Tag: Alex Pedersen

Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing”

 

Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of "naturally occurring affordable housing"
Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of “naturally occurring affordable housing”

By Erica C. Barnett

Until 2017, elected officials (and reporters) hoping to get a handle on the availability and cost of rental housing in Seattle relied on reports from a private company called Dupre+Scott, whose forecasts used cheeky videos and graphics to illustrate market predictions and trends. Since Dupre+Scott shut down, the city has relied on Census tract-level data to assess housing trends, including residential displacement—a blunt, high-level instrument that does not account for differences between adjacent neighborhoods that may be in the same Census tract.

Earlier this week, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen rolled out legislation that would require landlords to submit detailed information about their rental units—including the size of each unit, the rent they charge, and whether a unit is occupied or vacant—to a research university, such as the University of Washington, twice a year and to certify under the city’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) that they have done so. The university would analyze the information and submit reports to the city, which would use them to “identify displacement risk” and “inform [the city’s] housing policy,” according to a staff report on the bill.

“My interest,” City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

The context for the proposal is the upcoming update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides the framework for all city decisions on land use and zoning. The comp plan, for example, could prescribe the creation of more neighborhood business districts, encourage zoning changes to add density in single-family areas, or require future land-use policies that encourage the use of nonmotorized transportation. Or it could encourage policies that protect existing rental units at the expense of new housing, preserve trees by maintaining Seattle’s ban on development in single-family areas, or require full infrastructure buildout (roads, sewers, transit service) before an area can be developed—a ’90s neighborhood planning concept known as “concurrency.”

Pedersen, who has been a vocal opponent of allowing more density outside existing urban villages, said the city needed more accurate rental information to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists and might be at risk of demolition if the city allows denser housing in more areas. “If additional land-use changes were pursued without first putting into effect displacement prevention laws,” Pedersen said, the city might end up adopting policies that lead to the demolition of “affordable, below-market rental housing on the Ave [in the University District] and throughout our city.” (Pedersen cited the Pacific Apartments, pictured above, as an example of naturally occurring affordable housing. Although the website for the building didn’t have any current listings, a 450-square-foot studio was listed at $1,200 last year).

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” generally refers to older units that cost less than newer housing nearby. Advocates for laws to protect this type of housing often refer to the “mom-and-pop landlords” who tend to own such older buildings, without regard for the specific challenges faced by renters who live in this kind of housing, which may be less well-maintained than professionally managed buildings.

Thanks to the rental registration ordinance, the city does have some general information about how many rental units are available each year. In 2020, according to the most recent RRIO report, the number of registered units in the city declined by about 14.4 percent, “but the total number of units stayed relatively stable with only a 0.65% decrease.”

“Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”—City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Although the report notes that registrations may have declined for any number of reasons, including landlords not bothering to update their renewals during the pandemic, Councilmember Sara Nelson said the decline in registrations, combined with the relatively small decline in apartments on the market, “indicates to me that it is the small mom-and-pop landlords that are basically taking properties off the market.

“My interest,” Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who said she supported Pedersen’s legislation, pushed back at the idea that landlords were going out of business because of renter protections. “That is a claim by landlords,” she said. “Nobody else is claiming that. The reality is that property values are skyrocketing. Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”

Harrell Announces Key Staff, Veteran Budget Director Departs, Council Adopts New Rules and Transparency Requirements

1. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced a list of top staff on Monday headlined by his campaign manager, niece, and now incoming senior deputy mayor Monisha Harrell.

But the biggest throughline in Harrell’s list of appointees wasn’t family—Harrell, who was omnipresent during her uncle’s campaign, was widely expected to take on a key role in his administration—but the elevation of so many longtime insiders to top roles in the new administration.

