Category: Poverty

Tense Meeting Sets Up Fight Over Durkan’s “RV Ranching” Legislation

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to allow the city to fine and prosecute anyone who “allows” another person to live in an “extensively damaged” vehicle met with a cool reception in city council chambers this morning, particularly after the mayor’s director of Finance and Administrative Services, Calvin Goings, likened homeless people living in RVs to “dogs” living in inhumane conditions. (FAS oversees the city’s towing program).

Goings’ comment came after a testy exchange with council member Teresa Mosqueda, who took issue with Goings’ statement that “the foundational question” for the council was, “does the council agree this is a problem?” Goings said. If they agreed that it was a problem for people to be living in “squalor conditions,” Goings said, they had a “moral obligation” to support some version of the mayor’s legislation.

“If there were animals living like this, then we would seize those animals. Please tell me that Seattle is not a place where we would not allow a dog to live where we would allow human beings to live.”–Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services director Calvin Goings

“It’s very clear to me that the full council shares the concerns,” Mosqueda responded, noting that they have continued to push for more funding for shelter and services and have repeatedly increased the size of the mayor’s Navigation Team. But, she added, “when we’re looking at specific legislation, we have to look at the language here. Words matter. The words in the legislation matter.”

Goings responded: “If there were animals living like this, then we would seize those animals. Please tell me that Seattle is not a place where we would not allow a dog to live where we would allow human beings to live.”

Mosqueda was leaving the meeting during Goings’ comments, but council member Mike O’Brien piled on, noting that the mayor’s legislation neither defines “RV ranchers” (people who buy derelict RVs and lease them out) nor says how common the problem is. Although Goings and other mayoral officials at the table reiterated that the bill was meant to target “the predatory rentals of unsafe vehicles,” the legislation as written would allow the city to go after people who live in RVs with family members as well as people living in cars or RVs that meet just two of a long list of deficiencies that includes things like cracked windshields and leaking fluids.

“Do you know what we do for animals that need a home? We shelter them. We give them food. We give them a bath. This legislation does none of those things for these individuals.”—City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

“Are are we talking five? Are we talking 300?” O’Brien asked. (The city estimates that between two and five individuals are renting out RVs to other people, but has no exact number or estimate of how many RVs those two to five people own).  “I would expect someone to get that information.” O’Brien also noted that some of the photos Goings and staffers from the city’s RV remediation program and the mayor’s office showed in council chambers looked like examples of hoarding, which is also fairly common among people with homes.

Council member Sally Bagshaw asked why the legislation didn’t include any additional funding for enhanced shelter or tiny house villages, which would allow people living in tents or RVs to keep at least some of their possessions and wouldn’t require people to separate from their partners or pets. Tess Colby, the mayor’s homelessness advisor, described the Navigation Team’s outreach on “the day of the clean” (which, as I’ve reported, no longer routinely includes nonprofit outreach workers) and said that only 10 to 15 percent of people living in RVs tend to “accept services” when they’re offered.

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The penalty for “RV ranchers” who rent substandard RVs will be up to $2,000—payable directly to their former “tenant” in the form of restitution—plus a $250-a-day fine and potential criminal charges. Bagshaw asked whether it’s realistic to believe people who own derelict RVs have that kind of money. “We believe that they do, and we also think that this is an important message to send to ranchers and  a disincentive to continue to do this,” Colby said.

After the meeting, Mosqueda said she found Goings’ comments comparing people living in RVs to “animals” living in abusive conditions “shocking” and off point. “Do you know what we do for animals that need a home?” Mosqueda said. “We shelter them. We give them food. We give them a bath. This legislation does none of those things for these individuals.”

“We’re actually supportive of is getting people into safe living situations, and nothing in that legislation was actually targeted toward helping individuals.”

The city council’s central staff wrote a memo outlining what the legislation would do, along with a number of questions for the council to consider, that is very much worth a read.

Morning Crank: Bike Plan Scaled Back, Meinert Buys Mecca, and a Few Questions About the Mayor’s Junk RV Crackdown

Healthy skepticism: The gray blobs are “study areas” where bike lanes may one day go, if funding materializes and politics allow.

1. Last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation released an update to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan Implementation Plan that—as I reported on Wednesday—attempts to address complaints from bike advocates by committing to “study” several routes in South Seattle (along Beacon Ave. S., Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., and between downtown Seattle and Georgetown) that were omitted in a draft version of the plan released earlier this year. Those projects, according to the update, may be built at some point in the future, if unspecified “additional funding” becomes available, perhaps in the form of also-unspecified “new grants and partnership opportunities.” (Bike advocates, as you might imagine, aren’t holding their breath.)

In addition to identifying those “study areas,” the updated plan still gets rid of miles of long-planned protected bike lanes, pushes other bike projects back several years or indefinitely, and eliminates about a dozen projects that were in the most recent update, back in 2017. And it replaces an already delayed two-way protected bike lane on the east side of Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle with a one-way northbound lane on the west side of the street—another setback for a project that was supposed to open last year but which was delayed until 2021 on the grounds that a two-way bike lane might slow down transit on Fourth Ave. during the “period of maximum constraint.” (The report now cites “parking impacts” as a reason for the latest change).

Some other changes since the last version of the plan include:

• A 1.27-mile “safe routes to school” neighborhood greenway to the Orca K-8 school in Southeast Seattle that was identified as “low risk” and scheduled for completion in 2021 is now listed as “TBD”;

• The two-mile North Admiral Connection in West Seattle, which had been removed in the earlier version of the plan, is now back and in the “planning phase,” with a “TBD” completion date.

• Two center-city projects—a quarter mile of protected bike lane on 9th Ave. and a quarter-mile “south end connection” to the Center City bike network in Pioneer Square—will be completed this year, a year ahead of the schedule in the earlier plan.

• Two projects on Capitol Hill—a 0.8-mile stretch of neighborhood greenway (plus 0.1 miles of protected bike lane) along Melrose Ave. and a 0.8-mile stretch of protected bike lane along Union —are now scheduled to open in 2021, a year after the draft version of the plan said they would be finished.

• A half-mile “interim” protected bike lane on 8th Ave. downtown, which was scheduled to open this year, is now listed as a “permanent” PBL that will open in 2023.

• A 0.6-mile safe routes to school connection to Stevens Elementary School on Capitol Hill that was scheduled to open in 2020 is now listed as “TBD,” with 10 percent of the design completed.

• The 1.4-mile Missing Link of the  Burke-Gilman Trail, which has been delayed forever by lawsuits from industrial businesses in Ballard, has been divided into three segments, the last of which is now scheduled for completion in 2021, rather than 2020.

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100 Officers Trained to Implement Anti-Camping Rules as Navigation Team Expands to 7-Day Schedule

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has confirmed that the city has trained about 100 members of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Policing Team (CPT) and bicycle patrol officers on how to implement and enforce the rules against unauthorized “camping” in public spaces, such as sidewalks, parks, and publicly owned property. The city recently expanded the Navigation Team to include two new field coordinators overseeing encampment removals and two new outreach workers, who will do outreach work previously performed by the nonprofit REACH, which is no longer participating in encampment removals.

