Category: labor

“Out-of-Order” Layoffs at Center of Police Defunding Debate

Seattle police chief Carmen Best

By Paul Kiefer

For the past several weeks, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best have argued that the City Council’s plan to reduce SPD’s budget through targeted layoffs would be infeasible and potentially illegal. Council members say that isn’t true, and argue that the mayor and police chief are digging in their heels because they don’t want to do any layoffs at all.

The council’s proposal would use a series of provisos (legally binding restrictions on spending) to eliminate 70 sworn staff, although the council assumes some of this reduction would be through higher-than-normal attrition. The cuts would come both from specific areas—such the elimination of the Navigation Team—and SPD’s general budget. Council members have suggested that the police department prioritize officers with multiple sustained misconduct complaints when making discretionary layoffs.

The mayor and police chief have said labor rules require SPD to lay off its newest hires first. Those rules are the purview of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC): a three-member quasi-judicial body with one member appointed by the council, another by the mayor, and a third elected by the city’s civil service employees.

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Implementing the PSCSC rules as written would require laying off the youngest, most diverse group of recruits in SPD’s history—a group, Durkan said during a press conference Wednesday, who “joined the force knowing that [SPD was] under federal oversight” and are therefore “committed to reform.”  Conversely, doing layoffs out of order would require eliminating the jobs of more white men—a move that Durkan and Best argue could constitute racial discrimination against white officers.

“You can’t make layoffs based on race,” Chief Best said during a press conference Thursday. “I think the [council’s] request would be to skip over some folks in order to retain people based on race and I don’t think that’s allowable.”

“The executive and council should work together to figure out how to use it to meet our shared objectives, and we should not start with the supposition that a rule that exists to be used can’t be used.”—Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

Best isn’t alone in this concern. In a council discussion of the proposal late last month, council member Debora Juarez said out-of-order layoffs could constitute “discrimination based on age and sex” and a violation of the 14th amendment. “The means doesn’t always justify the ends if it’s illegal,” Juarez said.

Council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, and the other council members who support the proposed cuts, are counting on a rarely (if ever)-used clause in the PSCSC’s rules that allows the police chief to request the permission of the PSCSC director for out-of-order layoffs if they would serve the “efficient operation” of the department.

The problem, according to a letter that Office of Labor Relations director Bobby Humes sent to Durkan’s office on Tuesday, is that “[t]his rule has never before been cited or tested, and there is no definition of what the ‘efficient’ operation of the department looks like.”

However, it’s unclear that it’s true that the rule hasn’t been tested; on Wednesday, for example, Durkan said the rule has “historically been used” for individual layoffs. And Durkan’s assertion that Best would “have to justify every single” request for an out-of-order layoff is somewhat at odds with Humes’ memo, which only mentions a possibility that Best may have to justify each individual layoff.

“The [council’s] request would be to skip over some folks in order to retain people based on race and I don’t think that’s allowable.”—Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best


A memo explaining the mayor’s position on out-of-order layoffs distributed to members of the media this week does not list legal precedents to back her statement that out-of-order layoffs would need to be argued individually.

In a press conference with council president Lorena Gonzalez and council member Tammy Morales on Thursday, Herbold responded to some of the mayor and police chief’s claims, starting with Durkan’s claims that out-of-order layoffs are impossible. “The rule exists, and thus it can be used,” said Herbold. “The executive and council should work together to figure out how to use it to meet our shared objectives, and we should not start with the supposition that a rule that exists to be used can’t be used.”

Herbold added that she and her colleagues hope to collaborate with Best to craft the requests for out-of-order layoffs to be sent to PSCSC Director Laura Scheele. The question now, according to Herbold, “is whether [Best] will work with us in developing a request… that has the best chance to preserve the diversity of the police department in a way that is constitutional, legal according to labor law, does not choose layoffs by race, and preserves the efficient functioning of the department as the rule itself requires.”

Best has not yet said whether she would be willing to bring a request for out-of-order layoffs to the PSCSC. At Thursday’s press conference, she said that the council had not asked her to sit down with them (although the council has talked to other members of SPD’s command staff), and said “it definitely feels very personal to me.”

Herbold and her colleagues are still working with the city’s law department to review their options for arguing that out-of-order layoffs serve the “efficient operation” of SPD. She says one of the council’s proposed strategies– targeting officers with extensive records of complaints – would be based on the argument that the time and resources spent processing complaints, disciplinary actions, and appeals undermine the department’s efficiency. However, Herbold acknowledged that the council will have to grapple with the possibility that their strategy will be challenged on the grounds that it involves punishing officers twice for the same offense, which could be illegal.

At the front of Herbold’s mind, however, is convincing Best to bring requests for out-of-order layoffs to PSCSC Director Laura Scheele. “She’s the one who has to make the argument,” says Herbold. “She runs the department, so she’s best placed to make the argument.”

The Council Just Created a Blueprint for Defunding the Police, but Mayor Durkan Isn’t On Board

By Erica C. Barnett

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

The city council’s budget committee approved package of cuts to the Seattle Police Department budget that would reduce the department’s size by about $3 million, representing around 100 positions, this year;, remove police from the Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized homeless encampments; and start the city on a path to fund new approaches to public safety that don’t involved armed officers. Most of the proposals aren’t direct budget cuts—which the mayor could simply ignore—but budget provisos, which bar the executive branch from spending money in a way other than how the council prescribes.

The council also voted narrowly to dismantle the Navigation Team itself, by laying off or transferring not just the 14 police officers on the team but the system navigators, field coordinators, and other civilian staff who do outreach to encampment residents and remove litter, sharps, and debris. (Those positions would be replaced by contracted service providers, which is how encampment outreach worked before the city brought it in-house last year). And they agreed in principle to $17 million in funding for community organizations, including $3 million to start a participatory budgeting process for 2021. 

Other cuts would eliminate the mounted patrol, cut SPD’s travel budget, eliminate the school resource officer program, and reduce the size of the public affairs department. Some of the 2020 reductions would be achieved be through attrition—eliminating vacant positions or not filling positions when officers leave.

