safety services at University of Washington residence halls and ordered the UW to restore police patrols, represented by a different union, at the dorms. The ruling orders the UW to reassign campus cops to patrol its residence halls.

The university decided to eliminate armed dorm patrols in 2020 after protests against police violence prompted calls to divest from police across the city and nation.

The divided decision, signed by Commissioners Marilyn Sayan and Kenneth Pedersen, found that the university had failed to bargain in good faith with its campus police union when it eliminated unarmed patrols to the dorms in response to student demands for a “more holistic approach to public safety” in 2020. PubliCola broke the news about the latest PERC decision on Saturday, and covered the original decision, which was issued by a PERC examiner, last year.

The case centered on the question of whether the UW and its president, Ana Mari Cauce, had the authority to replace campus police with civilian responders without negotiating the change with the union representing the officers. The university argued that it had the authority to choose its own campus public safety model, without bargaining the changes with the union; the union argued that the issue was a matter of mandatory bargaining, and that the UW was “skimming” work away from the police department—effectively taking away an opportunity for officers to make money and giving it to new employees represented by a different union.

Although no campus police lost their jobs as the result of the shift in duties (the dissenting opinion by Commissioner Mark Busto notes that the police union “did not present evidence that the CPOs suffered any financial impact from the transfer, such as the loss of overtime”), the PERC ruling orders the UW to “make any eligible bargaining unit employees whole, with interest, by paying them wages and benefits lost as a result of the skimming found in this unfair labor practice complaint.”

2. In COVID news, PubliCola has heard from several sources that Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson recently had COVID but failed to inform her coworkers, including at least some council colleagues, about her diagnosis, as the city’s COVID protocols require for all city employees who work outside their homes. Nelson, who often appears on the council dais without a mask, did not respond to a request for comment.

Legislative staff routinely receive exposure notices from Human Resources when someone in their department tests positive and reports it to the city, but there have been significantly more informal reports of COVID than formal notices, meaning that others in the legislative department are not following the policy either. At least two other council members have had COVID, including Councilmember Tammy Morales, who mentioned her diagnosis in a recent public council meeting.

3. Additionally, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz’ brother, acting Lieutenant Avery Jaycin Diaz, is on extended leave and reportedly plans to retire after refusing to get vaccinated, which SPD policy requires. Although neither SPD nor Chief Diaz would confirm that nonvaccination was the reason for his brother’s departure, an SPD spokesman did confirm that he has not been on active duty for some time. The spokesman said Avery Diaz had not submitted his official retirement paperwork as of mid-July.

PubliCola was unable to reach Avery Diaz, and the police chief declined to comment on the record about his brother’s departure. Property records show that he sold his house in August 2021.

As of mid-July, SPD had only fired four officers for refusing to comply with vaccine mandates, although some have retired or resigned inton lieu of termination. The department has lost around 400 officers since 2020, most due to resignations or retirements, and Mayor Bruce Harrell recently announced a $2 million “recruitment and retention” plan that would providing hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 to new SPD officers.

Harrell Shakes Up Top Staff, Police Accountability Office Clears Officers Accused of Extortion

NewPhoto of Deputy Mayor Greg Wong
Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Greg Wong

1. Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell informed his cabinet that he had replaced Deputy Mayor for external relations Kendee Yamaguchi, the former executive director for Snohomish County, with Department of Neighborhoods director Greg Wong, a former Pacifica Law Group attorney who took over at DON in February. PubliCola broke the news of Yamaguchi’s departure, and Wong’s promotion, on Twitter Monday morning.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about the reason for Yamaguchi’s departure, and an email sent to her city of Seattle address bounced back with a message containing Wong’s contact information.

A press release set to go out today said simply, “Kendee Yamaguchi served an instrumental role during our transition to office and in our early efforts to establish sincere and enduring relationships with stakeholders, organizations, and local leaders,” said Mayor Harrell. “We are grateful for her service and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”

Wong, who lives in southeast Seattle, was the head of the Schools First campaign for the Seattle school levy elections in 2013 and 2016. According to the mayor’s office, he will focus on economic development, community relations, and arts and culture.

