Category: Affordability

Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

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City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”

Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

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This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?”

Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

By Debra Russell and Jessica Tousignant

The lockdown was a necessary step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we couldn’t predict what it would mean for businesses. Restaurant owners didn’t know what to expect.

We were so grateful when Seattleites stepped up and supported us by ordering food for takeout. You were patient and generous as we built an entirely new business model. It was a bumpy transition, but you reminded us that we’re all in this together. Even now, your takeout orders are keeping many of us afloat.

But we can’t forget that our members who are hanging on are the lucky ones. One of the most frustrating aspects of the current economic downturn is that we don’t have enough data to understand exactly how bad things really are. It’s unclear how many neighborhood businesses have closed permanently since March.

The clearest overview of the economic impact on businesses nationwide arrived in a recent report from Yelp, which showed that of all the businesses that closed since March , about 61 percent have now closed permanently. That’s 97,966 businesses wiped out nationwide. Due to the customer-driven nature of Yelp’s reporting, this almost certainly represents an undercount—and in Washington, the numbers are likely even worse.

When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

The Yelp data confirms what we have suspected to be true: We’ve already lost half the businesses that had to temporarily close for lockdown, and the rest are imperiled. A majority of Seattle’s neighborhood restaurants will likely close by the end of the year.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t on our customers. They’ve done more than their part to keep us afloat. But the people and organizations who are supposed to use their resources and visibility to stand up for and protect small business have been entirely absent.

Local leaders claimed we should wait for the federal government to lead the way in the economic response to the pandemic. But the US Senate adjourned for vacation until September 8 without any agreement on a new stimulus plan. Since the additional $600-per-week unemployment benefits written into the last stimulus package were allowed to expire, some of our members report business has dropped by as much as 25 percent. When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.

The federal government told states and cities that they’re on their own, and local leaders have failed to step up to fill the void. Mayor Jenny Durkan, for instance, vetoed the expenditure of emergency funds—as though this economic collapse isn’t the biggest emergency most Seattleites have ever seen. (The city council subsequently overturned that veto, but Durkan’s budget would reallocate the money for other purposes.)

Continue reading “Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief”

Sudden Eviction Leaves Residents of Aurora “Nuisance” Motel With Few Options, Little Recourse

By Erica C. Barnett

The hallways inside the Everspring Inn on Aurora Avenue North are a hive of activity on Friday morning, as dozens of residents shuffle in and out of doorways, loading up trash bags, calling for friends down the hall, and trying to stuff a life’s worth of possessions onto carts and into shabby suitcases. The place smells sour, like sweat and mold, and some of the doors have messages scrawled or taped on the outside: “Hope.” “Happiness.” “Fuck you.” One of the doors has been kicked completely off its hinges; according to residents, it’s been that way for months.

Last month, the Seattle Police Department declared the motel a “chronic nuisance” and ordered its owner, Ryan Kang, to correct the problems, which included drug activity, rapes, and two recent murders—one in the parking garage and one in the motel lobby. On Tuesday, residents say, they received a notice on their doors ordering them to vacate the premises.

“[O]ur agreement with the City of Seattle and the Chief of the Seattle Police Department requires that we remove all guests and persons currently occupying the property… effective immediately,” the notice said. “The Seattle Police Department will be on the premises for a scheduled walkthrough on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 11:00am to help ensure compliance with this requirement.”

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The move was a bluff. According to SPD, there is no agreement between Kang and the department. Nor did police officers do a “walkthrough” on Thursday; although a couple of officers did show up, residents and case managers who were present say they never got out of their car.

José Carrillo, who has lived at the Everspring Inn for four years, said he didn’t understand how Kang had the right to kick everyone out without notice. “The notice just said we have to leave because there’s been some shootings and murders. They’re blaming all 25 people who live here for the shooting. I was as scared as anyone when that happened.” Carrillo, who buys cars at auction, fixes them up, and sells them, said he had just gone upstairs to his room when a woman living in the motel was shot in the garage. “That’s when it started feeling unsafe,” he said.