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Another amendment, adopted 5-4, would reduce this year’s pay for SPD’s 13 command staff to the lowest rate allowed in their designated pay bands, a cut that would save around half a million dollars between September and the end of the year, according to sponsor Kshama Sawant. If the cuts were annualized, they would reduce the command staff’s pay by an average of $115,000 a year; police chief Carmen Best, who makes almost $300,000 a year, would see her salary cut to $171,000,.

In response to the council’s vote, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan called the council’s proposal “unattainable and unworkable.”

“[With] a few hours’ discussion and without consulting the Chief of Police, City Council has voted to reduce the police force by 105 this year, cut the Chief’s salary by 40 percent, and eliminate the City’s team of specially trained social workers that conduct outreach and address encampments and RVs that pose significant public health and safety concerns,” the spokesperson said. 

The council is assuming that layoffs would have to be bargained with the police union and couldn’t occur until at least November, so the savings from cuts would work out to a higher dollar amount next year, when they would, in theory, be annualized. According to council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, the cuts and transfers the council is proposing this year would amount to about $170 million in 2021, or about 41 percent of the police department’s budget.

“[With] a few hours’ discussion and without consulting the Chief of Police, City Council has voted to reduce the police force by 105 this year, cut the Chief’s salary by 40 percent, and eliminate the City’s team of specially trained social workers that conduct outreach and address encampments and RVs that pose significant public health and safety concerns.”—Statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Taken together, the council’s amendments lay out a path forward for future cuts, and a commitment to reinvesting programs guided by the principles of community groups like the Decriminalize Seattle coalition. It’s important to know, however, that while the council can tell the mayor how it wants her to spend the budget, she is generally free to ignore their direction. (See, for example, the administration’s reluctance to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to provide hotel rooms and assistance to people living outdoors during the pandemic, or to pay for mobile showers for which funding was allocated last November)

In acknowledgement of this power differential—and the fact that labor negotiations may take longer than three months—each of the provisos includes a caveat ensuring that officers will still get paid if the city fails to reach agreement on specific layoffs by November, when the council majority wants the cuts to go into effect. “In every single one of the provisos that reduce spending … the council acknowledges that the chief may realize reductions differently than what the council is proposing,” public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said. “These provisos are our recommendation for how to achieve the reductions based on the advice that we’ve received that make it more likely that we will be successful in bargaining.”

Across administrations, mayors and councils tend to bicker along predictable lines: The executive branch dismisses the council as ill-informed and naive, while the council accuses the mayor of obstructing progress and ignoring their directives. But the enmity between the two co-equal branches has reached a level under Durkan that many longtime city hall staffers call unprecedented.

Yesterday, for example, Durkan and Best called a press conference to condemn the council’s proposals, one of several they’ve held throughout the council’s budget process. During their prepared remarks, the mayor and chief suggested that cutting the police department would create a “gap in service” for people calling to report major crimes like burglaries and rapes, and accused council members of wanting to lay off officers “by race” because the usual order of layoffs would mean cutting the newest, most diverse cohorts of officers first.

“The mayor does not agree with the city council and a majority of the people of Seattle who believe that we need to substantially reduce the size and scope of the police department, and as a result she is spreading misinformation and fear about what the council intends to do in order to undermine our genuine efforts to transform comm safety in our city.”—Council president Lorena González

The council maintains that the police chief could go to the Public Safety Civil Service Commission to request out-of-order layoffs, but the mayor has argued this wouldn’t be practical on a mass scale. “For over a month, the Chief and Mayor have received guidance from labor relations and law that out-of-order layoffs are unlikely to be finalized in 2020, and will therefore not result in 2020 budget reductions,” the mayor’s spokesperson said.

Council president Lorena González said today that she was “disappointed” that “our labor relations division, which lives in the executive department, [is being] utilized in a politically motivated fashion to advance the goal of never seeing layoffs of badge and gun jobs at the Seattle Police Department.” González suggested the real issue is that Durkan “does not agree with the city council and a majority of the people of Seattle who believe that we need to substantially reduce the size and scope of the police department, and as a result she is spreading misinformation and fear about what the council intends to do in order to undermine our genuine efforts to transform comm safety in our city.”

The council’s unanimous vote for one of the most impactful pieces of defunding legislation—an amendment directing the chief to issue “immediately issue layoff notices” to 32 sworn officers—can be seen as an effort to show a unified front. Or it could be a sign that the often-divided council is in genuine agreement on an approach to defunding SPD. Some of the most surprising remarks this afternoon came from council member Alex Pedersen, whose house has been targeted by protesters urging him to support the goal of defunding SPD by 50 percent. Addressing police officers directly, Pedersen said, “I appreciate the good work so many of you do. At the same time, you’re asked to do too much. You’re sent into complex situations that other professionals in our community might be better equipped to handle.

“You’re also part of a system born out of racism,” Pedersen continued, “and despite progress and reforms, that institutional racism of police departments here and across the nation continues to have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color. By rethinking what public safety really means, by centering Black and Indigenous people and people of color, by taking a thoughtful approach, we can seize this historic opportunity to disrupt institutional racism and achieve real community safety.”

City of Seattle Rents Out Downtown Hotel for First Responders at $280 a Night, Potty Plan Scaled Back, and Fuzzy Math Adds Up to “1,900 New Temporary Housing Spots”

 

The restrooms at Cal Anderson Park have been closed for some time due to a “maintenance issue,” according to the mayor’s office. The park will soon get new portable toilets and a hand washing station.

1. The city budget office has inked a deal with the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown to rent out all of the hotel’s 155 rooms for three months, at a cost of $3.9 million, to provide spaces for first responders who need to be in isolation or quarantine after exposure to the COVID-19 virus, The C Is for Crank has learned. The contract went into effect on March 23. The cost, which the city hopes will be partially reimbursed by the federal government, works out to $280 per room, per night. UPDATE: After this post was published, the city contacted me to say that the official memo from the City Budget Office to the City Council citing a $3.9 million price tag was in error and reduced the estimate to $3.4 million. Subsequently, they gave an even lower estimate, as little as $2.8 million, to the Seattle Times. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that the true cost is unclear.)

