Category: Equity

New SDOT Director Talks Scooters, Streetcar, and Sweeps; A Closer Look at City Grant to Social Club Harrell Headed

New SDOT director Greg Spotts
New SDOT director Greg Spotts

1. Greg Spotts, the newly confirmed director of Seattle’s transportation department, spoke with reporters Wednesday on a wide range of topics, including scooters, the proposed downtown streetcar connector, and his plan to do a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, which is currently far off track.

Spotts, who previously headed up StreetsLA, a division of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, said he was currently agnostic on both the appropriate number of scooters the city should permit and the debate over whether to revive work on the downtown streetcar, which former mayor Jenny Durkan paused during her term. As Spotts noted, scooter sharing proliferated in LA after the city decided to allow any qualified company to operate in the city, but didn’t really serve low-income areas or communities of color.

“What it produced was an overabundance of scooters in the obvious places where there’s a lot of density and a lot of money, and … very few scooters in communities of color,” Spotts said. Even with incentives for placing scooters in underserved areas, they continued to cluster in wealthy, tourist-heavy neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown LA. “So it’s not obvious how to make this public private partnership to produce all the public goods that you want, but maybe we’re in the very, very early stages of figuring that out.”

Similarly, Spotts said he might support expanding the streetcar if there’s evidence it will improve the economic climate in the areas it serves. The new downtown section of streetcar would create a loop connecting two separate streetcar lines, connecting South Lake Union to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. All three areas are already connected by frequent transit, which—along with low ridership on the existing streetcar—raises questions about whether a new streetcar segment would justify its cost, currently estimated at almost $300 million.

“There’s operational benefits, right? Instead of running two segments, running one big one,” Spotts said. “But what would push it over the top, I think, is it analysis that it could be an important catalyst for our small businesses in downtown, for our tourist economy, for our cultural institutions.”

One issue Spotts declined to address is SDOT’s role in removing homeless encampments from sidewalks; SDOT staffers (including some currently vacant positions) make up more than half the members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 70 staffers who removes encampment. (The UCT also includes six members of the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach and makes shelter offers prior to sweeps).

“At this early stage, I’m really deferring to the mayor’s office to utilize the departments as they want to for the larger policies that they’re pursuing,” Spotts said. “And I’m not looking to introduce some personal opinions into that. I’m just here to here to assist in whatever way they want us to assist.”

2. After we reported on the fact that the city awarded nearly $800,000 to a private men’s social club that Mayor Bruce Harrell chaired until late last year, we took another look at the record to see if there was any precedent for the city awarding Equitable Development Initiative dollars to any similar institution.

Over the five years the city has been making EDI awards, about three dozen organizations have received significant grants from the fund. Many of the groups that have received multiple grants are engaged in low-income housing development, create community spaces that are open to the public, or provide social or health services to particular communities.

For example, the Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown, the Rainier Valley Midwives, Chief Seattle Club, and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle have all received multiple EDI awards over the past five years. Other grant recipients in past years include Cham Refugees Community, the Somali Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and the Filipino Community of Seattle.

A few of the grant recipients provide cultural space and put on events that are open to the ticket-buying public, including Black and Tan Hall and the Wing Luke Museum. None is a private social club—except the Royal Esquire Club.

It’s unclear whether the Royal Esquire Club has sought public funding from the city in the past; we’ve requested a list of all previous EDI grant applicants through a public records request. The club, which was at the center of another controversy involving Harrell while he was City Council president, has never received an EDI award in the program’s history; the $782,000 the club will receive is more than twice its annual revenues for 2019, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.

It’s Time to Ditch Design Review

Years of controversy over the design of this Safeway-anchored building on Queen Anne galvanized opposition to Seattle’s design review process.

By Laura Loe, Wes Mills, and Mike Eliason

Seattle is preparing to update its Comprehensive Plan, which governs growth and development in the city. Between now and 2024, there will be a staggering number of public input and listening tours and community open houses, all aimed at shaping equitable development and coming to some kind of consensus about where new neighbors should be allowed to live. 

Simultaneously, the city convened an advisory stakeholder group to evaluate Seattle’s Design Review program, as required by a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) the City Council passed in spring of 2022. We question whether this advisory group, which has met three times so far, is effective or empowered to make necessary changes to this harmful program. We oppose Seattle’s Design Review program and would like it to be reduced to a routine checklist, if not eliminated altogether. We want changes to this program to be in place before the comprehensive plan update in 2024.

The intent of Seattle’s Design Review program is to “consider a broad set of design considerations and apply design guidelines that the architect must use to design the exterior of the building (and to) promote designs that fit into and relate to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately, the impact of design review goes far beyond aesthetics and neighborhood character. It leads to a less affordable city. According to a 2021 BERK report, Seattle needs at least 21,000 more homes for families and individuals making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income, about $95,000 for a family of four. Design reviewers are not allowed to consider the needs of lower- income people in their decision making, to say nothing of evaluating the needs of an estimated 5.8 million residents our city and region will need to house by 2050. 

