Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?*

After agreeing that it was “a very trying experience to live [in Ballard] for four years while my neighborhood was torn down,” Strauss added that the demolition of old houses is what led to “the density that … is also why by Ballard is such a vibrant neighborhood right now.” Noting that even fourplexes can be built within the same development “envelope” as a single-family house, preserving views and the neighborhood “character” single-family preservationists argue will be lost if apartments come in, Strauss suggested that the city might even pass legislation in the future to ensure that new low-density buildings aren’t physically larger than the single-family houses that are currently allowed.

Strauss suggested that the city might even pass legislation in the future to ensure that new low-density buildings aren’t physically larger than the single-family houses that are currently allowed.

Washington State, Strauss added, is the only West Coast state without legislation allowing more density, under certain conditions, in areas traditionally reserved exclusively for detached single-family houses.

*For those who are new here, the answers are: “Capacity” (the possibility of a theoretical fourth story above an existing three-story apartment building, for example) does not translate to thousands of developers willing to tear down existing apartments to get a few more units on lots across the city; “growth targets” are actually not growth targets but estimates of future growth, created at the behest of neighborhood groups in the 1990s, that turned out to be wildly inaccurate; and “starter houses,” even at $650,000, don’t exist in neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge. You can buy an apartment for cheaper, but apartments are exactly the kind of housing traditional neighborhood groups want to exclude.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

2 thoughts on “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

  1. A few facts need checking regarding the story about Dan Strauss at the Phinney Ridge CC meeting. First, the Comp Plan housing production estimates were entirely developed by the city’s planning department; they were never part of the neighborhood plans. The most recent estimate for the Greenwood-Phinney urban village was for 500 residential units between 2015 and 2035. The DPCD’s November 2021 growth report shows that 1,171 units have been constructed and permitted. The same report shows a capacity over 2,000 units as of 2016 under the existing zoning. That suggests a remaining “capacity” for nearly 1,000 units. The NC and LR zoning offers plenty of redevelopment potential and that is happening all along Phinney and Greenwood (within and beyond the urban village boundary) including two projects by the Homestead Community Land Trust to provide affordable home ownership. You paint a picture of resistance to growth or affordable housing that is simply not accurate. That the market has caused dramatic increases in property value and huge increased in property taxes is not caused by longtime Phinney residents. It is certainly not helped by real estate agents who create bidding wars intentionally to drive up sale prices and their fees! Overly broad zoning changes including the MHA upzones and liberal ADU/DADU allowances have not produced affordable housing as promised; neither will the proposed densification of formerly single-family zones (now called Neighborhood Residential) without specific requirements for affordability.

    1. Yep, same tired talking points all over again.

      “The most recent estimate for the Greenwood-Phinney urban village was for 500 residential units between 2015 and 2035. The DPCD’s November 2021 growth report shows that 1,171 units have been constructed and permitted.”

      The city underestimated how much housing would be built, yes. How should we use this fact to inform policy? Perhaps the zoning that seemed sufficient when 500 new units were estimated is no longer sufficient once that many units has been constructed twice over.

      “The same report shows a capacity over 2,000 units as of 2016 under the existing zoning.”

      Yes, half the capacity existing in 2016 has been built up already in just five years, when the prediction was that only a quarter of it would have been built on before 2035. What percentage of the capacity must be used up before we should consider adding more?

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