Category: housing

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”

Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness

1. The campaign for Initiative 135, which would create a new public development authority to build publicly owned “social housing,” announced on Wednesday that it had just turned in 29,000 signatures to qualify their citywide initiative for the November 2022 ballot.

The House Our Neighbors campaign, led by the advocacy group Real Change, used paid signature gatherers to give their effort a boost in its final weeks, but the final count leaves little room for chance: To get on the ballot, a measure must be backed by signatures representing 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election, or about 26,500 names. Because many signatures are typically invalid, campaigns often try to collect as many signatures as possible; House Our Neighbors had hoped to collect around 35,000 names.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Real Change policy director Tiffany McCoy said the campaign combed over its signatures to eliminate as many as possible with non-Seattle addresses or information that was otherwise unclear. “If for some reason we come up five [signatures] short or 100, we do have a 20-day window to gather those requisite signatures and turn those in get on the ballot,” McCoy said. “Even if we don’t succeed this time, we will succeed in the future,” McCoy added. “This is happening one way or another.”

2. During a question-and-answer session sponsored by the business-backed homelessness nonprofit We Are In Tuesday evening, Mayor Bruce Harrell stuck to talking points about “treatment,” “data,” and “compassion” in response to questions about his administration’s progress on homelessness. Instead of covering all his responses to We Are In director Felicia Salcedo’s friendly questions, we thought it would be useful to provide a short fact check on a few of the mayor’s key talking points from Tuesday’s event.

“Housing and Treatment”

As he has at many press events involving homelessness, Harrell said the city’s response to homelessness would focus on ensuring people get the “treatment” they need. Responding to a question about the increase in encampment removals, Harrell said, “I lead with housing and I lead with treatment.”

In fact, even in the handful of cases where the city has done months of focused outreach before sweeping an area, sweeps almost never lead directly to housing or treatment. Instead, the city’s HOPE Team provides referrals to available shelter beds, which include everything from congregate “enhanced” shelter to tiny house villages. (Less than half of shelter referrals, generally speaking, result in someone actually showing up and staying at a shelter for at least one night). The city of Seattle provides very limited funding for programs that can lead to treatment, such as community court, with the overwhelming majority of local treatment dollars coming out of the King County budget.

“An unprecedented level of transparency” 

Earlier this month, Harrell rolled out what he described as an unprecedented public dashboard containing information about where people are living unsheltered, what kind of shelter or housing the city is offering people prior to encampment removals, and new shelter and housing units that are opening up.

Asked about the dashboard, Harrell said that it includes not just “a heat map” of “where people are living [and] where we’re offering people shelter” but a detailed breakdown of what the city is spending on homelessness and information to help the public “as we track our police and fire responses” to encampments.

In reality, the website Harrell announced shows only very high-level and partial information about the state of homelessness in Seattle. For example, the information on emergency responses consists of three high-level, citywide numbers representing information available through April, and the “heat map” includes an obviously incomplete count of tents and RVs by neighborhood; as an example, the map says there are no tents or RVs in the entire University District, and just one in Beacon Hill and South Beacon Hill combined. The information is also incomplete (many former encampments the map highlights include the note “outreach data not available”) and out of date; the most recent update came from information available in mid-May, and the website does not allow viewers to download any data themselves.

Information about what the city spends on homelessness, meanwhile, is misleading; a pie chart and several slides meant to illustrate the city’s contribution to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s budget includes tens of millions of dollars in federal emergency funds that do not come directly from the city, which contributed just under $70 million—not $118 million—to the authority last year.

Suburban Cities

Asked about the role suburban areas can or should be playing in addressing homelessness, Harrell said he would continue helping people who are “not from Seattle” but are moving here because the areas where they live are less “compassionate” toward people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness”

One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success”

By Erica C. Barnett

The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which administers contracts and sets policy for the region’s homelessness response system, has seen its share of hiccups in the two and a half years since the city and county voted to create the agency in December 2019. In addition to the pandemic, the agency has faced budget battles, hiring challenges, and open clashes with homeless service providers over the appropriate response to unsheltered homelessness.

A partnership with businesses that aims to eliminate all tents from downtown Seattle by providing intensive case management from people who have been homeless themselves sparked controversy, as did the authority’s request—the second in two years—for significantly more city funding than Seattle leaders said they could provide.

Recently, the agency’s CEO, Marc Dones, stood side by side with Mayor Bruce Harrell at an event celebrating the closure of an encampment at Woodland Park, which Dones distinguished from a traditional encampment sweep because most of the people living there received extensive outreach and shelter referrals. As a matter of official policy, KCRHA opposes sweeps—a position that puts the agency in constant tension with the city, which has dramatically accelerated encampment removals since Harrell became mayor.