A representative for the Executive Pacific Hotel declined to comment on the arrangement. Rooms at the hotel were going for less than $70 a night earlier this week. 

The city did not directly respond to a question about whether any first responders are currently living in the hotel. A spokeswoman with the city’s Emergency Operations Center said, “We currently have dozens of first responders who are in isolation or quarantine.” Even if all of those people were staying at the hotel, that would still leave most of the rooms sitting empty for now.

City Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district includes downtown, has been talking about making hotel space available for first responders or people experiencing homelessness. He said deals with hotels could help an industry that has seen “a massive falloff of business,” but added that he had personally received a quote of $95 a night for a different downtown hotel that offered to make rooms available. Lewis says he plans to introduce a resolution asking the mayor to keep a “roster of these investments and report back … and one of the things that I’m going to ask for is cost, to make sure that we are a getting good deals.”

The contract reportedly includes the cost of food for people who will stay at the hotel. It does not appear to include modifications to the hotel’s HVAC system, which might have been a necessary cost if the rooms were connected by internal ventilation—that is, if they all shared the same air. According to the EOC, each room has its own individual heating and cooling units and vents its exhaust to the outside; the rooms also have windows that open, allowing additional ventilation.

Hotel workers, including cleaning staff, who come into contact with people who have contracted or been exposed to COVID could be at risk of contracting the virus themselves. Stefan Moritz from UNITE HERE Local 8, which represents hotel workers, said he was still getting details on the kind of conditions hotel staff will be working under at hotels that are turned into quarantine and isolation sites.

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2. This morning, nearly two weeks after announcing the city would be opening portable toilets “across the city,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a truncated list of port-a-potty locations that is both significantly shorter, and significantly less “citywide,” than a draft list that included more than 20 new sites, including five hygiene trailers that were funded last year. According to the press release, the six new sites, which will have a total of 14 toilets, are “in in addition to the 133 locations in parks throughout the City, available to all residents, and are currently being serviced by Seattle Parks and Recreation.” Initially, the release said that there were “more than 180 [restroom] locations in parks throughout the City, available to all residents.” (UPDATE: This morning, the city said that the correct number is not 133 but 128.)

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the earlier number included community centers that have closed.

For example, 85 people who had been staying at the Harborview Hall shelter run by the Salvation Army have been displaced so that the  a 45-bed coronavirus recovery site. The shelter is being moved a few blocks away. Because of the way the city and county are counting “new” beds, the shelter and recovery site now account for a total of 130 “new” beds as part of the 1,900 total.

Just one of the six new portable toilet sites and handwashing stations that made the cut will be located in North Seattle. The rest (represented by yellow dots on this map) are scattered in a rough line paralleling I-5 and SR-99, with one site each in Capitol Hill, downtown, Judkins Park, Beacon Hill, and Highland Park (in West Seattle). Some of the locations that were on the preliminary list, but did not make the cut for today’s announcement, include locations on Alki Beach, Gas Works Park in Fremont, Kinnear Park on Queen Anne, the Arboretum near Montlake,  Ravenna Park, and Woodland Park. I’ve asked the mayor’s office whether any of these sites will be considered for portable toilets in the future if the six new locations prove inadequate to meet the need.

I was unable to immediately confirm the basis for either the 180 or 133 figure cited in the initial and amended versions of the press release. (UPDATE: The same questions apply to the new number of 128.) The city’s current restroom map shows public restrooms in a total of 85 parks and 11 community centers combined, which is unchanged since the city did an analysis of public restrooms two years ago. At that time, the city’s Human Services Department listed a total of 117 public restrooms in city-owned facilities, a list that also included libraries (which are now closed) and a handful of portable toilets that were then available at King County Metro’s bus driver relief stops.

Claiming that the city and county have created “1,900 new sites across the City to help individuals experiencing homelessness” is misleading.

3. The mayor’s press release also claims that the city and county have created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for “people experiencing homelessness.”

This description is misleading. First, under the definition used by the city itself, “housing” is a place where someone is housed. Cots in shelters, tiny houses in encampments, and beds in a hospital do not count as housing, “temporary” or otherwise.

Second, fewer than half of the 1,900 beds are reserved for people experiencing homelessness, and only a handful of those are actually “new.” About 700 of the 1,900 are existing shelter beds that are being redistributed to allow more spacing between cots. Only about 50 shelter beds, and 45 spots in tiny house villages, are actually new—and these, under federal definitions, are temporary shelter, not “housing.” For example, 85 people who had been staying at the Harborview Hall shelter run by the Salvation Army have been displaced so that the  a 45-bed coronavirus recovery site. The shelter is being moved a few blocks away. Because of the way the city and county are counting “new” beds, the shelter and recovery site now account for a total of 130 “new” beds as part of the 1,900 total.

Most of the remaining spots are beds in isolation and recovery sites that are not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness. They include 200 beds in a field hospital set up on a soccer field in Shoreline; an unknown number of spots in a large isolation and recovery tent for COVID-19 sufferers in a Bellevue parking lot; previously announced motel rooms in Issaquah and Kent; and “up to 612 beds” for “people who do not require emergent care” to recover after they’ve been sick, according to the county.

Third, some shelters are closing because of the COVID crisis, reducing the total number of beds available to people in need. The city has not factored these lost beds into its calculations; that is, while counting hospital beds for COVID victims as “housing for the homeless” and double-counting some shelter beds, the city and county have failed to subtract the beds that are being lost.

This may seem like nitpicking, but a casual reader of a press release announcing “1,900 new sites across the City to help individuals experiencing homelessness,” as this morning’s announcement puts it, might be misled to believe that the city and county have created 1,900 new housing, or even shelter, spots for people experiencing homelessness, when this simply is not the case.

The 2019 City Council Candidates: Dan Strauss

 

 

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This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: Dan Strauss, a legislative aide to retiring District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw and nearly lifelong Ballard resident who is running to replacing District 6 representative Mike O’Brien, who’s leaving the council after 10 years. We sat down at Ballard Coffee Works on NW Market Street, which becomes pertinent a couple of times during this interview.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): When you’re knocking on doors, how do you respond to complaints that the city isn’t doing enough to address visible homelessness in District 6, particularly in Ballard?

