Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels

On Friday, PubliCola reported on a memo from Seattle’s budget director Ben Noble, who reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, outlining the reasons Seattle has not sought reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration for the cost of hotel-based shelters. The memo raised seven objections to requests that the city go after FEMA funding.

Since last year, advocates for people experiencing homelessness have implored the city to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of leasing hotel rooms and turning them into shelters for the thousands of vulnerable people living outdoors in Seattle during the COVID pandemic. The city, unlike King County, has not done so, arguing that FEMA’s standards are too stringent and the process too “onerous,” as the memo puts it.

Under the Trump administration, cities across the country, as well as King County, were guaranteed 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of hotel-based shelters, but the Biden administration increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to the beginning of 2020. The requirements for FEMA reimbursement are stringent—for example, hotel-based shelters must serve people with underlying conditions such as age, health issues such as addiction that make them vulnerable to infection, or compromised immune systems—but they are not insurmountable, and many cities (as well as the state of California) have chosen to jump through significant hoops to get the money.

Later on the same day the PubliCola story was published, two city council members, Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales, issued statements imploring the mayor to use FEMA funding to pay for hotel-based shelters.

The memo begins, “With many questions regarding FEMA reimbursements, [Office of Emergency Management director] Curry [Mayer] and I wanted to share the guidance we have received to clarify the significant challenges the City faces towards receiving any reimbursements for non-congregate shelter.”

Noting that advocates for people experiencing homelessness have been asking the city to use FEMA to fund hotel shelters for many months, Morales said, “Right now, we urgently need to expand non-congregate shelter for people who are outdoors and are especially vulnerable to COVID, and we have an opportunity to get Federal money to allow us to do it. Even if there are logistical challenges, it is incumbent upon this City to try to overcome those issues to save people who are stuck living outside and scared of dying from COVID.”

Among those logistical and administrative challenges, according to Noble’s memo: “Failure to comply with federal contracting and procurement requirements puts local jurisdictions at risk of not receiving reimbursement or not being able to use FEMA grant funds for otherwise eligible costs”; “FEMA Reimbursement Must Be Approved and Is Not Guaranteed”; and “FEMA Assistance Currently Ends in September 2021.”

Noble’s memo also claims flatly that “FEMA is not paying for any services” involved with providing shelter in hotels, a claim mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower reiterated in an email after PubliCola’s story ran. “I think you’re aware that FEMA is in fact not paying for services within hotels, which are a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” she wrote.

Homeless service and shelter providers have strongly disputed this claim, saying that the federal government has not said that it won’t pay for any services whatsoever, just “support services” above and beyond the cost of leasing and operating 24/7 shelters for COVID-vulnerable people in hotels. (In any case, the cost of services in hotels is actually a fraction of the cost to rent the hotels themselves, as agencies’ prospective contracts for providing hotel-based shelter and PubliCola’s reporting on comparative costs make clear). 

Is it possible that, more than a year into the pandemic, the mayor’s office could have a change of heart and decide that they do want to stand up new hotels using FEMA funds after laying out all the reasons doing so is infeasible in a detailed seven-point memo? Sure, in the same way that it is possible the mayor could decide to defund the police after spending most of the last year raising similarly couched objections to that idea.

Homeless advocates also point out that FEMA’s guidelines detailing what the federal agency does and does not cover are brief and ambiguous, saying only that “[e]ligible costs related to sheltering should be necessary based on the type of shelter, the specific needs of those sheltered, and determined necessary to protect public health and safety and in accordance with guidance provided by appropriate health officials.” Anything that goes beyond what’s needed to meet the “specific needs” of people living in hotel shelters—services such “case management, mental health counseling, and others”—will not be covered. Which services are covered and which services aren’t, advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue, is not clearly defined nor a foregone conclusion.

Whether FEMA decides to cover the cost of some services, all services, or no services at all, the combined cost of all services related to hotel-based shelters is a small fraction of the overall price tag; the monthly rent on the hotels alone, which is unambiguously reimbursable, is many times more costly than the price tag for live-in staff, assistance with things like IDs and housing, and other services to help stabilize people so they will stay in the hotels. (In an email, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower told PubliCola that services make up “a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” but the opposite is true.)

After PubliCola’s story ran, Mayor Durkan’s office got in touch to tell us that they felt the story was inaccurate and to demand several corrections.

First, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas said, the city is seeking FEMA funding—for tiny house villages and “eligible activities” at hotel-based shelters—and is using federal funds to pay for the two hotel shelters it plans to open late next month. “[I]t is unfortunate for reporters, advocates, service providers, or ‘people’ to takeaway that the City is not ‘asking for FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter.’ We are,” Formas wrote. “In fact, City Council approved a budget that deliberately spent federal funds on hotels through [Emergency Solutions Grant, a separate COVID-related federal program] and asked for reimbursements for tiny home villages and every other possible homeless service.”

“[W]e have only sought FEMA reimbursement on tiny home villages and meals because the hotels are already federally funded (and not eligible) but your story and my concerns are that you are stating as a fact the future of these funds without talking to CBO or the Mayor’s Office,” Formas continued.

PubliCola did not report that the city was not spending Emergency Solutions Grant funds on hotels, or that the city did not seek reimbursements from FEMA for tiny house villages and other purposes. Rather, we reported that the city has not sought FEMA funding for hotel rooms and reimbursable costs related to those rooms, and has provided a detailed explanation of the reasons why. Pivoting to tiny house villages and “every other possible homeless service”—and referring to an entirely different federal program that the mayor’s office also resisted using to lease hotels— obfuscates the fact that the city has consistently chosen not to seek FEMA funding for hotels, a decision for which Noble’s memo provides retroactive and ongoing justification.

Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office.

As the memo makes clear, the city considers the cost of hotels to be either ineligible for FEMA reimbursement or too administratively challenging to pursue, so when the mayor’s office says they will seek funding for “FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter,” they are referring to items that they consider within the scope of FEMA reimbursement, such as tiny houses and meals. The federal funds it is using for the two shelters it announced last year are existing funds that the city has in hand from a different COVID-related federal program, the Emergency Solutions Grant.

As for the claim that PubliCola never talked to the budget office or the mayor’s office, in fact, we reached out to the budget office and mayor’s office for this story. The mayor’s office responded to both inquiries, stepping in on the budget office’s behalf. Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels”

Taking on Insurance Companies, Lawmakers Seek Racial Equity Reforms

by Shauna Sowersby

Washington State lawmakers are considering a proposal to eliminate the use of credit history to increase insurance rates or to determine premiums when renewing personal insurance. 

SB 5010 is just one of the measures being considered as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “package of proposals that address systemic racism.” The bill seeks reforms to insurance policies such as auto coverage, homeowners insurance, and earthquake insurance.

Sen. Mona Das (D-47, Kent) is the prime sponsor of the bill. Last month, she testified to the Senate Committee on Business, Financial Services & Trade that low-income households, specifically in communities of color, are most likely to be negatively affected by credit scores. 

Additionally, the bill would help the people who have lost their jobs or had their businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Das explained. 

“Many of these folks will see credit scores go down as they struggle to pay their bills and manage their credit,” she told the committee. “To penalize folks with increased rates or restricted access to coverage just because their credit history suffered during this challenging time is inequitable, it’s unfair and really makes no sense.”

Studies from the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Federation of America, among others, have shown that people who live in communities of color and those living in low-income households are far more likely to pay higher insurance premiums, even if they have clean records. 

In addition, the CFA study showed that everything else being equal, “safe drivers with poor credit pay 79%, or $370, more on average than a driver with excellent credit,” statewide. 

“Black, brown and also poor white Washingtonians occupy the bottom rung of our economic hierarchy,” said former Seattle City Council candidate Shaun Scott, who testified on behalf of the Poverty Action Network. 

Continue reading “Taking on Insurance Companies, Lawmakers Seek Racial Equity Reforms”

Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter

By Erica C. Barnett

As funding runs out for JustCARE, a program that has moved more than 100 very high-needs people from tent encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels where they receive case management and services, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has made it clear that it considers one source of funding off the table: Money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which recently announced it would pay 100 percent of the cost for eligible hotel-based shelters.

“While we appreciate the work of President Biden’s administration,” city budget director Ben Noble and Office of Emergency Management director Curry Mayer wrote in a memo to council members this week, “there continues to be no option to receive 100% reimbursement of the operation and services of non-congregate shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness in King County or Washington.” In other words: The city is grateful that the new administration is offering to pay for hotels; they just don’t consider it a viable option for Seattle.

