As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.
The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)
After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.
The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)
In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.
In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”
The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).
This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.
Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”→
1. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services has purchased the former Paramount Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Seattle’s Central District to serve as a hospital for people without COVID-19, at a cost of $13.5 million, The C Is for Crank has learned. The 165-bed nursing home closed down last month, after an analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services called it one of the worst-performing nursing homes in the country.
Chris Wright, a spokesman for the state COVID Joint Information Center, said the goal of the purchase is “to free up beds in hospitals during the crisis by finding patients who are currently in hospitals, but could receive the same level of care in this nursing home.” He says the state is “trying to find a contractor to run the facility and hope to open by the end of April.” The facility will create about 100 job openings, for nurses, food service workers, maintenance workers, and supervisors, Wright says.
2. As homeless shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit groups “de-intensified” their existing shelters by moving some clients to new locations, people are still sleeping inches apart at the nighttime-only shelter at City Hall, which is run by the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center. Staffing is apparently an issue; expanding the shelter to the red-glass lobby on Fourth Avenue (as has been discussed) or moving some shelter clients elsewhere would require additional Salvation Army employees or other staff.
A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said that “Many shelter operators, including the operator at the City Hall shelters, are facing staffing capacity constraints that make it challenging to split operations between multiple sites quickly. City staff have been stepping in to help staff shelters to meet this need, and we are working with the service provider to identify solutions.” A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said the group had nothing new to announce about the shelter.
The basic shelter at City Hall consists of 75 mats on the floor inside the Fifth Avenue lobby, which is open daily from 7pm until 7 in the morning.
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3. Staff at the city’s Human Services, Parks, and Seattle Center departments are being reassigned to front-line positions working in some of the new shelter spaces that have been opened for residents at as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and distributing food through HSD’s division of Youth and Family Empowerment. These reassignments apply not just to the approximately 70 workers who have been specially trained to work in shelters, but also to other staffers who will be reassigned as part of the departments’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs), which shut down certain city facilities and functions while defining others as “mission essential.”
It’s unclear what, if any, long-term plan exists for city employees who would ordinarily be reassigned to front-line jobs but are in a high-risk group for COVID exposure. The mayor’s order authorizes departments to provide “full or partial compensation” to these workers, but the city did not provide any specific details about what that will look like, or whether some employees may eventually have to be furloughed until front-line services can open again.
4. Governor Jay Inslee confirmed on Saturday that the state is using prison labor to make hospital gowns during the COVID crisis. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the gowns are being produced by inmates at the Coyote Ridge medium-security prison in Franklin County. Inslee said Saturday that the prisoners were “very eager for this job, and we’re eager for their success in this regard.” Prisoners in Washington State make a fraction of the state minimum wage.
Prison reform advocates across the country, including in Washington State, have argued that state prison systems should release many incarcerated people to protect their health during the COVID crisis. Inslee said Saturday that “we have a commitment … to keeping these incarcerated individuals as safe as humanly possible” during the pandemic.
5. The Seattle City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution this afternoon asking Gov. Inslee to use his emergency powers to implement a moratorium on all residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments in the state, and to forgive any debt accumulated by renters and property owners after the COVID crisis has passed. The resolution, which also calls on the federal government to enact a similar policy nationwide, passed unanimously, though not without a bit of incredulous guffawing from council member Debora Juarez, who (along with her colleague Alex Pedersen) seemed skeptical about the idea of effectively canceling all rent and mortgage payments for the indefinite future.
“So you’re saying that a commercial [landlord] that owns 20-plus units, or apartments, who also has a mortgage to pay … that we are lobbying for them as well, under this administration and to our governor, that they too don’t have to pay their mortgage to the bank?” Juarez asked.
“That’s right,” the resolution’s sponsor, council member Tammy Morales, responded.
Pedersen expressed doubt about the legality of preemptively forgiving all rent and mortgage debt, and seemed to question whether renters would really need the help. “I’m concerned that [if] people are getting other relief, why would we want to then suspend the payments that are due when they’re getting relief from other angles?” he said. On the other hand, Pedersen said, “I have received lots of emails from constituents who are expressing their major concern and fear and pain that they’re suffering during this crisis, so I wish we had more time to think this through.”
On Wednesday, city staffers, supporters of Mayor Jenny Durkan, and members of the media crowded into a small black-box theater at the 12th Avenue Arts building on Capitol Hill to hear what was billed as a major speech outlining the mayor’s vision for affordable housing in Seattle. (Press, many of whom had expected the event would include an opportunity to ask questions, were relegated to a “reserved” row in the very back.)