Of the ten appointments announced yesterday (and an eleventh, Chief of Staff Jennifer Samuels), all but one are current or recent city of Seattle staff, and half are current appointees or allies of outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Tiffany Washington, the former head of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, is currently Durkan’s deputy mayor, and will continue in that role under Harrell. Julie Dingley, the incoming interim budget director (more on that in a minute), is Durkan’s interim Innovation and Performance director and the former lead budget staffer in Durkan’s office. Adiem Emery, the new Chief Equity Officer (“tasked with delivering on the mayor-elect’s vision to make tangible progress embedding equity across City departments and programs,” according to a a press release), is currently a division director at SDOT.  Pedro Gómez, the incoming head of external affairs, is currently director of Small Business Development for the Office of Economic Development. Harrell’s longtime council aide Vinh Tang works in the city’s IT department.

And former city council member Tim Burgess, who will head “strategic initiatives” in a position listed just below Harrell’s two announced deputy mayors, is a longtime Durkan ally—and, of course, Harrell’s former colleague.

Filling out the list are several longtime insiders who worked elsewhere in the city or are returning after an absence. Chief operating officer Marco Lowe (who will focus “on driving efficiencies in Seattle’s public utility agencies, making Seattle government more transparent and accessible, and streamlining housing and infrastructure construction,” per the press release) worked in two mayoral administrations; policy director Dan Eder is deputy director of the city council’s central staff; and chief of staff Samuels worked for Harrell’s council office.

In fact, besides Monisha Harrell—who serves as deputy monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the Seattle Police Department—the only City Hall “outsider” on Harrell’s team is former Seattle/King County NAACP leader Gerald Hankerson, who will be Harrell’s external affairs liaison.

“One of the issues over the past few years on the council is that it hasn’t always been completely clear when a deputy of the mayor is speaking for the mayor, and I don’t think there will be any ambiguity at all that when Monisha speaks, she is speaking for her uncle. I think that’s one of the advantages of having a family member in a position like that.”—City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a member of the public safety subcommittee of Harrell’s transition team, said he has “a lot of confidence in [Monisha Harrell’s] commitment” to pursue non-police responses to emergency and crisis situations. “That’s the real nucleus for moving forward on this intractable argument that we’ve had around what the future of policing is going to be—how can you set up response alternatives?” Lewis said.

The city’s ethics code only raises conflict-of-interest alarms when a city employee supervises an “immediate family member,” which does not include nieces or nephews. (King County’s law is both more prescriptive—the Harrells would be considered each other’s “immediate family”— and slightly more vague.) Former mayor Charley Royer, who served three terms, appointed his brother Bob deputy mayor in 1978, a position the younger Royer held for more than five years.

Lewis said he believes having a mayor and deputy mayor who are related could be an asset. “One of the issues over the past few years on the council is that it hasn’t always been completely clear when a deputy of the mayor is speaking for the mayor, and I don’t think there will be any ambiguity at all that when Monisha speaks, she is speaking for her uncle,” Lewis said. “I think that’s one of the advantages of having a family member in a position like that.”

2. Seattle City Budget Office director Ben Noble announced last week that he is leaving the city after more than 20 years. A longtime city council central staffer who became central staff director in 2006, Noble took over the reins at the budget office in 2014 under Mayor Ed Murray and continued in the position under Durkan, where he often found himself on the opposite side of testy exchanges with his former colleagues over Durkan’s approach to budgeting.

In recent years, Durkan repeatedly attempted to fund her own annual priorities using funds that had already been committed to other purpose (in one case, by Durkan herself), sparking heated debates between the council and the budget office. Last year, Durkan vetoed both the budget and legislation funding COVID relief, both times unsuccessfully.

City Councilmember Alex Pedersen prevailed Monday on a change to the city council’s rules that will allow him (and other council members) to abstain rather than vote on council resolutions unrelated to city business, like the one praising Cuba for its response to the COVID pandemic last year

In a letter to city staff, Noble provided little detail about why he is leaving, calling it “very much a personal decision.” Whatever prompted it (former colleagues speculated burnout, but Noble demurred), his departure opens up a major position in the Harrell administration—and represents a significant loss of institutional knowledge, brainpower, and longstanding relationships between the executive and legislative branches.

3. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen prevailed Monday on a change to the city council’s rules that will allow him (and other council members) to abstain rather than vote on council resolutions unrelated to city business, like the one praising Cuba for its response to the COVID pandemic last year. The legislation was part of a package of council rule changes that will, among other things, move City Council meetings to Tuesdays and limit the amount of time council members can speak to a pending motion. The new rule, which Councilmember Lisa Herbold opposed as vague and open to “unintended consequences,” says that council members can abstain from any resolution that, according to the council president, “does not pertain materially to the City of Seattle.”

Pedersen has long complained that nonbinding resolutions, many of them proposed by his ideological opposite Kshama Sawant, are pointless wastes of the council’s time; in early 2020, he proposed and passed a sarcastic resolution condemning “all forms of oppression affecting communities throughout the world—a response to a Sawant resolution in on national policy in India and Iran.

4. Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation that will require incoming city attorney Ann Davison to notify the council within 90 days of making changes to, or eliminating, the city’s pre-filing diversion programs, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion. Continue reading “Harrell Announces Key Staff, Veteran Budget Director Departs, Council Adopts New Rules and Transparency Requirements”

Council Considers Backing Out of SPD Funding Fight

SPD West Precinct

By Paul Kiefer

With less than a week of budget deliberations to go, the Seattle City Council will consider a trio of amendments on Thursday that could quash the ongoing battle with Mayor Jenny Durkan over the details of the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget.

The amendments would fully or partially walk back a plan, introduced by council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, to reduce Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed SPD budget by $10 million. Within hours of the plan’s debut last Tuesday, both Durkan and mayor-elect Bruce Harrell condemned the plan as an outright “cut” to SPD’s budget; at a press conference the following day, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz claimed that the council’s proposed reductions would effectively “eliminate” more than 30 officers from his department’s ranks.

Mosqueda’s initial budget proposal would not have actually resulted in layoffs or reduced SPD’s existing budget. Instead, it would have reduced the size of Durkan’s proposal by not allocating funds for salaries for positions that the council doesn’t believe SPD will be able to fill next year and by reducing Durkan’s proposed budget for officer overtime by $3.2 million.

While Durkan and SPD estimated that just 94 officers would leave the department next year, Mosqueda’s budget proposal assumed a loss of 125 officers, including at least a dozen unvaccinated officers who will likely lose their jobs by January. If Mosqueda’s assumption is correct, SPD would lose as many officers as it plans to hire in 2022, leaving the department with 31 more vacant positions—and $2.7 million more in unspent salaries—than Durkan anticipated.

The most sweeping proposal, sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen, would leave Durkan’s plans untouched, re-introduce funds for hiring incentives and the CSO program expansion, and adopt the mayor and police chief’s more optimistic hiring and attrition projections.

Mosqueda’s proposal would also have maintained, rather than expanded, funding for SPD’s Community Service Officer (CSO) program—a civilian unit that handles outreach and some non-emergency calls. Her plan also nixed $1.1 million set aside for SPD to pay hiring incentives to new officers in 2022, which Diaz says are necessary to attract recruits in a region where hefty hiring bonuses are becoming the norm.

A final, less-controversial reduction would come from SPD’s technology budget, preventing the department from launching two new software projects in 2022: a body-worn video analysis system used to assess racial disparities in policing and a wearable biometric monitor that would track police officers’ vital signs to flag officers at risk of using excessive force or acting erratically because of stress.

The three amendments on Thursday’s agenda would each restore at least one component of Durkan’s original SPD budget proposal; because they are mutually exclusive, only one can pass.

The most sweeping proposal, sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen, would leave Durkan’s plans untouched, re-introduce funds for hiring incentives and the CSO program expansion, and adopt the mayor and police chief’s more optimistic hiring and attrition projections, To keep the budget balanced, the amendment would remove $10 million from the city’s revenue stabilization fund and return it to SPD.