Advocates for JustCARE, which serves unsheltered people with disabling behavioral health conditions, have been arguing for months that the city should seek FEMA reimbursement for the program, whose funding from King County runs out March 15. Without funding, the program will need to “exit” 124 substance-addicted people, most of them with disabling mental health conditions, onto city streets, at a time when both homeless advocates and business boosters agree that there are an unacceptable number of tents on sidewalks and in parks around the city. 

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met.”—Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The program, which is a partnership between the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, REACH, and the Chief Seattle Club, among other groups, provides non-congregate shelter options now that the COVID pandemic has reduced capacity in congregate shelters.

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met” and going back onto downtown streets, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the center city, said earlier this week.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Under the Trump Administration, FEMA reimbursed jurisdictions 75 percent of the cost of COVID-related expenditures, including shelter; once President Biden took office, however, that number increased to 100 percent, retroactive to January 2020, prompting cities across the country to take advantage of the new, more generous reimbursement opportunity. Shelter advocates were urging the city to fund shelter now and seek reimbursement later even when the feds were only funding 75 percent of the cost; It’s critical, they argue, not to leave any resources on the table.

“It seems clear the Biden administration is sending a signal to use FEMA; if we qualify, we just have to do the work and go through the steps,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “We are willing.”

Other cities began renting hotels on the presumption of future reimbursement shortly after the pandemic began. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have used FEMA dollars to pay for thousands of hotel rooms funded through Project Roomkey, California’s effort to bring people experiencing homelessness indoors. When the Biden administration announced the costs for efforts like Project Roomkey would be completely reimbursed by FEMA, local officials in LA called it “manna from heaven.” Continue reading “Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter”

D.C. Protest Cops Sue for Secrecy, Questions About “Shelter Surge,” and Concerns About Police Contract

Seattle Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

1. Six Seattle Police Department officers who were in Washington, DC on January 6 for the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol building have sued the Seattle Police Department and four individuals who filed public records requests with the department to prevent the department from disclosing their names. The six officers are currently under investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for their potential involvement in the attack on the Capitol.

According the complaint, which the officers filed in King County Superior Court on Tuesday, the six are seeking a temporary restraining order that would stop SPD from releasing their names and unredacted personnel files. SPD and the OPA will release their names and unredacted personnel files to the public unless they receive a temporary restraining order by February 25, the officers noted in the complaint.

“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit claims that the officers will be “targeted, harassed, subjected to violent acts or sustain other irreparable harm” if their names are made public, particularly while the OPA investigations are still ongoing.

“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says. “Just as it would be anathema for a public employer to require its employees to disclose who they voted for in any particular election, and then disclosure that information to members of the public.”

The complaint says the officers did not take part in the Capitol attack, and that if their names come out, the officers will be “painted as ‘criminals’ or ‘extremists’ solely by virtue of their constitutionally-protected attendance at a political speech and rally.” It also argues that releasing the officers’ names may violate state law, which prohibits government agencies from disclosing records connected to ongoing investigations into violations of federal, state or local laws.

If the officers receive a temporary restraining order from the court, they will then seek a permanent injunction preventing SPD from disclosing their names in the future.

2. During a wide-ranging briefing about the hotel-based shelters Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller fielded questions from the council about the scope of the program, who it will serve, and why the mayor’s office seems so attached to partnering with a specific hotel in downtown Seattle, the Executive Pacific Hotel. The city fully rented the same hotel at the beginning of the pandemic for first responders and, when first responders didn’t use the rooms, for nurses and other essential workers. The hotel remained almost entirely vacant for the duration of the lease, which cost the city about $4 million.

Not all of these rooms will be used as shelter.

As we reported earlier this week, the announcement confirms PubliCola’s previous reporting that Chief Seattle Club will operate a shelter and rapid rehousing program out of King’s Inn in Belltown, and LIHI and Chief Seattle Club will run a similar program out of the Executive Pacific.

Although Sixkiller echoed Durkan’s announcement that the two hotels will provide 220 rooms for people experiencing homelessness, the actual number is closer to 200, because some of the rooms at both hotels will be used for case management, live-in staff, and other purposes. That’s about 100 less than the 300 hotel rooms the city announced it would provide last October, when the estimate for the hotels to open was no later than January. The city now says both hotels will open sometime in March, more than a year after the mayor declared a COVID-19 state of emergency.

“Our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”—Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

The mayor’s office has referred to the hotels as a yearlong program, but the plan includes a total of at least two months to ramp up and ramp down the programs, so the planned duration of the actual shelters is more like nine to ten months. 