“The CPT and bike officers have been trained to implement the existing [Multi Departmental Administrative Rules], which lay out when and how encampments can be removed), the encampment rules, and how to connect with the Nav Team,” Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says. “People can remain in the public right of way but belongings that are obstructing… ‘pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way’ are not allowed, which is why a Navigation Team member will be available to offer storage and/or services. … This additional effort by CPT and bike officers does not impact or change the MDAR or the City’s compliance with these rules.”

Perhaps unintentionally, the Navigation Team no longer creates a list of “weekly unauthorized encampment removals”; instead, the most recent version of this document refers to these removals as “relocations.”

Under Durkan, as I reported last month, the Navigation Team has shifted its emphasis and now focuses on removing tents and belongings that constitute an “obstruction” under the city’s rules. Once an encampment is deemed an “obstruction,” the Navigation Team can remove it without notifying residents or offering them shelter or services. Although, in practice, officers often do tell residents who happen to be around during these unannounced removals about available shelter beds, outreach workers and unsheltered people have told me that they’re less likely to trust uniformed police officers than social service workers who show up between removals and get to know them outside the charged environment of a sweep.

Empowering another 100 or so police officers to enforce the rules against camping will undoubtedly expand the city’s ability to remove unauthorized encampments without notice, but it’s unclear what the long game is here, or if there is one.

The original goal of the Navigation Team, when it was created as part of the city’s response to the homelessness emergency back in 2017, was to “work… with unsheltered people who have urgent and acute unmet needs,” by building  relationships with people living outdoors and convincing them to come inside (ideally, to new low-barrier, 24/7 shelters with case management and services). Today, the team still offers referrals to shelter and services, but much of their work involves removing encampments, cleaning up sites, and watching people move back in over a matter of days or weeks—a tedious process of, yes, sweeping people from one place into another in a seemingly endless cycle. (Perhaps unintentionally, the Navigation Team no longer creates a list of “weekly unauthorized encampment removals”; instead, the most recent version of this document refers to these removals as “relocations.”)

Since 2017, the Navigation Team has nearly doubled in size, from 22 to 38 members. In that time, the number of contracted outreach workers has stayed the same, while the number of police, management, and support staff has grown dramatically. (Currently, in addition to 13 police officers, the team includes three data analysts, one team lead, one encampment response manager, one outreach supervisor, one communications manager, an administrative specialist, and an operations manager). Empowering another 100 or so police officers to enforce the rules against camping will undoubtedly expand the city’s ability to remove unauthorized encampments without notice, but it’s unclear what the long game is here, or if there is one. The city has added some new shelter beds (including 160 mats in the lobby of city hall, which are accessible for just 8 hours a night and don’t include showers, food, or services), but nowhere near enough to meet the need. Last year, according to the latest Point In Time Count of people living unsheltered in King County, the number of people living in tents rose from 1,034 to 1,162 even as the count of people living unsheltered shrunk.

I scrambled back up the path, stumbling a bit on my way back to the accessible, level, and totally empty park. I can’t imagine whose “pedestrian and transportation purposes” anyone living in those brambles could possibly be obstructing.

This week (over the newly expanded seven-day Navigation Team schedule), 13 encampments are on the list for “relocation.” All but one have been deemed “obstructions” exempt from the notice and outreach requirements.

Over the weekend, I visited a couple of encampments. One had just been visited by the Navigation Team, which hauled away a dump truck full of refuse, including soiled clothing, food wrappers, and large items dumped on the site by people from outside the camp. At the base of the hillside where people had set up their tents, there were still piles of loose trash and scattered needles, along with several full purple garbage bags provided through a pilot city trash pickup program.

The second encampment was one that’s scheduled for removal as an “obstruction” next week. The site was in a lightly forested area along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on the edge of an underused park that offers stunning views of downtown Seattle. I looked for the “large amounts of garbage, debris, and human waste” that the Navigation Team said were present at the site. It wasn’t easy to find signs of human habitation—from the park, the only way to access the place where people were living was by scrambling down a steep dirt hillside, or by bushwhacking through brambles and weeds to find a series of primitive trails. Eventually, I saw a beach umbrella, a mattress pad, and a few small piles of trash (but no human waste) that hinted that the area might be inhabited. I scrambled back up the path, stumbling a bit on my way back to the accessible, level, and totally empty park. I can’t imagine whose “pedestrian and transportation purposes” anyone living in those brambles could possibly be obstructing.

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Homeless Pilot Project Scuttled: Why Did Durkan Discard Months of Work by Her Own Human Services Department?

According to All Home King County, the number of people living in vehicles jumped 46% between 2017 and 2018.

The city of Seattle has rejected my appeal of its decision to heavily redact a set of documents about a plan—which Mayor Jenny Durkan formally scuttled around March 6—to open a safe parking lot for people living in their vehicles at Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract with the city to operate the lot.

In its letter rejecting my request to see the unredacted discussion about the proposal, the city argued that because “a decision has not been made as to the siting of the potential Safe Parking Pilot program” in general, they have the right (under the “deliberative process” exemption to the state public disclosure act) to withhold the information I requested about the specific proposal the city rejected until they make a decision on whether to move forward with a safe lot at a different location. The redacted information includes a flyer, lists of media contacts, and a communications and outreach plan for the Genesee Park location, which the city is arguing are all part of the “deliberative process” that could eventually lead to a safe parking pilot somewhere else.

If the city never does announce a formal decision, they could refuse to disclose this information to the public indefinitely.

I’ve asked the state attorney general’s office, which deals with potential public records act violations, to take another look at the city’s exemption claims. In my letter, I wrote that the city’s position—that they don’t have to reveal any materials related to the rejected Genesee Park location until and unless they choose a different site for a safe parking lot in the future—leads to “the absurd conclusion that if the mayor’s office and HSD simply never make a formal, declared decision, they can withhold this information from the public forever.”

“By claiming such a broad and sweeping exemption, they are concealing information of value to the public and preventing Seattle residents from having a clear picture of why they made this decision,” I wrote.

I requested information about the process that led to the city choosing, then rejecting, the Genesee Park location for a safe vehicular residency lot, in part, because Durkan’s decision seemed abrupt. The opening date for a safe lot for vehicular residents, which had already been moved back at least twice (from January 1, to January 31, to February 28) was imminent when the first local TV news report that Genesee appeared to be the city’s preferred location hit airwaves on February 25. Pushback on the proposal, led by longtime South End gadfly (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami, was instant and harsh. The mayor’s response was similarly swift—by March 6, she had canceled LIHI’s permit. That same day, her office sent a letter to community members and local media saying that the mayor had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27.

Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.

Given that Durkan tends to be hands-on about both minor and major decisions that come out of her office—particularly decisions that are certain to be controversial, like stopping the downtown streetcar or opening a safe parking lot in a residential neighborhood— seemed implausible that she had never been informed of the safe parking-lot options until right before it was set to open. If HSD had somehow kept all the details of the safe lot proposal away from Durkan’s desk for months while the details of the proposal were being hammered out, then finalized, that would be newsworthy. Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.

