Category: housing

Early Council Budget Concerns Include Plans to Raid JumpStart Tax, Cut Pay for Human Service Providers


Chart showing growing gap between city of Seattle revenues and planned expenditures through 2026By Erica C. Barnett

In a preview of the next several weeks of budget deliberations, the city council’s budget committee (which includes all nine council members) discussed their initial questions and concerns about Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposed budget this week.

The budget would require the city council to overturn a 2019 law Harrell himself supported when he was on the council. That law requires the city to increase human service provider contracts by the rate of inflation, with the intent of providing raises to service providers that at least keep up with inflation; during the meeting when the council unanimously approved the law, Harrell said it was important to provide raises to human service providers “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship,” and sponsored an amendment codifying this intent.

The contracts that would be impacted include all the homeless contracts the city funds but that are now administered by the King County Homelessness Authority. Harrell’s proposal would amend this law to cap mandatory pay increases at 4 percent a year, or about half the current rate of inflation, meaning that as long as inflation is higher than 4 percent, human services workers would see declines in real wages year after year. Harrell’s budget cites economic hardship as the reason he is proposing the cut.

Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position. In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to “underpaid” workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

Harrell’s proposed $10 million budget increase for the KCRHA would be earmarked mostly for shelters and tiny house villages, rather than the items the homelessness agency proposed funding in its request for $90 million in additional city and county funding; that unfilled request would have funded a 13 percent wage increase for homeless service providers.

“In the entire spectrum of building this budget, this decision was particularly difficult,” city budget director Julie Dingley told the committee. “We know that human service provider workers do some of the most difficult and meaningful work in the city and that employers do not necessarily enjoy the funding needed, but unfortunately, during forty-year high inflation, the ongoing liability that the current law would require, does not match our ongoing general fund resources.”

Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position. In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to “underpaid” workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

Introducing his amendment at a full council meeting that year, Harrell said, “Some of us have been around where we’ve had real tough times, [during] a recession. While we’ve had to make tough cuts, the work [human services providers] do is so critically important that we recognize we have to preserve if not even enhance the funding” during economic downturns.

On Wednesday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, echoing comments by budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, said she was “disappointed” that the mayor’s budget would permanently cap increases for human service providers regardless of the actual inflation rate. ”

“We heard from folks this morning, nonprofit leaders, who have already passed budgets that provide a modest but essential wage increase for staff on the strength of their trust that the city was going to to follow the law and fully fund the required increase,” Herbold said. “Our intent is to advance nonprofit worker wages, not force them further behind, which I feel that this proposal does.” 

Listen to this week’s Seattle Nice podcast, where Sandeep and Erica find rare common ground in condemning pay cuts for human service providers 

As of earlier this year, the KCRHA reported that the five largest homeless service providers had more than 300 vacancies for jobs that average between $20 and $25 an hour, or between $41,000 and $52,000 a year. Increasing all human services contracts (which include more than just homeless providers) by 7.6 percent, as existing law requires, would cost about $6.5 million. As a point of contrast, Harrell’s budget includes more than $4 million for police recruitment and retention strategies, an effort to increase the number of Seattle Police Department officers that includes hiring bonuses of up to $30,000, on top of an $83,000 starting salary that rapidly increases to six figures, plus overtime, according to SPD’s recruitment page.

Bar graph contrasting low human service provider wages with the Seattle median
Image via King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Harrell’s budget proposes a second change to law that takes the opposite approach to high inflation as his proposal to cap human service contract increases below inflationary levels. This change would allow the city to use the JumpStart payroll tax fund, which is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, equitable development, and small businesses, to provide about $86 million toward filling the $140 million budget gap.

Last year, the council passed a law setting a clear limit on the use of JumpStart funds to backfill general fund shortfalls: If the general fund falls below $1.5 billion, the city can use JumpStart money for other purposes. Harrell’s budget would change that law to pin the general fund baseline to inflation, setting the floor for JumpStart transfers at a variable rate based on the current rate of inflation and allowing the city to use more of the earmarked money for non-JumpStart purposes whenever high inflation leads to economic hardship.

That money includes a presumption of $44 million in unspent JumpStart funds from this year, most of which would go toward a new revenue stabilization (“rainy day”) fund equal to 10 percent of JumpStart revenues every year; another $9 million would pay for administering the JumpStart tax itself through the general fund.

Mosqueda, the architect of the JumpStart tax, said she had questions about how the mayor is proposing to spend the repurposed tax and whether his plan aligns with the four priorities in the original JumpStart legislation.

“We have to continue, as a council, to make sure any of the higher-than-anticipated revenue that is being suggested to be used for investments into the general fund does still align with our city’s core progressive values” as well as “with the priorities this council has articulated in the past,” Mosqueda said.

