Category: Environment

Despite Ongoing Heat and Smoke, Seattle Has No Plan for Cooling Centers or Smoke Shelters for Homeless

Wildfire smoke along I-5 near Corvallis, Oregon, September 8

By Erica C. Barnett

The city of Seattle has no current plans to open “smoke shelters” to protect people experiencing homelessness from the dangerous respiratory effects of smoke rolling in from wildfires in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, despite visibly smoky air that has burned eyes and left ashy residue on windowsills across Seattle for the past several days. Mayor Jenny Durkan has also declined to open cooling centers in recent weeks, on the grounds that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion or stroke, and hygiene-related illnesses that can crop up in hot weather.

On Monday, Durkan tweeted that Seattle residents should minimize their exposure to wildfire smoke by closing all their windows and doors, turning their central air conditioning to recirculating mode, and turning off fans that vent outside. The mayor’s tips included no suggestions for people living outdoors, who don’t have doors to close, much less air conditioning or even fans to mitigate temperatures that have soared into the 90s this summer, and are supposed to hit 91 this afternoon.

According to King County Public Health, the air over the last several days has fluctuated between “unhealthy for everyone” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”—those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, or a history of strokes. In previous years, the city has opened “smoke shelters” so that people living outdoors, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that make them sensitive to smoke inhalation, can escape the smoke and heat. Last year, for example, Durkan touted the installation of new HVAC systems at five city buildings used as shelters on smoky days, calling it a timely response to the “new normal” of climate change.

This year, however, the city has done nothing to provide such spaces. According to mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower, the city has been “reviewing its response options for potential wildfire smoke to ensure that they align with social distancing requirements.” Currently, Hightower adds, many of the buildings that the city would use as smoke shelters (or cooling centers, for that matter) are either closed (libraries, most community centers) or already being repurposed as shelters or day care facilities (Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall). Of course, the city has the authority to open buildings that are currently closed, including the senior centers, community centers, libraries, and other city buildings that are ordinarily used as temporary smoke shelters and cooling centers.

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Hightower said the city is taking its cues from Seattle/King County Public Health about when and whether to open temporary spaces for people living outdoors to get out of the heat and smoke. “We are updating our operational plans should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast.” If that happens, Hightower said, the city has “access to a range of facilities if wildfire smoke conditions significantly deteriorated and became a greater health risk to vulnerable individuals’—for example, if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued “a prolonged red zone air quality forecast that went on for days/weeks and Public Health’s concerns for air quality outweighs the concern for the spread of COVID-19 which can be deadly to those at high risk.”

Homeless advocates, and at least one city council member, aren’t buying it. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the city should have risen to the challenge of providing safe, socially distanced shelter months ago, before wildfires and extreme heat added new urgency to the crisis. “The public health threats to people who are homeless of being exposed to extreme weather conditions are real,” she said, “and the threats to people being indoors with a highly transmissible disease are real. That doesn’t mean that local government gets a pass on figuring out how to help reduce risk and protect people.”

Homeless advocates have been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to keep people experiencing homelessness from infecting each other is to put them in individual rooms, a solution the Durkan administration has steadfastly resisted. Even failing that, Eisinger said the city needs to figure out a way to deal with extreme weather conditions before this winter, when flu season and cold, rainy weather will collide with the ongoing epidemic, making it even more

critical to get people into warm, hygienic spaces. “The Centers for Disease Control and our local and state public health departments are quite clear that individual rooms that allow people to be protected from exposure, as well as from the risk of contracting COVID-19 are advisable, effective, and should be increased,” Eisinger said.

On Wednesday, council member Teresa Mosqueda said she had just returned from a short walk and was coughing despite wearing an N95 mask, which filters out most smoke particulates. “I can’t imagine sleeping unsheltered” in the smoke, she said.

“We have hotels [and] motels sitting unoccupied with AC and individual rooms; we have tiny houses that are ready to be stood up,” Mosqueda said. “There is no excuse to not house more folks and use de-intensified shelter options to prevent people from getting sick from this smoke.”

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

Trees currently cover between 28 and 33 percent of Seattle’s land, making us one of the nation’s greenest cities. But advocates for a new, stronger tree protection ordinance believe the city should go further to protect its canopy, by restricting tree removal in ways that could prevent new housing development in the single-family neighborhoods where most of Seattle’s large trees are located. In doing so, they have insisted that the only way to mitigate climate change is to take actions that prevent development in their exclusive neighborhoods—a literal example of failing to see the forest for the trees.

The city is currently considering amendments to the city’s existing tree protection ordinance that would add new protections for significant trees, create a “fee in lieu” of preserving specific trees that would fund new tree plantings elsewhere, and require property owners to replace any tree they remove that’s more than six inches in diameter, among other new rules. Advocates want the city to go further, by reducing the maximum size and number of trees that can be removed from vacant lots, for redevelopment, and by individual homeowners.