I sat down with Dones in their bare-bones office in Pioneer Square last week to discuss some of the controversies they’ve encountered in their first year on the job, the authority’s relationship with the city, and where they believe the region is making progress on homelessness.

We started out by discussing the emergency housing vouchers provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its COVID relief efforts last year. HUD set up a complex, multi-layer process for delivering these vouchers to people who need them; as a result, many nonprofit service providers across the country have struggled to get the vouchers in their clients’ hands and ultimately get their clients into housing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PubliCola: To start us off, can you talk a little bit about where the region has made progress on homelessness in the year since you took over at the agency?

Marc Dones: I would say we have made really significant progress on engaging, for lack of a better term, non-standard providers, and I think our emergency housing voucher work is the best example of that. Our emergency housing voucher program is trending above national [rates], in terms of lease-up, by almost half. I think we’re at 60 percent, and the country’s at something like 33.

I’m using ‘provider’ really broadly here, because a lot of these folks who are linked to the EHV program were not funded by the system at all. They’re folks who do more mutual aid-style work, where they are supporting people who are experiencing homelessness, often through relational work, and case management activities. How we have been able to connect people with the vouchers as a resource, and then support them through lease-up and then into housing, has really hinged on this idea that if we went to where people have their relationships, and use that as the primary vehicle, we would see success. And I think that we are seeing success.

I [also] think of our severe weather response, because we tapped into who’s supporting people outside, and how can we get the money to better support people who are outside, instead of hyper-focusing on this idea that we have to open up 10 more severe weather shelters downtown that people probably aren’t going to use, because they don’t provide parking, or you can’t store your stuff, or it’s only overnight. [So we focused on], how do we get stuff to people that it’s going to meaningfully interrupt potential harm, like just straight-up supplies.

Some of the other stuff that I’m particularly proud of—controversial in some spaces though it is—is our ability to engage philanthropy and business and to be able to begin to migrate towards being on the same page as some of those folks who have historically been positioned as external to the narrative, and then securing their buy-in in to put a significant chunk of change into the system for single adults. Which, not for nothing, it’s always families [who get support through philanthropy]. And so being able to work with the team of folks to get that much buy-in around single adults felt like a really big deal for me.

“If timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public.”

PC: In implementing the public-private Partnership for Zero, how is the authority ensuring that KCRHA is not prioritizing people in one geographic area for beds in the whole system or for units in the whole system?

MD: I get this question from everybody. And I keep having to say, well, no, that kind of will happen to some degree, because we don’t have enough stuff. Full stop. And so part of what the authority is looking to do is create geographic areas of focus, where we drive a ton of good outcomes for people who need us.

Downtown was selected because it has the highest concentration of unsheltered homelessness in the county, particularly for chronically homeless folks. And my expectation is that the vast majority of the folks that we are going to be engaging with—because of how prioritization currently works in terms of having a severe and persistent disability, being eligible for permanent supportive housing, etc.—are folks who we know would rise to the top of lists if they were engaged anyway.

But I think that what we have said is, until such a time as we have enough resources to activate countywide, we are going to have to make choices about where is our specific focus, and then we’re going to have to drive real hard and then shift, and drive real hard and then shift. And I will not defend it as the best way to do this work.  But I will defend it as what is possible for us inside the resource scarcity that we have.

PC: Do you think that you’re on track for “functional zero” [no permanent downtown homeless population] on the timeline you rolled out back in March?

MD: So far so good. I think we’re on track. [That said,] I do want this to feel less opaque to the general public. And I want timeline shifts to not be government failure, particularly when we’re doing complex, human-centered work. And it might take longer as we learn more about who those folks are. I think that if timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public so that when those shifts happen, they should have enough insight into what we do, so that their reaction isn’t ‘The government is out here playing with the timelines.’ We have to get that level of trust. And I know we don’t have it, but we have to get it.

PC: There has been a dramatic increase in encampment sweeps during the new administration. What the KCRHA’s role leading up to and during encampment removals?

MD: Our role is relatively limited. We play a role, but that role is outreach. Currently, we are in receipt of the removal calendar between 30 and 60 days in advance. And that is in part because the mayor’s office has done, I think, some good policy work to help prioritize which encampments are prioritized and why, so that it begins to skew away from what we’ve traditionally seen, if we’re just being totally, brutally honest, which is someone who’s elected or someone who is in a wealthy neighborhood is able to generate enough outcry about someone who’s experiencing homelessness.