“Part of the demand we all heard was, you have to tell us where you’re going to spend this [JumpStart] money. I totally agree that we need more revenue in the general fund so we can do the basic things that we need to do as a city, [but] these are commitments we have made to the people of Seattle.”—City Councilmember Tammy Morales

For example, Mosqueda questioned the mayor’s proposal to use $3 million a year in JumpStart funds to pay for 14 new positions at the city to support Sound Transit’s construction of light rail from West Seattle to Ballard, which Dingley said fits into the “Green New Deal” spending category because it involves shifting people from single-occupancy vehicles to trains.

When the council first considered the JumpStart tax, Councilmember Tammy Morales notes, “Part of the demand we all heard was, you have to tell us where you’re going to spend this money. … I totally agree that we need more revenue in the general fund so we can do the basic things that we need to do as a city … [but] these are commitments we have made to the people of Seattle” in the JumpStart spending plan itself and subsequent legislation codifying the spending categories the tax can be used for.

Chart outlining Mayor Harrell's proposed changes to the uses of the JumpStart payroll tax

Harrell’s budget proposal would also broaden the use of the JumpStart tax to allow it to fund housing for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income; currently, the tax primarily funds housing for very low-income people making up to 30 percent of AMI, a group that is not served at all by the market-rate housing market. The JumpStart tax can already pay for mixed-income housing that includes people making up to 60 percent of median, but the change would likely change the balance in favor of people making more money.

Harrell’s budget uses $20 million in unspent funds from 2022 and assumes an ongoing $10 million annual “underspend” in both 2023 and 2024; City Budget Office director Julie Dingley told council members Wednesday that she “would prefer not to have to use this kind of strategy,” but that “we feel comfortable at this point that there will be about this amount left at the end of the year” to balance the next year’s budget.

The budget also proposes using general fund dollars to continue and expand the Clean City Initiative and the new Unified Care Team, which together clean up trash, displace and relocate encampments and RVs, provide information about services and shelter beds to people being displaced by sweeps, and take residents’ complaints about encampments. The proposed budget would allocate more than $13 million to these programs, not counting the many individual line items related to graffiti cleanup, a particular pet peeve for Harrell. The budget would spend more than $800,000 on graffiti abatement, plus another $250,000 on Harrell’s One Seattle Day of Service, which includes graffiti abatement by volunteers.

A Homeless Activist Worked to Help Others Living in Vehicles. This Month, the City Towed Away Her Home.

The city towed Chanel Horner’s bus on September 15. Photo Chanel Horner, reproduced with permission

By Erica C. Barnett

Anyone who has watched concrete blocks sprout like crocuses in the wake of RV removals knows that under Mayor Bruce Harrell, the city has taken a newly aggressive approach toward people living in their vehicles.

Although Harrell says the city does not “sweep—we treat and we house”—the fact is that since June of this year, when the city resumed enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours, there have been about two scheduled RV sweeps every week, on top of removals sparked by complaints, criminal activity, and vehicle fires. Few of those people have received treatment (which the city does not provide) or housing. Most have either moved to another location or watched their RVs disappear on taxpayer-funded tow trucks—the last time most RV residents will see the only shelter they had.

Chanel Horner lost her home—an old bus she spray-painted with slogans like “RVLoution”—on Thursday, September 15, when a crew from the city arrived to remove it from a street in Georgetown, along with about four other RVs and three vehicles, according to the city’s September encampment removal schedule. Horner had tried unsuccessfully to order compressed natural gas from a nearby provider so she could move the bus, and the towing company she called to pull the bus across the First Avenue South bridge into South Park cited a price of $1,500.

“You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes.”

Still, Horner had strong ties with local service providers—an active member of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Vehicular Residency Workgroup, she advocates for RV residents and often helps people move—and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said they would pay to tow her bus.

“The solution was to either get [Horner] the fuel or get [her] to a place to get the fuel, and no process that doesn’t allow those things to happen should be funded with city money,” the coalition’s director, Alison Eisinger said. “It is clearly an outrageously flawed process that allows this kind of preventable sequence of events to occur,” Eisinger added, “and everyone should be outraged about it.”

“I really thought we were going to be able to tow it out of there, right until the last minute,” Horner said. Instead, after a brief standoff, Horner left the bus behind, bringing a few personal items with her, including the ashes of her dog, who died in December.