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One impact of greater tree protections would likely be less development in areas where density is allowed, including both urban villages (which were just modestly expanded under the Mandatory Housing Affordability act) and single-family areas where homeowners just gained the ability to build auxiliary units, including backyard cottages. Trees, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in areas of Seattle that are wealthy and white, and scarce in areas that are not; a 2016 city analysis found that in “census tracts with high numbers of people of color, tree canopy is as low as 11% while in areas with not many people of color there is 55% canopy cover.”

Given that disparity, it was hardly surprising that the people who showed up at city hall this morning to advocate for more stringent tree protections/development restrictions were people who identified themselves as residents of neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Ballard, and North Seattle. One by one, they came up to make their case. A group was given extra time to sing a song decrying development, and then a member of that group, dressed up as a tree, shouted “I am a magnificent tree! … Every tree counts, especially us mature trees!” into the microphone. A man said developers who were building “million-dollar townhouses and large apartment buildings” in his neighborhood probably go home to neighborhoods with “very nice trees.” A woman said that development and the resultant tree removal is destroying “opportunities for tire swings, hammocks, tree climbing, playing with sticks, cool spots to place your picnic blanket [and] piles of leaves to jump into.” And a man asked the council if they had thought about drivers, asking rhetorically, “When it’s hot, where do you want to park?” and argued that “you need the trees” to keep cars cool.

Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards.

All this absurdity was just the precursor for what will likely be a lengthy debate over the proposed new tree protections. None of the proposals are especially unreasonable on their face. But it would be a shame if, taken together, they made it harder to build housing for the people that are moving here, the people who already live here, and the people who are being driven out by housing scarcity. Continue reading “I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees”

Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings

Seattle’s “urban forest,” complete with single-family-only zoning and private driveways for private cars.

1. On Monday, new District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation transferring a small piece of land in Wallingford (or, as Pedersen called it, “East Fremont”) from the Finance and Administrative Services department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The land transfer will allow SDOT to extend a bus lane on N. 45th St. and speed travel times on Metro’s Route 44, which is one of the only east-west bus routes north of the Ship Canal. The Urbanist first reported on the proposed changes back in June. SDOT told the Urbanist that the spot changes, which also involve moving an intersection and converting a short stretch of 45th to one-way traffic, will improve travel times for nearly half of all Route 44 riders.

Pedersen said Monday that he was voting against the transfer because he had “gotten some feedback from residents of East Fremont” involving “access and traffic calming for residents.”

“East Fremont,” for those unfamiliar with fights over neighborhood nomenclature, is a part of Wallingford that the Fremont Neighborhood Council has long insisted is part of Fremont. Toby Thaler, the longtime head of the FNC, is now Pedersen’s advisor on land use and transportation.

Pedersen’s office responded to a request for comment by directing me to the video of the meeting. In a letter to a constituent, he went into slightly more detail, saying that his “concern with this project was the public engagement process, which could have benefited from more time to craft community-informed win-win solutions.” He added: “The ordinance was approved and my vote signaled to SDOT that it’s important for them to work to resolve issues from more than one angle.”

2. Pedersen took what seemed to be the opposite position on a different transportation project in his district‚ the redesign of Brooklyn Ave—arguing in favor of buses over a planned “green street” that will be too narrow to accommodate buses in the future. The redesign is part of the new University District light rail station.

At a briefing on the city’s Transportation Benefit District last Thursday, Pedersen asked two SDOT staffers if they had “heard about the bus lanes on Brooklyn issue,” then explained: “Brooklyn Avenue is going to be built too narrow to accommodate buses, and Sound Transit [is] worried if there are going to be any changes, if we try to widen it so it can accommodate buses, it’ll screw up Sound Transit’ schedule. … I don’t know if that’s something on the agenda to talk with Sound Transit about—to assure them that SDOT is able to get things done on Brooklyn.”

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Sound Transit’s plans for the new station include a “Green Street” on Brooklyn designed primarily for pedestrian traffic, with narrow lanes, a 20mph speed limit, and pedestrian improvements designed to drive car traffic away from the street and encourage bike and pedestrian traffic. Brooklyn is not currently a bus corridor. A group called U District Mobility, which includes a number of transit advocacy groups, has asked Sound Transit to widen Brooklyn to accommodate buses in the future.

In a joint statement, Sound Transit and SDOT told The C Is for Crank that the planning for the Brooklyn street design has been going on since at least 2014, when the city published the U District Green Street Concept Plan, and “the public clearly expressed that access to the station was a top priority.”

“Significant modifications to Brooklyn Ave NE would be needed to accommodate buses. While future revisions to the street may be a possibility after light rail opens, there is neither the time nor the funding for such revisions to be in place by the time the U District station is scheduled to open in 2021.”

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.”