The documents I received from the mayor’s office, HSD, and the Department of Neighborhoods make it clear that the mayor’s top staff—including Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, David Moseley, and her top homelessness advisor, Tess Colby—were well aware of plans to open a safe parking lot at one of three locations in South Seattle—Pritchard Beach, the Amy Yee Tennis Center, or Genesee Park—long before February 27. Officials with the Human Services Department began discussing where to site a safe lot as far back as October of last year, and by late January, emails confirm, Colby was pulling together information about the proposal for the mayor’s binder—a set of documents staff puts together for the mayor herself to take home and review.

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The day that Durkan apparently received these briefing materials, January 28, was also the day when Department of Neighborhoods advisor Tom Van Bronkhorst sent an urgent email with the subject line “IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED” to several of his colleagues at HSD, saying that he had just received an email from Pat Murakami—a Southeast Seattle  neighborhood activist who is currently running for City Council—asking detailed questions that indicated she was aware of the three potential locations. Murakami, Van Bronkhorst wrote, “is writing an email to her list that will go out this afternoon asking for their comments on the proposed locations. Someone should give her a call with an update, more information or a request to wait for 24 hours?” Within an hour, HSD communications staffer Lily Rehrmann had responded, and within two hours, she sent a memo about her conversation with Murakami—the details of which are largely blacked out in the documents provided by the city.

On February 1, Rehrmann emailed Van Bronkhorst seeking a list of neighborhood groups near Genesee Park, which she said she needed “for the comms plan for the safe parking pilot per the Mayor’s office.” That plan went out to the mayor’s office, including Colby and the mayor’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, on February 7. That same day, the mayor’s office responded to at least one constituent about the Genesee parking lot. On February 21, HSD interim director Jason Johnson sent a message to Deputy Mayor David Moseley—Durkan’s second-in-command, and her deputy in charge of homelessness—that also included the full outreach and communications plan. (The city provided a mostly redacted copy of this document, one page of which is reproduced below).

If the mayor received briefing materials about the safe lot plan in her binder on January 28, as planned, that means a month passed between the first time she was handed details about the proposal and the date when she said she received her very first briefing on the plan, after which she decided to cancel LIHI’s contract.

In the March 6 letter to community and media stating that she was first briefed on the proposal on February 27, Durkan’s office wrote that “[w]hile there was an initial recommendation of potential sites by City departments prepared for the Mayor, Mayor Durkan felt strongly about the need to evaluate multiple options, and to do meaningful community engagement. While a permit application was initially filed and discussion of various sites did occur before reaching the Mayor, the Mayor has made clear that the City would not move forward on a selecting a site without evaluating alternatives and without meaningful community engagement.”

Let’s consider the first potential scenario—that the mayor was aware of the Genesee Park proposal before February 27, but acted swiftly to kill the plan after her briefing. What might have changed? One thing that definitely happened between late January and late February is that Murakami mobilized, contacting the Human Services Department again on February 26, a message documented in an email from an HSD planning and development specialist telling Rehrmann to call Murakami back to answer her questions. Murakami also scheduled a public meeting of her group, the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, on March 6, the same day Durkan’s office announced that the city had canceled LIHI’s contract. (That meeting did take place, and was by all accounts a shit show.)

HSD, and the mayor’s office, were probably eager to get out in front of that meeting. However, there is something off-putting about their almost frantic response to Murakami, whose work as an activist has mostly involved fighting against affordable housing (and a day-labor center) in Mount Baker and who has a history of making outrageous statements about people of color and the danger of riding transit in the South End after dark.

In response to a list of questions about what Durkan knew about the safe parking pilot and when, the mayor’s office reiterated that the safe parking lot options didn’t land directly on Durkan’s desk until late February, but said that her policy staff were aware of the discussion. “Our policy team and dozens of departments work to prep ahead of briefings with the Mayor and so we can develop recommendations before a topic goes to her,” mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said. “That happened and in late February, the Mayor, HSD, MO, SPD and DON sat down with the Mayor for an hour so she could be briefed on the issue and make a decision on the next steps. The Mayor asked at the briefing for the City to do additional outreach.”

Given the practical realities of running the mayor’s office, this scenario isn’t out of the question: The mayor’s Human Services Department and Department of Neighborhoods worked for months crafting a safe parking lot proposal, with the knowledge of the mayor’s staff, and the mayor herself only became aware of the details right before the proposal was ready to launch. However, if this second version is accurate, it means that Durkan spent an hour or so looking at the proposal that had taken her departments (with buy-in from her HSD director and deputy mayor) months to craft, considered the PR ramifications of opening a safe lot that was unpopular with at least one group of neighborhood activists, and abruptly killed the project.

The mayor’s stated reason for stopping the safe lot—the need for extensive outreach to neighborhoods—does not appear to have led to any action: So far, it does not appear that any additional outreach has occurred. Asked about a series of outreach meetings that had been scheduled for March, Meg Olberding, an HSD spokeswoman, said that it would be premature to start the outreach process now. The mayor, Olberding said,  “has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City.  The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun.”

Afternoon Crank: Eviction Law More Sweeping Than Previously Reported; Sound Transit Says No Signature Gathering in Federal Way

1. The new state law that creates new protections for tenants at risk of losing their homes to eviction, sponsored by Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), goes even further than has been previously reported, including by me. That’s thanks to a little-noticed provision that expands a tenant’s ability to stop an eviction proceeding against her at any point up until five days after a court has issued a judgment in a landlord’s favor—a point that far fewer tenants should ever have to reach, thanks to provisions that give tenants ample opportunities to pay their back rent before a landlord takes an eviction case to court, before the case goes to trial, and even after a judge rules against the tenant.

Here’s what makes the legislation so sweeping. As I reported earlier this week, it extends the period in which tenants can pay overdue rent without facing eviction—and without having to pay any late fees, notice fees, or other one-time charges— from three days to 14. It also extends a tenant’s right to pay their rent along a fee of up to $75 until any point after that 14-day period, up to the point when their landlord files a case against them in King County Superior Court. After a landlord files a case, the tenant still has the opportunity to avoid eviction by paying the landlord back rent, the $75 fee, and any court costs incurred up until that point (which are often elevated by lawyers’ fees for preparing files, showing up in court, and other services that can be avoided if a landlord and tenant reach a settlement). Finally, if the landlord wins the case, the tenant still has up to five days to pay them back, including court costs, before being evicted.

It’s hard to overstate how dramatic the impact of this change could be. Under the current system, none of that happens. Instead, tenants can be kicked out of their homes for failing to pay rent on the fourth day it is late, and there is usually no recourse for a tenant once their landlord has filed an eviction case against them. In fact, as I’ve reported, the judges who hear eviction cases currently have virtually no discretion to set up payment plans or consider mitigating circumstances, such as a tenant who was in the hospital and unable to pay, or who suffered a one-time financial setback but has the money in hand. The new law gives judges more discretion. It also ensures that tenants who need more time to scrape their rent together—by, for example, accessing funds provided through programs like Solid Ground rental assistance program or Home Base, which provides flexible funds for people who need help with back rent—have ample opportunities to do so. For the first time in many years, the scales have tipped back—dramatically—in favor of tenants.