We were sitting outside a Starbucks in Georgetown, shouting over traffic and the occasional roar of airplanes a few blocks from where Horner used to live. The site is now barricaded against future RV encampments with concrete eco-blocks, an illegal but ubiquitous tool used by business owners to prevent RV residents from coming back after sweeps. Horner said the city offered her a spot in a tiny house village—a type of shelter where sleep in small cabins and are expected to accept services and work toward housing—but she considers such offers “pretty tenuous.”

Besides, she said, “I didn’t really want a tiny home because I do believe I’m supposed to be in my bus.” According to a 2021 state supreme court ruling, people living in their vehicles enjoy certain rights under the state Homestead Act, including protection against excessive fines and the sale of a person’s vehicle to pay their debts. To Horner, though, the homestead designation has a special, additional meaning. “You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes. … We’re not homeless,” she added,  “until Bruce Harrell gives the order to tow our homes.”

PubliCola sent a detailed list of questions to several city departments that were involved in the Georgetown RV removal, including the mayor’s office. A spokeswoman for the mayor provided a boilerplate explanation of RV removals, which the city calls “remediations,” including several different reasons the city might decide to remove an RV.

“She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

The spokeswoman did not respond to any of our questions about the decision to impound Horner’s bus, including why her bus was a priority in the first place; whether the city considers extenuating circumstances like the fact that Horner planned to tow the bus herself; and whether the city considered it a positive outcome for Horner to lose her vehicle in exchange for a shelter offer she didn’t take. We also asked whether the city always considered it “a better outcome to move people out of vehicles and into other forms of shelter, including people who are high-functioning and don’t want or require intensive services”—again, with no response.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA, which does not directly participate in sweeps, said that “outreach providers were active in trying to find an alternative resolution” to Horner’s situation. “She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

In June, KCRHA announced a contract with the Low-Income Housing Institute to to set up an RV “safe lot” for up to 50 vehicles at a time, with the goal of moving people quickly out of their RVs and into “stable, permanent housing.” Horner says she has no interest in that kind of arrangement; she wants to live in her RV, in a “trailer park” with other RV residents, with restrooms, regular trash service, and a community kitchen—kind of like a tiny house village, but without curfews, check-ins, and a commitment to moving out after a certain period.

“I’m really passionate about setting up the RV park,” Horner said. “I want to start the non-movement—because we’re not moving.”

 

Feds Come to Seattle to Set Up “Command Center” for Downtown Homelessness

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By Erica C. Barnett

Contractors with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened at the city’s Emergency Operations Center last week to begin setting up a formal “housing command center” for addressing homelessness in downtown Seattle, PubliCola has learned. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority requested HUD’s help setting up the command center, which agency CEO Marc Dones touted during the announcement of a public-private partnership called “Partnership for Zero” earlier this year.

HUD, which funds housing through housing vouchers and other programs, has been meeting quietly with officials from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, and officials from the city’s Human Services Department over the past two weeks. The goal, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, is to set up a “incident response system” plan for homelessness, treating it like an emergent crisis rather than a perpetual, unchanging problem.

“We’ve heard from our neighbors that we need to treat this emergency like an emergency, so that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Martens said.

The difference isn’t just semantic. “An incident command system is a management structure that can really be used to organize any big event,” from planning a wedding to planning for emergency shelter during heat and smoke, Curry Mayer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, explained. In practice, this means setting up several teams to deal with operations, logistics, planning, and administration, all reporting to a command team that runs the show and gets information out to the public and press.

“We are taking best practices learned from years of emergency housing response during disasters like hurricanes and other major displacements, and applying those proven practices to help people experiencing homelessness move inside,” Martens said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office said that although the technical assistance does not come with any new funding for housing or services, it “helps communities apply the lessons learned from other communities, including those that used a similar structure to assist people experiencing homelessness following major disasters. The duration of the technical assistance will depend on the circumstances on the ground, but it will likely last a few months.”

The team is already meeting daily to share updates on each team’s progress and challenges, the same way local agencies meet daily during short-term emergencies, like the snowstorm that shut down transportation around the city last year and left thousands of unsheltered people out in subfreezing temperatures for days.

This approach is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to homelessness, which is divided into silos such as encampment removals, emergency response, shelters, and housing. The logistics team, for example, might be in charge of figuring out ways to make permanent housing accessible more quickly, such as waiving eligibility requirements (HUD rules currently require a person to be homeless for at least a year before they’re eligible for a voucher, for example) or offering incentives to landlords to move people into apartments quickly.

“This effort will further improve coordination and speed up action, with permanent housing as the top priority,” Martens said.

Although the command center doesn’t come with additional funds for housing, multiple people familiar with the effort expressed hope that it could open the door to additional HUD funds in the future. In 2020, a McKinsey report estimated that it would cost as much as $1 billion a year to fully address homelessness in King County—more than eight times the KCRHA’s current annual budget. Mayor Bruce Harrell—whose office directed questions to the KCRHA—has indicated that he has little interest in contributing tens of millions more to the KCRHA’s budget, as the authority has requested.

