Tag: Dow Constantine

Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine drew his first significant challenger this year in state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), who’s running at the three-term incumbent from the left. So it would be easy to conclude that Constantine’s big push to announce the purchase of hotels around the county for housing and shelter—five since May, including three in the last three weeks—is timed to capture support and votes in the August 3 primary election, paving the way for yet another big win in November.

And maybe it is. But the purchases also represent a major shift in policy for the region, one that could make a noticeable dent in the number of people sleeping outdoors across the county. The first big difference from previous policy: The county is buying, not renting, the buildings, using revenues from a new countywide sales tax, branded Health Through Housing, to fund the purchases and pay for ongoing services for the people who will live in the former hotel rooms.

That means that unlike the city of Seattle, which is renting two hotels for ten months, the county’s placements won’t come with an end date, creating flexibility for people to stay there for a few weeks to years, depending on their needs.

“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.” —King County Executive Dow Constantine

“It is not intended to be the forever home for everyone who comes here,” Constantine said during a press tour of a newly purchased Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle earlier this month. “What we want is for people to be able to move past this kind of assistance and onto more self sufficiency.” But, he added, “Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. …If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.”

Capital costs (purchasing and retrofitting the buildings to serve as long-term shelter and housing) will make up, at minimum, 60 percent of spending on the hotels, with the rest reserved for behavioral health and “housing-related services” under the legislation that authorized King County to impose the tax. “It’s one thing to purchase the property, which is an expensive endeavor,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said during a Monday press briefing inside a 102-room former Clarion Inn the county just purchased in that city. “But more important, after that, is to ensure that those services continue.” 

The second difference is that the hotels are opening all over the region, not just in Seattle—including in cities that have adopted policies that are starkly at odds with the concept of regionalism, such as Renton’s efforts to ban emergency shelter and Auburn’s vote to criminalize sleeping in public spaces. The hotels are generally in areas that already allow hotels or housing, which means they won’t be subject to the kind of lengthy zoning debates that can doom projects that serve unsheltered people.

The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

Whether the hotel purchases represent a true change of heart by suburban cities remains to be seen. The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

The new King County Regional Homelessness authority is already hard at work on multiple “sub-regional plans” for various parts of the county, including South King County, the Eastside, and the Snoqualmie Valley, according to RHA CEO Marc Dones. This suggests that the main “transformation” the new authority will achieve, at least in the short term, is administrative: Seattle’s homelessness division will cease to exist, and the county and city’s efforts (and funding) will move to new authority.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

On Tuesday, Backus said she hoped that there wouldn’t be an excessive number of sub-regional plans, but argued that relatively affordable cities in South King County require a different approach than a large, expensive city like Seattle, particularly when it comes to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I’ve often said that what works in Auburn won’t work in Seattle, and what works in Seattle won’t work in Bellevue,” Backus said. Those differences, she said, include things like the new criminal penalty for sleeping in public spaces—a proposal that likely wouldn’t fly in Seattle, and was controversial even in Auburn. Backus said “members of the Puyallup Tribe” have complained that garbage from encampments in wetlands are getting caught in their fish traps, for example. “It’s not OK. We are damaging the land,” Backus said. Continue reading “Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?”

County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks

1. During a campaign debate sponsored by the King County Young Democrats on Saturday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), had a testy exchange about the issue of corporate PAC contributions.

It started when Nguyen said he didn’t accept any money from “corporate PACs.” Constantine said he was “interested to hear [Nguyen] say that he doesn’t take corporate PAC money,” given that he has received thousands of dollars from political committees for credit unions, health care, dentists, beer and wine distributors, and auto dealers, as well as individual lobbyists from industry groups. “I’m fine if you want to say  you’re not taking any corporate PAC money, but just make sure that you actually weren’t taking corporate PAC money, which you clearly were,” Constantine said. 

Nguyen, sputtering a bit, responded, “I’m happy to explain the difference between an association and a PAC … and in fact, if that’s the bar, then if you did the same thing, then that’s totally fine. So feel free to do the exact same thing that I am doing, that’s totally fine.” 

