Category: Renters

Lawsuit Against SPD Highlights OPA Concerns with Police K-9s; Inslee Extends Eviction Moratorium

1. A woman who was attacked by a Seattle Police Department dog during a training exercise in January 2020 filed a lawsuit against the city last week. While the attack was accidental, the incident is the latest in a string of missteps by SPD’s K-9 units that have put the risks of using police dogs on display—including a 2018 incident involving the same officer implicated in the new lawsuit.

On a soggy Thursday last January, Valerie Heffernan spent her break under an umbrella in a nondescript Tukwila parking lot. Earlier in the day, SPD officers had set up a training course for K-9 dogs that ran through the same parking lot—unbeknownst to Heffernan.

Around a corner from where she sat, Officer Anthony Ducre led a police dog named Jedi along the track on a long lead, losing sight of the dog when it rounded a corner. There, Jedi found Heffernan and, acting on training, immediately attacked her. When medics arrived, they brought Heffernan to Valley Medical Center to treat a serious bite wound in her thigh.

Ducre’s record as a K-9 officer has raised eyebrows among Seattle’s police oversight in the past and had already prompted changes to the department’s police dog policies.

In 2018, Ducre tried to stop a pair who he suspected of stealing a car. The duo were walking up a driveway—away from Ducre—when he stepped out of his cruiser and ordered them to turn around, threatening to release his dog if they didn’t obey. When the two didn’t respond, Ducre shouted at them to drop to the ground.

By the time they complied seconds later, it was too late: Ducre set his dog loose, and it immediately attacked them as they lay on the pavement.

OPA DirectorMyerberg also took the opportunity to recommend two changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs.

In a subsequent interview with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigators, Ducre falsely claimed the pair had attempted to “escape” arrest and posed a threat to (nonexistent) bystanders; he also claimed that he had tried to de-escalate the encounter by standing behind the door of his patrol vehicle. In a ruling released in 2019, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg determined that Ducre had, in fact, spent almost the entire 13-second interaction running towards the pair while shouting commands and threatening to release a police dog—the opposite of de-escalation.

Myerberg also questioned whether Ducre had probable cause to conduct the stop in the first place, given the shaky evidence linking the two individuals to the car theft; regardless, Myerberg noted that, according to federal case law, unleashed police dogs are only appropriate weapons when pursuing armed suspects linked to a violent crime—not suspected car thieves.

Ducre received a two-day suspension for failing to de-escalate and using force inappropriately. Myerberg also took the opportunity to recommend changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs: among others, that “a fleeing subject does not, by itself, provide a justification to use a canine.”

But while investigating the first incident, Ducre’s sparked yet another OPA investigation after he released a police dog to attack another car theft suspect, who was hiding in a bush.

In that investigation, Ducre claimed that using his dog against a hidden suspect—who, he argued, could have been armed—was consistent with his training. Myerberg agreed, concluding that the K-9 unit’s commanders were to blame for training officers to use police dogs inappropriately, so Ducre could not be held responsible.

“It appears to OPA that the K-9 unit’s chain of command consistently falls back on the defense that their officers’ actions were consistent with the training provided to the unit,” he wrote. “However, if the unit is providing training that is inconsistent with law or that is resulting in out of policy uses of force, this is a significant problem.”

While SPD later adjusted its K-9 policies, a 2020 audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the department’s policy revisions included notable flaws, including ambiguity about whether officers can use police dogs at protests.

But Heffernan’s lawsuit points to additional problems in the training program for the police dogs themselves. According to the OIG audit, SPD doesn’t have a reliable, secure off-leash training area for police dogs; instead, handlers use ad hoc agreements with property owners to find places to train dogs.

Since 2015, the OPA has investigated 10 allegations of excessive force by K-9 officers involving dog bites, six of which led to discipline, re-training, or policy revision.

2. Governor Jay Inslee has extended the state’s eviction moratorium, originally set to expire at the end of this month, to September 30, giving tenants more time to get back on their feet following the pandemic and allowing counties to get eviction protections in place.

The governor’s extension prohibits landlords from evicting a tenant for rent that went unpaid between February 29, 2020 and July 31, 2021. Under the extension, landlords will not be allowed to evict tenants until a rental assistance program and an eviction resolution program is in place.

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running.”—Governor Jay Inslee

Starting August 1, renters will need to start paying their full rents again unless they have previously negotiated a payment plan with their landlord or are in the process of getting rental assistance. Landlords will be able to evict tenants for non-payment beginning August 1, but will first need to offer a repayment plan.

To prevent a wave of evictions and a sharp increase in homelessness, the legislature passed several housing bills over the last session to ease Washington out of the original moratorium, including providing rental assistance to landlords and tenants and guarantying legal representation to a tenant in eviction court (SB 5160).

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running,” Inslee said at a press conference on Thursday.

The governor’s decision comes after President Biden announced he would be extending the federal eviction moratorium another 30-days and after the city of Seattle declared it would extend its eviction moratorium to September 30.

Over the course of the pandemic, tenants have accrued more than $1.1 billion in rent debt. The state has not outlined plans to cancel rent debt, only to distribute rental assistance. So if a tenant is unable to go back to paying their full rent on top of paying back their rent debt, they may end up evicted as soon as their county gets rental assistance and begins resolution programs. Roughly 220,000 Washington households predict they won’t be able to make rent his month, according to Census data.

It’s Time for a Biden-Era Mandatory Housing Affordability Plan

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

It’s true, the numbers are impressive. MHA dollars accounted for 45 percent of the city’s affordable housing spending in 2020, or $52.3 million. (MHA actually brought in $68.3 million total last year, and the city will carry over the additional $16 million in MHA money for 2021 affordable housing projects.)

And while the longtime Seattle Housing Levy’s $56.7 million accounted for more of 2020’s affordable housing spending, 48 percent, MHA actually created 110 more rent-restricted units than the venerated levy—698 funded by MHA versus 588 funded by the levy.

In short, this brand-new inclusionary housing mechanism, which came online in 2019 after five years of old-school neighborhood lawsuits and challenges, more than matched the levy, a 40-year-old property tax program that cost homeowners a median of $122 a year in 2016.

MHA is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family areas while requiring developers to either pay a fee, which goes into an affordable housing fund, or build a percentage of affordable units on site. MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city. And it costs you nothing. Oh, and the $52.3 million for 698 units doesn’t even include the 104 on-site affordable housing units that MHA created; the city does not track on-site units as affordable housing dollars.

So, with such glowing stats, why “fail?”

I mean it the same way Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package was a failure and Democrats are now applauding Biden for going big on his $4.1 trillion infrastructure plan. In other words, if we’re getting a nearly-$70 million-a-year bang for our buck on affordable housing dollars from the polite MHA upzones the council passed in 2019, it’s time to do a Biden and go bigger.

If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing.

MHA only upzoned 6 percent of the city’s single-family zones, which make up around 65 percent of the city’s developable land. Under MHA, the city also did some earlier upzones between 2017 and 2019 in parts of six  neighborhoods where some density was already allowed, such as downtown, the University District, South Lake Union, and 23rd Avenue in the Central District

Back when the council passed the final pieces of MHA two years ago, the city’s two at-large council members, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were already playing Elizabeth Warren to the mayor’s Larry Summers. Caving to pressure from the slow-growth Seattle Times, former mayor Ed Murray scrapped his initial MHA upzone proposal, which would have raised the ceiling on height regulations in single family zones at large.

“For some, this housing affordability legislation goes too far,” González said from the council dais when the council passed MHA in March 2019, “for others it does not go far enough.” It was clear which side González was on. “So, let’s chat a little bit about that dynamic,” she said. “Contrary to the name of the Select Committee on Citywide MHA, this legislation is not even close to citywide. This legislation impacts a total of only 6 percent of existing areas currently and strictly zoned as single family home zones. That means even with the passage of MHA legislation, approximately 60 percent of the city of Seattle is still under the cloud of exclusionary zoning laws.” She went on to give a history lesson of racist housing covenants in Seattle.

Councilmember Mosqueda sounded the same note. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes,” she said. “I think that’s the next conversation to have. Larger changes that create a more inclusive Seattle. Again, this is just an effort to look at 6 percent of the single family zoning in our city.”

González is running for mayor this year, and Mosqueda is backing her. Here’s hoping González is actually committed to doing something about “the cloud of exclusionary zoning.” Not only because it will help create a more inclusive city, but according to the numbers, it would be good affordable housing policy.

Think about it. If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing. While we created 1,300 units last year, we should be building a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, or about 12,000 a year.

Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

Upzoning the rest of the city—the part that remains exclusively single-family—would certainly help. Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

This is noteworthy. Here’s why. There are three main streams of MHA money: first, payments from developments in selected multifamily hubs that became subject to MHA in 2017, including parts of 23rd Ave. in the Central District, the University District, and Uptown; next, payments from developments in all multifamily zones, from the new MHA legislation that took effect in 2019; and also payments from developments in the upzoned sliver of former single-family zones.

Over the four years between 2016 and 2020, the hub upzones, which went into effect earlier, have generated about 60 percent of the money from MHA, most of that in 2020. But since 2019, when MHA dollars started flowing in from the multifamily areas and the former single-family areas, nearly a third of the additional money from those new revenue sources—$10 million of $36 million remaining total—has been from development in the sliver that used to be single-family.

That outsized stat indicates just how attractive these formerly verboten zones, which sit on the edges of existing urban centers and urban villages, are for new housing. If we actually upzoned all of the city’s exclusive single-family areas, instead of just six percent, we’d have a better chance at generating the money to build the affordable housing stock this city needs.

While the upzoned former single-family zones did generate $10 million for affordable housing, there is another MHA fail. None of the on-site MHA housing was built in those areas. That needs to change. Opening up the entire city to multifamily housing, as opposed to the begrudging 6 percent allotted in MHA, would create more options for on-site multifamily development in these zones themselves. Hopefully, the next conversation about upzones will address how to actually put multifamily housing in amenity-rich SFZs.

The name of this column is Maybe Metropolis. My verdict on MHA?  Emphasis remains on “maybe” until we do mandatory housing affordability right and make it actually citywide.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Olympia Fizz: More Calls for Inslee to Reject Weakened ADU Bill; State Rejects Eyman’s Anti-Capital Gains Tax Efforts

1. A pro-renter outcry against watered-down state legislation emerged this week when two dozen organizations and businesses signed on to a letter, originally drafted by the progressive Sightline think tank; the Sightline letter, which we reported on last week, asks Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a partial veto of accessory dwelling unit legislation that state representatives amended with anti-renter provisions.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? The AARP of Washington, Climate Solutions, 350 Seattle, Amazon, the Washington State Labor Council, SEIU 775, and the Sierra Club, among others.

As we reported, the initial proposal, by state Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), would have banned owner-occupancy for secondary units, such as backyard cottages, allowing renters to live in both single-family houses and their accessory units—opening up exclusive single-family neighborhoods to more people. However, state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) kicked off a House process that led to a radical rewrite, allowing owner occupancy mandates and imposing new restrictions designed to prevent homeowners from renting out their secondary units as Airbnbs.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? 350 Seattle, AARP Washington, Climate Solutions, the Washington State Labor Council, and the Sierra Club, among many others.

“ADUs alone will not solve the state’s housing shortage,” the letter says. “But they are the gentlest way communities can add relatively affordable homes that offer lower income families more choices and allow seniors to age in place.”

2. Coming off yet another major legal loss, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman has stumbled again. The Republican Washington Secretary of State’s office threw out all four of Eyman’s anti-capital gains tax (SB 5096) referendum proposals.

The capital gains tax bill, which passed this year, would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains of $250,000 or more, but conservatives are already champing at the bit to stop it from taking effect. Earlier this week, two conservative groups filed lawsuits against the bill, arguing that it constitutes an unconstitutional income tax.

Rejecting the measures, Washington State Director of Elections Lori Augino cited the bill’s necessity clause, an amendment added by Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), which says that the tax is “is necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions.” This places it outside the scope of citizens’ referendum power, Augino wrote.

Eyman’s referendum method would have been the safest option for conservatives to stop the bill. The other options are a lawsuit or a voter initiative, which requires twice as many signatures—about 325,000, or 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

While the lawsuits could also upend the Democrats’ plans, they may also backfire on the conservatives. The Washington State Supreme Court could uphold the tax by ruling that it’s an excise tax, not an income tax. Or they could overturn a 1933 decision that defined income as property, which, under the state constitution, must be taxed at a 1 percent uniform tax rate. If the court overturns that ruling, Democratic lawmakers would finally have the opportunity to pass a graduated income tax in the state.

Morning Fizz: “Unlikely Alliance” Narrative Falls Flat, City’s Hotel Shelters Aren’t ADA Accessible; and State Moves to Fund Eviction Prevention

1. The Seattle press corps seems to have settled on the narrative that Compassion Seattle, the campaign to amend the city’s constitution to require the city to fund shelter and housing and keep parks and public spaces “clear”) (without providing any new funding for either purpose) is the result of an “unlikely alliance” between groups that don’t usually agree.

A quick look at the two supposed “sides”: of this alliance—on one, the Downtown Seattle Association, a business group; on the other, a list of homeless service providers that operate downtown—quickly reveals that this “unlikely alliance” story is largely an illusion.

The service providers that are supporting the initiative have long histories of working closely with downtown businesses; the directors of both Plymouth Housing and the Chief Seattle Club, for example, is on the board of the Downtown Seattle Association, while the CEO of the DSA is on the board of the Downtown Emergency Center. The Public Defender Association, meanwhile, started its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in collaboration with downtown businesses as well as the Seattle Police Department.

Another indication that Compassion Seattle is primarily a business-led effort, not one emerging from the homeless advocacy community, is the list of financial backers on the PAC’s latest fundraising email. (Political action committees are required to list their top funders on campaign literature.) They are: Downtown developer Martin Smith Inc; downtown and South Lake Union developer Vulcan; Fourth Avenue Associates LP, a large downtown real estate firm owner; and Clise Properties, which owns millions of square feet of downtown real estate; and ex-Microsoft millionaire Christopher Larson.

A quick look at the two supposed “sides”: of this alliance—on one, the Downtown Seattle Association, a business group; on the other, a list of homeless service providers that operate downtown—quickly reveals that this “unlikely alliance” story is largely an illusion.

Larson was one of the largest contributors to 2019’s People for Seattle campaign, whose incendiary attack ads made that year’s city council campaigns some of the ugliest in recent Seattle history. People for Seattle, like Compassion Seattle, was started by former city council member (and anti-panhandling crusader) Tim Burgess.

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2. Although it’s common for unsheltered people to have mobility issues—national data suggest that a very large percentage of chronically homeless people have physical disabilities—neither of the two hotels the city has belatedly opened for unsheltered people is ADA-complaint, and the larger of the two requires guests to walk up stairs to access their rooms.

King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, is the more accessible of the two hotels. CSC representatives said last week that they’ve reserved ground-floor rooms at the motor court-style motel for guests in wheelchairs, elders, and people with mobility impairments; although the motel’s 58 shelter rooms and bathrooms aren’t designed for wheelchairs, they don’t require guests to traverse any stairs.

This isn’t the case at the Executive Pacific—a 155-room hotel that’s accessible only by stairs and has no wheelchair-accessible rooms. (Youtuber Wheelchair Jimmy called it “a hotel to avoid at all costs if you’re in a wheelchair.”). The city of Seattle, not LIHI, selected the hotel, which LIHI director Sharon Lee notes is in a historic building. Asked why the city hasn’t provided any accessible rooms at its hotel-based shelters, Human Services Department spokesman Kevin Mundt told PubliCola, “the City is exploring options for a third hotel and is taking into consideration ADA accessibility.”