3. Most council committee chairs have canceled their regularly scheduled meetings through the holidays, but Pedersen is making the most of his status as temporary chair of the land use committee, holding a special meeting to discuss the future of Seattle’s tree protection ordinance—a document that has galvanized activists ever since it first passed in 2001. (Pedersen inherited his chairmanship from temporary council member Abel Pacheco, who inherited it from Rob Johnson, who left the council in April. New committees and chairmanships will be announced in January).

The meeting  was billed as a briefing by “outside expert[s]” on the “need for and status of activity to implement Resolution 31902 concerning development of an updated Seattle Tree Ordinance.” The nonbinding resolution talks about the need to protect trees on single-family properties and to increase Seattle’s tree canopy to 30 percent of the city’s land area. (The advocacy group American Forests no longer recommends adopting percentage-based canopy cover goals and suggests providing density bonuses to developers who agree to plant trees.)

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.” One speaker called for a “moratorium on development” based on “primacy for trees,” and suggested “rewild[ing] areas too dense now for climate justice.” Another suggested that Seattle model itself after Cleveland, Ohio, which is “lapping Seattle” in terms of adding trees. This is true: Cleveland is “rewilding” the city—because the city is in decline; in order to cut down on blight, the hollowed-out city is tearing down thousands of houses abandoned by people who moved away. Continue reading “Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: Dan Strauss

 

 

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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: Dan Strauss, a legislative aide to retiring District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw and nearly lifelong Ballard resident who is running to replacing District 6 representative Mike O’Brien, who’s leaving the council after 10 years. We sat down at Ballard Coffee Works on NW Market Street, which becomes pertinent a couple of times during this interview.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): When you’re knocking on doors, how do you respond to complaints that the city isn’t doing enough to address visible homelessness in District 6, particularly in Ballard?

Dan Strauss (DS): I talk to them about the need to be able to provide everyone who is experiencing homelessness the opportunity to come inside four walls with a door that they can lock, that’s connected to the services that they need. I mean, that’s the baseline of what we need to be doing. And it’s a travesty that we aren’t providing enough enhanced shelters or places for people to be able to keep their things during the middle of the day, that folks are pushed out of their overnight shelters very early in the morning and haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep, and so now they’re sleeping during the day. That’s what we need to be focusing on. And that’s how I direct their commentary.

When I was growing up, there was a single resident occupancy hotel [in Ballard], which burned down in 2000. That was a place where people would be able to have four walls and a door that they could lock if rent was short that month, or if they were off of a fishing boat for a minute, or something like that. And so I think that’s something that is sometimes lost when we’re talking about what’s going on in Ballard—there have always been people experiencing homelessness in our community.

“In my perfect world, we would be bonding against our existing tax streams, using our total bonding capacity to build the housing we need today.”

ECB: You’ve also mentioned that you supported safe consumption sites. It’s been more than three years since the King County Opiate Task Force recommended opening two safe consumption sites in the county, and obviously it hasn’t happened. Are you just stating your values, or are you planning to actively push for safe consumption if you’re elected?

DS: There’s not a legal pathway given the federal government’s current position. So these are values I hold, because I know that harm reduction models work. This is the most extreme harm reduction model available, and there’s other ways that we can reduce harm in our communities. We know that there are drug addiction is a medical disease and it can be treated with medical interventions.

ECB: You said at a recent forum that you don’t support sweeping homeless people from place to place. What would you do with the Navigation Team, and is there more nuance that you weren’t able to express in that yes/no question?

DS: The nuance with that is that the Navigation Team, in its essence, is supposed to navigate people to services and to a safe, warm, dry place to live. And the problem is that we don’t have enough of those resources, right? So if we did have enough places with four walls and a door that someone can lock, that has the services on site, the Navigation Team would be effective.

ECB: In the absence of that, what would you propose to address people’s short-term needs?

DS: In the short term, we need to treat this like the emergency that it is. The fact that it’s taking three to five years for the modular houses from King County to come online—that’s not satisfactory. We know what the solutions are and that we need to get going, and we need to put this at the front of the queue.

All [the Office of Police Accountability] does is file complaints and grievances. We should also be giving commendations and saying, ‘You did a good job.’

ECB: You’ve mentioned finding efficiencies in the system as one way to save money and be able to invest more in things like housing and shelter. Do you think that there needs to be a new revenue source as well?

DS: I mean, at this point, especially for the capital side of things, there’s no way around that. The ride share tax that [Mayor Jenny Durkan just proposed]—that’s another revenue source. I would love to see the state do more. I’d love to see the county do more. I’d love to work with my colleagues to develop good proposals that aren’t putting the burden on property or sales tax. What I would love to see is us fully use our bonding capacity. In my perfect world, we would be bonding against our existing tax streams, using our total bonding capacity to build the housing we need today.  We’re in an emergency—we’re just straight-up in an emergency. If there is any untapped [bonding] capacity, that needs to be used.

ECB: What do you think of how the mayor has proposed allocating the revenues from the ride share tax, splitting it between housing and the streetcar?