2. The Office of Police Accountability declined to sustain, or uphold, any of ten separate allegations in a 2017 case in which two police officers accused another officer of running a “mini-mafia” to prevent new companies from entering the market for off-duty work. The two officers were the founders of called Cops for Hire, since rebranded as Blucadia, that also connects businesses with off-duty officers.

The OPA complaint, which attracted significant attention at the time, accused officers working for Seattle’s Finest, a security company started by a retired SPD officer, of colluding to increase the pay of off-duty officers by intimidating and extorting the companies that contract with the firm, including the owners of Columbia Tower downtown. The OPA wrapped up its investigation in October 2018 but did not release the summary of its findings until last week.

The investigation found that the officer expressed his frustration by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which the officer said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience.”

Police officers can make thousands of dollars in additional income by taking off-duty jobs in security or directing traffic through companies like Seattle’s Finest and Seattle Security, which is affiliated with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.  In some cases, police are paid for a certain number of hours even if they work less—four hours, for example, for two hours’ actual work.

According to the investigation, the officer with Seattle’s Finest, identified by the Seattle Times as MacGregor Gordon, said one of the company’s bargaining tactics was to name a high price for their services, and then—if a building owner balked—withhold their work as parking garage flaggers and force the owners to bear the consequences until they finally gave up and paid the price Seattle’s Finest demanded.

Investigators said they were “hindered” in investigating the claims of extortion because the business owners “refused to discuss the matter unless OPA could guarantee full confidentiality

The investigation also found that Gordon expressed his “frustration with garage management’s attempts to modify his contract” by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which Gordon said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience” with his inflammatory comments

Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole referred the case to the FBI, which decided not to prosecute. We have a call out to OPA for information about why it waited until now to release the summary of its investigation.

Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents

Bellwether Housing's Anchor Flats building in South Lake Union
Bellwether Housing, whose properties include the Anchor Flats apartment building in South Lake Union, is limiting rent increases this year. Image via Bellwether Housing

By Katie Wilson

It’s no secret that rents are rising. Landlords are making up for lost time after pandemic-era rent freezes, and passing inflation-driven cost increases on to tenants. After a brief exodus from urban areas, many renters who left have now returned. Climbing interest rates are forcing potential homebuyers to wait, crowding the rental market.

With all these pressures driving up market-rate rents, it must feel great to live in an affordable, rent-restricted apartment right now. Right?

Maybe not. A quiet wave of large rent hikes is coming. For some, it’s already here. Earlier this month, seniors at a building operated by Mercy Housing in Bellingham hit the streets to protest a 9 percent rent increase that left some residents owing more than 60 percent of their monthly income to their nonprofit landlord—twice as much as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of “affordable” housing.

Every April, HUD releases income and rent limits for certain types of affordable housing, based on area median income. Once upon a time, these limits might rise in King County by 1 or 2 percent a year, but starting in 2017, the annual increase jumped as high as 7 percent. The pandemic briefly slowed this ascent, but the increase announced this April is truly startling: In HUD’s calculation, King County’s median family income rose by 16.3 percent from 2021 to 2022. That means rents at properties governed by HUD’s formulas may also rise by 16.3 percent this year—or even more, if a unit wasn’t already priced at its upper limit.

Of course, the fact that King County’s median household is now pulling in $134,600 instead of $115,700 doesn’t mean that lower-income households suddenly have more money to spend on rent. Seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, working families earning near the minimum wage—they’re not getting raises like that. Therein lies the problem.

Although many types of affordable housing are protected from large rent increases, many buildings financed with federal low income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and tax-exempt bonds are not. The same is true for most units whose rents are restricted through state and local multifamily tax exemptions (MFTE) and programs like incentive zoning and Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

When the HUD limits began rising sharply several years ago, the city of Seattle changed the rules for new MFTE units so that maximum rents wouldn’t go up more than 4.5 percent a year. That change has kept rent hikes within reason for more than 200 units so far, but tenants living in older MFTE units—about 5,600—are subject to the escalating HUD limits.

