Category: legislature

DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons

1. Proponents of a bill (HB 2075) that would force the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to offer services in person scored a victory this week, as the agency agreed to reopen almost all its community services offices—key access points, prior to the pandemic, for people seeking services ranging from food stamps to cash assistance.

Since 2020, DSHS has required people seeking services to use an online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. The department opened the community service office lobbies late last year so that people seeking services could call the department on a land line or use a computer to access its online portal, but only agreed to offer services in person again after months of pressure from advocates for low-income and homeless people.

In a letter to stakeholders last week, DSHS Community Services Division director Babs Roberts wrote, “we have heard clearly from many of you and agree that some elements of our plans will not sufficiently meet the needs of all the people we serve, particularly those experiencing the deepest impacts of poverty and homelessness. Thus, we are making changes.”

However, Roberts added, short-staffing and social distancing requirements may result in “limited waiting space and possibly long wait times in our lobbies. This moment (like so many before) will require flexibility and patience.”

As PubliCola reported in January, the closure of in-person services made it essentially impossible for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unsheltered people, to access critical services to which they are entitled, including food stamps, cash assistance, and housing subsidies.

Advocates are still pushing for the bill, which would direct DSHS to “strive to ensure” telephone wait times of no more than 30 minutes and would bar DSHS from restricting the kind of services clients can access in person. Friday is the cutoff date for the bill, which is currently in the senate rules committee, to pass out of the senate.

2. After a surprisingly contentious process, the Seattle Public Library Board unanimously appointed interim library director Tom Fay as the city’s Chief Librarian yesterday, rejecting another candidate, former Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library director Chad Helton, who resigned from his previous job amid criticism over his decision to work remotely from Los Angeles.

The vote, coming after a process that was mostly invisible to the public, shed little light on why the board chose Fay over Helton. (The two men were the only candidates that made it to the public stage of the vetting process.) During his one public interview, Helton defended his decision to run the Minnesota library system from California, saying he was just one of many people who started working from home during the pandemic. “The staff wasn’t really aware” that he lived elsewhere, Helton told the board, adding, “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary.” Fay lives in Pierce County.

As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported last week, Helton resigned from his position on February 1, after the Hennepin County Board of Supervisors passed a law, effective January 1, requiring the heads of public-facing departments like the library to live inside the state. Helton received $60,000 for “emotional damages,” plus $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, as part of a settlement.

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

3. Hours after the vote, Fay gave a presentation on library operations to the Seattle City Council’s public assets and homelessness committee. Although the presentation was mostly a high-level look at how the library spends its money, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used the opportunity to ask Fay whether the library would consider allowing social-service providers to open and operate library branches as day centers during rare weather emergencies like last year’s Christmas snowstorm, when most library branches were closed.

“Does your plan [for emergency weather operations] consider the possibility of opening as a [day] shelter only, not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter, like we do [when] we open up City Hall as a shelter?” Herbold asked. Continue reading “DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons”

Green Agenda Propels E-Bike-Riding 36th District State House Candidate

36th District candidate Julia Reed
Image via Julia Reed campaign website.

by Leo Brine

Earlier this year, after Seattle state Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to his northwest Seattle seat and Rep. Noel Frame (D-36) announced she’d run for the promotion, the musical chairs led first-time candidate Julia Reed, the chair of the 36th District Executive Board, to throw her bike helmet in the ring.

Reed only has one opponent so far—longtime 36th District Board Member and current political director Jeff Manson. Reed filled us in on her priorities over the phone after biking from her job as a consulting manager for Kinetic West in Pioneer Square to her Lower Queen Anne condo. Reed said she uses her electric bike to commute to and from work when the weather permits. The electric motor is “a little bit of a cheat,” she said, but it’s “essential” for getting around hilly Seattle.

Reed, who worked in Obama’s State Department in the office of the special envoy for Middle East peace and as a policy advisor to former mayor Durkan, is running on a green urbanist platform. Reed wants to advance climate legislation to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, fund affordable housing, and change the state’s car-centric transportation infrastructure.