Continue reading “Council Considers Backing Out of SPD Funding Fight”

Scramble for Slots at New Tiny House Village Shows Consequences of Shelter Scarcity

Alex Pedersen
Council member Alex Pedersen; Seattle Channel screenshot.

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this year, as the city prepared to sweep a small encampment in the University District where a man had recently been shot, residents and businesses in the area rallied around an idea that seemed to address one of the fundamental flaws with the city’s encampment policy: Instead of simply clearing out Olga Park and forcing everyone to leave, why not give encampment residents first dibs on a tiny house village that was expected to open nearby in about a month?

The idea would have solved two related problems. Neighbors complained that the encampment was particularly disruptive—before the shooting, there were many reports of fights, fires, and threats—and, at the same time, encampment residents couldn’t exactly pick up stakes and go inside. “My spiel [to the city] was, ‘If you guys are going to put tiny house villages in neighborhoods, it would show the benefit of having a tiny house village if it was for people in that neighborhood,” said David Delgado, the University District neighborhood care coordinator for the outreach group REACH.

Just over half of the referrals to Rosie’s Village—about 20—will come from the surrounding area; the rest will reportedly come from upcoming encampment sweeps in Lower Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons.

Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who represents the U District, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Low Income Housing Institute’s tiny house village at NE 45th and Roosevelt Way NE, known as Rosie’s Village, in part because it could provide a shelter option for unhoused people in the area while addressing neighborhood and business concerns about trash, needles, and other issues related to the unsheltered population.

Although neither Pedersen nor his staff responded to our requests for an interview, Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, praised Pedersen for being “so pushy and so organized” in getting a tiny house village in his district.

“A big part of his motivation is he wants it to be a resource for his district,” Lewis said. “Generally speaking, as we’re going to have six new villages coming online, I would like to see if we can have dedicated referrals that concentrate on the neighborhood where the village is sited.”

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Ultimately, the city swept Olga Park and encampment residents were scattered throughout the city. Some stayed in the U District, moving to spots near I-5 and other parts of Ravenna Park, while others moved to places like Lower Woodland Park. Rosie’s Village, which the city says can accommodate about 50 people, finally started taking referrals from the city’s HOPE team, which coordinates shelter referrals prior to encampment removals, this week. According LIHI director Sharon Lee, just over half of the referrals to Rosie’s Village—about 20—will come from the surrounding area; the rest reportedly will come from upcoming encampment sweeps in Lower Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons.

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said that “while the expectation was that a number of referrals from the vicinity would be made to Rosie’s Tiny House Village, the City never intended, or communicated, that the Village would only accept referrals from people experiencing homelessness in the University District.” Earlier this year, he added, the city moved people living unsheltered in the University District to hotels and shelters in other neighborhoods, including the Executive Pacific Hotel shelter, also operated by LIHI, downtown. Continue reading “Scramble for Slots at New Tiny House Village Shows Consequences of Shelter Scarcity”

Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors

1. The City Council voted on Monday to shore up several of its own priorities for rethinking public safety using $15 million in savings from salaries left unspent by the Seattle Police Department after another year of abnormally high attrition.

The council left almost two-thirds of the $15 million in the department’s budget, allowing SPD to cover the costs of downsizing—updates to timekeeping software to help deploy a smaller number of officers more efficiently, for example. Additionally, the council lifted a trio of provisos on the department’s budget, releasing roughly $8 million for the department to use as it wants.

Of the $5.2 million the council shifted out of SPD’s budget, $3 million will go to the Human Services Department to fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing. The council set aside another $700,000 to stand up a new civilian crisis response unit tentatively called Triage One.

