Fizz: Hotel Shelter Debate Continues, City Labor Negotiator Resigns, Poll Tests Mayoral Messages

1. City council member Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, told PubliCola Monday that he’s working on legislation that would authorize funding for new non-congregate shelters, such as hotels, that could be reimbursed by FEMA—which, as we’ve reported, is now paying for all reimbursable expenses, including most shelter services, at 100 percent.

The legislation, which Lewis said won’t be baked until late this week at the earliest, would respond to some of the objections Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has raised about seeking FEMA reimbursement, which include “onerous” paperwork requirements, a competitive procurement process, and pre-approval from the federal agency.

In addition to those issues, Durkan’s office has said that FEMA will not pay for shelter services of any kind, a claim that is not borne out through the experience of cities like San Francisco, which has received full reimbursement for about 85 percent of the cost of hotel-based shelters and recently announced it was opening 500 new hotel-based shelter rooms using FEMA money.

“We are in a crisis that is exacerbated because of COVID,” Lewis said. “It is totally legitimate for us to seek FEMA reimbursement.”

“We are in a crisis that is exacerbated because of COVID. It is totally legitimate for us to seek FEMA reimbursement.”—City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Lewis noted that the issue of FEMA reimbursement has been somewhat conflated with funding for JustCARE, a hotel-based shelter program for high-needs individuals with a high impact on the neighborhoods where they live. Among other issues, the mayor’s office has said that JustCARE wouldn’t qualify for FEMA funding because reimbursement requires a competitive contracting process.

“The goal with this legislation is going to be to take a step back and assume that we’re making something new from whole cloth that is defined around the fact of what we need to do for FEMA reimbursement,” Lewis said. “If hotel rooms are a problem for some actors in city government, there are other types of non-congregate shelter we can seek FEMA reimbursement for.”

Durkan has strongly resisted proposals to shelter unhoused people in hotels since the beginning of the pandemic, long before the current FEMA reimbursement debate. Last year, for example, her office consistently responded to questions about why the city wasn’t opening hotel-based shelters by deflecting, noting that the city did contribute funding to the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel-based shelter in Renton.

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The mayor has been more open to funding tiny house villages—encampments made up of small wooden structures about the size of garden sheds— during the pandemic, and Lewis has separately proposed opening eight new villages around the city. Unsheltered people consistently prefer a tiny house to a conventional shelter bed, but hotels offer a number of stabilizing amenities that tiny houses do not, including television, private kitchenettes, beds, and a private place to bathe and relax. Hotel-based shelters also provide revenue for an industry that has been hard hit by the pandemic.

As for JustCARE: County funding for the program is scheduled to run out on March 15, but the county is reportedly working on another stopgap solution to keep the program running in the absence of any city support. Durkan’s office considers JustCARE, which is run by Seattle-based service providers and focused on encampments in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, “a county program.”

2. Jana Sangy, the city’s director of labor relations, announced last week that she’s leaving her position in early June.

Although Sangy’s announcement didn’t include much information about why she’s leaving, staff from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had reportedly intervened at a micro, line-item level in individual city contracts in a way that previous mayors have not—which could certainly make the job of a labor relations director more challenging. Labor Relations, which is part of the city’s Department of Human Resources (SDHR), ultimately answers to the mayor and represents the executive’s perspective in labor negotiations.

Sangy’s resignation comes as the city prepares for contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the city’s largest police union and one of the key challenges for the labor relations unit.

“There is not a very deep well of stability to fall back on during this transition to yet another interim director. It begs the question why this mayor has had such difficulty retaining solid talent in such a critical role.”

—Peter Nguyen, who represented Labor Relations in SPOG negotiations in 2018

SPOG’s last city contract expired at the beginning of 2021, but the bargaining process won’t begin until the Labor Relations Policy Committee—a group made up of five council members, SDHR Director Bobby Humes, and City Budget Office Director Ben Noble—finishes deliberating on the city’s negotiating priorities and strategy. complete their deliberations. During preparations for bargaining with police unions, representatives from Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability and Office of the Inspector General join the LRPC. Once bargaining begins in earnest, a negotiator from the Labor Relations unit will serve as the city’s labor law expert at the bargaining table.

Sangy started in June 2019, becoming the third person to fill that role since 2017; her immediate predecessor, Laurie Brown, was an interim director appointed by Durkan in December of the previous year. According to an email from Humes to city employees last week, Sangy’s interim replacement will beJ eff Clark, who currently serves as one of the unit’s negotiators. Lisa Low, a spokesperson for the city’s HR department, told PubliCola that department leaders “do not anticipate any impacts to the timeline for SPOG bargaining.”

But Peter Nguyen, who represented the Labor Relations unit during the last round of bargaining with SPOG in 2018, thinks that Sangy’s departure ahead of one of her unit’s most crucial performances is a sign of a struggling unit. “The resignation of the city’s Labor Relations Director is troubling,” said Nguyen. “There is not a very deep well of stability to fall back on during this transition to yet another interim director. It begs the question why this mayor has had such difficulty retaining solid talent in such a critical role.”

Sangy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

3. Seattle residents received two more polls centering on mayoral candidate (and city council president) Lorena González over the last week, both testing positive and negative messages about González, her current and likely opponents, and groups like “the Chamber of Commerce” and “the Black Lives Matter movement.” One poll was an online survey, the other a live poll, but the similarities between them suggest they are versions of the same poll put out by the same campaign or group.

The specific messages the polls were testing were less interesting than what they suggest, cumulatively, about the upcoming election, which will pit González and Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk—the two current frontrunners—against a long list of other candidates that could include former city council member Bruce Harrell, current deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and former state legislator and 2017 mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell.

Police accountability (and, on the flip side, police defunding), the homelessness crisis (and the council’s decision to dismantle the police-led Navigation Team), and the “state of downtown Seattle” featured prominently in both polls, one a live phone poll and the other an online survey.

For example, here’s one anti-González message from the written survey: “As Seattle City Council president, Lorena Gonzalez listens only to a narrow range of politically connected groups. She arbitrarily committed to slashing the police budget by 50 percent and defunded the Navigation Teams that help the homeless when activists demanded it. Now unauthorized homeless encampments are spreading through our parks, playgrounds and neighborhoods and public safety is eroding. We need a mayor who will listen to everyone, not just the loudest and most extreme voices.” Another negative message suggests González is to blame for the closure of downtown businesses during the pandemic.

These messages, familiar to anyone who paid attention to the ugly attacks on progressive candidates for city council in 2019, aren’t exactly new this year—the visibility of unsheltered homelessness, calls for law and order, and accusations of “extremism” (hurled in 2019 at everyone from Lisa Herbold to a UW grad student who didn’t make it out of the primary in District 4)—but they are more pointed.

Whoever runs for mayor from the right this year is likely to accuse opponents, particularly González (as the one candidate who currently holds elective office) of being soft on crime, caving to demands from anti-police extremists, and too tolerant of people living unsheltered—who, it will be implied or even stated, are responsible for both an uptick in real or imagined crime and for the closure of businesses in downtown Seattle. What remains to be seen is which potential candidate will take up that mantle.