False Claim that New Rules Would Permit Paving 85% of Residential Land Fails to Torpedo Tree Ordinance

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, the Seattle City Council finally adopted a set of restrictive new rules making it harder and more expensive for property owners to remove trees in their private lawns by more than tripling the number of regulated trees in the city.

The rules, which govern removal of any tree larger than six inches in diameter, go further than any previous ordinance, requiring land owners to replace any tree larger than 12 inches in diameter or pay a “payment in lieu” of replacement that ranges from $2,833 to tens of thousands of dollars. They are, in a word, Byzantine—and do nothing to address tree loss in the city’s own parks and open spaces, which are losing a greater proportion of their trees than privately owned property.

Which made it all the more remarkable when, at Tuesday’s meeting, “tree protection” advocates—in many cases, people who use “save the trees” as a proxy for anti-housing, anti-renter sentiments—argued that the council should scrap the whole policy in favor of a brand-new proposal floated by Councilemember Alex Pedersen that would vastly restrict development on nearly all the city’s low-density residential land. During public comment, speaker after speaker lined up to argue that the restrictive new tree ordinance would empower developers to “cover 85 percent of detached residential lots with structures,” as one commenter put it—a misinterpretation, encouraged by Pedersen, of regulations that do no such thing.

Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ misinterpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.

The misconception stems from the fact that the new bill limits the amount of “developable” land on any residential lot to a maximum of 85 percent, once all tree protection requirements are factored in. In a maximal development scenario, in which tree protection areas only make up 15 percent of a lot, it would still be impossible to turn the rest of the lot into buildings. That’s because the city also has many other ordinances in place requiring walkways, landscaping, parking, green plantings, and other mandatory amenities. Altogether, these mandatory amenities restrict housing development to between 30 and 45 percent of any residential lot.

Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ inaccurate interpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.

Quoting at length from the Seattle Times editorial board’s error-riddled argument against the legislation, which also repeated the inaccurate claim that “developers would be able to build on 85% of the lot in low-rise and other zones,” Pedersen said, “The process produced a pro-developer tree removal measure instead of one that actually preserves and grows trees. If this bill passes, there will be less shade and higher street level temperatures. That’s from the Seattle Times editorial board and I concur with those comments.”

The tree ordinance passed 6-1, with Pedersen voting “no”; Councilmembers Debora Juarez and Kshama Sawant were absent.

Council Member Wants to Know: Why Isn’t Harm Reduction Abstinence-Based?

By Erica C. Barnett

City Councilmember Sara Nelson, a vocal advocate for abstinence-based treatment for addiction, argued publicly yesterday with advocates for harm reduction over their approach, which emphasizes keeping people who use drugs alive and helping them address underlying conditions, such as homelessness and health care issues, without judgment or pressure to quit using drugs. Why, Nelson wanted to know, were these organizations focused on reducing harm from drug user rather than “encouraging” them to understand that total abstinence should be their goal?

“What [is] Public Health… doing to move beyond the harm reduction phase and how much money, if any, do you spend on agencies or for treatment that is geared toward abstinence?” Nelson asked. “And as a corollary of that, I guess the more basic question is, does Public Health agree that it has a responsibility to change behavior beyond meeting people where they’re at? Do you feel as thought’s important to help people change their use patterns in ways that they can go into abstinence-based recovery?”

Nelson’s (rhetorical?) questions came during a presentation by three longtime service providers—REACH, the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, and the Hepatitis Education Project, along with King County Public Health—about how they have used funding from a small grant aimed specifically at reducing harm related to drug use. For years, the city council has also allocated funds for this purpose but the mayor’s office has refused to spend it.

“We’ve got ‘meeting people where they’re at’ covered, I think, when we’re looking at the treatment services that are provided right now,” Nelson said.

The county, strategic advisor and drug policy specialist Brad Finegood assured Nelson, spends “hundreds of millions of dollars” on abstinence-only services; the point of also funding harm reduction, he said, is to “keep people alive” and give them entry points for services amid an overdose epidemic that claimed more than 700 lives in King County last year. Those services, the direct service providers explained, include handing out the overdose prevention drug naloxone, connecting people to health care, offering medication-assisted treatment, and handing out supplies for safer use, including pipes for smoking drugs rather than injecting them.

Nelson (like many local right-wing commentators) zeroed in on safe smoking supplies, suggesting that providers should measure their success by tracking how many people who take pipes end up in treatment.

“I know it can be controversial,” Hepatitis Education Project program director Amber Tejada responded, but “one of the keys that I see is we want to facilitate the autonomy of people that use drugs. There are folks that don’t want to stop using drugs. There are folks for whom abstinence is not how they measure success in life. … Our mission, what we have been able to do really successfully with this program, is to show that people can use drugs safely, and we can help folks get access to resources if that is something they are interested in.”