The Office of Emergency Management won’t be directly participating in the command center’s operations, but they will provide meeting space and a press room for regular briefings. Because the EOC’s operations are sensitive, the question of access has been the subject of some internal debate. The building where the KCRHA is located, a former jail that also houses the county’s sobering center, and the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, were both reportedly considered but rejected in favor of the high-tech, visually appealing emergency hub.

It’s Time to Ditch Design Review

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

By Laura Loe, Wes Mills, and Mike Eliason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment on these meetings here.

Watch upcoming meetings here.

Stakeholders

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

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

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

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

Social Housing Campaign Hopes to Squeak Through After Learning 1,000 Signatures Won’t Count

By Erica C. Barnett

The campaign for Initiative 135, which would create a public development authority to build and operate social (public) housing in Seattle, expressed frustration with the King County Elections division this week after discovering that around 1,000 signatures the campaign gathered in an effort to get the measure on the ballot will not be counted because they came in too late.

House Our Neighbors, the Real Change-backed campaign for I-135, had hoped to get the measure on the November 2022 ballot; generally speaking, even-year November elections have much higher turnout, and a more progressive electorate, than primary and special elections held at other times of the year. King County Elections began counting signatures on July 5, and determined on July 21 that they did not have enough valid signatures to qualify.

The city charter gives initiative campaigns that fail to qualify for the ballot another 20 days after a determination of insufficiency to gather additional signatures; although the signatures would come too late for the November election, the House Our Neighbors campaign hoped to gather another 5,000 valid signatures to qualify for next February’s ballot.

According to campaign leader Tiffani McCoy, the campaign believed the county would reset the timeline for collecting signatures, creating a new “terminal date” that would allow them to collect signatures well into August; they also didn’t realize they could keep collecting signatures while waiting for the county to start counting them—the window between June 22, when the campaign submitted signatures to the elections office, and July 5, when the office began counting them.

“We had assumed we could gather throughout this (past) weekend,” McCoy said, referring to the weekend of August 13-14. Nor did the campaign know they had a two-week window to keep gathering signatures after turning in the first round, “which would have been great to know because we could have finished our signature gathering during Pride weekend,” June 24-26.

The initiative would set up a public development authority—a type of public developer—that could build and operate new publicly funded, permanently affordable housing in Seattle; funding to actually build new housing would come later and could require the state legislature to approve a new funding mechanism.

In a press release Tuesday, the campaign expressed “frustration navigating unclear policies and processes around citizens’ initiatives. There needs to be a clear way to navigate this process, especially for those who do not have the resources to keep a lawyer on retainer.” If the 7,543 signatures the campaign turned in last week aren’t enough to produce 5,033 new, valid signatures, I-135 will not qualify for the February ballot.

Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban

exterior of Union Gospel Mission, downtown Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit that runs shelter and feeding programs and provides supplies to people sleeping outside, sued to evict one of the homeless women living at its Re:Novo transitional housing building in West Seattle at the height of the pandemic, arguing that the group was exempt from local renter protections because their work helping and housing homeless people is “incidental” to their primary mission—proselytizing and promoting “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Last week, a state appeals court rejected the last of UGM’s arguments against Re:Novo resident Rebecca Bauer, whom the organization started trying to evict in March 2020, shortly after the state and local eviction moratoriums began.

The ruling, which prevents UGM’s eviction motion from showing up in tenant screening reports, concludes UGM’s two-year-long effort to evict Bauer, and contrasts the nonprofit with other religious housing and shelter programs operating in Seattle, such as Catholic Housing Services and Mercy Housing, which complied with the state and local bans on evictions during the pandemic. The group can seek to evict Bauer in the future, but has not tried to do so since last year.

Bauer moved into Re:Novo in July 2018, after moving to Seattle from Minnesota. She found out about the program from UGM’s Hope shelter in Kent. When she asked about the program, she told PubliCola “they said, ‘This is a Christian program,’ and I was like, ‘Hold up, first of all, I’m not a Christian,'” Bauer said. “And they told me, ‘that’s no problem.'”

In its formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed)), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans.

Bauer moved in to her new apartment—a $500-a-month “apodment” style unit that shared a kitchen and common area with four other rooms—in 2018, but didn’t sign her housing agreement until the following year. That agreement, amended by a staffer to exempt Bauer from program requirements like mandatory church attendance and religious counseling, was at the heart of UGM’s case to evict her. It says the length of the Re:Novo program is “one to two years … decided on a case-by-case basis for each resident.”