DS: I think we’re at the point where we’re going to need to connect the streetcars or rip them up. It’s just such an example how Seattle does things halfway. And we’ve had such a long history of doing things halfway. And that’s one of the reasons that I decided to run. I’m tired of seeing it done that way. We need to have Yesler Terrace connected to South Lake Union and South Lake Union connected to the International District. The frustrations that I have with the streetcar is it needs to have dedicated lanes, and we need to have a connected system. It’s also frustrating that this was a premier mode of transportation when it was first proposed and we never got behind it and now we’re behind the times.

I don’t think that the housing dollars should expire in five years. And I would love to see a way that we could get those funds to be bondable. Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: Dan Strauss”

A Ban on Natural Gas, a High-Security City Picnic, and More City Hall Departures

Gas, Fire, Hot, Cooking, Hotplate, Burner, Gas Stove
Verboten? O’Brien to propose ban on new gas hookups; image via Pixabay

1. Last Wednesday, at the direction of new Seattle Department of Human Resources Director Bobby Humes, several high-ranking staffers at the department were reportedly told to pack their bags and leave the building—a departure from the Durkan Administration’s more common practice of giving city staffers the opportunity to “resign” and stick around for a couple of weeks. I have calls out to the HR department for more information about the departures.

The three staffers reportedly included deputy director Laura Southard, who was closely associated with former director Susan Coskey and former interim director Sue McNab, and Deborah Jaquith, SDHR’s public information officer. (Southard’s and Jaquith’s outgoing voice mail messages feature the same voice saying they are no longer with the city.)

Crosscut has reported extensively on the department, which is responsible for investigating employee allegations of sexual harassment and other complaints. After Coskey resigned in 2017, Durkan appointed a succession of interim directors, including McNab, who withdrew her name from consideration for the permanent position after an internal investigation found she worked outside the city for two of her seven months in office, as Crosscut also reported.

Humes, the former HR director for the city’s parks department, was sworn in last month.

2. Amid turmoil at the city’s Human Services Department (the homelessness division is being dissolved as part of the merger into a new joint county-city public development authority overseeing homelessness, and many employees expect to lose their jobs in the process), HSD deputy director Audrey Buehring informed employees yesterday that the department had hired security guards to patrol the annual departmental picnic.

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“Because we value the safety of our employees, HSD has decided to hire security personnel to be at our event. There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to you and your guests and to visibly deter any trespassers. Security personnel will be identifiable, so if you have any concerns or see anything that could pose a threat to our safety, be sure to report them immediately to security personnel,” Buehring wrote.

Asked for further details about the decision to hire security, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding responded, “There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to our staff and their guests and to visibly deter any trespassers.” OK then!

The theme of this year’s HSD “Summer Jam,” by the way, was “’90s.”

3. City council member Mike O’Brien plans to introduce legislation that will, among other things, ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, another step (along with Durkan’s proposed tax on heating oil, which is designed to get homeowners to convert to cleaner energy sources by 2028) toward the city’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. Few details were available about the proposal, which O’Brien will introduce on Tuesday; a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas to more than 800,000 customers (many of them in Seattle) said the company had not seen O’Brien’s legislation yet. “Natural gas is critical to providing our customers with the safe, clean, affordable, and reliable energy they expect,” the spokesman, Andrew Padula, said.

4. An internal HSD email indicates that Mayor Durkan’s 2020 budget will include a 2.6 percent pay increase for front-line human service workers who work for city contractors, an increase from last year’s hotly contested 2 percent “inflationary” hike.

Last year, Durkan initially proposed a 2 percent increase just for workers funded through the city’s general fund. When council members, including Teresa Mosqueda, proposed paying for the raises with funding the mayor had added to expand the Navigation Team, Durkan initially characterized the move as a “cut” to critical services. (The Nav Team expansion had been funded with one-time dollars, but—as is often the case with such “temporary” programs—the expansion became permanent.)

Ultimately, the council found the money and the Navigation Team expansion stuck. HSD hasn’t yet confirmed the 2.6 percent increase (I sent requests for more information to the agency and the mayor’s office on Wednesday, and will update this post if I hear back), but it will be welcome news to human service workers, who often make just above minimum wage.

The City Council Just Called for a Green New Deal. Here’s What’s Next.

Wastewater tanks at fracking site, via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alec Connon, an organizer with 350 Seattle, a group that has instrumental in pushing for a local Green New Deal for Seattle.

The Seattle City Council just passed a resolution calling for a transformational Green New Deal that will eliminate our city’s climate pollution by 2030, address current and historical injustices, and create thousands of jobs. So — what now? Does that mean we’ve solved even our portion of the global climate crisis? Hardly.

It does mean that the current City Council recognizes that we are in the midst of a global emergency that requires unprecedented action across all levels of government. It does mean that the City Council has recognized that unless we act Seattle greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, as they have in recent years. And it does mean that our city may be poised to finally do much more on climate.