Right now, Seattle planning staff coordinate community energy toward evaluating a building’s appearance—a classist and subjective process that prioritizes subjective aesthetics over equity.. Our city is not more beautiful because of Seattle’s design review process. It adds cost and limits needed homes during dual climate and housing emergencies. There is an abject futility in witnessing multiple rounds of hours-long meetings debating minuscule architectural points that would make Frank Lloyd Wright stomp out in frustration.

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power

In contrast, there’s no process to examine whether our city’s stated values around equity, affordability and sustainability are being met. Design Review has hobbled Seattle’s ability to provide essential housing, while undermining the needs of both current and future neighbors. This process prioritizes things like the color of brick, the modulation of the back side of a building, and whether a trash pickup should be done by a 30-foot truck or a 25-foot one. It leads to complex studies of the impact of shadows on vegetable gardens. It does not support equitable development. 

In September 2021, Seattle For Everyone released a statement that made clear that Seattle’s Design Review program was failing. We agree. We have found Design Review to be one of the most anti-renter, gate-kept, exclusionary and jargon-laden of all Seattle Processes. Infuriatingly, the all-volunteer Design Review Board has been loaded with industry insider architects and process “experts.” This shuts out many people whose communities need representation, including people who are experiencing housing instability, like us. 

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power. These locations tend to have much higher levels of air and noise pollution than the neighborhoods whose “residential character” design review aims to protect, and are considerably less safe due to traffic volumes, than residential neighborhoods. It is a public health crisis exacerbated by our bifurcated development regime. Renters deserve quiet, leafy neighborhoods where our kids can feel safe playing on the sidewalk.

The most famous example of design review’s costly and anti-renter outcomes is at the top of Queen Anne. Because of the great reporting from The Urbanist (West Design Review Board Withholds Approval for 323 Homes Atop Queen Anne Safeway), and the fantastic live-tweets by QAGreenways, dozens of people were inspired to give public comment in favor of housing on top of a grocery store. The momentum and movement to end design review has even caught the attention of Real Change advocates who specifically called out eliminating design review in their recent comprehensive plan vision

We ask the City of Seattle to remove Design Review from the building and permitting process, before we complete the Comprehensive Plan updates in Spring of 2024.   Because of the concerns raised by Seattle For Everyone, we are worried that any reforms recommended through the stakeholder group process will be worth little more than the cost of the ink used to print the very nice bound version that will be placed in the stacks of our beautiful Central Library (that probably couldn’t pass Design Review today).

The stakeholder group plans to perform “[a]n analysis of whether the program increases housing costs”. We don’t need that analysis. We already know it does—through increased processes, permitting delays, and more complex buildings. We don’t need more analysis to tell us Design Review is broken. Additionally, the council’s directive does nothing to own up to Seattle’s massive role in exporting our housing crisis to the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest. 

While we advocate for ending design review, we don’t yet have a framework for fixing our neighborhood design guidelines. One acceptable option would be to make adherence to design guidelines a low-stakes checklist-style administrative step. A few of Seattle’s design guidelines are functional and fairly useful, but others are purely aesthetic and highly questionable.  

Upcoming Meetings: September 28, October 26, November 16, December 14

Comment on these meetings here.

Watch upcoming meetings here.

Stakeholders

The stakeholder group includes affordable housing developers, market rate developers, design professionals, neighborhood organizations, and previous Design Review Board members. Stakeholders representing specific organizations are indicated here.

Additionally, the Design Review process works differently in the Department of Neighborhoods for Special Review Districts. The International Special Review District (ISRD) has taken some steps to increase participation and influence by those who have been actively marginalized and underrepresented in Seattle. For example, the ISRD Board recently expanded their language access with translation and interpretation for meetings. We need to evaluate if community members have felt that these reforms in Department of Neighborhoods have worked, to inform the SLI driven stakeholder advisory meetings  in the Department of Construction and Inspection.  

We do not support more process, more reports, or more rounds of public debate and discussion. After viewing the first few meetings of the stakeholder group reform process, it is clear that the members are disempowered to make reforms. Design review eradication should be under consideration, too. The city must study the impacts of eliminating design review and this stakeholder group is meaningless without studying that option. 

Laura is a renter, musician and gardener in Queen Anne who founded Share The Cities. Wes is a local housing and transit advocacy volunteer who rents with his family in Northgate, where they can live without a car. Mike is the founder of Larch Lab, an architecture studio and think tank – as well as renter and livable cities activist living with his family in Fremont.

Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?

1. Last week, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told PubliCola that the city has to make sure police are present at every encampment removal because Parks Department workers, who are in charge of removing tents and disposing of unsheltered people’s belongings, were being “assaulted” by “protesters” who show up at sweeps. The parks workers’ union raised the issue, Washington said, because the workers didn’t feel safe without police in the area.

Although we’ve been present at many encampment removals, PubliCola couldn’t remember seeing or hearing about any physical assaults by mutual aid workers who show up at sweeps—including from local TV news reporters, who are generally eager to jump on any drama related to homelessness.  Asked for clarification, a Parks Department spokeswoman said Parks employees had been both threatened and physically assaulted.

For example, the spokeswoman said, “a staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

The Seattle Police Department has lost about 400 officers since the beginning of 2020, and continues to lose more officers than it hires.

The Parks Department did not directly respond to a question about whether the Parks union requested and received a contract modification or other written agreement to ensure police would be present at all encampment removals. “When our labor partners came to us with employee safety concerns, we worked together to address them and act,” the spokeswoman said.

“A staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

2. As the West Seattle Blog reported last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation decided to “spare” a large, multi-trunked horse chestnut tree in West Seattle whose roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle, making it unsafe for pedestrians. SDOT said it had not decided what to do about the tree, which is at least several decades old, but was glad to have found a solution that doesn’t require cutting down the tree. 

The solution, which the Seattle Times summarized as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” comes at a cost to the city: About $45,000, according to a spokesman for SDOT, to build a new “parallel/corner curb ramp with minimal tree root trimming that should not harm the tree” and move a fire hydrant across the street.

It’s unclear what impact the success of this tree protest will have on future attempts to remove trees that are damaging public infrastructure or are in the path of development. Historically, “Save the Trees” has been a rallying cry in Seattle (and elsewhere) for laws that prevent the construction of new housing—particularly in North Seattle’s tree-lined, largely white single-family neighborhoods, where people of color were historically barred from living.

Horse chestnut trees are a rapidly growing invasive species that, along with mountain ash, “make up the majority of the non-native deciduous species” in the city, according to the city of Seattle. That quote comes from a report recommending the removal of these trees from a natural area in Southeast Seattle that is “infested” with them, hindering the growth of native species.

3. The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents fewer than 100 police captains and lieutenants, have negotiated changes in their contract that, if implemented (the full contract is on the city council’s agenda next week), would cost the city about $3.39 million this year for retroactive and current wage increases. This extra cost would come out of SPD’s salary savings for 2022—$4.5 million the city saved because SPD was unable to hire all the officers the council funded in SPD’s budget last year. (The council could also decide to fund the contract costs from some other source, but that would require new legislation; paying for salaries out of the salary savings does not require legislation.)

Back in May, the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to a “compromise” proposal that released $1.15 million in unspent salary savings to boost recruitment at SPD, after Councilmember Sara Nelson spent several weeks arguing that the city should just hand the entire $4.5 million to SPD for hiring bonuses. Conveniently enough, that $1.15 million, plus the money it will cost the city to fund SPMA’s contract in 2022, adds up to right around $4.5 million—money that would not have been available if Nelson had gotten her way and released the full $4.5 million.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said “it was purely coincidental that those two figures lined up.”

We’ll have a more detailed report on the SPMA contract later this week.

4. Last week, the King County Council agreed to delay a vote on a proposal by Councilmember Claudia Balducci to give voters the chance to decide whether to move county elections, including the races for county executive, county council, and county elections director, to even years. Balducci, echoing many progressive groups, has argued that even-year elections would boost turnout over the current system, in which many local races (including Seattle elections) are conducted in “off” years, meaning those without statewide or national elections. Continue reading “Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?”

Metro Wants to Get Rid of Cash Fares. But Will Vulnerable Riders Be Left Behind?

Chart showing Metro fare revenue by fare typeBy Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, King County Metro plans to rip out its existing fare boxes, which accept cash, tickets, and ORCA transit passes, and replace them with a cash-free payment system—part of a long-term plan to expedite boarding, integrate the county’s bus system with Sound Transit, and reduce conflicts between riders and drivers. “Every second you save at the curb is money you can reinvest at keeping service operating,” said Carol Cooper, Metro’s Market Innovations Section manager.

But going cashless could end up reducing access for some Metro riders, including low-income and homeless customers, infrequent riders, people with disabilities, and those who don’t speak English—to name just a few groups for whom buying and using ORCA cards can be a challenge. “There’s a great deal to be gained by ensuring that more people get ORCA Lift [low-income passes] and other subsidized ways to ride, but I don’t think those can wholly replace cash in the system,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said.

In a recent report on the future of Metro’s fare system, the agency outlined its plans for smoothing the transition to eliminating cash fares, which—according to Metro—will make boarding faster, ease conflicts between riders and drivers, and eliminate the need to periodically repair Metro’s 1,509 on-board fareboxes, which are a decades-old model that is no longer being produced. Replacing fareboxes with new ones that accommodate cash payments would cost around $29 million, Metro estimates—a substantial cost for a system that is still recovering from the pandemic. Cash riders also have to pay a second fare to transfer to Sound Transit trains and buses, a problem that will only become more acute as Metro terminates more routes at light rail stations.

The move toward a cashless on-board system is happening as Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional transit agencies switch to a new generation of ORCA cards that will cost less to purchase ($3 instead of the current $5 fee), include the option of tapping a smartphone app instead of a physical card, and allow people to ride with a negative balance of up to $2.75, the equivalent of a single bus fare.

“Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service. We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]”—Carol Cooper, King County Metro

Although social service providers and advocates have argued for doing away with card fees entirely, at least for low-income riders, that’s unlikely; the fees will pay to set up the new system and distribute cards, including a $1.25-per-card fee to a contractor called Ready Credit Corporation, whose core business is prepaid debit cards.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, the amount of money Metro received from cash payments had declined steadily for several years, falling 40 percent between 2013 and 2019, when cash fares amounted to around $19 million. During the same period, the number of riders who said they used cash “on a regular basis” declined from 32 percent to 11 percent, according to the report. Over the last two years, however, the percentage of regular cash riders increased to 17 percent, largely because white-collar workers with employer-funded ORCA cards were no longer riding buses.

Metro’s report does not say how many people occasionally, as opposed to regularly, use cash. But even 11 percent of riders amounts to millions of bus rides a year—rides that will no longer be possible without an ORCA pass if and when Metro makes the switch.

During a stakeholder engagement process, representatives from groups representing “priority populations”—riders with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) riders, low-income and homeless riders, and those whose primary language is not English—pointed to barriers that currently prevent many of their constituents from using ORCA cards.

According to the report, “Nearly half of riders who pay cash report that the reason they do not use ORCA is that they don’t ride enough to make it worthwhile.” However, “priority population” riders were also more likely than the general population say they use cash because it’s “easier, they do not have a credit or debit card, or can’t afford the card fee,” which even ORCA Lift pass holders have to pay every time they replace a card.  Many low-income riders, the report notes, don’t qualify for ORCA Lift passes, which are limited to people making less than 200 percent or less of the federal level, or around $27,000. Even among those who were eligible for ORCA Lift, about half still paid their fares with cash.

Metro’s Cooper says that as part of its transition away from cash, the agency is taking steps to make it easier for people to access ORCA passes, including low-income fares and reduced fares for people with disabilities. “Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service,” Cooper said. “We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]” Continue reading “Metro Wants to Get Rid of Cash Fares. But Will Vulnerable Riders Be Left Behind?”

Washington Can’t Wait for Action on Equitable Housing and Climate Change

Tents on 4th Avenue, downtown Seattle

By Deborah Beckwin

Last January, I moved to Seattle from Florida and was disheartened by the lack of affordable housing—not only for me, but for unhoused folks.

A couple of weeks after my arrival, I was welcomed with about a foot of snow—an example of the kind of extreme weather that’s becoming more common in our region due to climate change. Although this was a temporary inconvenience and a little bit of fun for most of us, our unhoused neighbors were dealing with colder temps and a lot of snow, wet, and cold.

These two issues, climate change and a lack of affordable housing, collide and create unlivable conditions for everyone, but especially those experiencing homelessness.

As I started to venture out into Seattle, I started to see the tents and the RVs, as well as the places where unhoused folks called home, like downtown, SoDo, Ballard, and Belltown. As someone who has worked as a social worker with people who have a history of homelessness and severe mental health issues, I found it a very bewildering experience. Seattle is so wealthy and progressive. How is this happening? Why is it continuing to happen?

And then, a few months later, there was record heat in late June and wildfires. Choking smoke kept me indoors and had me purchasing an air filtration system. I was lucky to even have air conditioning.

But other people were not so lucky. Other people died—at least 13 people due to heat exposure. Our unhoused neighbors took the brunt of those unseasonably hot and smoky days.

And then, there was the recent deep freeze which brought Christmas snow and ice that didn’t melt for a week. Then the snow melted and there was yet another atmospheric river, bringing down inches of rain, causing flooding.

House Bill 1099, which came close to passing last year, would require local governments to address the impacts of climate change in their comprehensive plans by reducing vehicle miles traveled and cutting greenhouse gas emissions—offering local governments an array of options to help stem the tide of climate change.

You can look at all this and feel helpless and demoralized. It can be scary and overwhelming. But there is so much we can do to tackle our current climate emergency and to make sure that everyone is in safe and affordable housing.

One immediate thing we can do, right now, is support two pending bills in the Washington state legislature. We have a unique opportunity to shape the next 10 years and beyond and create a more equitable city and state by updating Washington’s Growth Management Act, which limits sprawl beyond city boundaries.

So let’s start with what’s already been accomplished.

Legislators passed HB 1220 in 2021, forging a way for creating more equitable housing by dismantling the racist and income-based discriminatory state housing policies that have caused people to become displaced, including our unhoused neighbors. The new law prohibits cities from banning shelter and housing for people experiencing homelessness and encourages the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as backyard cottages, in cities. It also requires cities with comprehensive plans, such as Seattle, to plan for more affordable housing for people at all income levels, establish anti-displacement policies, and address discriminatory and exclusionary housing rules and regulations. Continue reading “Washington Can’t Wait for Action on Equitable Housing and Climate Change”

Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget

1. Starting January 1, King County will a new interim sheriff: Patti Cole-Tindall, previously an undersheriff in the King County Sheriff’s Office, will assume the role until County Executive Dow Constantine appoints a permanent sheriff in mid-2022.

Last year, county voters approved a charter amendment that sets up a process for appointing, rather than electing, the King County sheriff. Tindall will be King County’s first appointed sheriff in more than two decades.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Tindall served as both the director of the county’s labor relations unit and interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office.

At a press conference Tuesday, Tindall said that she doesn’t plan to apply for the permanent sheriff or for permanent chief of the Seattle Police Department, the two most prominent law enforcement job openings in the county. “I see my value in this appointed process as being there to help the permanent sheriff be successful,” she said. The county council, with input from a panel of sheriff’s staff, community members and local government representatives, is still reviewing candidates to become the permanent sheriff.

Constantine also debuted his proposal to provide hiring and retention incentives for sworn sheriff’s officers, which county council budget chair Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduces as an emergency amendment to the county’s 2022 budget today. The proposal would provide $15,000 to officers who transfer from other departments, $7,500 to new hires, and a one-time $4,000 bonus to every officer in the department. Constantine argued that while the sheriff’s office, which has 60 vacant officer positions, isn’t currently struggling to meet demand, the incentives might help attract and retain officers as a growing number of officers reach retirement age.

King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez told reporters he supports the hiring and retention incentives. His counterpart at the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, Mike Solan, voiced his skepticism about a similar hiring incentive program introduced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in October.

2. On Monday, the Seattle City Council approved a $7.1 billion 2022 city budget that provides new funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, preserves the JumpStart payroll tax spending plan while restoring the city’s depleted reserves, and keeps Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Seattle Police Department largely intact, shaving about $10 million off the mayor’s initial $365.4 million proposal.

As budget chair Teresa Mosqueda emphasized twice on Monday, the budget the council adopted doesn’t require SPD to lay off any officers, nor does it eliminate any officers’ salaries. Instead, the council saved $2.7 million by assuming SPD will lose more officers next year than Durkan’s budget projected—125, instead of 91—and moving their unspent salaries out of SPD’s budget. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget”

Judge Strikes Homelessness Charter Amendment from Ballot; King County Equity Now Gets New City Contract

1. Late Friday afternoon, King County Superior Court Judge Christine Shaffer struck Charter Amendment 29, the “Compassion Seattle” homelessness initiative, from the November ballot, agreeing with opponents of the measure that it went beyond the scope of the initiative process. Specifically, Shaffer said, the amendment attempted to overrule the city of Seattle’s authority to determine its own homelessness and land-use policies—authority granted to local jurisdictions by the state legislature that cannot, she said, be overturned by an initiative at the local level.

The amendment, if adopted, would require the city council to spend a minimum of 12 percent of its general fund revenues on homelessness, dictating further that in the first year, that money would have to pay for 2,000 new units of “emergency housing” (shelter). It would also change local land use and zoning laws by requiring the city to waive code requirements, regulations, and fees to “urgently site” the projects it would mandate.

The groups that sued to remove the proposal from the ballot, including the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU of Washington, argued that the voters of Seattle lack the authority to overturn these sort of legislative decisions, and that the amendment would effectively undo the agreement the city and county made to create the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Judge Shaffer agreed.

“There’s a direct effort in Charter Amendment 29 to control the city’s budgetary authority and that is not disputed in this record, any more than the efforts to control zoning and land use is disputed,” Shaffer said. “These are measures specifically required by Charter Amendment 29, and they both are outside the scope of a proper initiative in a way that is not even close. There are so many prior Supreme Court cases on both those topics.”

In arguing for the amendment, Compassion Seattle’s attorney Tom Ahearne said the court should let the proposal move forward and give opponents a chance to challenge it if and when it’s adopted. “When thousands of voters have signed a petition, opponents should not be able to hold the people’s measure hostage, merely because it opposes the policy or raises questions about the measure’s validity,” he said. “Instead of rushing to suppress the vote, this court should allow citizens to consider this charter amendment in November, and if citizens adopt it, allow the plaintiffs’ claims to be fully litigated and resolved through the trial court and appellate process.”

Judge Shaffer said she personally liked the solutions proposed in the amendment, and might vote for it if it was on the ballot. “But as judge,” she continued, “it cannot stand, and I am required to strike it from the ballot.”

“Judge Shaffer’s ruling affirms well-established limits to the local initiative process and recognizes the importance of the proper functioning of our democratic systems,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said in a statement. “We are pleased that CA 29 will not stand as an impediment to solutions that meaningfully address our housing crisis and do not punish people for trying to meet their basic life-sustaining needs like shelter, sleep, and food.”

In a statement issued after the ruling, the Compassion Seattle campaign said that while they were “gratified that Judge Shaffer said that she would have voted for Charter Amendment 29 if given that option, we strongly disagree with her ruling today denying Seattle voters the opportunity to have their voices heard on the number one issue facing our city.” Because an appeal could not play out before the November election, the campaign continued, “We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney. In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

2. Last month, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) announced that 33 community organizations would share the $10.4 million set aside to invest in “community safety capacity building,” one of many simultaneous efforts to support non-law enforcement approaches to public safety sparked by last summer’s protests.

One of the groups that will receive funds is King County Equity Now (KCEN), the coalition-turned-nonprofit that led the push for a city-wide participatory budgeting program—and, when the council supported their plan, took the reins of the Black Brilliance Research Project, intended to lay the foundations for public-safety-focused participatory budgeting in Seattle. KCEN’s brief tenure as a city sub-contractor ended ignominiously when the project’s head researchers left the organization because of alleged financial mismanagement, as well as alleged mistreatment of queer researchers and researchers born outside Seattle. The group lost their city subcontract, and the research project finished weeks later without KCEN.

But after several months out of the spotlight, KCEN is making its quiet return to the world of city contracting. With the new grant, KCEN says it will partner with “incredible local Black-led housing service providers, like First Place Schools [a charter school provider] and Monica’s Place,” a housing development in the Central District, to conduct another research project. KCEN initially asked for $789,391; however, HSD capped grants at $585,410 because of the volume of applications. The group will have a new fiscal sponsor—Parents for Student Success, a nonprofit cofounded by King County Equity Now board chair Dawn Mason.

This second project will include “an inventory of Black community resources, hubs, places to tap in, needs, current and potential Black partnerships, current policies successes, failures, and gaps to address anti-gentrification and spatial community toward building holistic support,” according to KCEN’s response to the city’s request for proposals. The core question that would guide KCEN’s proposed research—”what does community safety and wellness look like for you in place?”—is nearly identical to the central question of the Black Brilliance Research Project. The results of the research, they wrote in their proposal, would help them and their partners create “scalable, replicable anti-gentrification models.”

The organization asked for funds to pay existing staff, to hire more people to work on the new research project, and to pay for consultants, office space, and supplies.

Since the organization’s unwilling exit from the Black Brilliance Research Project, KCEN has focused on anti-gentrification projects; the group is an offshoot of the Africatown Community Land Trust, which focuses largely on land acquisition in the Central District.

During the Black Brilliance Research Project, measuring the success of multiple wide-ranging research teams became a key challenge for KCEN. In their latest grant application, KCEN says they will track their project’s success by assessing the number and “effectiveness” of their community meetings and workshops, the “thoroughness” of their partnerships and the “quality and reach of community-led research,” among other metrics.

Fizz: SPD Asks to Spend $15 Million in Salary Savings; Council Okays Durkan’s Equitable Communities Contracts

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee heard a presentation on Tuesday morning outlining SPD’s proposals for spending more than $15 million in unspent salaries—a byproduct of skyrocketing attrition within the department, including 100 departures in the first six months of 2021 alone.

There are currently two pots of unspent money in SPD’s budget. Last November, the council passed a series of provisos preventing the department from spending roughly $9 million until SPD complied with some of the council’s reform goals; one of those provisos specifically captured $5 million of any salary savings SPD incurred as officers left the department in droves. But the department’s staffing woes have escalated, leaving the department with far more unspent salary dollars than anticipated—more than $10 million of which isn’t captured by the council’s provisos.

According to SPD budget director Angela Socci, the department needs to keep those savings to handle internal crises that arose over the past year—a proposal that counts on the council lifting provisos, and one that wouldn’t allow the council to redirect most the savings to newer, non-police public safety programs. In fact, SPD has already started using some of the $15 million to cover separation costs for departing officers, as well as to pay officers overtime to fill in gaps in patrol shifts. The department also began spending money on consultants, including a contract with the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform that determined the city could eventually shift half of SPD’s current emergency call load to other responders.

The department’s decision to spend salary savings without the go-ahead of the council raised some eyebrows Tuesday. “Is it an accepted budget practice to move forward on spending in areas that the council hasn’t authorized yet,” asked councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the committee.

According to council central staffer Greg Doss, who led the presentation, SPD is allowed to shift dollars in its personnel budget around as needed—from salaries to separation pay, for instance.

But SPD presented a much broader array of spending proposals that will need support from the council and mayor’s office, including a vote from the council to lift provisos on the department’s budget. The requests include $1.5 million to hire new civilian staffers, including community service officers and public disclosure staff, as well as $520,000 for “hiring and retention incentives”; in total, the department’s proposed spending would use $13.7 million of the salary savings. A much smaller portion—only $1.5 million—would shift out of SPD’s budget to fund programs like the “Triage One” civilian response teams proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan last month.

Council President Lorena González pressured SPD strategy director Chris Fisher to outline a plan for stemming the tide of officers leaving the department. “I think these numbers tell the story,” she said, “that SPD management have significant room for improvement for retaining the new officers and existing officers.”