PC: How do does the uptick in obstruction removals [encampment removals with less than 72 hours’ notice] affect the KCRHA’s ability to be trusted, and outreach workers that are contracted with your agency to be trusted?

MD: My responses are limited because we’re just not in that stuff. And where we have aligned with the mayor’s office is around what we are able to provide, in terms of engagement and support. On the obstructions, there is currently no authority role there. We have been very clear that a displacement-based strategy is not how we want to work. And recognizing that sometimes where an encampment is, for many reasons, including for the people who live there, doesn’t work. We want to work on timelines that make sense to get people inside.

PC: And did the mayor’s office ask the authority to participate in those removals or have any role?

MD: It was a conversation. And I think what I have pushed for is, give us time to engage people so that we can do right by them with what the system can currently offer. And [Deputy Mayor] Tiffany [Washington] was super open to that. And then it became, okay, on what cycle? And that’s how we’ve gotten to this 30-to-60-day, maybe even beyond, structure that gives us the capacity to engage people. So I do really want to say there was real collaborative work there.

“You can’t sunset [the HOPE Team], and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, ‘go away.'”

PC: What do you think of the fact that the HOPE Team has remained at the city as a kind of vestigial outreach team, while almost every other function of the city’s homelessness apparatus has moved over to the authority? Do they still serve a purpose?

MD: Currently, I would say yes. And I would say that part of it has to do with what we understand to be the case about when outreach teams don’t want to engage [during a sweep]. They have said very clearly that, after [removal signs are posted], our efficacy drops, and for reasons that are at this point nationally recognized as true. So I think that the [HOPE team] remains an important today feature. I don’t know if it’s going to make sense next year. I’m really trying to get it become vestigial over the next three-ish years, as we turn this around.

PC: Should the HOPE Team continue to have exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds that aren’t available to service providers?

MD: When we talk about the set-aside beds, I don’t think that there’s actually an argument about whether or not the set-aside beds are the best way to manage bed availability. But in order to fully step away from set-asides, we need a better way to manage real-time bed availability across the whole system. And we’re working on that here—it is a hot topic around these halls. But we’re not quite there yet. And so there’s some stuff that I think we can talk about in the community as not ideal, and acknowledge that there will be a moment where we can say, ‘Okay, now we can turn that off.’

But I think it’s also really important to be really clear that you can’t sunset one thing, and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, go away, because then there’s chaos in that space, which is harmful. Again, we do still need to meet some of those functions to help people.

PC: It’s almost summer. Can you preview the authority’s plan for getting people inside during hot weather and smoke? Continue reading “One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success””

First Hill Fire Displaces Dozens of Very Low-Income Tenants, Shutters Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge

Image via Yelp

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of very low-income residents of a subsidized apartment building on First Hill, the Madison Apartments, have been displaced, possibly permanently, by a massive fire that broke out last Sunday night. The five-alarm fire badly damaged the third and fourth stories of the four-story 1902 brick building and forced residents of all 75 studio and one-bedroom units to leave their homes.

A relatively small number of residents have been staying at a temporary shelter run by the Red Cross at Garfield Community Center; the city had no information about where the rest of the residents, who are considered homeless until and unless they find new permanent housing, have gone.

According to Office of Housing (OH) spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco, 38 apartments on the top two floors of the building “sustained fire damage and are uninhabitable. …OH is working with the Seattle Housing Authority to identify new permanent housing options for residents of the third and fourth floors, as they will be unable to re-occupy those units in the near term.” At the moment, no one is supposed to return to their apartments (although some may be doing so against the advice of the city and building management).

Although Velasco said the “current target for [basement, first-, and second-floor] residents to re-occupy some parts of the building is early July,” that could be optimistic. Because of the building’s age, the fire may have exposed asbestos insulation, contaminating apartments with the airborne carcinogen. We’ve asked the city for more information about contamination from asbestos and other hazards.

Units at the Madison Apartments are subsidized through a number of programs, including federal Housing Choice (AKA) Section 8) vouchers, and are restricted to people making less than half the Seattle area median income, or around $45,000 for a single person.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Housing Authority, Kerry Coughlin, said SHA is helping displaced residents with Housing Choice vouchers holders to find new apartments through an expedited process.  However, Coughlin added, “That process is all we can ‘expedite.’ We can’t issue new vouchers to residents at the Madison building. If and when we can issue new general purpose vouchers (not restricted to special populations), we draw in order from our wait list.”