Later, Constantine brought up the PAC issue again, Nguyen responded: “Are they PACs? Were they PACs?”

“Yeah,” Constantine replied.

“They’re not. So look again. Look again,” Nguyen said. “They were associations… not the corporations themselves. But if you think that’s an issue, do the same. I’m happy to have you follow my lead, so don’t take corporate PACs and call it good.”

For the record, both candidates have accepted money from PACs, although Constantine—as the more established candidate—has accepted more. Nguyen’s PAC money came during his run for state senator in 2018.

SeattleMakers’ street sink model.

2. Six months after the city council allocated $100,000 to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective,” Seattle Public Utilities has finally chosen two vendors to receive the money.

Slightly more than half, $60,000, will go to the Clean Hands Collective, an organization founded by Real Change that includes landscape architects and public health experts; the rest, $40,000, will go to SeattleMakers, a South Lake Union “makerspace” that designed a prototype “handwashing station” at an estimated cost of $7,250 per unit—about ten times the price of Clean Hands’ Street Sink. According to SeattleMakers’ website, the city reached out to them to design the sink. Continue reading “County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks”

Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack

1. The city’s removal of a small encampment near Reuben’s Brews in Ballard, part of several scheduled encampment sweeps this week, cleared a sidewalk in front of one business while, less than a block away, other people living in other tents were left alone for now. The city, as we’ve reported, is increasing the pace of encampment sweeps to previous, pre-COVID levels, using a reconfigured and renamed Navigation Team (now known as the HOPE Team) to do outreach and tell people about available shelter beds before they have to leave.

The city prioritizes encampments based on a number of factors, but one is “emergent complaints” from businesses and housed neighborhood residents who contact the city.

Ballard is full of encampments, because Ballard is full of people who have nowhere to live. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the city “requested that outreach efforts… intensify this week with the goal of getting all who are onsite situated into shelter and on a path towards a permanent housing solution,” which suggests that the city has sufficient, desirable shelter and “permanent housing solutions” for everyone who is willing to accept its help.

This, of course, is not true. Although the city has now separated the work of the renamed Navigation Team from actual encampment sweeps (which are performed by Parks cleanup crews), the effect of doing outreach (or, controversially, directing nonprofits that serve specific subpopulations to do the work for them) prior to a sweep, the result is still that people pack up and leave because they know a sweep is coming.

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill.”

Some do go into shelter (the HOPE Team has exclusive access to a large number of beds that aren’t available to other outreach teams); according to the mayor’s office, the outreach provider REACH offered shelter to eight people remaining onsite, and two “accepted shelter referrals.” (Referral “acceptance” is not the same thing as checking in to a shelter.)

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill. A referral indicates that an individual experiencing homelessness has accepted an offer of shelter and they have been connected to an open shelter resource. The majority of these referrals have been into new hotel-based shelter resources.” 

Those resources consist primarily of about 140 beds at the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel. (Another hotel, King’s Inn, is for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals and is currently full.) As of January 2020, there were at least 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County.

The actual selection of a new Public Health director, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

2. King County Public Health Department director Patty Hayes announced her retirement this week after seven years in the position; Dennis Worsham, the director of the department’s Prevention Division, will be her interim replacement. The county also announced an advisory committee of stakeholders that will “inform the process for recruiting and selecting the next permanent director.”

The actual selection, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

Constantine has been lauded for the county’s timely, prudent public health response during the pandemic, thanks in huge part to the now nationally-recognized leadership of public health officer Jeff Duchin.

The same can’t be said of Durkan, who spent millions renting a hotel for first responders that stood empty while homeless people languished in encampments and crowded shelters; belatedly rented two shower trailers at an astronomical cost while King County deployed similar units at a fraction of the cost; closed restrooms throughout the city and replaced them with unsanitary “sanicans”; delayed the deployment of sinks for people to wash their hands, arguing that “Purell on a pole” could serve the same purpose at lower cost; and resisted providing hotel rooms for people living unsheltered, despite ample evidence that private rooms improve public and individual health for people experiencing homelessness.