The program has changed in other ways. Although the budget action appropriating city funds for the “shelter surge” explicitly said the hotel program would serve people with the greatest service needs—who happen to be the group causing the greatest “disorder” in areas like downtown and Pioneer Square—LIHI plans to serve people who can more easily transition into the rapid rehousing program that is also a key component of the mayor’s plan.

Councilmember Dan Strauss asked Sixkiller whether the program would also help “high-acuity” clients, as the deputy mayor said it would as recently as last December, when Sixkiller brought advocates from the Public Defender Association and REACH, two groups that serve high-needs unsheltered people, along with him to the council’s homelessness committee to promote the program.

“[With] all of our shelter units, we are trying to pair individuals with the housing that best meets their needs and the services that they need to be successful in making that transition from being outside and into housing and on the journey, hopefully, into permanent housing,” Sixkiller told the council yesterday, “so our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”

LIHI has indicated that at least some of the people who will move into the Executive Pacific will come from other LIHI programs; Chief Seattle Club did not return a call seeking more information about their program. Referrals will go “through” the new HOPE Team, which replaced the Navigation Team, but the exact details of how that will work and how the agencies will identify hotel clients are vague; the HOPE team does not actually do outreach, but coordinates referrals from their offices.

Sixkiller would not get into the cost of each hotel room, saying that was proprietary information until the city had inked the contracts. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that if the city spends all of the available money on these two hotels, the cost will work out to about $28,000 a bed, or around the same amount as the expansion of the JustCARE program the city rejected as too expensive.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked Sixkiller whether the “125 new shelter beds” the mayor announced this week were actually new. The two new tiny house villages were actually council additions to the mayor’s budget last year, and the WHEEL shelter opened earlier this month after the organization spent months pressuring the mayor’s office to allow them to open a nighttime shelter in City Hall, a plan the mayor’s office rejected. Sixkiller responded that he could get back to her about the “color of money” funding each part of the “surge,” prompting Herbold to respond, “This isn’t merely an academic exercise” about “the color of money” but a question of how many actually new beds will be available.

3. The Community Police Commission voted on Tuesday to approve a list of recommendations for Seattle’s upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the largest of the city’s police unions. The recommendations address both the transparency of the city’s bargaining process and the city’s priorities during bargaining.

The commission generally agreed on the transparency proposals, which included a recommendation to require the city to make public the membership of its negotiating team, its bargaining priorities, and any concessions it makes during negotiations. Commissioners also broadly supported a recommendation that negotiators try to remove the parts of the SPOG contract that allow the agreement to supersede city law; Officer Mark Mullens, the only SPD officer on the commission, was the only member to oppose that proposal.

Continue reading “D.C. Protest Cops Sue for Secrecy, Questions About “Shelter Surge,” and Concerns About Police Contract”

Council Considers Cutting SPD by $5.4 Million in Response to 2020 Overspending

Changes in SPD Staffing from 2012 to 2021, via Seattle Police Department)

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee is considering a $5.4 million cut to the Seattle Police Department’s 2021 budget to account for an equivalent amount of overspending by the department last year. During the committee’s regular meeting on Tuesday morning, council members received a briefing from the council’s central staff on the potential impacts of those cuts on a department still reeling from a spike in attrition in 2020.

Last August, in an effort to avoid spending extra money on protest-related overtime, the council passed a resolution saying that they wouldn’t support any increase to SPD’s budget “to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021. Three months later, the council backpedaled, grudgingly adding $5.4 million to SPD’s to backfill for overspending on family leave, separation pay, and overtime pay for officers working at COVID testing sites.

While none of the spending in Durkan’s proposal would directly pay for protest-related overtime, several council members—including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda—argued that the department could have avoided year-end budget shortfalls if it had scaled back its protest response and prioritized spending on other unanticipated expenses.