Last week, Nelson joined her colleague Alex Pedersen and City Attorney Ann Davison to propose new legislation that would enable the city attorney, rather than the King County Prosecutor, to begin prosecuting people for simple drug possession and public drug use. In 2018, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg stopped pursuing charges against people for possession of small amounts of drugs while expanding programs like LEAD that work to provide case management and service connections to people who use drugs.

The legislation, if adopted, would represent a profound change to the city’s approach to drug use and a return to war-on-drugs policies that the region has largely abandoned in favor of more compassionate and evidence-based approaches.

Last year, Nelson inserted language into the 2023-2024 budget to fund “facilities” for abstinence-based residential or intensive outpatient treatment using the city’s portion of a state settlement with opioid manufacturers. However, the language of Nelson’s statement of legislative intent leaves wiggle room for other evidence-based types of treatment, such as medication-assisted treatment or contingency management, as a presentation from council central staff at yesterday’s meeting also made clear.

Yesterday, Nelson expressed her frustration that the “private provider community,” which has “more availability for people who have insurance or can pay out-of-pocket,” has not been directly involved in the group that will make recommendations on what kind of treatment to fund with the money she proposed setting aside.

The point of her budget amendment, Nelson said, was “to establish a pilot program that would allow the city to directly contract with treatment facilities, private or public, in order to [help] people who are at the phase of really wanting to go into rehab, get into rehab, especially if they don’t have medication” as an option, as opioid users do.

“We’ve got ‘meeting people where they’re at’ covered, I think, when we’re looking at the treatment services that are provided right now,” Nelson said.

The 2023 Housing Levy Renewal is Meeting The Moment

An overview of the Seattle Housing Levy renewal plan, via City of Seattle

By Patience Malaba and Jane Hopkins, RN

Nearly every day, our organizations hear from workers, employers, and housing providers about the tremendous need for more housing options across Seattle. Just how big is the need? The Washington State Department of Commerce just released new projections that the city will need about 112,000 new units over the next 20 years.

To get there, we’ll need to maximize all the tools in our toolbox. The good news is that there is momentum. The state legislature went big and bold for changes that will make an impact, by investing in the housing trust fund and adopting reforms that allow more missing middle housing around the state.

In Seattle, these improvements work in concert with a proven housing program that is up for renewal this year: The seven-year housing levy. Mayor Bruce Harrell released his levy proposal in March and the city council is leading a process to place it on the ballot this November.

For nearly four decades, the housing levy has been our city’s voter-approved funding source to build and maintain thousands of units of permanent, affordable homes for vulnerable and low-income residents. It is an unparalleled success story—not only supporting the construction of housing, but providing assistance to seniors to mitigate displacement, emergency rental funds to prevent homelessness, and targeted homeowner support to address inequities and build generational wealth.

The proposed $970 million levy package builds on this record of accomplishment, and is supported by a diverse coalition of leaders and stakeholders who have been rethinking how we leverage levy funds to meet urgent needs while better coordinating with other funding sources. Our shared goal and commitment has been to partner with the mayor and city council to present voters with the best possible levy proposal this November, to make the largest—and most lasting—impact on the diverse housing needs of our communities.

The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.

First, we must expand our commitment to the basics: Thousands of units of affordable homes for low-income, working, and vulnerable families and individuals. These include new construction, restoration and preservation of existing buildings, and purchase of buildings to maintain or improve affordability.

Second, we need to emphasize the importance of permanent, supportive housing solutions for people we are helping back into stable housing or those at risk of slipping into homelessness. Levy funds have, and must continue, to be part of the larger solution as we address the acute and individualized needs of people experiencing mental health and addiction crises. The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.

A third critical element is maintaining funds for emergency rental assistance—making sure a low-income worker who loses a paycheck or has an unexpected medical bill doesn’t lose their home, resulting in greater downstream costs and trauma. These simple and proven programs to prevent eviction and homelessness are essential to community stability and economic independence.

Finally, our levy renewal should continue progress in addressing past inequities that have led to lower rates of homeownership for communities of color, and greater rates of displacement and gentrification in historically redlined neighborhoods of Seattle. Thoughtful investments in down payment assistance, home repair, and other programs not only allow families to place and maintain roots in our city but provide for future generations to achieve goals of homeownership and financial equity.

Seattle voters have demonstrated a commitment to affordable housing again and again, dating back to our first housing levy in 1986. But we are not taking this commitment for granted. Voters need to know that the investments they approve are making an impact at a scale that makes a significant difference. The levy is not a cure-all for every housing need facing our city, but it is an integral part of the solution and must expand to continue serving as the foundation for a broader set of investments.