That’s how Fatima ended up with a rent increase of over $600 a month. (We’ve changed the names of renters to protect their privacy).

More than a year ago, Fatima moved into an MFTE unit in North Seattle thanks to a rapid rehousing program run by a domestic violence organization. (Rapid rehousing is a form of temporary rent subsidy that helps low-income renters pay for housing). The rent was $1,500 for a 2-bedroom—significantly less than the going rent for the area, possibly because there weren’t many takers during the pandemic slump

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

Fatima said her landlord assured her that the rent wouldn’t go up drastically. After the rapid rehousing support ended, she was selected for an emergency housing voucher, a federal COVID relief program similar to Section 8 (now known as Housing Choice) that pays for a portion of a tenant’s rent.

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

“We said, hold on, you told us it wouldn’t be that much. They said, you know, it’s based on the market,” said the housing advocate. “That put it over the [rent] limit for her voucher.” 

This week, Fatima’s landlord agreed to lower her rent to fit her voucher limit, allowing her to stay in her home. But not every renter is able to negotiate that kind of agreement.

Seniors on fixed incomes are an especially vulnerable group. King County’s area median income has been rising faster than social security payments for some time now. When the rent rises beyond seniors’ means, “we simply have nowhere else to go,” said Sarah, who lives in a senior housing complex in Seattle.

Sarah’s building was financed through the federal LIHTC program, and up until four years ago, it was run by a nonprofit. “Rent increases were minimal, and management was responsive to tenants’ needs,” she said. Then a national for-profit company bought the building. By that time, many tenants were also voucher holders, seeking out lower-cost units as market-rate rents rose beyond what their vouchers would cover. The corporation quickly showed itself to be all business.

“A tenant association begun under previous ownership was not allowed to use common rooms for meetings,” said Sarah, and a manager threatened to evict a tenant who started a Facebook group for residents. The corporation also tried to require electronic rent payments, until residents pointed out that this is illegal in Seattle.

Now some tenants are facing rent increases of $175 a month, surpassing some residents’ voucher limits. “Because some voucher holders have disabilities involving psychological difficulties, this situation caused much anguish,” said Sarah. “All tenants, including those with vouchers, know that buildings like ours are their only answer—they are shut out of market-rate housing and waiting lists for low-income apartments are years long.”

Not every resident of affordable housing is in trouble. Programs that receive federal operating funds typically limit the amount of rent tenants must pay to 30 percent of the person’s income; this includes many buildings owned and managed by the King County Housing Authority and the Seattle Housing Authority. Housing Choice voucher holders are similarly protected—as long as they live in units with rent low enough that a voucher will pay for them. Many nonprofit housing providers also receive operating funds from other sources that come with limits on rent hikes.

“The city of Seattle is a funder in most of our buildings,” said Michelle House, director of compliance at Community Roots Housing. “This year, Seattle restricted [rent increases] to 4.2 percent. We did follow that guideline for most of our apartments.”

Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, says that rent increases at their properties depend “on the building and which entities regulate the building, if any.” But Bellwether made a decision this year to limit rent hikes to an average of 3 percent.

“Notwithstanding ever-increasing rents in the market and significant inflation in operation costs, this will be the first year since 2019 that we have raised rents at all. We are very careful to ensure that our residents do not get overwhelmed by steep rent increases, regardless of what is happening with the HUD rent levels,” she said.

Continue reading “Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents”

Report on Police Oversight Office Recommends Changing Process for Reviewing Misconduct Decisions

A protester talks with a Seattle police officer on May 31, 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; Reproduced with a Creative Commons license).

By Erica C. Barnett

An external report commissioned by the Seattle Office of the Inspector General (OIG) after an investigator was caught approving, or certifying, investigations into police misconduct without proper review found multiple issues that led to poor oversight and communications within the office. But the report also concluded that most of the issues have been addressed since the incidents that prompted the review.

