Category: housing

Is It Time for Seattle to Do Away With Design Review?

The Safeway building that led to seven years of aesthetic debate

By Andrew Engelson

In a city facing an extreme lack of affordable housing, Seattle’s process for permitting apartment buildings has become a bit of a circus. For months, an unelected board debated the color and style of brick on a grocery store and apartment complex in Queen Anne. Wealthy residents of an apartment tower in Belltown bogged down the construction of an apartment tower next door by insisting the design include more curves to match its architectural context. And a new multi-family building on Capitol Hill had to be redesigned because it looked “too historic.”

The process is clearly broken. In response, last November, the Seattle City Council directed the Seattle of Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to assemble a stakeholder group to examine its design review program—a complicated permitting process that many architects and housing advocates say is deeply flawed, contributes to excessive delays, and adds significant costs to new multi-family housing projects. The group, which will present its report later this year, is supposed to come up with ways to make the review process faster and more efficient, and to look at the racial and economic equity impacts of the program.  

City councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored the legislation, told PubliCola, “Long permit review times often slow or prevent the building of urgently needed housing in Seattle. I am working to address permitting delays and streamline housing production, and as part of that process design review has often come up as an area that needs fixing.” 

Design review has nothing to do with whether a building conforms to safety and construction codes. Instead, it critiques the overall appearance of a building, how it relates to the terrain and adjacent properties, how pedestrians and vehicles access the site, and the quality of the building’s materials and landscaping. The all-volunteer boards serve four-year terms and include a mix of architects, landscape designers, developers, and local residents. The decisions they make are final, and there’s no formal appeals process. When the city’s eight regional design review boards dictate aesthetic changes, it can lead to delays of months or even years and add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of apartment projects. Single-family houses, no matter the size, are not subject to design review. 

Architects and developers have been reluctant to criticize the program in the past for fear of retaliation by the volunteers on the boards, which wield a surprising amount of power and have held up projects over minor concerns such as the color of brick facades and the placement and style of public benches.

But several architects agreed to speak to PubliCola on the record about their frustration with a process that many urbanist advocates say is inconsistent, capricious, and so cumbersome that many developers are now hesitant to build new multifamily housing in Seattle.

“I think it is broken, and it can be fixed,” said Brian Runberg, founder of Runberg Architecture Group, who has seen many of his firm’s projects bog down in long delays during design review. “Currently it is not efficient or predictable. And it’s not fair nor inclusive.”

Seattle’s west design review board agonized over which array of taupes and browns to require on the front of a Safeway supermarket that’s supposed to look like a bunch of little storefronts.

Runberg was the lead architect on a 7-story apartment building, anchored by a Safeway grocery store, on Queen Anne Avenue—a project that has become notorious for its delays and finicky debates over aesthetic concerns. Originally proposed in 2016, the project went through two architects and two developers and then was held up for six months while the west region design review board and the architect haggled over the precise color and pattern of the store’s brick facade. In addition, the board requested that the facade of the Safeway approximate the look of small individual retailers – even though the one ground floor tenant is a single grocery chain.

Responding to the board’s concerns, Runberg’s staff prepared dozens of studies of brick colors and patterns for the Safeway, with negligible difference in the end product. The project was permitted late last year; after groundbreaking, construction should take about 18 months. As PubliCola reported, design review added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the project. All of the changes were purely aesthetic. 

“That’s a total of seven years to build a Safeway with apartments on top,” said Mark Ostrow, a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways board member who live-tweets about design review hearings at Queen Anne Greenways. “For the Olympic Games, the host city gets seven years to totally transform an entire city. They build massive sports venues and transportation systems. And the city of Seattle can’t even build a Safeway.”

Though the boards are formally tasked with enforcing the city’s design guidelines (which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood) sometimes the critiques veer into abstract aesthetic concerns. 

Often, the issues that review boards raise feel random and frivolous, Bradley Khouri, the founder of B9 Architects, said. Khouri remembers presenting to the east region review board for a project on Capitol Hill. The board had deliberated, and was voting to wrap things up when one board member suddenly expressed concerns, Khouri recalled, that the building was not “refined enough.” Another board member agreed to change their vote and call for another review meeting. “I’m on a video call,” Khouri remembers, “I’m in my house. And think: I can’t stop this train. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Fortunately, everybody else said no,” and the project went forward.

Khouri said he’s seen the minimum time to permit a multi-family housing project in Seattle go from about a year in 2008 to nearly two years today. When projects are held up, it’s often over minor details, Khouri said. “You could spend six months with a planner on these corrections back and forth,” he said. “And for what? At the end of the day, they may have added a little nicer material or adjusted the height of the canopy. But it’s preventing housing from getting produced in a city that’s desperate for it.” 