PubliCola asked the health department about the timeline for choosing a new director; James Apa, a spokesman for the department, said that’s up in the air, but that the committee should interview finalists “by the end of the year.” Since the mayoral election is November 3, I asked whether the mayor-elect will have a role in the selection process between their election and when the new mayor takes office next January. Apa responded, “We’ll have a better sense of timeline when recruitment begins, and that will determine who’s involved in decision-making.”

3. The Freedom Foundation, an anti-union, anti-government, anti-tax group whose tactics include lawsuits, public relations campaigns, and pressure tactics to convince workers to leave their unions, has turned their sights on MLK Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Nicole Grant, urging union members to “stop supporting Nicole Grant” by opting out of their union membership. Continue reading “Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack”

County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended”

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who served in the state legislature and on the King County Council before beating eight other candidates for county executive in 2009, was supposed to run for governor—until the current governor, Jay Inslee, decided he wanted to keep the job. With a bid for higher office thwarted until at least 2024, many political observers expected Constantine to step down this year rather than seek a fourth term.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, all eyes were on King County and its public health department, whose capable response to a fast-moving, ever-evolving crisis made the county a model for the nation. Constantine decided to run again, and for the first time in 12 years, drew a credible opponent—Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents the same West Seattle district Constantine did in the state House and Senate. (In a further twist of internecine West Seattle politics, Nguyen defeated Shannon Braddock, who’s now Constantine’s deputy chief of staff.)

I sat down with Constantine over Zoom last week, and started out by asking him why he decided to seek another term.

Dow Constantine: I mean, I was thinking about running for governor, but then the governor ran for governor. And because I’m a good Democrat, and I want to ensure that we have Democratic leadership in Olympia, I chose not to run for governor along with all the other potential candidates.

I have lots of options in life. But the best opportunity right now coming out of this crisis is to advance the work we’ve been doing. I think this is a unique, exciting moment where the status quo has been upended. And a lot of the things that we have been dutifully building toward in equity and social justice and environmental restoration and police transformation and so forth become dramatically more possible. So, you know, once the, the COVID crisis started, we’ve been in it, and there’s really been no looking back.

PubliCola: Looking back over the last 14, 15 months of the pandemic, is there anything that you would have done differently in the early months, if you had known kind of how things would turn out?

With hindsight being 20/20, instead of trying to distance people in a congregate setting, like in shelters, we would know that having people just farther apart but all in the same room, was still going to be problematic. We [eventually] moved to the hotel model, which immediately and dramatically slowed the spread of the disease. Obviously, if we had more knowledge at the time, we might have made different choices about requiring mask use early on, or getting people into hotels and single-room settings rather than shelters. But in general, I think that the people responded well to a crisis with a lot of unknowns.

“Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.”

PC: One of the things [Downtown Emergency Service Center director] Daniel Malone has said since early in the pandemic, when DESC moved people from their downtown shelter to the Red Lion in Renton, is that they’re never going to go back to the way things were, with people staying in overcrowded, congregate shelters. And yet it feels like that’s kind of what’s happening at the city level. Do you think that in a year or two years, we’re going to be right back where we were?

DC: That is not what the county is doing. Other than in isolated cases, for an immediate overnight emergency, we’re not going to be investing in mats-on-the-floor, get-kicked-out-in-the-morning shelters, because we have seen what having a room of your own, a place of your own, even just space of your own, can do for people.

It used to be that people were very focused on long-term, purpose-built, supportive housing, and it was sort of, we’ll just wait and let people rotate through these congregate shelters until those things are ready. With some exceptions, I think we’re moving much more toward a model where we try to get everyone a place that is genuinely a better alternative to the streets or a tent—a place that has a lock on the door with their own bathroom and some dignity and the ability to get rested and cleaned and centered. And that seems like kind of an obvious thing. But the pandemic created the opportunity to demonstrate how much better that works than a congregate shelter setting.

“I do think it’s likely that we want to find [a new sheriff] who is an outsider, someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything and is not beholden to people so that they can make difficult decisions and see things with clear eyes.”