But the council wasn’t happy bailing out SPD, and on the same day, they passed a second resolution expressing their “intent” to cut an equal amount from SPD’s 2021 budget to offset the overspending and discourage the department from spending beyond its budget in the future. The council also passed a budget proviso withholding $5 million from SPD’s budget under the assumption that the department would save at least $5 million in staff salaries because of high attrition and the city-mandated hiring freeze; if the department didn’t reach $5 million in salary savings, the council would lift the proviso.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Year-end attrition figures from SPD surpassed the council’s expectations. By the end of 2020, 186 officers had left the department—double SPD’s projections for attrition at the beginning of last year. The council developed SPD’s 2021 budget under the assumption that the department would pay 1,343 officers; on Tuesday morning, the council’s central staff estimated that SPD will only fill 1,289 of those spots, leaving SPD with as much as $7.7 million in salary savings in 2021. Continue reading “Council Considers Cutting SPD by $5.4 Million in Response to 2020 Overspending”

Democrats’ Capital Gains Tax Passes First Legislative Hurdle

By Shauna Sowersby

Democrats have proposed several bills this session aimed at taxing the richest Washingtonians, and they passed one of them, a capital gains tax, out of the Senate Ways & Means Committee on Feb. 16, meeting an early session deadline. You can never count out fiscal bills in the state legislature, so some of the other bills, including a wealth tax, could factor in later in the session, but the capital gains tax, SB 5096, now has some momentum.

The bill is being sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), at the request of the state Office of Financial Management. Robinson is the Vice Chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

The bill would impose a 7 percent tax on profits of more than $250,000 that result from the sale of certain assets, including stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Unlike a similar capital gains tax that was introduced in the House, Robinson’s version would exclude real estate sales. Other types of capital assets including retirement accounts, timber and certain types of agricultural land would be excluded as well. 

Wealthy households in the state currently only pay about 3 percent of their income in taxes, while the poorest pay more than 17 percent.

Scott Merriman, a legislative liaison for OFM, noted that the measure is a way to balance Washington’s tax code, which is one of the most regressive in the country. In addition to having no state income tax, Washington is one of just nine states that does not have a capital gains tax. Because revenue in the state is heavily dependent on property tax and sales tax, wealthy households in the state currently only pay about 3 percent of their income in taxes, while the poorest pay more than 17 percent, according to a 2018 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. 

“This bill is a key part of helping to provide the resources to support the proposed expenditures in the budget for your consideration,” Merriman told the committee.

In Robinson’s bill, $350 million of the yearly revenue from the capital gains tax would go towards the state Education Legacy Trust Account, which would help fund education. The rest, an estimated $200 million, would be put into a new account called the Taxpayer Relief Account, whose exact purpose legislators have not determined.  Continue reading “Democrats’ Capital Gains Tax Passes First Legislative Hurdle”

City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally

King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.

“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness. 

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.

Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”

A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.

The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets. Continue reading “City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program”

Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round

1. Last year, after the COVID pandemic forced the closure of most public and publicly accessible restrooms across the city, advocates for people experiencing homelessness suggested a creative approach to help stop the spread of COVID: Cheap, portable handwashing sinks that could be installed in any location with access to a public water outlet.

The first Street Sink, a collaboration between Real Change and the University of Washington College of Built Environments, was installed outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District last May. The prototype consisted of a basic utility sink with a soap dispenser that drained into a steel trough filled with soil and water-loving plants.

The Seattle City Council added $100,000 to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget for a street-sink pilot project last November, hoping to capitalize on the success of the prototype and expand the sinks to neighborhoods across the city. Since then, though, the project has stalled.

According to communications between staff for Seattle Public Utilities, the Department of Neighborhoods, and street-sink proponents, the city has a range of outstanding concerns, including the environment (the soil-based system is not equipped to deal with “blackwater,” or unfiltered human waste), the weather (if left unwrapped, the sinks’ pipes may not be able to withstand a hard freeze), and accessibility (the sinks, though wheelchair-accessible, are not fully ADA compliant. Neither, for that matter, are many of the city’s public restrooms).

“It’s incredibly frustrating, because we’re getting bogged down in process instead of acting with urgency” to provide people living unsheltered with soap and water to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, said. Since the pandemic began, there have been repeated outbreaks of hepatitis A and other communicable diseases among the city’s homeless population; in the case of a recent shigella outbreak, the rise in cases coincided with the regular winter closure of public restrooms with running water. The city provides portable toilets in locations where restrooms are closed, but these “sanicans” are not equipped with sinks and often lack hand sanitizer.

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The prototype for the Street Sink cost about $400. A more detailed budget puts the cost of each sink at just over than $750. More elaborate sinks with sewer connections or barrel collection systems would cost significantly more; last year, for example, Seattle Makers proposed a stainless-steel handwashing station that includes collection barrels, electronic sensors, a GPS connection, and components “built to withstand abuse from hammers,” for whatever reason, all at a cost of $7,250 per sink.