“I think electric bikes are an amazing mobility tool and I wish they were in reach for more people,” she said. (Josh agrees.) “Where are the electric bike subsidies?” in the legislature’s transportation package, she asks.

Reed is biracial—her father is Black, and her mother is white—and said she knows from experience riding a bike is different for Black and brown people than it is for white people. “Biking has a bad rap as something that rich white guys in spandex do,” Reed said. She wants to help change that and diversify the biking community by making it more affordable for people of color, who are typically in the state’s lowest income brackets.

Reed, whose campaign has raised $64,000 in four weeks from more than 400 donors, said she wants to “make [the] future accessible to people of color and low-income people.” Those communities, Reed said, feel the most immediate impacts of climate change, especially during hot summers when there’s limited or no access to air conditioning, and in the winter, when people have to balance heat and utility bills and holiday spending.

In addition to getting more people on bikes, Reed wants the state to help cities and jurisdictions retrofit commercial buildings to make them hospitable during Washington’s extreme weather seasons, like adding air filtration and air conditioning to public buildings so people can use them as smoke shelters and cooling centers during the state’s wildfire season and record-breaking hot summers. Reed said cities should also retrofit their apartment buildings, condos and homes.

To address Washington’s affordable housing crisis, Reed said every part of the state “needs to think seriously about how they’re going to be a part of the collective solution to housing.” Toeing the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) line, she says the best way to create and provide enough housing is by having the state and the private sector work together to increase the overall housing supply while also putting renter protections in place and creating “social housing”—a term that includes various kinds of affordable housing, including public housing and housing owned and operated by nonprofits.

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

By Leo Brine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effort to Extend Eviction Moratorium Fails; House, Senate Budgets Differ on Housing, Homelessness

1. The Seattle City Council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to extend the citywide eviction moratorium until the end of the city’s declared emergency on COVID, which is currently indefinite. The legislation was a last-ditch attempt to thwart an executive order by Mayor Bruce Harrell ending the moratorium at the end of this month. Councilmembers Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lisa Herbold voted for the extension.

In her comments before the vote, council president Debora Juarez argued that there are already plenty of protections for renters seeking to avoid eviction, including rental assistance, a guaranteed right to legal counsel, and the just-cause eviction ordinance, which restricts the reasons for which landlords can evict a tenant (nonpayment of rent among them). “We cannot have a healthy economy when nobody pays rent,” Juarez said.

The council also rejected, on a different 5-3 note, a proposal by Herbold to extend the moratorium to April 30 “in order to allow the council to consider alternative measures for tenants that they have been unable to pay their rent due to financial hardship.” Mosqueda and Councilmember Dan Strauss joined Herbold in voting for the shorter extension, while Sawant joined the majority and voted against it, telling her supporters “we cannot trust the establishment” to protect renters’ rights.

Councilmember Tammy Morales, who supported Sawant’s proposal, was absent. Had she been at the meeting and voted for Herbold’s amendment, Sawant would have been in the position of casting the tiebreaking vote to either extend the moratorium two more months or defy “the establishment” by killing the compromise proposal and ensuring an earlier end to the moratorium.

2. House Democrats included Rep. Nicole Macri’s (D-43, Seattle) $78 million budget request to provide homeless service workers with $2000 stipends in their 2022 supplemental operating budget proposal, which they unveiled at a press conference on Monday. As PubliCola reported last week, Macri proposed the stipends as one-time assistance to service providers who often make poverty wages themselves.

Thanks to higher-than-anticipated tax revenues this year, both the House and Senate budget proposals increase funding for K-12 schools, public utilities, transportation, and human services, among other program areas.

The House Democrats’ budget proposal committee includes more than $520 million for housing and homelessness, including $400 to quickly acquire properties that would be converted into shelters and permanent housing. Buying up existing properties is faster and generally cheaper than building new housing from scratch. Michele Thomas, of the Washington Low-income Housing Alliance, said the investment was “what a response to an emergency looks like.”

Another area where the House and Senate budget writers differed was rent assistance. The House budget allocates $55 million for rent assistance programs throughout the state, while the Senate includes no funding for rent assistance. However, the Senate does carve out $5 million for the landlord tenant mitigation programs they created last year. The funding should help King County continue their rental assistance program past February 28, when the Seattle eviction moratorium expires.