Now, with the need greater than ever, it’s critical to unify  around a bold vision for affordable housing. We look forward to building on this record of success with a 2023 levy renewal that meets this moment and provides a foundation for the future.

Patience Malaba is the Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium, a 200-member association of affordable and low-income housing developers, providers, and advocates.

Jane Hopkins, RN, is the President of SEIU 1199NW, a union representing nurses, care providers, and other healthcare professionals.

Finally Addressing Blake Decision, Legislature Passes Punitive Drug Possession Bill

by Andrew Engelson

On Tuesday, during the special legislative session called by Gov. Jay Inslee, and after hours of emotional testimony, the legislature passed a new drug possession bill.

The legislation was a response to the state supreme court’s 2021 Blake ruling, a landmark decision that invalidated the state law which historically defined drug possession as a felony. Legislators, set on addressing the court’s decision, failed to pass a bill during the regular session. Yesterday, however, Democrats passed their compromise, which focuses on criminal penalties and coercive treatment over a harm reduction-centered approach. The bill was actually less punitive than a previous version that failed to pass, but is still centered on the threat of jail time for drug users.

The vote was 43 to 6 in the Senate, with Democratic senators Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Seattle), Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle), and Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) and three Republican senators voting no. The House passed the bill 83 to 13 and sent it to Inslee, who signed it the same afternoon. The House “nay” votes included several Republicans and nine Democrats, all from Seattle or Shoreline: Reps. Emily Alvarado, Frank Chopp, Lauren Davis, Nicole Macri, Gerry Pollet, Cindy Ryu, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Darya Farivar, and Chipalo Street.

“Is this bill perfect? Absolutely not,” the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), said before the vote, adding that she believed the compromises were necessary to pass uniform, statewide rules for drug use and possession.

“This legislation offers a balance between accountability and compassion,” said Rep. Peter Abbarno, (R-20, Centralia) who did not vote for a previous version in the House but supported Tuesday’s bill.

Rep. Lauren Davis (D-32, Shoreline), who voted “no,” called the bill ““bad drug policy” on the house floor before the vote. “Harm reduction programs meet people where they are, they don’t leave people where they are. No one can recover if they’re dead.”

In an attempt to win support from left-leaning reformers, the bill does tone down punishment. The bill defines drug possession – and a new offense of public drug use – as gross misdemeanors, but rather than the standard maximum of 364 days in jail, it limits the maximum sentence that can be imposed for each charge to 180 days for the first two convictions, and 364 days for the third or additional convictions. Fines for each instance are limited to $1,000. The bill also encourages local authorities to offer pre-arrest referral services such as LEAD and the state’s Recovery Navigator Program, and also encourages and describes a process for prosecutors to employ post-conviction diversion programs.

“I personally would like to get to a place where we can decriminalize drugs. But I’m also pragmatic and I don’t just represent myself, I represent a district.” —Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton), who voted “yes.” 

But ultimately, it defers to local prosecutors to decide whether to press criminal charges for drug possession.

“The prosecutors really insisted that they be the gatekeepers and that they be the party that consents to the diversion,” said Rep Roger Goodman, (D-45, Kirkland) who chairs the house Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee and who was a key player in the negotiations that led to the current bill.

Goodman, who in his career as an attorney has worked to shift drug policy from a criminal justice issue to a public health issue, said, “As the chair of the committee, my role was to manage this process, and move through a piece of legislation that’s politically tenable. In doing so, I have permanently tarnished my drug policy reform credentials. But this is only a step in the continued evolution of our drug policy.”

“I’m grateful for the negotiators from all four caucuses for reducing the amount of incarceration,” said Rep. Tarra Simmons, (D-23, Bremerton) in a floor speech. Simmons, who once served time in prison for a drug possession conviction, voted no on the previous version of the bill because she thought its penalties were too harsh, but reluctantly supported today’s version. “I personally would like to get to a place where we can decriminalize drugs,” Simmons said, “But I’m also pragmatic and I don’t just represent myself, I represent a district.”

The state budget, which Inslee also signed Tuesday afternoon, includes nearly $1 billion for behavioral health services, treatment services, supportive housing, and harm reduction for people with substance use disorders. Notably, that operating budget also includes $300,000 to create a “work group” tasked with studying how the state might create a safe supply system that would provide drug users with medical-grade sources of controlled substances such as opioids and stimulants.

A new work group will evaluate “potential models for safe supply services and make recommendations on inclusion of a safe supply framework in the Washington state substance use recovery services plan to provide a regulated, tested supply of controlled substances to individuals at risk of drug overdose

Creating a safe supply work group was one of the few recommendations from the state’s Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC) report issued late last year that survived the current legislative session.

Like SURSAC, the safe supply work group will include representatives from public health agencies, elected officials, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, harm reduction organizations, housing and treatment service providers, and active and former drug users.