The City Council should begin implementing a Green New Deal for Seattle by ensuring that we’re not making the problem even worse than it already is. We can do that by passing common sense legislation that will ensure all new buildings in Seattle get their heating from renewable sources, and not climate-destroying fossil fuels, such as fracked gas. (Seattle’s natural gas provider, Puget Sound Energy, is heavily dependent on fracking.)

Last month, the City of Berkeley passed a first-in-the-nation policy that has been widely heralded as an innovative way to protect the health and safety of its residents. The Berkeley ordinance ensures that all new residential and commercial buildings receive their heating and power sources from electricity, and not fossil fuels.

The Seattle City Council just unanimously passed a resolution calling for a transformational Green New Deal for Seattle. The first step to making that a reality is to stop making the problem worse.

It’s a common-sense policy for a number of reasons. 

The use of natural gas in our buildings causes asthma and other respiratory health issues. Half of residences that use gas for cooking with no range hood have indoor air pollution levels that exceed EPA pollution standards for outdoor air. This fact is doubly startling when you consider that air pollution kills an estimated 8.8 million people around the world every year — more than war, terrorism, and malaria combined.

In addition to threatening our health, gas in our homes threatens us with death by fireball. Gas pipelines connected to our homes explode and endanger communities. Remember that explosion that decimated several Greenwood businesses a couple of years back? That was a gas pipeline. It also wasn’t unusual. Gas pipelines explode with alarming frequency. The last deadly gas pipeline in the explosion in the U.S at the time of writing? Eleven days ago. This is of additional consequence for cities like Seattle that sit atop earthquake zones. Should “the big one” hit Seattle one thing we can be assured of is that gas pipelines will explode. Unless, of course, there aren’t any. Continue reading “The City Council Just Called for a Green New Deal. Here’s What’s Next.”

Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

Image result for futurewise logo

1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.

Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in  7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.

To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.

Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”

Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

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2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s]  an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.

The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.

ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.

The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”

Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”

The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.

This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data.  Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.

The City Studied the Impact of Easing Rules on Garage Apartments. What They Uncovered Was an Indictment of Single-Family Zoning.

In 2016, a group of homeowners, led by one especially ardent anti-density activist named Marty Kaplan, sued the city to stall proposed rules that would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units—basement apartments and backyard cottages—on their property.  (The rules, which would apply in single-family areas outside urban villages, would have eliminated parking requirements for accessory units; allowed homeowners to have both a basement unit and a backyard cottage, as long as they kept development under preexisting size limits; and eliminated owner-occupancy requirements, among other tweaks.) A city hearing examiner, Sue Tanner, found in favor of Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council later that same year, delaying the rule changes and forcing the city to do a full environmental impact statement to determine whether allowing several hundred more basement and backyard apartments across the city would have a detrimental environmental impact. (Environmental impact statements do not, as yet, consider the beneficial environmental impacts of making it possible for people to live near where they work or go to school, instead of driving in to the city every day on exhaust-choked freeways).

Nearly two years later, that document is finally here, and its 364 pages are a strong rebuke to anyone who has ever argued that single-family zoning is a natural feature of the landscape in Seattle, and that legalizing apartments in single-family areas will lead to displacement, environmental degradation, and drive up housing costs for low-income renters. The document places Seattle’s current zoning debates squarely in the context of history—not just redlining, which has been documented elsewhere, but post-redlining decisions that made apartments illegal on two-thirds of the city’s land and shut non-white, non-wealthy residents out of those areas almost as effectively as formal redlining did in the middle of the 20th century.

The DEIS begins by outlining the city’s zoning history, which began in the 1920s, when the city created two zoning designations: First Residence District (the equivalent of today’s single-family zoning) and Second Residence District (the equivalent of Seattle’s current multifamily zones). Over time, and through a series of zoning ordinance overhauls, the areas where apartments were legal in Seattle shrunk and shrunk again, until the city arrived at the zoning it has today. Single-family zoning, in other words, is hardly a sacred designation that has existed since time immemorial, as many neighborhood activists argue today, but a special protection for certain areas of the city that has grown dramatically over time, as these side-by-side maps of Ballard attest:

Today, when you see apartment buildings in areas designated single-family, know that those are relics of a time when apartments were legal in that area.

The DEIS goes on to trace population changes in Seattle over time. Somewhat surprisingly, given the dramatic population growth in Seattle between the 1960s and the 2010s, some parts of town actually lost population between 1970 and 2010, the period when zoning rule changes slowly made it impossible to build duplexes, triplexes, and apartments; the vast majority (81 percent) were in single-family-only neighborhoods. The areas with the most notable population loss were in North Seattle and certain parts of West Seattle.