“Nobody likes to get a bad report card,” Inspector General Lisa Judge told PubliCola. “I believe that audits and reports like this that highlight areas for improvement and change make people and organizations better. This is the work that OIG does, so if I believe in it to help other organizations be better, I have to believe in it for myself and my organization.”

The OIG—a city office established by Seattle’s 2017 police accountability ordinance—is one of three entities charged with overseeing police accountability in Seattle; the others are the Community Police Commission and the Office of Police Accountability, an independent office inside the Seattle Police Department.

When someone files a complaint alleging police misconduct, the OPA reviews the complaint and decides, based on interviews and evidence, whether the complaint is valid and if it merits discipline; the police chief is in charge of deciding whether and how to discipline an officer. The OIG’s role in this process is to oversee the OPA and make sure their decisions are fair and valid.

The report, conducted by Los Angeles-based OIR Group, makes two substantive recommendations, along with nine recommendations that deal with management practices, employee wellness, and communications between the OIG and OPA.

According to the report, OIG moved Finnell out of what was then a two-person investigations unit in response to the complaint, “but no formal action was taken to investigate or address the allegations. Most significantly, there was no formal ‘course correction’ with the identified employee to ensure that Office expectations would be met for any future case reviews.”

First, it recommends that the office return to its previous practice of investigating reports the OPA closes without investigation by designating them as “Contact Log”—a determination that indicates that no officer was involved in an incident or that OPA doesn’t have enough information to investigate—individually, rather than doing quarterly audits of a sample of cases. This year, the OIG began reviewing individual contact log determinations after the fact, and will begin doing these reviews in real time next month. On Monday, city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold praised this new policy in her committee.

In 2021, the OIG’s annual report said that the office agreed with OPA’s “contact log” determinations 81 percent of the time, although that average reflected a dramatic drop, to 49 percent, after it switched to doing quarterly samples instead of individual reviews midyear. Many of the cases that were classified this way involved allegations of “serious misconduct,” including charges of bias and use of force during widespread protests against police brutality in 2020. The OIG made no judgment about whether the complaints themselves were valid or would have led to discipline.

Second, it recommends that OIG should have the authority to weigh in on OPA’s decisions before they go to SPD and to  what kind of discipline is appropriate for cops who violate policy or the law. “[I]nvolving the OIG in this process and requiring regular reporting on what it is finding would result in a level of transparency regarding this aspect of SPD’s accountability system that currently does not exist,” the report says.

The report itself came out of a series of complaints involving an investigator who was signing off on cases without reviewing them thoroughly. In 2020, an OIG investigator raised unspecified issues about another investigator, Anthony Finnell, and he was reassigned to another function that did not involve reviewing OPA investigations.

According to the report, after Finnell moved out of investigations, “no formal action was taken to investigate or address the allegations.  Most significantly, there was no formal ‘course correction’ with the identified employee to ensure that Office expectations would be met for any future case reviews.”

Later, apparently without Judge’s knowledge, Finnell was moved back to the investigations unit and started certifying cases was certifying OPA cases—determining that they were “thorough, timely, and objective,” as required by the 2017 ordinance—without looking at all the evidence.which eventually prompted a review of the unit that revealed a “broader problem” with investigations.

The South Seattle Emerald reported on Finnell’s certification of cases without reviewing evidence, and the fact that he continued to work in the investigations unit, last year.

Those issues surfaced in 2020 and 2021, but they were not the first time investigators had been discovered improperly certifying cases. In fact, another former employee was fired by OIG in 2019 after certifying cases without fully reviewing evidence and changing dates to meet certification deadlines, multiple sources say.

“The buck does stop with me when it comes to the credibility of OIG,” Judge told PubliCola. “To the extent somebody working in my office wasn’t carrying out their duties in a way that fosters trust, [that] is not acceptable, so that’s why it was important to me to have an external person looking at this.”

