Category: Mayor Durkan

Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing

SPD East Precinct, June 2020

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability released findings on Monday afternoon clearing former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey of wrongdoing in the evacuation of the department’s East Precinct last June.

Questions about the decision to abandon the precinct swirled for more than a year without any clarity from the department until KUOW published an investigation in July that identified Mahaffey—the commander in charge of managing the department’s protest response on June 8—as the person who made the call.

OPA director Andrew Myerberg criticized SPD for being silent about the decision to abandon the precinct, writing that the decision created “a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play.” In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, City Council President Lorena González echoed the same frustration, writing that the OPA’s report “shows how SPD treated responsibility as a ‘hot potato’ that no one wanted to get caught holding… You can’t always predict the outcome of key decisions—and mistakes will happen—but the damage to public trust is made much worse when high-ranking SPD leaders play games of hot potato and fail to be forthright with elected officials, the media and the public.”

However, Myerberg also concluded that Best had the authority to delegate decision-making to Mahaffey. Similarly, he determined that Mahaffey’s decision to evacuate the precinct was based on the information available to him—including flawed claims from the FBI of a terrorist threat—and that his decision allowed SPD to temporarily de-escalate. “No one—including OPA—can say that [an] alternative strategy would have produced better results than those that occurred or that it would have prevented CHOP/CHAZ from forming,” he wrote, “just as no one can say this unidentified alternative strategy would not have resulted in more uses of force to disperse the crowd and, potentially, to rescue stranded and endangered officers left inside of the precinct.”

Assistant Chief Brian Grenon described panicked officers “ripping open lockers” and “kicking in doors” during a mad-dash attempt to gather all the weapons, computers and hard drives in the building. After supervisors intervened, the precinct’s officers departed for the West Precinct.

The OPA’s investigation, which relied on interviews with Best, Mahaffey and other SPD employees and members of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff, largely mirrored KUOW’s version of events, with two exceptions. In early June, with the East Precinct at the center of nightly protests on Capitol Hill, SPD leaders were increasingly anxious about the risk of an attack on the precinct. Protesters in Minneapolis had burned a police precinct to the ground less than two weeks earlier, and SPD leadership worried that the same thing could happen in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the department’s initial protest response, which relied heavily on barriers, fixed lines of officers in riot gear, and weapons like tear gas and pepper spray, only escalated the conflict on the streets outside the East Precinct. Continue reading “Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing”

Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, the city council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would have required churches to build more deeply affordable housing in exchange for density bonuses (upzones) that could double the value of property they own. The legislation the council adopted will provide a financial incentive for religious institutions to build apartments for people and households earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle area median income—for a one-person household, about $65,000 a year.

The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. Back in 2019, the state legislature adopted legislation requiring cities to give religious institutions density bonuses—essentially, the right to build more housing—on property they own, if they agree to use it for affordable housing. Three months ago, the city council adopted, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, legislation stipulating that starting in July 2022, the housing that churches build on upzoned land must be, on average, affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income—about $49,000 for one person, or $70,000 for a family of four. 

After the legislation passed, several local churches asked Durkan and council members to change the law to increase the affordable threshold to 80 percent. At that affordability level, apartments are essentially market-rate—around $1,620 for a studio apartment, or $1,850 for a one-bedroom unit, no matter where they are located in the city. In contrast, the legislation the council and mayor approved in June required average rents of around $1,200 for a studio and $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Herbold’s amendment would have continued to allow religious institutions in neighborhoods the city has identified as having a high displacement risk, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill, and Lake City, to build housing affordable at the higher-income threshold, while retaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.

Nearly seven in ten Black households make less than half of the Seattle median income, and only 10 percent fall between the 50 percent and 80 percent income levels. In other words, fewer than 10 percent of all Black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new church-based housing at the higher income levels the council adopted.

Representatives from local churches argued that requiring deeper affordability anywhere in the city would make it difficult for them to build housing, resulting in the displacement of churches and their congregants, because housing affordable to people making lower incomes simply doesn’t “pencil out” on church property. 