Even so, residents say, it’s better than being on the streets. “Anything is better than being homeless,” said Olivia Lee. Her girlfriend, Nevaeh Love, is the sister of the woman whose killing Carrillo almost witnessed. The two women lived in a single room with another resident, Curtis Coleman; now, Lee said, they would have to go back to living in their car. “They didn’t offer us any resources, nothing. They just told us we had to be out that day,” Lee said. “It should have been done the legal way.”

Love, who is seven months pregnant, said she was in the hospital until last week because of a lung infection she believes was caused by black mold at the property. Her sister was one of the two people who were shot at the motel.

“They’re sitting on their high horse right now,” Love said. “Well, karma’s a bitch, and they’re going to be in this situation one day, only it will be tenfold.”

Kang was in front of the motel on Friday morning, sweeping up glass and trash as two private bodyguards looked on from a few feet away. He pointed to paint that a resident had poured in the driveway. “This is what I’m dealing with,” he said. He said emptying the motel of tenants was the first step toward addressing the problems identified by SPD. “I believe in second chances but the most important thing for me is public safety,” Kang continued. “We gave them proper notice. I have to get into an agreement [with the city] and this is part of doing that.”

In ordinary times, a mass eviction like the one at the Everspring Inn would require due process, including prior notice of up to 90 days and tenant relocation assistance, depending on the reason for the eviction. Even individual evictions for cause, such as failure to pay rent after a three-day notice to pay or vacate, would have to be filed in King County Superior Court, where the tenants would have the right to challenge their evictions.

During the pandemic, however, there are additional protections against eviction, including both a citywide and statewide ban on most evictions. The statewide ban applies at motels that serve as long-term residences, like the Everspring. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan extended Seattle’s eviction moratorium to the end of the year.

Landlords are still allowed to file eviction lawsuits against individual tenants in extreme circumstances, but that isn’t what happened in this case, either. “There’s nothing in the mayor’s or the governor’s proclamation that says a public nuisance is a just cause for [mass] evictions,” Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, said. “At the very least, he would have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against each individual person.”

In theory, Witter said, the tenants could file an injunction allowing them to stay at the motel for now, or seek redress from the state attorney general, who enforces the statewide eviction ban. (The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond Friday to a question about the legality of the evictions). “It basically sounds like an unlawful eviction,” Witter said. But, he added, “it’s going to be a lot more complicated to help them if they all leave.”

Residents said Kang didn’t give them much of a choice. Last week, residents said, two armed security guards started hanging around in the parking lot and attempting to enter people’s rooms. (When I was inside the motel, the security guards were wandering up and down the hallways sticking their heads into open doors.)

On Thursday, multiple residents said, Kang cut off the’ hot water to all the rooms, and had several tenants’ cars towed, taking away their last significant possession and a potential source of shelter. “Those that have a car, and were going to leave, were probably going to sleep in their cars,” said Kim Harrell, an outreach worker with REACH who was at the motel until 11:00 Thursday night. “What is it hurting him to let the car sit here for one night?”

For some, the final straw came around 1:00 on Friday morning, when the security guards locked the gate surrounding the motel and refused to let anybody in or out. One tenant, Bruce Red, said he felt like he was “back in prison again.”

“[The security guards] locked the gate, and then one of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” he said. “I told him I didn’t need him to be on my ass. I’m not acting out of character. I’ve been incarcerated eight times and you’re a [corrections officer] coming into my room.” Harrell said negotiated with the guards for 45 minutes to allow the children of another resident to come inside the gate, “and then they didn’t want to anymore.”

“Their dad had to come out and talk to them,” Carillo, the four-year resident, said. “It was a messed-up situation.”

Both Red and Coleman said they worked for Kang, making ten dollars an hour—nearly six dollars less than Seattle minimum wage—to manage the front desk and defuse dangerous situations when they arose. Coleman said the work was dangerous and hard. “You just have to deal with everything: People drunk, high, coming with knives and bats.