The report refers repeatedly to “personality” clashes within the office between investigators who had very different approaches to the OPA and its work, ranging from adversarial to accommodating, and tremendous burnout and pressure to issue judgment on the OPA’s decisions in cases filed during the 2020 protests. “Within the office, tension among the Investigations team was palpable, with members hardly speaking to each other and accusations about one member’s work ethic and integrity being raised with management,” according to the report.

Many of these conflicts reportedly arose over whether to approach OPA with suspicion and confrontation—an approach that may turn up issues others miss but can foster ill will—or trust and accommodation, an approach that builds respectful working relationships but can lead to laxer oversight. At least four of the people who were involved in various iterations of this conflict, including Finnell, are no longer with the office.

Retired judge Anne Levinson, who served as the civilian auditor overseeing OPA before the OIG was established in 2018, said the report reveals the need for oversight agencies to continually examine their work and change their policies in response to new information and evolving expectations.

“Just as the oversight system works to ensure that police leadership regularly examine their policies, systems, and training when incidents, complaints, audits, or other indicators flag a need for improved practice, oversight officials too must adapt, examine, and improve,” Levinson said, pointing to recent legislation addressing complaints naming the police chief, the use of body-worn video, and reforms to the county’s inquest process. “I view this kind of report not as indication that the sky is falling, but rather as a good thing—OIG leadership recognized they could do better, and they asked for outside review and guidance.”

“In addition, with the appointment by the Mayor of the next OPA Director, the report is well-timed as the agencies can level-set and refine approaches to best follow through on these recommendations.”

In addition, Levinson noted, Mayor Bruce Harrell just appointed a new OPA director, Gino Betts, to replace former director Andrew Myerberg, who is now a public safety advisor to Harrell. “The report is well-timed, as the agencies can level-set and refine approaches to best follow through on these recommendations,” she said.

Most of the staff mentioned in the report are no longer with the OIG, and the investigations staff has grown from two investigators to three investigators plus a supervisor.

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.

City Sweeps RVs During Heat Wave While Urging Housed People to Take Cool Showers

A group of RVs and vehicles has been parked next to the train tracks south of downtown throughout the pandemic, long enough to be visible on Google Maps.

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of RVs and other vehicles had mostly disappeared from the SoDo street where they’ve been parked for more than two years on Tuesday, after a last-minute push to get everybody out before city workers showed up at 9am to clear the area. By 9:30, as the heat rose into the 80s, the street was cordoned off with “Street Closed” sawhorse placards and a few eco-blocks—heavy concrete blocks businesses use to prevent people from parking on public streets—had already appeared.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said that between July 8 and this morning, 20 people living in their vehicles at the site had accepted offers of shelter, which means a shelter bed was available and they said they were willing to go. The city does not ensure that people who get referrals to shelter actually get there, and although Seattle does pay for Lyft rides, that practice is problematic, making underpaid rideshare drivers responsible for people who may be in crisis.

Anti-sweeps advocates called on Harrell to postpone the removal until after this week’s anticipated heat wave (as I write this, it’s 93 degrees), but Housen said the “RV remediation,” along with an encampment removal near Woodland Park later this week, is actually in the best interest of the unsheltered people being displaced.

“Someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

This week, the City will complete two RV remediations and one encampment removal, with the aim of addressing the public health and safety concerns at those sites while helping those experiencing homelessness get indoors, into shelter, and out of the heat,” Housen said. “No additional encampment resolutions will be conducted during the elevated heat event, but shelter referrals to get people into cool and safe places will continue.”

But most of the people living along 3rd Avenue S. just moved elsewhere; according to a staffer for City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district (D2) includes SoDo, they included at least two people with major medical needs—one with congestive heart failure and one with terminal cancer—that can’t be accommodated in a traditional shelter.

In a statement, Morales called Tuesday’s sweep a sign of the “continued failure of our city response to addressing the root causes of homelessness” and noted that despite the efforts of service providers, “there were not enough shelter options to move people into today despite the extensive outreach that took place this month.”