Ultimately, the event—which consisted of a State of the City-style address outlining what the city has done on housing recently, followed by an announcement of two initiatives that were already in the works—didn’t make much news. Durkan said that Seattle plans to take advantage of a new state law allowing cities to use a portion of existing state sales tax for housing, by bonding against future revenues to get about $50 million for housing for formerly homeless people up front. And she said the city would extend the multifamily tax exemption program that gives developers a property tax exemption if they agree to set aside 20 percent of new units for low-to-middle-income renters for 12 years. (The city renews the tax break every three to five years).
In fairness, the MFTE announcement did include a bit of real news: Under Durkan’s plan, the city will cap rent increases at MFTE units at 4.5 percent a year. Under federal rules, potential (though not necessarily actual) rent increases for these units track to area median income—when median income goes up, say, 10 percent because a bunch of high-paid tech workers move into the city, rents for low-income people living in tax-exempt buildings can go up 10 percent as well, even though the people living in those units obviously aren’t seeing their incomes rise 10 percent every year. (In practice, huge annual rent increases for existing units would be out of scale with the overall market in many parts of town, although it does happen). Last year, the city used some creative math to freeze rent increases at MFTE properties to prevent apartment owners from raising rents at the rate of median income increases, but the 4.5 percent cap puts a firm limit on how much landlords can charge.
Otherwise, though, Durkan’s “Seattle Housing Now” announcement raised more questions than it answered. Here are some of those questions, along with a few potential answers.
• What’s going on with the pending sale of the Mercer Megablock?
Durkan provided a few sparse details about the pending sale of the Mercer Megablock, a three-acre city-owned site in South Lake Union that could bring in upward of $100 million. The mayor will likely announce a plan and buyer—reportedly Alexandria Real Estate Investment, Inc., a real estate investment trust that focuses on life science campuses—in the next two weeks. The mayor’s office recently briefed council members on the deal, sort of: Staffers reportedly showed council members a PowerPoint that contained few specifics, and took the document with them when they left.
What we do know from the mayor’s speech is that the new development will include some housing on site (the request for proposals for the project called for at least 175 rent-restricted units), and that the city will use some of the revenues from the sale to buy properties in areas with a high risk of displacement, to provide low-interest loans to struggling homeowners who want to build cottages in their backyards, and to fund homeownership opportunities.
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What was unclear from Durkan’s pre-announcement announcement was how she will propose splitting up those revenues among programs that help low-income renters, middle-income workers (the “teachers, nurses and firefighters” that are a frequent Durkan talking point) and higher-income homebuyers and homeowners. Some housing advocates had argued that the city should hang on to the megablock property and build affordable housing on the site, or, failing that, invest heavily in housing for low-income people who are being driven out of the city by rising rents. It remains to be seen how much Durkan took their pleas to heart, but programs for homebuyers and homeowners tend to be aimed at people making as much as 120 percent of median income, or about $130,000 for a family of four. (For a single person, 120 percent of median works out to $91,000). If Durkan’s plan for the megablock money is skewed toward subsidizing people making six-figure salaries, it will likely come under fire from the council; on seeing an early draft of the mayor’s ADU plan, council member Lorena Gonzalez reportedly responded that the high-income subsidy (a loan product aimed at people making up to 120 percent of median) would end up disproportionately benefiting white homeowners, not people of color facing displacement in areas like the Central District. Her office says they’ve asked the mayor’s office to do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal, and that they’ve said they will.
The mayor will likely announce a plan and buyer—reportedly Alexandria Real Estate Investment, Inc., a real estate investment trust that focuses on life science campuses—in the next two weeks.
• Why didn’t the MFTE plan go further?
One perennial question about the multifamily tax exemption program is whether it results in enough affordable housing to justify the cost, which amounts to about $26 million in lost taxes every year, according to the most recent program status report. The program ensures that between 20 and 25 percent of new units are available to people making between 65 and 85 percent of median income (a number that varies depending on the size of the unit and where it is in the city). The idea behind the 12-year tax break is that by the time the tax expires, new development elsewhere will have been built to meet demand at the top of the market, and the MFTE units will have depreciated in value to the point that rents will be affordable relative to the rest of the market. Because housing development hasn’t kept up with population growth, this hasn’t happened, raising the question of whether the subsidy is deep enough to justify the tax break for developers.
One perennial question about the multifamily tax exemption program is whether it results in enough affordable housing to justify the cost, which amounts to about $26 million in lost taxes every year,
Options the mayor and her middle-income advisory council, which advised Durkan on the plan, could have proposed include lowering the income eligibility so that lower-income people could participate in the program, which would lower rents (currently, MFTE landlords can charge someone making 80 percent of median income $1,737 for a one-bedroom apartment, which is basically market rent); placing a more stringent cap on rent increases; or limiting the program to larger “family” units, on the grounds that the market is already producing lots of small units at rents basically equivalent to the units the program subsidizes with tax breaks.
• What’s up with the Uber/Lyft tax?
