Throughout 2019, I returned to some stories again and again, zeroing on issues like homelessness, equity, the influence of big money in local elections, criminal justice, and transportation. This isn’t a list of the year’s biggest posts—that’s over here—but a look at some of the themes that emerged on this site throughout the year. These stories include deep dives into the work of the city’s ever-expanding Navigation Team (a group of police and human service employees that removes homeless encampments), Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policies, the city’s retreat from its ambitious bike infrastructure plans, and the ongoing (d)evolution of the regional homelessness authority.
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Big Money Swamps Local Elections, Voters Say “Nah”
In addition to being the first major test of democracy vouchers (publicly funded vouchers that went directly to voters to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice), this was also the year when big corporations (most notably Amazon, which spent nearly $1.5 million on a Chamber-backed slate of candidates), former elected officials (Tim Burgess, who started the People for Seattle PAC) and conservative groups (most notably Moms for Seattle, which backed most of the Chamber slate plus too-conservative-for-big-business D5 candidate Ann Davison Sattler) spent millions to influence council races. In the end, the only business-backed candidate who won was former Burgess aide Alex Pedersen, whose anti-development views are more in line with socialist Kshama Sawant’s than with the Chamber’s.
Seattle Finally Upzones
Yesterday, the state Growth Management Hearings Board dealt what may be a death blow to opponents of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation, which modestly upzones the city’s multifamily areas and allows more housing in 6 percent of the city’s existing single-family land. For years, a group called SCALE (led, in large part, by new Alex Pedersen council aide Toby Thaler) has delayed the zoning changes, arguing that the new rules violate the state Growth Management Act and the State Environmental Policy Act. The GMHB’s ruling rejected every single one of SCALE’s arguments. The group (sans Thaler) can still appeal to the King County Superior Court, but the standard for consideration gets tougher the higher the appeals go.
I covered the MHA battle this year, along with a related debate over whether to make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units in their basements and backyards—a proposal that was also subject to delay tactics by single-family activists.
City Didn’t Know How Many Were Moving from Homelessness to Housing
Although Mayor Jenny Durkan frequently touted the fact that All Home’s annual one-night count found fewer people living outside, the city was forced to admit last year that they did not know how many individual people were actually moving from homelessness to housing as the result of their efforts. This admission came after I (and subsequently others) reported that the city was conflating the number of households that exited specific programs with the number of individual people leaving homelessness. The city eventually updated its numbers, but the city’s initial reaction—the director of the Homeless Strategy and Investment division suggested that the details were less important than the trendline—suggested a troubling lack of attention to detail for a “data-driven” department.
Turmoil in the Human Services Department
As the Human Services Department prepared to cede control over its homelessness-related work to a new joint city-county authority, the itself was in turmoil, starting at the very beginning of the year, when council member Kshama Sawant held hearings at which HSD workers denounced Durkan’s nominee to lead the department, interim director Jason Johnson. Eventually, the council decided not to approve Johnson, infuriating the mayor, who decided to keep him on without a formal appointment. Also this year, an internal survey showed high dissatisfaction among HSD employees, a number of key staffers left and have not been replaced, and a pilot program to give people living in their cars a safe place to park at night was quietly scuttled by the mayor, who later ramped up efforts to crack down on “extensively damaged” RVs.
Finally, a Regional Homelessness Authority
After more than a year of efforts, King County and the city finally agreed on a plan to create a new regional authority that will oversee the entire region’s homelessness efforts. Sort of. The plan the county and city ultimately approved had little to do with the original plan, which was designed to insulate expert decision-makers from political considerations by putting authority over the new body in the hands of subject-matter experts, not elected officials.
Elected officials didn’t like the idea of losing power, and suburban elected officials especially didn’t like the fact that they did not have direct representation on the board overseeing the authority, so the plan was inverted to return most of the power to politicians and to give suburban cities five guaranteed representatives on the 12-member oversight board, despite the fact that suburban cities will not contribute financially to the authority. The new rules also bar the authority from ever raising money, a sharp departure from the recommendations of last year’s One Table process, which concluded that the region needed additional revenue to address homelessness.
The Ever-Expanding Navigation Team
Mayor Durkan has repeatedly expanded the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and city staffers that removes unauthorized encampments and, in theory, “navigates” their displaced residents to shelter and services. The team came under fire this year for failing in that second mission, first in an audit that the Human Services Department denounced as “not factual,” and later when the city’s social services partner, REACH, decided to stop participating in encampment removals because it was hampering their ability to build trusting relationships with clients.
The biggest change Durkan made to the Navigation Team this year, though, was when she redirected them to focus primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments, such as tents in public parks, rather than on “72-hour cleans,” which require the team to provide advance warning and offers of shelter and services. Later, the city opted to train SPD bike officers to remove encampments even when the Navigation Team isn’t present. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Navigation Team rarely refers people successfully to shelter or services. Instead, most of the people they encounter “navigate” themselves to their next encampment.
Crackdown on “Prolific Offenders”
Even before KOMO ran viral anti-homeless propaganda video, “Seattle Is Dying,” law-and-order activists like former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay were already building a case that something had to be done to address so-called downtown disorder—petty thefts, unsightly outbursts, and people exhibiting other visible signs of mental illness and drug addiction in the downtown core. In May, Lindsay released a report titled “System Failure,” which took a highly selective look at a list of 100 “prolific offenders”—a group of people, hand-picked by Lindsay, who have been arrested again and again for crimes such as theft and disorderly conduct downtown. The report became a kind of source text for “Seattle Is Dying,” as well as the template for a proposal to deal with “high-barrier offenders” that would have expanded probation, created a new program “navigator” inside the jail, and implemented a new “case conferencing” system that could have resulted in additional criminal charges for people released from jail who failed to comply with its requirements.
Criminal justice reform advocates and city council members objected to the proposals, particularly the plan to expand probation, and reduced or froze funding for the plans. Still, the idea that there are “prolific offenders” downtown who must be addressed with a criminal justice response—as opposed to people with mental illness and addiction who could benefit from programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion—will surely persist in 2020, and could come up again when the mayor makes her third State of the City speech next month.
Durkan vs. Cyclists
This was the year that cycling advocates went to war with Mayor Durkan, protesting her decision to eliminate a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE and cut a number of top-priority bike infrastructure improvements from the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, leaving south Seattle without a single direct bike connection to downtown. Durkan decided to kill the 35th Ave. bike lane after businesses and neighborhood activists protested that adding a lane for cyclists would eliminate too much parking and argued that cyclists could use a different route several blocks away from the neighborhood thoroughfare. The South Seattle bike lanes were cut to save money in the wake of Move Seattle Levy cost overruns. The city’s Bicycle Advisory Board recommended different cuts, and identified South Seattle as its top priority for bike infrastructure, largely on the grounds that the city has failed to adequately fund safe bike lanes in South Seattle for decades.
Although funding for a small piece of the south Seattle bike infrastructure, which the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board had identified as a top funding priority, was eventually restored, 35th Ave. was repaved without parking or a bike lane—a configuration that contributed to reckless driving and crashes almost as soon as it opened.
All this came just one year after Durkan opted to delay another bike lane that had been in the works for years—the planned Fourth Avenue bike lane downtown, which the mayor’s office said could interfere with bus mobility during light rail construction.
Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Practices Debated
This was the year that critics of Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policies got serious about calling for reducing or eliminating fare enforcement, and some board members seemed receptive. Early in the year, board members questioned why Sound Transit still criminalizes fare nonpayment, pointing to King County’s own decision to revise its practices so that no one ends up in jail because they couldn’t pay their fare. A King County survey concluded that most “fare evaders” were people who couldn’t afford the fare; Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff responded by suggesting that reducing fare enforcement efforts might lower the agency’s farebox recovery, the amount of money Sound Transit gets from people who pay their fares.
Fare enforcement came up later in the year when Sound Transit’s own numbers showed that African American riders were far more likely to receive tickets for fare evasion than other customers. And an incident in September raised additional questions about whether Sound Transit officers were treating black riders differently than white ones, after a fare enforcement officer was caught on tape photographing the ID of a high-school student on her way to school on the first day of classes, when all high-school students were to receive free ORCA transit passes.