SPD’s staffing crisis loomed over Monday’s budget vote, as highlighted by a pair of unsuccessful amendments introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that laid out two options for scaling up the department’s recruitment and retention efforts. The more ambitious of the two would have set aside nearly $2.8 million for SPD to develop a loosely defined “retention program,” as well as $233,000 to offer hiring incentives to officers who join SPD—as much as $15,000 for officers who transfer from other agencies. To cover the cost, Pedersen proposed completely abandoning the plan to shift a portion of SPD’s salary savings to HSD; in a blog post on Friday, Pedersen wrote that “funding for those other programs can be extended at a later date, but we have a SPD staffing crisis today.”

A second, scaled-down proposal would have set aside nearly $900,000 for retention while leaving the amount earmarked for hiring incentives unchanged; the latter plan would have left the HSD dollars untouched, instead drawing from still-unassigned dollars in SPD’s budget to pay for overtime.

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Ahead of Monday’s meeting, both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments, casting the proposals as a vital intervention for a department in a downward spiral. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”

But neither option found enough traction to move ahead on Monday. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda argued that scaling up civilian crisis response units should take priority over the police department’s retention and recruitment woes, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that SPD is not the only city department grappling with a staffing shortage. “If we’re going to focus on recruitment, I think we need to think about vacancies across all departments,” Herbold said.

“Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left.”— City Councilmember Alex Pederesen

Councilmember Andrew Lewis voted for Pedersen’s less-ambitious amendment, which failed on a 5-4 vote, citing the short-term need to stem SPD’s losses while civilian emergency responders build their capacity. “Right now, the only service that is to scale and that can provide exigent first response is our police department,” he said.

In an email to PubliCola Monday, Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” he said. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”

Pedersen added that the upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) could help reduce SPD’s staffing costs by reining in expenses written into the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2020. “Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left,” he said.

2. Upcoming changes to the Department of Justice’s rules for court-appointed consent decree monitors are unlikely to impact Seattle’s own agreement with the police department, according to Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, because they only apply to new consent decrees.

Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has operated under a consent degree—an agreement that the department will adopt reforms to address its history of racially biased policing and use of excessive force—administered by the Department of Justice and overseen by a monitor appointed by US District Court Judge James Robart. The proposed changes are an attempt to reform the monitoring system to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest or financial improprieties. Continue reading “Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

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

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

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

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

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

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority

1. After listening to public comment from both sides of the debate (one woman, who rattled off the first names of several homeless people she claimed to know, said a guy named “Josh” told her, “The only way you can help me is to arrest me and have me sweat it out”), the council’s public safety committee discussed a proposal from council member Lisa Herbold that would create a new affirmative defense for people who commit crimes of poverty.

The proposal, a version of which Herbold originally proposed as part of the 2021 budget, would enable people who admitted to committing misdemeanor crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, to meet a basic human need to use this fact as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then determine whether the defendant actually committed the crime to meet a basic need or not.

The concept has been widely mischaracterized as a plan to “legalize all crime” by conservative interest groups Change Washington and business leaders who claim it would allow people to vandalize small businesses, walk out of stores with armloads of cell phones, and squat on people’s property with impunity. In reality, creating a “basic need” defense would  merely add one more affirmative defense to the list that already exists in city law. Defendants already have the ability to argue, for example, that they committed a crime because they were under duress. Judges and juries then have the ability to agree or disagree with this defense.

These facts didn’t stop public commenters from claiming that creating a new defense would effectively unleash “addicts” and “criminals” on the streets of Seattle. And it didn’t stop council member Alex Pedersen from rattling off a list of extremely implausible scenarios if the bill passed.

The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone made Seattle a “national embarrassment,” he said—and a basic need defense might do the same, impacting everything from the US Senate races in Georgia to the future makeup of the Supreme Court. Renters, he said, might see their renters’ insurance premiums go up as insurance companies decide en masse to “classify all of Seattle as a high-risk zone.” And how, he wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?” (Never mind that the scenario he’s describing would involve going to jail, getting out, getting an attorney, going to court, and convincing a judge or jury that the defense was valid).