Re:Novo’s rules go far beyond a typical shelter or housing program. In addition to a ban on alcohol and “addictive drugs” (a category that, for UGM, includes medication to treat opiate addiction as well as poppy seeds) Re:Nov bans women living at the building from having any sexual relationships, watching movies rated PG-13 or R-rated movies, participating in “occult activity,” and leaving their rooms without “proper clothing,” including “bras underneath their clothes.”

The program also requires residents to attend services at Trinity West Seattle, a conservative church that believes in heterosexual marriage, with the wife serving in “submission” to her husband, as the only “normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women.” Bauer said that on several occasions, a program staffer asked invasive questions about her dating life, implying she was a lesbian. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined to take up UGM’s appeal in a discrimination case filed in 2017 by a lawyer the group refused to hire after discovering he was in a same-sex relationship.

The eviction notice came at a difficult time for Bauer. Since moving to Seattle, she had started to get back on her feet. With the help of the YWCA, which featured her as a speaker at its annual luncheon in 2019, she got her license as a certified nursing assistant and went to work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle, “which I loved because it was something new. I had always worked in nursing homes, and [the VA] was completely different. It was so exciting.”

Then COVID hit. Bauer got sick, landing in emergency room three times, and on March 30, 2020, UGM told her she had to be out by May. Their initial explanation was that she had failed to comply with program requirements by leaving her room at least once to cook food while she was sick and waiting for her COVID test results, putting the safety of other residents at risk.

Later, in a formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans. UGM’s eviction motion also claimed that Bauer was rude to staff, moved to a downstairs unit without permission, and left a stove burner on, and that her behavior ultimately forced UGM to abandon the entire half of the building where Bauer lived, leaving several units vacant. 

Rebecca Bauer’s program agreement exempted her from requirements that she attend church and participate in counseling—two issues Union Gospel Mission would later bring up when seeking to evict her.

These conditions, UGM argued, constituted an “imminent threat” to the health and safety of other tenants and staff, one of the only explicit exemptions to the city’s eviction ban.

UGM did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement responding to PubliCola’s questions about the lawsuit, UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor focused on Bauer’s alleged health and safety violations.

“The entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.”—UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor

“The Mission offered multiple times to help relocate Ms. Bauer to a more suitable housing situation, which she repeatedly declined,” Taylor said. “Most of the participants in the Re:novo recovery program are highly vulnerable, often fleeing domestic violence or recovering from addiction and susceptible to relapse. Ms. Bauer’s conduct put others at risk and the Mission felt that legal action was the only remaining option for protecting other program participants.”

Although Bauer vehemently denied all of those charges, both in court and in a lengthy conversation with PubliCola—in particular, she said her housing manager told her she could move into a unit another woman was vacating if she helped to clean it out—UGM didn’t actually make the “imminent threat” argument a centerpiece of its lawsuit.

Instead, they argued that they didn’t have to comply with the eviction bans because the housing UGM provides is just “incidental” to its central purpose of “proclaim[ing] the gospel and love of Jesus Christ to women.” As UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor put it in his argument before a King County Superior Court judge last year, “the entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.” Continue reading “Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban”

Maybe Metropolis: The Solution Is More Density, Not Just More Taxes

Image of three developments allowed in some former single-family areas, from least to most dense: residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2.
MHA’s modest upzones on a sliver of Seattle’s single-family land include (l-r) residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2. Images via City of Seattle.

By Josh Feit

The JumpStart tax, city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s payroll tax on big employers like Amazon, is posting standout numbers. This year, JumpStart will fund $97 million in affordable housing investments, including nearly $80 million for 1,769 units of affordable rental housing. Last year, the $71.4 million it provided toward affordable housing amounted to almost half the $153 million total raised by all the city’s affordable housing funding streams.

The Jump Start tax teases out the nexus between surging tech job growth and housing prices by capturing nouveau corporate Seattle’s impact on the market. That is: As the hyper growth of tech companies like Amazon inflate local housing prices, the city is taxing them to help fund affordable housing. It’s a good look, and it seems like a logical offset for the influx of high-earning tech employees. And, let’s be honest: It also feels good.

However, as much as I agree with the logic of an Amazon tax, and as much as it’s bringing in, I think there’s a more germane and effective way to raise affordable housing dollars. Luckily, it’s already part of our affordable housing strategy—sort of.

I’m talking about 2019’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, a fee on new development in designated parts of the city, which brought in an impressive $50 million in 2021 itself.