He pointed to an apartment project his firm designed on Capitol Hill seven years ago. “The client committed to spending over $300,000 on additional siding— today that would be half a million dollars,” Khouri said. “And the building’s more attractive as a result. Did that really need to happen? I don’t know. I like our building as it’s built, but I think we could have done just as nice a building without having to spend all that. But our client knew if he didn’t do it, he wasn’t going to be able to build this building.”

In March, the pro-density coalition Seattle for Everyone published a report with data from the consultant ECONorthwest that found the total time to get a master use permit from SDCI increased 84 percent between 2010 and 2018. By  2020, the amount of time required for a project to complete full design review had increased to 805 days, or 2.2 years, on average.

“Seattle is not known for its beautiful midrise apartment buildings. It’s actually known for its ugly ones. And this is under a system where we are legislating aesthetics. So clearly, that’s not working.”—Mark Ostrow, @QAGreenways

Runberg said that as a result, most of his developer clients now shy away from building new housing in Seattle. Five years ago, he said, about 5 percent of his firm’s multifamily residential work was on the Eastside and most of the remainder was in Seattle. “Presently, 90 percent of our work is on the Eastside,” Runberg said. “These are all the same developers we’ve had for 20 years. And it all comes back to the fact that the process is unfair and unpredictable. It’s too risky for them.”

A 2016 study of Seattle’s design review process published by University of Washington urban planning grad student Scott Cutler found that design review boards’ recommendations about the aesthetics of buildings and site plans are often applied in an arbitrary manner. “It is clear from the case study findings that Seattle’s Design Review Program suffers from inconsistently-applied scrutiny and an unpredictable bureaucratic timeline, which both need to be fixed to ensure fairness and accessibility to the process,” Cutler concluded.

In 2018, SDCI did make minor reforms to design review, but Khouri argues that the changes, though necessary, were “so minimal” compared to the kind of changes that are needed. The reforms increased the threshold for a project to be subject to full design review, created a streamlined review process and moved smaller projects and townhouses into what’s known as administrative design review—a internal, non-public process in which SDCI staff review plans.

This Belltown tower went through six months of delay because design review board members (and neighbors in a nearby luxury high-rise) didn’t think its original “rectilinear” shape worked with round buildings nearby, including the Westin hotel towers.

According to figures provided by SDCI, the number of multi-family and commercial building permits issued has declined dramatically in the past four years. Although the pandemic was certainly a driver in 2020, the overall trend since 2018 has been downward. In the last six months of 2018 after the reforms were implemented, 104 projects went through streamlined design review, 143 through administrative, and 221 projects went through full design review. By 2021, those numbers had plummeted to 66, 103, and 99, respectively. 

Not all of the decline is the result of design review, of course—high labor costs, supply chain issues, and high property values are also factors. But Brady Nordstrom, a coordinator with Seattle for Everyone, notes that design review is part of this decline in construction of multifamily housing. “We can’t control labor prices and we can’t control demand for housing,” Nordstrom said. “But we can control how we permit and move housing through permitting.”

Khouri contends that requiring aesthetic architectural review during a climate crisis and a massive surge in housing prices is unnecessary and harmful. “If we’re doing a project three blocks from light rail,” Khouri said, “should there really be a conversation about height, bulk, and scale?”

SDCI director Nathan Torgelson defended design review, which the city created in 1991 in reaction to the construction of a host of new skyscrapers downtown. “Most buildings are going to last anywhere from 50 to 70 years,” Torgelson said, “so the aesthetics of the building is absolutely important to the fabric of the city and how it fits in a neighborhood context. But we can definitely improve the process.” Continue reading “Is It Time for Seattle to Do Away With Design Review?”

What Is Social Housing?

Photo depicting the exterior top half of renovated and renewed complex of block of flats with a colorful facade.

By Erica C. Barnett

Later this year, Seattle voters could take a first step toward building a new kind of permanently affordable, mixed-income public housing known as “social housing.” The House Our Neighbors! Coalition — a project of the housing advocacy organization Real Change — is collecting signatures for Initiative 135 (I-135), which would create a new public development authority (PDA) to build and operate new housing; funding for the PDA would come later, through future State or local legislation.

What Is Social Housing? 

In the U.S., most affordable housing is either public housing (built and maintained by government authorities) or housing built or purchased, and operated, by private nonprofits that receive government funding. (Housing subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers, are aimed at helping renters afford market-rate housing.) In other parts of the world, including Europe and South America, “social housing” refers broadly to a type of housing that’s permanently affordable, with rents capped at a percentage of renters’ income.

The umbrella term “social housing” can refer to many different models, including some that incorporate private and nonprofit developers into a public funding scheme, and the term does not refer exclusively to low-income housing. The Vancouver, British Columbia, definition of “social housing” has been a source of recent controversy, because it serves people making up to six figures, as would Seattle’s.