Durkan has been working since last year on a plan to tax Uber and Lyft rides to pay for a laundry list of transportation and housing programs, but the proposal has been slow to get off the ground. Uber and Lyft generally have opposed the plan, arguing that it won’t reduce congestion downtown, because ride-hailing services only amount to a small percentage of car trips downtown and because of a phenomenon called induced demand, where small reductions in congestion lead people to drive when they ordinarily wouldn’t have. The ride-hailing companies have called for broad congestion pricing on all downtown drivers, which (unlike a tax targeting them specifically) would require voter approval.
Durkan’s latest plan would reportedly fund new investments in housing with the tax. But it’s unclear when—or whether—the mayor will actually release a final proposal. Another question, if Durkan does end up proposing the tax, is whether the revenues will go to capital investments (building new units) or operations and maintenance (the less flashy but critical work of running them). Permanent supportive housing units for very low-income people (like the ones that would be funded through the new sales tax revenues) are expensive to run because they (unlike regular apartments) require full-time staffing and case management. If the ride-hailing tax passes, that money could be used to build housing around transit stations (providing a nexus, sort of, to justify using a transportation tax to pay for housing) while the money from the sales tax can go toward O&M. Without the Uber/Lyft tax, that equation becomes more challenging.
Durkan’s latest plan would reportedly fund new investments in housing with a new tax on ride-hailing services. But it’s unclear when—or whether—the mayor will actually release a final proposal.
• When is Durkan going to announce a new Office of Housing director?
Durkan told OH director Steve Walker (whose final day is today) he was out back in March. His deputy director, Miriam Roskin, went on sabbatical shortly after that and is not expected to return. Durkan has had four months to appoint a replacement for Walker, but has not yet done so. It’s unclear when the mayor will announce Walker’s replacement. In June, 30 housing advocacy groups sent a letter to the mayor outlining their values and recommendations for the hiring process—an effort, according to Puget Sound Sage policy and research analyst Giulia Pascuito, to “push back on [the] narrative we’ve seen from the Mayor’s office around ‘middle-income housing’ and to let the city know that advocates are paying attention” to the appointment.
• Why didn’t Durkan acknowledge state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in her speech?
An oversight, perhaps—her official press release mentions Macri by name—but it was somewhat jarring that Durkan didn’t shout out one of the prime sponsors of HB 1406, the legislation that made it possible for the city to use sales tax revenues to fund housing, during her speech, which included praise for Macri’s co-sponsor, June Robinson, as well as house speaker Frank Chopp and state Sen. David Frockt.
Mayor Jenny Durkan planned to propose her own accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legislation that would have restricted homeowners’ ability to build second and third units on their property, going far beyond the limitations in the legislation the city council passed unanimously yesterday afternoon.
The restrictions Durkan proposed would have been more lenient than previous regulations, which had resulted in just a handful of ADUs per year, but would have included many provisions requested by ADU opponents, including parking requirements for second ADUs, preserving the current owner occupancy requirement, and imposing new limits on the size of backyard units.
Ultimately, as I reported this morning (item 2), Durkan did not propose her own legislation, and the bill the council passed yesterday does not include any of these restrictions. Still, Durkan’s ADU proposal gives a glimpse into her thinking about how much the city should limit how many people (and what kind of people) should be allowed to live in single-family neighborhoods.
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This report is based on documents I received through a records request filed in March. The mayor’s office provided unredacted versions of these documents this morning.
First, the mayor set out her goals in drafting her own ADU legislation: “1. Encourage ADUs—especially affordable ADUs—throughout Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. 2. Prevent speculative development and the demolition of existing single-family homes.” Her plan also laid out a set of “principles,” which included “Retain existing single-family neighborhood character.”
To those ends, here’s what the mayor’s proposal (which, again, was never sent to the council as legislation) might have done:
1. Imposed a cap of 1,000 accessory units permitted per year. (The legislation the council passed includes no such restriction.)
2. Required homeowners building a second ADU to sign a legally binding document stating that they would never use that ADU as an Airbnb (a new restriction that would allow someone to own two houses on adjoining lots and rent one as an Airbnb, but would ban a neighbor with two ADUs from renting out their backyard unit).
3. Required two years of continuous ownership before a homeowner could build a second ADU, such as a backyard cottage in a house that already has a basement apartment. This restriction went further than council member Lisa Herbold’s proposal for a one-year ownership requirement, which failed; the legislation the council passed does not include any ownership-related restrictions on ADU construction.
4. Required homeowners to build one off-street parking space when they build a second ADU. Notes from staff on the mayor’s proposal indicate that “many infill parcels, especially those without alley access, cannot easily accommodate off-street parking, making this requirement a significant impediment to ADU development.” The legislation that passed yesterday includes no parking mandate.