In the Senate budget, Democrats took a different approach to homelessness, allocating $46 million to Sen. fund Sen. Patty Kuderer’s (D-48, Bellevue) bill (SB 5662) that would create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to focus on encampments in public rights-of-way. The bill requires the state to reduce the number of encampments by moving people into shelter and permanent housing, but doesn’t specify a mechanism for doing so.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue that the bill is primarily about sweeping encampments, not identifying and investing in places for people to live.

—Erica C. Barnett, Leo Brine

Lawmakers Propose Homeless Worker Stipend; Harrell’s State of the City Previews Potential Budget Battle

1. To support homeless service providers struggling with staffing shortages, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) are hoping to add $78 million to the state budget to provide $2,000 stipends to thousands of homeless service workers across the state. The program would start in October.

Washington Low Income Housing Alliance policy and advocacy director Michele Thomas said many homeless service workers earn such low wages, “they are one step away from homelessness themselves.” Nonprofits that provide services and shelter to people experiencing homelessness are perennially underfunded, and often have trouble recruiting and retaining staff.

“Our permanent supportive housing providers and our homeless service providers are saying they’re literally competing with fast-food employers and their workers are leaving because [fast food jobs have] similar benefits, similar pay, and a lot less trauma,” Thomas said.

Nguyen said “we as a government have failed” because the state is relying on nonprofit homeless service providers and their underpaid workforce “to do the work that government should have been doing.”

In the House, 27 representatives, including half a dozen from Seattle, signed a letter urging the Appropriations Committee to include the request in the 2022 operating budget. Nguyen said the budget request has support in the senate as well, although he adds that “$78 million is a lot” to ask when there are so many competing budget priorities.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee will release their 2022 operating budgets next week.

2. In his first  State of the City Address Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell reiterated his commitment to hiring more police officers and removing more homeless encampments from public spaces; described work to consolidate various systems for reporting encampments and tracking outreach and services to homeless people; and promised to be “the administration that ends the federal consent decree over SPD.” The consent decree is a 10-year-old agreement giving the US Justice Department oversight of SPD’s efforts to correct patterns of excessive force and racially biased policing. “The time to build this [police] department is now,” Harrell said.

As he has during the first month and a half of his term, Harrell emphasized the need to address public disorder that, he said, is destroying small businesses or driving them out of Seattle.

“The truth is, the status quo is unacceptable—that is the one where we must all agree,” Harrell said.

Harrell teased a “major announcement” that will happen later this week on homelessness; as we reported last week, this announcement will include a large, one-time philanthropic donation to fund a “peer navigator” program within the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Peer navigators are case managers with lived experience who connect people to shelter, health care, and other services; the city, which provides most of the authority’s funding declined to fund a $7.6 million peer navigator pilot last year.

“Yesterday we received some good news, learning that revenue from the JumpStart Payroll Expense Tax has come in $31 million higher than expected,” Harrell said. “That additional revenue must go toward alleviating the budget issues we expect in 2023.”

In a preview of a potential budget battle later this year, Harrell said the city is facing a $150 million revenue shortfall that he plans to fill with revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which is earmarked for housing, small businesses, and Green New Deal programs. Former mayor Jenny Durkan attempted repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to use revenues from the tax (which she opposed), to fund her own budget priorities. She also tried to pass legislation that would allow the city to use JumpStart revenues for virtually any purpose, effectively overturning the adopted spending plan.

“Yesterday we received some good news, learning that revenue from the JumpStart Payroll Expense Tax has come in $31 million higher than expected,” Harrell said. “That additional revenue must go toward alleviating the budget issues we expect in 2023.”

For two years, the revenues from the payroll tax have largely gone into COVID relief. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the tax, told PubliCola, “We have a codified JumpStart spend plan in law for a reason. … It should also be noted that were it not for JumpStart in 2020, we would have faced an austerity budget. In 2022 and beyond, funding is dedicated to the areas noted in the codified spend plan which will create a more resilient and equitable economy.”