How Would It Work in Seattle? 

Initiative 135 would achieve a social housing model by creating a public developer to build, acquire, and operate housing that would be funded by State or local revenues, including bonds. This publicly owned housing would have to be permanently affordable (costing less than 30% of monthly income) to a mix of people earning between 0% and 120% of Seattle’s area median income — as of last April, $81,000 for one person living alone, or $115,700 for a family of four. Under the authority’s charter, renters could not be kicked out if their income rises; their rent would simply rise accordingly.

After an initial startup period, the PDA’s 13-member governing board, which would manage the authority, would include a seven-member renter majority elected by residents. Each building would also have its own elected governing board, a kind of public HOA that would advocate to the board on behalf of residents and make building-level decisions, like how to spend the annual budget for common areas.

How Would It Be Funded?

Supporters of I-135 say they deliberately did not include a funding source in the initiative in order to avoid violating the State “single-subject rule,” which limits ballot initiatives (and State laws) to a single issue.

The initiative would simply set up the development authority and get it going, creating a temporary board and requiring the City to provide “in-kind” support to get the authority ready to build new housing or buy existing buildings once funding is in place. Other public development authorities in Seattle, such as the Pike Place Market PDA, also started without a funding source and pay for the market’s operating budget and capital improvements through rents, investments, and a 2008 ballot measure that increased property taxes to pay for $73 million in improvements.

Supporters have been vague about where future funding might come from, saying all potential sources are on the table, including State- and City-backed bonds, the State capital budget, and private philanthropy. “We are working on identifying progressive revenue sources,” Real Change Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy said, “but we wanted to put together the structure and the vision and build up that startup support” first.

Seattle is currently facing a budget shortfall brought on by the end of COVID-era federal support but could be in better financial shape by the time the PDA comes to the City Council seeking funding through the City budget or Council-issued bonds. Continue reading “What Is Social Housing?”

Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate

1. Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation (HB 2075) that would have required the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to meet minimum service requirements by keeping their physical offices open, come up with a plan to achieve phone wait times of 30 minutes or less, and generally ensure “that clients may apply for and receive services in a reasonable and accessible manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, including but not limited to, technology, language, and ability,” according to a staff summary of the legislation. The bill passed both houses with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, adding to its sponsor, Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21) surprise at Inslee’s veto.

“I had zero idea that this [veto] was even being considered, so getting over the initial shock and confusion took at least half a day,” Peterson said.

The legislation was aimed at addressing a persistent problem at DSHS, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps: Because DSHS, unlike most other government agencies, had never reopened its physical offices, clients—many of them homeless—could only access the agency by phone, and wait times were often several hours.

DSHS secretary Jilma Meneses agreed to reopen most of the agency’s 181 physical offices in March, which eliminated much of the cost associated with the legislation; eliminating a 30-minute wait time mandate and replacing it with language saying DSHS should “strive for” 30-minute wait times made that issue a debate for a later time and reduced the bill’s short-term cost to nothing. 

“We all know a significant investment needs to be made into upgrading the systems that they use—the phone system, the ability for people to access [DSHS] online, and the in-person service, which was the crux of the bill,” Peterson said. He said he trusts that Menenses will keep her word and keep the offices open, but added that the legislation provided a guarantee that would have lasted beyond the tenure of a single DSHS secretary.

In a statement, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said, “We wish we had not had to advocate so forcefully to get the CSOs to reopen, and that the governor had not vetoed this commonsense bill. Together with our service and advocacy partners across Washington, we look forward to working with the governor, DSHS Secretary Meneses, and the legislature in 2023 to guarantee that never again will the state lock its doors on people in need of services, especially in an emergency.”

Inslee’s veto message shed little light on the reasons for his veto. “The executive branch always strives to manage state programs in the best manner possible, within the authorization and resources provided by the legislative branch,” Inslee wrote. “Identifying specific performance metrics, in particular without the necessary resources, is an overreach in our respective roles.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said the “performance metrics” Inslee referred to in his veto letter include “not only having offices open but also tracking call wait times and dropped calls with the aspirational goal of keeping that response time to 30 minutes or less. Costing that out is very difficult. … Secretary Meneses has her team working on outreach to advocates and those who access our systems to determine what the buildout should look like.”

2. Back in February, as state legislators were working on a capital budget that would include hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) proposed—and Rep. Noel Frame’s (D-36) office set up—a meeting between King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones and the 45 members of King County’s legislative delegation (not all of whom were expected to attend). Until that point, legislators had not met formally with Dones, and the KCRHA had not provided a list of legislative priorities for the 60-day session.

The meeting was set for 12:30 on February 17. At 9:40 that morning, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig sent an email to the 45-member delegation to cancel.