Between 1990 and 2010 alone, while Seattle’s population grew 18 percent, the population in single-family-zoned areas outside urban villages, which “compris[e] 60 percent of Seattle’s total land area,” grew just three percent. (Those areas, again, are the parts of town where the proposed zoning changes would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to add an additional unit or two to their property.) Single-family areas, in other words, have not only failed to absorb an equitable proportion of the city’s growth, but they have managed this feat through the adoption of ever more restrictive zoning laws in Seattle’s relatively recent history.

Excluding new residents from single-family areas has had class and racial implications. According to the DEIS, people of color have become disproportionately more likely to live in areas zoned for multifamily use—that is, areas outside the single-family zones that Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council are suing to “protect”—with a few exceptions, including Southeast Seattle and the Central District. “Non-Hispanic White people are, by contrast, disproportionately likely to live in areas where single-family housing predominates.” Meanwhile, people of color are dramatically more likely to be renters rather than homeowners and more likely to spend more than 30 percent (or even 50 percent) of their income on housing than the non-Hispanic white folks who dominate single-family areas. Less than a third of all households of color, and fewer than 30 percent of Black and Hispanic/Latinx households, live in detached single-family houses, while more white people live in houses than any other housing type. According to the city’s analysis, “[T]hese citywide statistics illustrate that housing type varies along racial lines and are suggestive of patterns in single- family zones, where detached one-unit structures are the only housing type allowed.”

The DEIS also demolishes the notion—common among both wealthy homeowners like Kaplan and anti-displacement activists on the left—that allowing more housing in single-family areas will result in greater displacement of low-income people from those areas. (This theory was recently articulated by former Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, who claimed that “one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes.”) According to the city’s analysis, although 54 percent of homes citywide are renter-occupied, just 27 percent of homes in the “study area” (single-family areas outside urban villages) are. Since the study area includes many apartments built before apartments were made illegal in those areas, it’s safe to assume that those rental units are mostly those apartments, not single-family houses.

Looking at the data another way, it’s clear that the people who do live in detached single-family houses are mostly well above Seattle’s area median income, which was around $75,000 in 2015 (and is closer to $80,000 now). The disparity is perhaps best illustrated with a couple of charts:

The report also spells it out: Most poor people don’t live in detached single-family houses, rental or otherwise, because they simply can’t afford them. “Only 14 percent of households in detached one-unit structures are below 200 percent of the poverty level, a common threshold to be eligible for certain assistance programs, while for most other housing types about one-third of households are below 200 percent of the poverty level,” the report concludes. Given that 81 percent of single-family homes are occupied by homeowners, not renters, that means that just 2.66 percent of all single-family houses are occupied by people making twice the poverty level or less. That doesn’t mean those renters can actually afford the houses they are renting; in fact, the city’s analysis found that a renter would have to make 123 percent of the Seattle area median income to afford an average single-family rental house, and that even the very rare low-rent houses are unaffordable to people making twice the federal poverty rate, or about $33,000 for family of two.

Put still another way: “For households with incomes of 80 percent of AMI, even two- or three-bedroom single-family homes with rents at the 25th percentile, a common marker of rent for the least expensive homes on the market, are out of reach.” In Seattle, in other words, essentially no single-family rental homes are affordable to very low-income renters.

The DEIS also, of course, looked into the specific environmental claims that are being made by the homeowners who want to ensure that backyard cottages remain effectively illegal in their neighborhoods. They found, not surprisingly, that neither of the two alternatives the city considered, which the city estimates would produce between 1,210 and 1,440 more attached and detached accessory dwelling units, combined, across the city in the next 10 years—would have a significant impact on tree canopy, overall density, parking availability, or neighborhood aesthetics. (Alternative 3, which includes more size restrictions on detached units and would require homeowners building a second accessory unit to contribute to the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, would have slightly lower impacts in some areas, but the impact of 121 to 144 new units spread across the city would be generally negligible.) The report did note, however, that “removing the off-street parking requirement could reduce the amount of vegetation and tree removal otherwise needed to accommodate a parking space when creating an ADU.”

The city has been debating whether to allow more homeowners to build extra units for decades, and this specific proposal has been on the table since 2014, when the council adopted a resolution calling for a plan to “promot[e] workforce housing” by exploring ways to make building backyard cottages easier. This latest round will inevitably result in another challenge and more delays, illustrating just how hard it is to make even incremental zoning changes in Seattle. As long as homeowners believe sharing their prosperous neighborhoods with even a few newcomers will impact their property values, which continue to skyrocket year over year, even the most modest request that they participate in solving our affordability crisis will continue to be met with a barrage of legal challenges. By the time this legislation actually starts producing new housing for non-wealthy Seattle residents, it seems more likely than not that the median home in Seattle will have risen from its current high, around $820,000, to well over than a million dollars.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Electric Vehicle Owners Will Soon Be Able to Charge Curbside

This post originally appeared on Seattle Magazine’s website.

Earlier this month, Mayor Jenny Durkan officially opened a 156-station charging facility for the city’s fleet of electric vehicles— “the first of its kind for an American city and one of one of the largest indoor electric vehicle charging stations in the country,” according to the press release.