PC: The opiate task force came out with its recommendations almost five years ago, and I remember at the time thinking that, in particular, the [supervised consumption site] recommendation was never going to happen. And sure enough, it hasn’t. Why do you think that is? And do you think the county has come through as promised on the remaining recommendations, including access to treatment on demand?

DC: I do think that the task force was correct that a safe, monitored place would save lives. And we’re seeing continued deaths from heroin that’s tainted with fentanyl, for example. And for the parents, for the families who’ve lost their children, the moralizing that I come across in the media about not facilitating drug use rings kind of hollow. Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.

Will we, as a practical matter, be able to get one of these things up and running? I don’t think, unless there’s a significant political change, that it’s going to be possible to do. But I will say this. The advances in both treatment and the drugs to reverse overdose mean that it’s absolutely imperative that people not be in basements and alleys and other places where they don’t have eyes on and them can’t get help, because we can save lives in the short run. And we can save people from addiction over time. And we have much better mechanisms that we had even a decade ago to do that.

“It is the state of Washington that requires us to have a youth detention facility. And we would very much welcome the state legislature actually removing that legal obligation, and instead providing us with the funds and the mandate for alternatives.”

This is not your question, but this has been bugging me lately. There are a lot of people on the streets who have some level of opioid dependence. And some of them had it before they were homeless, and a lot of them developed it on the streets and are at grave risk because of tainted drugs that can come in to the community. And there have been plenty of suburban kids and parents who have died. But I continue, as I make calls, to hear this basic, moralistic perspective—like, they’ve just got to get off the junk, and then we can offer them all these services.

And we know that’s not how it works. Getting just some solid ground under people’s feet first is an almost indispensable prerequisite to people being able to succeed in treatment. When you’re fighting for survival every night, it’s very hard to adhere to some sort of program that’s going to help you get off of whatever you’re addicted to. Continue reading “County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended””

County Invests in Hotel-Based Shelter, SPOG Campaigns for Sawant Recall, Durkan Records Requests Raise Disclosure Questions

1. In his State of the County address Tuesday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that the county would purchase the Inn at Queen Anne, which has been serving as a temporary shelter operated by Catholic Community Services since April of last year.

The 80-room hotel, which CCS will continue to operate, will cost the county $16.5 million; the money will come from the new “health through housing” sales tax that the county council passed—with some notable abstentions from suburban cities—late last year. The county plans to purchase “several more properties in several more cities … in the coming weeks,” Constantine said in his address.

Even as the county moves to buy hotels, the city of Seattle is pushing in the opposite direction.

In an interview yesterday, Constantine said he saw the hotels as “stops on the way to permanent supportive housing or independent housing, including affordable housing—places where you could live for a while and stabilize and take advantage of services.” Traditional, congregate shelters, including “enhanced shelters” like Seattle’s Navigation Center, don’t offer the kind of privacy and stability hotel rooms provide; “the difference between being able to come inside for the night and having a place of your own with a lock on the door seems to be everything,” Constantine said.

Even as the county moves to buy hotels, the city of Seattle is pushing in the opposite direction. Between now and June, Seattle plans to close down a temporary shelter at Exhibition Hall and relocate the people living there into shelters whose populations were “redistributed” last year, including the Navigation Center. After resisting calls to move Seattle’s homeless population into hotel-based shelters, the city finally rented about 200 hotel rooms this spring—a temporary solution (the rooms will be occupied for 10 months) and one that represents a fraction of the need. At the same time, Seattle is ramping up homeless encampment sweeps.

Asked about the apparent contrast between the county’s approach and Seattle’s, Constantine said, “first off, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If people need a place to be inside at night, we have to figure out a way to make that happen.” However, he added, “If you’re going to move people out of an encampment, at a bare minimum, you can’t just chase people from one street corner to another or one park to another. That is tremendously unhelpful.”

Constantine is up for reelection this year; his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, told PubliCola he supports the regional homelessness authority that the county is setting up but thinks the county has failed forge partnerships with the leaders of cities within the county.

The email, which the police union sent to its members last Friday, asked off-duty officers to appear in plain clothes to collect signatures and wave anti-Sawant signs at four Capitol Hill intersections on Saturday and Sunday.

2. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) asked its members to participate in signature-gathering events for the Recall Sawant campaign over the weekend, according to an email from SPOG leadership.

The email, which the police union sent to its members last Friday, asked off-duty officers to appear in plain clothes to collect signatures and wave anti-Sawant signs at four Capitol Hill intersections on Saturday and Sunday.

Recall Sawant campaign manager Henry Bridger II told SPOG members in the email that their presence would help “beef up” an otherwise meager group of volunteers. “Our goal is to have about 40+ people each day and we have about 15 right now and many probably won’t show for fear of retaliation,” he wrote, warning that “Sawant’s people will be there in mass [sic] to interfere.”

“We are just wanting to have plain-clothed volunteers to help hold signs and gather signatures so we look like we have a lot of coverage,” Bridger added. He also asked officers to bring their family and friends to boost turnout.

SPOG’s push for turnout seems to have fizzled: Twitter chatter about campaign volunteers at the intersection of Broadway and Denny suggests that few recall supporters showed up at the campaign event.

3. On Monday, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission held a brief discussion on a report that prompted outrage from major-media outlets last week because it revealed that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had failed to produce many of her text message in response to records requests in 2020.

Specifically, the report—produced by independent public disclosure expert Ramsey Ramerman in response to a whistleblower complaint by two longtime mayoral public disclosure officers—found that 10 months of Durkan’s texts were missing, and that the mayor’s office had routinely excluded Durkan’s texts from requests for text messages from mayoral staff, on the grounds that the requests didn’t explicitly include the mayor.

The report, posted on the city’s website last week, was a bombshell, but it seemed to hit major media outlets somewhat differently than it hit us at PubliCola, for a simple reason: While we have filed dozens of records requests for text messages and other forms of communication, such as messages on internal City messaging systems, during the Durkan administration, we have routinely received only emails in response—a fact that suggests Durkan and her entire staff don’t use text messages, internal communications systems, or any other form of written communication other than email at all.

Since we know this is not the case (in fact, a quick text history search found a number of messages that would have been responsive to some of our requests), the only conclusion we can reach is that the mayor’s office did not provide records that would have been responsive to our requests, despite having the ability to do so and despite apparently filling other media outlets’ requests for text messages and other forms of communication. (A full list of PubliCola’s records requests to the mayor’s office since August 2018 is available here.) Continue reading “County Invests in Hotel-Based Shelter, SPOG Campaigns for Sawant Recall, Durkan Records Requests Raise Disclosure Questions”

State Senator Joe Nguyen Will Challenge King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

Now that the 2021 Washington state legislative session has ended, Sen. Joe Nguyen has made it official: He’s running against three-term King County Executive Dow Constantine, who hasn’t had a serious challenger since he first beat Republican Susan Hutchinson in 2009. PubliCola first reported that Nguyen was considering a run for county executive.

PubliCola spoke with Nguyen on Monday about his time in the legislature (just two years so far), his ambitious platform, and his path to victory over a fellow Democrat who has sailed to reelection twice with double-digit margins. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

PubliCola: Lay out the case against the county executive for me: Why should voters get rid of a progressive, popular, experienced leader and hire you instead?

Joe Nguyen: I’m running for this position because the pandemic has exposed so many of the inequities that our communities have experienced for so long. Coming from a community that has historically been marginalized [White Center and Burien], I see the impact when you have failures in policy that have been exacerbated by this pandemic.

We’ve had an emergency in homelessness for almost a decade at this point and they’re just now getting [the regional homelessness authority] set up. I do think the regional approach is right and Marc Dones is going to do a fantastic job in that role. … [But] one of the biggest failures of the regional approach is… the fact that they have not had trust between local leaders to get it done. Instead of making a decision and then telling local leaders after the fact, imagine if they had been part of the conversation all along.