“As you may have read in the Seattle Times this morning, the KCRHA will be making an announcement about our plans to address unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle,” Herbig wrote. As we reported, the announcement was about private donations totaling $10 million to fund, among other things, 30 “peer navigators” in downtown Seattle.

“Because of this announcement, and how busy you all are right now with session, we are canceling today’s 12:30 meeting,” Herbig continued. “We appreciate your understanding, and look forward to opportunities to introduce ourselves and answer any questions you have about us or our work after Sine Die,” the end of the legislative session.

“I am inferring from your cancellation [that] KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”—State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in an email to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Macri, who works for the Downtown Emergency Service Coalition when the legislature isn’t in session, called the cancelation “a slap in the face” in an email response to Herbig. “Tell me why I should not read it as this—’Sorry, elected officials, we have no time for you because some billionaires are giving us a small shiny thing, which they can only do it on the one day we have a meeting with the group who collectively represents the interests of 2.3 million people from our region,'” Macri wrote.

“I am inferring from your cancellation,” Macri continued, that “KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”

In a followup email, State Sen. David Frockt (D-46) added, “Our proposed Senate capital budget has over 470m for housing and stabilization investments, so I concur with Rep. Macri it would be good to connect since I presume KCRHA and key agency partners will be seeking some of this money at some point. … [P]artnership with the key budget writers and the former speaker,” Frank Chopp (D-43), “would be helpful and will help me relate to all of my more conservative colleagues in the Senate why these investments toward King County are worthwhile.” Continue reading “Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate”

New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences

By Erica C. Barnett

In October 2020, a little more than six months into the pandemic, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority quietly changed the criteria it uses to place people in the so-called “priority pool” for housing—sometimes known as the “top 40 list.”

Instead of relying on an interviewing tool that has been widely criticized for producing racially biased outcomes, the KCRHA will use a simpler list of criteria developed in response to COVID-19 that prioritizes older people, people of color, and people with specific physical conditions, such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, that make them susceptible to COVID. The new system relies on data from local medical providers and information people self-report through the Homeless Management Information System used by most homeless service providers. Unlike other tools, it does not include factors such as mental illness or substance use disorders, which are common barriers to housing and part of the standard definition of “chronic homelessness.”

The need for a quasi-objective tool to decide who gets housing is a product of scarcity: For decades, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has far outpaced the amount of available housing for people with little or no income or who need extra support to stay housed. Today, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority estimates there are as many as 45,000 homeless people in the region. Because there isn’t enough affordable housing for all those people, the homeless system has to triage—picking and choosing who gets access to housing based on their level of “vulnerability,” a term with a shifting definition. The calculus is brutal: Without enough housing, most people will always be left out in the cold; the only question is who makes the cut.

“Only a very small slice of people who are homeless are getting help,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Not many people qualify and there’s not a lot of funding in the system for people experiencing homelessness.”

“When we do have enough housing, prioritization as we’ve known it is something that that will no longer be necessary,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said.
“But as long as there’s that scarcity, then we have to be able to identify a group of folks” to prioritize.

King County has used a number of different tools over the years to assess people’s vulnerability and prioritize them for housing—most recently (between 2016 and 2019) an interview-based assessment called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT for (sort of) short. For years, critics argued that the VI-SPDAT led to racially biased outcomes—Black people, in particular, were underrepresented compared to white people—and King County adopted new criteria that de-prioritized the VI-SPDAT, but didn’t discard it, in early 2019.

Later that same year, a study from a group called C4 Innovations confirmed that the VI-SPDAT gave white people a better shot at housing and services than Black people and other people of color, and suggested some possible reasons why: The tool asks a number of extremely personal questions about things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex work, that white people may feel more comfortable answering in the affirmative, especially if the interviewer is also white. The study also found that the VI-SPDAT asked questions about vulnerabilities that white people were more likely to have than people of color.

The new criteria do away with that by only looking at race, age, and physical health (including pregnancy)—and by foregoing in-person interviews altogether. “What is fundamentally different [with the COVID-19 criteria] is that instead of asking folks a lot of invasive, retraumatizing questions,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said, is that “the tool is based on data… so that litany of really invasive, not trauma-informed questions doesn’t have to happen.” The KCRHA gets its information from both “administrative data” taken from the Health Care for the Homeless Network and Medicaid, and from the Homeless Management Information System, a giant database used by most homeless providers that is based on self-reporting.

In the year and a half the new system has been in place, the percentage of Black heads of household prioritized for housing increased from 27 percent to 49 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 32 to 11 percent. (The percentage of Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native households that were prioritized for housing also increased slightly, while the number of Asian and multiracial households declined). The change was also striking among families with children, where the percentage of Black households increased from 33 percent to 52 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 27 to 6 percent.