“The [new] legislation, as originally developed, created a win-win scenario where these institutions—almost all of whom make significant contributions to service and justice in the city—can continue to thrive where they are in our neighborhoods and contribute to the crying lack of affordable housing,” Michael Ramos, head of the Greater Seattle Church Council, wrote in an email to Herbold’s office opposing her amendment.

“The ideal is that we have affordable housing at 60 percent area median income across the city, and we have so many policy mechanisms and funding mechanisms to do so,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored both bills.  “Churches need the flexibility to be able to have people [earning] up to 80 percent AMI in their buildings, so that they can either choose to have people move back into the community that have been displaced or to use that revenue to create the services that other residents are receiving to meet the needs of their community.” Continue reading “Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property”

Durkan Budget Would Gut JumpStart Spending Plan, Increase Funding for Encampment Response

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan released the final budget of her term yesterday, outlining the proposal at a very high level in a six-minute speech from North Seattle College. In the coming weeks, the proposal will be debated, analyzed, and rewritten by the Seattle City Council (the addition of 35 net new police officers is an obvious target for their red pens), and PubliCola will be covering every aspect of those upcoming discussions. For now, though, here are a few initial notes on the plan, which reflects better-than-expected revenues and incorporates a lot of ongoing federal funding for COVID relief.

• The budget proposes taking $148 million from the city’s payroll tax fund, a repository for revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, and moving it into the general fund to pay for Durkan’s other priorities. Legislation the mayor will transmit to the council would also empower future mayors to use JumpStart revenues for virtually any purpose, including the “[m]aintenance of existing essential City services.” The mayor’s proposal would remove language from existing law stipulating that the tax can’t be used to “supplant existing funding from any City fund or revenue source.”

The council adopted the payroll tax specifically to fund programs addressing housing, homelessness, and equity, and created a separate fund for JumpStart revenues with the intention that they couldn’t be used for other purposes—which is precisely what Durkan is proposing to do.

“The proposed changes are necessary in order to reconcile the priorities identified in [the JumpStart bill] with Council actions in support of other critical funding needs, including homelessness, community safety, BIPOC investments, domestic violence prevention and victim services, appropriate compensation for City employees, and the ongoing shortfall in some City revenues,” the mayor’s budget proposal says.

The city estimates that JumpStart will bring in about $235 million next year, so Durkan’s plan would use up the majority of JumpStart funding for non-JumpStart purposes.

Durkan attempted to reallocate JumpStart revenues last year as well.

A summary of the bill by the City Budget Office notes that Durkan didn’t sign the JumpStart bill, “expressing many of the same concerns about earmarking certain revenue streams at a time when the City was making significant investments using one-time funding received from the federal government as a response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.” She also vetoed legislation last year that used JumpStart revenues to fund COVID relief, a veto the council narrowly overturned.

The city estimates that JumpStart will bring in about $235 million next year, so Durkan’s plan would use up the majority of JumpStart funding for non-JumpStart purposes. The budget would use one-time federal emergency dollars to backfill the gap in the JumpStart fund, but because those funds only last one year, the budget creates a future funding cliff for the next mayor and council. If the council adopts this plan, it will have to either cut the programs Durkan funded using a tax meant for other purposes, or continue to dip into JumpStart revenues while cutting back on programs funded this year with one-time funds. It seems unlikely that the council will allow this part of the budget proposal to stand as is.

This is hardly the first time Durkan has proposed dipping into funds earmarked by legislation for a specific purpose in order to fund her own unrelated priorities. In 2018, she started using funds from the sweetened beverage tax—a tax that was supposed to fund healthy food programs in areas most impacted by the tax—to pay for programs that had historically been funded through the city’s general fund, creating “extra” money for her office to allocate elsewhere.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the higher-than-expected contribution to the regional homelessness authority “represents increased spending on homelessness projected 2022. The [agreement] was written in 2019 and did not contemplate the pandemic or the massive infusion of funds to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe.”

When the council attempted to reverse this sleight-of-hand and use the tax revenues for their designated purpose, Durkan accused them of “cutting” programs that she was using the tax to fund, setting off a nasty battle that resulted in the council creating a designated fund for soda tax revenues—much like the designated JumpStart fund.