“I was working 12- to 15-hour shifts for [Kang],” Coleman said. “For him to just push everyone out now—it’s not right. They’re messing up all my plans.” Continue reading “Sudden Eviction Leaves Residents of Aurora “Nuisance” Motel With Few Options, Little Recourse”

Nonprofit Housing Providers Struggle to Pay Bills In COVID Crisis

This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared at Sightline.org, where you can read the entire story.

It’s the first of May. As another rent day arrives, tenants aren’t the only ones seeking relief from the financial fallout of COVID-19, which has led to widespread job loss in nearly every economic sector, and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

Cascadian affordable housing providers that receive funding through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which helps to fund about 90 percent of all new affordable housing in the US, have also been hit hard by the crisis. Nonprofit providers of subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income wage earners report unpaid rent rates of 20 percent or more, a shortfall that has left many struggling to balance their books.

“Our delinquency rate shot way up, and we are now accepting partial payment for rent and doing some payment plans,” said Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which serves communities throughout the Seattle metro area and in Olympia, Washington. “We’re working with tenants and doing partial payment plans for people who’ve recently become unemployed.”

In Oregon, about half the tenants in buildings owned by REACH Community Development earn income from wages. Anthony Petchel, REACH’s philanthropy and public relations director, says about 10 percent of their tenants had asked for rent forbearance as of late April, but he expected that number to go up as people continue to weather the economic collapse. “[The issue] is having the cash to manage the cash flow disruption” from missed rents, and “how long can all the organizations manage that,” Petchel says.

Daniel Delfino, the program and planning development director for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said that once the 60-day rent and mortgage freeze ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy ends, there are few protections for struggling tenants or for nonprofit housing owners with mortgages to pay.

Currently, nonprofit landlords are working out arrangements with tenants on a “case by case basis,” he said, but with more than 40,000 Alaskans unemployed, it’s unclear when or whether rent payments will get back to normal. “There are usually reserves that are put in place to handle four to six months of operating expenses and debt payments. Those aren’t set up to handle something like COVID-19, when the economic occupancy”—the percentage of people who pay their rent—”goes down from 93 percent to 40 percent.”

Enterprise Community Partners, a national low-income housing advocacy and funding group, estimates that a 10 percent income loss among renters could add up to $238 million per month in losses to groups like these that run LIHTC-funded buildings across the US. That’s based on an average loss of $792 in monthly rent from the three million tenants in LIHTC buildings that Enterprise estimates could miss rent payments if they don’t get assistance.

Susan Boyd, the executive director of Seattle nonprofit provider Bellwether Housing, said wage earners had a delinquency rate of about 21 percent as of mid-April, up from 2 to 3 percent in a typical month, as “about 30 percent of the people who were wage earners have lost all or a part of their income.” Likewise, Chris Persons, the director of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Housing, said April rents are falling about 22 percent short.

It’s easy to see why. With a patchy social safety net, hourly wage earners were already on the precipice of financial disaster before a nationwide economic shutdown led to mass unemployment.

A full-time worker making minimum wage in Oregon earns just over $23,000 a year; in Washington, that number is just over $28,000. According to the Urban Institute, the median income for US renters in low-income tax credit buildings was $17,470 before COVID, and about four in ten of these renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In King County, which includes Seattle, about 77,000 people making less than $40,000 a year had lost their jobs as of April 16; in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, about 38,000 low-income jobs had vanished. The pandemic puts the US housing crisis on steroids. Low-income renters often live paycheck to paycheck, and if they lose their jobs they simply can’t pay rent. The eviction moratoriums enacted in many jurisdictions throughout the US only grant a reprieve.

Even organizations whose revenues don’t rely primarily on renter incomes—groups like Plymouth Housing and the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, whose tenants pay their rents using federal vouchers and stable income sources like Social Security Insurance (SSI)—are struggling.

“We rely a lot on local dollars, most of which come from specific local taxes and fees like the [state] document recording fee for housing and homelessness, and of course those could go down if real estate transactions slow down, which seems likely,” DESC director Daniel Malone said. “And as local government taxation goes down, there certainly could be some squeeze on what they choose to fund and what they choose to cut.”