Given that Jump Start outpaced MHA by $20 million, why am I focusing on  MHA as the smarter policy? For starters, MHA, which came with a series of targeted upzones that allow more housing in more places, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city. These historical zoning laws cordon off nearly 75 percent of the city from multifamily housing, pinching supply and thus fueling steep housing prices.

While conventional wisdom holds that upzones and new development inflate housing costs, a 2021 UCLA report found that the latest studies show the opposite: Five out of six studies looking at the impact of market-rate housing determined that new market-rate density “makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units.”

Conversely, those who warn that upzones lead to gentrification, have a hard time explaining why gentrification is alreday happening in Seattle today, under our status-quo zoning that prohibits the very density urbanists are calling for. More logically, the prohibition on new development in so much of the city is spiking prices for the limited housing that is available.

Seattle gained 130,000 people between 2010 and 2020 (13,000 a year) and another 8,400 during the first year of the pandemic, many of them tech transplants. These newcomers didn’t cause the housing shortage, though—they merely brought it into sharper relief. The MHA strategy, which encourages housing development, is actually in the position to do something about it.

MHA, which came with a series of targeted up-zones, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city.

And MHA might be worth more money than JumpStart. The MHA data point that interests me most is $13.4 million, a subset of MHA dollars raised. This figure represents the amount of money MHA raised specifically from developments built on land where it was previously prohibited: multifamily housing built on land that was upzoned in Seattle’s previously exclusive single-family zones.

Passed in 2019, MHA didn’t merely tack a fee onto new development; it also upzoned tracts along the edges of 27 single-family zones, allowing small-scale density in some previously single-family-only neighborhoods by expanding low-rise and neighborhood commercial zones and creating a new “residential small lot” zoning designation. These modest upzones, which the city adopted on just 6 percent of single-family land, allow new housing that fits in seamlessly with single-family houses.

Interestingly, this modest bit of geography— 6% of the single-family zones, or  4% of the city’s total developable land—accounted for nearly 20 percent of all MHA dollars. This outsized production could represent an upward trend. Last year, the same modestly upzoned fraction of single-family areas brought in 12 percent of the money raised from MHA overall, $8.3 million out of MHA’s $68.3 million.

This disproportionate performance indicates that pent-up demand for development on formerly cordoned-off land could be a spigot of affordable housing cash. Consider: There’s a lot more developable land where that 6 percent came from, and the city could increase the potential density of those areas more dramatically than it has to allow multifamily and commercial development, for example. If the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell had the courage to stand up to Seattle’s NIMBY class by extending the upzones further into exclusive single-family areas and by opting for denser upzones, Seattle would generate far more cash for affordable housing.

Sure, $80 million from the JumpStart tax  is helping a lot. But the truth is, we need far more money for housing. According to the Office of Housing, MHA helped fund 990 units in 2021. But, according to the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force , we need 12,000 a year. Unfortunately, JumpStart’s impressive figures could dampen any move to expand the more on-point MHA approach, which raises money for affordable housing (and could raise a lot more) while actually addressing the crux of the housing problem by freeing up land for development.

In this way, JumpStart could unwittingly play to the interests of single-family homeowners (and their ever-appreciating property values) by shifting the focus away from the central role these homeowners play in the housing crisis, holding them harmless and avoiding bold policy solutions by taking their communities off the table.

According to the MHA numbers, the 4 percent of Seattle that we timidly opened up to more housing construction is trying to tell us something: The table is bigger than we think.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents

Bellwether Housing's Anchor Flats building in South Lake Union
Bellwether Housing, whose properties include the Anchor Flats apartment building in South Lake Union, is limiting rent increases this year. Image via Bellwether Housing

By Katie Wilson

It’s no secret that rents are rising. Landlords are making up for lost time after pandemic-era rent freezes, and passing inflation-driven cost increases on to tenants. After a brief exodus from urban areas, many renters who left have now returned. Climbing interest rates are forcing potential homebuyers to wait, crowding the rental market.

With all these pressures driving up market-rate rents, it must feel great to live in an affordable, rent-restricted apartment right now. Right?

Maybe not. A quiet wave of large rent hikes is coming. For some, it’s already here. Earlier this month, seniors at a building operated by Mercy Housing in Bellingham hit the streets to protest a 9 percent rent increase that left some residents owing more than 60 percent of their monthly income to their nonprofit landlord—twice as much as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of “affordable” housing.

Every April, HUD releases income and rent limits for certain types of affordable housing, based on area median income. Once upon a time, these limits might rise in King County by 1 or 2 percent a year, but starting in 2017, the annual increase jumped as high as 7 percent. The pandemic briefly slowed this ascent, but the increase announced this April is truly startling: In HUD’s calculation, King County’s median family income rose by 16.3 percent from 2021 to 2022. That means rents at properties governed by HUD’s formulas may also rise by 16.3 percent this year—or even more, if a unit wasn’t already priced at its upper limit.