McCoy says $100,000 would fund the installation of 63 street sinks around the city. But the city seems unlikely to use the prototype her group designed. Instead, according to emails from the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, the city is planning to “pivot” away from the Street Sink project to a new “expanded mutual aid opportunity – the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot” that will “facilitate solutions that meet our safety and regulatory guidelines. For example, we will match sink prototypes without safety and blackwater issues to Real Change, or another implementing organization.”

PubliCola has reached out to the mayor’s office to find out more about the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot and to see if there is any timeline for the city to actually deploy the handwashing stations funded last year.

2.The Renton Chamber of Commerce issued a statement on Facebook over the weekend defending the organization and its director, Diane Dobson, against unspecified allegations of racism.

The statement read, in part, “The Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce, Diane Dobson, has been a tireless champion in standing against racism and bias. She has worked to drive diversity, equity and inclusion through numerous community events and actions aimed at addressing racism in our community. The Chamber Board of Directors unanimously stands with and supports Diane as she continues to make a meaningful, positive difference in our community and region.”

A look through the comments on the post clarifies what it’s about. During the recent snowstorm, a woman (identified in by her male companion as “Robin”) threw snowballs at the car of an Asian-American passerby and—according to the text accompanying the video he took after he got out of his car to confront her—called him a “fucking ch*nk.” In the video, posted on the Youtube channel RevealKarens, the man asks the apparently intoxicated woman repeatedly why she used that term, as she grows more and more agitated and finally says she did it because he was being “a dick.”

Eventually, according to the man’s account, Dobson came by and convinced the woman to leave. In subsequent comments on the Facebook thread, the person behind the Chamber account responded to criticism by praising Dobson in increasingly lavish terms, describing her “wonderful” work in the community and referring to “reports we have received of her donations of masks to the School District for teachers and staff and many of the front line workers in essential nonprofits as well.” The responses became so focused on Dobson, the person, rather than the Chamber as an entity that many commenters assumed that the  person posting for the Chamber was Dobson herself.

Dobson’s name has appeared in PubliCola before. She has been a vocal opponent of a shelter at the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Renton and onto city streets, blaming its homeless residents for the economic downturn in downtown Renton, and reportedly threatened to revoke an LGBTQ+ organization’s Chamber membership over their advocacy in favor of the shelter.

3. Lightning-round election news:

Brianna Thomas, a legislative aide to council president and mayoral candidate Lorena González, will make her candidacy for González’ position official later this week. (González is relinquishing her seat to run for mayor.) Thomas ran once before, in 2015, for the West Seattle council seat now occupied by Lisa Herbold. Continue reading “Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round”

Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down

1. Prior to her State of the City remarks earlier this week, Mayor Jenny Durkan made a hot-mic comment deriding Council President (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González; the comment came during some apparent technical difficulties immediately before the livestreamed speech.

“Slow down a little bit, please,” Durkan says to someone off camera, apparently referring to her remarks on the screen in front of her. “There’s, like, all sorts of shit gone now,” she continues, laughing. “We’ll just go to the top and I’m going to, like, do the best I can.”

“If it was easy,” Durkan continues, “it’d be Lorena’s rebuttal.”

Durkan then proceeded to deliver a State of the City speech that clocked in at just over six minutes—the shortest, by far, in recent memory.

Per custom, Council President González, who announced she’s running for mayor after Durkan announced late last year that she would not seek a second term, did provide a response to Durkan’s State of the City speech. However, far from criticizing the mayor or her comments,  González actually thanked Durkan and city employees for “working hard to keep our City government running smoothly every day since the pandemic first hit our region a year ago.”

During a Town Hall Seattle forum on women in politics on Wednesday night, Durkan said she decided not to run for a second term, in large part, because if she stayed in the race her opponents would “feel like they have to be oppositional,” even if they agree with her, “because they’re running against me or supporting an opponent.”

“At the end of the day,” she added, “that was my job: Doing what was right for the city.”

Despite Durkan’s insistence that running for reelection during a crisis would elevate politics over what’s “right for the city,” campaigning for office while running the city isn’t unprecedented or irresponsible. In fact, it’s a standard part of a mayor’s job description.

