Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos

1. PubliCola has learned that the city is in conversation with the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel to provide temporary housing to hundreds of unsheltered Seattle residents using federal COVID relief dollars. The hotel is one of at least two in or near downtown Seattle that the city hopes will serve as way stations between homelessness and permanent housing. The city has pledged to fund as many as 300 hotel rooms for 10 months; the plan is to move people quickly from living on the street to either permanent supportive housing or market-rate apartments, using temporary “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office would not confirm that the Executive Pacific, which has 155 rooms, is under consideration for the program. “The City is in negotiations with a number of hotels and it would be premature to announce any possible locations as that may impact those ongoing negotiations,” Durkan’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, said. 

The city contracted with the Executive Pacific early in the pandemic to provide rooms for first responders. As PubliCola reported, most of those rooms remained vacant while shelters continued to operate at full or nearly-full capacity.

2. At a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board last week, representatives from the Hawkins Company, a recruiting firm hired to help identify a director for the new agency, said they they expect to start “preliminary candidate screening” by early December, with a goal of narrowing the list down to between 5 and 8 candidates by the end of the year. The official application period ends in less than two weeks, on December 4.

Given the high qualifications for the position, and the challenges of running a joint city-county homelessness agency with dozens of constituent cities with competing views about homelessness, it seems likely that the Hawkins Group could face some challenges in recruiting 5 to 8 fully qualified candidates for the position. Since the city of Seattle and King County itself are the most prominent partners in the new authority, I reached out to the offices of Mayor Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine for comment.

“We are confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Constantine’s office did not respond. Hightower, speaking for Durkan’s office, said the mayor is “confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates” and that Hawkins is “well on their way to the goal.” Hightower noted that Hawkins recruited the executive director for the LA Homeless Services Authority, and reminded me the “the Mayor is part of a group of decision-makers” at the county authority. However, Durkan and Constantine, as the executives of the county’s largest city (and the biggest financial contributor to the authority) and the county itself, are indisputably the most prominent of those decision makers.

3. Throughout the budget process that wraps up this afternoon, freshman city council member Alex Pedersen has promoted an anti-development agenda that will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to his 2019 campaign. And although most of the slow-growth amendments, provisos, and statements of legislative intent Pedersen proposed this year didn’t pass, it’s worth taking a look at them together to imagine what their impact would have been if they had. Collectively, Pedersen’s proposals would have placed significant new process barriers in the way of housing in Seattle, including new reporting requirements, new fees, and new regulations making it harder for land owners to remove trees on private property. 

Here are just a few of the land-use amendments Pedersen proposed as part of this year’s budget process. Except where noted, these measures did not make it into the final budget.

•  A proviso (spending restriction) withholding one-third of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections Policy, Safety, and Support budget (more than $750,000) until the mayor proposes a bill adopting stricter protections for trees on private property. “Save the trees” is a longstanding rallying cry for anti-development forces in Seattle, since barring property owners from removing trees can prevent them from replacing single-family houses with denser housing.

• A measure consolidating all the various city programs that relate to trees, but “particularly in regards to the removal of trees,” within the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. While this change seems fairly innocuous, it’s of a piece with other efforts to pit one obvious environmental good (trees) against one that might be less obvious (dense housing, which allows people to live less car-dependent lives and enables low-to-middle-income people to live in city limits.) Ultimately, the council approved a study of consolidating tree protections in some department, but not necessarily OSE.

• Funding ($250,000) for a new “displacement monitoring system” for “naturally occurring affordable housing” that would track rent levels, individual tenants’ personal income, how long renters stay in their units, vacancy rates, and demolitions. “Naturally occurring affordable housing” describes older rental units that are generally less well-maintained than more expensive units. It’s unclear how this monitoring, which would require the city to gather new data about landlords and tenants who aren’t enrolled in any government housing program, would work. It will remain unclear, because the measure didn’t pass, although an amendment requiring a report on “options for addressing the displacement monitoring data-collection gap for naturally occurring affordable housing” did.

• A new requirement that the city create a detailed report on how many developers who participate in the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program do so by including affordable housing inside market-rate developments, and how many pay into a fund to build housing elsewhere. The pay-vs.-performance debate has raged since the program’s inception. “Performance” advocates say it’s only fair to require developers to integrate affordable housing into their projects, which may have displaced cheaper existing housing; “pay” advocates argue that an affordable-housing fund can be leveraged to build far more housing off site than the city could achieve by adding an affordable unit or two in each new development. In any case, the city already produces most of this data in its annual Incentive Zoning and Mandatory Housing Affordability Report.

A Pedersen proposal to continue funding a study of transportation impact fees, which some cities charge developers on the (disputable) grounds that new housing has a net negative impact on a city’s transportation system, passed, although the council pared it back from $450,000 to $150,000.

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