But the development that will have a more significant impact for ordinary drivers, the city hopes, is a program called Electric Vehicle Charging in the Right-of-Way—EVCROW, for short(ish).

Part of a larger plan to get 30 percent of the city’s car owners to switch to electric vehicles by 2030, the EVCROW pilot will set aside dozens of curbside parking spots throughout the city for use EV drivers in 2018, with the goal of expanding the program if the pilot is successful.

Durkan unveiled the first iteration of the program earlier this month—two charging stations operated by Seattle City Light, the first in a network that will eventually include 20 stations across the city—but EVCROW’s real potential may be in the private sector. At least two private companies are seeking city approval to install potentially dozens of charging stations, which resemble standard gas pumps, in city rights-of-way, alongside parking spots set aside exclusively for electric vehicles.

The German charging station company eluminocity is close to getting city approval for one charging station, with six to eight more sites in the permitting pipeline; Greenlots, a California company, is seeking approval for several dozen charging stations, although the number of stations they actually install will depend on future funding.

The on-street spots will be reserved exclusively for EV owners to use while charging their vehicles, a process that takes between roughly 30 minutes and four hours, depending on the type of charger. That will take some of Seattle’s on-street parking out of commission for people who drive gas-powered cars.

Chris Bast, climate and transportation policy advisor at the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, says the program will be restricted primarily to designated urban villages and urban centers—relatively dense, transit-rich areas along major arterial streets— to “help encourage electrification of high-mileage fleets,” such as car sharing and taxi companies.

The on-street spots will be reserved exclusively for EV owners to use while charging their vehicles, a process that takes between roughly 30 minutes and four hours, depending on the type of charger. That will take some of Seattle’s on-street parking out of commission for people who drive gas-powered cars.

Bast acknowledges that reserved parking for EV users could be perceived as a class issue—a new Nissan Leaf starts at about $30,000, out of range for low- and moderate-income drivers—but notes that the program is open to all EV cars, although Tesla, which has a proprietary charging system, could not install its chargers in the right-of-way under the new program.

In theory, as EVs become cheaper (and used EVs become more widely available), the stations could see more use from people without high incomes. Tesla, Bast notes, has put its own, proprietary charging stations mostly in small towns along major highways, and has yet to expand much into urban areas.

One thing Bast says the city won’t do in its quest to encourage EV use is allow private homeowners to install their own parking stations in the parking strips in front of their property, which is owned by the city. “You maintain it, but we don’t let you put a hot tub there. We can’t allow you that exclusive use, just like we can’t guarantee you the parking space in front of your house.”

Almost half the climate-changing carbon emissions in Seattle come from passenger vehicles—a higher percentage than most parts of the country, because Seattle City Light’s electricity comes from zero-emission hydropower.

“We need to reduce pollution in our transportation sector, and electrification across our whole system is the best way to do that,” Bast says. “Every gas vehicle we exchange for an electric vehicle is a 100 percent [emissions] reduction.”

That said, every car added to Seattle streets contributes to traffic congestion and sprawl, making public transportation (especially electric public transit) a greener option, overall, than driving.

Morning Crank: All the Gee-Whiz Enthusiasm In the World

1. Yesterday, I broke the news that former Position 8 City Council candidate Sheley Secrest, who lost in last year’s primary election to Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda (Mosqueda ultimately won), is being charged with one count of theft and one count of false reporting over allegations that she illegally used her own money in an effort to qualify for up to $150,000 in public campaign dollars last year. To qualify for public campaign financing through democracy vouchers, which enabled every Seattle voter to contribute up to $100 last year to the council or city attorney candidate or candidates of their choice, a candidate had to get 400 signatures from registered Seattle voters along with 400 contributions of at least $10 each. Secrest denied the allegations to the Seattle Times earlier this year, before the charges were filed. She has not responded to my request for comment on the charges against her.

As I mentioned in my post, the former campaign staffer who first brought the allegations against Secrest to the attention of Seattle police, Patrick Burke is also saying she failed to pay him more than $3,300 for work he did as her campaign manager. (The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission reports that the Secrest campaign paid Burke just over $1,300 and owes him $1,675, but says he was also promised 11.8 percent in bonus pay based on how many signatures and contributions he brought in.) Yesterday, Burke says, he had a hearing in a small-claims court case against Secrest, but says he and Secrest were unable to reach a deal through mediation, so the case will be heard before a judge next month.