Of course, the fact that King County’s median household is now pulling in $134,600 instead of $115,700 doesn’t mean that lower-income households suddenly have more money to spend on rent. Seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, working families earning near the minimum wage—they’re not getting raises like that. Therein lies the problem.

Although many types of affordable housing are protected from large rent increases, many buildings financed with federal low income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and tax-exempt bonds are not. The same is true for most units whose rents are restricted through state and local multifamily tax exemptions (MFTE) and programs like incentive zoning and Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

When the HUD limits began rising sharply several years ago, the city of Seattle changed the rules for new MFTE units so that maximum rents wouldn’t go up more than 4.5 percent a year. That change has kept rent hikes within reason for more than 200 units so far, but tenants living in older MFTE units—about 5,600—are subject to the escalating HUD limits.

That’s how Fatima ended up with a rent increase of over $600 a month. (We’ve changed the names of renters to protect their privacy).

More than a year ago, Fatima moved into an MFTE unit in North Seattle thanks to a rapid rehousing program run by a domestic violence organization. (Rapid rehousing is a form of temporary rent subsidy that helps low-income renters pay for housing). The rent was $1,500 for a 2-bedroom—significantly less than the going rent for the area, possibly because there weren’t many takers during the pandemic slump

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

Fatima said her landlord assured her that the rent wouldn’t go up drastically. After the rapid rehousing support ended, she was selected for an emergency housing voucher, a federal COVID relief program similar to Section 8 (now known as Housing Choice) that pays for a portion of a tenant’s rent.

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

“We said, hold on, you told us it wouldn’t be that much. They said, you know, it’s based on the market,” said the housing advocate. “That put it over the [rent] limit for her voucher.” 

This week, Fatima’s landlord agreed to lower her rent to fit her voucher limit, allowing her to stay in her home. But not every renter is able to negotiate that kind of agreement.

Seniors on fixed incomes are an especially vulnerable group. King County’s area median income has been rising faster than social security payments for some time now. When the rent rises beyond seniors’ means, “we simply have nowhere else to go,” said Sarah, who lives in a senior housing complex in Seattle.

Sarah’s building was financed through the federal LIHTC program, and up until four years ago, it was run by a nonprofit. “Rent increases were minimal, and management was responsive to tenants’ needs,” she said. Then a national for-profit company bought the building. By that time, many tenants were also voucher holders, seeking out lower-cost units as market-rate rents rose beyond what their vouchers would cover. The corporation quickly showed itself to be all business.

“A tenant association begun under previous ownership was not allowed to use common rooms for meetings,” said Sarah, and a manager threatened to evict a tenant who started a Facebook group for residents. The corporation also tried to require electronic rent payments, until residents pointed out that this is illegal in Seattle.

Now some tenants are facing rent increases of $175 a month, surpassing some residents’ voucher limits. “Because some voucher holders have disabilities involving psychological difficulties, this situation caused much anguish,” said Sarah. “All tenants, including those with vouchers, know that buildings like ours are their only answer—they are shut out of market-rate housing and waiting lists for low-income apartments are years long.”

Not every resident of affordable housing is in trouble. Programs that receive federal operating funds typically limit the amount of rent tenants must pay to 30 percent of the person’s income; this includes many buildings owned and managed by the King County Housing Authority and the Seattle Housing Authority. Housing Choice voucher holders are similarly protected—as long as they live in units with rent low enough that a voucher will pay for them. Many nonprofit housing providers also receive operating funds from other sources that come with limits on rent hikes.

“The city of Seattle is a funder in most of our buildings,” said Michelle House, director of compliance at Community Roots Housing. “This year, Seattle restricted [rent increases] to 4.2 percent. We did follow that guideline for most of our apartments.”

Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, says that rent increases at their properties depend “on the building and which entities regulate the building, if any.” But Bellwether made a decision this year to limit rent hikes to an average of 3 percent.

“Notwithstanding ever-increasing rents in the market and significant inflation in operation costs, this will be the first year since 2019 that we have raised rents at all. We are very careful to ensure that our residents do not get overwhelmed by steep rent increases, regardless of what is happening with the HUD rent levels,” she said.

Continue reading “Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents”

Amazon’s Housing Fund Sends a Political Message

Sea Cow, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Katie Wilson

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell stood at a podium and thanked Amazon for funding affordable housing in Seattle. With him stood the director of Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund and representatives of three housing development organizations led by people of color that are receiving loans or grants from Amazon totaling about $23 million: Mount Baker Housing, El Centro de la Raza, and Gardner Global, a Black-owned developer working on a mixed-use apartment project at the former site of Mount Calvary Christian Center in the Central District.

