Category: homelessness

Burien Moves Forward with Plans to Force Homeless Residents from New Encampment Site

By Erica C. Barnett

During a tense marathon meeting Monday night, the Burien City Council declined to take action to directly address an encampment on a lot in downtown Burien, which sprung up immediately after the city forced homeless residents to vacate the area outside the building that houses both City Hall and the Burien branch of the King County Library System late last month. Instead, they’ll put the new site up for lease; or, if that doesn’t work, turn it into a park, which will force the people living there to move to another site in the city.

Burien does not allow people to “camp” in parks, but unsheltered people are not banned from sleeping in most other public spaces. In March, the condo association that controls the City Hall building, which includes representatives from Burien and the library system, voted to kick the encampment residents off the property; as a result, they moved to a nearby city-owned lot where at least one city official, Planning Commissioner Charles Schaefer, told them they had a right to be. The council is also debating whether to punish Schaefer for helping the encampment residents, potentially by removing him from his volunteer position.

After hours of public testimony that mostly favored finding solutions to help encampment residents—in contrast to the previous week, when most commenters argued for punitive measures like a camping ban—the council voted down proposals to provide a portable toilet on the site, reallocate human services funding toward a new shelter in the city, or move the encampment to Annex Park, half a mile north of City Hall. Instead, the council voted to direct city manager Adolfo Bailon to advertise plans to lease out the property where people are currently living or to turn it into a park, which would make it subject to Burien’s park encampment ban.

This morning, the B-Town Blog reported that Bailon decided to install a Port-a-Potty at the encampment site even though the council voted down a proposal by Councilmember Cydney Moore to provide one.

Council member Jimmy Matta, who sponsored the motion to put the site up for lease or turn it into a park, acknowledged it wouldn’t solve the problem of homelessness in Burien. Matta, voice raised, addressed the audience. “I would ask the residents of the city of Burien, as boisterous as you come here, with energy—and regardless of where you’re at [on the issue]—let’s get some pressure on the county county elected officials, that state representative state senators, congressmen!”

The council, still deeply divided on how to deal with the 30 or so people living on city property a block from their chambers, will meet again next Monday night to discuss, among other things, potential sites for a temporary encampment; both Nickelsville and at least one Burien church have expressed an interest in hosting a sanctioned encampment. A potential, short-term encampment site in the parking lot next to the Burien courthouse fell through, Bailon said, after the county made  “a very compelling argument” that an encampment would impede the county’s ability to “make sure that justice is available to everyone.”

Also on next week’s tentative agenda: Whether, and how, to censure Planning Commissioner Schaefer, whose supporters turned out in large numbers to argue that he should be praised rather than punished for helping encampment residents.

As Homeless Agencies Bicker Over Blame, Time Runs Out for Hundreds Living in Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

Up to 250 people experiencing homelessness who have been living in hotels around the region could be back on the streets in the next few days now that funding for the hotels, provided through a one-year federal grant to a group of homeless and formerly homeless advocates called the Lived Experience Coalition, has abruptly run out. The people at risk of eviction include both individuals and families, and most have no housing plan in place.

Ordinarily, the LEC is not a housing or shelter provider; its primary role is advocating for policy solutions to homelessness and ensuring that people who’ve experienced homelessness have a seat at the table when policy decisions are made.

Last year, though, the LEC received a series of federal grants, including a $1 million, one-year grant to rent hotel rooms from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program and another $330,000 to program to connect hotel residents to employment. The LEC signed an agreement with the nonprofit Building Changes to serve as its fiscal sponsor—a pass-through agency that distributes funds for new or grassroots organizations.

Over the past year, but particularly between January and March of this year, the LEC moved hundreds of people into hotel rooms funded by the federal grant. By March, cash flow was dire. As of early April, the estimated gap between the funding the LEC had on hand and what it owes various hotels totals more than $700,000, and the shortfall is ballooning at a rate of about $1.1 million a month, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has distanced itself from the hotel program, also used the LEC hotel rooms to move people off the streets of downtown Seattle as part of a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown, called Partnership for Zero.

“We’ve been notifying [the LEC] about the cash issues for a year,” Building Changes executive director Daniel Zavala said. “We shared [concerns] on several occasions throughout 2022, and really in December of this last year we were more formally flagging some of the cash flow issues.”

In emails and memos obtained by PubliCola, the LEC denied this, and said Building Changes failed to provide them with information about their cash flow when they requested it.

“For a very long time, we were operating blindly which caused us to spend $370,000 more than the grant we were awarded,” LEC director LaMont Green wrote in an email detailing LEC’s grievances with Building Changes. “We consistently asked for the financial reports but to no avail. Building Changes made us aware of this gross overspend less than 2 months before year end. … Additionally, when LEC received financial reporting it was often inaccurate.”

Zavala, from Building Changes, disputes this account. “We provided financial information on numerous occasions to the LEC over the last year,” Zavala said. “We’re here because the LEC mismanaged its finances.”


But the crisis isn’t just about a single organization falling into arrears.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which oversees the region’s response to homelessness, also used the LEC hotel rooms to move people off the streets of downtown Seattle as part of a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown, called Partnership for Zero.

The organization that runs Partnership for Zero, another nonprofit called We Are In, initially floated the idea of using $1 million of the remaining program funds to get the LEC out of arrears—and keep the hundreds of people living in the hotels from falling back into unsheltered homelessness.

As of two weeks ago, according to emails, We Are In planned to use $1 million of the $10 million it pledged for Partnership for Zero to pay for the hotels. “We will be allocating $1M of the remaining partnership for zero funds at KCRHA to the outstanding LEC hotel invoices,” We Are In director Felicia Salcedo wrote to Zavala on March 30.

Taking these funds out of Partnership for Zero, Dones responded in the same email thread, would “cause the KCRHA to pause hiring as these funds were obligated to support staffing. My team estimates that this will reduce the overall housing capacity of the project by at least 1/3 if not more.”

On Monday, We Are In spokesman Erik Houser said the organization ended up using $1 million of its own funds, separate from the Partnership for Zero, to pay the LEC’s outstanding invoices for the hotels. That money ran out on Friday, and Houser said it’s now up to “other partners,” including government funders, to address the problem.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA said Monday that “together with public and private partners, we have been working to identify possible solutions.”


Last week, a frenzy of finger-pointing almost overshadowed the imminent human crisis.

In one email exchange with LEC director Green’s requests for help coordinating shelter or housing for people living in the hotels, for example, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones wrote, “As I have stated repeatedly this is not a kcrha program and funding decisions are not being made by kcrha staff. …  I am unclear how else to be of assistance.” It was a comment Dones would echo repeatedly throughout the week, and not without justification—the KCRHA was not involved in the original FEMA grant and played no part in the LEC’s partnership with Building Changes.

But the KCRHA was aware of the program. In fact, the agency’s own system advocates—outreach workers who connect people living unsheltered downtown to shelter and housing—were using the LEC hotel rooms to shelter people living downtown. Starting late last year, KCRHA staff utilized LEC-funded hotel rooms to shelter at least 90 people living in downtown Seattle, something PubliCola first reported back in February. According to an email Green sent to a group of agency and nonprofit partners last week, Green told Dones about the program in April 2022.

Green did not respond to a request for comment (in general, the LEC makes decisions and statements collectively) and the KCRHA declined to speak with PubliCola about the timeline. However, a KCRHA spokeswoman did confirm that of about 30 of the people KCRHA staffers moved into hotels through the LEC program were still in the hotels last week. The spokeswoman said all 30 were either moving into permanent housing or had housing plans in place.

Last week, with accusations flying between the LEC, Building Changes, and the KCRHA, Building Changes announced it was pulling its fiscal sponsorship from the LEC, which will be unable to receive or distribute funds until it obtains its own nonprofit status. The LEC sent a letter to Building Changes saying it would create “cruel and unusual duress” for Building Changes to drop its sponsorship without an exit strategy, but the decision appears final. “I can confirm that we have terminated our business relationship with the Lived Experience Coalition,” Zavala said.

Building Changes is also the fiscal sponsor for We Are In, which has pledged $10 million to the KCRHA for its Partnership for Zero work. That effort, which the KCRHA initially hoped to wrap up within a year, is behind schedule, in part, because landlords have been reluctant to rent to people with one-year subsidies without knowing what happens in “the 13th month,” according to an update from Dones in January.

As the program enters its second year, KCRHA is under pressure to show it’s making progress; We Are In is distributing its $10 million pledge in tranches, including an initial $4 million last year.


It’s unclear what, if any, funding is available to cover the hotel funding shortfall, which continues to grow every day the LEC’s clients remain in their rooms, which are distributed across several hotels in South and North King County, as well as one in Tacoma.

The implementation board includes three members (out of a current 13) who were appointed by the Lived Experience Coalition, including LEC co-founder and co-chair Okesha Brandon.

King County, which (along with the city of Seattle) is one of the KCRHA’s primary funders, says it does not have the money to pay for the LEC’s hotel bills. “We were recently made aware that the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) is unable to maintain their temporary hoteling program, which had been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness,” a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday.

“To determine how this situation occurred and ensure oversight and accountability, KCRHA is calling for a formal inquiry and audit of how the LEC program was managed and what will be done to prevent a similar situation in the future.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority

“The hoteling program is independently run and managed by the LEC and is not a program within the KCRHA,” Constantine’s spokesman continued. “However, public and private partners are concerned about the impact on individuals currently sheltered in hotels and are working together to identify possible solutions.”

Spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and the city’s Human Services Department did not respond to requests for comments.

In a statement, the KCRHA said the agency was “recently made aware that the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) is unable to maintain their temporary hoteling program, which had been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness.

“The LEC is an independent organization, and their hoteling program is not funded by KCRHA. However, we recognize that the closure of any shelter program has a significant impact on our communities and on the lives of the people given refuge in these hotels.”

The homelessness authority is “calling for a formal inquiry and audit of how the LEC program was managed and what will be done to prevent a similar situation in the future,” the statement concluded. Meanwhile, at press time, it was unclear what will happen to the people still staying in the LEC-funded hotels, and whether they’ll get to stay until they can move to other shelters or housing or be sent back out onto the street.

The KCRHA’s implementation board will meet on Wednesday, when Dones and the board are expected to discuss the hotel issue in public for the first time.

After Removing Encampment, Burien Considers the Options: Provide Shelter, Ban Camping, or Both?

Image via City of Burien

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, after failing to come up with an alternative location for a longstanding encampment on the west side of the building that houses both Burien City Hall and the local branch of the King County Library, the city of Burien formally evicted the 30 or so people who had been living there for months.

But they didn’t go far. As Scott Schaefer at the B-Town blog reported, most of the people forced out of the encampment moved to a city-owned site just one block west of City Hall, infuriating some residents and prompting demands for harsh anti-camping policies as well as sanctions against Burien Planning Commission Chair Charles Schaefer, who said he directed encampment residents to the new site.

This was the setting for Monday night’s Burien City Council meeting, where council members proposed several potential approaches to addressing encampments, including a total encampment ban in certain, unspecified “zones”; strict enforcement of drug laws; reinstating Burien’s overturned trespassing ordinance; and reallocating city funds to stand up a temporary encampment by the King County Courthouse a few blocks away. Burien already bans encampments in parks, but nowhere else, which is why the encampment next to City Hall was able to linger for so long.

During the meeting, Council member Jimmy Matta pushed back on an encampment ban proposed by Councilmember Stephanie Mora, noting that the Ninth Circuit US District Court, ruling in the Martin v. Boise case, barred cities from sweeping encampments unless shelter beds are available—and Burien has no year-round adult shelters or sanctioned encampments.

“I see the same things as you see,” Matta said. “I don’t like my children to see [those things]. I don’t like to see people using drugs. But at the same time, I know we don’t have the resources for [shelter], and on top of that, the Ninth Circuit court says that we have to have placements for them.” Cities like Seattle get around the requirement by sweeping encampments when shelter beds become available, Matta continued, but a similar approach in Burien would require the city to come up with funding and a location for a shelter—which, in turn, would likely face opposition from the same people who just want Burien’s homeless population gone. [Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed this quote and the sentiments expressed in the preceding paragraph to City Manager Adolfo Bailon; we regret the error.]

This contingent was out in force at Monday’s council meeting, where public commenters who supported shelter, housing, and supportive services for encampment residents were greatly outnumbered by those demanding that the council eliminate the “campers” by any legal means. For an observer from Seattle, the tone of many comments were reminiscent of the debate about homeless encampments before and especially during the pandemic, when people frequently used dehumanizing terms and the language of eradication to talk about homeless Seattle residents.

“I wsn’t surprised by how people felt because of how things went down with the encampment being essentially relocated, rather than cleared. It’s also true that the people who were there were going to go somewhere… without a real solution that can pull people indoors instead of having them on the street.”—Burien LEAD program manager Aaron Burkhalter

One commenter, for example, referred to homeless people living in Burien as “this unpleasantness” and expressed his “shame, embarrassment, and utter disgust” that encampment residents were allowed to move one block, where they are now “in my front yard.” Another told council members they should “take [encampment residents] home with you” instead of allowing them to sleep on public property. An eighth-grade student at a local private school said she was “tired of seeing men’s privates everywhere I go,” adding that she was no longer able to run or walk in Burien because “the unhoused people have found a loophole in your system.” Several commenters referred conspiratorially to a “coordinated” effort to increase the number of homeless people in the city.

“I wasn’t surprised by how people felt because of how things went down with the encampment being essentially relocated, rather than cleared,” said Aaron Burkhalter, the LEAD project manager for Burien, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting. “It’s also true that the people who were there were going to go somewhere… without a real solution that can pull people indoors instead of having them on the street.”

At the end of the meeting, which , the council put off proposals to bring back the trespassing law and expand the city’s camping ban. During a special meeting next week, the council will hear more about a proposal to use the county-owned parking lot as a short-term managed encampment; receive information on how the State v. Blake decision, which overturned the state’s main drug possession law, impacts the city’s authority to crack down on drug use; and get an overview of camping bans in other cities, including Marysville and Lakewood.

The council will also consider sanctions against Planning Commissioner Schaefer for informing people they had the right to set up tents on city-owned property a block from City Hall; during the meeting, some commenters suggested he should be forced from his position for providing this information.

Burkhalter said he expects the city will remove the relocated encampment soon, scattering the people living there to “a number of different sites around the city.” While some, including City Manager Bailon, have expressed the hopeful thought that many of the encampment residents are from other cities and will move out of town, Burkhalter considers that wishful thinking.

Still, he said, he’s optimistic that the city will come up with a longer-term solution, such as temporary housing in a nearby hotel or in an existing residential building in Burien. “All the pieces are in place to get people into those spaces, and after that, it’s just a matter of how do we prioritize who gets placed in such a way that we are addressing criminal behavior and the public camping that people are so concerned about, in a way that people can get significant services,” Burkhalter said.

Company Owned by Recent City Employee Is Largest Recipient of Encampment Cleanup Contracts

Parks contractors toss tents into the back of a dump truck on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle
Parks contractors toss tents into the back of a dump truck on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle in 2022.

By Erica C. Barnett

A sanitation company owned by a recent city of Seattle employee has received a growing share of the city’s contracts for encampment cleanup and removal work this year, eclipsing other longtime contractors to become the largest recipient of city contract hours for this work. [Update: Debbie Wilson is no longer employed by the city, according to Seattle City Light.]

The company, Fresh Family, is owned by a former Parks Department maintenance employee who until recently worked as a customer service representative for Seattle City Light, Debbie Wilson. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Fresh Family received nearly half a million dollars from the city even though it had no formal contract, which the Parks Department chalked up to an error: According to Parks, someone misread a form identifying the company as a woman- and minority-owned (WMBE) company, misreading “B” (for “Black”), in a column labeled “ethnicity,” as “B” for “Blanket contract.”

Fresh Family is now one of nine contractors on the city’s blanket contract for various kinds of encampment cleanup work, and one of two contractors—along with Cascadia—primarily responsible for encampment removals and litter removal.

It’s unusual for someone who works for the city to simultaneously hold a major city contract—in this case, one so closely tied to a department where the company’s owner used to work. Although Wilson left the city at some point last year, Fresh Family began receiving lucrative work from the city while she was still an employee—work that continued after she left her hourly customer service job at City Light.

PubliCola has asked how much Fresh Family has received from the city under its formal contract, which began last November, and will update this post when we have more information. In 2022, when it lacked an official contract, Fresh Family charged the city $110 per hour for each of its employees.

Over the last several months, department records show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.

A review of the weekly “snapshots” for the city’s Clean City work, provided to PubliCola by the Parks Department, indicates that Fresh Family has become the chief contractor for encampment cleanup work. The Clean City Initiative is a joint operation overseen by the Parks Department, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities, but Parks heads up most of the work because most encampments are located on Parks property.

Over the last several months, the snapshots show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.

For example, on a typical day in January, Fresh Family had nine crew members and four trailers doing encampment removal for the Parks Department encampment sites, while Cascadia had two crew members and one staffer working on a Parks-led crew. (Separately, SDOT routinely used four Cascadia staffers and two trailers to respond to encampments located in  city rights-of-way). By the end of March, the Parks Department had bumped up its use of Fresh Family by another 50 percent, sending out 11 Fresh Family crew members with five trailers every day while keeping Cascadia at the status quo of two crew members and one trailer.

Encampment cleanup work often involves what the city calls a “litter pick”—driving along a prescribed route and picking up trash and debris at encampments along the way. Sometimes, crews are merged to do cleanup as a group—on a recent day, for example, seven Fresh Family crew members and two trailers were assigned to a single 13-stop route.

A spokeswoman for the Parks Department said the company “is not the primary contractor of the department, and we work to distribute work evenly amongst all approved contractors.”

In response to a question about whether Fresh Family is providing a superior or cheaper service compared to other contractors on the city’s list, the spokeswoman said, “The City retains the right to choose providers based on our approved lists and operational needs and both Cascadia and Fresh Family are on our approved contract lists providing similar services.”

Despite Community Consensus, a Longtime Burien Encampment Scatters Because There’s Nowhere to Go

Members of the Burien City Council listen to testimony about an encampment just outside City Hall at a meeting in March.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, the last few people who have been living in tents outside Burien’s city hall and downtown library building will pick up stakes and leave. Earlier this month, more than a year after the first tent appeared on the sidewalk on the west side of the building, the city plans to evict the encampment and its residents, who currently have nowhere to go except elsewhere in the city.

In a joint letter sent earlier this month, a group of local leaders including Burien City Manager Adolfo Bailon, Police Chief Ted Boe, Burien Toyota owner Dean Anderson, and the project manager for the LEAD outreach program in Burien, Aaron Burkthaler, asked King County to “access 30 units of the Health Through Housing program to provide a service that can have an immediate positive impact and save lives.” Health Through Housing is a county program that purchases multi-unit buildings, primarily hotels, to shelter and house people living throughout King County; it’s funded by a sales tax the King County Council passed in 2020.