But the biggest change since the KCRHA started prioritizing people for housing based on COVID vulnerability has been in the age of single adults who receive priority for housing placement. Because the COVID criteria put a premium on age—seven of eight “tiers” count age as one of a small handful of potential qualifiers, with a lower cutoff of 65—the average age of single adults who were prioritized for housing skyrocketed, from 41 to 61 years old. For a typical middle-aged person without any physical ailments that make them specifically vulnerable to COVID, the odds of getting bumped up the queue for housing are slimmer than ever.

Looked at one way, this makes perfect sense: By the time a homeless adult is 60, they are usually much “older,” biologically, because living outdoors is terrible for a person’s health. “The population of older adults who are homeless is expected to double by 2025 and triple by 2030,” Roman said, and “few are going to make it past 60. [By the time] they’re 55, they present as older and they have the problems of older people, but they’re not eligible for federal assistance to older people because they’re not old enough.”

Still, the exclusion of behavioral health conditions from the criteria is a significant shift—one that could mean some people with substance use disorders or disabling mental health conditions have to wait longer for housing. Ebrahimi, from KCRHA, says the authority may take behavioral health into consideration in the future, but notes that this information isn’t readily available through data; people have to disclose it voluntarily through the kind of interview process that the VI-SPDAT, with its biased outcomes, was based on. Continue reading “New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences”

Initiative Would Pave the Way for Social Housing in Seattle

Wohnpark Alterlaa, a social housing project in Vienna
Social housing in Vienna; photo by Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The House Our Neighbors coalition, a project of the homeless advocacy group Real Change, will file a ballot initiative on Monday to create a new public development authority (PDA) to build publicly owned, permanently affordable housing—also known as social housing—in Seattle. Funding for the PDA would come later, through future state or local legislation.

Social housing, according to Real Change advocacy director Tiffani McCoy, differs from other types of affordable housing because it’s permanently affordable, including to people whose income changes; because it gives renters a say in policies that impact them; and because it’s publicly owned, rather than subsidized or operated by a private nonprofit, like much of the affordable housing in Seattle.

“Developments MUST be permanently protected from being sold or transferred to a private entity or public-private partnership,” the proposed ordinance says.

McCoy says the coalition backing the initiative “didn’t want to just advocate for more money for the [Seattle] Office of Housing or affordable housing in general, because while those are obviously very, very important programs, they can be very restrictive in terms of what [income levels] you can serve. The proposed new authority would build housing for people earning between 0 and 120 percent of Seattle’s Area Median Income, currently $81,000 for a single person or $115,700 for a family of four.

The initiative would set up a PDA—a type of public developer—and require the city of Seattle to provide “in-kind” startup support to run it for the first 18 months; funding to actually build new housing would come later and could require the state legislature to approve a new funding mechanism, as it has for other large local projects like Sound Transit. State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43), a longtime advocate for affordable housing, is supporting the initiative and could be instrumental in creating a funding source for the authority, if the measure passes; he did not immediately return a call for comment last week.

The initiative would also require the city to do a feasibility study before selling off public land to determine whether it could be developed as social housing and transferred to the PDA. In 2019, the city sold a three-acre piece of land in South Lake Union known as the “Mercer Megablock” to a real estate equity firm for $143 million; the sale required the buyer, Alexandria Real Estate, to build 175 units of affordable housing and a make a one-time $5 million contribution to help the city address homelessness. Affordable housing advocates criticized the sale as a missed opportunity to build a much larger number of permanently affordable units on the site.

By adding the requirement that the city study the feasibility of affordable housing before selling off public land, “we just wanted to set up some accountability mechanism,” McCoy said: “A record of [the city] saying why they want this land to go to a private developer, as opposed to being for for public use.”

Initiative backers will have to collect around 26,500 valid signatures to get the measure on the November ballot; since some signatures are always ruled invalid, that means collecting around 35,000 signatures total.

Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing”

 

Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of "naturally occurring affordable housing"
Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of “naturally occurring affordable housing”

By Erica C. Barnett

Until 2017, elected officials (and reporters) hoping to get a handle on the availability and cost of rental housing in Seattle relied on reports from a private company called Dupre+Scott, whose forecasts used cheeky videos and graphics to illustrate market predictions and trends. Since Dupre+Scott shut down, the city has relied on Census tract-level data to assess housing trends, including residential displacement—a blunt, high-level instrument that does not account for differences between adjacent neighborhoods that may be in the same Census tract.

Earlier this week, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen rolled out legislation that would require landlords to submit detailed information about their rental units—including the size of each unit, the rent they charge, and whether a unit is occupied or vacant—to a research university, such as the University of Washington, twice a year and to certify under the city’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) that they have done so. The university would analyze the information and submit reports to the city, which would use them to “identify displacement risk” and “inform [the city’s] housing policy,” according to a staff report on the bill.