5. Imposed a new floor-area ratio (a measure of maximum density) on detached units while eliminating the previous minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. Although getting rid of maximum lot sizes sounds like a good thing, in practice, this measure would have little practical impact while imposing a new restriction on what people on smaller lots could build. I’ve explained this in a bit more detail below*, but the impact would be that any lot smaller than 5,000 square feet would have to build a backyard unit smaller than 1,000 square feet—and the smaller the lot, the smaller the cottage. In contrast, O’Brien’s legislation allows backyard cottages of up to 1,000 square feet on all lots, subject to the city’s existing maximum lot coverage of 35 percent.
Although getting rid of the minimum lot size entirely might seem preferable, the impact would be tiny—according to the city, just 7 percent of the single-family lots in Seattle are smaller than 3,200 square feet, and ADUs on very small lots are unlikely for the reasons I explain below.
6. Required a homeowner or a homeowner’s family member to live on the property for at least six months out of every year. O’Brien’s legislation got rid of the existing six-month owner occupancy requirement because it effectively banned renters from living in at least one of the units on lots with an ADU (suggesting that backyard-cottage renters require owner supervision.) Durkan’s proposal would have continued to prevent renters from occupying every unit on lots with ADUs, but allowed family members to serve as owner proxies. The proposal doesn’t define “family member,” but other elements of the municipal code limit the number of people who can live on a single lot unless they are “related,” a term that is undefined in the code.
Because I filed my request for these documents in March, they don’t include any discussions that happened after April 1 that might shed light on why Durkan decided not to propose her own ADU legislation. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about why they dropped the proposal this afternoon.
*Two hypothetical examples illustrate the impact of this change on lots of two different sizes.
A homeowner with a 4,000-square-foot lot could cover a total of 1,400 square feet of that lot with buildings, subject to the maximum height limit of about 30 feet. That could include, say, a 1,600-square-foot two story house (covering 800 square feet of the lot) and a two-story, 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage (covering 500 square feet). Under Durkan’s proposal, though, the backyard cottage would also be restricted by the 0.2 FAR, limiting it to a total of 800 square feet no matter how the rest of the lot is configured. This is the limit that existed before O’Brien’s legislation raised it to 1,000 square feet, so in this case Durkan’s proposal would have preserved the old status quo.
A homeowner with a 2,500-square-foot lot, who couldn’t build a backyard cottage under the rules adopted yesterday, would theoretically be able to do so under Durkan’s proposal. But the restrictions would make this exceedingly unlikely, because the backyard cottage would be limited to a total of 500 square feet—on a lot where only 875 square feet can be developed in the first place. Playing this out presents some very unlikely scenarios, such as a tiny front house towered over by a narrow two-story backyard tower. The point is, the effect of these restrictions would have been primarily to limit the size of backyard units, not to expand homeowners’ ability to build them.
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.
After nearly five years of public hearings, open houses, legal challenges, amendments, and debate, the city council adopted the “citywide” Mandatory Housing Affordability plan on Monday by a 9-0 vote. The legislation (which does not actually apply citywide) will allow developers to build more housing in parts of the city where density is already allowed, and will allow additional housing, ranging from a second house to small apartment buildings, on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.
In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay a fee to build housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. The amount developers will pay to build will be higher in areas where the city has determined the risk of displacement is high and access to opportunities is low, and lower in areas with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago
The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes.
Public comment on Monday was dominated, as usual, by homeowners who argued that the proposed changes will “destroy” neighborhoods, rob property owners of their views, and—a perennial favorite—”ghettoize” places like Rainier Beach by forcing low-income people of color to live there.
The specter of “ghettos” was both explicit—two white speakers mentioned “ghettos” or “ghettoization” in their comments—and implicit, in comments from several white homeowners who expressed concern that their (unnamed, absent) friends and family of color would be displaced from their current neighborhoods. “I want to provide affordable housing to my children and grandchildren, who are of all colors, but I want to protect her [Seattle’s] natural beauty,” one speaker said, after inveighing against the potential loss of views from North Capitol Hill. Another speaker (also white) invoked her “many… friends and family of color [who] have been displaced from the Central District and particularly from Columbia City… to the Rainier Beach area, and now it s up for upzoning.” Where, she wondered, would these anonymous friends and family be forced to move next?
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After listening to more than an hour of such comments—including one white speaker who claimed that “upzoning is the new redlining”—the council’s women of color were eager to correct the record. Lorena González, whose own Mexican-American family would have been excluded from much of the city under both the formal racial covenants that ended in the 1940s and the unofficial redlining that replaced them, noted first that “this legislation is not even close to citywide—there are approximately 127 neighborhoods in the city, and this legislation only relates to 27 of them.” The remaining 100 neighborhoods, she said, are still “currently and strictly zoned exclusively single-family.”
She continued: “I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am, however, calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of implementing and preserving housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history and to support legislation to begin the process of dismantling… laws that are intended to exclude people who look like me from owning or living in a single-family home.”
Teresa Mosqueda added more historical context. “What we have done over the last few decades is we have zoned our city backwards,” she said, referring to the fact that as recently as the middle of the last century, multifamily housing was allowed on much of the land Seattle now preserves for exclusive single-family use. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes. That is the next conversation we need to have.”
“The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.” – Council member Rob Johnson
Today’s vote served as a bit of a swan song for council member Rob Johnson, who is widely expected to step down after the end of April to start his new job as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL. Johnson, who spent much of his single term shepherding the legislation, sounded a bit wistful as he closed out debate and called for a vote. After thanking city staffers, other council members, and his wife Katie, Johnson noted the signs all over Seattle that oppose “build the wall” rhetoric. “Well, zoning is building a metaphorical wall around our city.” By adopting MHA, he said, “We’re starting the process of dismantling walls around our neighborhoods that have given exclusive groups sole access to the resource-rich communities around our city. … The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.”
The battle over MHA is not over, of course. SCALE, the group that spent much of the last year and a half appealing the plan in front of the city’s hearing examiner, said in a statement Monday that they were “considering appealing the inadequately considered impacts of the MHA legislation to the [state] Growth Management Hearings Board.”
2. González and Mosqueda weren’t the only ones feeling salty before Monday’s big vote. Sally Bagshaw, who is also leaving the council after this year, took the opportunity to correct an op/ed by Queen Anne homeowner and anti-density activist Marty Kaplan that ran in this Sunday’s Seattle Times. Kaplan has spent much of the last several years appealing a city proposal that would allow homeowners to add up to two accessory dwelling units (one attached, one in the backyard) to their properties. The Times ran Kaplan’s factually challenged rant alongside a pro-MHA piece by Johnson, suggesting that an elected city council member and a neighborhood activist who spends his time fighting people’s right to build garage apartments are on roughly the same level.
“Here’s what makes me grumpy,” Bagshaw began. “There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make something so.” Kaplan’s piece, Bagshaw continued, said that the city was “railroading” neighborhoods and would “eliminate all single-family zoning,” and “nothing could be further from the truth. We are going to be retaining 94 percent of the single-family zones,” Bagshaw said.
“Here’s what makes me grumpy. There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make something so.” – Council member Sally Bagshaw
Bagshaw didn’t get around to demolishing all of the false and absurd claims in Kaplan’s editorial one by one, so I’ll add a couple more. Kaplan claims in his piece that allowing homeowners to build backyard or mother-in-law apartments on their own property will “eliminate single-family housing regulations citywide, erasing 150 years of our history.” Single-family zoning didn’t even exist 100 years ago, much less in 1869, 15 years after the Denny Party landed at Alki. Moreover, allowing people to retrofit their basements to produce rental income or add an apartment for an aging relative does not constitute a “threat to single-family neighborhoods”; rather, it’s a way for homeowners to stay in the neighborhoods where they live, and provide new people with access to those neighborhoods—a rare commodity in a city where the typical single-family house costs more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Kaplan even suggested that “lame-duck politicians, who know they can’t get reelected” (four of the nine council members who voted for MHA are not running again) should not be “allowed” to vote on zoning policy, as if only universally popular politicians who plan to keep their seats forever should be allowed to vote in a democracy.
Kaplan isn’t done with his own fight against density. In an email to supporters last week, he vowed to continue appealing the environmental impact statement on the accessory dwelling unit proposal. Unlike some of Monday’s public commenters, Kaplan didn’t couch his opposition to density in concern for low-income homeowners or renters at risk for displacement. Instead, he was straightforward (not for the first time) about whose interests he cared about (emphasis mine): “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners,” Kaplan wrote. “Representing every Seattle neighborhood, our team of volunteers, professional consultants, and attorneys continue to advance our appeal to prove that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is deficient and inadequate in studying and transparently revealing the true impacts to every Seattle property owner.“
3. Right at the beginning of yesterday’s meeting, council members voted to move the nomination of interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson as permanent director out of Kshama Sawant’s human services committee and into the select committee on homelessness and housing, which is chaired by Bagshaw and includes the entire city council. Sawant has opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan did not institute a “transparent and inclusive process” for choosing an HSD director, and has held multiple hearings to give Johnson’s opponents opportunities to denounce him publicly. On Monday, she cited the results of a survey of HSD employees that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with management, particularly among workers in the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Sawant said the council was “stabbing [communities] in the back” with the “shameful” decision to move the appointment out of her committee. Bagshaw’s proposal passed 7-2, with Mike O’Brien joining Sawant in opposition to the move.
This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.
Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.
“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.
“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.
LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”
It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”
Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.
“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”
Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.
Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.
Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.
MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.
Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.
The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”
If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.
A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.
This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.
The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.
One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.
Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.