This is Amazon’s most recent disbursement from the $2 billion Amazon pledged last January for affordable housing in three of its employment hubs. Three of the projects, including the Mount Baker Village preservation project, are affordable to people earning up to 60 percent of the Seattle area median income, currently about $54,000 for a single person; Gardner Global’s development in the Central District will include units for households up to 80% of area median income.

Amazon is by far Seattle’s—and now Washington state’s—largest employer. Over the past six years, Amazon’s relationship with the city and its politics has been fraught, with dramatic tussles over taxes, heavy-handed bids to sway local elections, and tech worker protests over the company’s role in the climate crisis. Given this history, it’s worth looking more closely at Amazon’s investment in affordable housing: its scale, what it means for the recipients and the company, and its political significance.

To begin with the obvious, $23 million is not a great sacrifice for Amazon, especially considering that $15 million comes in the form of low-interest loans that will be repaid.

JumpStart brought in an impressive $248 million last year. If Amazon’s tax bill really is on the order of $124 million, then these grants amount to about one-fifteenth of that.

It’s instructive to compare the $8 million Amazon will spend on two of the projects in grants to what the company may be forking over to the city this year thanks to JumpStart Seattle, a payroll-based tax paid by the city’s largest employers that passed in 2020.

Neither Amazon nor the city will disclose that number. But back-of-the-napkin math suggests that the company could easily be responsible for over half the total revenue from the tax, given the size of its Seattle workforce and the graduated structure of the tax, whose rate rises based on company size and worker compensation. JumpStart brought in an impressive $248 million last year. If Amazon’s tax bill really is on the order of $124 million, then these grants amount to about one-fifteenth of that.

According to Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, “$97 million from JumpStart went to the Office of Housing to be disbursed in the 2022 calendar year” to support affordable housing projects and services. Given that another large chunk of the first year’s revenue went to plug pandemic-related budget holes, she said, “we should be able to do even more next year.”

Those city funds are already enabling property acquisition and affordable housing development at least 16 sites around the city. I wish those projects and the progressive tax revenue supporting them got as many press conferences and as much media fanfare as Amazon’s housing fund has inspired.

All this is not to say that Amazon’s voluntary grants and loans are unimportant to their recipients. Cobbling together funds to build and operate affordable housing is extremely challenging. Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, which received $3.5 million for an 87-unit project in Columbia City for families earning between 30 and 60 percent of area median income, says the grant is helping to close a gap caused by rapidly rising costs.

“We had a $54 million budget at the first of the year, then our contractor did a new estimate and it went up to $58 million,” Ortega said. “Amazon’s money is critical. If we had to raise another few million, we would not be breaking ground on January of 2023, which is our plan.”

This also illustrates that Amazon’s contributions, though they may be crucial, are one small part of the funding for these projects: That $3.5 million almost covers the sales tax costs for El Centro Columbia City. The project is also receiving $5 million from the state Housing Trust Fund and over $11 million from the city of Seattle, among other sources. (Interestingly, Seattle’s contribution includes over $7 million from JumpStart. If my speculative math is correct, that means Amazon may be paying as much into the project through taxes as through the grant.)

You can’t really blame Amazon’s public relations team for titling its press release—“Amazon to fund construction of 568 affordable homes in Seattle”—to the company’s best advantage, subtly implying that Amazon might be footing the entire bill. It’s less forgivable for the Seattle Times to begin its coverage the same way—“Amazon committed Thursday to providing $23 million to create and preserve nearly 600 affordable homes in Seattle”—and then make no mention at all in the rest of the piece of other funding sources or the total costs involved. The average member of the public, no expert on housing development and finance, could easily walk away with the impression that Amazon is singlehandedly gifting us 600 affordable homes.

None of this might matter, and might be considered nitpicking, if there was no larger political meaning to Amazon’s actions. But the tenor of the June press conference, with Amazon in the role of good corporate citizen, contrasted sharply enough with the fights of recent years to make one wonder. When Amazon’s housing fund and an initial round of recipients were first announced in 2021, the absence of projects in Seattle was conspicuous. Instead, $185.5 million (mostly in loans) went to projects in Bellevue, every pundit’s favorite foil to Seattle when it comes to Amazon-politics. So what does it mean that Amazon is suddenly playing so nice with its hometown? Continue reading “Amazon’s Housing Fund Sends a Political Message”

Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments

1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.

“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”

Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable. 

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.

Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.

2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association

The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”

By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges. 

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare,” Daugaard said. “That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.” Continue reading “Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments”