With an Eye on Preventing Homelessness, State Dems Introduce Tenant Protection Bills 

Graph showing strong correlation between rent increases and housing instability/homelessness
Homelessness is a housing crisis: As rents go up, so does housing instability.

By Andrew Engelson

Responding to Washington’s ongoing homelessness and housing affordability crisis—more than 25,000 people across the state live without permanent housing—several Democratic state legislators have introduced bills that would protect tenants and help prevent them from becoming homeless.

Last week, Reps Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), Alex Ramel, (D-40. Bellingham), and Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) each introduced rent stabilization bills intended to give tenants advance notice of rent increases, set limits on how much landlords can raise rent, cap move-in fees, and give the state attorney general authority to pursue violations under the Consumer Protection Act. 

Separately. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a $4 billion referendum that would raise the state’s constitutionally mandated debt limit to fund a host of new capital housing projects over the next six years. 

Lack of housing and high rents are the primary causes of homelessness, and the state Department of Commerce estimates Washington will need more than 1 million new homes by 2044, with more than half of those affordable to people earning 50 percent or less of the median income in their area. Though the rise in rents in Seattle actually tapered off slightly in the past year, rents in other cities across the state saw significant increases, including Bellingham (5.5 percent), Kent (8.9 percent), Renton (10.1 percent), SeaTac (9.4 percent) and Spokane (5.1 percent).

Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year, limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power undert to investigate and prosecute landlords that flout the new rules

Shannon Corrick, a Safeway employee who lives in Cheney, a college town south of Spokane, spoke at a press briefing for Macri and Ramel’s bills this week, noting that in 2021, her landlord raised the rent on her $995-a-month, 3-bedroom house by $300. 

“He wasn’t very nice about it,” Carrick told PubliCola. “He was like: Well, that’s what the market will bear.” Since more than half of her minimum-wage income went to paying rent, Carrick had to move to an apartment that was much smaller. “I could have swallowed maybe 5 percent or 8 percent, because I could always pick up more hours or work some overtime or volunteer to work the holidays,” but not an increase of more than 30 percent, she said.

Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year. The bill would exempt buildings newer than ten years old from the caps. Macri’s legislation would also limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power under the state Consumer Protection Act to investigate and prosecute predatory landlords that flout the new rules. 

“We have to respond to people who are homeless, and we have to do all that we can to keep people who are precariously housed in their homes,” Macri said.

Ramel’s bill would also limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or inflation, capped at 7 percent, but would allow landlords to “bank” rent increases—so, for instance, an apartment owner could choose to not raise the rent by 3 percent for five years, and then raise it 15 percent in the fifth year of a renter’s tenancy.

Macri says allowing periodic larger increases would “invite more uncertainty for the tenants, but a lot less uncertainty than they have right now.” She notes that her bill also allows landlords to raise rent beyond the limits, but only if they can prove hardship or the need for large capital or repair costs. 

“Legislators like the concept of consumer protection, generally,” Macri said. “They like the framing of this as prohibiting predatory behavior.”

Peterson’s more modest bill would require landlords to give six months’ notice before any rent increase of more than 5 percent and allow tenants to terminate their leases, without penalty, at any time after learning their rent will be increasing by more than 5 percent. It would also cap late fees for rent paid more than five days after the date it’s due to $75.

A similar bill failed to pass out of committee last session. 

Peterson, who chairs the House housing committee, is optimistic about moving a host of housing reform and tenant protection legislation this year. “I think the tenor has changed,” Peterson said. “I think our caucus has changed. We have a bunch of new members that are the most diverse class that’s ever come in, and they’re extremely motivated when it comes to housing.” 

As part of this sea change, the House Democratic Caucus recently removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) from a leadership position he had used to block pro-housing legislation, as PubliCola reported in December.

Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].”

Other tenant protection legislation includes a bill from Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41, Bellevue) that would require landlords to provide evidence of damage or disrepair in order to justify not returning deposits. Another bill that Peterson is co-sponsoring would give groups of tenants or nonprofits the opportunity to purchase manufactured home communities if they’re put up for sale. Peterson he crafted the legislation inspired by three manufactured home parks owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union (and an occasional writer for PubliCola), says these tenant protection bills complement policies her organization and the Stay Healthy Stay Housed Coalition have been pushing in Seattle and across King County for several years, including limits on move-in fees and advance notice for rent increases.

“Macri’s bill is particularly exciting,” Wilson said, “because it deals with very large rent increases.” She noted that because state law prevents cities and counties from limiting rent increases, to have a state-level law “would be amazing.”

Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently floated the idea of a local $10 cap on late fees. 

The Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, an organization representing large apartment landlords, declined to comment to PubliCola and the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which generally represents smaller, independent landlords, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sponsors of Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Emphasize Statewide Affordability Crisis

Image of a four-unit apartment building
One Salient Oversight at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

In response to rising housing costs and increased homelessness statewide, the state legislature is considering an unprecedented number of bills that would influence the ability of cities across the state to set local policy around housing, density, and land use. 

Among the proposals introduced so far: A bill that would eliminate most minimum parking requirements near transit stations; one cutting local design review boards out of the approval process for residential construction; one streamlining permitting; one allowing residential lots to be split into multiple lots so additional units can be built on those lots; and one reforming condominium laws. Many of these bills have already had a public hearing and are headed toward committee votes—extremely fast work compared to past years.

House Bill 1110, introduced by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) and Rep. Andy Barkis (R-2, Olympia), is taking center stage as a retooled version of similar legislation, HB 1782, that never made it to the House floor last year. This year’s bill would require cities to legalize sixplexes within one-half mile of frequent transit. It would also allow fourplexes as a base level of density in areas in and around Seattle and Spokane, and in towns and cities with more than 6,000 residents elsewhere in the state.

This so-called “missing middle” bill would attempt to add a level of density between single family homes and large apartment buildings currently absent from many Washington cities.

Last year, opposition from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), a lobbying group for cities, helped prevent HB 1782 and other housing bills from advancing; the group argued that zoning changes that preempted city rules would take away local control and impose “one-size-fits-all” regulations on cities across the state. In 2023, legislators hope to bypass that criticism by focusing on the impacts of high housing costs.

“I feel more confident this year because we’ve been doing a lot of coalition building and a lot of work to talk about the real causes of our housing shortage and crisis,” Bateman said. During its first hearing last week, elected officials from Olympia, Bothell, Everett, and Burien turned out to support the bill, with much less direct opposition than last year.

Supporters also say they’ve done work to broaden the coalition that supports the bill. The AWC, unlike last year, is not currently opposing HB 1110, but is pushing to water down changes to single-family zones to only include triplexes, and to not impact every lot within a city.

Another bill, introduced by Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), focuses on loosening restrictions on density directly around transit stations, preserving traditional single-family zoning in wide swaths of cities across the state. That bill may prove an easier political sell compared to opening up single-family areas to increased density, particularly in the state senate, where there are fewer Republicans ready to partner on housing bills.

“As I talk to my constituents, I’ve got folks in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, that are really wary about missing middle [housing]” housing, Liias said, referring to moderately dense housing that’s affordable to middle-income earners. In contrast, Liias said, “when I talked about transit-oriented development, virtually everybody’s in agreement that we should be siting more housing next to transit. That’s a much more consensus perspective.”

The local control issue may still be a hurdle, though. Rep. Spencer Hutchins (R-26, Gig Harbor), who sits on the housing committee, suggested during a meeting with the Gig Harbor city council earlier this month that even if he agrees with a policy change on housing, he might still oppose it on principle. “I will be looking at things through the lens of, making sure that we are protecting the ability of our local governments to represent their local citizens well, and not have Olympia run roughshod over cities and counties,” Hutchins said.

Rep. Bateman doesn’t give a lot of credence to the local control argument. “Currently what cities are doing is, they’re limiting what private property owners can do with their property,” she said. “You don’t have the freedom to make your own decision about adapting to the market, responding to what the market need is. People want more diverse housing options.” 

This year, Democrats are trying to zoom out on the issue of housing and focusing on multiple aspects of the state’s housing crisis. The Democratic caucuses in both chambers have begun referring to three “pillars” that lawmakers will attempt to tackle around housing this session: Increasing public subsidies for affordable housing, passing tenant protections for renters, and loosening restrictions on housing supply that are limiting growth. 

The first housing “pillar” is clearly a priority for Governor Jay Inslee, who is pushing to raise the state’s debt limit to fund $4 billion in investments in housing over the next six years. That proposal, even if lawmakers approve it, would need to go to voters statewide in November, adding an extra level of uncertainty. 

The sheer number of housing bills this session  is itself a strategy to avoid a repeat of last year, when almost no housing bills made it past legislative deadlines. “It’s one thing to say that one bill can’t solve all the problems, but it’s another thing to actually have a whole bunch of other bills that are working to solve these challenging areas that make it more difficult to build housing,” Rep. Bateman said. 

ryan@publicola.com

Homelessness Authority, LIHI Clashed Over Reporting of Two Deaths at Tiny House Village

Friendship Heights Village
Friendship Heights Village; image via LIHI

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority accused the Low-Income Housing Institute last year of failing to report several deaths at its “tiny house village” shelters in a timely fashion, including a homicide and an overdose that both occurred the same week in August at the Friendship Heights village in North Seattle. In response, LIHI denied that they had violated any rules, and accused the KCRHA of singling the agency out for criticism based on “falsehoods and factual errors” about its response to the two deaths.

PubliCola obtained documents and emails about the incidents at Friendship Heights and other tiny house villages through a records request.

None of the details about the two deaths at Friendship Heights, or an unrelated overdose death at the Interbay tiny house village in August, are in dispute. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, a woman living at the village stabbed her partner inside the tiny house they shared on August 28, killing him and fleeing before police arrested her a few hours later.

A Seattle Police Department spokesperson declined to comment on the incident.

Separately, on August 29, Friendship Heights staffers discovered the body of another man who had died of an overdose in his unit at some point in the recent past; it’s unclear how recently staffers had entered his unit, although Lee says staffers are supposed to check in on residents every 72 hours. The victim went undiscovered enough, in the summer heat, that the floor had to be replaced because of decomposition.

“I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if there’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee

The two agencies’ accounts diverge over what happened next. According to KCRHA Chief Program Officer Peter Lynn, LIHI failed to report the homicide in a timely fashion, providing details only after Lynn emailed Lee the afternoon of September 1, after residents of the village began contacting KCRHA directly to find out “what was going on at the [tiny house village].”

Critical incidents of this nature must be reported to the RHA within 24 hours,” Lynn wrote. “We have also received information that there are ongoing unsafe conditions at the site, and therefore the program management team will visit the site to review conditions and follow up with LIHI staff and management.”

Lee responded an hour later, saying she thought the reporting mandates had been “suspended” due to concerns from providers that they were vague and overbroad. The reporting requirements extended to lower-level incidents, such as damage to units, in addition to “significant events” like murder. “You should know that LIHI Senior Management is totally engaged on this and staff have cooperated fully with police and are working with staff and clients on these traumatic events,” Lee wrote.

“Clearly, we reported it,” Lee told PubliCola, referring to her September 1 response to Lynn. “I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if here’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.”

“Of course it was a shock to everybody that the man was killed and the suspect was his partner,” Lee added, but “it’s not like somebody broke into the village and killed somebody,” which might be cause for more general alarm.

Lynn told PubliCola that the KCRHA suspended its reporting requirements for lower-level and common incidents, like damage to a unit, in response to feedback from providers that “maybe this was too much.” But, he added, the authority still expects to hear about critical incidents as soon as possible. “We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day,” he said. “When there are traumatic impacts on community members, on staff, on program participants, those are all things that we want to make sure that we are able to support.”

In response to the August incidents, the KCRHA issued “corrective action plan” in September that, among other stipulations, required LIHI to notify the homelessness authority within 48 hours any time a unit is “damaged or unusable”—a proposal Lee, in a heated response, called “preposterous” and “not reasonable.” The corrective plan was LIHI’s second formal reprimand since May. 

LIHI says the KCRHA closed out both corrective action plans.

Failing to comply with the requirements, the plan concluded, “may result in further actions by the KCRHA, up to and including suspension of payments, disallowed costs for the violation period and suspension of contracts or cancellation of contracts.”

Four days later, Lee sent a lengthy email to staff and board members at the authority, inquiring rhetorically whether staff at the KCRHA—whose CEO, Marc Dones, has been critical of the tiny-house model in the past—were “being directed to find fault with LIHI in order to discredit the Tiny House Village program.”

“We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day.”—Peter Lynn, King County Regional Homelessness Authority

“While we have had past differences with Marc Dones over tiny houses, I was hopeful that we would be able to move forward working together. KCRHA’s most recent actions tell us otherwise,” Lee wrote.

Although the authority and LIHI appear to have reached a détente—the flurry of emails subsided in October, and Lynn said he would “not describe our relationship with LIHI as tense”—the dispute over the two deaths at Friendship Heights village is not the only point of conflict between LIHI and the KCRHA over how it runs its tiny house villages.

In the May corrective action plan, which related to conditions at LIHI’s True Hope (Central District) and Othello (Southeast Seattle) villages in May, KCRHA said they found leaking toilets, piles of bicycles, and damaged units they said LIHI had failed to report within 48 hours.

At Othello Village, one of the units was damaged by a propane tank explosion; KCRHA said that village had improperly stored propane tanks. In a response to KCRHA, Lee denied most of the agency’s charges, including the one about propane tanks, and argued that at least two of the agency’s demands were unreasonable, including a proposal that would require parents or caregivers to supervise children at all times. Two months later, the authority wrote Lee to say they considered the issues at the two villages resolved.

Earlier this week, a former resident of the Plum Street tiny house village in Olympia sued LIHI, claiming they had illegally evicted him from his unit. In a conversation with PubliCola, the plaintiff, Ryan Taal, described conditions at the village where he lived for two years, including a poorly stocked outdoor kitchen and a water heater that, according to Taal, was broken for a month, leaving residents with no hot water. “It was pretty sad—it kind of felt like a refugee camp,” Taal said.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages and a member of the KCRHA’s governing board, said he was reserving judgment about the 2022 incidents and the conflict between LIHI and KCRHA.  “Obviously, we need to make sure all of our providers are staying in close contact with the KCRHA, and they need to have unobstructed and uninhibited information from their providers … but I want to see a final report on how [LIHI] met their obligations or didn’t before I comment on it,” Lewis said.

Seattle Center, Which Will Run Waterfront Park, Issued Dozens of Year-Long Parks Exclusions; City Will Let Private Buses “Share” Up to 250 Bus Stops

1. On Wednesday afternoon, the Seattle City Council’s public assets committee approved plans to have Seattle Center take over management of, and security at, the new waterfront park—an agreement that will bring stricter enforcement of park rules to the waterfront than at other parks throughout the city.

Under a “parks exclusion” ordinance dating back to 1997, the city’s parks department has the authority to ban anyone from a park for violating parks rules for up to a year. Since 2012, however, the department has voluntarily agreed not to trespass violators for more than a day, except when their actions threaten public safety. 

As PubliCola reported last week, Seattle Center operates under different rules, excluding people from the campus for longer periods and for lesser violations. Last year, outgoing director Robert Nellams told us, Seattle Center barred 37 people for periods ranging from a week to a year.

In response to questions from Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Seattle Center provided a more detailed list of those exclusions. Of the 37, the vast majority—24—were for 365 days, for violations ranging from showing up again while barred from the campus for a shorter period to serious criminal allegations, such as arson and assault. One person was banned for six months after passing out in the bathroom of the Armory building; another person, who had at least seven previous run-ins with Seattle Center security, was barred for a year for being intoxicated and panhandling. 

Four people received seven-day trespass notices for “camping” after “multiple warnings.” Nellams said Seattle Center’s policy on people sleeping at Seattle Center is to “respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”

The committee approved the proposal unanimously; Herbold said she was convinced to support the plan after REACH, the outreach agency, endorsed the proposal in a letter to council members. Friends of the Waterfront, the nonprofit group that has led much of the planning for the new park, pays for two REACH staffers to provide outreach along the waterfront; the group will also pay for four “ambassadors” to answer questions and respond to minor issues once the park is open. Seattle Center will also provide 15 security officers.

2. Also this week, a council committee approved plans that could dramatically expand the number of public transit stops that King County Metro buses will “share” with private shuttle services run by companies like Microsoft and Children’s Hospital. The private buses parallel existing bus routes, using limited city-owned curb space for a system that only their employees can use.

Since 2017, Children’s and Microsoft have paid $300 per vehicle each year to share a total of 12 bus stops with the county’s public transit provider. The new rules, which the full council will consider Monday, would increase the potential number of new shared stops to 250 citywide, with no more than 50 stops reserved for any single employer.

During the meeting, Councilmember Tammy Morales asked rhetorically whether it makes sense to hand over limited curb space so that private companies could exempt themselves from the public transit system. “I see these shuttles everywhere,” Morales said. “I would much prefer that people ride a shuttle rather than drive a single-occupancy vehicle, and I would prefer to see that our public system was serving these folks instead of having a private system.”

Morales also asked, less rhetorically, why the city couldn’t just remove a couple of parking spots near transit stops so that buses and shuttles wouldn’t have to compete for space. SDOT planner Benjamin Smith responded that removing parking might harm nearby businesses—a familiar argument that assumes people won’t use transit to get to businesses even if the city makes it more convenient.

The new rules would limit which bus stops the private shuttles can use, excluding those “with the highest potential for conflicts with transit and other modes.” They would also require employers to pay a nominal fee of $5,000 per stop, per year, ora total of up to $250,000 per employer.

Ultimately, Morales voted to approve the new rules, which passed 4-1, with Councilmember Dan Strauss abstaining because, he said, he hadn’t had a chance to look at the rules in detail. The full council will also take up the bus stop sharing plan on Monday.

Former Tiny House Village Resident Sues Nonprofit, Alleging Unlawful Eviction

Plum Street Tiny House Village in Olympia. Image via LIHI

By Erica C. Barnett

A former resident of the Low-Income Housing Institute’s Plum Street Tiny House Village in Olympia has sued the nonprofit shelter and housing provider in Thurston County Superior Court, claiming they unlawfully evicted him from his unit—an argument that, if it prevails, could reclassify tiny houses as a form of housing and give residents of tiny houses, and possibly other types of shelter, protection from eviction under state landlord-tenant laws. The lawsuit also names the city of Olympia as a defendant.

The former resident, Ryan Taal, was kicked out of his unit at the Olympia tiny house shelter after a verbal altercation with a staffer in March that, in LIHI’s telling, amounted to a threat. Taal, who had lived in his tiny house since October 2020, acknowledges that he told the staffer “you don’t know who you’re messing with right now” during an argument over the condition of his unit, but said he was referring to his struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks, not threatening her.

“I needed case management and help getting my prescriptions,” Taal said. “[The staffer] called the cops and lied to them and told them I was threatening her.” Shelter staff left a note on his door saying he had to be out within 48 hours or they would call the police, but Taal said he was gone by the following morning.

For the next two months, Taal lived in his car with his dog, using a nearby public restroom at night. At times, he couldn’t make it to the restroom, or found it occupied by people smoking fentanyl and meth. Taal says the food at the Plum Street Village was never great—the outdoor kitchen reminded him of “a refugee camp”—but his diet got worse when he was living in his car, and he developed gout.

“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction].”—Carrie Graf, Northwest Justice Project

Taal’s Northwest Justice Project attorney, Carrie Graf, says that even though Taal didn’t have a formal lease, kicking him out with 48 hours’ notice and a threat to call the police is “kind of the definition of a wrongful eviction” under the state’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA).

“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction],” Graf said.

The RLTA defines a tenant as anyone “entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.” Taal’s lawsuit argues that the three-page intake form he signed as a condition of living at the village constitutes a rental agreement that entitled him to his unit, and that tiny houses are a form of transitional housing under state law.

Legislators only incorporated a formal definition of transitional housing into the RLTA in 2021, so this case—if it goes forward—could be a test of that definition.

LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says that although the agency operates its own permanent and transitional housing programs, tiny houses are a form of emergency shelter, not housing—an argument she says is backed up by a court order in another recent case against LIHI, in which a King County Superior Court commissioner refused to grant a restraining order on behalf of a former resident of a Seattle tiny house village, finding that tiny house villages are “transitional encampments,” not housing. (That determination raises a whole other set of questions that, as much as I’m tempted to dive into them, are outside the scope of this article.)

“We take people who are being swept from parks and public places… and we don’t do a criminal background check, we don’t do a credit check, we don’t ask for references,” Lee said. “The moment you say ‘all shelters are going to be covered through the Landlord-Tenant Act’—which means you would have to go through this very extensive process of eviction—then I think you’re going to change the very nature of what a shelter is.” (Of course, if tiny house villages aren’t really shelter but “transitional encampments,” they would be subject to a number of restrictions that could force many of them to shut down—but, again, that’s outside the scope of this piece!).

LIHI staff pointed PubliCola to a 2008 case in which a resident at a YouthCare transitional housing program called ISIS House claimed YouthCare wrongfully evicted him for allegedly failing to follow rules and refusing to sign a behavioral contract.

In that case, US District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that ISIS House was exempt from tenant protections because Youthcare counted as an “institution” where “residence is merely incidental” to another purpose, such as providing “social services and life skills support.” Lasnik also wrote that the existence of strict rules, such as a prohibition on any sexual conduct, made YouthCare’s rental agreements different than a traditional lease.

“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process. I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people.'” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee

Similarly, Lee says, LIHI’s tiny house villages require residents to sign a code of conduct, participate in communal chores, and allow staffers inside their units at any time—all things a traditional landlord doesn’t do. Although some of LIHI’s tiny house villages are low-barrier, meaning people can use drugs or alcohol inside their units, Plum Street Village is not; the contract tenants sign bar them from using drugs or alcohol within a mile of the village property.

If tiny house villages were defined as housing, Lee said, it could lead to fewer low-barrier shelters that serve people with addiction and behavioral health needs, because shelter providers won’t want to take on the risk.

“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process,” Lee said. “I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people. We’re not going to open our doors and have everybody claim they have a right [to tenant protections] under the Landlord Tenant Act.”

Graf believes tiny house village residents do have a right to those protections, including those who—like Taal—are accused of violating their contracts. The Landlord-Tenant Act, she said, “is just establishing a pretty bare-minimum set of rights for the person living there, like: you get three days’ notice before you have to leave, and if you want to contest that you’re entitled to a court process. If someone is committing criminal acts within the tiny house village, they can always be arrested.”

Since his ejection from Plum Street Village, Taal moved into an apartment across town—his first real apartment after years of being homeless in Oregon and Washington state. He’s also gotten help with medical care and prescriptions from his case manager with Familiar Faces, a program run by the city of Olympia that provides support for people who have frequent encounters with police. “I’m still worried about what if I become homeless again, but the majority of the days are good days,” he said.

His personal turn of fortune hasn’t shaken Taal’s commitment to his case. “I’m not the only victim,” Taal said. “What they did was super wrong, and I feel like they should rewrite their policies on how they properly exit people—get them the right case managers, the right therapy, not ignore them … or kick them out. Give them some hope.”

Bill Would Expand Access to Fentanyl Testing, PubliCola Updates Seattle Employee Directory

Image source

1. As King County hit a demoralizing new record of 1,019 overdose deaths in 2022—a jump of nearly 30 percent over the previous year—a Republican state senator has introduced a bill that would make it easier to access test strips that can indicate the presence of fentanyl in drugs.

As PubliCola has reported, fentanyl is now the default opioid for drug users in King County, a trend that has driven the huge spike in overdoses. Even people who don’t seek out opioids can be at risk, because drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine can be contaminated with fentanyl. Test strips, which can detect the presence of fentanyl in a small amount of a drug, are an essential part of harm reduction efforts, but state law still classifies them as prohibited “drug paraphernalia,” limiting their availability.

Last year, GOP state senator Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, filed a bill that would have changed that designation, but it died in committee. This session, Sen Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, reintroduced the legislation.

Muzzall told PubliCola that while substance abuse has always been an area of concern for him, it’s also a personal issue. Muzzall is friends with Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, whose son Patrick died of a fentanyl overdose in 2017 after becoming addicted to pain pills. Muzzall says he knew Janicki’s son and that his death made a deep impression. 

“When a mistake like that leads to having to bury your child.. . well, that emptiness never goes away,” Muzzall said. “And that was a tragedy that was brought about by a prescription of Oxycontin. The liability lies with the pharmaceutical industry that led up to that. And it’s just invading our communities.”

Janicki has been a vocal advocate for Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s successful lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, which will add $476 million to the state’s harm reduction and treatment efforts over the next 17 years. 

The fentanyl test strip bill is an essential part of those efforts, Muzzall said. “It’s just silly that we don’t make these as easily accessible as possible,” he said. “This bill will take the criminality out of providing them.”

Muzzall, who says fatal overdose is a behavioral and mental health crisis that will likely cost the state a billion dollars to address, is working alongside Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland of Vancouver on a number of bills to address the issue, and hopes to successfully move the test strip bill through committee this time around.

“If an individual is compassionate, bipartisanship comes easily,” he said.

2. In 2021, then-mayor Jenny Durkan’s information technology department took the public-facing directory of city employees offline, removing a vital resource that allowed members of the public and journalists (as well as city of Seattle employees themselves) to contact people who work at the city. Public employees’ contact information is a matter of public record, and keeping this information secret violates a long tradition of transparency that persists in other government entities across the state, from King County to the entire State of Washington.

Durkan, who falsely claimed the directory would be online again in a matter of months, is no longer in office, but her successor, Bruce Harrell, has made no moves to restore this resource. The former city employee directory website is now a static page with links to a list of the city’s official media relations officers, the websites of various city departments, and the city’s data portal (which does not contain the directory).

Because we believe the city directory is a valuable public resource, PubliCola has taken it upon ourselves to maintain an updated database of city employees and their contact information ourselves. Here’s the latest searchable and downloadable version, with information current as of January 5, 2023. We will continue maintaining and updating this database until and unless the city of Seattle decides to put theirs back online.

—Andrew Engelson, Erica C. Barnett

State Proposals Aim to Lower Traffic Deaths by Improving Driver Behavior

"No right turn on red" graphic
Legislation that would ban right turns at some red lights will be on legislators’ transportation agenda this year.

By Ryan Packer

At the year’s first meeting of the Washington state senate’s transportation committee earlier this week, Governor Jay Inslee’s office delivered some sobering news: More than 700 people were killed by traffic violence on the state’s roadways in 2022, a figure not seen since the late 1990s.

Washington was one of the first states to commit itself to ending serious traffic-related injuries and fatalities back in 2000. Recently, however, the numbers have been trending in the wrong direction.

In 2022, lawmakers were focused on passing a large transportation spending package, divvying up projects throughout the state, and the legislature’s Democratic caucus was successful in approving the 16-year, $17 billion Move Ahead Washington funding package. This year, their attention will turn to policy—including several bills aimed at reducing traffic deaths by changing how drivers behave.

One approach involves reforming the state’s driver’s education system by requiring all residents, not just drivers under 18, to take a driver’s ed course before getting a license. According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, only around 10 percent of the school districts in the state offer any form of driver’s ed at all. Drivers under 18 are required to complete a driver’s ed course with at least 30 hours of instruction to get their driver’s license in Washington, but drivers 18 and older only have to pass a written exam and in-person driving test.

The traffic safety commission found that drivers between 18 and 20 who did not complete a driver training course had a fatal or serious injury crash rate 75 percent higher than those who did; this trend held true for older adults as well.

“The way that we allow people, once they’ve turned 18, to take the driver’s test without any formal education, is counter to how we do every other type of education.”—Washington Bikes policy director Vicky Clarke

“You can see very clearly when you look at the data that drivers who have been through driver’s ed are meaningfully safer drivers,” said Vicky Clarke, the policy director for Washington Bikes. Washington Bikes is backing a bill, which will be introduced soon, that would require all residents getting their first driver’s license to go through driver’s ed. It’s unclear whether the bill would allow people moving from other states to transfer their existing license to Washington without taking a course. An important component of the bill will be state funding to allow low-income drivers to be able to afford private driving classes.

Clarke noted that a test requirement without any education component isn’t aligned with other types of education that happen in the state. “The way that we allow people, once they’ve turned 18, to take the driver’s test without any formal education, is counter to how we do every other type of education,” she said.

Another bill likely to gain traction in the weeks ahead is one that would lower Washington’s threshold for drivers to be cited for driving under the influence of alcohol from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent blood alcohol content, following in the footsteps of Utah, which approved that change in 2017. In the year following the law’s adoption, Utah saw its fatal crash rate drop by nearly 20 percent, and did not see a significant rise in the number of DUI-related arrests, suggesting the law directly changed drivers’ habits. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending every state in the country make that change since 2013, saying that it would save more than 1,500 lives nationwide every year.

“For us in Washington, that translates to somewhere between 30 and 40 Washingtonians that wouldn’t be killed on our highways [every year] if we saw similar results here,” Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), chair of the senate transportation committee, said. The bill, whose primary sponsor is Sen. John Lovick (D-44, Mill Creek) already has twelve co-sponsors in the state senate, and is widely expected to pass.

Another bill that will be introduced soon would require cities to ban free right-turn-on-red for drivers at specific intersections in busy urban environments around schools, parks, and commercial areasRestricting dangerous turn movements like free-right-on-red would get closer to transforming the urban environment in a way that makes errors on any road user’s part less likely to cause injury.

This session, Liias and Sen. Curtis King (R-14, Yakima) are proposing a bill that would empower the Washington State Department of Transportation to use cameras to enforce speed restrictions around highway work zones. Over the past decade, there has been an average of 626 work-zone related injuries on state highways every year, along with an increasing number of fatalities. In the past, lawmakers have generally been wary of expanding the use of automated cameras, but this bill could have more traction due to its impact on state workers.

Liias said that data, along with common sense, would be a guiding principle for him as he considered laws that focus on driver behavior. “I want to sort of think about it collectively and as a theme, so we would make a number of changes that would, overall, contribute to fewer serious injuries and fatalities in our transportation system.”

“Consigning ourselves to lose 700 people a year until ten years from now when we’ve got critical mass on those [Move Ahead Washington] investments is just not acceptable. We need action this year that’s going to save lives and the data show that some of these behavioral [regulations] do have a material impact.” — State Senate Transportation Chair Marko Liias

These proposed changes seeking to change driver behavior in the near-term are going to need to work hand-in-hand with the longer term projects to modify the state’s roadways to make them safe for all users. That’s one of the goals of the “Safe Systems” approach that many transportation officials in Washington state have started to embrace, which leans heavily on changes to roadways and vehicles to improve safety, as opposed to driver education and enforcement.

The nearly $17 billion Move Ahead Washington package includes more state funding than ever before for cities and counties to improve pedestrian crossings, create protected bike lanes, and add traffic calming. It even requires nearly every state highway maintenance project to include space for people to walk and bike if that space isn’t currently there. But the impact of those changes won’t be seen for some time.

“Consigning ourselves to lose 700 people a year until ten years from now when we’ve got critical mass on those investments is just not acceptable,” Liias said, referring to projects coming from the Move Ahead Washington package. “We’ve committed the state system to move to a safe systems approach … but we need action this year that’s going to save lives and the data show that some of these behavioral pieces do have a material impact,” and work hand-in-hand with upgrading infrastructure, Liias said.

The legislature will likely come together around a few of these proposals, like lowering the DUI limit and adding cameras to highway work zones. Others, like banning right turns at certain red lights, could face more resistance.

ryan@publicola.com

Bill Would Exempt Newspapers and Online Publications from Business Tax

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson

By Erica C. Barnett

State legislation requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson would fully exempt newspapers and some online publications from the state business and occupation tax, saving eligible publications (and costing the state) a total of about $10 million over the next four years. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) in the senate and Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) in the house.

Newspapers already pay a reduced B&O tax rate, but online publications don’t count as newspapers (or publications, for that matter) under current state tax law. As a result, online outlets pay a higher tax rate than print newspapers like the Seattle Times; PubliCola, for example, pays the same B&O tax as any other “retailer,” even though our only product is free online content.

If the tax break for newspapers is allowed to elapse in 2024, as scheduled, their business and occupation taxes would increase around 40 percent—a significant hit for an industry that’s already struggling.

To prevent that, the legislation would exempt newspapers and “eligible digital publications”—those with at least two full-time employees, but no more than 50—from state B&O taxes through 2035.

In a committee hearing on the proposal Tuesday, Sen. Mullet said he’s found it alarming to watch the newspaper industry shrink over the years, but struck a note of caution about the impact of expanding the exemption too far.

“I think the attorney general, in their agency request, had a good idea to say, maybe we should think about how to get some of the electronic people in the preference as well,” Mullet said. “But I think it seems like based on the fiscal note, we have to work with [the state Department of Revenue] to kind of define that. We’re not trying to quadruple or quintuple the size of the preference here. We’re just trying to expand it to make sure it wasn’t just the traditional print papers but some of the other legitimate online newspaper publications as well.”

Most of the people who testified at Tuesday’s meeting were the publishers of small newspapers around the state, including the Mason County Journal, the Methow Valley News, and The Star newspaper from Grand Coulee Star.

Scott Hunter, the publisher of the Star, said that in the last 30 years, his paper has transformed from “a very robust newspaper” with multiple full-time reporters to a one-person operation in which Hunter does everything from photographing local basketball games to covering city council meetings, unpaid. “This bill… is not going to be a game changer for me,” Hunter said. “But it doesn’t make fundamental sense to tax something that you want to keep going, that is struggling, and is essential. It’s just fundamentally doesn’t make sense.”

PubliCola submitted testimony supporting the inclusion of small online publications in the bill, and asked legislators to eliminate the minimum publication size (two or more full-time employees) to reflect the fact that many small publications rely on freelancers rather than full-time staff reporters to fill their physical or virtual pages.

Seattle Center Plans Stricter Rule Enforcement at Waterfront Park

By Erica C. Barnett

A new linear park on Seattle’s downtown waterfront won’t be fully open until 2025, but the plan to enforce rules and maintain security in the park is already causing consternation at City Hall.

Last week, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold questioned the city’s public safety plan for the new park, which will—unlike the 430 parks that fall under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department—be managed by Seattle Center. That agreement, along with funding for the equivalent of 11.5 security staff, will be on the council’s agenda later this month.

Since 2012, as we’ve reported, the Parks Department has voluntarily agreed not to kick people out of parks for more than a day except for serious law or rule violations, even though they have the authority to issue “parks exclusions” for up to a year. When Seattle Center does not have a similar agreement, and has excluded dozens of people from its campus for periods ranging from 7 to 365 days in the past year.

“The Parks Department voluntarily constraining itself evolved over time… because of the research that was done on the use of parks exclusions,” Herbold said. The parks exclusion ordinance, one of many “civility” laws passed in the late 1990s under former city attorney Mark Sidran, essentially gave police and parks rangers carte blanche to prohibit people from using public spaces without any due process. The policy led to cruel and sometimes absurd results.

“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record.”—Seattle Center director Robert Nellams

In a conversation with PubliCola, retiring Seattle Center director Robert Nellams and incoming interim director Marshall Foster, who previously led the city’s Office of the Waterfront, said Seattle Center has been judicious about enforcing its rules against bad behavior. Before issuing an exclusion, Nellams said, “We to work with people, we try to get them to comply. And even if they only comply a little bit … we don’t go down that path” toward kicking people out.

“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record,” Nellams said.

If a person is trespassed from Seattle Center, though, it’s always for at least seven days, Nellams added. “If everybody understands and knows that that most that they can be excluded for is for one day, then that usually leads to some behavioral issues.”

According to the operations plan Foster and Office of the Waterfront Tiffany Melake presented to the city council’s public assets committee last Wednesday, the Friends of the Waterfront—a nonprofit that works with the city on waterfront planning, funding, and programming—will be responsible for social services along the waterfront through a contract with the outreach nonprofit REACH, and will employ “park ambassadors” to respond to minor issues.

Foster said the city has already tested out the public safety model it plans to use in the waterfront park on Pier 62, which reopened in 2020. What they found is that while “the vast majority of folks using it are following the code of conduct and everybody’s having a great time… you do need some rules which [allow you to] remove people from the space for a period of time. … If we’re not willing to enforce those things that have consequences [for other park users], it’s very hard for us to help people follow the right behavior in the park.”

Other nearby parks, such as Victor Steinbrueck Park just to the east of the waterfront, will still be subject to the Parks Department’s exclusion policy, meaning that someone could be excluded from the waterfront park for a rule violation that would not get them kicked out of a park next door.

Because the waterfront is directly adjacent to downtown—an area with a large number of unsheltered people and nonprofits that serve them—I asked Nellams how his department planned to deal with encampments in the area. (The Parks Department is chiefly responsible for responding to and removing encampments in other parks). Nellams said it was too soon to say, but noted that there are no tents at Seattle Center. “At Seattle Center, camping is not allowed,” Nellams said, “so we respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”

In Reversal, Council Poised to Preserve Landmarked Drive-Through Walgreen’s

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Update on Tuesday, Jan. 10: The council voted to adopt Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s amendment, described in more detail below, to impose controls and incentives preventing any changes to the landmarked Walgreen’s building on Denny Way while removing the surface parking lot from the area subject to landmark protections. Herbold’s “compromise” plan also included a new amendment from Andrew Lewis that added the driveway and a few other small elements of the property to the part of the lot that won’t be subject to restrictions, increasing the non-protected part of the property to around 14,000 square feet.

Council members who voted for Herbold’s proposal cited various reasons for doing so. Lewis said he supported preserving the façade of the building (seen above) while allowing development; however, the protections the council imposed actually bar changes to the entire building unless the city’s landmarks board approves them.

Kshama Sawant railed against the council’s “Democrats” and housing developers in general, raising a straw-man argument about the fact that any potential housing on the site wouldn’t be affordable to low-income people, which no one suggested it would. And Sara Nelson, who voted against protecting the Walgreen’s just last week, justified her change of heart by saying that aligning the city’s housing goals with historic preservation would take a “long time” and would need to be done at some later date. Ultimately, the legislation passed unanimously, with Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda voting against the initial Herbold amendment but supporting it once it was the only option on the table.

Original post follows:

In a reversal of a committee vote last week, the Seattle city council appears poised to preserve a drive-through Walgreen’s on the edge of South Lake Union, after Councilmember Tammy Morales (who previously opposed preservation) accepted as a “friendly amendment” a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold to “protect” the one-story building and driveway, but not its parking lot. The legislation on the council’s agenda Tuesday afternoon would require Walgreen’s, or any subsequent owner, to obtain approval from the city’s landmarks board before making any visible changes to the building.

PubliCola has written extensively about the 1950 structure, which was originally a drive-through bank—a novel convenience at a time when American car culture was just ramping up. The building was one of many copies of a 1946 prototype created for Seattle-First National Bank, many of which are still standing in Seattle and across the region.

A lot of things have changed since the former bank building was landmarked in 2010. An explosion of jobs brought a need for new housing in Uptown and South Lake Union, and the council voted to upzone the area in 2017, allowing new apartment towers to serve the thousands of new people working in the burgeoning tech hub. The site where the Walgreen’s stands, for example, was rezoned to allow a 160-foot tower. Today, the building stands out as one of the only car-oriented, single-story businesses in the area.

How could it be that a parking lot that makes up less than half of the Walgreen’s site could yield more housing than the entire property? The answer is: It can’t, except on paper.

Morales, along with her colleague Andrew Lewis, appeared convinced Monday by a staff analysis that concluded a developer could actually fit more housing on the Walgreen’s block if the housing was squeezed onto the 12,000-square-foot parking lot—up to 310 units, or even more if the building included amenities like a school, which many downtown residents have been trying to site for years.

“Compared to what is possible if we completely remove the controls and incentives or if we leave the legislation as is, there are additional 30 to 60 units possible,” Morales said at the council’s weekly briefing.

“I really appreciate the the creativity of Councilmember Herbold in presenting all these incentives together to show the potential of what the maximum number of units could be,” Lewis added.

How could it be that a parking lot that makes up less than half of the Walgreen’s site could yield more housing than the entire property? The answer is: It can’t, except on paper.

Setting aside the unlikely possibility of a new school inside a skinny residential tower, getting to 310 units requires some creative math. To build that many units, a developer would have to qualify for every incentive available under city law, including one that allows a development to cover more of a lot if their building includes at least ten units of “family sized” housing with three bedrooms or more. In practice, apartment developers rarely build units that size, because they don’t pencil out—two-parent families who can afford to pay $5,000 to $12,000 a month (the going rate for the handful of available three-bedroom apartments in new buildings near South Lake Union) would usually be better off buying a place instead

Even in the analysis Herbold used to argue that a smaller building would have more apartments, a council staffer acknowledged that it “would be hard to fit [that many units] on the lot without building above the bank building”—that is, demolishing the Walgreen’s and putting up a new building in its place, perhaps preserving the façade. This alternative is basically the same as not preserving the building at all—except that it couldn’t happen without  the approval of the same landmarks board that requested protections for the building in the first place.

Another scenario would be a skinny tower on the site of the current parking lot, which, at just 11,700 square feet, would be among the smallest tower locations in the city. This would be unlikely to pencil out under any circumstances, because so much of the oddly-shaped site would be taken up by the building’s elevator shaft, but the presence of the SR 99 tunnel directly underneath the site would make building a tall, thin tower even more of an underground engineering challenge. For this scenario to pencil out, the building would almost certainly be limited (like many others in the area) to studio or micro-units, which rent for more per square foot than larger apartments—great for young tech migrants, but less ideal for producing a neighborhood with a diverse range of ages, incomes, and family types.

Even in the analysis Herbold used to argue that a smaller building would have more apartments, a council staffer acknowledged that it “would be hard to fit [that many units] on the lot without building above the bank building”—that is, demolishing the Walgreen’s and putting up a new building in its place, perhaps preserving the façade. This alternative is basically the same as not preserving the building at all—except that it couldn’t happen without the approval of the same landmarks board that requested protections for the building in the first place.

The other alternative—the one that preservationists like Historic Seattle and Herbold seem to actually support—is to allow Walgreen’s to sell off the development rights for the lot to another developer in the neighborhood, preserving the building and its drive-through lane in perpetuity while allowing development elsewhere.

The problem is that selling the development potential of the Walgreen’s site almost certainly wouldn’t lead to an equivalent number of new apartments. That’s because when property owners sell development rights, what they’re really selling is extra floor-area ratio (FAR), a measure of how much of a piece of land a building can occupy. The more FAR a developer has, the taller or wider the building, depending on the rules in that area. In the Uptown, where 160-foot building are already allowed everywhere, additional FAR will allow developers to build outward, eliminating amenities they would otherwise have to include, like open space, green streets, and setbacks between sidewalks and the building.

The council will vote on Herbold’s proposal tomorrow afternoon. So far, only Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has publicly expressed reservations about the plan, saying she worried that Herbold’s proposal “would reduce the site to such [an extent] that it would not be feasible to build to build multifamily units on this site.”