According to an internal presentation by Harrell’s office earlier this year, there are, on average, between two and five shelter beds available each night across the city, a number that is similar to previous estimates from the Human Services Department and shelter and service providers.

Alison EIsinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was irresponsible to displace dozens of people in the middle of a pandemic and during a heat wave. “High temperatures make it worse for people on the ground, and make it harder for staff to bring water, cooling supplies, and health care to people they can no longer locate. That’s not just bad policy, that’s wasteful, cruel, and ineffective policy,” Eisinger said

Responding to the Harrell Administration’s comment that shutting down a longtime RV encampment would get people “out of the heat,” Eisinger added, “I just learned that someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”

In her statement, Morales said that despite repeated requests, Harrell’s office has not provided them with information about encampment removals in advance.

People who need to escape the heat, including people experiencing homelessness, can go to community centers, libraries, and malls during the day; for housed people, the city suggests “moving to where it’s cooler to sleep more comfortably” and taking a cooling shower.

City Auditor Recommends Tracking Progress on Encampments—Not Just Encampment Removals

By Erica C. Barnett

The City Auditor’s Office—a small office that churns out reports and recommendations about how to improve city programs and policies—issued a report this month titled, self-summarizingly, “The City of Seattle Should Use a Data Dashboard to Track its Progress in Addressing Unsanctioned Encampments.” The report is part of an ongoing series of audits that began in 2017, when Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked the auditor to start tracking the work of the Navigation Team, ex-mayor Jenny Durkan’s encampment cleanup crew.

Through that work, the report says, the auditor’s office discovered that the city “was not systematically tracking the kind of data that would aid City leaders, stakeholders, and community members in understanding whether conditions related to encampments were improving or worsening over time. In previous reports we found that many important data, ranging from daily shelter-bed availability to trash accumulation, to the number of 24-hour bathrooms, were not being tracked over time.”

But wait, you may be wondering—don’t we already have a city homelessness dashboard? Well… kind of. The “One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan” website Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out in May does include some dashboard-like elements, such as a bar graph showing the number of shelter referrals the city makes each month and a map identifying some of the encampment sites the city had identified and “closed” by mid-May. But the city plans to update the graph and map only quarterly, and the map is incomplete; many dots indicating closed encampments say “no outreach data available,” and huge swaths of the city, including the University District and Rainier Beach, appear to have no encampments at all.

“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress.”—City Auditor David Jones

City Auditor David Jones said his office began working on its latest report before the Harrell administration came into office. “We do recognize that their dashboard is a work in progress,” Jones said. “We don’t want to jump in on something that’s just been put out there that hopefully will be improved over time and added to and changed in response to needs and critiques.”

The audit report suggests collecting (or compiling existing) data in three key areas: 1) the lived experience of people in encampments, including measures like  and physical and mental health; 2) public health indicators, such as the amount of trash and the number of needles at known encampment sites; and 3) measures of how well the system is performing, such as shelter acceptance rates and the availability of restrooms with running water. By tracking key metrics over time, the report says, the city could start to get a better handle on which strategies are working.

“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress,” Jones said. Even though external factors, like the pandemic or the economy, can have outsize effects on some measures of progress, like shelter availability, a dashboard “at least would give you some sort of yardstick. …Are there fewer fires? Are there fewer people who are unsheltered? Is there a shorter time which people are receiving cervices? It at least gives you some sense of how you’re doing and if we’re moving in the right direction.”

A spokesman for Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said the report “provides a good starting point for these discussions,” adding that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is responsible for the region’s overall homelessness response.

The KCRHA, which collaborated on the auditor’s recommendations, did not respond to requests for comment. In his letter, included in the report, Harrell did not respond directly to any of the recommendations. Instead, he noted that “a lot has changed” since the auditor’s office began their work, including the new administration and the transfer of homelessness contracts to the KCRHA. Continue reading “City Auditor Recommends Tracking Progress on Encampments—Not Just Encampment Removals”