On April 21, Seattle’s City Budget Office released a worst-case revenue forecast that predicts a 2020 funding shortfall of up to $300 million, with some of the biggest revenue losses coming from the construction, retail, and food service sectors. In Portland, a smaller city, the shortfall could be as much as $100 million.

Read the entire story here.

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers”

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license

At the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city’s Human Services Department is studying the possibility of mandatory biometric screening of homeless shelter and service clients, using fingerprints or other biometric markers to track the city’s homeless population as they move through the homelessness system. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says that the use of biometrics or a “digital ID” would create “efficiencies” that improve on the scan cards currently used by some Seattle shelters. “Different cities and states have explored solutions including digital IDs and biometrics, so the City has been gathering information on how to improve services,” she says.

The city also maintains that there is currently widespread duplication of data from shelters and service providers—redundant information that makes it hard for the city to track how many people are using services and which services are most effective.

Hightower says the new technology may provide “new ways to better serve persons experiencing homelessness… allow[ing] people to access services without having to maintain hardcopy documents” or hang on to scan cards.

“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing [biometrics]. Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”—Email from Deputy Mayor David Moseley to HSD director Jason Johnson

“One clear challenge [with scan cards] is that individuals can lose their cards,” Hightower says. But critics, and some HSD staffers, are skeptical that the benefits of better data outweigh privacy and other concerns raised by biometric tracking. And homeless advocates point out that  people often lose their IDs and other documents when the city sweeps their encampment and removes or throws away their stuff, a policy that has accelerated under Durkan.

In an email on November 4, which I obtained through a records request, deputy mayor David Moseley directed HSD director Jason Johnson to look into “how would we convert to biometrics for folks entering … shelter?”

“Apparently this is something San Francisco does and that Mark Dones”—the consultant whose firm received $637,000 over the past year for their work on the new regional homelessness authority—”advocates for,” Moseley wrote.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

In a 2018 report to the city and county, Dones  recommended “explor[ing] opportunities to create radically accessible, customer-driven services through digital identification” for people experiencing homelessness in King County. A digital ID is an encrypted file containing medical information and other personal data that is typically accessed through the use of fingerprints or other biometric markers rather than a scan card or physical documents. Advocates for digital IDs and fingerprinting say that it helps homeless shelters provide service to clients faster; detractors call it “dangerous” technology that is “ripe for abuse.”

“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing,” Moseley continued. “Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”

The task of looking into biometrics, along with several other research projects, fell to HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, who expressed her concerns in an email to Diana Salazar, the director of HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division. “The one we would need to do the most work on would be the biometrics. That will be incredibly unpopular with Council and some advocates, who were concerned about the invasive elements of using scan cards,” Olson wrote. Some large shelter providers distribute scan cards to clients; these cards are linked to the Homeless Management Information System, which contains information about everyone who enters the homelessness system.

“I am not sure they are trying to solve a specific problem. [Durkan] probably just heard about a cool thing. …. I think we need to just research biometrics and make a recommendation.” — HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, internal email

Privacy and homeless advocates contacted by The C Is for Crank were not aware of the city’s behind-the-scenes work on biometrics, but raised a number of objections to the concept. Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project for the Washington state ACLU, says the use of biometrics seems like a high-tech solution in search of a problem, and points out that local data collection can have unintended consequences; Seattle shares data from its automated license plate readers with the state Department of Transportation, for example, but has no control over how WSDOT uses that data or whether they share it with federal agencies such as ICE.

“Why is it so difficult for them to identify people through a means other than putting everyone’s biometrics in a database?” Narayan asks. “What problem is your shiny tech doo-dad the solution to? And if you’re going to force people to give up their biometrics, it had better be for a really really good reason. But we haven’t had the chance to have that conversation because they’re jumping ahead to the shiny new thing.”

Continue reading “Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers””

Confirming the Chamber’s Colossal Loss, the “Innovative Affordable Portal” That Suggested Low-Income Bus Passes for My Nonexistent Kids, and More

1. Seattle council member-elect Alex Pedersen, whose campaign received about $70,000 in independent backing from the Seattle Metro Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, has reportedly made his first hire—neighborhood activist and longtime anti-density crusader Toby Thaler. Thaler, a fixture on the Fremont Neighborhood Council, was a leader of SCALE, a group that spent two years appealing the Mandatory Housing Affordability on the grounds that increased density in the city’s urban villages would destroy neighborhood character, trample the neighborhood plans of the ’90s, and harm the environment.

Thaler has also argued against density on the grounds that development only benefits wealthy interests. Neither Thaler nor Pedersen returned emails seeking confirmation and comment.

The hire confirms the sheer magnitude of CASE’s defeat in the November 5 election. Not only did all but one other Chamber-backed candidate lose to a more progressive opponent (Debora Juarez, an incumbent whose opponent was a firebrand conservative, was the highly unusual exception), the one winner they backed, Pedersen, is more likely to align with the dread socialist Sawant on anti-development measures like impact fees than to vote the Chamber’s interests.

Pedersen is also opposed to the downtown streetcar, which CASE supports, referred to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones,” and opposed the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure on the grounds that the “biggest businesses” should pay their “fair share.” Sound familiar?

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent out a press release Thursday touting a new “Affordable Seattle” portal that will “Help Residents Easily Determine If They Qualify for City of Seattle Discount Programs.” (Believe it or not, that’s less wordy than a typical Durkan press release subject line). The portal, which replaces a website Durkan rolled out in 2018 in at the same URL, is the first project to come out of the mayor’s much-touted Innovation Advisory Council, a group of local tech leaders brought together the summer before last to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic.

I went to the portal (created by Expedia), plugged in my income (above the qualifying income for any assistance programs other than homeownership help), my household size (one) and a Southeast Seattle ZIP code and pressed the button marked “find services.”

My children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program, which isn’t available where I live anyway. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.

The next page, titled “Your Program Eligibility,” suggested I might be interested in four programs: A low-income restricted parking zone permit for my car; college assistance for the graduating high-school seniors in my household; a low-income Internet assistance program from Comcast; and the ORCA Opportunity program, which is open to middle- and high-school students as well as certain public housing residents. When I entered an income of $120,000 a year, I got the same results.

As a household of one, my children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program. If I had qualified, additional links provided on internal pages inside the portal (one of which is broken) would have reminded me that the permits are limited to specific areas, and that my neighborhood is not among them. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

I asked mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower why this portal—the very first deliverable from the IAC since it was announced to great fanfare well over a year ago—produced such unhelpful results.

Hightower says the system is programmed to tell everyone about all four of the programs recommended to me on the grounds that they might be eligible, and that it’s up to users to then follow the links to read more about the eligibility requirements for each individual program. Put a different way, it sounds like Expedia didn’t include income-based exclusions from certain programs, didn’t account for people who live alone (about 40 percent of all Seattle residents, as of the most recent American Community Survey), and didn’t bother linking services to the ZIP codes, much less street addresses, where they are actually available. They also don’t ask if users own a car, although several of the potential benefits are linked to car ownership. Continue reading “Confirming the Chamber’s Colossal Loss, the “Innovative Affordable Portal” That Suggested Low-Income Bus Passes for My Nonexistent Kids, and More”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 4 Candidate Shaun Scott

Image via Shaun Scott campaign

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: District 4 (Northeast Seattle) candidate Shaun Scott— an activist, writer, filmmaker, and Democratic Socialists of America member running to replace Abel Pacheco, who was appointed when Rob Johnson left the council partway through his single term.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Your opponent Alex Pedersen’s campaign has been heavily supported by People for Seattle, the political-action committee started by his former boss, Tim Burgess, and by the Seattle Metro Chamber’s PAC. Any thoughts about how to get that kind of influence out of local politics?

Shaun Scott (SS): I thought that council member Gonzalez’ legislation to reduce the influence of corporate PACs is a great first step, and I would like to, work with her if I’m elected on crafting that legislation and building the political case for it.