2. Former city council member Tim Burgess and SoDo Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman have formed a political action committee to support an initiative related to drug use, homelessness, and behavioral health in Seattle. The new PAC, called Seattle Cares, has received an initial $15,000 contribution from the Downtown Seattle Association. Last election cycle, Burgess formed a PAC with the similarly anodyne name People for Seattle, which worked to defeat council members Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant and to oppose then-candidate Tammy Morales.

Although the committee has not filed initiative language yet, clues can be found in a poll PubliCola reported on earlier this month, which asked respondents about their support for a ballot measure that would give police additional tools to remove homeless people from public spaces, apparently in combination with some kind of behavioral health and addiction treatment funding.

The poll asked respondents their opinion of a Seattle ballot initiative that would use existing government funds to support treatment for mental illness and drug addiction while giving police more authority to “intervene” if people experiencing homelessness didn’t accept the “help” they were offered. The hypothetical ballot measure, according to the poll, would also re-establish the police-led Navigation Team, which removed encampments across Seattle until the city council eliminated the team in last year’s budget.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

It’s unclear where the funds for the measure would come from or what kind of “behavioral health” and addiction services would be offered to people experiencing homelessness. Supporters of encampment sweeps, quoted in media such as KOMO TV’s “Seattle Is Dying” series, often tout non-evidence-based approaches such as involuntary treatment for people with addiction. Burgess said Thursday that the official committee filing “was meant to comply with legal requirements but we are still debating and crafting what we might do, if anything.”

3. Speaking of polls, another poll in the field this month—this one funded by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21— asked about a potential city policy that would impose a surcharge on medical marijuana, specifically, to fund training and certification for people who sell cannabis products. The poll framed the new certification program as an opportunity for professional growth and a way of promoting equity among cannabis retailers, and tested a message positioning the surcharge as a way to fund improved service and support for medical marijuana consumers. Continue reading “Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down”

Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday night, after more than four hours of public testimony mostly favoring the move, the Mercer Island City Council voted to pass an ordinance barring people experiencing homelessness from sleeping outdoors or in their vehicles inside the boundaries of the wealthy suburban enclave. As PubliCola reported Monday, the new law empowers police to remove anyone living unsheltered from the island, either by driving them to shelter in Bellevue (five miles away) or Kirkland (11 miles away) or by sending them to jail in another city for up to 90 days.

PubliCola covered the public comments—which focused largely on the evergreen fear that “homeless addicts” would victimize women and children and litter the island with needles and feces—and vote on Twitter as they happened. Only one council member, Craig Reynolds, voted against the proposal, which goes into effect on March 1.

But that may not be the end of the story for Mercer Island’s homeless ban. (Local media, adopting the whimsical language used by proponents of such laws, have referred to the bill as a ban on “camping.” In fact, it prohibits anyone without housing, who are disproportionately people of color, from sleeping on the island after dark; a more apt metaphor would be a sundown law.)

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

To understand the potential avenues for a legal challenge, it’s important to know a little bit about a landmark 9th Circuit District Court ruling on homelessness, Martin v. Boise, which established that cities cannot ban sleeping, sitting, or lying in public spaces unless there is adequate available shelter for people to utilize as an alternative.

“Any ban on camping in most of Washington likely can’t comply with Martin v. Boise, just by sheer numbers: How many people are unhoused in the cities versus how many shelters are available.”—ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster

Put plainly, the ruling means that cities like Seattle can’t enforce encampment bans unless there is adequate shelter available for every homeless person the city wants to remove from public spaces. The definitions of adequate and available have been a source of heated debate ever since.

“Really any ban on camping in most of Washington likely can’t comply with Martin v. Boise, just by sheer numbers: How many people are unhoused in the cities versus how many shelters are available,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said.

The next question, she said, is, “Are those shelters acceptable?” The four shelters to which Mercer Island plans to send people caught sleeping outdoors are far away, small, crowded (a particular concern during the ongoing pandemic), high-barrier, and often full; any of these factors could be used as an argument that the shelter isn’t really “available” or acceptable for a particular person. The Ninth Circuit “made pretty clear that you can’t, for example, force somebody to adhere to a religious doctrine or practice a religion to access a shelter,” or be “clean and sober,” Schuster said.

“In Washington, at least, substance use or abuse can be considered a disability” subject to civil rights protections, Schuster added—another potential avenue of attack on the ordinance, which defines substance use as one of many possible “voluntary actions” that a person can take to reject available shelter by refusing to follow whatever rules the “available shelter” happens to impose on clients. Continue reading “Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness”