Category: homelessness

Homeless Authority Struggles to Find Severe Weather Shelter Providers After Key Contractor Bows Out

Image via Compass Housing

By Erica C. Barnett

As temperatures plunged during the first severe weather event of 2023,  the King County Regional Homelessness Authority had just one emergency severe weather shelter available for adults without children in Seattle—an overnight shelter in the lobby of City Hall with a capacity of up to 45 people. This represents a loss of more than half the city’s emergency winter shelter capacity from last year.

The Compass Housing Alliance, which provided 60 beds during previous weather emergencies, did not seek to renew its contract with KCRHA for 2023. According to Compass director Mary Steele, the frequent shelter activations did a number on Compass’ staff and its building in Pioneer Square, where it runs a year-round men’s shelter and a day center.

“During 2022, Compass was activated for overnight or 24 hour shelter more than 50 times in the 4th quarter,” Steele said. “We could not sustain that level of wear and tear on the staff and building.”

In December, the authority put out a request for proposals (RFP) for emergency winter shelter providers that could provide a safe place for both families with children and single adults. According to a KCRHA spokeswoman, only one qualified agency applied: The Salvation Army, which has historically run emergency shelters during severe weather and wildfire smoke events at City Hall and Seattle Center.

The award document for the Salvation Army contract, worth a little over than $200,000, notes that the KCRHA used an alternative procurement process for the emergency shelter contract due to “the low number of applications received for this REP, and the proposer’s inability to serve both single adults and families with children.”

A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, Marta Coursey, told PubliCola the KCRHA also authorized the nonprofit “to provide shelter to families with children via a hotel voucher system.”

The KCRHA’s draft Five-Year Plan, which the agency is required to produce by the interlocal agreement that established it, includes “improve severe weather response system performance” among its high-level priorities. Currently, there are still very few emergency severe weather shelters open to all people, including adults without children, in any part of the county. The KCRHA took over responsibility for Seattle’s short-term emergency shelters from the city last year.

The authority has struggled to find providers willing to provide severe-weather shelter on an as-needed basis, even before its contract with Compass expired. As PubliCola reported in December—a time when the Compass Center shelter was still available—the KCRHA used a home care provider with no homeless shelter experience to staff the shelter at City Hall. According the KCRHA agency spokesperson, 17 adults stayed at City Hall on January 28, and 33 slept there on January 29. The KCRHA currently plans to keep the shelter open through February 2, according to its website.

Two Candidates With Roots In Central Seattle Council District Will Seek Sawant’s Longtime Seat

Alex Hudson
Alex Hudson

By Erica C. Barnett

Two longtime residents of City Council District 3, Alex Hudson and Joy Hollingsworth, have announced they’re running for the council seat occupied for the last 10 years by Kshama Sawant, who announced earlier this month that she won’t seek reelection.

In conversations with PubliCola on Wednesday, both Hudson and Hollingsworth said they planned their campaigns assuming they would be taking on Sawant directly. Now that the firebrand socialist is no longer a factor, both said they feel a sense of relief that they’ll be able to talk more about their own priorities, rather than defending themselves against an incumbent whose fiery denunciations of “corporate Democrats” (including all eight of her council colleagues) have a tendency to suck all the air out of the room.

Although there are months to go before the filing deadline, Hudson and Hollingsworth are both well-positioned to be frontrunners in the race for District 3. Hollingsworth, whose family owns and operates a cannabis farm in Mason County, was born and raised in the Central District; her grandmother, Dorothy Hollingsworth, was a civil rights trailblazer and the first Black woman to serve on a school board in Washington state.

Hudson, the director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, is a longtime renter on First Hill who led the pro-density First Hill Improvement Association before working to pass big major transportation policy and funding packages, including last year’s Move Ahead Washington statewide funding bill.

If elected, Hudson would bring a long history of transportation advocacy and expertise to the council at a time when the city is failing to make progress toward Vision Zero, a plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries in the next seven years. To get there, Hudson said the city needs to stop debating how to implement its Vision Zero goals and start implementing strategies it already knows are effective.

“There should not be as many fatalities, near misses, or injuries on our roadways as there are right now in the city, and that should be the primary focus of the Seattle Transportation Plan that they’re putting together now,” Hudson said. For example, she said, the city could easily install bike lanes, curb bulbs, spaces between parking and bike lanes, crosswalks, and lighting—design changes that slow down drivers and provide redundant protections for others on the road—without going through the usual years-long public process.

“Ludi’s”—a now-shuttered downtown diner, formerly known as the Turf, that mostly served low-income patrons—”was a place where you could go and get a hot meal and some protein and kick it in community. And I don’t know another place right now, anywhere in downtown, where you could do that.”

In our conversation, Hudson emphasized her experience building coalitions while also pushing boundaries. As head of First Hill’s neighborhood association, Hudson defied stereotypes about neighborhood activism, pushing for dense affordable housing at a Sound Transit-owned property and organizing to bring two new homeless shelters to the neighborhood. While it’s common to see organized neighborhood opposition to shelters or services, Hudson said that “with deep organizing, [by the time] we had the community meeting about it in the basement of First Presbyterian, site of one of the two shelters, every single person who was there spoke up and was like, ‘We want it. How can we help you?”

Hudson said she’s still learning about the city’s current response to homelessness, which consists largely of disruptive, traumatizing encampment sweeps. (The city-funded King County Regional Homelessness Authority, whose policies the city can influence through its annual budget, now controls all homeless service contracts). In general, she said, “there’s no point in just pushing people around, if what that is going to do is just further traumatize someone, disinvest them from what little belongings and stability and community that they have, and create a further cycle of distrust in the system.”

At the same time, she added, “unauthorized encampments in our parks isn’t a solution that works for everybody, including the people who want to use those parks.” For example, she supported the removal of a large encampment in and around Miller Park, which is next to Meany Middle School. One solution, she said, might be allowing more authorized encampments where people can connect with services and get on a path to housing. “Homelessness is a housing problem, and we need more housing,” she said. “But that doesn’t solve the problem for people sleeping in a tent tonight.”

Although downtown Seattle isn’t in District 3, policies to address homelessness downtown could impact every other district, because the KCRHA and the city have made a policy decision to focus most of their housing resources on downtown, through a public-private partnership called Partnership for Zero—”zero” referring to the number of people sleeping outdoors in the area for more than a brief period.

Hudson said the emphasis on downtown makes sense—”having some resources that are specifically targeted to downtown to support people, is a good and important thing”—but she said it needs to be coupled with efforts to give lower-income people, including those experiencing homelessness, places to go during the day besides social service providers.

“Ludi’s”—a now-shuttered downtown diner, formerly known as the Turf, that mostly served low-income patrons—”was a place where you could go and get a hot meal and some protein and kick it in community. And I don’t know another place right now, anywhere in downtown, where you could do that.” Commercial rent stabilization, city programs to support small businesses that cater to people who aren’t white-collar office workers, and partnerships with landlords trying to fill empty storefronts could help fill that need, Hudson said.

Hudson didn’t commit to a specific set of policies on policing, such as an ideal number of police officers or a path toward hiring more non-police responders, although she said that as a resident of First Hill, she often witnesses situations, like people in crisis, where police would only make the problem worse.

She was unequivocal, however, about another “public safety hazard”—the large concrete blocks, known as “ecology blocks” or eco-blocks, that businesses dump in public rights-of-way to prevent people living in RVs from parking in the city. Although blocking public streets and parking areas is illegal, the city has indicated it will not enforce the law, effectively allowing businesses to take over public space with impunity.

“The public right-of-way is for everyone, and so we can’t just [let businesses] drop hostile architecture all over the place, and call it good,” Hudson said. How would she propose making that happen, when the Seattle Department of Transportation has said it would be too difficult to remove the hundreds of heavy blocks that now litter the city? “Forklift comes, picks them up and moves them away. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”

“We’ve got to do better,” Hudson added. “If people can’t trust the city to move a piece of concrete, how can people trust the government to solve problems?”

Joy Hollingsworth

Joy Hollingsworth

Hollingsworth, too, told me she was frustrated with the city about its slow response to road safety issues—so much so that she installed a camera at 23rd and John and recorded every crash at the intersection, posting clips on Youtube. It took five years to get the city to add turn signals and pedestrian safety improvements, Hollingsworth said. “There has to be a sense of urgency to take care of this stuff,” Hollingsworth said. “When a kid got hit on a scooter”—a crash her camera captured—I feel like that’s when the city started to pay attention to this corner.”

In our conversation, Hollingsworth emphasized her deep roots in the Central District and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, where she went to school (at Meany Middle School and Seattle Prep) and has lived all her life except during college, when she studied and played basketball at the University of Arizona. During that time, the Central District has lost most of its Black residents, gentrifying rapidly without meaningful anti-displacement measures that could help people stay in the area.

“The density has been very extreme in District Three,” Hollingsworth said. “And I say that because I don’t think we think of the impact that that’s had on certain neighborhoods. Seattle is very, very good at protecting white neighborhoods and not Black neighborhoods.”

As neighborhoods have gotten more multifamily housing, she continued, infrastructure hasn’t kept up.

“As we think about density, we have to also think about how it’s going to impact that neighborhood. How does it impact our water, our sewer, our garbage, our electricity?” Several current council members, including Lisa Herbold (D1) and Alex Pedersen (D4) support requiring developers to pay impact fees for the perceived negative impact of new density. Hollingsworth said impact fees might be part of the solution. So, she said, could programs to help homeowners convert their single-family houses into duplexes and triplexes without “changing the façade of the home.”

Hollingsworth said new residents have also impacted the availability of parking and clogged neighborhood streets. “We’ve gotten a lot of new congestion” because of new residents who live in buildings without parking, she said. “We thought people would come here and not bring their cars and just live in apartments” car-free, she said. “That’s not the case.”

“As we think about density, we have to also think about how it’s going to impact that neighborhood. How does it impact our water, our sewer, our garbage, our electricity?… We thought people would come here and not bring their cars. That’s not the case.”—District 3 candidate Joy Hollingsworth

Hollingsworth endorsed now-Mayor Bruce Harrell in 2021, and is widely expected to receive his endorsement. Asked whether she supports the mayor’s encampment removal policies, she demurred. “It’s a health hazard to people who are there for them to be living in those conditions… and we have to do better as a city,” she said.

What about hiring more police officers, another priority of both the mayor and most members of current council? Hollingsworth said her focus would be on hiring “good officers” at a rate that can produce “great response times,” not a hard and fast number. “We need to be  investing in things that create safe neighborhoods,” like Byrd Barr Place and the Central Area Senior Center, she said, in addition to hiring officers. “It’s a holistic approach— not just ‘Joy wants more police.’ I think that’s a notion that’s been significantly put out there to scare people, and I think I’m thinking of community safety holistically, in a different, thoughtful way.”

Hollingsworth expressed frustration at being portrayed, in her view simplistically as the candidate who “wants to repair relations with police. That relationship has to be rebuilt, and there’s also some places where … we can’t deny that there has been overpolicing.”

“But we also know that they are a piece of the public safety” picture, she continued, adding that ideally, “we’d have our EMTs responding to medical, medical emergencies, we’d have health care providers or social workers responding to our unhoused neighbor… and we’d have [police] responding to potentially violent crimes.”

If elected, Hollingsworth would be the only Black councilmember since Harrell left the council in 2019, and one of the only queer Black women in the council’s history. She said her identity as a Black queer woman would add an important perspective to the council, because “a lot of the policies… we’re trying to do are based on dismantling systemic racism, and that comes from anti-Blackness.” But, she added, “I don’t want to be just the Black candidate, I want to be the best candidate. Being black is just a part of who I am, being queer is part of who I am, being a female is just part of who am. It’s my identity, but it doesn’t define me.”

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Sherry Harris was the first out queer Black woman on the council, as a commenter pointed out.

With an Eye on Preventing Homelessness, State Dems Introduce Tenant Protection Bills 

Graph showing strong correlation between rent increases and housing instability/homelessness
Homelessness is a housing crisis: As rents go up, so does housing instability.

By Andrew Engelson

Responding to Washington’s ongoing homelessness and housing affordability crisis—more than 25,000 people across the state live without permanent housing—several Democratic state legislators have introduced bills that would protect tenants and help prevent them from becoming homeless.

Last week, Reps Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), Alex Ramel, (D-40. Bellingham), and Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) each introduced rent stabilization bills intended to give tenants advance notice of rent increases, set limits on how much landlords can raise rent, cap move-in fees, and give the state attorney general authority to pursue violations under the Consumer Protection Act. 

Separately. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a $4 billion referendum that would raise the state’s constitutionally mandated debt limit to fund a host of new capital housing projects over the next six years. 

Lack of housing and high rents are the primary causes of homelessness, and the state Department of Commerce estimates Washington will need more than 1 million new homes by 2044, with more than half of those affordable to people earning 50 percent or less of the median income in their area. Though the rise in rents in Seattle actually tapered off slightly in the past year, rents in other cities across the state saw significant increases, including Bellingham (5.5 percent), Kent (8.9 percent), Renton (10.1 percent), SeaTac (9.4 percent) and Spokane (5.1 percent).

Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year, limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power undert to investigate and prosecute landlords that flout the new rules

Shannon Corrick, a Safeway employee who lives in Cheney, a college town south of Spokane, spoke at a press briefing for Macri and Ramel’s bills this week, noting that in 2021, her landlord raised the rent on her $995-a-month, 3-bedroom house by $300. 

“He wasn’t very nice about it,” Carrick told PubliCola. “He was like: Well, that’s what the market will bear.” Since more than half of her minimum-wage income went to paying rent, Carrick had to move to an apartment that was much smaller. “I could have swallowed maybe 5 percent or 8 percent, because I could always pick up more hours or work some overtime or volunteer to work the holidays,” but not an increase of more than 30 percent, she said.

Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year. The bill would exempt buildings newer than ten years old from the caps. Macri’s legislation would also limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power under the state Consumer Protection Act to investigate and prosecute predatory landlords that flout the new rules. 

“We have to respond to people who are homeless, and we have to do all that we can to keep people who are precariously housed in their homes,” Macri said.

Ramel’s bill would also limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or inflation, capped at 7 percent, but would allow landlords to “bank” rent increases—so, for instance, an apartment owner could choose to not raise the rent by 3 percent for five years, and then raise it 15 percent in the fifth year of a renter’s tenancy.

Macri says allowing periodic larger increases would “invite more uncertainty for the tenants, but a lot less uncertainty than they have right now.” She notes that her bill also allows landlords to raise rent beyond the limits, but only if they can prove hardship or the need for large capital or repair costs. 

“Legislators like the concept of consumer protection, generally,” Macri said. “They like the framing of this as prohibiting predatory behavior.”

Peterson’s more modest bill would require landlords to give six months’ notice before any rent increase of more than 5 percent and allow tenants to terminate their leases, without penalty, at any time after learning their rent will be increasing by more than 5 percent. It would also cap late fees for rent paid more than five days after the date it’s due to $75.

A similar bill failed to pass out of committee last session. 

Peterson, who chairs the House housing committee, is optimistic about moving a host of housing reform and tenant protection legislation this year. “I think the tenor has changed,” Peterson said. “I think our caucus has changed. We have a bunch of new members that are the most diverse class that’s ever come in, and they’re extremely motivated when it comes to housing.” 

As part of this sea change, the House Democratic Caucus recently removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) from a leadership position he had used to block pro-housing legislation, as PubliCola reported in December.

Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].”

Other tenant protection legislation includes a bill from Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41, Bellevue) that would require landlords to provide evidence of damage or disrepair in order to justify not returning deposits. Another bill that Peterson is co-sponsoring would give groups of tenants or nonprofits the opportunity to purchase manufactured home communities if they’re put up for sale. Peterson he crafted the legislation inspired by three manufactured home parks owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union (and an occasional writer for PubliCola), says these tenant protection bills complement policies her organization and the Stay Healthy Stay Housed Coalition have been pushing in Seattle and across King County for several years, including limits on move-in fees and advance notice for rent increases.

“Macri’s bill is particularly exciting,” Wilson said, “because it deals with very large rent increases.” She noted that because state law prevents cities and counties from limiting rent increases, to have a state-level law “would be amazing.”

Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently floated the idea of a local $10 cap on late fees. 

The Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, an organization representing large apartment landlords, declined to comment to PubliCola and the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which generally represents smaller, independent landlords, did not respond to requests for comment.

Homelessness Authority, LIHI Clashed Over Reporting of Two Deaths at Tiny House Village

Friendship Heights Village
Friendship Heights Village; image via LIHI

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority accused the Low-Income Housing Institute last year of failing to report several deaths at its “tiny house village” shelters in a timely fashion, including a homicide and an overdose that both occurred the same week in August at the Friendship Heights village in North Seattle. In response, LIHI denied that they had violated any rules, and accused the KCRHA of singling the agency out for criticism based on “falsehoods and factual errors” about its response to the two deaths.

PubliCola obtained documents and emails about the incidents at Friendship Heights and other tiny house villages through a records request.

None of the details about the two deaths at Friendship Heights, or an unrelated overdose death at the Interbay tiny house village in August, are in dispute. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, a woman living at the village stabbed her partner inside the tiny house they shared on August 28, killing him and fleeing before police arrested her a few hours later.

A Seattle Police Department spokesperson declined to comment on the incident.

Separately, on August 29, Friendship Heights staffers discovered the body of another man who had died of an overdose in his unit at some point in the recent past; it’s unclear how recently staffers had entered his unit, although Lee says staffers are supposed to check in on residents every 72 hours. The victim went undiscovered enough, in the summer heat, that the floor had to be replaced because of decomposition.

“I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if there’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee

The two agencies’ accounts diverge over what happened next. According to KCRHA Chief Program Officer Peter Lynn, LIHI failed to report the homicide in a timely fashion, providing details only after Lynn emailed Lee the afternoon of September 1, after residents of the village began contacting KCRHA directly to find out “what was going on at the [tiny house village].”

Critical incidents of this nature must be reported to the RHA within 24 hours,” Lynn wrote. “We have also received information that there are ongoing unsafe conditions at the site, and therefore the program management team will visit the site to review conditions and follow up with LIHI staff and management.”

Lee responded an hour later, saying she thought the reporting mandates had been “suspended” due to concerns from providers that they were vague and overbroad. The reporting requirements extended to lower-level incidents, such as damage to units, in addition to “significant events” like murder. “You should know that LIHI Senior Management is totally engaged on this and staff have cooperated fully with police and are working with staff and clients on these traumatic events,” Lee wrote.

“Clearly, we reported it,” Lee told PubliCola, referring to her September 1 response to Lynn. “I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if here’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.”

“Of course it was a shock to everybody that the man was killed and the suspect was his partner,” Lee added, but “it’s not like somebody broke into the village and killed somebody,” which might be cause for more general alarm.

Lynn told PubliCola that the KCRHA suspended its reporting requirements for lower-level and common incidents, like damage to a unit, in response to feedback from providers that “maybe this was too much.” But, he added, the authority still expects to hear about critical incidents as soon as possible. “We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day,” he said. “When there are traumatic impacts on community members, on staff, on program participants, those are all things that we want to make sure that we are able to support.”

In response to the August incidents, the KCRHA issued “corrective action plan” in September that, among other stipulations, required LIHI to notify the homelessness authority within 48 hours any time a unit is “damaged or unusable”—a proposal Lee, in a heated response, called “preposterous” and “not reasonable.” The corrective plan was LIHI’s second formal reprimand since May. 

LIHI says the KCRHA closed out both corrective action plans.

Failing to comply with the requirements, the plan concluded, “may result in further actions by the KCRHA, up to and including suspension of payments, disallowed costs for the violation period and suspension of contracts or cancellation of contracts.”

Four days later, Lee sent a lengthy email to staff and board members at the authority, inquiring rhetorically whether staff at the KCRHA—whose CEO, Marc Dones, has been critical of the tiny-house model in the past—were “being directed to find fault with LIHI in order to discredit the Tiny House Village program.”

“We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day.”—Peter Lynn, King County Regional Homelessness Authority

“While we have had past differences with Marc Dones over tiny houses, I was hopeful that we would be able to move forward working together. KCRHA’s most recent actions tell us otherwise,” Lee wrote.

Although the authority and LIHI appear to have reached a détente—the flurry of emails subsided in October, and Lynn said he would “not describe our relationship with LIHI as tense”—the dispute over the two deaths at Friendship Heights village is not the only point of conflict between LIHI and the KCRHA over how it runs its tiny house villages.

In the May corrective action plan, which related to conditions at LIHI’s True Hope (Central District) and Othello (Southeast Seattle) villages in May, KCRHA said they found leaking toilets, piles of bicycles, and damaged units they said LIHI had failed to report within 48 hours.

At Othello Village, one of the units was damaged by a propane tank explosion; KCRHA said that village had improperly stored propane tanks. In a response to KCRHA, Lee denied most of the agency’s charges, including the one about propane tanks, and argued that at least two of the agency’s demands were unreasonable, including a proposal that would require parents or caregivers to supervise children at all times. Two months later, the authority wrote Lee to say they considered the issues at the two villages resolved.

Earlier this week, a former resident of the Plum Street tiny house village in Olympia sued LIHI, claiming they had illegally evicted him from his unit. In a conversation with PubliCola, the plaintiff, Ryan Taal, described conditions at the village where he lived for two years, including a poorly stocked outdoor kitchen and a water heater that, according to Taal, was broken for a month, leaving residents with no hot water. “It was pretty sad—it kind of felt like a refugee camp,” Taal said.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages and a member of the KCRHA’s governing board, said he was reserving judgment about the 2022 incidents and the conflict between LIHI and KCRHA.  “Obviously, we need to make sure all of our providers are staying in close contact with the KCRHA, and they need to have unobstructed and uninhibited information from their providers … but I want to see a final report on how [LIHI] met their obligations or didn’t before I comment on it,” Lewis said.

Former Tiny House Village Resident Sues Nonprofit, Alleging Unlawful Eviction

Plum Street Tiny House Village in Olympia. Image via LIHI

By Erica C. Barnett

A former resident of the Low-Income Housing Institute’s Plum Street Tiny House Village in Olympia has sued the nonprofit shelter and housing provider in Thurston County Superior Court, claiming they unlawfully evicted him from his unit—an argument that, if it prevails, could reclassify tiny houses as a form of housing and give residents of tiny houses, and possibly other types of shelter, protection from eviction under state landlord-tenant laws. The lawsuit also names the city of Olympia as a defendant.

The former resident, Ryan Taal, was kicked out of his unit at the Olympia tiny house shelter after a verbal altercation with a staffer in March that, in LIHI’s telling, amounted to a threat. Taal, who had lived in his tiny house since October 2020, acknowledges that he told the staffer “you don’t know who you’re messing with right now” during an argument over the condition of his unit, but said he was referring to his struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks, not threatening her.

“I needed case management and help getting my prescriptions,” Taal said. “[The staffer] called the cops and lied to them and told them I was threatening her.” Shelter staff left a note on his door saying he had to be out within 48 hours or they would call the police, but Taal said he was gone by the following morning.

For the next two months, Taal lived in his car with his dog, using a nearby public restroom at night. At times, he couldn’t make it to the restroom, or found it occupied by people smoking fentanyl and meth. Taal says the food at the Plum Street Village was never great—the outdoor kitchen reminded him of “a refugee camp”—but his diet got worse when he was living in his car, and he developed gout.

“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction].”—Carrie Graf, Northwest Justice Project

Taal’s Northwest Justice Project attorney, Carrie Graf, says that even though Taal didn’t have a formal lease, kicking him out with 48 hours’ notice and a threat to call the police is “kind of the definition of a wrongful eviction” under the state’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA).

“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction],” Graf said.

The RLTA defines a tenant as anyone “entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.” Taal’s lawsuit argues that the three-page intake form he signed as a condition of living at the village constitutes a rental agreement that entitled him to his unit, and that tiny houses are a form of transitional housing under state law.

Legislators only incorporated a formal definition of transitional housing into the RLTA in 2021, so this case—if it goes forward—could be a test of that definition.

LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says that although the agency operates its own permanent and transitional housing programs, tiny houses are a form of emergency shelter, not housing—an argument she says is backed up by a court order in another recent case against LIHI, in which a King County Superior Court commissioner refused to grant a restraining order on behalf of a former resident of a Seattle tiny house village, finding that tiny house villages are “transitional encampments,” not housing. (That determination raises a whole other set of questions that, as much as I’m tempted to dive into them, are outside the scope of this article.)

“We take people who are being swept from parks and public places… and we don’t do a criminal background check, we don’t do a credit check, we don’t ask for references,” Lee said. “The moment you say ‘all shelters are going to be covered through the Landlord-Tenant Act’—which means you would have to go through this very extensive process of eviction—then I think you’re going to change the very nature of what a shelter is.” (Of course, if tiny house villages aren’t really shelter but “transitional encampments,” they would be subject to a number of restrictions that could force many of them to shut down—but, again, that’s outside the scope of this piece!).

LIHI staff pointed PubliCola to a 2008 case in which a resident at a YouthCare transitional housing program called ISIS House claimed YouthCare wrongfully evicted him for allegedly failing to follow rules and refusing to sign a behavioral contract.

In that case, US District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that ISIS House was exempt from tenant protections because Youthcare counted as an “institution” where “residence is merely incidental” to another purpose, such as providing “social services and life skills support.” Lasnik also wrote that the existence of strict rules, such as a prohibition on any sexual conduct, made YouthCare’s rental agreements different than a traditional lease.

“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process. I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people.'” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee

Similarly, Lee says, LIHI’s tiny house villages require residents to sign a code of conduct, participate in communal chores, and allow staffers inside their units at any time—all things a traditional landlord doesn’t do. Although some of LIHI’s tiny house villages are low-barrier, meaning people can use drugs or alcohol inside their units, Plum Street Village is not; the contract tenants sign bar them from using drugs or alcohol within a mile of the village property.

If tiny house villages were defined as housing, Lee said, it could lead to fewer low-barrier shelters that serve people with addiction and behavioral health needs, because shelter providers won’t want to take on the risk.

“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process,” Lee said. “I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people. We’re not going to open our doors and have everybody claim they have a right [to tenant protections] under the Landlord Tenant Act.”

Graf believes tiny house village residents do have a right to those protections, including those who—like Taal—are accused of violating their contracts. The Landlord-Tenant Act, she said, “is just establishing a pretty bare-minimum set of rights for the person living there, like: you get three days’ notice before you have to leave, and if you want to contest that you’re entitled to a court process. If someone is committing criminal acts within the tiny house village, they can always be arrested.”

Since his ejection from Plum Street Village, Taal moved into an apartment across town—his first real apartment after years of being homeless in Oregon and Washington state. He’s also gotten help with medical care and prescriptions from his case manager with Familiar Faces, a program run by the city of Olympia that provides support for people who have frequent encounters with police. “I’m still worried about what if I become homeless again, but the majority of the days are good days,” he said.

His personal turn of fortune hasn’t shaken Taal’s commitment to his case. “I’m not the only victim,” Taal said. “What they did was super wrong, and I feel like they should rewrite their policies on how they properly exit people—get them the right case managers, the right therapy, not ignore them … or kick them out. Give them some hope.”

Harrell Promised 2,000 Units of Housing or Shelter by the End of His First Year. He Didn’t Deliver.

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks at the opening of LIHI’s Dockside Apartments earlier this year, when he also unveiled his homelessness dashboard.

By Erica C. Barnett

When he ran for mayor in 2021, Bruce Harrell vowed to implement key elements of the Compassion Seattle ballot measure, an initiative that would have required the city to create  a total of 2,000 new “units (in addition to those already funded) of emergency or permanent housing with services.” If the measure had passed, Harrell, who supported it, would have been responsible for making the 2,000 new units happen.

After a state appeals court took Compassion Seattle off the table, candidate Harrell wasted no time in urging the city council to adopt key elements of the measure, saying that “the amendment-specified 2000 units of housing is critical to set in motion now.” He also rolled out a “homelessness action plan” that incorporated the 2,000-unit promise, and added that, if elected, he would “identify and begin the process of moving people into 1,000 units of housing within the first 6 months of taking office, and securing an additional 1,000 units by the end of year one.” 

Media outlets reported widely on this bold campaign promise, and the Seattle Times mentioned it as one of their reasons for endorsing Harrell. He even hired Compassion Seattle’s chief architect, former city council member Tim Burgess, as a top policy advisor.

So in his first year as mayor, did Harrell deliver? In a word, no. In a few words, not even close.

In 2022, Harrell did not deliver 2,000 new units of housing, even using the most generous interpretation of that campaign promise.  A detailed look at the 31 developments the administration says it “identified” this year shows that the vast majority were planned and funded before Harrell even took office, including many that former mayor Jenny Durkan hyped with media events and press announcements during her term. 

In fact, Durkan took credit for many of the exact same units the Harrell administration is counting toward their total. In 2021, for example, Durkan announced funding for 840 new housing units, primarily from the city’s 2016 housing levy; those units included LIHI’s Good Shepherd House, which Harrell’s dashboard counts among 1,912 units “identified” between January and September of last year, when the dashboard was last updated.) The following year, PubliCola was on hand when Durkan announced federal funding for several other LIHI projects on the list. 

But let’s say that Harrell, who likes sports metaphors, was just nudging the goalposts a bit—understandable, especially for such an ambitious promise in such a lousy budget year. (I even wrote a column calling Compassion Seattle an “unfunded mandate” that would either fail entirely or “succeed” by funding low-cost shelters instead of real solutions like permanent housing.) And indeed, over the last year, the mayor has suggested that he merely promised to identify 2,000 housing and shelter units, not create 2,000 new ones. As the dashboard puts it: “We have identified 1,912 total units of shelter so far, with only 88 units left to reach our goal of 2,000 units of shelter and housing identified by end of 2022.”

Even by this measure, however, the Harrell Administration can’t claim success.

PubliCola has documented, to the best of our ability, the year or date on which each housing or shelter development on the city’s list was announced. 

A review of these 1,912 units and shelter beds shows that fewer than 300 were newly planned or funded by the city in 2022. What’s more, around 100 shelter beds included on the list have been canceled, including 68 that were supposed to open as part of the abandoned SoDo shelter expansion. The city’s tally, which has not been updated since September, includes 40 high-acuity shelter beds and 28 tiny house-style Pallet shelters toward the total. Neither project is happening.

Candidates often make unrealistic promises to get elected; Compassion Seattle was, according to all the polls at the time, extremely popular, so it made sense for Harrell to incorporate it into his campaign. What’s harder to understand is why more of Harrell’s supporters—who professed to support housing, not just sweeping, people living in parks and city rights-of-way—aren’t asking why he failed to deliver.

The mayor and city council actually cut funding for one of the programs on the list last year. JustCare, the Public Defender Association’s pandemic-era hotel shelter program, would have to shrink from 84 beds to 50 if the PDA hadn’t secured one-time federal funding to make up for the city’s cuts.

Overall, of the 1,912 housing units and shelter beds on the city’s website, PubliCola could only identify 288 that were announced in 2022, after Harrell took office. Most of those—163—are existing apartment buildings that were purchased using emergency federal “rapid acquisition” funds, which allow housing agencies to quickly repurpose market-rate apartments for affordable housing. For example, the Low-Income Housing Institute recently purchased the Dockside Apartments on Greenlake Way North; the property served as a backdrop when Harrell announced the dashboard back in June.

The rest of the “identified” units are traditional permanent supportive housing, emergency shelter, such as tiny houses, and a 35-space RV safe lot. The city has tried and failed repeatedly to open similar parking lots for RV residents in the past; the most recent attempt was at the SoDo shelter site, and King County took it off the table under neighborhood pressure long before deciding to abandon the shelter expansion altogether.

Candidates often make unrealistic promises to get elected; Compassion Seattle was, according to all the polls at the time, extremely popular, so it made sense for Harrell to incorporate it into his campaign. What’s harder to understand is why more of Harrell’s supporters—who professed to support housing, not just sweeping, people living in parks and city rights-of-way—aren’t asking why he failed to deliver.

Harrell’s office did not immediately respond to questions sent early Tuesday afternoon; we’ll update this post if we hear back.

Homelessness Authority Scrambled to Find Shelter Provider in Winter Storm; Displacement Coalition Alums Argue Against Social Housing Initiative

1. During the freezing weather earlier this month, as the city’s two downtown shelters filled up, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority found itself scrambling to find a homeless service provider who could open up a backup emergency shelter at City Hall.

The Salvation Army, Urban League, and Low-Income Housing Institute were all busy operating full or nearly-full shelters at Seattle Center, in Pioneer Square, and in North Seattle, respectively, and couldn’t spare workers to staff City Hall. So the KCRHA landed on an unusual substitute: Tender Angels, a Bellevue-based home health care and senior living operator with no experience operating shelters or working with homeless people.

According to agency spokeswoman Lisa Edge, Tender Angels is “uniquely qualified to meet the needs of folks seeking shelter from … frigid temperatures” despite their lack of experience working with homeless clients. “Their staff is experienced in providing overnight care and maintaining public health guidance in congregate settings,” Edge said. “They are trained in trauma-informed care practices, de-escalation, and conflict mitigation/resolution.”

KCRHA staff were on hand at the City Hall shelter while it was open, Edge said. However, staff availability was limited by the fact that the agency essentially shut down between Christmas and January 3, leaving severe weather response in the hands of “roughly 20 people,” including a 24/7 duty officer, according to KCRHA CEO Marc Dones. On December 20, Dones told PubliCola that KCRHA’s offices were closing “in order to provide staff with an opportunity to recharge[. T]he leadership team and the 24/7 Duty Officer will be available for any emergencies.”

The Salvation Army, Urban League, and Low-Income Housing Institute couldn’t spare workers to staff the City Hall shelter, so the KCRHA landed on an unusual substitute: Tender Angels, a Bellevue-based home health care and senior living operator with no experience operating shelters or working with homeless people.

Historically, the Salvation Army has operated a shelter at City Hall every night during the winter months. Last year, then-mayor Jenny Durkan eliminated all the city’s nightly winter shelters, arguing that the conversion of several emergency shelters to 24/7 operations was an adequate replacement for shelters like the one at City Hall, which now opens only during weather emergencies. This resulted in chaos last year, when the KCRHA ended up sending its own staff to handle transportation away from the City Hall shelter and other logistics during a late-December snowstorm.

KCRHA has lowered the threshold for opening winter shelters so that they will open more often, but virtually all the city’s winter shelters are downtown, making them inaccessible to people living unsheltered in most parts of the city. As PubliCola noted earlier this year, opening shelters downtown does nothing to help people living in areas without easy access to bus service (typically limited or nonexistent during ice and snow) or other transportation options.

2. Several longtime advocates against market-rate development banded together to write the King County Voter’s Guide statement against Initiative 135, a February ballot measure that would establish a new public development authority to build permanently affordable public housing.

The “no” statement, written by John Fox, David Bloom, and Alice Woldt, claims that I-135 would build “mixed-income” housing and that the measure “diverts attention” from the need to pass a robust Seattle housing levy next year.

“Creating another agency to compete for scarce housing dollars that costs several million to set it up before one housing unit is produced doesn’t make sense,” the opponents wrote. “The city’s housing priority must be the 50,000 individuals below 50% of median [income] and 12,000 homeless with little or no income—not prioritized mixed income housing including housing to 120% of median.”

Fox and Bloom co-founded the Seattle Displacement Coalition in 1979; Woldt is a longtime ally of both men and Bloom’s former colleague at the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Displacement Coalition spent much of its time fighting publicly funded mixed-income projects like the Seattle Housing Authority’s New Holly redevelopment, arguing that such projects deprioritized very low-income residents while promoting the neoliberal idea that low-income people are uplifted by proximity to wealthier neighbors. However, the group’s advocacy against new development has often dovetailed with NIMBY concerns about “protecting” exclusionary single-family zoning by banning new multifamily housing almost everywhere in the city. 

I-135 does aim to create “cross-class communities” in permanently affordable public housing, including some units affordable to people making up to 120 percent of median income, currently around $110,000 for an individual or about $155,000 for a family of four. However, unlike the Seattle Housing Authority’s controversial redevelopments, the new social housing properties would not include market-rate housing.

Seattle voters will decide the fate of I-135 in a special election on February 14.

Homelessness Authority Rolls Out 2023 Budget and Five-Year Plan to Shelter and House 62,000

Slide from KCRHA presentation: More than 62,000 people in King County experienced homelessness at least once in 2022.
Source: King County Regional Homelessness Authority Five-Year Plan Presentation

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority released the agency’s 2023 budget this week along with a long-awaited five-year plan that agency director Marc Dones said will put the region on a path toward sheltering, then housing, tens of thousands of people over the next several years. But some elements of the road map remain unclear, including how the authority plans to fund its ambitious plans.

The budget KCHRA presented to its implementation and governing boards this week (and which the governing board approved unanimously on Thursday) adds up to $253 million. Much of that total, however, consists of pass-through funds, such as $28 million for the Housing and Essential Needs assistance program for people with disabilities, one-time federal COVID relief funding, and leftover money from this year’s budget.

The budget also includes more than $49 million in grants from the state to resolve encampments in state-owned highway rights-of-way, plus $1.2 million the Seattle City Council added to its KCRHA budget contribution this year to move encampment outreach from the city’s HOPE team to the homelessness authority.

The primary funding sources for the KCHRA are the city of Seattle and King County, which both declined to fund most of the KCRHA’s big budget requests this year. To add services, the authority has turned to funds that comes with strings attached—like the $49 million state contribution for highway cleanup, or a $5 million donation from downtown businesses for cleaning up encampments downtown.

“There’s really not a lot of discretion in our budget, because we’re funded by Seattle and King County. So how are we going to get to a place where we actually have a revenue stream that we can use in our way that we want to use it that implements that five year plan and that vision?”—KCRHA implementation board member John Chelminiak

This year’s legislative session could offer new revenue sources—this week, Gov. Jay Inslee said he would seek voter approval to spend $4 billion to build or preserve about 10,000 affordable housing units statewide—but the outcome of such a vote is far from certain, and it’s unclear how much of that funding would end up going toward homelessness in King County.

“There’s really not a lot of discretion in our budget, because we’re funded by Seattle and King County,” implementation board member (and former Bellevue councilmember) John Chelminiak said Wednesday. “And they’re basically telling us, as you would expect them to, how to spend the money that they’re allocating to us. So how are we going to get to a place where we actually have a revenue stream that we can use in our way that we want to use it that implements that five year plan and that vision?”

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell raised similar questions at the agency’s governing board meeting the following day. (The implementation board, made up of stakeholders and people with lived experience of homelessness from around the region, is responsible for making decisions that the governing board, which includes elected officials, is supposed to adopt.) The agency’s ambitious five-year plan, Harrell noted, is “going to come with a price tag, and … we’re going to have to have that conversation” about new sources of funding.

The KCRHA plans to release the full details of that plan between now and January, when each board will meet again. A PowerPoint presentation about the plan focused on seven broad goals (among them: “dramatically reducing unsheltered homelessness,” ending homelessness among families, youth, and young adults, and restructuring the homeless service system) but contained few details about how the KCRHA plans to achieve them.

One area of ongoing debate is how much effort the agency should focus on getting people into shelter (“temporary housing”) versus permanent housing. While the Housing Command Center, spearheaded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is focused on moving people living unsheltered downtown into permanently housing quickly, the KCRHA now estimates that temporary housing will make up about 43 percent of the region’s need over the next five years.

The KCRHA now estimates it will need to find temporary shelter for 23,000 people a year, along with 48,000 permanent housing units, and that the gap between the existing system and the current need amounts to about 19,000 temporary beds and more than 45,000 permanent homes.

At Wednesday’s implementation board meeting, Chelminiak said that unless the authority can show it’s reducing the number of people on the streets, “I don’t think anyone is going to give us any money to spend.” But Sara Rankin, a Seattle University professor and longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness, said it was more important to offer people meaningful, lasting places to go than “prioritize expediency and the fastest, cheapest ways of moving people out of sight without any long-term sense of what’s going to happen to them.”

The need for both housing and temporary shelter, according to the KCRHA, has grown dramatically. According to the five-year plan presentation‚ 62,000 people in King County were homeless at some point in 2022—a 50 percent increase from an estimated 40,000 who were homeless at some point last year. According to a KCRHA spokeswoman, the 62,000 figure is “the number that the state Department of Commerce is using for the housing modeling that they’re doing for the state and for King County.”

PubliCola has reached out to Commerce for more information and we should have an update Monday.

The KCRHA now estimates it will need to find temporary shelter for 23,000 people a year, along with 48,000 permanent housing units, and that the gap between the existing system and the current need amounts to about 19,000 temporary beds and more than 45,000 permanent homes.

For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further

Image via Phinneyflats.com
This four-story building, the Phinney Flats on busy Greenwood Avenue North, was delayed for years by design review meetings in which critics called it “Soviet-style” architecture and said renters would disrupt their peace and quiet with loud rooftop parties.

By Laura Loe

Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.

I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.

The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.

On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.

Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.

There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.

The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.

ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.

The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.

While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.

Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.

One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.

Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.

According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.

Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.

The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.

Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.

Nelson, Pedersen Vote to Reject City Budget Because It Doesn’t Fund Everything They Want

Councilmember Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson
Seattle City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen voted against the city council’s amended 2023-2024 budget proposal at a council budget committee meeting Monday, joining socialist Kshama Sawant—who votes against the budget every year—in an ideologically split three-vote minority. The budget, which goes to the full council for a final vote tomorrow, requires a six-vote majority to pass; if even one more council member sided with Nelson, Pedersen, and Sawant, the entire budget would fail.

Nelson and Pedersen, who frequently formed a two-vote mini-bloc during the council’s budget deliberations, explained their decision in similar terms: They couldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fully fund Harrell’s public safety priorities. “I cannot in good conscience endorse a final budget that, I believe, fails to learn from recent public policy mistakes on public safety and fall short on public safety for a third year in a row,” Pedersen said.

That argument would hold more water if the council had proposed actually cutting SPD’s budget. Instead, the council fully funded SPD’s (and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s) entire hiring plan, and used savings from vacant SPD positions to provide the department with an additional $17 million a year to pay for, among other things, the recruitment and retention proposals Nelson and Pedersen have supported. No other department received this kind of kid-gloves treatment; in fact, many departments face dramatic cuts next year.

The council’s budget also returns the city’s parking enforcement division to SPD, another one of Harrell’s top budget priorities.

“Minor reductions [to proposed new SPD programs] are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”—City Councilmember Lisa Herbold

In contrast to previous years, such as 2020, it’s virtually impossible to make the argument that the council didn’t work with the mayor to craft a budget that retains most of what he wanted—a point Councilmember Lisa Herbold made when she accused her two colleagues of contributing to a “false narrative” about public safety.

“It’s normal to debate budget issues,” Herbold said. “But these false narratives don’t make us safer.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the mayor’s proposed budget is included in this balancing package,” Herbold continued. “SPD hiring is fully funded, and they’ve begun to show some promising trends. Minor reductions to the remaining 1 percent of the budget”—the elimination of new programs, such as a gunfire surveillance system and a marketing consultant—”are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”

Eliminating these new programs from next year’s budget helped the council close a late-breaking general-fund budget shortfall of $4.5 million, on top of the $141 million shortfall announced earlier this year.

Nelson and Pedersen also objected to the council’s decision to eliminate, or abrogate, 80 of the 240 SPD positions that are currently sitting vacant; these vacant positions, which the city will use to augment the budget and fund new SPD spending next year, receive funding every budget cycle. The council’s budget will retain funding for at least 160 of these “ghost” positions going forward, and can add more positions in the future if SPD hiring suddenly skyrockets past the department’s own rather optimistic projections. Nonetheless, both Pedersen and Nelson have characterized this as an example of “defunding” the police. 

Nelson also criticized the council for failing to fund an expansion of the city’s graffiti abatement program and for moving homeless outreach workers out of Harrell’s new Unified Care Team (which the council fully funded) and into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

The two council members’ votes against the budget seem even less justified when you consider the concessions the rest of the council made to fund their priorities. 

Nelson, for example, got unanimous approval for a last-minute amendment that commits the city to spend some of the proceeds from a recent settlement with opioid distributors on abstinence-based rehab, marking the city’s first foray into the kind of public health decisions that are usually made by King County’s public health department.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale.

In an op/ed earlier this year, Nelson expressed her view that medication-assisted treatment, such as the use of suboxone (an opioid) to treat opiate addiction, is “not aimed at long-term recovery.” This is the opposite of scientific consensus (the federal government’s substance abuse agency, for example, has a far more expansive definition of recovery that embraces long-term medication), but in line with Nelson’s general opposition to harm reduction programs— like the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which provide case management and housing to people with addiction and other behavioral health issues.

Pedersen, meanwhile, managed to wrangle $3.5 million a year for bridge maintenance out of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District tax, which is supposed to fund transit, by arguing that because buses and bikes also use bridges, funding for bridges is a transit investment. That amendment passed 5-4—a major win for Pedersen at the expense of future transit projects.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale. Time will tell if she continues down this all-or-nothing path.

Pedersen, in contrast, has apparently had a dramatic change of heart. Just two years ago, Pedersen wrote in a Seattle Times op/ed that it would be irresponsible for him to vote against the 2020 budget—which included far more dramatic changes than this year’s plan—just because he didn’t like everything that was in it.

“People are yearning for functional government. If the budget does not pass, nothing gets done,” Pedersen wrote. “No budget is perfect. Our constituents have diverse and conflicting views. A budget with positives and negatives is a natural result.”

“And to my constituents who ask, ‘Why did you vote the same way as Kshama Sawant?,” Pedersen concluded,
“I didn’t. She voted No.” This year, so did Pedersen.