ECB: The legislation would impact labor as well. For example, Andrew Lewis in District 7 benefited from more than $150,000 from UNITE HERE Local 8, the New York City-based union. Are you comfortable with the fact that these reforms would impact labor as well as business?

SS: To be fair. labor also spent against us in the primary on behalf of Emily Myers’ campaign, although it was nothing on the magnitude of what we saw from the Chamber and what we’re probably going see in the general. I think that the difference is that labor, as a progressive force in the city, is going to find ways to influence and get involved with campaigns on a basis that’s more than just material. They’re going to be out canvassing, they’re going to be coming up with policy recommendations that are going to benefit a lot of people in the city. And so there are more direct avenues for labor to exercise influence in the city, whereas I think Chamber politics often do really boil down to almost a unilaterally negative form of campaigning, so that the reduction of influence vis-a-vis PACs is going to impact them a lot more and limit their influence a lot more than it will labor, which traditionally has more avenues for getting people engaged and being involved in elections.

“With a market incentive program [like HALA], as well structured as it can be, there are going to be real limits. There’s going to be a ceiling on how effectively the market is going to be able to deliver social goods of any kind.”

ECB: You’ve been a vocal supporter of density in single-family neighborhoods during this campaign, which seems like a change from your previous position; as an organizer for the Jon Grant campaign in 2017, for example, you suggested that the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda was something of a developer giveaway. Has your position evolved?

SS: I think it’s definitely the case that a lot of HALA and a lot of [Mandatory Housing Affordability] was kind of a market incentive program. And with a market incentive program, as well structured as it can be, there are going to be real limits. There’s going to be a ceiling on how effectively the market is going to be able to deliver social goods of any kind. We’ve seen this in housing, we’ve seen this in healthcare, we’ve seen this in for-profit education. We’ve seen this in the rise of a prison industrial complex. No matter how much you do to incentivize the market to do the correct thing, there are going to be bad actors and it’s going to fail to deliver these goods in a way that is broad and accessible or able to be enjoyed by everybody. So that’s a critique of HALA. It’s part of the reason why when people ask me what I think about MHA, I will say it’s by and large something that I probably would have supported if I were on council, with a few important caveats. One of them being, if we were destroying more affordable housing than was going to be put in by a new development, how can we legitimate that?

There’s room for nuance. There’s room for having an opinion about this that says, if our goal is to get to the point where we’re providing the most housing and the most deeply affordable social housing that we can get, we have to find ways to structure the housing decisions that we make in the city so that they’re not left up completely to market forces.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly subscriptions allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

ECB: Your position on upzoning the Ave [University Way NE], specifically, has changed. Tell me a little bit about that.

SS: So I have very strong ideas about, and a lot of historical knowledge about, why the zoning that we see in neighborhoods like District Four in particular is exclusionary and why we’re just never going to be actually serious about being a racially inclusive city or a climate leader until we change that. One of the reasons why my views on the Ave in particular have started to evolve and why I think I’m more receptive to new information about what is going on there than  maybe I was at the beginning of this race has to do with the impact that opening large, big-box stores might have on some of the small businesses that are there that are minority and people of color-owned. And, as a principle, it’s one of those things where I have to check myself and rely on community to check me to make sure that in this vision that I have for an inclusive city, we’re not doing things to undercut that by actually displacing people that have had a hard go of actually gaining a foothold in the city.

The second part of it is it would be a different story if all of the housing that we were talking about building, or more than what is currently going to go there, was actually going to be workforce housing. If that was built into the way that the upzone was going to happen, I’d gladly go to some of these neighborhoods and absorb the criticism from people who are saying, ‘You’re changing the character of our neighborhood.’ What you’re saying is the character of the neighborhood means a lot less to me than people having a place to live. 

I’m not running to be a CEO of city government or to be a on the board of a development firm. We’re talking about what decisions the city has and what power the city has over our housing market. We can have all the conversations that we want about what it would look like to leave our housing decisions up to the private market. We know that right now and in the coming years, that’s not going to be enough for people that need housing.

Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 4 Candidate Shaun Scott”

Council Takes First Bites at Durkan’s 2020 Budget

I reported last week on some highlights from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2020 budget, which includes tens of millions of dollars from one-time revenues from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, plus a tax on Uber and Lyft rides that the council would have to pass in a separate action. Today, I’m taking a look at how the council has responded to Durkan’s budget so far, starting with a proposal to expand parole and create a jail-to-treatment pipeline as a way of addressing “prolific offenders” who were at the center of KOMO’s “Seattle Is Dying” report.

Parole and “Prolific Offenders”

Robert Feldstein, a former advisor to ex-mayor Ed Murray who now consults for the Durkan Administration, clarified some details of the overall “prolific offender” package, including the fact that (as I first reported) an expanded shelter inside the King County jail is not, as Durkan claimed and the Seattle Times repeated, a “comprehensive place-based treatment center”; it’s a shelter. The expanded shelter, like the existing one in the same building, will be run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides counseling and opportunities for residents to access treatment and, for people with opiate use disorders, get prescriptions for buprenorphine. None of that is treatment, and DESC has said it does not plan to get into the treatment business.

Shelter beds in the west wing of the King County Jail, pre-opening earlier this year

Durkan’s budget also sets aside funding for a new program that would keep offenders with substance use disorders in jail until a bed in a 28-day treatment facility opens up, then transfer them directly to that facility. Once an offender “graduates” from the 28-day program, a parole officer would closely monitor their attendance at mandatory outpatient treatment, a process that includes random drug and alcohol tests, to make sure they’re complying. Research has shown that mandatory 28-day inpatient treatment is the least effective intervention for the kind of severely addicted, chronically homeless people Durkan’s jail-to-treatment proposal is supposed to address.

Last week, council members pressed Feldstein to explain why Durkan was proposing untested new programs inside the criminal justice system instead of expanding programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which has been proven to reduce recidivism among people who are least likely to show up to court appointments or stick to the terms of their parole. “I think it’ s a reasonable policy question for us as a council to ask, when we’re talking about this number of dollars for new strategies and programs focused on high-barrier individuals, whether or not it makes sense to invest in unproven ideas rather than invest in proven interventions that are evidence-based and where we know what the outcomes are for this same population,” council member Lisa Herbold said.

“As I look at criminal justice reform work across the country, many jurisdictions are moving away from supervision and away from probation, period,” council member Lorena Gonzalez added. “It seems contradictory for us at the city of Seattle to actually be doubling down on probation and supervisions as a solution to address the needs of this population.”

Feldstein said the new programs, which also include a coordinator at the jail to direct short-term stayers to shelter and services and a proposal to add “case conferencing” between police and case workers (something LEAD already does), are meant as additions, not replacements, for existing programs. “There was a sense that they needed some additional tools [and] that there was not overlap between those programs,” Feldstein said. Under questioning from Teresa Mosqueda, Feldstein confirmed that the city had not done any race and social justice analysis of the proposal, nor included any community advocates or people who had actually been through the criminal justice system in the group that came up with the recommendations.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly subscriptions allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Housing

Gonzalez also raised questions, in a separate meeting last week, about Durkan’s proposal to use $6 million of the Mercer Megablock proceeds to help middle-class homeowners making up to 120 percent of the Seattle median income, or about $130,000 for a family of four, finance the construction of small accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards or basements. Any homeowner who took advantage of the loan program would be required to keep the new unit affordable to someone making 80% of median income (about $61,000 for a single) for 10 years.

(The rest of the proposals for the Megablock proceeds, which include new homeownership opportunities near transit, affordable rental housing, and a revolving loan fund for the city’s Equitable Development Initiative, have been less controversial.)

When Durkan rolled out the ADU proposal in July, Gonzalez requested, and “was assured” that the city would undertake, a race and social justice analysis of the plan, which she suspected would mostly benefit wealthier white homeowners. That analysis, newly appointed Office of Housing director Emily Alvarado confirmed, was never done. “I still have questions about whether this is reaching deeply into low-income communities that are likely to be displaced,” Gonzalez said. Continue reading “Council Takes First Bites at Durkan’s 2020 Budget”