Asked if the mayor plans to use JumpStart revenues to backfill the general fund shortfall this year, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said, “The Mayor’s Office has been regularly engaging with [Councilmember] Mosqueda on budget issues and are looking forward to working with her and Councilmembers regarding how to allocate the new revenues just identified yesterday.”

Mosqueda said the city should consider new revenue sources to make the city budget sustainable, rather than using payroll tax revenues to fill holes in the budget. “We have to remember, while Jumpstart first revenue returns are in, our commitments to the community members who supported the Jumpstart tax and the detailed spend plan have yet to be realized,” she said. Harrell mentioned the possibility of new taxes in his speech, saying the city would “need to look at all our options, deciding between one-time and ongoing commitments, adjusting expenditures, revisiting existing funding sources, and looking at options for increasing revenues.”

—Leo Brine, Erica C. Barnett

Evening Fizz: Watered-Down Density Bill Dies in Olympia

Not this year: A bill to allow duplexes and other low-density housing next to transit lines died Tuesday in Olympia.
Not this year: A bill to allow duplexes and other low-density housing near frequent transit service died Tuesday in Olympia. Credit: Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Legislation that would have allowed denser housing in cities across the state died this week in Olympia. Legislators in the House failed to move Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) forward before Tuesday’s legislative cutoff.

Bateman wrote on Twitter Tuesday evening that she was “very disappointed” by the outcome, but grateful for everyone who advocated for the bill, which, she said, lays “the foundation for an even stronger policy proposal next year.”

She added that “philosophic beliefs about ‘local control’ are crippling our ability to take this necessary step. There is a real disconnect that limits fully appreciating the impact of our housing crisis & the necessary urgency of taking action.”

In an effort to make the bill passable, Bateman tried to appeal to the House’s “local control” NIMBY representatives by proposing a watered-down version. The (unsuccessful) attempt to satisfy opponents of the bill would have limited density housing to fourplexes and only required cities to plan for them within a quarter mile of frequent service stops—ensuring that most of the state’s exclusive single-family enclaves would remain that way.

Bateman also removed denser housing requirements for all jurisdictions with population under 30,000.

Her original bill would have made all cities with populations greater than 20,000 plan many types of denser housing, including sixplexes, in areas currently zoned for single-family residential housing and within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop. The original would have also required cities with populations between 10,000 and 20,000 to plan for duplexes in single-family residential zones.

And in a near-comical loophole, her revised bill would have also let jurisdictions prohibit all types of denser housing so long as they included in their countywide planning policy how the county and its cities will meet existing and projected housing needs for all economic segments of their community.

Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews

File:3-car Link light rail train in Columbia City, Seattle.jpg
SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Democrats unveiled their $16.8 billion, 16-year transportation package to mixed reviews from transit advocates last week.

The package, which includes a bill outlining what projects the Democrats want to fund and a separate funding plan, marks a notable shift in Washington state’s transportation priorities. Transportation committee chairs Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) included $3 billion in the package for street and highway maintenance, another $1.2 billion for active transportation projects that would create new walking and bike paths statewide, and $2.8 billion for projects that would expand existing transit services. Their plan would also invest roughly $2.6 billion in new highway projects and provide $1.4 billion to incomplete projects from past transportation packages.

Pro-transit groups like Front and Centered have been asking for major investments in maintenance and nonmotorized transportation for years and “feel really validated” by the proposals, spokesperson Paulo Nunes-Ueno said. However, Nunes-Ueno and other transit advocates are still frustrated by Democrats’ decision to spend about $4 billion on highway expansion projects: “If we continue to try and solve congestion by adding highways and ignore those highways’ impacts on communities of color, frontline communities, and the climate in general, then we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

For example, projects like widening State Route 18 east of Issaquah and replacing the US Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County won’t reduce congestion in those areas, but, studies suggest,  create an incentive for people to drive more often, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s infrastructure that’s going to guarantee fossil fuel use for a 30, 40, 50-year period,” Andrew Kidde, from climate justice group 350 Washington, said. Kidde is worried that the transportation package is at odds with the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to about 50 million metric tons per year by 2030. As of 2020, the state emitted roughly 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