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2. Washington Community Action Network—one of the organizations behind a Seattle Women’s Commission report on evictions in King County, “Losing Home,” that helped lead to the statewide reforms—is trying to gather 10,000 signatures to get an initiative that would provide new protections for tenants on the ballot in Federal Way. If Sound Transit has its way, none of those signatures will be collected at the Federal Way Transit Center, where security guards have told volunteers with the group that they can’t petition near station platforms—that is, in the area where people congregate as they get on and off the bus.

“Obviously, one of the best places to [gather signatures] is going to be the Federal Way Transit Center,” says Xochitl Maykovich, Washington CAN’s political director. “I get that they have concerns around safety and not harassing people, but, I’m sorry, two organizers asking, ‘Hey, do you want to help keep people housed?’—how is that preventing people from getting on the bus?”

On May1, Washington CAN wrote a letter to Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff objecting to the policy, and noting that the “free speech areas” to which their organizers were directed are far away from pedestrian traffic. “The security officer continued to vigilantly watch the two women as if though their presence engaging transit riders with a smile was a potential threat to the station.,” the letter says. “The women found his behavior unnecessarily intimidating and decided it was best to leave the station.”

Sound Transit’s security director, Ken Cummins, responded by sending Maykovich a copy of Sound Transit’s free-speech policy, which says that the agency “may designate appropriate areas at each facility for public communication activities” and can limit the number of people it allows to engage in such activities. “Signature gathering is not authorized on bus or train platforms or within 15 feet of entrances, stairwells, elevators, escalators, ticket vending machines or within 15 feet of the trackway,” Cummins wrote. “Signature gathers may not use any tables or chairs in their activity and signature gathers may not block a person’s access to transit in any manner.” (Washington CAN’s two signature gatherers did not have tables or chairs).

After several followup letters to Sound Transit received no response, Maykovich wrote, “I take the lack of any response as meaning that I need to involve our attorney,” Maykovich wrote. “I will also note that I am incredibly disappointed in the lack of dialogue on this issue, especially given that this is a publicly run institution that is definitely getting a good chunk of my tax dollars.”

Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham confirmed that the agency “did receive the letter from Washington Community Action Network, and our legal counsel is currently reviewing it, as well as the policy.”
Maykovich says her organization has not faced similar pushback when collecting signatures at RapidRide bus station platforms in the past, despite Metro’s similar free-speech policy.
The Federal Way initiative would institute a Good Cause Eviction Ordinance, similar to Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction law, in the city, prohibiting arbitrary evictions and limiting the reasons for which a landlord can terminate a tenant’s lease. In Federal Way, about 29 percent of the households that sought eviction prevention assistance from the Housing Justice Project were single women with children, compared to just 10 percent in Seattle.

Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

Sound Transit board members, including King County Council members Joe McDermott and Claudia Balducci, are raising questions about the agency’s fare enforcement policy, which—unlike King County Metro’s revised fare enforcement rules—can still result in a criminal record and potentially jail time for people who are unable to pay their fares.

During last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, both McDermott and Balducci pointed to Metro’s recent overhaul of its fare enforcement policy, which reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. The last item is important because an audit of Metro fare enforcement last year concluded that the overwhelming majority of “fare evaders” on RapidRide were homeless or low-income; poverty, not disregard for the law, was causing people to attempt to ride for free.

“Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program. Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.” – Talking points developed by Sound Transit’s public safety director

The audit, released last April, found that the most common reason for fare evasion was lack of money to pay fare, and that the overwhelming majority of fines were never paid, despite the threat of criminal charges and the possibility that unpaid fines would be sent to collections. (Sound Transit still has what I dubbed the “Shoreline Rule,” which requires riders who receive tickets for fare evasion to drive or take the bus up to Shoreline if they want to contest their tickets—a significant burden for people who are transit-dependent and those who can’t take off work for several hours to contest a ticket during the work day. King County eliminated the Shoreline Rule back in 2015).

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done in King County on fare evasion, because … it’s unclear that that policy actually increases fare compliance and we know that it has some downstream negative impacts and disparate impacts,” Balducci said, adding that the point of fare enforcement should be to ensure that “people pay when they can, and that [for] people who can’t pay, who rely on our services, that we’ll find a way to address that need other than sending them to court and ultimately collections and, at some point, jail.”

Rogoff, who has argued that Sound Transit’s fare evasion rate is low precisely because people know they may incur substantial ($124) fines, said that while problems like the Shoreline Rule are “low-hanging fruit,” a complete overhaul of the agency’s fare enforcement policy would threaten the agency’s current high compliance rate. “The challenge is, I think, to have a policy that is meaningful and inclusive … but also to make sure that we [preserve] what is currently a high level of fare compliance” compared to cities with “open systems.” Rogoff also noted the current system only “criminalizes” fare evasion after the fourth offense in a calendar year.

Sound Transit’s fare enforcement talking points argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Rogoff’s statements last week are consistent with talking points developed by the agency late last year, which I obtained through a records request. The talking points, which the agency’s Director of Public Safety, Ken Cummins, provided to Rogoff in November, also explicitly connect fare enforcement, which is conducted by uniformed officers, with a sense of “safety” among light rail riders—suggesting that the presence of officers cracking down on fare evaders improves the perception of safety on trains. “Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program,” the talking points say. “Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.”

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Given that, according to Metro’s audit, fare evasion charges disproportionately target low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to see how “safety” might be conflated with cracking down on certain categories of people. Sound Transit, and Rogoff in particular, have responded to concerns about equity in fare enforcement by pointing out that the agency’s fare enforcement officers check everybody on the train rather than singling out certain riders. This point showed up in both the talking points—which called the policy of universal checks a way to “ensure fairness and equity”—and in communications between Sound Transit’s communications staff and the fare enforcement division after the initial Metro audit was released, in anticipation of criticism or questions about fairness  The talking points, which you can read in full here, go on to argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Balducci says that Sound Transit’s go-to-talking point—”‘We enforce on the whole car; we do it to everybody—therefore you’re not going to see bias in terms of picking on certain types of people'”—misses the point. “That wasn’t entirely the issue we raised,” she says. “The issue we raised was that with the people we do find (evading fares), there could be a better approach.”

Morning Crank: HSD Changes Homeless Contract Requirements; 35th Ave Bike Lane Approaches Resolution

1. The city’s Human Services Department is revising its benchmarks for withholding funds from underperforming homeless service providers after 20 of 46 service providers who received contracts with the city last year failed to meet new standards adopted in 2017. The new benchmarks will reduce the total amount of contracted pay HSD can withhold from 12 percent to 8 percent per year, and will reward providers for improvement over the course of a year, even if providers don’t hit their targets for things like exits to permanent housing and returns to homelessness.

As I reported last month, 20 of 46 city-contracted homeless service programs failed to meet the city’s new performance standards by the end of 2018, and were docked part of their pay under a new contracting system adopted by HSD in 2017. That system, which represented a major shift in how HSD contracts with human-services providers, enables the city to withhold 12 percent of a service provider’s contract if they fail to hit specific numbers on five metrics, including the percentage of clients who exit to permanent housing and the number of clients who end up back in the county’s homelessness system (a metric known colloquially, and somewhat imprecisely, as “returns to homelessness.”) Officials with the city refer to this system as “performance pay,” and say it’s meant as a reward for good results; providers have argued that withholding contracted funds makes it harder for them to meet the city’s ambitious new goals for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing.