1. It’s been three years (and three mayors) since the city first adopted a plan to implement the affordable housing plan known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for greater density in some parts of the city. Although some aspects of the plan are now in place, the most controversial element—expanding the city’s urban villages and centers to incorporate 6 percent of the city’s vast swaths of single-family land—was locked up in appeals until late last month, when city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil ruled that the city had adequately addressed almost all of the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.
The fundamental debate about whether to upzone any of the city’s single-family neighborhoods, however, continues. On Monday, at a council committee meeting about next steps, city council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson (with assists from Sally Bagshaw and Teresa Mosqueda) played out a miniature version of that debate, with Herbold taking up the banner for activists who claim that allowing more types of housing will lead to massive displacement of low-income people living in single-family houses. “My concern is that we are grossly underestimating the number of affordable units that are being lost to development” by using eligibility for tenant relocation assistance as a proxy for displacement, Herbold said. (Tenant relocation assistance is available to people who make less than 50 percent of the Seattle median income. A subsequent analysis, based on American Community Survey data, included people making up to 80 percent of median income, although as Herbold pointed out, this still may not capture people who share houses with roommates, and thus have a collective household income well above 80 percent of median). Johnson countered that while the council has dithered on passing the MHA legislation, hundreds of new apartments have been built with no affordable housing requirement at all. “Would it be fair to say that the ‘no-action alternative’ results in a whole lot of displacement?” he asked Nick Welch, a senior planner with the Office of Housing and Community Development. “Yes,” Welch replied.
Herbold also suggested that the council should adopt separate resolutions dealing with each of the city’s seven “unique” districts that would include “individual urban village commitments” in those districts. Johnson said that was certainly something the council could discuss in the future, but noted that the city has already spent years learning about the issues various neighborhood groups have with the upzone proposal. “I think we have a pretty good sense of what community issues and concerns are out there,” Johnson said. “We want to outline a process that would allow us to address some of those issues.” Herbold also said she was considering amendments that would require developers to replace every unit for which a tenant received relocation assistance on a one-for-one basis, and suggested requiring developers building in areas with high displacement risk to build affordable units on site, rather than paying into the city’s affordable housing fund.
Under the city’s current timeline, the council would vote to approve the legislation, with amendments in late March of next year.
2. As the council debated the merits of modest density increases, the city’s Planning Commission suggested a far more significant rewrite of the city’s housing laws—one that would include doing away with city’s “single-family” zoning designation entirely. In the report, “Neighborhoods for All: Expanding Housing Opportunity in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones,” the advisory commission recommends reducing displacement and increasing economic and racial diversity in Seattle’s increasingly white single-family areas with “a return to the mix of housing and development patterns found in many of Seattle’s older and most walkable neighborhoods.” In other words: Backyard cottages and basement apartments aren’t enough; the city needs to allow small-scale apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes, and other types of housing in those areas as well. Crucially, the report notes that these changes wouldn’t represent a radical shift or a departure from single-family zones’ vaunted “neighborhood character”; in fact, both minimum lot-size requirements and “Seattle’s current single-family zoning code came into being in the 1950’s.”
At a time when arguments about development often center on the need to protect the “historic character” of Seattle’s neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes and laws restricting housing to one house per lot, this bears repeating. “Small lot houses, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments built prior to 1957 remain in single-family zones, but building them is illegal today.” Rules restricting development in single-family areas effectively concentrate all growth into narrow bands of land along busy arterials known as urban centers and urban villages; since 2006, according to the report, “over 80% of Seattle’s growth has occurred in urban villages and centers that make up less than a quarter of Seattle’s land. Urban villages have seen significant change and new construction, while most areas of the city have seen little physical change. Overall, multifamily housing is only allowed in 12 percent of the city’s residential land—a constriction of opportunity that perpetuates the historical impacts of redlining, racial covenants, and other discriminatory housing policies by “excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes,” the report says.And Seattle’s restrictive policies don’t even work to preserve “neighborhood character,” the report points out. Instead, they encourage homeowners and builders to tear down existing houses and build McMansions in their place. “Even under current zoning, the physical character of neighborhoods is changing as existing houses are replaced with larger, more expensive ones, as allowed by today’s land use code,” the report notes. “The average size of newly constructed detached houses in 2016 was 3,487 square feet, more than 1,000 square feet larger than the average for the first two-thirds of the last century.”
The planning commission offers a number of suggested policy changes, including:
• Expanding urban village boundaries to include all areas within a 15-minute walk of frequent transit lines. Currently, the report points out, many urban villages are extremely narrow—the Greenwood/Phinney urban village, pictured below, is an extreme but not unique example—dramatically limiting housing choices for people who can’t afford to buy single-family homes. At the same time, the report recommends getting rid of frequent transit service as a requirement to expand urban villages, pointing out that this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem, where lack of transit justifies keeping density low, and low density justifies a lack of investment in transit.
• Renaming “single-family” zoning as “neighborhood residential,” with various levels of density (from backyard cottages to small apartment buildings) to reflect lot size and neighborhood amenities. Areas near parks and schools, which the report identifies as amenities that tend to be most accessible to people in single-family areas, would get more density so that more people would have access to those resources.
• Eliminating or reducing parking requirements—not just in urban villages, but everywhere. Single-family-housing activists have long argued that if the city allows more housing without requiring new parking, they will have no place to park their cars. Though the planning commission report doesn’t explicitly mention a recent study that found that Seattle already has more than five parking spaces per household, they do point out that prioritizing cars over people conflicts with the city’s stated climate goals. “Requiring parking on site takes away space that could be used for additional housing or open space,” the report says. Under their proposal, “While driveways and garages could still be allowed, people would not be required to provide space for cars over housing or space for trees–especially if they choose not to own a car.”
3. The J Is for Judge himself stepped up to the mic at city hall yesterday to explain why he wants to see more of every kind of housing in every neighborhood. At yesterday’s MHA briefing, after the authors of this piece (one of whom lives in Bellevue) claimed that the council was withholding information about displacement from the public, Josh Feit got up to speak. Here, in slightly abridged form, is what he had to say.
My name is Josh Feit, and I am not originally from Seattle.
I did not grow up here.
I’m am not a 7th-generation Seattleite.
I was not born and raised in Ballard.
I did not go to Roosevelt High School.
I am not a lifelong member of my community.
To those of us who choose to move here, Seattle stands out as an exciting 21st Century landmark that’s taking up a brave experiment in progressive city building.
I’m excited to live here.
I have a public sector job.
I am a renter.
Please stop letting some residents of Seattle’s Single Family zones play Seattle First politics by mythologizing neighborhood “character” and stigmatizing renters.
That kind of dog whistling has no place in Seattle.
Please stop letting quarter-century-old neighborhood plans that were developed without a Race and Social Justice analysis be the blueprint for Seattle’s future. (Thank you, Council Member Mosqueda, for challenging the anti-growth narrative by taking a closer look at that vaunted 1994 plan.)
As you know, the Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation and upzones in front of you today did go through a displacement analysis by income and race.
Thank you for passing the six MHA Urban Center and Urban Village rezones last year.
But to make MHA work, to address the housing affordability crisis, all of Seattle needs to be neighborly.
Please pass this small but significant first step in taking down the walls that keep too many of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods–off limits for too many residents.
I am not proud that I’m from here. I’m proud that I moved here. I hope I can continue to feel that way.
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After a surprising amount of acrimony for a document that contained so little fiscal wiggle room, the city council adopted a 2019-2020 budget today that increases the size of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, grants modest wages to front-line human service workers, spends tens of millions of dollars on retroactive back pay for police who have been working without a contract since 2015, and funds projects in every council district.
The debate over this year’s budget—during much of which I was out of town—centered largely on a few million dollars in human services funding, including, in the last few days, funding for the Navigation Team, which removes homeless encampments and offers services to people displaced by their activities. After council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed using some of the funds Durkan earmarked for Navigation Team expansion to broaden a 2 percent “inflationary” pay increase for city-contracted human services providers to include all such workers (rather than only general fund-supported workers, as Durkan initially proposed), Durkan denounced the move.
Describing the reduced expansion as a “cut” that would harm neighborhoods, Durkan’s office claimed that the new positions that she had proposed in her budget had already been filled and that reducing the amount of new funds would “cut” those critically needed jobs—a statement that local conservative media took as a cue to write largely inaccurate pieces claiming, for example, that Mosqueda was “slow[ing] tent cleanups with huge staff cut to Nav Team.” (Durkan also reportedly contacted council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, it would be on them to explain to their constituents why they had allowed crime to increase in their districts; all seven district council positions are on the ballot next year. UPDATE: Durkan’s office categorically denied that any such calls took place.) However, this turned out not to be the case; as a central staffer told the council in a followup memo, the positions have only been filled on a temporary or emergency basis. “These are all short term actions that are funded with the $500k [in one-time funding] from the County and would be discontinued” once the budget passes, the central staffer wrote.
No matter—despite all the drama, the council figured out a way to fund the full Navigation Team expansion and add one mental health counselor to the team while also giving service providers their 2 percent increase (which is actually below the local inflation rate). The money, a little less than $500,000 a year, came from eliminating the a business and occupation tax exemption for life sciences companies, which Mosqueda said has been dormant since 2017.
In a press conference between the morning’s budget meeting and the final adoption of the budget at 2pm, four council members, plus 43rd District state representative and former Downtown Emergency Service Center director Nicole Macri, joined several front-line human service workers and representatives from housing and human-service nonprofits at DESC’s offices in the basement of the Morrison Hotel homeless shelter.