The group will be tasked with evaluating “potential models for safe supply services and make recommendations on inclusion of a safe supply framework in the Washington state substance use recovery services plan to provide a regulated, tested supply of controlled substances to individuals at risk of drug overdose.” The group must present a final report to the legislature by December 2024.

“In order to help people be in recovery, you have to make sure they’re alive,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law and Justice committee and included the work group in an earlier version of the drug possession bill. “I think it’s important to have those conversations about how we can keep people alive so we can help them recover. This work group is going to help us with that discussion.”

Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says safe supply isn’t a radical notion if you’re trying to prevent overdose deaths, of which there have already been 524 in King County this year.

“We have a fundamentally unsafe supply, to put it very simply. That is obviously true of fentanyl,” Banta Green said, noting that the state currently has a safe supply system for alcohol, cannabis, and treatments for opioid addiction. “We’ve had methadone for 50 years and buprenorphine for 20 years. And those are forms of safe supply.”

The drug possession/public use bill that passed Tuesday was much less centered around harm reduction. To attract Republican votes, the bill included a provision that allows local jurisdictions to outlaw or restrict harm reduction services. It does, however, decriminalize drug paraphernalia such as syringes and smoking supplies statewide, when used in harm reduction efforts.

“There’s no evidence that a criminal charge is going to help. And there’s lots of evidence that criminal charges and incarceration all have negative consequences, both in the short term and the long term.  I’m saddened.” —Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri, who voted “No.”

The bill also allows those convicted of either possession or public use to vacate their convictions, but only if they enter treatment for substance use disorder and can show six months of “substantial compliance” with those treatment programs. In addition, prosecutors cannot press charges for both possession and use for the same instance, preventing “stacking” of charges for one incident.

Another concession that House Republicans asked for and got was a provision requiring the state let local media know when a methadone clinic or other opioid treatment facility is opening. Such notices can often inflame public opinion: late last year, a new opioid treatment center in Lynnwood faced furious opposition from local residents before it opened in January.

The bill that passed today replaces a temporary bill passed in 2021 that had set possession at a simple misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The temporary law was prompted by the Washington State v. Blake ruling, which tossed out the former statute which defined possession as a felony over a fairly narrow question of “knowing” possession. That temporary law was set to expire in July, thus forcing the legislature to take action this session.

“I wish there were no criminal charges,” Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), who voted against the final version of the bill, told PubliCola, “There’s no evidence that a criminal charge is going to help. And there’s lots of evidence that criminal charges and incarceration all have negative consequences, both in the short term and the long term. And so, I’m saddened.”

The drug bill also includes $62.9 million ($19.6 million more than the previous version of the bill) in spending on an array of services and programs including housing, recovery and treatment services, diversion programs, new mobile methadone clinics, creating pilot “health hubs” designed to lower barriers to treatment and services, and funding to boost the number of public defenders.

Alison Holcomb, political director for the ACLU of Washington, which has been supportive of decriminalization and investigating a safe supply system, says her organization is disappointed in Democrats—who control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office—for failing to end the war on drugs in Washington state.

“It’s fairly heartbreaking that legislators who negotiated this bill prioritized partisan compromise over what modern science tells us can save lives,” Holcomb said. “We’re continuing the same strategy of holding punishment over people’s heads as a motivator to coerce them into treatment that is of a finite length of time. And both the coercive feature of that approach and the notion that treatment is something that we can get done in 28 days, six months, or even a year, contravenes modern science.”

Holcomb pointed out that a fiscal note prepared for a previous version of the drug possession bill that set drug possession as a gross misdemeanor estimated that 12,000 new cases will be filed each year in district and municipal courts across the state because of the bill.

Rep. Goodman, who described the negotiating process over the final bill as collegial but akin to being “subjected to a series of small surgeries,” said he’s hopeful this won’t be the last time the legislature reworks its approach to drug use. “The conversation on the failure of the war on drugs will continue to progress,” he said. “I think we’ll be demonstrating through these policies that harm reduction works. So I’m not too disappointed. But I’m not living in a fantasy world.”

In Seattle on Tuesday, council members Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, alongside city attorney Ann Davison, announced they would introduce a new version of their legislation to criminalize public drug use that will put that proposal in line with the state’s new drug possession and public use laws.

In April, the three proposed a new ban on public drug use at the city level in response to the legislature’s failure to pass a Blake-related drug bill. In a press release, Nelson said, “Now that Olympia has appropriated resources for treatment and adopted a fix for Blake, we’re bringing our legislation into alignment to remove any further cause for inaction on the most critical public health and public safety issue of our time.”

We Must Support People Who Use Substances, Not Punish Them. Here’s How.