A look through the performance improvement plans (PIPs) for the 16 programs that initially failed to receive their full contract pay last year, which I obtained through a records request, shows that many are falling far short of their targets—so far, in some cases, that it’s difficult to see how they will ever catch up.

Lindsey Garrity, with HSD, says the city will provide performance pay in increments of 25 percent, depending on how much progress providers are making toward their goals. “We have room to move around how we structure the performance pay and how we look at rewarding programs as they move toward performance,” as opposed to the previous “all or nothing approach,” Garrity says. “As it was structured, we weren’t rewarding improved performance and that is something we’re going to change in 2019.”  HSD’s Lily Rehrmann adds. The standards, which vary by program type, will remain the same.

Whether the programs that failed to meet HSD’s stringent new standards in 2019 will be able to do so next year remains an open question. A look through the performance improvement plans (PIPs) for the 16 programs that initially failed to receive their full contract pay last year, which I obtained through a records request, shows that many are falling far short of their targets—so far, in some cases, that it’s difficult to see how they will ever catch up.

A shelter run by Compass Housing Alliance, for example, is supposed to move a minimum of 40 percent of its clients into permanent housing when they leave. Throughout 2017, and during the first three quarters of 2018, that number never rose above 19 percent. Youthcare’s Catalyst shelter for young adults, from which no more than 20 percent of clients are supposed to return to homelessness, had a homelessness return rate, in one quarter, of 67 percent (and the number never went below the 20 percent target.) Santos Place, a transitional housing program run by Solid Ground, has an average stay in 2017 of 844 days, a number that had declined to 705 by the second quarter of last year. The target length of stay is no more than 150 days.

In some cases, the performance improvement plans, which are largely boilerplate, provide a glimpse at providers’ objections to the one-size-fits-all performance metrics. Catholic Community Services, for example, argued that their nighttime-only shelter for homeless men over 50 lacked funding for the kind of intensive case management that would allow to hit the target of 40 percent exits to permanent housing. Compass Housing Alliance pointed out that their rate of exits to permanent housing at the Peter’s Place shelter was artificially low (between 8 and 19 percent last year, against a goal of 40 percent). because the shelter accepts a high volume of one-night-only referrals from Operation Night Watch—people who stay at the shelter for one night and leave without accessing the services that are provided to regular guests. The Downtown Emergency Service Center raised a similar concern about its downtown night shelter, noting that many overnight clients are one-time-only direct referrals from Harborview and the Seattle Police Department who are “often not interested in engaging with services.” And several organizations cited staffing shortages as a major challenge—a problem that presumably requires  more funding, not less.

Garrity says HSD is committed to making sure its contractors succeed. “The city cannot do the work it does without the providers. Our goal is to always keep it moving forward and keep it a relationship that works for both entities,” she says. “Sometimes performance pay is talked about as if its purpose is very punitive, but we need [providers] to succeed in order for us to be successful.”

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. Advocates and opponents of a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE are meeting Tuesday with new Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe and staff from the mayor’s office to discuss the resolution of the debate over the lane. Bike lane proponents have told me that they anticipate Mayor Jenny Durkan to side with bike lane opponents and agree to eliminate the lane. Neither the mayor’s office nor SDOT provided any details about the meeting, which will reportedly also include the mediator hired by the city last September.

Some background: The city’s official Bike Master Plan has included a separated bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between Wedgwood and Ravenna since it was last updated in 2014. The project has already been both designed and contracted, and was supposed to be completed in 2018. Last year, however, opponents of the bike path began a concerted effort to convince Mayor Jenny Durkan to kill the proposal. Their efforts included both standard-issue arguments (eliminating on-street parking will destroy businesses; cyclists can just shift their route six blocks to the east or west) and more novel approaches, like arguing that bike lanes are only “for the privileged”—a claim that is surely news to groups like Rainier Valley Greenways, which have been begging the city for safe bike infrastructure on or near the most dangerous street in the city, which happens to run through many of Seattle’s least-privileged neighborhoods.

After death threats, vandalism, a bomb scare, and the creation of a single-issue PAC dedicated to supporting to “transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning” (they’ve raised $21,125 so far), the city hired mediator John Howell, at a cost of nearly $14,000, to “explore areas of concern” between opponents and advocates of the bike lane. The result, ultimately, was the creation of a new “compromise” plan that did not include any bike lanes at all, including any kind of alternative path for bike commuters. Strangely, the city’s proposed compromise eliminated just as much parking as the city’s original designed and contracted plan.

Evening Crank: “No Matter How You Look at It, It’s Getting Better”

City Confirms: No Idea Exactly How Many Are Housed Through Programs

On Monday, during a briefing to highlight the progress the city made on homelessness last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan and representatives from the city’s Department of Human Services publicly confirmed what I reported last Friday: The city has no idea exactly how many individual people have moved from homelessness into permanent housing last year. Although Durkan, in her state of the city speech, said that the city had moved “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing,” the reality is that that number includes about 1,800 households who aren’t actually homeless; they live in permanent supportive housing and maintained that housing last year. Moreover, the remainder of that number—about 5,600—reflects exits from programs rather than actual households leaving homelessness; since most households use multiple programs before exiting the homelessness system, the 7,400 number includes many duplications.

Durkan, and interim HSD director Jason Johnson, were quick to point out that “duplication” also worked in the opposite direction: Households, or families, can have more than one member. “There’s many more people that are associated with these households,” Johnson said. “It could be one person or four people, or it could be the same person who comes back and cycles repeatedly through the system, and we can’t measure that.” According to All Home King County’s 2018 point-in-time count of the county’ homeless population, about 77 percent of all homeless households have just one or two members, which would suggest that one person sleeping in a shelter is more typical than an intact family of four.

More importantly, the fact that the county knows the size of the households it counts means that the city could theoretically use that information to eliminate the problem of having no idea whether a household is one person or four. The county, through the federally mandated Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) also has a pretty good idea of how many programs each household in the system uses before they exit from homelessness, and whether they cycle back through the system after finding housing for a while. (“Pretty good” because Washington State allows people to receive services anonymously if they don’t want to provide their personal information.) Surely the city could use the county’s data, plus its own information about “exits” (that 5,600 figure) to get a fairly good idea of how many people are being housed. Right?

Asked whether the city could at least triangulate its way toward a more accurate number, HSD division director Tiffany Washington said, “There is a way to do all of that. The reason we don’t provide that information here is because it would be a 700-page PowerPoint. After the briefing,  HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding  followed up: “In collaboration with King County, we can look at unduplicated interaction with the homeless service system across the entire county. The only way to do that is through regional governance.” The information, she said, “exists, but we don’t have it in one place.”

Durkan and HSD emphasized repeatedly that the real number they wanted to focus on was the comparison between 2017 and 2018, which shows the number of exits from homelessness—regardless of how many people that actually represents—going up. “Regardless of what you call it, we know from the data we have … that we’re performing better than in previous years,” Durkan said. “Exits to housing means that those people do become housed.” After the briefing, Washington added: “You have to remember that we’re comparing this year to last year, so no matter how you look at it it’s getting better.”