And how, city council member Alex Pedersen wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?”

In any case, Pedersen continued, it makes no sense to address the judicial system’s response to crimes of poverty before the city knows the impact of cuts to police, the outcome of the participatory budgeting process that just got underway, and the details of the next Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. “Let’s first see how these other changes work before this council is immersed in a time-consuming and distracting debate over whether we would be the first city in the US to weaken our laws that protect each other,” he said.

Finally, Pedersen argued that City Attorney Pete Holmes has already said that he doesn’t prosecute crimes of poverty, which means that there’s no reason to even discuss the issue for “one to five years,” the length of Holmes’ current and (likely) upcoming terms.

Herbold is still working on draft legislation. Outstanding questions (outlined in this memo) include whether to narrow the defense to a specific list of misdemeanors, whether to put the burden of proof on defendants to show that they had no choice but to commit a crime, and whether people who shoplift merchandise for resale should be allowed to use the defense.

2. Documents just posted on the website of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority indicate that the timeline for hiring a director for the agency has slipped again, from mid-January to mid-February of next year. Originally, the new homelessness agency—which is supposed to come up with a unified, regional approach to homelessness for the entire county, including Seattle and dozens of suburban cities—was supposed to approve the CEO in September. Continue reading “Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority”

City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council adopted a 2021 budget today that reduces the Seattle Police Department’s budget while funding investments in alternatives to policing; repurposes most of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million “equitable investment fund” to council priorities; and replaces the encampment-removing Navigation Team with a new program intended to help outreach workers move unsheltered people into shelter and permanent housing. 

And although council member Kshama Sawant, who votes against the budget every year, decried the document as a “brutal austerity budget,” it contained fewer cuts than council members and the mayor feared they would have to make when the economy took a nosedive earlier this year. 

The council received two major boosts from the executive branch this budget cycle. First, the council’s budget benefited from a better-than-expected revenue forecast from the City Budget Office that gave them an additional $32.5 million to work with. And second, Durkan expressed support for the council’s budget, portraying it as a compromise that preserved all of the $100 million she had proposed spending “on BIPOC communities,” albeit not in the form she initially imagined. This show of goodwill (or political savvy) from the mayor signaled a sharp turnaround from this past summer, when she vetoed a midyear spending package that also included cuts to police.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes the council made to the mayor’s original proposal. 

Seattle Police Department

The council’s budget for police will be a disappointment to anyone who expected the council to cut SPD’s funding by 50%, as several council members pledged last summer at the height of the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May. Council members acknowledged that the cuts were smaller and slower than what protesters have demanded but said that the City is just at the beginning of the process of disinvesting in police and investing in community-based public safety. 

“Our goal is not about what the golden number of police officers is in this moment,” council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) said. “It’s about shifting our vision of what public safety is into the hands of community-based responses in those instances where those kinds of responses not only reduce harm but can deliver community safety in a way that police officers sometimes cannot.” 

Council member Tammy Morales (South Seattle), who acknowledged earlier this month that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle,” said that in her estimation, “increasing police staffing wrongly presumes that they can fill the roles” of the “nurses and support staffers and housing specialists” that the City plans to hire in the future.

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Although the 2021 budget does cut police spending by around 20%, the bulk of that reduction comes from shifting some police responsibilities, including parking enforcement and the 911 dispatch center, out of the department. The rest of the cuts are largely achieved through attrition — taking the money allocated to vacant positions and spending it on other purposes. 

For example, the council’s budget funds a total of 1,343 SPD positions next year, down from 1,400 in Durkan’s budget, for a total savings (including a last-minute amendment adopted Monday) of just over $8 million. That money will be removed from the police department and spent on future community-led public safety projects, which will be identified by a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now.

At Monday’s council briefing meeting, some council members expressed hesitation about a last-minute amendment from Mosqueda cutting an additional $2 million from SPD’s budget, noting that the department now predicts it will be able to hire more than the 114 new officers it previously projected for next year. And at least one council member found it odd that the number of SPD employees the amendment predicts will leave next year — 114 — is exactly the same as the number of new hires predicted in the mayor’s budget, for a net gain of exactly zero officers.

“The fact that we are anticipating 114 attritions seems a little cute to me, to be honest, given that the number [of hires] in the [mayor’s] staffing plan … is 114,” Herbold said during the council’s morning briefing. “It just feels like it is an attempt to respond to the call for no new net officers and it confuses the situation, I think.” In the end, only Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, voted against the cuts.

Community Safety

The council’s budget puts $32 million toward future investments in community-led public safety efforts that would begin to replace some current functions of the police department, such as responding to mental health crises and domestic violence calls.  Continue reading “City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety”

Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos

1. PubliCola has learned that the city is in conversation with the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel to provide temporary housing to hundreds of unsheltered Seattle residents using federal COVID relief dollars. The hotel is one of at least two in or near downtown Seattle that the city hopes will serve as way stations between homelessness and permanent housing. The city has pledged to fund as many as 300 hotel rooms for 10 months; the plan is to move people quickly from living on the street to either permanent supportive housing or market-rate apartments, using temporary “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office would not confirm that the Executive Pacific, which has 155 rooms, is under consideration for the program. “The City is in negotiations with a number of hotels and it would be premature to announce any possible locations as that may impact those ongoing negotiations,” Durkan’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, said. 

The city contracted with the Executive Pacific early in the pandemic to provide rooms for first responders. As PubliCola reported, most of those rooms remained vacant while shelters continued to operate at full or nearly-full capacity.

2. At a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board last week, representatives from the Hawkins Company, a recruiting firm hired to help identify a director for the new agency, said they they expect to start “preliminary candidate screening” by early December, with a goal of narrowing the list down to between 5 and 8 candidates by the end of the year. The official application period ends in less than two weeks, on December 4.

Given the high qualifications for the position, and the challenges of running a joint city-county homelessness agency with dozens of constituent cities with competing views about homelessness, it seems likely that the Hawkins Group could face some challenges in recruiting 5 to 8 fully qualified candidates for the position. Since the city of Seattle and King County itself are the most prominent partners in the new authority, I reached out to the offices of Mayor Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine for comment.

“We are confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Constantine’s office did not respond. Hightower, speaking for Durkan’s office, said the mayor is “confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates” and that Hawkins is “well on their way to the goal.” Hightower noted that Hawkins recruited the executive director for the LA Homeless Services Authority, and reminded me the “the Mayor is part of a group of decision-makers” at the county authority. However, Durkan and Constantine, as the executives of the county’s largest city (and the biggest financial contributor to the authority) and the county itself, are indisputably the most prominent of those decision makers.

3. Throughout the budget process that wraps up this afternoon, freshman city council member Alex Pedersen has promoted an anti-development agenda that will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to his 2019 campaign. And although most of the slow-growth amendments, provisos, and statements of legislative intent Pedersen proposed this year didn’t pass, it’s worth taking a look at them together to imagine what their impact would have been if they had. Collectively, Pedersen’s proposals would have placed significant new process barriers in the way of housing in Seattle, including new reporting requirements, new fees, and new regulations making it harder for land owners to remove trees on private property. 

Here are just a few of the land-use amendments Pedersen proposed as part of this year’s budget process. Except where noted, these measures did not make it into the final budget. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos”

White Council Member Fires His Lone Black Employee During Pandemic, Just Days Before Citywide Protests Against Racial Injustice

Seattle city council member Alex Pedersen. Image via Seattle.gov.

This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Toby Thaler did not sue the city to stop backyard cottages; instead, he spent years filing legal challenges to stop the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which, after significant delays, allows slightly more density in a sliver of exclusive single-family areas that make up the vast majority of residential land in Seattle. Marty Kaplan is the activist who worked to prevent the expansion of backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments. 