Harm reduction includes widely accepted approaches such as needle exchanges and more recent innovations like fentanyl testing strips. Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Susan E. Collins, PhD

Editor’s note: This Tuesday, the Washington State Legislature will convene in a special session to pass a new drug law, after a 2021 state supreme court decision known as Washington v. Blake effectively decriminalized drug possession. The legislature passed a temporary law re-criminalizing drugs until July 2023, expecting to pass a more comprehensive drug law during the legislative session that just ended; when legislators failed to reach an agreement, Gov. Jay Inslee called a special session to deal with Blake.

After decades of the failed and costly war on drugs, we have collectively learned that we cannot punish and incarcerate people into sobriety and wellness. And in the wake of the 2021 Washington State Supreme Court Blake decision, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure recovery, not punishment, for people with substance use disorders by using the evidence-based tools of harm reduction.

However, more punitive measures are currently gaining traction, as state legislators and local government officials consider making public use, drug possession, and/or failure to comply with sobriety-based treatment punishable with jail time and fines.

Why? Some argue jail time can serve as a wake-up call. But recent studies have shown incarceration is associated with worsened physical and mental health, including increased drug use. And it can be deadly: Washington state has the fourth highest jail mortality rate in the country. Due to stronger opioids like fentanyl, jail time can also set people up for overdose. That’s why, in Washington state, people who get out of jail have a risk of overdose death that is at least 16 times higher than for everyone else.

We talk about how to be safer and healthier, even if patients continue to use, and we track metrics to show incremental positive changes. Our studies show this approach to be engaging and effective.

Once we learned these old ways were hurting and not helping, my colleagues and I at the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center at the University of Washington started to ask people who use substances how we could do better. They told us to meet them where they are and not require them to get sober to get help. They wanted to learn, step-by-step, how to reduce substance-related harm and improve quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities. This is called harm reduction.

After spending the past 15 years testing such approaches, here’s what our research and clinical group has found.

Our evaluations of law-enforcement assisted diversion showed that diverting people away from jail to harm-reduction case management and legal assistance was associated with 60 percent lower recidivism, reduced legal and criminal justice system use and costs, and greater likelihood of obtaining housing, employment and legitimate income.

Another successful community-level intervention is providing Housing First, or immediate, permanent, low-barrier housing and supportive services that do not require sobriety to help people meet their basic needs. Contrary to some people’s initial fears, our research has shown that providing Housing First does not “enable” substance use. Studies of Housing First here in Washington State show that it is associated with long-term reductions in alcohol use, alcohol-related harm, and use of jail and publicly funded healthcare. These findings have held in rigorous tests in other parts of the world as well.

Low-barrier shelters, which provide safer-use equipment and spaces, are another effective way to reduce harm. Our evaluation showed this approach did not increase substance use. In fact, people staying in the low-barrier Navigation Center in Seattle were 23 percent less likely to report any alcohol or drug use for each month after their move-in date. Instead, this approach was linked to better general health and a stronger commitment to protecting self and others through safer use.

In another approach, harm-reduction treatment, which can include counseling alone or combined with medication, clinicians set aside a demand for sobriety and instead ask patients, “What do you want to see happen for yourself?” We talk about how to be safer and healthier, even if patients continue to use, and we track metrics to show incremental positive changes.

Our studies show this approach to be engaging and effective. Over 90 percent of those approached have accepted help. We have also seen use and substance-related harm cut in more than half. And even though this harm-reduction treatment approach doesn’t require sobriety, positive urine tests for alcohol decrease as well because some patients decide to get sober after all.

In the case of one client, it took a year and a half to stop using, but even before then, he was reducing his use, recovering from depression, and rebuilding a relationship with his family after 5 years of prison and unsheltered homelessness. He sent me a picture of him and his family at Disneyland, captioning it with “It took a village. But harm reduction worked for me. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy.”

At this watershed moment, let’s remember to support and not punish people for having a substance use disorder. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s what works.

Dr. Susan Collins codirects the Harm Reduction Research & Treatment Center at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The center receives no funding from the tobacco, vaping or pharmaceutical industries. She also is a professor of psychology at Washington State University. The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and not the positions of the University of Washington or Washington State University.

State Legislature Deals a Blow to Seattle’s Dysfunctional Design Review Process

This proposed apartment building, anchored by a Safeway, spent three years in design review.

By Ryan Packer

In addition to requiring modest upzones across the state and streamlining environmental review, the state legislature took aim this year at a process that has become infamous for slowing down new housing in Seattle: Design review

Under Seattle’s current system,  eight volunteer boards, each focused on a different geographic area, review new developments and have the power to dictate design changes if they don’t like the way a proposed building looks. Design review has been used to reduce the scale of developments, mandate specific colors and materials, and even dictate the location and size of private outdoor space for apartment residents. The process can add months or years to a project’s timeline.

House Bill 1293, sponsored by Rep. Mark Klicker (R-16, Walla Walla), and signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee Monday, requires cities and counties that engage in design review to evaluate only “clear and objective development regulations”, as opposed to aesthetic opinions, and limits design review to one public meeting. Before the bill passed in February, Rep. Andy Barkis (R-1, Olympia) called the new standards “clear and objective,” without all the “redundancies” produced by holding hearing after hearing on a development.

David Neiman, a partner at Neiman Taber Architects, is very familiar with how design review works in Seattle, having watched the program transform from a well-intentioned opportunity for citizens to influence projects in their neighborhoods to the bureaucratic behemoth it is today. “It’s become this thing that takes an enormous amount of effort and time for every project that has to go through it. It’s a significant distortion of how we spend our time and energies in getting a project permitted,” Neiman said. 

“I think it’s fair to say the things you have to do to respond to design review also make the building more expensive,” architect David Neiman said, but “one of the things design review gives us is flexibility.”

In 2021, the design review board for Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood approved a design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment complex that will replace the existing grocery store—a one-story Safeway with a large surface parking lot. The process stalled for three years while the review board debated minute details of the project—everything from how many storefront entrances the store must have to the precise color of brick used in the project. The Safeway saga epitomized the elements of Seattle’s design review process that HB 1293 is supposed to correct.

“We probably spend about $100,000 [worth] of time on the design review and [Master Use Permit] process … and it [typically] adds about a year to the process,” Neiman said. “I think it’s fair to say the things you have to do to respond to design review also make the building more expensive.”

But Neiman doesn’t want to discard design review entirely. For one thing, he said, design review boards have the power to approve variances from city codes that can be rigid. “One of the things design review gives us is flexibility. It’s very, very rare that we can design a building according to all of the code requirements,” Neiman said. “Nine times out of ten, boards will agree, and give us that flexibility, and we’re able to design better buildings.”

If the design review process becomes too inflexible, Neiman worries, architects won’t be able to take a broader view of what city codes are trying to achieve. “In a world where you take away design review, the only tool that you’ll have to try and control the design environment is to just start writing rules.”

In 2017, Seattle expanded its administrative design review program, in which city planners review and sign off on projects without input from the volunteer boards. Affordable-housing projects can now skip the full design review process, as can some smaller market-rate projects. The new state law could lead the city to expand that program even more.

Matt Hutchins, a principal with CAST Architecture and a former design review board member himself, is skeptical that putting design review in the hands of city staffers will definitely result in quicker project approvals. “Objective is only in the eyes of the beholder, and setting up a bureaucratic regimen that produces objective judgements is quite difficult,” he said.

“The benefit with the current design review process is that there’s maybe a little bit more visibility and flexibility, and we really can’t hold the planners’ feet to the fire … the same way” when the process isn’t public, Hutchins said.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, chair of the city council’s land use committee and sponsor of a 2021 resolution creating a task force to look at how to improve design review (which is still deliberating), said it’s still too soon to know how the change in state law will impact the city.

“While the solutions to fixing design review are not necessarily clear right now, what is clear is that design review is broken,” Strauss said, adding that the process “is being weaponized to stop projects that are important to our community.”

Seattle will have to adhere to the new restrictions on design review by mid-2025. Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesperson Bryan Stevens said it’s still too soon to say how the changes will impact the city’s design review process.

Homeless Service Providers, Many Unpaid Since Last Year, Demand Reforms

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs tiny house villages around the region, is one of more than a dozen agencies to sign the letter asking for reforms to KCRHA’s contracting process.

By Erica C. Barnett

More than a dozen homeless service providers have written a letter to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board, as well as agency CEO Marc Dones, asking for action after the agency has failed, for a second year, to sign contracts and pay agencies on time.

The letter, which is signed by the leaders of Solid Ground, YouthCare, the Multiservice Center, and other housing and shelter providers, says the KCRHA needs to undertake “major reforms and changes in procedure … to ensure that our critical human services infrastructure doesn’t break under pressure, and that service agencies can be adequately supported to make progress on our shared goals of ending homelessness in our community.”

Providers also showed up at the KCRHA’s implementation board meeting Wednesday to make it clear that their concerns have not been addressed.

In response to the letter, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said, “we appreciate the thoughtful recommendations from providers and are reviewing how to best integrate their feedback.”

The KCRHA oversees more than 300 contracts totaling more than $110 million. As of May 9, the authority had signed just over 150 of those contracts and paid invoices worth a total of around $15 million, according to Martens. The Seattle Times wrote last week about the contract delays.

In internal emails, the KCRHA has attributed the contract delays, in part, to providers requesting changes to their new, non-negotiable “boilerplate” contracts, as well as a complex new software system called Fluxx that has “bugs”—for example, it doesn’t notify providers when it’s their turn to look at a document they’re working on with KCRHA staff, and deletes users’ work if they have to go back and make a change. Martens said providers can set up notifications through Fluxx, but said the KCRHA is “actively working on stabilizing Fluxx to improve provider experience, and will also be evaluating other potential systems.”

The providers are asking the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.”

The new form contracts reportedly include a reduction in the amount the KCRHA will pay for agency operations, or overhead (from 15 to 10 percent of the overall contract budget) and changes to contract requirements that could impact agencies’ ability to secure funding from other sources to do work that is partly funded by the KCRHA. Update: After publication, Martens contacted us to say this information, which came from a homeless service provider, was incorrect and that the new contracts do not limit indirect costs to 10 percent.

PubliCola has asked KCRHA for a copy of its new boilerplate contract language.

For more than four months, service providers big and small have been using up their reserves, even going into debt, to keep programs going; the Low-Income Housing Institute, for example, has “floated” more than $3 million, while YouthCare, a smaller agency, used up most of its existing $1 million line of credit to pay staffers and keep programs going. The Downtown Emergency Service Center and Compass Housing, which decided last year it would no longer contract with KCRHA to provide emergency shelter during freezing weather, also experienced payment delays.

“Operating reserves exist for emergencies, like responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; they are not there to cushion what should be a straightforward administrative function from KCRHA,” the letter says. “For some small organizations it could result in layoffs, or worse, put them out of business.”

Late payments to service providers are not strictly a KCRHA phenomenon. Before the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system, service providers that contracted with the city’s Human Services Department often operated without contracts for months as well; in May 2021, for example, outreach providers that had already gone unpaid for months declined to sign contracts that included new requirements that were incompatible with their organizational missions.

In their letter, the providers ask the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.” In April, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness called the KCRHA’s timeline for re-procuring its contracts plan “high risk, and said it “should only be initiated once core functions for contracting are solidly in place at KCRHA.”

The letter also requests immediate actions to make sure that providers will get paid in future years, regardless of whether KCRHA has finalized their contracts. For example, they write, “KCRHA should automatically extend all contracts through the first quarter of each year,” replacing these first-quarter contracts with the final contract once it’s signed. In addition, they write, the authority should pay 75 percent of invoices up front, instead of waiting until they’ve gone through a detailed review that one provider said can amount to a type of audit.

For delays that require providers to take on debt to stay in operation, the letter continues, the “KCRHA should compensate providers for these financial losses that are tied to administrative delays.”

In the long run, the providers say, the KCRHA should take on the responsibility for proactively contacting providers to let them know about delays, update the implementation board regularly about contract execution and delays, allow providers to consolidate contracts that are similar or duplicative, such as contracts for the same type of shelter in different locations, and include cost of living pay increases in all contracts,

Board Overseeing Federal Homelessness Funds Erupts Into Shouts Over Nomination of Sex Offender

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has asked a member of its Continuum of Care board to step down after she yelled at a fellow board member who objected to the appointment of a proposed new board member, pointing out that he is a registered sex offender and accusing him of behaving inappropriately toward her in the past.

In an email to KCRHA staff and board members last Thursday, KCRHA chief program officer Peter Lynn said he was formally asking the board co-chair, Shanéé Colston, to resign after she “shouted down committee member Kristina Sawyckyj for identifying that one of the prospective AC nominees was a registered sex offender, which is public information. Ms. Sawyckyj was also shouted down by Chair Colston when she spoke of her experience being inappropriately touched by the nominee.”

The continuum of care board plays an important role in securing homelessness funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It reviews and approves applications for federal funding, oversees annual funding renewal requests and performance metrics for homeless service providers, and creates a prioritization tool to judge funding applications.

During a flurry of overlapping shouts, another board member interjected that she had had “nothing but good experiences with [the nominee]” and told Sawyckvj she should contact the police, which Sawyckvj said she had. Sawyckyj went silent, and eventually left the meeting.

The argument began a little more than 45 minutes into the meeting (viewable on the board’s website, which contains a trigger warning for the meeting), when board member Kristina Sawyckyj objected to the appointment of a man who has been convicted for multiple sex offenses involving teenage girls.

In 2010, when he was 25, he was convicted of harboring a minor, a 13-year-old runaway with whom he had a sexual relationship, according to court records. Two years later, the nominee was charged with raping a minor in a case involving a 15-year-old girl; he ultimately pled guilty to communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, a felony sex crime. In 2018, Seattle police found him living in a tent near the Seattle waterfront with a 17-year-old girl, whose mother picked her up and took her home, according to Seattle court records.