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. 

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Performance Measures Kick In, $2 Million Housing Voucher Program Helps 28 Into Permanent Housing So Far

In addition to the success of enhanced shelter at getting people into permanent housing, which I wrote about on Friday, a couple of items jumped out from the report. The first is that since the city instituted (somewhat controversial) new performance measures last year, 20 of the 46 city-funded programs that were required to meet new performance standards to get the full amount of their contracts failed, at least initially, do so. Of those 20, 16 completed a “performance improvement plan” and will get the rest of their funding, which HSD calls “performance pay,” this year. I have asked HSD for a list of the 20 organizations that initially failed the city’s standards, more information about where they fell short, and which four programs were unable to meet HSD’s requirements.

Second, a pilot program to provide temporary rental assistance to help about 150 of the families that are currently on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for permanent Section 8 housing vouchers, has provided rent vouchers to about 142 families, of which 28 “have been housed in affordable, stable housing in Seattle,” according to the presentation. Given that the pilot program, which continues this year, will cost a total of $2 million, it’s unclear how cost-effective or successful HSD will decide it has been compared to other “prevention” programs aimed at keeping people from becoming homeless. I have a call out to HSD for more information about this program and whether the department considers it a success so far; on Monday, Johnson said only that “We are going to continue to watch this pilot and see if it’s something that we want to invest in further.”

Durkan: HSD Director Nomination Has Been “A Continued Circus”

Durkan was getting up to leave when I asked her how she thought the council has handled her nomination of Johnson, who has served as interim HSD director for ten months, but she sat back down. As it turned out, she had a lot to say. “I’m feeling very positive about the prospects for confirmation for Jason Johnson, once we get a vote,” Durkan said. “I admit that I am frustrated that the council has not scheduled a vote. Their own procedures and guidelines require vote by March 11. It hasn’t happened.” (In the council’s defense, Durkan just sent Johnson’s nomination down in December, after he had already served in the position, without a formal nomination, for nine months.)

Durkan added: “It does a disservice to the department and to the really important mission that this department serves to have a continued circus instead of a substantive discussion on what we need to do as a city. And I am disappointed that the current chair of the committee”—Sawant—”basically was AWOL month after month after month  and had no hearings whatsoever on [homelessness], to the point that the city council felt the need to create a select committee on homelessness.”

Council member Kshama Sawant, whose committee would ordinarily oversee Johnson’s nomination, has held a series of nighttime public hearings/”Pack City Hall!” rallies to denounce the process that led to Johnson’s nomination and, sometimes, Johnson himself.  Since last July, Sawant has canceled all but one of her regularly scheduled human services committee meetings, which are supposed to happen every other Tuesday at 2pm.

“For those people who say that there wasn’t a process,” Durkan concluded, “I would say that is nonsense. I would challenge anybody to go through a [hiring] process where your process was you had to do the job for 10 months. … It has been both the most exhausting and exhaustive process that a person could have to try to get this job.”

Some service providers, HSD employees, and community members have argued that the city should do a national search for an HSD director rather than just appointing Johnson to the position. Sawant, for her part, has said she wants to appoint a search committee made up of human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees.

In Seattle’s Eviction Court, Where the Deck Is Stacked Against Tenants, Eviction Reform Could Change the Game

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Seattle magazine.

The most surprising thing about Seattle’s eviction court is that most of the action doesn’t take place in a courtroom at all—it takes place in a hallway. Along the length of this dim, busy corridor that spans the west wing of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, attorneys broker deals and break bad news to tenants for whom one extra paycheck, or a few hundred dollars, represents the difference between housing and homelessness. The harried suit-clad tenants’ attorneys strike a stark contrast to their clients, who pace or slump on well-worn benches, while the landlords and their attorneys cluster impatiently nearby, waiting to find out if tenants plan to settle or take their cases to court.

This hallway links two poles of the justice system. At one end: the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP), which represents low-income tenants and whose courthouse office is a cluttered, 300-square-foot room. At the other: Courtroom W-325, where tenants who decide not to accept a settlement deal can have their day in court.

About half of the landlords in Seattle—both nonprofit agencies, such as the Low-Income Housing Institute and the YWCA of Seattle, and private companies, such as Epic Asset Management, which collectively own hundreds of apartments around the city—are represented by a single law firm, Seattle-based Puckett & Redford. The firm’s pugnacious litigator Ryan Weatherstone paces back and forth in the hallway, occasionally poking his head in the door of the HJP office to yell at the organization’s managing attorney, Edmund Witter. “Stop [expletive] sandbagging me, Ed!” Weatherstone shouts late one morning, when it’s clear that the day’s cases will drag on into the afternoon. Witter rolls his eyes. It’s unclear how much of this is performance, how much genuine frustration.

The stakes are high. What happens here often means the difference between housing and homelessness to the hundreds of tenants who show up to respond to an eviction notice. In King County, where the most recent one-night count found more than 12,000 people living in shelters or on the streets, hundreds of people become newly homeless through eviction every year, contributing to a crisis that local political leaders have been trying, and mostly failing, to address for years.

To become a HJP client, a family must must make no more than two times the federal poverty level, which is $32,480 for a family of two, and be in the eviction process or at risk of imminent eviction. In Seattle, and throughout Washington, a landlord can begin the eviction process as soon as a tenant’s rent is more than three days late, and judges have little authority to force landlords to accept rent after that point.

Landlords can also serve a 10-day notice for lease violations, such as unauthorized guests, a three-day notice to vacate for nuisance activity, or—outside Seattle, whose Just Cause Eviction Ordinance prohibits this—a 20-day notice ending a tenancy for any reason, or no reason at all. These are several of the ways in which Washington differs from other states, many of which offer tenants more time to catch up on rent and give judges discretion to set up payment plans while a tenant remains in his or her home. Another challenge for tenants undergoing eviction: Fees for landlords’ attorneys, which vary widely and are usually paid by tenants, can run to thousands of dollars; court costs, plus late fees and other charges, can add hundreds more. A recent report by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the HJP found that the median court judgment against tenants evicted in Seattle in 2017 was $3,129.73.

“Say you underpay your rent by $20,” says state Representative Nicole Macri (D-43rd), who is also the deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. “The [state] statute allows a three-day notice to go up on your door at the moment the late day comes up on your lease. You can be in court the very next week after the three days expire, and within a week and a half or two weeks a sheriff could come to remove your possessions.” According to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 86.5 percent of evictions were for nonpayment of rent, and more than a quarter of all eviction proceedings in Seattle began on or before the sixth of the month, or five days after rent is typically due.

It’s common for people to be evicted for small amounts of overdue rent. In 2017, of the 2,072 formal evictions filed in Seattle, more than 76 percent were for less than $2,500, and 21 were for less than $100. The Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a large Seattle housing nonprofit, frequently files eviction notices over small amounts of money, including one, in 2018, for just $4. (LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says court records don’t reflect prior warnings or other reasons for evictions, such as violence or damage by the tenant.) The number of people evicted through informal means—those who received a notice to vacate and simply left, or who left after a dispute over rent or other issue that did not make it into the formal court record—is likely much higher, the report notes.