• Durkan wants to add another 35 (net) new police officers to the force—a fairly modest goal, but one directly in conflict with many council members’ stated commitment to reduce the size of the police department and invest the savings into community-based public safety alternatives. Last year, Durkan vetoed the entire city budget because the council amended it to reduce the size of the police force, a veto the council subsequently overturned.

Although the budget proposal includes funding for new and continued alternatives to policing and police response, such as Health One and Triage One, and funding for the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, a gun-violence prevention program, it also commits to “restoring SPD staffing to previous levels” by hiring new officers. To that end, Durkan’s budget also includes $1.1 million to pay for hiring incentives for new recruits and officers who make lateral transfers from other departments.

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The city council just rejected a series of proposals from Councilmember Alex Pedersen that would have set aside as much as $3 million to retain existing officers and recruit new ones to the department.

• The budget proposes sending more money than the city originally agreed to provide—$104.2 million, compared to $75 million the city agreed to provide in the interlocal agreement adopted in 2019—to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take over (almost) all the homelessness programs previously managed by the city at the end of this year. The homelessness authority is funded by the city and King County; suburban cities, which hold three seats on the authority’s governing board, don’t contribute financially to the authority.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the higher-than-expected contribution “represents increased spending on homelessness projected 2022. The [agreement] was written in 2019 and did not contemplate the pandemic or the massive infusion of funds to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe.”

The new funds include $2.4 million in state and local funds for “tiny home villages,” coincidentally the same amount of state and local dollars the council has been trying to get the mayor to release to pay for three new tiny house villages this year. The mayor’s proposed $2.4 million would pay for ongoing “operations, maintenance, and services s for three tiny home villages (estimated 120 units) or other noncongregate emergency shelter or temporary housing options,” leaving open the possibility that the regional authority might fund a different shelter option.

However, because the money is supposed to “operationalize” funding in the state capital budget that was explicitly for “tiny homes,” it’s likely that advocates for tiny house villages would object strongly to using the money for some other kind of shelter. Authority CEO Marc Dones has expressed skepticism about tiny houses as a form of temporary shelter, noting that people tend to stay in villages far longer than the city’s own goals for the program.

There’s also funding in the proposal for a new men’s shelter run by Africatown at a former nursing home in the Central District; ongoing support for the Salvation Army’s mass shelter in SoDo; and about $190 million for new housing, paid for through the voter-adopted housing levy, federal dollars, and other funding sources.

Durkan’s proposed budget increases funding for Parks’ encampment work by almost a million dollars, adding 6.5 full-time equivalent employees to respond to “the increased demand on [Seattle Parks and Recreation] to address impacts of unmanaged encampments, such as litter removal, storage of personal belongings, and data collection & reporting in compliance with Multi-Department Rules (MDAR).”

The budget also proposes $6 million for services to help people who receive federal emergency housing vouchers maintain their housing when the vouchers run out. Some of this money, according to the budget summary, could come from rapid rehousing funds. As we’ve reported, the city’s plan to move people quickly from two shelter-based hotels into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies has failed to place many people in housing, largely because the people moving into the hotels tend to be poor candidates for rapid rehousing programs, which generally require tenants to pay full market rent within a few months to a year.

• Although Durkan’s budget plan relinquishes control of most homelessness work, it still assumes that the city, not the regional authority, will maintain its role removing encampments and, to some extent, doing outreach to unsheltered people, although the form that role will take is unclear. Budget director Ben Noble told PubliCola yesterday that although “the shelter contracts and related pieces are all going to the regional authority… the feeling was that folks who are on the street and not in a sanctioned encampment but living outside are sill the primary responsibility of the city.” Continue reading “Durkan Budget Would Gut JumpStart Spending Plan, Increase Funding for Encampment Response”

Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy

Street scene outside the property where the Seattle Storm wants to build a new practice arena.
Street scene outside the property where the Seattle Storm wants to build a new practice arena.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council’s land use committee voted Friday to fast-track a change to the land use code that will allow a new 50,000-square-foot practice facility for the Seattle Storm WNBA team on industrial land owned by Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in Interbay. Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is friends with (and received a campaign contribution from) Gilder, requested the change, which will allow the Storm to build a sports complex five times larger than what’s currently allowed.