Fisher responded that the solution to SPD’s attrition problems may lay outside of the department itself. “Many officers say that money helps, but if it were just about the paycheck, they could do something else that would make just as much with a lot less time away from family,” he told the committee. “They want to know that people are invested in the department, and that they are appreciated.”

But councilmember Teresa Mosqueda offered a more optimistic view of the situation, saying the council  “could create a chart that pairs a downward trend [in police staffing] with an upward trend in spending on community safety”—a goal, she said, that the council shouldn’t lose track of.

2. On Wednesday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed legislation releasing $30 million from the city’s general fund to spend on racial justice-related programs recommended by the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force—a group assembled by her office last October that included representatives from an array of prominent local BIPOC community organizations.

“There was talk that certain groups were being pitted against each other,” said councilmember Deborah Juarez, who also served as a member of the task force. “Guess what? That didn’t happen.”

The city council voted unanimously on Monday to lift a proviso on the $30 million, raising no objections to the plan laid out by the task force earlier this summer. The proposed investments include nearly $9 million to be spent on affordable housing and land ownership program for Seattle’s BIPOC residents, as well as $7.5 million to provide capital and technical support to BIPOC-owned small businesses.

In earlier discussions of the plan, some councilmembers raised questions about the potential for overhead costs to consume an outsized proportion of the $30 million. Chris Lampkin, a task force member and political director with SEIU 1199NW, told the council’s finance meeting on July 20 that “most of the funding recommendations are intended to channel money directly to community through existing programs, as opposed to spending money to stand up new programs.”

The task force, which began as follow-up to Durkan’s ambitious promise last summer to invest $100 million in BIPOC communities, faced early public opposition from some activists, who argued that the group would butt heads with the council’s own participatory budgeting plan. The Seattle City Council also cut the project’s budget from $100 million to $30 million, directing the rest to the participatory budgeting process and other priorities that predated Durkan’s proposal.

But the council’s brief discussion on Monday suggested that most of the anticipated tensions surrounding the task force dissipated over the past half-year. “There was talk that certain groups were being pitted against each other,” said councilmember Deborah Juarez, who also served as a member of the task force. “Guess what? That didn’t happen.”

Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree

By Paul Kiefer

For the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago, representatives from the US Department of Justice, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and other police oversight figures gathered for a status update on Seattle’s consent decree—a nearly decade-old agreement empowering the DOJ to oversee police reform in Seattle.

Though the city has spent years re-working Seattle Police Department policies and training to satisfy several of the court’s key expectations including reductions in the use of deadly force by police officers, Seattle’s progress slipped in the past three years—in part because of a widely-criticized 2018 Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that undercut landmark improvements to the city’s police oversight system. That reversal on reforms, along with the SPD’s heavy-handed response to last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, raises the prospect that Seattle will remain under the consent decree for much longer than expected.

Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its conception in 2012, is grappling with two key questions as he tries to determine the path forward: First, whether the city and police department has successfully re-implemented police oversight reforms that the (SPOG) contract wiped out; and second, whether SPD’s response to massive citywide protests in 2020 will set back the city’s progress towards ending the consent decree.

Tuesday’s hearing at the US District Courthouse in downtown Seattle did not provide Robart with clear answers on either front. While making a case that the city has made progress towards meeting the court’s demands, City Attorney Pete Holmes pointed to some notable accountability victories in the past three years. Unfortunately, he offered no promises that the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations won’t upend the city’s commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed consent decree monitor who acts as Robart’s eyes and ears on police oversight, told the judge that his team is still reviewing last summer’s SPD response to protests; they won’t decide whether SPD’s actions during the Black Lives Matter protests put the city out of alignment with the consent decree until the end of 2021, he said.

The hearing came at a critical point for the future of the consent decree. In its tenth year, a growing number of community activists argue that the consent decree has become an obstacle to efforts to downsize SPD and invest in alternatives to traditional policing. But an array of unknown variables—including the next contract with SPOG, which the city will likely begin negotiating in the next six months—raise the possibility that the consent decree could end up shaping Seattle’s police reform efforts for years to come. “This was supposed to be a five-year gig,” Judge Robart quipped; instead, come January, Seattle will inaugurate its fifth mayor since the consent decree began.

“My role is to tell you when you don’t get things right,” he said, “not how to do things.” —Federal District Court Judge James Robart

During Tuesday’s hearing, Robart took time to criticize the Community Police Commission (CPC), a civilian group that acts as a quasi-think tank on police accountability, for filing a request on July 27 to direct Oftelie’s monitoring team to take a more active role in SPD accountability, including in negotiations with police unions. Edgar Sargent, an attorney representing the CPC, told Robart that union negotiations are really just “a black box,” and suggested the monitoring team should be privy to union contract negotiations and provide progress updates directly to the court.