Many, if not most, HJP clients end up losing their homes—if not by eviction, then through court settlements that only allow an extra week or two before they need to vacate. Even those who strike a deal with their landlords—getting an order of limited dissemination, for example, which keeps an eviction from showing up on standard credit reports—end up being evicted, and most of those become homeless. According to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 87.5 percent of all people evicted in Seattle in 2017 became homeless immediately after their evictions. A big reason for that, according to the report, is that most landlords won’t take tenants with evictions on their record.

If a client takes her case to court, the outcome can be much worse. According to Witter, most cases that go to a hearing end up in eviction, with bigger judgments and harsher legal penalties than cases in which a tenant agrees to pay his back rent and leave.

On a recent Tuesday morning, two HJP clients, Peter and Danielle, wait in the hallway for news from an attorney who volunteers with HJP. While they wait, they explain how they ended up at the courthouse—a story of cascading misfortunes that includes struggles with addiction, homelessness and serious medical conditions. Peter, a former machinist, is awaiting surgery for a hernia; Danielle has late-stage liver disease. They say that a local charity paid part of their rent in an apartment building on Capitol Hill, but they’re still behind by about $3,000—a daunting amount for two people who haven’t worked in months. “I don’t want to sound like a victim, because we’re not,” Danielle says. “We just got caught in a real bad situation.” Peter adds: “I’m hoping that some more time will be allotted to us.”

Down the hallway, another drama is playing out: A tiny, frail woman named Rose (not her real name) is being turned out of an apartment run by a different social service agency over $430 in unpaid rent. Although she slipped a money order for half the rent under her property manager’s door several weeks ago, the landlord declined to deposit the money and taped an eviction notice on Rose’s door while she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for late-stage kidney disease. Rose’s apartment is in a building designated specifically for women, like her, who are battling addiction; before landing an apartment there a year ago, she was on the streets for more than a decade.

Unlike many tenants who come through eviction court, Rose is accompanied by two caseworkers, who both say that putting her back out on the street is tantamount to a death sentence. “There are already thousands of people living on the streets,” one of the caseworkers, a former case manager at Rose’s building, says. “What good is it going to do to put one more out there?” African-American tenants like Rose are evicted far out of proportion to their presence in the Seattle population; according to the Women’s Commission/HJP report, 31.2 percent of tenants evicted in Seattle last year were black in a city where, according to the federal government, African Americans make up only 7 percent of the population.

A DAY IN COURT: Housing Justice Project attorney Edmund Witter spends much of his time in this hallway in the King County Courthouse, often with clients. At one end is the HJP office; at the other, the courtroom where eviction cases are decided. Photo by Hayley Young

Witter comes back with Weatherstone’s offer: If Rose pays all the back rent, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees, she will have a few weeks before she will have to move out. The eviction will still go on her record and she will probably go back to being homeless. “This isn’t a great deal,” Witter tells her candidly. Rose wants to take her case to court and Witter thinks she stands a chance: She tried to pay rent repeatedly, and can prove that she was in the hospital when her landlord left the eviction notice on her door. But in the small courtroom—from which a judge or appointed court commissioner presides—Weatherstone and Rose’s landlord introduce new information.

Rose, they say, has threatened staff members and other tenants, sending one staffer a text message that her landlord describes in excruciating detail. This kind of testimony isn’t admissible: In one of many made-for-TV courtroom moments, Rose’s HJP attorney, Ben Dickson, shouts “Hearsay!” every time Weatherstone brings up Rose’s behavior—but the damage is done. Judges and commissioners aren’t supposed to consider evidence that isn’t included in the eviction claim when deciding how to rule, but they’re human, and they sometimes do. Commissioner Henry Judson says the best he can do is to give Rose an order of limited dissemination if she pays the $860 she owes in rent and $911 in court costs, which one of Rose’s caseworker thinks he can pull together by the following day. But Rose must vacate her apartment in two weeks.

Tenants aren’t allowed to say much, if anything, in court—something that Witter says surprises many clients—and the process is brisk and formal, with testimony and arguments limited to the bare facts of the case. Personal grievances are generally not allowed. “We go into the hearing, and they find out how bad the process is and that they weren’t even allowed to talk, and then they get mad at us for that,” Witter says. “I’m not blaming the tenants; I’m just saying the system is not conducive for us to be able to provide adequate assistance of counsel or for the tenant to really even be able to make an informed decision. It’s basically a gun being held to someone’s head.”

He adds, “This isn’t the best way to do these proceedings, period. We’re going in and doing daytime Court TV and basically having this pissing contest between a landlord and a tenant in front of a person who doesn’t know this area of the law,” he says, referring to the commissioners and judges who hear the cases. Because Seattle has no dedicated housing court, eviction cases are heard by judges whose dockets are also crammed with probate cases, divorces and restraining orders, and who may not have a background in housing law, Witter says.

Witter says he often sees clients with mental health or addiction problems so severe that HJP can’t represent them (with stakes so high, tenants have to know what they’re signing and be able to understand what’s happening), and there are gray cases, like one I witnessed in court on another occasion, in which a man with a diagnosed mental disorder went back and forth for hours about whether he wanted to take his shaky case to a hearing, then backed out and agreed to the eviction while standing on the literal threshold of the courthouse door.

In New York City, where Witter was a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, tenants have a right to legal counsel, and cases are heard in a specialized housing court, with judges who are experts in landlord-tenant law. Witter says tenants “don’t get evicted just for simple nonpayment of rent—you have to be not trying at all.” Tenants can request assistance paying their arrears from multiple human services agencies right in the courthouse.

Contrast that with Seattle’s system, which requires tenants to go to one (or many) of more than two dozen decentralized private and nonprofit charities, such as churches, the West Seattle Helpline or Solid Ground. Solid Ground can provide as much as $2,000 in back rent for low-income clients. But the clients must agree to participate in case management, write a budget and set financial goals—a lengthy process that several renter advocates described as paternalistic and patronizing. Even so, Solid Ground interim homelessness prevention manager Theresa Curry Almuti says the group gets between 1,200 and 1,600 calls a month for about 80 slots in its assistance program, of which several hundred are eligible. “We could get three times as much funding and still have people eligible,” Curry Almuti says.

Weatherstone, the landlords’ attorney, spent years working as a tenant advocate, including as a volunteer at the HJP, and he sees problems with housing laws that lead to so many evictions, too. “Ultimately, we care about the people who come through here,” he says, referring to the tenants. “Not every single case is a case that we want to go ahead and evict, but sometimes—a lot of times—it’s required. Management has given them a lot of opportunities to comply with the [rental] agreement, and they don’t comply with it.” Weatherstone adds that landlords, especially small-business landlords, can’t always afford to let rent go unpaid while they wait for a tenant to come through with what they owe. “Our clients have their obligations to meet as well,” he says.

Still, it’s hard to deny that in a county where more than 12,000 people were homeless in 2017, evicting thousands of tenants a year only exacerbates the homelessness crisis. Legislators at the city and state levels are working to mitigate Seattle’s high eviction rate, using the Women’s Commission/HJP report as a guide. Macri, the 43rd District state representative, is proposing legislation in the current legislative session that would take protections that already exist in Seattle and extend them statewide—preventing landlords from evicting tenants without cause, for example. Macri’s bills would also give tenants more time to pay back rent they owe and provide discretion to judges to broker deals between landlords and tenants.