In Seattle, rent-restricted and affordable units can be extremely hard to come by; the “affordable” rent for a person making 50 percent of median ranges from $1,123 for a studio to $1,416 for a one-bedroom, including utilities, according to the Office of Housing. Meanwhile, the list to apply for Section 8 vouchers is closed due to excess demand, and people who have vouchers in hand often end up returning them because they can’t find an affordable apartment. Currently, the lottery to get on SHA’s wait list for vouchers is closed; the last time it was open, in 2015, 3,500 households were added to the list.

According to Velasco, SHA is “coordinating with American Red Cross to assist residents with Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers, with the intent to help expedite the process of voucher reissuance and relocation for residents needing relocation.” People without vouchers, or who can’t afford market-rate apartments, will have to seek shelter or temporary housing through already overburdened local nonprofits.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there. We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done… in order to reopen.”—Greg Lundgren, co-owner, Vito’s Lounge

Residents at the Madison Apartments were not required to have renters’ insurance.

On the first floor of the building, the longtime First Hill institution Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge is another temporary casualty of the fire. Co-owner Greg Lundgren said the business sustained major water damage from efforts to put out the fire and that it will probably be at least a month, if not longer, before Vito’s can reopen.

“Our electronics were fried, our hood ventilation was cooked in the fire (it runs up through the center of the building and was exposed to the fire on the fifth floor), our ceilings are water damaged and most likely need replacement, and everyday another issue is revealed,” Lundgren said. “We are also focused on our staff, the musicians that we have programmed and support, and try and get better clarity ourselves on the extent of the damage and the road back to operating.”

Vito’s first opened in 1953. It closed in 2009 after a shooting inside the restaurant. In 2010, Lundgren and his business partner, Jeff Scott, bought the bar and reopened it, leaving the interior—with its red vinyl banquettes and taxidermied back-room cougar—largely unchanged.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there,” Lundgren said. “We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done—while we did not see smoke or fire damage, there is extensive water damage, and we have a professional service cleaning, drying and addressing a long list of concerns and work that needs to happen in order to reopen.”

According to the Seattle Fire Department, the fire was “caused by an open flame that tipped over onto a mattress and ignited it. The fire spread to other combustible materials, then burned through the roof and void spaces.”

Harrell Vetoes Bill That Would Have Provided Data, Transparency on Seattle Rents

According to one city council member, this is all the data renters need to know whether they’re getting a good deal in a specific neighborhood.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell has vetoed legislation that would have required landlords to report basic information about the units they own, including how much they charge for apartments of various sizes, to a research university. The bill, which the city council passed 5-4 last week, had support from council members across the ideological spectrum, including Alex Pedersen (who proposed the bill as a step toward preserving “mom and pop”-owned rentals) and Kshama Sawant (who argued that rent transparency would support more renter-friendly policies.)

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information about their rental units. Citing a constituent letter from the head of the University of Washington’s Washington Center for Real Estate Research, Harrell said any data the research university collected would be “unreliable” because landlords would choose to (illegally) opt out or provide inaccurate data on purpose, since providing accurate data might put their business interests at risk.

For years, the city (and public) did have access to accurate, frequently updated rent data through reports produced by a private company called Dupre+Scott. Since 2017, the city has had to rely on high-level Census information to keep tabs on rents and residential displacement rates. Harrell’s veto letter asks “private industry” to step up and voluntarily produce the kind of data Dupre+Scott provided—something that private industry has declined to do in the five years since Dupre+Scott shut down.

The legislation Harrell vetoed would not have enabled the public to see what rents specific landlords were charging. Instead, it would have improved transparency and access to general information that could have helped renters make informed housing decisions, leveling the information playing field between renters and house buyers, who have instant access to listing and sale prices through data collected by the Northwest multiple Listing Service.

Harrell also said in his veto letter that the legislation would have cost the city too much money—between $2 million and $5 million—at a time when the city is asking every department to come up with potential cuts. “I cannot support moving forward with an expensive new program that is unlikely to achieve its stated aims and has no clear source of funding to pay for it,” Harrell wrote.

“Rejecting this law seems to be a victory for landlords unwilling to share data and a loss for those seeking data to make informed decisions on preserving and expanding affordable housing in our city.” —City Councilmember Alex Pedersen

Contradicting that claim, Harrell also said it would be irresponsible to spend millions collecting data on rents when that money “could otherwise directly serve people suffering in the ongoing homelessness crisis.”

In a statement this afternoon, the bill’s primary sponsor Pedersen said he is “deeply disappointed our solution to collect housing data helpful for preventing displacement of economically vulnerable people was not signed into law. Similar laws to collect rental housing data are already in place throughout the nation, so the veto means Seattle is still behind the times.” Continue reading “Harrell Vetoes Bill That Would Have Provided Data, Transparency on Seattle Rents”