Advocates for people living unsheltered say it’s the first time they can recall people with such different perspectives coming together to work toward a common goal. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before, where we as social workers are aligned so strongly with law enforcement and the city administration,” said Devin Majkut, the program manager for LEAD. “We’re all asking for the same thing, and getting nothing.”

The cluster of about 15 tents has been the subject of intense debate, and growing consternation, over the past few months.

Robin Desimone, who owns the Iris & Peony floral shop across the street from City Hall, says she’s “fed up” with the encampment, where she says she has seen “brazen activities going on,” including fires and drug use, “with no accountability for their actions.” Nonetheless, she said, she wants to see a solution that works for the people at the encampment, because removing the tents will just force people to move elsewhere in the city, including places like the alley behind her business.

“If I wanted to be in the middle of this, I would move my business to downtown Seattle,” Desimone said. “This is a small town and a small street. But behind the scenes, we’ve been trying to find solutions.”

Advocates and case managers say they’re encouraged by the city’s willingness to partner with them to advocate for funding and assistance from the county—and frustrated, along with them, by the county’s unwillingness to put some money and other resources toward the immediate problem posed by the encampment.

In significant ways, Burien has taken a more nuanced approach to its relatively small homeless population than its overwhelmed neighbor to the north. Four years ago, the city council passed a ban on “camping” in public parks, but did not prohibit people from sleeping in other public spaces, a tacit acknowledgement that people have to sleep somewhere. A court ruling called Martin v. Boise prohibits officials from sweeping encampments without offering people another place to go, and while cities like Seattle often elide that rule by providing shelter “offers” that are unappealing or inappropriate, Burien literally doesn’t have enough shelter for everyone living on its streets; hence, the incomplete encampment ban.

The scene outside the building that houses both City Hall and Burien’s King County Library System branch is a tangible result of this compromise: The encampment—which began as a single tent occupied by a hard-to-house couple who had a good relationship with the library—sprouted on a small concrete pad on the west side of the building just a few feet feet from Town Hall Park, where camping is illegal.  Although some neighbors, blaming encampment residents for everything from catalytic converter thefts to broken windows, clamored for a sweep, the police and Burien’s human services department refused, citing the law that allows them to be there.

But when a tent caught on fire last month, sending one encampment resident to the hospital with severe burns, the organization that controls the building—a condo association run jointly by the county library and city government—decided to evict the people living there, prompting a month-long scurry to find them somewhere to go.

Currently, there are no year-round adult shelters in Burien, and the city has no hotels that could be converted into shelter. During a recent city council meeting, City Manager Adolfo Bailon floated the idea of a sanctioned encampment or tiny house village, but said an 80-bed village would set the city back a million dollars.

It’s “unfortunate,” Desimone said. “A properly managed facility would be great and would solve a lot of our problems.” But funding for such a facility would have to come from the county or the KCRHA. “Our city can’t do that huge a lift—we don’t have that big of that economic base, and to be honest, we’re not going to be bringing any new businesses in with the situation as it is now.”

Burien’s general fund is around $35 million, about 2 percent the size of of Seattle’s. The city’s homeless population is also significantly smaller—around 200, at most, according to Burien human services manager Colleen Brandt-Schluter. Majkut says the number may be even lower, more like 75 to 100.

Advocates and case managers say they’re encouraged by the city’s willingness to partner with them to advocate for funding and assistance from the county—and frustrated, along with them, by the county’s unwillingness to put some money and other resources toward the immediate problem posed by the encampment.

Burien City Councilmember Kevin Schilling, who grew up in the city, said unhoused people have always used the library as a place to get warm, read the newspaper, and use the restrooms. What’s new, he said, is the “immediate, recent visibility of [homelessness] around City Hall.”

“This could be a case study about where there are missing links [and] folks are falling through the cracks,” Schilling said. “They’re not being housed, they’re not getting the services they need, and now we’re in the situation where they’ll be moved, but they won’t be moved anywhere [in particular] because we don’t have anywhere for them to go.”

Brandt-Schluter said telling people to go somewhere else will only make it harder for their case managers to find them and provide help with court dates, case plans, IDs, and housing assessments—the prerequisites for unsheltered people to access housing. “‘If not here, then where?’ is really our mantra right now, and we’ll continue to have to move people in and out of doorways, out of parks, out of City Hall, out of wherever, as long as there isn’t permanent supportive housing and shelter with services that folks can go to.”

“‘If not here, then where?’ is really our mantra right now, and we’ll continue to have to move people in and out of doorways, out of parks, out of City Hall, out of wherever, as long as there isn’t permanent supportive housing and shelter with services that folks can go to.”—Burien human services manager Colleen Brandt-Schluter

Not everyone believes it’s Burien’s job to help everyone living at the encampment.

At the recent council meeting, Bailon said he had “heard” that most of the encampment residents “had never lived here before,” and that “they may just return to where they came from, to where they thought was a safe place before relocating from that location to here.”

But Brandt-Schluter, who has met with the encampment residents personally, said almost all of them either “come from Burien or they’ve been in Burien a long time and consider Burien in their home.”

Although some officials and business owners have suggested sending people living unsheltered in Burien to Seattle, where there are more services, “a lot of these folks don’t want to go to Seattle,” Brandt-Schluter said. “They don’t feel safe going into Seattle, they’re afraid to leave their case manager and the people they’ve established relationships with. And there’s this human side of things, too, of trying to match people [with shelter and services] where they can be successful.”

Representatives from the KCRHA and DCHS told PubliCola they weren’t able to come up with any immediate housing or shelter solutions for any of the people living in the encampment. “There’s just nothing that’s been made available for those folks,” Majkut said, adding that LEAD and its outreach partner REACH were able to refer a few especially vulnerable people to shelters in Seattle. “I appreciate that the city leadership in Burien is committed to providing resources for people living unsheltered there, but they need help to do so from the county and the RHA.”

In the absence of some last-minute intervention, the people who have lived outside City Hall over the past several months will most likely scatter throughout Burien and its nearby greenbelts—a temporary resolution that does nothing to address the larger problem of homelessness in Burien. In the longer term, advocates are looking for sites for a future sanctioned encampment or tiny house village, including a former elementary school on the border with White Center where Transform Burien, a nonprofit that runs a food and clothing bank, is now located.

Majkut said two things stand out about the people who’ve been living in the encampment: Many have a history of profound trauma, including domestic violence, and all are eager to move into shelter or housing, “which is really rare. So it’s been particularly hard for our team to have all these folks say ‘I’m ready, let’s do this,’ and we have nothing to offer them.”

Inslee, Senate Democrats Clash Over Housing Expenditures in Unusual Intra-Party Fight

Image via Gov. Jay Inslee’s office

By Ryan Packer

Governor Jay Inslee is pushing back on a budget proposed by the Washington state senate that he says fails to adequately invest in housing. The senate’s capital budget, released this week, would allocate $625 million to affordable housing, with $400 million going to the state’s housing trust fund, which provides financing to preserve and build housing for low-income residents across the state.

The governor’s budget, released in December, went much bigger on housing expenditures by proposing a ballot measure to increase the state’s bonding capacity, issuing another $4 billion in debt to fund more than 17,000 subsidized housing units, including nearly 5,000 in the next two years.

But that idea fell flat for many lawmakers, who said it could raise the cost of state borrowing in other areas. Inslee’s plan would raise the percentage of state spending on debt above the 5 percent recommended by state treasurer Mike Pellicciotti, potentially risking the state’s credit rating.

“The Senate’s capital budget proposal would take us backwards on housing,” Inslee said in a statement after the senate released its budget. “It’s less than what we approved last biennium. In the middle of a housing crisis, less is unacceptable. We need to go big, so people can go home.”

“This work is not free. Building tiny home villages is not free. This is an issue that you can’t nickel and dime. Baby steps won’t cut it. The Legislature cannot just do half measures this year.”—Gov. Jay Inslee

Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), the capital budget lead on the senate’s ways and means committee, has said it would be fiscally irresponsible to increase the state’s bond limit. “To borrow $4 billion above the state’s constitutional debt limit right now, we would need to spend nearly $2.4 billion in additional interest payments going into the future,” Mullet wrote in an op-ed in the Seattle Times. “Yes, $2.4 billion in interest payments! That’s a lot of money! That’s billions of dollars spent on interest payments to our lenders instead of priorities like education, health care and, yes, affordable housing construction.”

Inslee argues that slowing down on investments in housing would push the state further away from making progress on homelessness. “This work is not free. Building tiny home villages is not free,” Inslee said during a visit this week to an encampment on state-owned property in South Park, where residents were removed last week. “This is an issue that you can’t nickel and dime. Baby steps won’t cut it. The Legislature cannot just do half measures this year.”

Democrats in the Senate, who have touted their proposed investments in the housing trust fund as “historic,” are pushing back.

“I was really disappointed to see both the specific content of what the governor said, and the tone of how he said it, because I didn’t think that was in any way collaborative or productive,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-3, Spokane) told PubliCola at a media availability last week. “We all have the same goal, which is to build more housing, to have a home for everyone. … We hope the governor will be collaborative and be part of the team to bring home the final proposal in the end.”

Billig disputed Inslee’s claim that state spending on housing would decrease under the senate budget plan. But that dispute seems to hinge mostly on how federal dollars, which the state can’t control, factor into the overall state budget. Out of the $415 million in total housing investments in the state’s 2022 budget, $350 million was one-time federal grants, not state funding.

Democratic senate leaders in the senate also say Inslee is making an apples-to-oranges comparison by comparing the full 2021-2022 biennial budget, which the legislature added onto in 2022, to the first year of the 2023-2024 budget.

“Taken together, we believe these numbers show that it would be misleading to claim that our 2023 Senate budget proposal reduces our state’s commitment to addressing our affordable housing challenge,” Alex Bond, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said.

Inslee has described investments in affordable housing as one leg of the Democratic legislative strategy this session, along with bills to increase the supply of market-rate housing and provide new protections for renters. Most of the market-rate housing bills are moving forward, including House Bill 1110, a centerpiece bill that would require cities to allow more density in most of their single-family zones; that bill cleared the Senate housing committee last week.

Bills to beef up renter protections didn’t fare as well. Legislation that would cap annual rent increases at 7 percent, or require six months’ notice of rent hikes greater than 5 percent, both failed to advance before legislative deadlines this year.

This week, the House will release its counterproposal to the Senate budget. Inslee seems unlikely to give up on his bond proposal, setting up a rare intra-party fight over housing and homelessness.

Responding to Feedback, Skepticism, Homelessness Agency Proposes Modest Changes to Ambitious Five-Year Plan


The KCRHA has an ambitious plan to fund and reform the homelessness system over the next five years.

By Erica C. Barnett

After an initial draft of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Five-Year Plan prompted skeptical responses from local leaders—who questioned the proposal’s multibillion-dollar price tag and ambitious timeline for addressing issues the region has been struggling with for decades—the agency is considering a slate of revisions that aim to address some, but not all, of those concerns. The Five-Year Plan is the document that will guide KCRHA’s budgeting and policy decisions for the next five years.

The staff report, which recommends a total of 78 technical changes, substantive policy updates, and new strategies, will be the basis for the final, revised Five-Year Plan that the KCRHA’s implementation board is set to adopt in April. A subcommittee of that board has agreed to let the agency move forward with all the “technical” changes (including some that are arguably substantive, such as folding in tiny house villages with other types of congregate shelter instead of singling them out for zero funding—more on that in a moment) and plans to focus on the 24 substantive policy changes during its weekly meetings over the coming month.

The draft plan proposes that the region spend $10 billion or more over five years to create more than 18,000 new temporary spaces for people to live, including 7,100 new shelter beds, 3,800 medical respite beds for people with acute health-care needs, 4,700 new safe parking spaces for people living in RVs or their cars, and 2,600 beds for people who need support with addiction recovery. The plan estimates that RV and vehicle parking lots alone will cost almost $200 million over five years.

“The costs associated with this Plan, particularly those identified for increasing housing supply, clearly far exceed any currently available funding in the region,” Bellevue City Manager Brad Miyake wrote in a letter responding to the initial plan. “Further, housing development is beyond the scope of KCRHA’s mission and relies on other housing providers.”

Others objected to what they called an unrealistic timeline. Each strategy in the five-year plan includes a 24-month “action plan,” and many of these action plans call for quick resolution of problems that have persisted for years—establishing a system where anyone can see real-time shelter availability across the region, convincing suburban cities in every part of the county to sign on as funders of the regional homelessness system, and requiring all service providers to pay “liveable wages,” to name a few examples.

One recurring piece of feedback KCRHA staff didn’t include in their is skepticism about the number of “safe parking” spaces the plan would fund—more than 3,100 spaces for passenger vehicles and 1,600 for RVs. Siting even a handful of spaces for RVs has been a nearly insurmountable challenge, and most existing “safe parking” lots for cars are hosted by churches and other private organizations on a temporary basis, each hosting no more than a handful of cars at a time.

Some suburban leaders objected to the plan’s emphasis on non-congregate shelter—an umbrella term for shelter where people sleep semi-privately, instead of sleeping in large rooms—over traditional congregate shelter, which is the most common form of shelter on the Eastside and in South King County. The current plan calls for phasing out all congregate shelters; meanwhile, Bellevue’s long-planned (and much delayed) Eastgate men’s shelter will have its grand opening later this year.

“The Eastside is not seeing a decrease in demand for congregate shelter,” Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett wrote in his letter responding to the plan. “Additional temporary housing models would need to come online to address existing need as congregate shelter is phased out. The Plan needs specific strategies for how this shift happens.”

Congregations for the Homeless, which runs Bellevue’s existing men’s shelter, also objected to the plan’s emphasis on non-congregate shelter, noting that the methodology KCRHA used to come up with the plan relies heavily on 180 interviews with people experiencing homelessness that did not directly ask people what kind of shelter they preferred. Instead, the interviews relied on questions like “During this time, what things or people have been helpful to you?” and “What has your experience been like accessing [various types of] services?”

Alexis Mercedes Rinck, KCRHA’s sub-regional planning and equitable engagement director, said the authority has heard cities’ feedback about the need to “maintain the existing spaces that we have,” including congregate shelter, and will be “taking that into account, looking at the local context of very recent local investment into some newer facilities that have been built and are coming online,” like the Bellevue men’s shelter, while focusing on “non-congregate options” in the future.

Those non-congregate options will now include tiny house villages, after persistent lobbying from the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs most of the tiny house villages in the region. LIHI and other proponents of tiny houses—small, individual shelters clustered in “villages” of several dozen—have objected vociferously to the fact that the Five-Year Plan calls for no new funding for tiny houses, using the same set of 180 interviews to determine that people experiencing homelessness prefer other options.

“Anecdotally, we repeatedly hear from outreach workers that nine out of ten of unsheltered people tell them their first choice is a tiny house,” Lee wrote. “This raises a big question about the plan’s methodology. We understand that to determine the relative needs for different temporary housing models, KCRHA used a sample of 180 individuals, selected from 1000 interviews they conducted during the 2022 point in time count. That means KCRHA based the entire 5-Year Plan for the 53,754 individuals they estimate may become homeless in each of the next five years on one sample of 180 individuals.”

The inclusion of tiny houses with all other types of congregate shelter doesn’t mean KCRHA will actually pay for more of them, though. This year, the agency is re-bidding all of its homeless service provider contracts; according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, “we will be doing [requests for proposals] for non-congregate shelter, of which some of those may be tiny houses.”

One recurring piece of feedback KCRHA staff didn’t directly integrate into their revisions is fairly widespread skepticism about the number of “safe parking” spaces the plan would fund on an ongoing basis—a total of more than 3,100 parking spaces for passenger vehicles and 1,600 spaces for RVs. Siting even a handful of spaces for RVs has been a nearly insurmountable challenge, and most existing “safe parking” lots for cars are hosted by churches and other private organizations on a temporary basis, each hosting no more than a handful of cars at a time.

Although the Five-Year Plan categorizes car and RV residency as a type of “temporary housing,” the US Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies it as a type of unsheltered homelessness. In any case, Congregations for the Homeless interim director Steve McGraw wrote, “it is rarely the therapeutic or healthy option—either for the individual or the community. Safe Parking has a place in our tool box of temporary ‘housing’ options, but it should be the last choice to serve people … especially in a time of finite resources, even more so when there are better temporary housing options worthy of funding.”

The inclusion of tiny houses with all other types of congregate shelter doesn’t mean KCRHA will actually pay for more of them, though. This year, the agency is re-bidding all of its homeless service provider contracts; according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, “we will be doing [requests for proposals] for non-congregate shelter, of which some of those may be tiny houses.”

One area where there appears to be some general agreement among critics, board members, and the agency itself is that the region’s current approach to winter (and other severe-weather) shelter—a panicked annual rush to open ad hoc shelters in locations that change from season to season—isn’t working. “We know that this on-and-off-again system is really just not working for anybody,” Rinck said. The question is what to do about it.

Some advocates suggested opening winter-only shelters every year, as the city of Seattle did until 2021, instead of “activating” emergency shelters when the weather hits a certain threshold. KCRHA’s proposed changes call for incorporating funds for severe weather shelter into existing contracts and moving toward a “seasonal” rather than ad hoc system; it also includes a new “technical” (but actually substantive) change that would require the agency to ensure adequate staffing at severe weather shelters even when the agency itself shuts down, like the two-week holiday closure that coincided with a major winter storm last December.

However, Rinck noted that even with those changes, the region’s severe weather system will face challenges. “It tends to be in severe weather instances that folks who traditionally don’t come inside, [those with] really complex behavioral health needs and high-acuity folks, will come inside,” Rinck said, and many winter shelters are run by volunteers who “just aren’t trained to be able to meet [their] needs.” This year, Seattle’s main winter shelter, Compass Housing Alliance, decided not to seek a renewal of its contract with KCRHA, a major gap in service that needs attention this year, before the KCRHA can start working on loftier goals like a coordinated regional winter shelter system. 

During recent meetings about the draft five-year plan, KCRHA implementation board members have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the scale and ambition of the plan, worrying that it proposes too many unfunded plans, too fast, and with too little prioritization to represent a real plan that can be implemented in the next five years. Ben Maritz, an affordable housing developer and Bruce Harrell appointee, summarized this perspective at a recent committee meeting. “I  think that the focus needs to shift to what can we do to move people inside as quickly as possible and given that the major barrier to doing that is the availability of emergency housing or shelter, the focus of the plan really should be on trying to stand that up.”

The next virtual-only meeting of the system planning committee will be Tuesday, March 23, from 3 to 5pm; information about how to watch the meeting will be available at some point this week on the KCRHA’s website, where you can also view some (but not, at the time of this publication, the most recent) previous committee meetings.


New Housing Not A Major Factor In Tree Loss, Police Alternative Pilot Behind Schedule, Deputy Mayor Says Harrell “Not Interested in Reelection”

1. A new report on Seattle’s tree canopy—a measure of how much of the city is shaded by trees—shows that the amount of tree cover in the city declined by half a percentage point (from 28.6 percent tree cover to 28.1 percent) from 2016 to 2021, the equivalent of 255 acres of tree loss.

The largest portion of this loss was not, however, due to development in single-family neighborhoods, as opponents of new residential density frequently imply, but in the city’s own parks, where 45 percent of the total tree loss occurred, largely because not as many trees were replaced in parks relative to other areas, resulting in a higher percentage of tree canopy loss.

Although “neighborhood residential” (traditional single-family) areas accounted for more than a third of the total canopy over the five years covered by the study, less than 7 percent of tree loss (17  acres) resulted from development in those areas, while development in multifamily areas accounted for another 14 acres of trees lost.

The report does not specify what kind of development happened in these areas or whether it involved increases in density (as opposed to land owners building bigger houses), but it does conclude: “most trees in [neighborhood residential areas] were likely lost due to reasons other than development.”

So why did Seattle’s residential areas lose so many trees? According to the report, the reasons “may include disease or hazard risk, storm events, or aging trees at the end of their lifespan. Trees are also removed to accommodate other uses (e.g., solar arrays, views, gardens, etc.).” In other words: In addition to natural losses, homeowners are removing trees on their own property for reasons that have nothing to do with housing.

Tree canopy losses were greater, as a percentage of the overall canopy in 2016 compared to 2021, in areas with more people of color, lower incomes, and less access to opportunity, including the Rainier Valley and South Park. These areas have fewer trees already, and lost ground over the past year despite efforts to plant trees in historically under-forested areas. It’s unclear from the report exactly why this happened, although the report notes construction of light rail at Northgate accounted for a significant portion of the overall loss in these “environmental justice” areas—an example that contrasts an environmentally positive project, light rail, with the trees it displaced.

As for why the city’s parks are losing trees at a faster rate than others areas, the report says the methodology researchers used might not capture undergrowth, and that newly planted trees take a long time to grow and show up in tree canopy assessments. According to a Parks Department spokeswoman, “it’s not that the rate of replacement has been slow, but the growth from those replacement trees is slow as they have more evergreen trees that start from seedlings and take time to show in the canopy. Loss of a tree is an event, it’s sudden and immediately noticed. Growth is a process that occurs over time and regaining canopy can take many years.”

Overall, Seattle has just over 28 percent tree coverage—hundreds of acres shy of the city’s goal of 30 percent tree canopy by 2037.

2. City council members expressed frustration earlier this week that the mayor’s office is several months behind schedule establishing a small alternative response pilot program for some emergency calls that don’t require a police response. As PubliCola reported last year, the mayor’s office and council signed a “term sheet” laying out steps, and deadlines, for a pilot program that would send civilian responders to some calls, including “person down” calls and wellness checks.

The term sheet included a number of milestones that were supposed to culminate in a pilot program, including a comprehensive set of policy recommendations, a budget, and a final plan that was supposed to launch in January. During a meeting of the council’s public safety committee, a council central staffer said “part of the delay has been the hiring and onboarding” of new Community Safety and Communications Center director Rebecca Gonzales, whom Harrell nominated to lead the city’s 911 dispatch office in January.

But committee chair Lisa Herbold said Gonzales’ appointment should have no impact on the long-planned pilot. “There is absolutely no reason, I believe that we need to delay these conversations about a pilot any longer, regardless of the status of the of the new director coming on,” Herbold said. “We’ve got a lot of good people who’ve been working on this for a while—for several years now— and we need to make sure that we’re driving this forward and creating some momentum where there currently appears to be very little.”

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the council’s most vocal advocate for an alternative response system, echoed Herbold’s comments. “If we have another hearing like this, where the timelines are so off, and the progress is so on the surface unclear at the next hearing on this topic, I would be supportive of reevaluating the process entirely to find a different path for achieving these goals,” Lewis said. “I just think the sense of urgency around this needs to be much, much higher from all of the parties involved.”

“[Mayor Harrell is] not interested in reelection, which is so exciting, and so he doesn’t make decisions out a fear to get reelected.”—Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, speaking about the city’s work on homelessness at a national conference this week

3. Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington caused a bit of a stir at the National Alliance for Ending Homelessness’ annual conference in Oakland this week, when she commented on stage that she appreciated working with Mayor Bruce Harrell because “he’s not interested in reelection.” Some in the room interpreted the comment as a statement that Harrell won’t seek reelection after one term, while others said it was more ambiguous.

The context for Washington’s comment was a list of things Seattle is doing right on homelessness; she was talking about why “relationships matter.”

“He’s not interested in reelection, which is so exciting,” Washington said, “and so he doesn’t make decisions out a fear to get reelected. He literally said to me one day—I said, ‘Hey, if we end this contract, it’s gonna be all over the newspapers,’ and he said, ‘I don’t make decisions that way, I make decisions out of doing the right thing.'”

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Washington “was saying that the mayor makes decisions not based on what is popular, or in other words what will support a re-election campaign, but based on what is the right thing to do.”

Violence Against Unsheltered People Spikes, Social Housing Moves Into Startup Mode

1. People living unsheltered are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from people targeting them specifically because they’re homeless. The Seattle Police Department’s 2022 crime report, released earlier this month, showed a 229 percent increase in hate crimes targeting homeless people (an increase of 16 individual crimes), and an increase of 11 homicides in which the victim was homeless over last year.

During a recent meeting of the council’s public safety committee, City Councilmember Sara Nelson used these numbers to imply that expanding the city’s gun-violence prevention efforts to include older adults may be unnecessary, because an uptick in shootings among people older than 24 “could be because of the increased association with gun violence in encampments” rather than a citywide trend.

According to SPD, about a third of gun homicides with victims older than 24 had a “homelessness nexus,” meaning they most likely involved people experiencing homelessness. However, since the interventions that could help people living unsheltered (housing, behavioral health treatment, and job assistance) are similar to the ones that could help older shooting victims who are housed, it’s unclear why this distinction matters, beyond its usefulness as a pro-sweeps talking point.

“It’s a good thing that more [homeless] people are coming forward” to report hate crimes, Police Chief Adrian Diaz said. It also highlights the urgency of efforts to get people inside where they’re safer from both the elements and people who want to target them.

Overall, the number of shots-fired and shooting incidents that involved people experiencing homelessness increased only slightly from 2021—about 4 percent—but that requires context: In 2021, the number of shootings with a homelessness “nexus” increased by 122 percent, meaning both of the last two years have been especially dangerous for people experiencing homelessness. 

Despite this alarming increase in violence against people living unsheltered, Nelson focused on the danger encampments supposedly pose to children who may attend school or live nearby. “We need to address the safety of the children first,” she said. In reality, however, living outdoors is most dangerous for unsheltered people themselves, who are increasingly targeted by people who “take things into their own hands,” as Seattle Police Chief Diaz put it, lashing out at people living in encampments for being unhoused.

“It’s a good thing that more [homeless] people are coming forward” to report hate crimes, Diaz told PubliCola earlier this month. It also highlights the urgency of efforts to get people inside where they’re safer from both the elements and people who want to target them.

2. Now that Initiative 135, which establishes a public developer to build permanently affordable “social housing” in Seattle, has passed, supporters have switched gears and are working to get the new agency up and running. They’re up against a deadline: Once the election is certified on February 24, they have 18 months of city support, including staffing and office space, to establish a public development authority and come up with an initial funding source that will allow the PDA to start building housing.

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director of Real Change and a leader of the group’s House Our Neighbors! (HON) social-housing campaign, said the group has already discussed initial steps with Councilmember Tammy Morales, including the creation of the agency’s initial board of directors. This board will include seven members appointed by the Seattle Renters’ Commission and six members appointed by the city council, the mayor, and labor and housing representatives. Although HON doesn’t have any official role in the appointments and “we don’t want to overstep,” McCoy said, “it would be cool to have a [Real Change] vendor or someone from the Housing Justice Project,” which advocates for tenants’ rights and provides legal assistance in eviction cases.

Next, the new agency will have to come up with an ongoing funding source to keep itself going, along with a plan to actually pay for social housing, which was not funded by the initiative. State Rep. and former Solid Ground director Frank Chopp (D-43, Seattle), who supported the initiative, has proposed a budget proviso that would pay for the agency’s startup costs.

Chopp says the state is considering new funding sources that could pay for social housing in Seattle, including an expansion of the real-estate excise tax to include a new taxing “tier” for property sales above $5 million; that proposal includes a local option that the city could use to fund social housing.

Pointing to a number of mixed-income projects that are already underway thanks to the state’s Home and Hope program, which acquires public properties and develops them into affordable housing and early-learning centers, Chopp said he doesn’t see the new social housing PDA as a competitor to traditional nonprofit housing providers. “The point is, we need more capacity—the speculative real estate market is not solving the problem, and there are plenty of nonprofits who see the value of this,” Chopp said.

McCoy said initiative backers are considering a few potential progressive local taxes to pay for social housing, including one novel option that she says would not conflict with the city’s efforts to create new progressive revenue to fund the city budget amid ongoing annual shortfalls. A new progressive revenue task force is meeting privately once a month to hash out a set of proposals to supplement Jumpstart payroll tax revenues, which the city has used for several years to backfill general-fund shortfalls.

Although McCoy said she couldn’t discuss specifics on the record, any new revenue source (as opposed to expansion of an existing source, like JumpStart) would likely require a separate ballot measure. In theory, the city council could just put a proposed new tax on the ballot—the same way it put a levy to fund improvements at Pike Place Market, which is run by a PDA, on the ballot in 2008—but a more likely scenario is that I-135 backers would have to run another initiative campaign for funding sometime next year.

The State of the City is Vibes

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the shadow of the Space Needle at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion on Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell used his second State of the City address to lay out an “optimistic” vision for Seattle—a city where there are no tents on the streets because everyone has housing, where drug users all get into “effective treatment solutions,” where a new arts district links a revitalized downtown to surrounding neighborhoods, including 24/7 streets where “you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”

But while the vibes in the room were electric—when Harrell concluded his 45-minute speech with his trademark “One Seattle!” sign-off, a guy behind me kept saying “STRONG finish!” to the person seated next to him—the speech itself was light on concrete proposals. If you let the vibes wash over you, it wasn’t hard to believe in a better future just over the horizon, once we figure out how to solve all the pressing problems that we know we can solve if we work together.

“The Space Needle is proof positive that when Seattleites put their minds to something and act with urgency and creativity, we can do big things,” Harrell said, in one of several digressions about the city’s creativity and resilience. “Framed by images of Pike Place Market and Mt. Rainier, the Space Needle stands as a symbol of our city to the nation—a pinnacle of a forward-looking vision and trailblazing leadership rooted in our DNA, of a city where innovation is inherent and progress is paramount.”

Harrell touted work the city has done to reduce the number of encampments in parks, improve police recruitment, fill potholes, and get people back downtown. But despite strong #OneSeattle vibes, he offered only a few concrete steps toward “the city of the future we’re building today” (the official title of his speech). In the coming year, Harrell said, he will:

  • Unveil a “downtown activation plan” that will emphasize better use of public space and public safety as “employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing”;
  • Issue an executive order to “that takes steps to address the public health crisis on our streets caused by the epidemic of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs”;
  • Launch a “design competition around converting office buildings to housing” downtown;
  • Propose a “suite of legislation” on police officer hiring and “a vision for the future of public safety”
  •  Release a white paper (originally scheduled for last year) outlining a plan for a new non-police public safety department, which now has a name: the Civilian Assisted Response and Engagement Department, or CARE;
  • Issue an executive order and propose new legislation to “preserve and plant tens of thousands of trees.”

One of Harrell’s strengths—especially on display during speeches like he State of the City, which he delivered with a loose, ad-libbing style that works well in front of a friendly audience—is his ability to connect with and inspire people in a way that feels genuine and unrehearsed. But as his term enters its second quarter, it will become increasingly important to deliver on some of those lofty, aspirational goals—or come up with lesser aspirations that are actually achievable within the span of a mayoral administration. Describing people who’ve been waiting for year to see tangible improvements downtown as “cynics [who] demand the exact blueprint for our entire new downtown immediately” is dismissive, and Harrell has been in office for more than a year; no one is demanding anything “immediately” at this point.

Everyone loves a rousing speech, especially after four years of leaden rhetoric, stiffly delivered by Harrell’s predecessor, Jenny Durkan. What turns the public against mayors is when they don’t pair lofty promises with tangible, visible results. People might love the idea of a 24-hour downtown seamlessly linking arts districts in Belltown, the Chinatown-International District, and Capitol Hill, but they’ll settle for fewer pedestrian deaths, a downtick in shootings, and a sense that the city is helping people living unsheltered rather than just moving them around.