Continue reading “Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree”

It’s Time for a Biden-Era Mandatory Housing Affordability Plan

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

It’s true, the numbers are impressive. MHA dollars accounted for 45 percent of the city’s affordable housing spending in 2020, or $52.3 million. (MHA actually brought in $68.3 million total last year, and the city will carry over the additional $16 million in MHA money for 2021 affordable housing projects.)

And while the longtime Seattle Housing Levy’s $56.7 million accounted for more of 2020’s affordable housing spending, 48 percent, MHA actually created 110 more rent-restricted units than the venerated levy—698 funded by MHA versus 588 funded by the levy.

In short, this brand-new inclusionary housing mechanism, which came online in 2019 after five years of old-school neighborhood lawsuits and challenges, more than matched the levy, a 40-year-old property tax program that cost homeowners a median of $122 a year in 2016.

MHA is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family areas while requiring developers to either pay a fee, which goes into an affordable housing fund, or build a percentage of affordable units on site. MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city. And it costs you nothing. Oh, and the $52.3 million for 698 units doesn’t even include the 104 on-site affordable housing units that MHA created; the city does not track on-site units as affordable housing dollars.

So, with such glowing stats, why “fail?”

I mean it the same way Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package was a failure and Democrats are now applauding Biden for going big on his $4.1 trillion infrastructure plan. In other words, if we’re getting a nearly-$70 million-a-year bang for our buck on affordable housing dollars from the polite MHA upzones the council passed in 2019, it’s time to do a Biden and go bigger.

If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing.

MHA only upzoned 6 percent of the city’s single-family zones, which make up around 65 percent of the city’s developable land. Under MHA, the city also did some earlier upzones between 2017 and 2019 in parts of six  neighborhoods where some density was already allowed, such as downtown, the University District, South Lake Union, and 23rd Avenue in the Central District

Back when the council passed the final pieces of MHA two years ago, the city’s two at-large council members, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were already playing Elizabeth Warren to the mayor’s Larry Summers. Caving to pressure from the slow-growth Seattle Times, former mayor Ed Murray scrapped his initial MHA upzone proposal, which would have raised the ceiling on height regulations in single family zones at large.

“For some, this housing affordability legislation goes too far,” González said from the council dais when the council passed MHA in March 2019, “for others it does not go far enough.” It was clear which side González was on. “So, let’s chat a little bit about that dynamic,” she said. “Contrary to the name of the Select Committee on Citywide MHA, this legislation is not even close to citywide. This legislation impacts a total of only 6 percent of existing areas currently and strictly zoned as single family home zones. That means even with the passage of MHA legislation, approximately 60 percent of the city of Seattle is still under the cloud of exclusionary zoning laws.” She went on to give a history lesson of racist housing covenants in Seattle.

Councilmember Mosqueda sounded the same note. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes,” she said. “I think that’s the next conversation to have. Larger changes that create a more inclusive Seattle. Again, this is just an effort to look at 6 percent of the single family zoning in our city.”

González is running for mayor this year, and Mosqueda is backing her. Here’s hoping González is actually committed to doing something about “the cloud of exclusionary zoning.” Not only because it will help create a more inclusive city, but according to the numbers, it would be good affordable housing policy.

Think about it. If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing. While we created 1,300 units last year, we should be building a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, or about 12,000 a year.

Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

Upzoning the rest of the city—the part that remains exclusively single-family—would certainly help. Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

This is noteworthy. Here’s why. There are three main streams of MHA money: first, payments from developments in selected multifamily hubs that became subject to MHA in 2017, including parts of 23rd Ave. in the Central District, the University District, and Uptown; next, payments from developments in all multifamily zones, from the new MHA legislation that took effect in 2019; and also payments from developments in the upzoned sliver of former single-family zones.

Over the four years between 2016 and 2020, the hub upzones, which went into effect earlier, have generated about 60 percent of the money from MHA, most of that in 2020. But since 2019, when MHA dollars started flowing in from the multifamily areas and the former single-family areas, nearly a third of the additional money from those new revenue sources—$10 million of $36 million remaining total—has been from development in the sliver that used to be single-family.

That outsized stat indicates just how attractive these formerly verboten zones, which sit on the edges of existing urban centers and urban villages, are for new housing. If we actually upzoned all of the city’s exclusive single-family areas, instead of just six percent, we’d have a better chance at generating the money to build the affordable housing stock this city needs.

While the upzoned former single-family zones did generate $10 million for affordable housing, there is another MHA fail. None of the on-site MHA housing was built in those areas. That needs to change. Opening up the entire city to multifamily housing, as opposed to the begrudging 6 percent allotted in MHA, would create more options for on-site multifamily development in these zones themselves. Hopefully, the next conversation about upzones will address how to actually put multifamily housing in amenity-rich SFZs.

The name of this column is Maybe Metropolis. My verdict on MHA?  Emphasis remains on “maybe” until we do mandatory housing affordability right and make it actually citywide.

Josh@PubliCola.com