Burke says he is now living at a Salvation Army homeless shelter. He says that by the time he left the campaign, his phone had been cut off and he couldn’t afford to pay for bus fare, so he was doing most of his work from a room he rented in Shoreline. He says Secrest told him repeatedly that if he could just hang on until she qualified for democracy vouchers, she would pay him everything she owed him. (Burke provided copies of what he says are text messages between himself and Secrest that support this.) “[Secrest] said, ‘If you can stick with this until we get the democracy vouchers, it will be worth your while,’” Burke says, “and I said, ‘If that’s what we need to do, let’s just push it and get done, but you have to understand that I can’t be at all the events that you need me to be at.” One point of contention, Burke says, involved $40 Secrest paid another person to design a flyer advertising a fundraiser at Molly Moon’s Ice Cream (Molly Moon’s owner, Molly Moon Neitzl, donated $250 to Secrest’s campaign.)

Secrest ended her campaign nearly $4,200 in the red. When a campaign ends up in debt after an election, it is generally up to the candidate to pay her vendors and employees, who have the right to pursue the former candidate in court if she fails to do so. In 2011, city council candidate Bobby Forch, who ran unsuccessfully against former council member Jean Godden, ended his campaign with $61,000 in debt, most of it—more than $48,000—to his former campaign consultant John Wyble. Wyble and Forch worked out a payment plan. If a campaign does not work out a way to pay its vendors, after 90 days, the amount they are owed turns into a contribution. For example, the $1,675 the Ethics and Elections Commission says Secrest owes Burke would become a $1,675 contribution, and since that amount is over the $250 individual contribution limit, the commission could launch an investigation into the campaign. However, the most the commission could do is fine Secrest—a solution that wouldn’t help ex-employees who are owed money like Burke. And Secrest is potentially in much more trouble now, anyway.

Secrest, for her part, says Burke “has been paid for all services performed before the date of his termination,” adding, “Washington is an at-will employment state, meaning an employer does not need cause to fire an employee.  In this matter, we repeatedly informed Patrick that we could not afford to keep him on staff. We clearly told him to stop working for pay, and we repeatedly told him that we will reach out once funds were available.” She sent her own screenshot of what she says is a text message exchange between her and Burke, in which she apologized that “we didn’t get fundraising in or qualified to pay you. You are a rockstar. As soon as I can pay staff I’ll reach out.”

3. Legislation currently moving through the state House, sponsored by Rep. Jake Fey (D-27), would broaden and extend the current sales tax exemption on electric vehicles, which was set to expire this year, until 2021 and would require all revenues that the state will lose because of the exemption come from the multimodal fund, which is supposed to fund walking, biking, and transit projects. Over three years, the bill report estimates, the tax exemption will cost the multimodal fund $17.65 million.

Electric-car proponents, including Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (who announced a number of new electric-vehicle charging stations this week), argue that electric vehicles are a major part of the solution to climate change. “Seattle will continue to lead on climate action and green energy innovation,” Durkan said in announcing the new charging ports this week.

But all the gee-whiz enthusiasm in the world won’t erase the fact that cars, even electric ones, enable sprawl, and sprawl is what destroys forests and farmland, causes congestion, paves over habitat, contributes to sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles, and is in every conceivable way anathema to a sustainable climate future. What we need are not technological quick fixes like electric cars and carbon sequestration, but large-scale solutions like urban densification and taxes on suburban sprawl. Standing next to shiny new Teslas is easy. Standing up for long-term solutions to the root causes of climate change is harder.

3. The city council-appointed Progressive Revenue Task Force met for the third time Wednesday, seeming no closer to finding any viable alternatives to the employee hours tax rejected by the city council last year than they were a month ago. (Perhaps that’s because they are ultimately going to propose… passing the employee hours tax rejected by the city council last year.) The meeting was taken up largely by a review of potential municipal revenue sources proposed by the progressive Center for American Progress in a 2014 report, most of which, staffers noted, were either already in place or unworkable in Seattle or Washington State.

The meeting did include a lively discussion about the cost of building housing for unhoused Seattle residents, and a mini-debate over which shelter clients will be prioritized for housing, given that there simply isn’t enough housing for everyone entering the city’s shelter system. “Basic” shelter, the task force learned, costs an average of $5,597 per bed, per year; “enhanced” shelter, which tends to be open longer hours and offer more services and case management, costs $14,873 per bed. (Advocates from SHARE/WHEEL, which lost funding from the Human Services Department during last year’s competitive bidding process, were quick to point out that their bare-bones mats-on-a-floor model costs much less than the average basic shelter).

Enhanced shelter, which is aimed at people who are chronically homeless, has lower overall exits to permanent housing than basic shelter, primarily because it’s aimed at people who are among the hardest to house, including those with partners and pets and those in active addiction. Of about 20,500 households the city anticipates it will serve with enhanced shelter every year, it estimates that just 2,000 will exit to permanent housing. “What, if any, cautions or counterbalancing is going on in evaluating the performance of the providers that were awarded contracts to ensure that they don’t meet their exits to housing [goals] by prioritizing the easiest to house?” task force member Lisa Daugaard asked, somewhat rhetorically. “That’s a good question,” council staffer Alan Lee responded.

The task force has until February 26 to come up with its proposal.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.