Dan Strauss (DS): I talk to them about the need to be able to provide everyone who is experiencing homelessness the opportunity to come inside four walls with a door that they can lock, that’s connected to the services that they need. I mean, that’s the baseline of what we need to be doing. And it’s a travesty that we aren’t providing enough enhanced shelters or places for people to be able to keep their things during the middle of the day, that folks are pushed out of their overnight shelters very early in the morning and haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep, and so now they’re sleeping during the day. That’s what we need to be focusing on. And that’s how I direct their commentary.

When I was growing up, there was a single resident occupancy hotel [in Ballard], which burned down in 2000. That was a place where people would be able to have four walls and a door that they could lock if rent was short that month, or if they were off of a fishing boat for a minute, or something like that. And so I think that’s something that is sometimes lost when we’re talking about what’s going on in Ballard—there have always been people experiencing homelessness in our community.

“In my perfect world, we would be bonding against our existing tax streams, using our total bonding capacity to build the housing we need today.”

ECB: You’ve also mentioned that you supported safe consumption sites. It’s been more than three years since the King County Opiate Task Force recommended opening two safe consumption sites in the county, and obviously it hasn’t happened. Are you just stating your values, or are you planning to actively push for safe consumption if you’re elected?

DS: There’s not a legal pathway given the federal government’s current position. So these are values I hold, because I know that harm reduction models work. This is the most extreme harm reduction model available, and there’s other ways that we can reduce harm in our communities. We know that there are drug addiction is a medical disease and it can be treated with medical interventions.

ECB: You said at a recent forum that you don’t support sweeping homeless people from place to place. What would you do with the Navigation Team, and is there more nuance that you weren’t able to express in that yes/no question?

DS: The nuance with that is that the Navigation Team, in its essence, is supposed to navigate people to services and to a safe, warm, dry place to live. And the problem is that we don’t have enough of those resources, right? So if we did have enough places with four walls and a door that someone can lock, that has the services on site, the Navigation Team would be effective.

ECB: In the absence of that, what would you propose to address people’s short-term needs?

DS: In the short term, we need to treat this like the emergency that it is. The fact that it’s taking three to five years for the modular houses from King County to come online—that’s not satisfactory. We know what the solutions are and that we need to get going, and we need to put this at the front of the queue.

All [the Office of Police Accountability] does is file complaints and grievances. We should also be giving commendations and saying, ‘You did a good job.’

ECB: You’ve mentioned finding efficiencies in the system as one way to save money and be able to invest more in things like housing and shelter. Do you think that there needs to be a new revenue source as well?

DS: I mean, at this point, especially for the capital side of things, there’s no way around that. The ride share tax that [Mayor Jenny Durkan just proposed]—that’s another revenue source. I would love to see the state do more. I’d love to see the county do more. I’d love to work with my colleagues to develop good proposals that aren’t putting the burden on property or sales tax. What I would love to see is us fully use our bonding capacity. In my perfect world, we would be bonding against our existing tax streams, using our total bonding capacity to build the housing we need today.  We’re in an emergency—we’re just straight-up in an emergency. If there is any untapped [bonding] capacity, that needs to be used.

ECB: What do you think of how the mayor has proposed allocating the revenues from the ride share tax, splitting it between housing and the streetcar?

DS: I think we’re at the point where we’re going to need to connect the streetcars or rip them up. It’s just such an example how Seattle does things halfway. And we’ve had such a long history of doing things halfway. And that’s one of the reasons that I decided to run. I’m tired of seeing it done that way. We need to have Yesler Terrace connected to South Lake Union and South Lake Union connected to the International District. The frustrations that I have with the streetcar is it needs to have dedicated lanes, and we need to have a connected system. It’s also frustrating that this was a premier mode of transportation when it was first proposed and we never got behind it and now we’re behind the times.

I don’t think that the housing dollars should expire in five years. And I would love to see a way that we could get those funds to be bondable. Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: Dan Strauss”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 4 Candidate Shaun Scott

Image via Shaun Scott campaign

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: District 4 (Northeast Seattle) candidate Shaun Scott— an activist, writer, filmmaker, and Democratic Socialists of America member running to replace Abel Pacheco, who was appointed when Rob Johnson left the council partway through his single term.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Your opponent Alex Pedersen’s campaign has been heavily supported by People for Seattle, the political-action committee started by his former boss, Tim Burgess, and by the Seattle Metro Chamber’s PAC. Any thoughts about how to get that kind of influence out of local politics?

Shaun Scott (SS): I thought that council member Gonzalez’ legislation to reduce the influence of corporate PACs is a great first step, and I would like to, work with her if I’m elected on crafting that legislation and building the political case for it.

ECB: The legislation would impact labor as well. For example, Andrew Lewis in District 7 benefited from more than $150,000 from UNITE HERE Local 8, the New York City-based union. Are you comfortable with the fact that these reforms would impact labor as well as business?

SS: To be fair. labor also spent against us in the primary on behalf of Emily Myers’ campaign, although it was nothing on the magnitude of what we saw from the Chamber and what we’re probably going see in the general. I think that the difference is that labor, as a progressive force in the city, is going to find ways to influence and get involved with campaigns on a basis that’s more than just material. They’re going to be out canvassing, they’re going to be coming up with policy recommendations that are going to benefit a lot of people in the city. And so there are more direct avenues for labor to exercise influence in the city, whereas I think Chamber politics often do really boil down to almost a unilaterally negative form of campaigning, so that the reduction of influence vis-a-vis PACs is going to impact them a lot more and limit their influence a lot more than it will labor, which traditionally has more avenues for getting people engaged and being involved in elections.

“With a market incentive program [like HALA], as well structured as it can be, there are going to be real limits. There’s going to be a ceiling on how effectively the market is going to be able to deliver social goods of any kind.”

ECB: You’ve been a vocal supporter of density in single-family neighborhoods during this campaign, which seems like a change from your previous position; as an organizer for the Jon Grant campaign in 2017, for example, you suggested that the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda was something of a developer giveaway. Has your position evolved?

SS: I think it’s definitely the case that a lot of HALA and a lot of [Mandatory Housing Affordability] was kind of a market incentive program. And with a market incentive program, as well structured as it can be, there are going to be real limits. There’s going to be a ceiling on how effectively the market is going to be able to deliver social goods of any kind. We’ve seen this in housing, we’ve seen this in healthcare, we’ve seen this in for-profit education. We’ve seen this in the rise of a prison industrial complex. No matter how much you do to incentivize the market to do the correct thing, there are going to be bad actors and it’s going to fail to deliver these goods in a way that is broad and accessible or able to be enjoyed by everybody. So that’s a critique of HALA. It’s part of the reason why when people ask me what I think about MHA, I will say it’s by and large something that I probably would have supported if I were on council, with a few important caveats. One of them being, if we were destroying more affordable housing than was going to be put in by a new development, how can we legitimate that?

There’s room for nuance. There’s room for having an opinion about this that says, if our goal is to get to the point where we’re providing the most housing and the most deeply affordable social housing that we can get, we have to find ways to structure the housing decisions that we make in the city so that they’re not left up completely to market forces.

Support The C Is for Crank
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ECB: Your position on upzoning the Ave [University Way NE], specifically, has changed. Tell me a little bit about that.

SS: So I have very strong ideas about, and a lot of historical knowledge about, why the zoning that we see in neighborhoods like District Four in particular is exclusionary and why we’re just never going to be actually serious about being a racially inclusive city or a climate leader until we change that. One of the reasons why my views on the Ave in particular have started to evolve and why I think I’m more receptive to new information about what is going on there than  maybe I was at the beginning of this race has to do with the impact that opening large, big-box stores might have on some of the small businesses that are there that are minority and people of color-owned. And, as a principle, it’s one of those things where I have to check myself and rely on community to check me to make sure that in this vision that I have for an inclusive city, we’re not doing things to undercut that by actually displacing people that have had a hard go of actually gaining a foothold in the city.

The second part of it is it would be a different story if all of the housing that we were talking about building, or more than what is currently going to go there, was actually going to be workforce housing. If that was built into the way that the upzone was going to happen, I’d gladly go to some of these neighborhoods and absorb the criticism from people who are saying, ‘You’re changing the character of our neighborhood.’ What you’re saying is the character of the neighborhood means a lot less to me than people having a place to live. 

I’m not running to be a CEO of city government or to be a on the board of a development firm. We’re talking about what decisions the city has and what power the city has over our housing market. We can have all the conversations that we want about what it would look like to leave our housing decisions up to the private market. We know that right now and in the coming years, that’s not going to be enough for people that need housing.

Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 4 Candidate Shaun Scott”

Durkan’s “Fare Share” Proposal Hinges on Future Success of Uber and Lyft

Kerem Levitas, Office of Labor Standards, Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, Mayor Jenny Durkan

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Wednesday that she’s proposing a 51-cent fee on all Uber and Lyft rides, along with new minimum wage and benefit standards for drivers and a dispute resolution center for drivers who have been unfairly kicked off the platforms or underpaid.

The city estimates that by 2025, the fee will generate enough funding, $56 million, to fully fund the construction of the downtown streetcar, plus $52 million for affordable housing near transit stops and about $18 million for a new dispute resolution center for drivers challenging unwarranted removal from the ride-hailing platforms or unpaid wages.

The streetcar, which Durkan halted last year after the price to build and operate the project ballooned, faced a capital-funding shortfall of about $65 million. Earlier this year, the city council approved a $9 million interfund loan to restart work on the streetcar; that loan will be paid back with the proceeds from the Mercer Megablock sale.

“By creating a high-capacity alternative in the center city, [the streetcar] will provide an alternative for folks who are taking those short trips in and out of downtown.” – Seattle deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan

Durkan’s proposal would also mandate that drivers be paid at least minimum wage, plus compensation for benefits and expenses, for all portions of every trip that begins or ends inside the city of Seattle, and increase the current 24-cent fee that pays for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and regulation of the ride-hailing industry.

After 2025, according to deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan, the fee will “revert to funding transit, bike, and pedestrian projects across the city.”

In a press briefing yesterday, Ranganathan said the city expects that many people taking short trips in Uber and Lyft cars will switch to the streetcar for short trips once the Center City Streetcar is complete, citing a University of Washington survey that found that Amazon employees who use the car services would take transit “if there was quality transit available.”

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Ridership on the existing South Lake Union streetcar has been lackluster, falling 4 percent last year to just over half a million rides in 2018. On the First Hill segment of the line, ridership was up 31 percent last year, to nearly 1.2 million rides.

Ranganathan noted that about half of Uber and Lyft trips in Seattle originate or end inside the center city, which includes South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and downtown. In a University of Washington survey of Amazon employees who take Uber and Lyft, “many of these folks …said that if there was quality transit available, they would take transit.”

“By creating a high-capacity alternative in the center city, [the streetcar] will provide an alternative for folks who are taking those short trips in and out of downtown,” Ranganathan said.

Continue reading “Durkan’s “Fare Share” Proposal Hinges on Future Success of Uber and Lyft”

More City Hall Churn, Council Staffers Organize, Farewell to a “Feisty” Neighborhood Activist, and More

Seattle City Hall

Image via OZinOH on Flickr.

In keeping with how quickly news piles up the moment after Labor Day ends, here are a few quick-hit items—in two parts!—from City Hall and beyond.

Round 1, City Hall edition:

1. This week, the city’s Human Services Department posted an announcement for a new deputy director overseeing homelessness, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding confirmed. The position is separate from the job of homelessness division director, a job filled by Diana Salazar last month after the former director, Tiffany Washington, left for a job in the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning. Asked why HSD needed to hire two new high-level employees to oversee homelessness at a time when the city plans to hand most of its homelessness programs over to a new regional agency, Olberding said that the city will continue to oversee homelessness until at least 2021 and that the position would be temporary.