“My interest,” City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

The context for the proposal is the upcoming update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides the framework for all city decisions on land use and zoning. The comp plan, for example, could prescribe the creation of more neighborhood business districts, encourage zoning changes to add density in single-family areas, or require future land-use policies that encourage the use of nonmotorized transportation. Or it could encourage policies that protect existing rental units at the expense of new housing, preserve trees by maintaining Seattle’s ban on development in single-family areas, or require full infrastructure buildout (roads, sewers, transit service) before an area can be developed—a ’90s neighborhood planning concept known as “concurrency.”

Pedersen, who has been a vocal opponent of allowing more density outside existing urban villages, said the city needed more accurate rental information to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists and might be at risk of demolition if the city allows denser housing in more areas. “If additional land-use changes were pursued without first putting into effect displacement prevention laws,” Pedersen said, the city might end up adopting policies that lead to the demolition of “affordable, below-market rental housing on the Ave [in the University District] and throughout our city.” (Pedersen cited the Pacific Apartments, pictured above, as an example of naturally occurring affordable housing. Although the website for the building didn’t have any current listings, a 450-square-foot studio was listed at $1,200 last year).

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” generally refers to older units that cost less than newer housing nearby. Advocates for laws to protect this type of housing often refer to the “mom-and-pop landlords” who tend to own such older buildings, without regard for the specific challenges faced by renters who live in this kind of housing, which may be less well-maintained than professionally managed buildings.

Thanks to the rental registration ordinance, the city does have some general information about how many rental units are available each year. In 2020, according to the most recent RRIO report, the number of registered units in the city declined by about 14.4 percent, “but the total number of units stayed relatively stable with only a 0.65% decrease.”

“Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”—City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Although the report notes that registrations may have declined for any number of reasons, including landlords not bothering to update their renewals during the pandemic, Councilmember Sara Nelson said the decline in registrations, combined with the relatively small decline in apartments on the market, “indicates to me that it is the small mom-and-pop landlords that are basically taking properties off the market.

“My interest,” Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who said she supported Pedersen’s legislation, pushed back at the idea that landlords were going out of business because of renter protections. “That is a claim by landlords,” she said. “Nobody else is claiming that. The reality is that property values are skyrocketing. Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”

Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs

Low-Income Housing Institute tiny house village
Tiny houses, like this one in a village operated by the Low-Income Housing Institute, are a form of non-congregate shelter—the type of shelter Governor Jay Inslee says he wants to prioritize statewide.

by Leo Brine

As a counter to their meek policy achievements in Olympia this year, Democrats loaded their capital and operating budgets with historic investments in housing and homelessness response—$829 million, nearly half of which will go to local governments and nonprofits to develop new shelter and permanent housing. Governor Jay Inslee estimates the state will add 3,890 new housing units or shelter beds with $413 million in funding from the Housing Trust Fund and appropriations for rapid capital acquisitions.

The rest of the money ($416 million) will go to things like rent, mortgage, and utility debt assistance. An Inslee-backed bill to create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services to address homeless encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, like freeway underpasses, failed, but the budget includes $52 million that will go to local governments for the same purpose, including $7 million to help prevent future encampments in places where encampments have been removed.

Democrats killed several pieces of their own progressive housing legislation that would have created incentives for denser housing development after those bills were watered down by amendments from Republicans and other Democrats. In the house, they  killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) at the first legislative cutoff of the session. At the next cutoff, senate Democrats killed Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit legalization bill (HB 1660).

And on the final night of the session, the clock ran out on the year’s last hope for housing policy reform—a bill sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-1, Bothell) bill (HB 1099) that would have required cities to adjust their growth plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. The bill, which would have updated the state’s Growth Management Act to respond urgently to climate change, was a top priority for the environmental advocacy group Futurewise.

Inslee’s senior adviser for housing, Jim Baumgart, said Inslee wants to move away from “mats on a floor,” and “cots in a big open room” shelter model and toward a system where people get their own space. “If we can, the goal is always to get people into permanent housing. The way to end homelessness is to get people into permanent housing,” Baumgart said.

“It’s really hard to know what projects will come in and what those proposals will be for. Thomas said. “Our hope is the vast majority of the funds are for permanent housing solutions.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how much permanent housing the state will add with the Democrats’ investments. According to Baumgart,  “housing units” refers to “all non-congregate housing options,” from shelters  and transitional housing to permanent housing, supportive and otherwise.

Baumgart said it’s “really hard to estimate” that figure because of the rising cost of building materials and they don’t know which projects local governments and nonprofits will submit for grant funding.

Michele Thomas, from the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, is also trying to figure out how much permanent housing the budget creates, but says she won’t know for a while. She said the grants in the budget can go to a variety of projects that deal with homelessness, not just permanent housing. Continue reading “Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs”

Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda

Despite Democratic control in both houses, Washington state’s tax code remains deeply inequitable.