UPDATE: Since this post was published, a GoFundMe has been set up for people to contribute to the college fund of Lhorna Murray’s son Carter. Find out more and contribute here.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just days before protests against anti-Black police brutality and injustice exploded across the country, Seattle City Council member Alex Pedersen fired his lone Black staffer, Lhorna Murray, on May 20. A white Pedersen staffer, Alexa Halling, quit in solidarity with Murray, both Murray and Halling confirm.

Murray, a longtime community organizer who joined Pedersen’s campaign as a volunteer after he was “the only candidate who came to my community”—Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing development in Magnuson Park—says she believed she was hired “to bring the voices of the people who aren’t heard to the table, and who I feel like desperately need to be part of the conversations and part of the solutions. But the circumstances of my employment and the culture of the workplace made it pretty difficult to authentically be able to accomplish that.” Instead, Murray says her job was limited to checking emails and responding to constituents, plus scheduling Pedersen’s weekly in-district office hours.

City Council member Alex Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, fired his lone Black staffer in late May, in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented unemployment. One of his white staffers quit in protest.

Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, directed questions about the upheaval in his office to council communications director Dana Robinson Slote, who said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters.

His campaign platform included reinvigorating traditional neighborhood groups, restricting density (often framed through the lens of “protecting trees”) and protecting street parking in neighborhoods. His top policy hire was longtime neighborhood activist Toby Thaler, best known in recent years for suing the city to stop modest upzones in a sliver of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Density is a housing accessibility issue, which makes it a racial justice issue as well.

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Multiple staffers on the second floor expressed surprise that Pedersen would fire his council aide without providing her with a path to another job at the City in the middle of an epidemic that has caused massive unemployment and cratered the job market. Employees of council members can be fired at will, but no one I talked to in council offices said they were aware of any issue with Murray’s performance that would justify firing her without notice.

I have filed a records request for any confidentiality agreements or NDAs signed by staffers for every council office to see if any other offices require staffers to sign NDAs. The confidentiality agreement, which I have seen, says that the employee will “never” reveal any information that “is not generally known outside the context of the employment and is disclosed or obtained by the Employee as a consequence of his or her confidential relationship to the Employer.” With few exceptions, all communications by city council staffers are a matter of public record under the state Public Disclosure Act. Pedersen’s campaign focused on accountability and transparency, as has his rhetoric on the council.

“Racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.” —Former Alex Pedersen staffer Alexa Halling

Ex-Pedersen staffer  Halling says she quit “to protest the firing of my coworker Lhorna.”  Although a nondisclosure agreement Murray’s colleague Halling signed when she took the job prevented her from talking on record about conditions in Pedersen’s office or the specific reasons why she quit, she said that, in Seattle, “racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.”

The fact that Halling quit to express solidarity with Murray speaks to “who she is at the core,” Murray says. “She totally forfeited her livelihood, whereas most people”—those who consider themselves “allies”— “don’t even want to have an uncomfortable moment. …Every day that I knew Alexa, and every time there was something happening that wasn’t right, Alexa spoke up.”

The diversity of the council’s staff has increased as the council itself has become more diverse, but there are still only a relative handful of Black staffers, and no Black council members, on City Hall’s second floor. And, as Murray notes, “there’s a difference between having a diverse office and listening to a diverse set of opinions.”

Murray says she’s confident she’ll land on her feet. But she says her experience working for Pedersen, and her firing, has served as “a really valuable lesson” for her 18-year-old son, who volunteered on Pedersen’s campaign and who cast his first-ever vote for him.

Murray says she spent considerable personal capital convincing friends and neighbors in her community to vote for Pedersen over activist and filmmaker Shaun Scott, who is Black, telling them that “what he didn’t know, he was willing to learn.” Last week, she says, “he was having to make phone calls telling his friends he’s not going ot be able to go to [college] with them” because Murray, who’s a single mom, can no longer afford it.