At the municipal level, City Council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien have directed city departments to look at ways of centralizing the rent assistance system and to make it easier for tenants to address habitability issues, which are often at the center of rent disputes, on a funding timeline. Longer-term solutions include allocating more of the city’s homelessness prevention system toward eviction prevention. Pathways Home, the overarching approach to homelessness adopted under former Mayor Ed Murray, directs the lion’s share of city homelessness funding to agencies that help people who are already homeless. Referring to the eviction report, O’Brien noted, “When you look at this data, around 550 households were $1,000 or less behind on their rent, and 87 percent of the people that went through an eviction ended up homeless.” Doing the math, for about $500,000, 500 fewer people could have wound up homeless, he says. “That is probably one of the most cost-effective things we could do.”

Weeks after their court dates, I followed up with several of the tenants whose cases I followed. Danielle and Peter were ultimately evicted, and had broken up under the stress; Danielle was living on the streets. Mike, the tenant who had wanted to go to court, agreed to leave the apartment where he had lived for a decade by the end of the month; in exchange, he got an order of limited dissemination. And Rose, whose caseworker said she paid her back rent and attorneys’ fees, was ultimately evicted anyway due to extenuating circumstances. At press time, her whereabouts were unknown.

Audit Calls Seattle’s Approach to Homelessness “A Dangerous Guess”

A new city audit of the Navigation Team, which looks at data that the city’s Human Services Department collected during the second quarter of 2018, concludes that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies who do outreach to people living unsheltered; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time (and who would be prime candidates for low-cost diversion programs); does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. Data from the executive branch has lagged significantly, which is one reason the auditor is just now releasing a report on the second quarter of last year.

The Navigation Team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, consists of uniformed police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and provide referrals to available shelter beds and services. Although most people living in encampments simply move along to the next place (or return to the same place), some do accept services or go in to shelters, and when those shelters are enhanced shelters—shelters that accept people as they are, with active addictions and partners and possessions they don’t want to give up—they sometimes lead to permanent housing.

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The problem, the audit says, is that the city does not have a rigorous system of analysis in place for tracking the Navigation Team’s success at getting people into housing, so it’s difficult to say whether the team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, has been successful. As council member Lisa Herbold put it in a letter to acting HSD director Jason Johnson last month, “[I] continue to be concerned that a considerable and sizable uptick in removals is happening in the absence of any [demonstrable] outcomes. Without the latter, the former is just perpetuating a situation where people reoccupy the same places or new places that are equally problematic.”

Mayor Durkan, the audit says, still has not agreed to allow an independent assessment of the Navigation Team’s success at getting people off the street and into permanent housing. The audit notes that a similar report, back in 2017, listed “possible low-cost and no-cost opportunities for rigorous independent evaluation for the City,” but that “[t]he Executive’s Quarter 2 Response concluded that, ‘many of the rigorous academic evaluation options suggested by the City Auditor would incur a high cost and are only utilized after a program has been through a few years of practice.'”

The report continues:

The Executive’s resistance to pursuing rigorous independent evaluation, even at no-cost or low-cost to the City, is concerning. As noted above by the criminologist Joan McCord, 32 without rigorous evaluation, the City’s approach to addressing unsheltered homelessness remains “a dangerous guess.” Our 2017 report raised questions about the potential for unintended consequences as a result of the City’s current approaches. These include the potential public health and safety consequences from a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene strategies and potential traumatic exposure for unsheltered individuals from the use of police in an outreach capacity.

What do those public health and safety consequences look like? Well, according to the audit, they include a lack of access to basic hygiene facilities (like showers) and restrooms that are open outside normal business hours. Only six city-funded restrooms are available all day and night, the report found—and four of those are port-a-potties that are “poorly-lit and [with] no running water,” according to the report. (Three of those four, moreover, “were damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability (e.g., no toilet seat, no sanitizer dispenser, broken ADA rail)” and at least one had not been cleaned in more than a week. In contrast, UN human-rights standards would require at least 224 public restrooms distributed throughout Seattle to adequately serve the city’s homeless population.

When council members and advocates have brought up the lack of restrooms and showers accessible to homeless people in the past, the mayor’s office and HSD have distributed lists of all the restrooms and showers that are available, and suggested that people who need to use these facilities seek shelter at “enhanced shelters” that provide 24/7 access. However, as the report confirms, there simply aren’t enough of these shelters across enough of the city to actually serve the thousands of homeless people sleeping outdoors on any given night.

“Given that the 2018 point in time count found that, in Seattle, 4,488 people were unsheltered (i.e., they were sleeping in tents, vehicles and RVs, and on the street), the current availability of 24-hour restrooms should be examined,” the report concludes. Homeless advocates have also argued that because the need for restrooms is universal, people should not be required to enter the formal shelter system as a prerequisite for going to the bathroom or accessing shower and laundry facilities. The audit also found that most of the city’s drop-in showers are open limited hours and concentrated downtown; Council District 5, in far north Seattle, does not have a single drop-in shower station. (Additionally, some “free” public showers do not provide towels or charge for towels, the audit found.) In contrast, other cities have mobile restrooms and showers and offer more 24/7 facilities outside the formal shelter system.

The audit also faulted the executive for decentralizing the city’s homelessness response, starting in late 2017 when it decommissioned  the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which began meeting after the declaration of a homelessness “emergency,” in 2015, but was deactivated in late 2017. The city’s homeless outreach strategy is spread across several departments with confusing and messy chains of command. The audit criticizes the city for having “no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers [and] not currently thinking of homeless outreach ‘as a complete system.’ This lack of coordination limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.” The city simply doesn’t have a coordinated strategy for reaching people who have just become homeless, who are prime candidates for low-cost diversion tactics such as family reunification, the audit found; instead, the Navigation Team encounters newly homeless people only haphazardly, as it investigates and removes encampments that are deemed to be dangerous. “We recommend that the City consider improving its capacity for receiving reports of newly unsheltered individuals and quickly dispatching outreach.”

Herbold’s letter notes that people who are referred to shelters through the Navigation Team tend to stay in shelters longer than other clients, tying up beds, and suggests that one reason for this is that the Navigation Team doesn’t assess people for their housing eligibility prior to sending them to shelter (at which point their score on a standardized scoring tool used to determine their eligibility for housing goes down, because they are no longer unsheltered.) In response to Herbold’s questions, an HSD spokeswoman said that the Navigation Team often has to act quickly and “forgo a field assessment as it will be later conducted at shelter intake and through subsequent case management. This approach capitalizes on the team making connections to shelter resources in a timely manner before an opportunity disappears.”

The audit recommends that the city consider coordination models pioneered by other US jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Snohomish County, which use a coordination approach developed by FEMA called Incident Command System (ICS). The city used to use some elements of ICS to coordinate its response to homelessness, but stopped doing so in 2017 when it discontinued the use of the emergency operations center.

Read the whole audit here (skip page 23 if you want to avoid one really gross restroom photo). The mayor’s office did not respond to an email seeking responses  the audit.