To align with the state’s climate goals and reduce emissions, the state should have “invested more in local, existing, regional rail” projects, Kidde said. The package would spend $3 billion funding 25 new transit projects and provide $1.4 billion in grants to local transit authorities, 35 percent of which Liias said will go to King County Metro. The grants will help transit authorities expand service and electrify their vehicles, he said; local transit agencies will have to apply for them and meet new requirements in the package, including letting anyone 18 years or younger ride free.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

Legislators did include $40 million for Sound Transit Tacoma Dome Link Light Rail extension in the package. CEO Peter Rogoff said the investments were “unprecedented in recent times.” But he also flagged the agency’s disappointment that Sound Transit didn’t qualify for any of the $1.4 billion in transit support grants.

“The proposal falls short,” Rogoff said at the Sound Transit board’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting last week. The legislature passed a motor vehicle excise tax for regional transit authorities in 2015 which gave Sound Transit the ability to develop a ST3 ballot measure with the caveat that they would no longer qualify for state transit grants provided in future transportation packages. Continue reading “Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews”

It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington

Historic fourplex in Seattle.
Sightline Institute: Missing Middle Homes Photo Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patience Malaba

Look around an older neighborhood in just about any city in Washington state. Hidden in plain sight is a century-old secret that can help us find our way out of today’s housing crisis.

Scattered among single-family houses, you’ll see old corner stores with homes tucked above or behind, Craftsman duplexes here and there, and maybe a small, brick apartment building.

But in most newer neighborhoods, that variety of homes is missing. Smaller-footprint, less-expensive housing is missing because about three-quarters of our cities’ residential areas now allow only the most expensive type of housing: big, detached houses on large lots. Everything else is prohibited by law.

Companion “middle housing near transit” bills in the Senate and House would empower Washington’s cities with a range of options for allowing more homes in established urban areas and lifting restrictions on homes that more people can afford.

From Bellingham to Walla Walla, and in cities all over Washington state, neighborhoods where working-class families can afford to live are vanishing. Week after week, year after year, we’ve all heard the news stories: home prices climbing ever further out of reach for Washingtonians who lack multigenerational wealth. Tenants facing the worst rental shortages in decades. Too many of our neighbors living unsheltered or just one paycheck or hardship away from homelessness.

This is the displacement that befalls our communities when there aren’t enough homes available. Bidding drives up prices, and escalating prices drive people with lower incomes further and further out, resulting in cities increasingly segregated by race and income.

Sadly, this zoning system is working exactly as originally intended. Starting in the 1920s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affordable home types, such as apartment buildings, were “mere parasites,” cities started to restrict what housing could be built. By the 1960s, most cities had banned even duplexes from half their residential areas.

I’m not typically nostalgic for the policies of the past. But to add the homes Washington families need today, it’s time to reverse that history of downzoning near our job centers and re-legalize a range of modest, mid-sized homes in our cities. The one-size zoning we’ve got now isn’t working.     Continue reading “It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington”

With Backing of Build Back Black Alliance, YIMBY Housing Bill Moves Forward

Housing like this Seattle duplex is currently banned in single-family-zoned areas across the state, including in Seattle. University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Housing like this Seattle duplex is currently banned in single-family-zoned areas across the state, including in Seattle.
University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Leo Brine

The House Appropriations Committee narrowly passed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) housing density bill (HB 1782) on Monday, by a 17-16 vote, and sent it to the House rules committee with a “do pass” recommendation. Her bill would require cities with populations greater than 10,000 to rezone single-family residential neighborhoods for more housing options, such as duplexes and fourplexes.

The committee passed the bill with an almost party-line vote. The only Democrats to vote against the bill were Reps. Tana Senn (D-41, Mercer Island) and Jesse Johnson (D-30, Federal Way). Seattle-area representatives Steve Bergquist (D-11), Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37), Noel Frame (D-36), Nicole Macri (D-43), Gerry Pollet (D-46), Eileen Cody (D-34), Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) and Frank Chopp (D-43) all voted yes.

The bill also includes an amendment added by single-family preservationist Rep. Pollet that would allow any city to opt out of the fourplex requirement by achieving an average density goal of 33 units per acre within a half-mile of frequent transit stops. Cities would be allowed to achieve that average density by concentrating housing in certain areas, much as it is now in Seattle—allowing density only along busy arterial streets and highways, for example, instead of allowing duplexes and fourplexes next to single-family houses.

Citing the possibility of “unintended consequences,” officials from Gig Harbor, Auburn, Issaquah, and other Washington cities had urged committee members to stop Bateman’s bill from moving out of committee.

Taking up a “local control” stance, those cities opposed the legislation because, they said, they’ve already developed their own plans to add denser housing options to single-family residential neighborhoods. Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly told the committee more than 45 percent of Issaquah’s residential land is already zoned for multi-family, but they haven’t figured out “how to get people to build there.”

Other officials complained that new development would make single-family homes in their region unaffordable. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told the committee, “Kent has some of the most naturally occurring affordable housing” in King County, and “these homes may be displaced” because of Bateman’s bill. However, data from Redfin shows houses in Kent are unaffordable now, indicating that prices are skyrocketing under the status quo, in which density is largely prohibited. In 2021, the median sale price for a housing unit in Kent was  $617,000, 37 percent higher than it was the same time the year before. Continue reading “With Backing of Build Back Black Alliance, YIMBY Housing Bill Moves Forward”

City Attorney Will Speed Up Case Filings, 21 Homeless Men Died in January Cold, Democrats Propose Sales Tax Holiday

1. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced Monday that her office will begin deciding whether to file charges in misdemeanor cases within five business days of receiving a referral from law enforcement. In a statement, Davison said the move is necessary to prevent her office’s current 5,000-case backlog from growing.

“The best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department,” Davison said. The strategy began as a recommendation from Brian Moran, who previously worked for three state attorneys general and as the US Attorney for Western Washington. Moran joined the City Attorney’s Office last month, in part to advise Davison on how to manage the backlog of criminal cases.

Speedier filing decisions could create some logistical challenge further downstream in Seattle’s criminal legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the Seattle Municipal Court’s capacity to hold hearings, and each misdemeanor case may require multiple hearings. The court has the capacity to hold two trials a week, and in recent months, it has averaged only one trial per week.

Meanwhile, King County jails are facing a staffing shortage, exacerbated by a recent outbreak of COVID-19 among staff and inmates, that has prompted the union representing King County’s corrections officers to raise the alarm about unsafe and inhumane living and working conditions for inmates and staff. While misdemeanor defendants make up a small portion of those incarcerated in King County jails, an uptick in the number of misdemeanor charges filed by the City Attorney’s Office could also increase the number of people held in jail while awaiting a hearing on their misdemeanor charges.

2. Last week, records released by the Seattle Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that 21 men experiencing homelessness died outside or in public in January 2022, the largest number since the previous high of 30 in December 2020.

Women In Black distributed a list of the people who died unsheltered during January last week.

Of the 21, four died of confirmed hypothermia, and another died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his car, a cause of death that indicates he was trying to stay warm. All five of these deaths occurred the week after Seattle and King County closed their severe weather shelters closed their severe weather shelters on the morning of January 3. During the week after the winter shelters closed, overnight lows in Seattle ranged from 32 to 38 degrees.

Twelve of the 21 men died of confirmed overdoses, according to the medical examiner.

3. To ease the burden Washington’s regressive sales tax puts on low-income and working-class people, House Democrats proposed a bill that would create a “sales tax holiday” during Labor Day weekend this year.

If passed, shoppers would be exempt from paying sales taxes when they purchase school supplies, clothes, over-the-counter drugs, computers and similar electronics, and other qualified products under $1000 during the three-day holiday.

Rep. Dave Paul (D-10, Whidbey Island) sponsored the bill. He told the House Finance Committee at a public hearing that back-to-school shopping “makes September a very lean month” for “working and needy families” and a sales-tax holiday is a way to reduce the negative financial impacts. Continue reading “City Attorney Will Speed Up Case Filings, 21 Homeless Men Died in January Cold, Democrats Propose Sales Tax Holiday”