By Leo Brine

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers only had 60 days to pass legislation, write and pass two supplemental budgets, and pass a transportation spending package. At the outset of the session, Democrats, who have a 57-seat majority in the house and a 29-seat majority in the senate, said they wanted to pass bills to help with housing affordability, homelessness, environmental sustainability, and the economy.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola, “it was not a great year in terms of policy.” Macri pointed out that Democrats killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill to allow denser housing statewide (HB 1782) and Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bill (HB 1660), both of which could have helped the state increase its housing stock. Bateman’s bill would have required all Washington cities to include denser housing options, like fourplexes and courtyard apartments, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing, while Shewmake’s would have permitted mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in all types of residential neighborhoods.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) said “it was not a great year in terms of policy.”

The legislature also killed Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21, Lynnwood) tenant protections bill (HB 1904), failing to vote on it by the first legislative deadline.  Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said it was “one of the biggest losses of the session,” adding, “Democrats in the House shouldn’t have been afraid to vote on that bill.” The bill would have required landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before increasing rent; capped fees for late rent payments at $75; and provided tenants who could not afford a rent increase assistance moving somewhere they could afford. Thomas said the bill was tame and didn’t propose any kind of rent control, typically a third rail for legislators.

Democrats did manage to pass some homelessness bills that will provide temporary help to people living on the streets. The house and senate passed Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43, Seattle) bill that attempts to connect people under the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program with permanent supportive housing (HB 1866). Although the bill initially passed without funding, Democrats secured $60 million for the program in the capital budget. Macri saw the provision as a necessary upgrade. “Being on the budget team, I tried to focus on making sure we had strong investments because we didn’t have the strong policy I wanted to see pass,” she said.

To respond to the ongoing climate crisis, which is only getting worse, Democrats used their transportation package to try and reduce the state’s overall emissions by investing in electrified ferries, expanded transit services and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Climate Solutions Washington Director Kelly Hall said she was pleased with the investments Democrats made with the transportation package and hopes they will allocate more of the funding from the transportation package toward electrifying heavy-duty machinery, like long-haul trucks and construction vehicles, between now and the 2023 legislative session.

While Hall supports the transportation package, she said the legislature failed to pass bills that would reduce emissions from the state’s gas-heated buildings and from other common polluters people don’t often think of. Hall pointed out Rep. Macri’s bill (HB 1918) would have exempted the purchase of energy efficient lawn equipment from the state’s sales tax and encouraged more people to ditch their gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers for zero-emission models. Gas-powered lawn tools “emit a lot of toxic air pollution right in our communities,” Hall said. Continue reading “Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda”

Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Last Wednesday, police and parks department workers removed a highly visible encampment in downtown Seattle after a weekslong standoff between protesters and the city. Mayor Bruce Harrell justified the no-notice sweep by saying the encampment was an “obstruction to pedestrian access” along Fourth Avenue between James and Columbia Streets—a stretch of sidewalk that happens to be visible from the mayor’s office on the seventh floor of City Hall.

Across town, the sweep left advocates and outreach workers wondering whether the city would take similarly swift action to clear a controversial encampment at Woodland Park—the largest remaining park-based encampment in the city, and one Harrell has repeatedly identified as a top priority for his administration. During his campaign, for example, Harrell said the encampment would be gone by “January or February” of this year, “because I work with a sense of urgency.” In January, Harrell officially identified Woodland Park as a “top-priority” site. Then, last month, he re-emphasized the point in his state of the city speech, saying, “we will continue our efforts on top priorities like Woodland Park. … Woodland Park is a gem in our city—and trash, fires, continued inhumane conditions are not acceptable, period.”

Last month, a fire at a campsite in Woodland Park destroyed a tent and damaged a park shelter, prompting renewed neighborhood calls for the city to clear the encampment.

To address trash, the city installed five Dumpsters in the park at a cost of $2,000 each, according to a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the neighborhood surrounding the park, has said the city will take a methodical approach to clearing the encampment—creating a list of every person living there, then moving each of them individually to appropriate shelter or housing before securing the area against future encampments and reclaiming it for general public use. The city took a similar approach at the Ballard Commons, with one major difference—when the city closed the Commons, dozens of new shelter and housing spots had just become available, making it much easier than usual to relocate people into places they actually wanted to be.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park. We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss

At Woodland Park, in contrast, the city must rely on its existing, inadequate pool of shelter and housing options—a tiny house here, a single bed in a gender-segregated shelter there—and hope that people both “accept” referrals to shelter and actually go shelter and stay there instead of coming back.

To that end, the city is reserving “approximately half” of whatever shelter beds open up for people living in Woodland Park, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “Otherwise, the timeline for making offers of shelter to those residing in Woodland Park would only be further extended given the number of people residing onsite”—between 60 and 80, according to outreach workers in the area.

Another difference between Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons is that Woodland Park is much larger and can’t easily be contained, like the Commons, by a fence. This makes it easy for new people to move in—which, Strauss acknowledges, they are doing now.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park,” Strauss said, including some who have arrived specifically because they’ve heard that the city is making shelter and housing available to people living there. “We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.” Outreach workers say that when the city announces an encampment will be swept soon, people usually show up from other places, hoping to get access to shelter and services that are unavailable to people living elsewhere.

To ensure the list of people on the list for shelter and services at Woodland Park doesn’t get longer, outreach workers are creating a “by-name list” of people eligible for expedited access because they lived in the park before a certain date; those who arrive later will get “the same priority as everyone else in the city,” Strauss said. The city prioritizes people for shelter based on their “vulnerability,” a grim calculus that includes factors like a person’s age, disabilities, and the length of time they’ve been homeless. Currently, there are only a handful of shelter beds available on any night for the tens of thousands of people the King County Regional Homelessness Authority now estimates are homeless across the region.

Katie Jendrey, a volunteer with a mutual-aid group that has been working in Woodland Park for months, said the existence of a fixed “by-name list” suggests an officially sanctioned division of Woodland Park’s homeless population into haves and have-nots—those who might get shelter because they got there first, and those who will, by official city policy, be left behind.

“I do think the city is doing something right in doing intensive outreach over an extended time,” Jendrey said. But, she added, “we’ve been nervous about this by-name list thing, because the population always fluctuates. To say ‘We’ve got a list’ [is to say], ‘This is who we’re going to give services to, not those people.'” Continue reading “Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park”

With Advocates Watching Closely, Legislators Propose Office to Respond to Encampments

By Leo Brine

On Thursday, House Democrats amended legislation creating a new office to deal with encampments in public rights-of-way, removing many of the provisions that homeless advocates feared would be used to sweep encampments indiscriminately—and leaving unanswered questions about what its actual impact would be.

The bill, originally requested by Gov, Jay Inslee (SB 5662) and sponsored Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48, Bellevue), would create a new Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right-of-Way Homeless Encampments within the Department of Social and Health Services.

The job of the office would be to coordinate efforts to respond to homeless encampments Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-way, such as underneath highway overpasses, with the ultimate goal of “reducing the number of encamped persons through transition to a permanent housing solution so that the encampment is closed with the site either restored to original conditions or preserved for future use.”

Kuderer said the office would identify new permanent housing or shelter options and offer them to people living in WSDOT rights-of-way before removing people from where they are—“meeting people where they’re at” and connecting them with services and resources. 

The bill’s ultimate goal is to transition people living in encampments to permanent housing, she said, but Kuderer told PubliCola she wanted to include temporary shelters and other sanctioned encampment options in the bill so people will have a place to live that’s not next to a highway while the state tries to create more permanent housing.

Affordable housing and homeless advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness fear that without changes, the bill could be used to justify encampment sweeps.

Alison Eisinger, the Executive Director of the Coalition, told PubliCola, “We appreciate the changes made in the House, and we really like investments in housing and services, but we would be opposed to any bill that encourages sweeps.”

Currently, the bill says encampments on WSDOT property will get priority access to shelter and housing, with encampments that pose “the greatest health and safety risk to the encamped population, the public, or workers on the right-of-way” rising to the top of the list. In practice, this could mean that people living in encampments on WSDOT property would get priority for shelter, services, or housing over other unsheltered people because of their location alone.

“Shelter or housing plans should be complete before engaging persons encamped on the public rights-of-way,” the bill says. However, the bill also stipulates that if there are “concerns over public health and safety, worker access and safety, and public access,” jurisdictions could remove an encampment and displace campers without offering them anywhere to go. In Seattle, a similar set of guidelines has enabled the city to define virtually any encampment in any public space, including sidewalks and parks, as an “obstruction,” allowing it to remove encampments without offering shelter or services and without any advance notice.

Advocates also point out that the bill’s description of the process for transitioning people into housing is vague. The bill expresses the “intent” that cities and other jurisdictions will “engage” unsheltered people “with teams of multidisciplinary experts focused in trauma-informed care” and offer them “provisions of service” with the goal of moving them to permanent housing. But it does not explain who the experts would be, how they would provide “trauma-informed care,” what counts as “service,” and what counts as a “housing solution.” 

WLIHA’s Michele Thomas told lawmakers at the House Housing, Human Services and Veterans committee the bill is “a skeleton of a concept” that  “could actually have harmful impacts” if it isn’t fleshed out. Continue reading “With Advocates Watching Closely, Legislators Propose Office to Respond to Encampments”