Mundt did not directly answer a question about where the city’s HOPE Team (which replaced the Navigation Team) was directing unsheltered people who would be eligible for the hotel shelters but happen to be in wheelchairs, saying only, “As with all shelter recommendations, the HOPE Team works with providers to match available shelter resources with individual service needs.”

3. On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means committee held a public hearing for HB 1277, which would add a $100 surcharge to the state’s document recording fee, which is collected by county auditors; the recording fee is the most significant source of funding for homelessness programs in the state bill. Groups representing landlords, realtors and housing advocates all support the bill. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: “Unlikely Alliance” Narrative Falls Flat, City’s Hotel Shelters Aren’t ADA Accessible; and State Moves to Fund Eviction Prevention”

Olympia Fizz: House Committee Passes Wealth Tax, House and Senate Take Action on Tenant Rights and Funding

1. After nearly two months of inaction, the House Finance committee passed the progressive wealth tax (HB 1406) out of committee Wednesday morning. The bill made it out of committee with no amendments, despite Republican efforts.

The wealth tax is arguably the most progressive piece of tax reform legislation this session; the House is taking the lead, while the Senate took the lead on the capital gains tax.

The wealth tax legislation would require anyone with more than $1 billion in intangible financial assets, such as stocks, bonds, or cash, to pay a one percent tax on their worldwide cumulative wealth. The Department of Revenue estimates the tax will affect 100 Washington state taxpayers and generate $5 billion per biennium.

Finance committee chair Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) urged her colleagues to vote yes on the bill so the state could begin rebalancing Washington’s tax system, which, according to the progressive Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, forces the lowest income Washingtonians to spend 18 percent of their income on taxes while the very wealthiest spend just 3 percent of their income on taxes.

“The Washington state wealth tax would take a giant step forward in trying to right that wrong by asking the wealthiest Washingtonians, including some of the wealthiest people in the world, to pay their fair share,” Rep. Frame said.

Members of the finance committee passed the bill 9-7 with Democratic senators April Berg (D-44, Mill Creek) and Larry Springer (D-45, Kirkland) along with all Republican committee members, voting no. PubliCola has reached out to both Berg and Springer for comment.

Patinkin Research Strategies found that 58 percent of Washingtonians support the tax and just 32 percent are opposed. (The pollster gets a B/C rating from 538.)

According to Frame, the legislature will direct revenue from the wealth tax into a dedicated Tax Justice and Equity fund, rather than into the state’s general fund as the bill originally specified. Legislators will use the Tax Justice and Equity fund to support an anti-displacement property tax exemption (HB 1494) that the finance committee also passed Wednesday.

The finance committee passed the wealth tax in their last regularly scheduled meeting of the session. April 2 will be the last day for finance bills to be read into the record on the house floor, leaving little time for the bill to be deliberated on in the Rules committee, which will take up the bill next. If Rules passes it out, the bill will go to the House floor where progressives hope to send it to the Senate.

2. The Legislature’s latest biennial budget proposals made two traditional foes, tenants and landlords, happy—with some footnotes.

In budgets released this week, legislators from the House and Senate allocated roughly $1 billion to new rental assistance and eviction protection programs. (The House allocates $1 billion, the Senate $850 million). The state will use the money to pay off rent debt accrued by tenants during the statewide eviction moratorium and fund legal counsel in eviction cases.

Continue reading “Olympia Fizz: House Committee Passes Wealth Tax, House and Senate Take Action on Tenant Rights and Funding”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

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.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

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.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

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.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

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.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

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.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

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”

State Buys Central District Nursing Home for Hospital Relief, City Hall Shelter Clients Still Sleeping Inches Apart, and More COVID News

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.”

Unanswered Questions from Durkan’s Housing Announcement

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.

Durkan’s Backyard Cottage Plan Would Have Kept Some Old Restrictions, Imposed New Ones

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.

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.