2. Barb Graff, the longtime director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, is retiring at the beginning of next year after 15 years in that position. OEM oversees disaster and emergency preparedness for the city, including physical disasters such as earthquakes and declared emergencies like the homelessness crisis, which prompted a nine-month activation of the city’s Emergency Operations Center. The city posted the job publicly yesterday.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

3. The Seattle City Council’s central staff—the policy shop for all nine council members—is trying to unionize. Protec17, which represents other city employees, filed a petition to represent the staffers to the Public Employee Relations Commission this week after central staffers submitted enough signatures to form a bargaining unit. The staffers’ exact grievance is unclear, but it reportedly relates to concerns that their work—providing unbiased and apolitical advice and analysis to all nine council members, regardless of what they want to hear—has been politicized. Central staffers make between about $58 and $64 an hour, putting them among the highest-paid workers at the city.

In response to questions about central staffers’ organizing efforts, council spokeswoman Dana Robinson Slote provided this statement: “Council recognizes employees’ right to seek representation and is aware of the petition to represent Central Staff Legislative analysts in the Council Central Staff division. A Labor Relations negotiator has been assigned the matter.  Out of respect for the process, Council has been advised against making any public statements at this time.”

4. Faye Garneau, the North Seattle businesswoman, Aurora Avenue Merchants Association leader, transit funding opponent, district elections advocate, antagonist to urbanists, and “feisty” neighborhood fixture for many decades, has died. Garneau—a garrulous, strong-willed, and committed advocate to the causes she believed in—was 85.

5. Learn to trust the Crank: As I reported last week, city council member Mike O’Brien is proposing legislation to ban new natural gas hookups as of July 1, 2020. O’Brien plans to discuss the legislation in his Sustainability and Transportation Committee this Friday, September 6.

 

Guest Editorial: Spend County Revenues on Housing, Not a $180 Million Stadium Subsidy

SafecoFieldTop.jpg
Image via Wikimedia Commons

The following is a guest editorial about a proposal by King County Executive Dow Constantine to spend $180 million in hotel/motel tax revenues on maintenance and capital improvements to Safeco Field, on which the Seattle Mariners’ lease is about to expire. The Mariners, and Constantine, have argued that the county has an obligation to spend future hotel/motel tax revenues on the stadium; housing advocates have countered that a larger portion of the lodging tax should be spent on affordable, transit-oriented housing. The King County Council meets this morning to discuss, and possibly vote on, the proposal.

Later this morning, the King County Council could decide how to allocate the remaining 25 percent of the county lodging tax revenues. Council members face a stark choice: Use the dollars for affordable housing or offer a $180 million subsidy to a private corporation. The highest value of public and economic benefit the County can create with this revenue is to invest in affordable housing, community development, and good jobs.

Demand for affordable housing in our region is at an all-time high, which is why we should use lodging tax revenues to help address homelessness and promote affordability. To maximize economic benefit from the hotel/motel tax, the County should also create high quality jobs for our communities by utilizing community workforce agreements with housing developers or local housing authorities. These agreements help create apprentice opportunities and ensure dollars flow to the pockets of lower-income workers, which creates a greater economic benefit since low-income households spend a greater percentage of their income on goods and services than higher-income households do.

Multi-billion-dollar for-profit corporations asking for public subsidies must prove that these resources are better spent on their enterprises than other compelling public needs, like affordable housing. And they must commit to transparency and accountability with regard to how those resources are used. The Mariners are a successful team that many people love and support. Yet, for continued public investment, they must demonstrate exactly what they need public resources for and how it will support good jobs in the region. To date, the Mariners ownership have simply not met this benchmark.

Recent letters from Craig Kinzer (current) and Terrence Carroll (former), members of the Public Facilities District (the committee that has been in lease negotiations with the Mariners) reveal that the proposed lease is simply a bad deal that should be revisited.

The Mariners are a successful team that many people love and support. Yet, for continued public investment, they must demonstrate exactly what they need public resources for and how it will support good jobs in the region. To date, the Mariners ownership have simply not met this benchmark.

The Mariners’ owners even want to do away with the annual requirement that they publicize financial information about where the public dollars go, so we won’t know until after the fact whether the dollars were used appropriately. The new lease deal must include financial transparency so that the public can understand how investment in a stadium would maximize public benefit and support good jobs. Instead of a win-win deal for the public, the lease and subsidy appear to be a win-more for the Mariners ownership.

We recommend the following uses and requirements of the County’s lodging taxes.

1. The vast majority of the remaining 25 percent of future lodging tax revenue should be committed to affordable housing. Funding should also be considered for community-based economic development that creates even more jobs and stability for communities at risk of displacement. By investing in community development, we will create good jobs, apprenticeship opportunities, and net income for our communities as families find more money in their pockets for basic needs.

2. Any projects funded by lodging tax revenues must be covered by a community workforce agreement (CWA) that guarantees good jobs, worker retention, high-quality apprenticeship opportunities, and a priority to hire local residents most in need of those opportunities. Both the City of Seattle and King County have highly successful priority hire programs that show tremendous public value when done right.

3. Any use of lodging tax revenues must have the highest level of transparency and accountability. While nonprofit housing developers typically must account for every public dime that they spend, we do not apply the same scrutiny to private corporations that receive public resources. Any money that goes to the ball park should require that the Mariners ownership open their books to the public and show the number and quality of jobs that they are creating with public support.

As a result of our upside-down tax code, where low-income people pay up to seven times more of their income in taxes as the top one percent, state and local revenues for needed services and community development are scarce. We must take care on how our region allocates funds, and ensure that new investments maximize public and economic benefit. Like the other groups who are also interested in these funds, the Mariners must demonstrate clear need and a clear financial case for their request.

Many of the King County Councilmembers have not yet decided how to prioritize investments from the lodging tax. Now is the time to let them know that housing, good jobs and meeting community needs is the highest priority.

Nicole Vallestero Keenan-Lai is the Executive Director at Puget Sound Sage. She has more than a decade of experience in research, advocacy, civic engagement, racial justice organizing, social services, and community and business outreach.

David Rolf is the founding president of SEIU 775, which represents more than 45,000 long-term care workers in the Pacific Northwest. He serves as an International Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Misha Werschkul is the executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, where she guides the organization’s strategic vision and ensures its position as a leading voice shaping the debate around budget priorities.

Why Is a Statewide Anti-Union Group Trying to Stop a Tiny House Village in Seattle?

Image via Low Income Housing Institute

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

When the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation—a conservative group that has spent the bulk of its energy over the past decade fighting against health care workers’ right to organize—filed a lawsuit to stop a Low Income Housing Institute-run “tiny house village” for homeless people from opening in South Lake Union, it raised some eyebrows.

The encampment, like other tiny house villages, would consist of a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that would occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street. Why, union members and homeless advocates wondered, was a statewide think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government” get involved in a local land use dispute about a homeless encampment on a single block in Seattle?

“When we saw [the lawsuit], we thought, ‘That’s weird,’” says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775 spokesman Adam Glickman. “Back in the mid-2000s, the Freedom Foundation was involved in the statewide initiative to get rid of the Growth Management Act (GMA), but recently they’ve been pretty laser-focused on attacking unions and, to a lesser degree, taxes.”

The SEIU represents home health care workers and has spent many years embroiled in legal and political battles with the Freedom Foundation over the union’s right to organize home health care employees and other quasi-public workers.

Glickman says that other than the anti-GMA campaign, he can’t remember the Freedom Foundation ever getting involved in a land use dispute, and certainly not one at such a hyperlocal level.

Neither, for that matter, can the Freedom Foundation’s own attorney, Richard Stephens, to whom a spokesman for the group referred all questions about the lawsuit.

“I’m going back a while, and I can’t remember any other cases like this,” Stephen says. “Most of what [the Freedom Foundation is] doing now is labor law, free speech, freedom of association kinds of things, but historically, they’ve had kind of a broad scope.”

In fact, the lawsuit itself asserts that the reason the Freedom Foundation has standing to sue over a proposed encampment in Seattle in the first place is on the grounds that it claims to generally represent the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.”

The lawsuit claims that the city failed to do an environmental review of the encampment, which the group claims will lead to “loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area”; that the city didn’t sufficiently inform the community about its plans to authorize the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) encampment; and that the encampment is illegal, anyway, because the legislation allowing the city to authorize sanctioned encampments only allows three such encampments at any one time.

Of those three arguments, Stephens says the third, involving the law that limits the number of authorized encampments to three, is “the cleanest,” because the law is explicit: “No more than three transitional encampment interim use encampments shall be permitted and operating at any one time,” not counting those located next to religious facilities.

“When the city council adopts an ordinance that says … we’re only going to allow three of them to operate at any one time, then it seems clear that the city staff is just ignoring what the city council did,” Stephens says. “That is sort of the clearest violation. But the other problem is the city council also said when you approve these, you’ve got to ensure there’s the right community outreach and public participation, and it seems like the city and the applicant [LIHI] are scrambling around to do it after the fact.”

Currently, the city has six permitted encampments. Lily Rehrman, a strategic advisor at the city’s Human Services Department, says the new encampments have been authorized under Type 1 Master Use Permits, which are four-week permits that must be periodically renewed. This distinguishes them from the permits used for the first three authorized encampments, in Ballard, Othello, and Interbay.

“Under this type of permit, temporary land uses, like permitted villages, are allowable,” Rehrman says, a claim the Freedom Foundation disputes. LIHI has applied for a four-week Type 1 permit, and LIHI director Sharon Lee says that if the tiny house village is approved, she will apply for periodic renewals.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a state of emergency,” Lee says, referring to the state of emergency on homelessness that former mayor Ed Murray declared in November 2015.

According to the most recent count of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle. All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is, in reality, higher.

Lee calls the Freedom Foundation’s claim that there wasn’t enough public outreach before the city approved the encampment specious.

“The whole point of having the two community meetings—one in May, the other earlier this month—was to get people to volunteer for the community advisory committee that is required in the legislation allowing encampments,” Lee says. “And not only were there two community meetings, there were also presentations to the chamber of commerce and other organizations.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan formally announced plans to fund the tiny house village in South Lake Union through the “Bridge Housing” program in May, but the idea of sheltering hundreds of homeless people in tiny house villages across the city has been around since at least last February, when Durkan first announced the plan.

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, beyond a brief statement from spokesman Dan Nolte: “We fully intend to defend the City in this suit, and we’re currently assessing the claims.”

Data analysis “does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Before the Freedom Foundation got involved, the debate over the encampment centered largely on whether the camp would impose a danger to neighboring residents and harm property values in the surrounding area. The proposed site is three blocks north of Mercer Avenue and sits in the epicenter of South Lake Union gentrification. Earlier this month, at a standing-room-only meeting in South Lake Union, opponents focused on the fact that the encampment will not be explicitly clean-and-sober, although drugs and alcohol will be banned in common areas.

The comments from opponents drew guffaws and shouts from tiny house village supporters in the crowd. One neighbor, condo owner Betty Wright, said South Lake Union was “too crowded to handle 100 additional people—I don’t want to say ‘poor people’—people with issues. I was hoping to move to a safe place where I don’t have to worry about crime. I used to run down to the garage in my jammies. I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore.”

Wright’s neighbor and fellow condo owner Greg Williams suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment.

“They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us,” Williams said.

“That’s called slavery!” someone shouted from the back.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort.

Hodes asked the people in the room who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.”

According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home, 20 percent of King County’s residents living outdoors have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they lost access to shelter; and 45 percent were actively looking for work. Moreover, there is little evidence that authorized encampments actually increase crime in neighborhoods.

Although the Seattle Police Department (SPD) says it’s difficult to attribute the rise and fall in crime statistics in and around authorized encampments to any single factor, SPD Sergeant Eric Zerr, who heads up the Navigation Team that removes unauthorized encampments and offers services to their inhabitants, says there’s no comparison between the “criminality” around unsanctioned encampments and camps like those run by LIHI, which include case management, 24/7 security, and basic necessities such as food, restrooms, and showers.

“If you’re living in a tent [in an unsanctioned encampment] and you don’t have any source of income, there’s criminality that goes along with that,” particularly if the people living in encampments are addicted to drugs, Zerr says. “When you have [drug] usage, there’s prostitution, there’s the property crimes, there are domestic violence issues, trafficking issues, serious assaults, rapes, gunplay, that type of thing.”

A review of recent police reports from unsanctioned encampments in greenbelts along I-5 confirms that violent crime is still a regular occurrence in these encampments, although SPD provided no specific evidence connecting unauthorized encampments to crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If you’re living in a community, and you have the life-sustaining things that we consider to be a normal part of life, [plus] case managers and a defined space, you move into a different kind of mindset,” even if, as with the proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union, drugs and alcohol aren’t strictly prohibited, Zerr says of life in a sanctioned, monitored encampment with case management and other basic services.

SPD said it was unable to provide crime statistics demonstrating crime rates in the areas immediately around every sanctioned encampment in the city before and after those encampments opened. Detailed information about specific incidents in and around encampments used to be available online, but is no longer. That data was unreliable when it was available, however, because it included many duplicate incidents, and excluded some incident reports for privacy reasons.

SPD’s Crime Dashboard breaks down crime statistics into 58 neighborhoods, like “Lakewood/Seward Park” and “Rainier View,” but because these are large geographic areas, it’s difficult to attribute changing crime rates specifically to the presence of sanctioned or unsanctioned encampments. However, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says it just stands to reason that “if you’ve got organization and structure, it’s going to be safer, and if you don’t have organization and structure, and it’s just random, then it’s going to be less safe.”

SPD did create a document summarizing the rate of crime in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the authorized encampment in Licton Springs, which—unlike LIHI’s proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union—is explicitly low-barrier, meaning that people in active addiction can live, and use drugs and alcohol, on the premises. LIHI owns the Licton Springs property, but the encampment is operated by a separate group, SHARE/WHEEL, which is not involved in the proposed South Lake Union encampment.

According to the SPD document, “the block containing Licton Springs Village (N 85 to N 88 and Aurora to Nesbitt) remains one of the busiest areas in the North Precinct, both in police proactivity and calls for service.”

The document shows that crime has increased by some metrics and decreased in others, but cautions that the “data analysis … does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Zerr, the Navigation Team leader, says he would personally “feel fine” if a tiny house village opened in his neighborhood, but adds that he supports “energized and maybe even contentious debate” like the one that’s currently taking place in South Lake Union.

“I’d be going down asking those same questions, to make sure the city has thought everything through and that the residents have a voice. Those are things that a responsive government should offer its citizens when they’re going to change the living conditions of their neighborhood,” Zerr says.

Lee, the LIHI director, says she remains optimistic that the South Lake Union tiny house village will be able to open on August 15, as scheduled. “We’re optimistic,” Lee says. “We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Is It Time for Mixed Industrial-Housing Zones?

 

The Fair-Haired Dumbbell building, on Portland’s Central Eastside.

The full version of this story is available at Sightline

Seattle’s Interbay industrial district is a landscape dominated by warehouses, small manufacturing plants, and parking lots, with hardly a sidewalk to be found. Unlike other former manufacturing districts in Cascadia’s first city, like Amazon-occupied South Lake Union, Interbay has very few buildings that would qualify as “mixed-use,” and that’s by design; for decades, the district, like Seattle’s other industrial areas, has been “preserved” by zoning that prohibits most non-industrial uses, including office space, large retail stores, and housing.

In recent years, though, the city’s housing shortage has led developers to take a new look at the city’s previously sacrosanct industrial areas and ask: Why couldn’t people live here? Jeff Thompson, president of the Freehold Group, owns several properties in the area. A couple of years ago, he did some back-of-the-envelope math and discovered that by taking just five percent of the city’s vacant industrial land—about 28 acres—and rezoning it to allow six-story buildings, the city could accommodate 6,800 new apartments, without touching Seattle’s famously development-averse single-family neighborhoods. It’s a possibility relevant not only in Seattle but across Cascadia and beyond, everywhere housing shortages are escalating rents and pinching off opportunity for urbanites.

“Most of our industrial areas are derelict—full of potholes, with streets that were never meant to be places for people,” Thompson says.

Developers could improve those areas, adding sidewalks and paving crumbling streets themselves at a lower cost (and a lower lifespan) than expensive, heavy-duty reinforced concrete pavement typically found in industrial areas. In exchange, they would be allowed to build housing for some of the thousands of people who continue to pour in to Seattle every year—more than 100,000 of them between 2010 and 2017 alone.

Yes, those new residents might find themselves living next to warehouses where trucks go in and out day and night. Yes, they may have to get used to the sound of railroad traffic. But how is that different, Thompson asks, than living in the middle of any big city?

“You can go to Brooklyn or Chicago and find an apartment next to an elevated rail line,” Thompson says. “Is it inhumane of us to provide housing like that?”

Like Seattle’s evolution from sleepy outpost to big city, the definition of “industrial” has been quietly changing for at least the past several decades. Instead of factories spewing toxic fumes and “enormous vats of splashing and spluttering metal,” Thompson says, the term now encompasses firms that make software that enables customers to make their own robots at home, or labs where food production companies test new products. Or companies like Interbay’s Thermetrics, which makes mannequins that measure how fast an air conditioner cools down a car, or how effectively a sleeping bag retains a person’s body heat.

The idea that people might choose to live in an industrial area is no longer revolutionary. At the TAXI development in Denver’s River North industrial area, a company that manufactures boots for snowboards sits cheek to jowl with an outpost of the international advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. The firm is just downstairs from 48 units of housing, which overlook a pool built from recycled shipping containers that offers a view of an active railroad line. Also on site: Business incubators, a pot shop, design and architecture studios, and several software firms. Several nearby developments follow a similar mixed industrial-housing model, and developers have proposed hundreds of units of affordable housing as part of a future project in the area.

The success of the TAXI project, Thompson says, proves that industrial areas are compatible with housing. “It’s an industrial area, and it is a popular, cool place to be,” Thompson says. “People may say, ‘No one will want to live [in an industrial area]—well, they do want to live there.”

Read the rest of the story at Sightline.org.