“Seattle has a long tradition of investing in its professional sports franchises,” Gilder said during public comment at a committee meeting earlier this week, pointing to stadiums and practice facilities the city has helped build for the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and the new NHL team, the Kraken. “Now the city has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equity, to step forward and expand that tradition of support to its sole professional women’s sports franchise, the Seattle Storm.”

On Friday, committee chair Dan Strauss said, “It’s important that we show the same support for our most winningest team, the Seattle Storm who have more championships than any of [Seattle’s men’s] teams … combined.”

Critics have argued that the exemption, which would bar any similar facilities in a one-mile radius once the Storm practice site is built, constitutes an illegal “spot zone” to benefit one property owner; defenders of the move, including Strauss, have said that because the bill is a code amendment, not a zoning change, it can’t be considered spot zoning. “Because [a sports practice facility] is a use that is already allowed in these zones, it cannot be inconsistent with the surrounding uses,” Strauss said.

Durkan’s office offered another reason they believe the proposal is “not a spot rezone”: Technically, it impacts 45 parcels, any one of whose owners could theoretically propose a sports complex before the Storm does. “Any owner of eligible property could make use of the provision,” a spokeswoman, Chelsea Kellogg, said. This is a legal fiction—in addition to Gilder, Storm star Sue Bird gave public comment in favor of the change, and Juarez suggested a “no” vote would be a blow against professional women’s sports teams and feminism at large—but it may not matter: Unless someone sues to stop the project, the mayor and council’s legal theory won’t have to stand up in court.

At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across busy West Dravus Street.

Beyond questions of legality, the exemption is completely at odds with the city’s policy of “preserving industrial lands for industrial use,” which was one of Durkan’s top campaign promises to labor unions who supported her. Just last month, a Durkan-appointed task force, which included Gilder, adopted a new industrial lands policy that includes new restrictions on housing and other non-industrial uses in industrial areas. That work group also proposed an amendment to the city’s give plan that would make it virtually impossible to rezone industrial land in the future. Durkan’s office has also proposed legislation that would set new limits on the size of retail stores and storage facilities in industrial areas.

Supporters say allowing a large new sports facility in an industrial area doesn’t conflict with the goal of “keeping industrial lands industrial,” because the legislation is narrowly tailored and wouldn’t produce the kind of car traffic and street life a retail building or housing would. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the area, said, “The planning department made a determination, which I agree with, that it’s somewhat compatible with the uses in the area”—a sliver of Interbay near the BNSF railroad tracks that is not currently in heavy industrial use. “It’s not like we’re taking this land and permanently getting rid of any industrial application for it” by changing the underlying zoning, he said.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Kellogg, from Durkan’s office, noted that “indoor sports and recreation structures are similar in physical characteristics to industrial structures”—an observation that speaks more to what a building looks like from the outside (big, impenetrable, not for pedestrians) than what happens on the inside. “It does not impede progress towards the Mayor’s proposed strategy to strengthen and grow industrial and maritime sectors,” Kellogg said.

At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across five-lane West Dravus Street.

According to a staff report supporting the proposal, the location of the new practice facility “would allow for functional clusters of recreational activities that could support a variety of camps, competitions, and training opportunities”—an idea that, if it actually happened, would certainly result in a lot more regular people tromping through the industrial part of Interbay to access all those new recreational opportunities. Continue reading “Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy”

Arts Commission Chairs Resign Amid Furor Over Durkan’s “Surprise” Arts Director Appointment

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the two co-chairs of the Seattle Arts Commission abruptly resigned, citing “grave concern surrounding Mayor Durkan’s lack of process in the recent appointment of the Acting Director for the Office of Arts and Culture, superseding both community and Council.”

“After meeting with the Mayor’s Office this past Friday and in their subsequent decisions, it was very apparent to us that they had an ulterior motive that did not include any input or involvement  from the Arts Commission or arts and cultural community members,” the co-chairs’ resignation letter continued.

Office of Arts and Culture logoEarlier this month, Durkan appointed former Center on Contemporary Arts (CoCA) director Royal Alley-Barnes to serve as interim director for the office, which has lacked a permanent leader since December 2020, when longtime director Randy Engstrom resigned. She’ll replace Calandra Childers, whom Durkan appointed to serve as interim director when Engstrom left.

Alley-Barnes is the former head of the then-city-funded Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, which is now an independent nonprofit known as LANGSTON.

LANGSTON’s current director, Tim Lennon, wrote a letter to council members expressing his opposition “not to the candidate selected but rather to the total apparent lack of consultation with our sector [and] the utter lack of an articulated strategy for ARTS which necessitates this leadership change 4 months before the end of this administration.”

Members of the ARTS Director Search Committee, including artists, curators, and academics, also wrote a letter to the Arts Commission expressing their disappointment in the process and the “surprise appointment” of Alley-Barnes. The committee convened in early 2021 to begin the process of appointing a permanent, not interim, director, according to the letter.

“The work of this Committee was initiated and overseen by Deputy Director Calandra Childers who was serving as acting Director of ARTS since February,” the letter says. “Her deep commitment and wide-ranging expertise in directing the ARTS office throughout this challenging time, while also guiding the work of this committee, is to be respected, protected, supported, and even modeled—not discarded without a conversation or any thoughtful process.”

Currently, at least eight city departments are headed by interim or acting directors.

The mayor’s office also provided a number of letters supporting the appointment. Unlike the letters of opposition, most of these focused on Alley-Barnes and her record leading arts organizations, including CoCA, over many years. Supporters of her appointment included former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Community Police Commission member Harriett Walden, HistoryLink director Marie McCaffrey, and CoCA board member Dr. Judith Rayl, who wrote that she “has embraced a lifetime devoted to community flourishing. Her influence is evident at all levels: regionally, locally, organizationally, and interpersonally through her excellence in leadership and mentorship.”

When a mayor appoints a new permanent department head, the city council has to vote on whether to approve the nomination. An interim appointment, in contrast, requires only the “concurrence” of the budget committee chair (currently Teresa Mosqueda) and the council president (currently Lorena González.) Both signed off on the appointment, although González said she did so only after Durkan called the question by formally announcing Alley-Barnes as the new interim director.

“It would have been my hope that the Mayor would have fulfilled the commitments made to the commission and broader arts community,”  González said in a statement. “With an interim director in place, the City will be able to search for a permanent director via a process that includes and honors input from commissioners and community members, whose role it is to advise elected officials in decisions such as these.” (Emphasis González’).

Durkan’s office disputes González’s timeline and denies that the process for appointing Alley-Barnes as interim director was in any way unusual. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the mayor’s office “reached out on September 8 regarding this appointment to which both offices confirmed receipt and expressed no concerns about the imminent announcement,” adding, “the Mayor’s Office has not run a stakeholder process when appointing the Interim or Acting Directors, understanding a longer stakeholder process is needed for permanent appointments.” Continue reading “Arts Commission Chairs Resign Amid Furor Over Durkan’s “Surprise” Arts Director Appointment”

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”

City Finally Sends Team to Bitter Lake Encampment, City Attorney Candidate Has Scant Court Record, 37th LD Endorses

Anything Helps' Mike Mathias takes questions at a recent public meeting at Broadview Thomson K-8 School.
Anything Helps’ Mike Mathias takes questions at a recent public meeting at Broadview Thomson K-8 School.

1. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, a group that coordinates outreach by social-services groups like REACH, has begun showing up at a controversial encampment near Broadview Thomson K-8 School after months of deliberate inaction from the city—a sign, advocates and encampment residents fear, that the city is preparing to sweep the area.

For months, Mayor Jenny Durkan has maintained that the city bears no responsibility for helping the dozens of people living at the encampment, which is on school district-owned property along the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. Earlier this year, Durkan said the school district should establish its own human services system to provide services and housing for the people living there, using district “reserves” to pay for it.

Once the district missed its self-imposed deadline of September 1 to move people off the property, however, the city changed its tune, sending HOPE Team members into the encampment to “do an assessment of the needs of the current residents of the encampment and identify the resources needed to permanently address the encampment,” according to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt.

Mike Mathias, an outreach worker who has been on site at the encampment with his organization, Anything Helps, for months, says the sudden presence of city outreach workers has “freaked out” a lot of people at the encampment, leading to more disruptive behavior and residents giving out false information to the new, unfamiliar outreach staff. “Our whole goal was to be on site so that if outreach teams wanted to collaborate, they could come up or call us and we could give them warm introductions to people,” Mathias said. “Instead, the city keeps sending people without any notice, and it’s frightening for people.”

The city is reportedly about to stop referring new clients to the two hotels it has leased through next year, leaving rooms vacant as people leave, so the only options available to encampment residents are existing shelters and tiny house villages, which fill up quickly.

Mathias says the city has told him flatly that encampment residents will have to move into congregate shelters, rather than hotel rooms, while they wait for housing resources to come through. (Mathias is trying to sign most of the residents up for the Housing and Essential Needs program, subsidized housing for low-income people with disabilities, but it’s a slow process.) “Our priority [now] is ensuring that people can stay together and that they don’t go to congregate settings,” Mathias said. “That’s just not going to happen not here.”

Ideally, Mathias said, the city would open rooms in the two hotels it has reserved for people referred by the HOPE Team for residents of the Bitter Lake encampment. Originally, the hotels were supposed to serve as temporary housing for unsheltered people who would be moved quickly into permanent spots using “rapid rehousing” subsidies, so that each room could shelter multiple people over the life of the hotel contracts, which are supposed to start ramping down early next year.

However, not only did that optimistic scenario fall flat, the city currently plans to stop referring new clients to the hotels as soon as mid-October, PubliCola has learned, leaving rooms vacant as people leave. (HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt told PubliCola after this article was posted that the city has not picked a specific date to stop taking new referrals to the hotels.) This would mean that the only options available to encampment residents are existing shelters, which many people experiencing homelessness avoid, and tiny house villages, which fill up quickly. The contracts the city has signed with hotel service providers say that they will begin decommissioning the hotels at the end of this year.

Mundt, from HSD, says it is not true that the city has decided to stop referring people to its two hotels sooner than stipulated in the contract. If such a decision was made informally, the city could change its mind without requiring changes to the contract itself.

According to Mundt, the city now plans to offer encampment residents “resources” including “diversion, rental assistance, new and existing shelter, and permanent housing from combined resources of [Seattle Public Schools], City, and County.” In an internal presentation about the encampment, the city said it hopes to have everyone off the site by October 14.

2. Ann Davison, who ran for lieutenant governor last year on the Republican ticket (her platform: Abolish the office of the lieutenant governor), has touted her experience as an attorney and arbitrator working on “civil litigation, immigration, sports, contracts and business transactions,” according to her campaign website. But a review of court records in King and Snohomish Counties suggests Davison has represented clients in the Puget Sound region in just a handful of court cases, none of them after 2010.

Specifically, Davison (also known as Ann Sattler) has represented clients in five King County cases—four cases involving people’s wills, one business dispute that ended in a settlement, and one case involving unpaid commercial rent. Sattler’s most recent case in King County was in 2010.

The city attorney’s office does not primarily prosecute crimes (the sort of major and violent crimes Davison has talked about in her campaign literature are the province of the King County Prosecutor, not the city attorney), but it is constantly involved in litigation—defending legislation the city has passed, defending the city and city officials against lawsuits by outside parties, and enforcing civil laws like environmental regulations. Although the only strict requirement to run as city attorney is being an attorney, a lack of courtroom experience could be a serious impediment for doing the day-to-day work of running the office’s civil and criminal divisions.

3. At the end of a nearly five-hour online meeting Monday night, the 37th District Democrats narrowly failed to reach consensus on an endorsement for mayor, with 59 percent supporting City Councilmember Lorena González in two rounds of voting, just shy of the required 60 percent. The group ultimately voted for a “no endorsement” position. Notably, Bruce Harrell—who lives in the 37th and represented Southeast Seattle on the council—failed to top 40 percent in either endorsement vote, despite previous endorsements by the group. Continue reading “City Finally Sends Team to Bitter Lake Encampment, City Attorney Candidate Has Scant Court Record, 37th LD Endorses”

Durkan Won’t Sign Crowd Control Weapons Bill, Raises Specter of Court Challenge

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan refused to sign the city council’s recent ordinance restricting the Seattle Police Department’s use of crowd control weapons, allowing the bill to become law while the city awaits a federal district court’s go-ahead to implement changes to SPD’s tactics and arsenal.

In a letter to the council during their August recess, Durkan heaped criticism on the bill and the year-long process that produced it, calling it a “kneejerk reaction” to last year’s protests that overstepped the council’s authority, undercut SPD policy change procedures enshrined in the city’s agreement with the US Department of Justice, and made promises that the city can’t keep.

Durkan has routinely allowed legislation to take effect without her signature, though not always because of a difference of opinion: Certain land use ordinances, for instance, don’t necessarily go to the mayor for a signature before becoming law. The mayor can also return legislation to the council unsigned when she has concerns about a bill’s impact or legality but believes that the council would vote to override a veto.

The council’s bill, which passed unanimously in early August, bans officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It also allows officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. The legislation is supposed to replace a June 2020 ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other “less-lethal” weapons for crowd control.

In her letter, Durkan criticized the council for passing a law that can’t go into effect without the court’s approval—an arrangement, she wrote, of “doubtful legality.”

Shortly after the 2020 ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order that stopped it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using “less-lethal” weapons against crowds might lead officers to use more extreme forms of force.

When reworking the crowd control weapons bill to respond to the DOJ’s criticism, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold sought feedback from both the DOJ and the federal court-appointed monitor—the court’s eyes and ears in police reform matters. During a hearing on the status of Seattle’s consent decree on August 10, neither Robart nor representatives from the DOJ or monitoring team raised new concerns about the bill.

In a statement to PubliCola, Herbold’s office said that the new bill was “developed in compliance with, and respect for, the Consent Decree process.” Herbold also noted that she met informally with the court-appointed monitor and DOJ while re-working the bill and made adjustments based on their suggestions.

The bill doesn’t directly rewrite SPD’s policy manual. Instead, the department has 60 days from the bill’s passage to draft new crowd-control weapons policies that reflect the new law; the federal court will then consider whether those policy changes should move forward. If Robart concludes that SPD should not change its crowd control weapons policies, the law is effectively dead in the water.

But while Durkan assumes that the DOJ and federal court will take issue with the ordinance, that outcome isn’t a given. SPD will bring its draft policy revisions before the court in mid-October. If the DOJ believes the changes would violate the terms of the consent decree, it can ask the court to enjoin the city from implementing the new policies.

In her letter, Durkan criticized the council for passing a law that can’t go into effect without the court’s approval—an arrangement, she wrote, of “doubtful legality.” And the requirement that SPD rewrite policies that reflect the new law, she wrote, places the department “in the unfair and untenable position of proposing, and defending, to the DOJ and the Court, now-codified provisions of City law that it cannot support as best practice.” The Seattle City Attorney’s office reviewed and approved the legality of the bill.

But while Durkan assumes that the DOJ and federal court will take issue with the ordinance, that outcome isn’t a given. SPD will bring its draft policy revisions before the court in mid-October. If the DOJ believes the changes would violate the terms of the consent decree, it can ask the court to enjoin the city from implementing the new policies.

In Durkan’s view, the ordinance is unlikely to survive a court challenge. Continue reading “Durkan Won’t Sign Crowd Control Weapons Bill, Raises Specter of Court Challenge”

As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain

Via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. 

Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.

Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.

“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.

UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”

Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”

This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.

Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”

Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”

City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”

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While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'” 

But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain”

Fizz: SPD Asks to Spend $15 Million in Salary Savings; Council Okays Durkan’s Equitable Communities Contracts

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee heard a presentation on Tuesday morning outlining SPD’s proposals for spending more than $15 million in unspent salaries—a byproduct of skyrocketing attrition within the department, including 100 departures in the first six months of 2021 alone.

There are currently two pots of unspent money in SPD’s budget. Last November, the council passed a series of provisos preventing the department from spending roughly $9 million until SPD complied with some of the council’s reform goals; one of those provisos specifically captured $5 million of any salary savings SPD incurred as officers left the department in droves. But the department’s staffing woes have escalated, leaving the department with far more unspent salary dollars than anticipated—more than $10 million of which isn’t captured by the council’s provisos.

According to SPD budget director Angela Socci, the department needs to keep those savings to handle internal crises that arose over the past year—a proposal that counts on the council lifting provisos, and one that wouldn’t allow the council to redirect most the savings to newer, non-police public safety programs. In fact, SPD has already started using some of the $15 million to cover separation costs for departing officers, as well as to pay officers overtime to fill in gaps in patrol shifts. The department also began spending money on consultants, including a contract with the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform that determined the city could eventually shift half of SPD’s current emergency call load to other responders.

The department’s decision to spend salary savings without the go-ahead of the council raised some eyebrows Tuesday. “Is it an accepted budget practice to move forward on spending in areas that the council hasn’t authorized yet,” asked councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the committee.

According to council central staffer Greg Doss, who led the presentation, SPD is allowed to shift dollars in its personnel budget around as needed—from salaries to separation pay, for instance.

But SPD presented a much broader array of spending proposals that will need support from the council and mayor’s office, including a vote from the council to lift provisos on the department’s budget. The requests include $1.5 million to hire new civilian staffers, including community service officers and public disclosure staff, as well as $520,000 for “hiring and retention incentives”; in total, the department’s proposed spending would use $13.7 million of the salary savings. A much smaller portion—only $1.5 million—would shift out of SPD’s budget to fund programs like the “Triage One” civilian response teams proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan last month.

Council President Lorena González pressured SPD strategy director Chris Fisher to outline a plan for stemming the tide of officers leaving the department. “I think these numbers tell the story,” she said, “that SPD management have significant room for improvement for retaining the new officers and existing officers.”

Fisher responded that the solution to SPD’s attrition problems may lay outside of the department itself. “Many officers say that money helps, but if it were just about the paycheck, they could do something else that would make just as much with a lot less time away from family,” he told the committee. “They want to know that people are invested in the department, and that they are appreciated.”

But councilmember Teresa Mosqueda offered a more optimistic view of the situation, saying the council  “could create a chart that pairs a downward trend [in police staffing] with an upward trend in spending on community safety”—a goal, she said, that the council shouldn’t lose track of.

2. On Wednesday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed legislation releasing $30 million from the city’s general fund to spend on racial justice-related programs recommended by the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force—a group assembled by her office last October that included representatives from an array of prominent local BIPOC community organizations.

“There was talk that certain groups were being pitted against each other,” said councilmember Deborah Juarez, who also served as a member of the task force. “Guess what? That didn’t happen.”

The city council voted unanimously on Monday to lift a proviso on the $30 million, raising no objections to the plan laid out by the task force earlier this summer. The proposed investments include nearly $9 million to be spent on affordable housing and land ownership program for Seattle’s BIPOC residents, as well as $7.5 million to provide capital and technical support to BIPOC-owned small businesses.

In earlier discussions of the plan, some councilmembers raised questions about the potential for overhead costs to consume an outsized proportion of the $30 million. Chris Lampkin, a task force member and political director with SEIU 1199NW, told the council’s finance meeting on July 20 that “most of the funding recommendations are intended to channel money directly to community through existing programs, as opposed to spending money to stand up new programs.”

The task force, which began as follow-up to Durkan’s ambitious promise last summer to invest $100 million in BIPOC communities, faced early public opposition from some activists, who argued that the group would butt heads with the council’s own participatory budgeting plan. The Seattle City Council also cut the project’s budget from $100 million to $30 million, directing the rest to the participatory budgeting process and other priorities that predated Durkan’s proposal.

But the council’s brief discussion on Monday suggested that most of the anticipated tensions surrounding the task force dissipated over the past half-year. “There was talk that certain groups were being pitted against each other,” said councilmember Deborah Juarez, who also served as a member of the task force. “Guess what? That didn’t happen.”