David Helde, an assistant housing case manager at DESC, said that since he started at the agency three years ago, every single person who worked in his position when he started had left the agency. Jobs at DESC start at just over $16 an hour, or slightly more than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. “The rewards do not outweigh the benefits,” Helde said. Recalling a client with a traumatic brain injury who had short-term memory impairment but still remembered him when she returned to the shelter after a year away, Helde continued, “that is why the staff turnover is unacceptable—because it affects the quality of life for the most vulnerable people in this city.”
Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been raising the issue of human service worker pay for several years, said the city needed to figure out a way to “normalize” cost-of-living increases for employees at nonprofit human service agencies, in addition to city employees (and cops.) However, asked about how the city would ensure that (as Mosqueda put it) “we’re not back here every year,” O’Brien acknowledged that “the level of specificity is not extensive” about how to ensure future COLAs. “This is about expectation-setting,” O’Brien said. “In a budget where we have finite resources and we’re making tradeoffs, we have to figure out how we identify a three-, five-, ten-year [plan] to make changes” so that human-service workers can have not just sub-inflationary pay hikes, but living wages, in the future.
Although Durkan did (mostly) get what she wanted on the Navigation Team, the group will be required to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council will release funding for the coming quarter—a significant change that amplifies the council’s power over the team.
Other notable changes the council made to Durkan’s budget included:
• Additional funding for food banks, which will come from excess revenues from the city’s sweetened beverage tax. Council member O’Brien wanted to use some of the excess money from the tax—which Durkan had proposed using to replace general fund revenues that were paying for healthy-food programs, rather than increasing funding for those programs—to fund outreach programs, as a community advisory board had recommended. The budget puts a hold on the outreach spending, a total of about $270,000, but keeps it alive for future years; today, Juarez objected to this provision, arguing that spending $270,000 promoting healthy food when the soda industry spent $22 million to pass the anti-soda-tax Initiative 1634 was tantamount to “wast[ing]” the money. “Why are we attempting to counter corporations prepared to spend millions of dollars on advertisements with a $250,000 campaign?” she asked.
• A total of $1.4 million for a supervised drug consumption site, which council member Rob Johnson—who sponsored the additional funding—said should be enough to allow the city to actually open a “fixed-mobile” site this year. Durkan’s initial budget simply held over $1.3 million in funding for a site that was not spent the previous year, with the expectation that no site would be opened this year.
• About $100,000 for a new attorney to help low-income clients facing eviction. Council member Kshama Sawant had sought $600,000 for six more attorneys, but the rest of the council voted that down.
• An expansion of the city’s vacant building inspection program, which keeps tabs on vacant buildings that are slated for redevelopment to ensure that they aren’t taken over by squatters or allowed to fall into disrepair. The proposal, by council member Lisa Herbold (who proposed the original legislation creating the program last year) would ramp up monitoring and inspections of vacant buildings that have failed previous inspections, and would not take effect until next June. Council member Johnson continued to oppose Herbold’s proposal, on the grounds that it represented a sweeping and burdensome policy change that was inappropriate for the budget process; but council president Bruce Harrell reiterated his support for the plan, noting that the council would have time to hammer out the details next year before it took effect. “We’ll have, I think, ample time to work with the department [of Construction and Inspections, which sent a letter to council members last week raising concerns about the bill) to get their feedback,” Harrell said, and “if there has to be some tweaks there will be time to make tweaks.”
City Budget Office director Ben Noble sent a memo to council members today opposing the budget item, which Noble said would force the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections to expand the program too much, too fast. “As proposed, the enhanced program would likely be over 25 times the size of the current program,” Noble wrote, comparing the number of inspections last year—179—to a possible 5,000 inspections that would be required under the new program. Noble said Herbold’s proposal did not reflect all the costs associated with increasing vacant building inspections so dramatically.
The budget put off the issue of long-term funding for additional affordable housing, which lost a major potential source of revenue when the council and mayor overturned the employee hours tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues earlier this year. Council member Sally Bagshaw has said that her priority in her final year on the council (she is not expected to run again next year) will be creating aregional funding plan to pay for thousands of units of new housing every year. Such a proposal might be modeled, she suggested recently, after a tax on very large businesses that was just approved by voters in San Francisco.
Budget dissident Kshama Sawant—who had earlier proposed numerous dead-on-arrival proposals to fund about $50 million in housing bonds by making cuts to various parts of the budget—delivered a 13-minute speech denouncing her colleagues for passing an “austerity budget” before voting against the whole thing. The room was noticeably subdued as Sawant quoted MLK and demonized Jeff Bezos—the red-shirted members of “the Movement,” whose efforts she cited repeatedly during her oration, were mostly absent, and instead of the usual applause, shouts, and cheers, Sawant spoke to a silent chamber.