Right after Renton passed their ordinance [attempting to shut down a homeless shelter at the Red Lion hotel], which I didn’t agree with, instead of trying to flame them, I called them to find out what they didn’t agree with it. And it was kind of eye-opening: While they supported having the facility there, the resources and the follow-up didn’t flow. The reason there was that tension was because of how that engagement happened. You can’t just make decisions and then back out—there has to be an ongoing partnership.

“I had been fighting to get those resources to my communities and was being ignored, and the only time anyone listened to me was when I signed the letter” urging Gov. Inslee not to close restaurants.

PC: The regional homelessness authority is at least seven months behind schedule at this point, and the city of Seattle and some of the suburban members fundamentally disagree on basics like causes and solutions. Some of the suburban cities seem to believe that Seattle wants to impose its Seattle solutions on them. Do you think the regional approach can still work at this point, given some of those very basic disagreements?

JN: I do think it’s going to work, because it has to work—because that’s the best option we have. I think we have to have leaders who are truly engaged in the fight and not just when it’s convenient. At the legislature, you’d be surprised at how much you get done when you aren’t trying to just get credit and when you actually engage in the local communities.

PC: You signed a letter last year that urged Gov. Inslee not to close down restaurants in response to a resurgence of COVID cases across the state. Why did you sign that letter, and how would you have responded to the pandemic differently than the Executive?

JN: What I was frustrated by was in my district, in White Center, in South King County, you had some of the highest rates of COVID in Washington state because of the inequities that already existed. I had been fighting to get those resources to my communities and was being ignored, and the only time anyone listened to me was when I signed the letter with the moderate Democrats. [Other Democrats who signed the letter included Steve Hobbs, D-44 (Everett), Mark Mullet, D-45. Tukwila, and Southeast Seattle Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-37.] I supported keeping restaurants closed, but I was saying that people are having to choose between their health and their livelihood.

After that, we were able to get  $100 million and tens of thousands of dollars to local restaurants and workers. I made a big show out of it and, frankly, it worked.

“If your approach to ending youth incarceration is to build a bigger jail, that’s a fundamental difference between you and me.”

One of the things I get frustrated by is when leaders declare that the mission is accomplished while ignoring that there are still gross inequities in society. We declared racism a public health issue last summer and then the [vaccine] rollout was inequitable. Being from White Center, being from this community, I had connections with the local leaders I met and talked to local leaders to help with the vaccine distribution. Being able to partner behind the scenes with some of the agencies to get the vaccine out to certain areas, partnering with community organizations, and doing that quickly without fanfare was important, because it wasn’t time for photos ops, it was time to get things done because people are literally dying. Continue reading “State Senator Joe Nguyen Will Challenge King County Executive Dow Constantine”

Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding

By Paul Kiefer

As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in King County jails subsides, a new report by the King County Auditor’s Office has highlighted an array of other concerns about safety and racial disparities in the county’s two adult detention facilities. Among the reasons for concern: Black and Indigenous women in King County jails spend more time in restrictive custody than the average for all female prisoners, and the death rate for inmates exceeds the national average.

The report, which auditor Kymber Waltmunson and her staff presented to the county council on Tuesday, recommended that the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention take steps to suicide-proof cells, expand psychiatric care for inmates, reduce the number of inmates per cell, and limit opportunities for jail staff to discriminate against Black and Indigenous inmates through housing assignments and behavioral sanctions, among other suggestions.

Inmates in King County jails die at a higher rate than the national average—in 2020, for instance, five inmates died in the county’s custody.

On some fronts, the auditor’s report showed signs of improvement at King County jails. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several county departments—including courts and the county prosecutor’s office—have collaborated to reduce the county’s day-to-day inmate population by tightening the criteria for detention.

The results are clear: in 2020, the county’s average daily inmate population fell from roughly 1,900 at the start of the year to roughly 1,300 by the year’s end. At the larger, higher-security jail in downtown Seattle, the declining inmate population allowed jail administrators to distribute the remaining inmates across now-empty cells.