Also on the agenda at the delayed meeting: An update to the charter for the Continuum of Care Board, which the board has proposed amending to specify that all 19 members must have lived experience of homelessness or housing instability.

“[He] is a sex offender, a repeat sex offender, and I have had [a] bad experience with him,” Sawyckyj said, adding that the nominee had “touched me” inappropriately in the past.

At that point, Colston cut her off, yelling, “we don’t do that here” and saying it was against board rules to “out” someone who was convicted of a sex crime. During a flurry of overlapping comments, another board member interjected that she had had “nothing but good experiences with [the nominee]” and told Sawyckvj she should contact the police, which Sawyckvj said she had.

Sawyckyj went silent, then left the meeting, while Colston continued. “I’m telling you that you cannot talk like that in this meeting. I will not have that here!” Colston said. “If anyone wants to talk like that you will be muted and removed from this meeting,” she said. “This is about equity. And everyone—everyone— deserves housing. I don’t care if they’re a sex offender! … This is an inclusive space, and we are equitable to all.”

The new board members were supposed to be confirmed during a special meeting last Friday, but the KCRHA canceled the meeting on Thursday. “This unacceptable behavior by leadership of the CoC Advisory Committee has created a hostile environment for KCRHA staff and committee members,” Lynn wrote in his email. “I will be working with KCRHA leadership and our attorneys to determine the next steps to ensure the safety of all those involved in the [board].

Also on the agenda at the delayed meeting: An update to the charter for the Continuum of Care Board, which the board has proposed amending to specify that all 19 members must have lived experience of homelessness or housing instability. The board, which is required by federal policy, predates the KCRHA. In its pre-KCRHA iterations, the board included elected officials, homeless and human service providers, and government staff, in addition to people with direct experience of homelessness.

State Legislature Funds Social Services, Will Revisit Drug Policy After Failing to Act

Photo by Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Andrew Engelson

With Democrats unable to pass a new drug possession law required by the Blake state supreme court ruling before the 2022 session ended, Gov. Jay Inslee, who revcently announced he won’t run for a fourth term, called a special session of the legislature, which will begin on May 16 and could last up to 30 days. In a statement, Inslee said he was “optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chamber[s]. Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that.”

Inslee’s emphasis on “bipartisan” seems to indicate he’lll be pushing for the more punitive version of the bill, which would make drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail. That bill failed to pass after 11 House Democrats voted against it and no Republicans voted for it. The House version set the penalty for possession at a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, and offered more options for diversion to services or treatment instead of jail.

The state’s long-neglected Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash grant program got multiple boosts, including passage of HB 1260, which ends the pay-back requirement for an assistance program that benefits some of the state’s poorest residents.

On his website, Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), who favors a more punitive approach of the bill that includes coercive treatment, said he hoped legislators could resolve their differences in a one-day special session. 

However, for the bill to pass the House without progressive support, some Republicans will need to get on board. In a letter to Inslee last week, House Republicans said any new bill would need to make possession a gross misdemeanor, allow local governments to outlaw drug paraphernalia such as needles and smoking supplies, and require advance public notice whenever a new opioid treatment facility opened.

If progressive Democrats are going to pass a less punitive version of the bill without those Republican votes, they can only afford to lose four centrist Democrats.  

In the meantime, the legislature passed its two-year budget, with $9 billion in capital funding, a $13.5 billion transportation plan, and a $69.3 billion operating budget. Behavioral health services got a substantial boost of $603 million to $1.2 billion, and $140 million in opioid settlement funds will pay for services for people with substance use disorders. 

In the operating budget, the state’s long-neglected Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash grant program got multiple boosts, including passage of HB 1260, which ends the pay-back requirement for an assistance program that benefits some of the state’s poorest residents. The budget boosts funding for the ABD program by 8 percent, and includes $50 million to eliminate the requirement that people who received ABD while waiting to qualify for federal disability benefits pay the state back for the benefits they received.

The operating budget also includes a $26.5 million boost for the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) rental and basic-needs assistance program and a $45 million increase intended to improve wages for human services workers. House Bill 1474, introduced by Rep. Jamila Taylor, (D-30, Federal Way) creates a fund to provide assistance to first-time homebuyers adversely affected by a history of racist covenants and redlining. The $150 million fund will be financed by a $100 increase in the document recording fee, which is added to real estate transactions and which currently also funds much of the state’s operating budget for grants to nonprofits that run low-income housing, homeless services, and emergency shelters.

The state’s capital budget included $520 million for affordable housing, including $400 million for the Housing Trust Fund (a substantial increase over the $175 million allocated to the fund in the 2021-22 budget), $40 million to purchase land for affordable housing, and $14.5 million specifically for shelter and housing for youth.

The biennial budget, as well as HB 1260 and HB 1474, are still awaiting the governor’s signature.