According to the auditor, reducing the number of inmates sharing a cell spurred a dramatic drop in the number of fights and assaults in the downtown jail: While the facility’s population fell by 47 percent in 2020, violent incidents fell by roughly 63 percent.

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At the lower-security Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, the reduction in violence was less pronounced, and smaller than the decrease in the jail’s population. That facility, which holds fewer inmates than the downtown jail, holds fewer inmates and rarely places two people in the same cell—a practice known as “double-bunking.” As a result, and because of the types of inmates held in Kent, the facility sees far less violence in a typical year than the jail in downtown Seattle.

But Brooke Leary, the Law Enforcement Audit Manager for the county auditor’s office, cautioned the council that the decline in violence—including fights, attacks on inmates and attacks on staff—could reverse if the county abandons its pandemic-era efforts to reduce the inmate population, or if the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DADJ) follows through on King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to close down a floor of the downtown jail by 2022.

In their report, the county’s auditing team recommended that jail administrators work with prosecutors and courts to ensure that the inmate population continues to fall to avoid a future increase in “double-bunking” and an associated uptick in violence.

In his response to the recommendations, DADJ Director (and former Seattle police chief) John Diaz rebuffed the auditor’s suggestion that his department should prioritize providing each inmate their own cell. Continue reading “Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding”

Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation

Homeless advocates see a hotel in Renton that was converted into a temporary shelter as a major success story. Some local politicians see it differently.

Today’s Fizz:

1. This week, cities across King County will be voting on measures that could reduce the size of a proposed countywide sales tax for very low-income housing by millions. On Monday night, Renton, Tukwila, and Issaquah were among first few cities to decide whether they wanted to pass their own 0.1 percent sales tax, as authorized by the state legislature earlier this year, to pay for housing inside the city for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income. Renton’s council voted “yes” unanimously; Issaquah’s approved it on a 4-3 vote; and Tukwila’s rejected the proposal on a 5-2 vote.

I first reported on the proposals last week. Since then, items to supplant the countywide sales tax, which the King County Council will likely vote on next week, have appeared on city council agendas across, primarily South King County—from Maple Valley to Federal Way to Kent. Every city that opts out of the tax—that is, every city that opts to pass a local version of the tax, with proceeds the city can keep to itself—takes some money away from the potential size of the countywide proposal.

On Monday night, proponents of local taxes argued that suburban cities deserved local autonomy to decide what to build in their communities, and specifically cited an emergency shelter for chronically homeless people in Renton—a hotel that has been touted by advocates and service providers as a major success story because it has enabled people to stabilize and begin to deal with underlying conditions that contribute to their homelessness—as an example of what the county would impose on cities if they didn’t act first, and fast.  “By passing this” local tax, Renton council member Valerie O’Halloran said, “we are retaining 100% of the say of how our money is spent within our community.”

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

Opponents of going it alone argued that the whole point of being part of a regional solution to homelessness was to think regionally, because homelessness doesn’t end at any single city’s borders. Tukwila council member De’Sean Quinn pointed out that the countywide proposal, which could raise up to $400 million to purchase existing buildings and convert them to supportive housing for chronically homeless people, is a big pot of money that allows the county bond for an even bigger pot of money; collecting smaller amounts on a local-only basis, he argued, would inevitably lead to slower and smaller developments.

The King County Council will vote on the countywide tax next week.

2. Speaking of the county council, rumor is that longtime Republican council member Pete von Reichbauer (who represents much of South King County) does not plan to run for reelection. Possible contenders for the position include former Democratic state representative Kristine Reeves, Federal Way city council member Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Auburn mayor Nancy Backus, and current Republican state rep Drew Stokesbary. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation”

Suburban Cities’ Tax Plans Could Supplant, Reduce County Executive’s Homeless Housing Tax

By Erica C. Barnett

Several cities in South King County, including Renton, Tukwila, Auburn, and Kent, are poised to adopt a local 0.1-cent sales tax for affordable housing, using authority the state legislature granted to city and county councils earlier this year. If the taxes pass, they would effectively supplant those cities’ contribution to a countywide sales tax proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which would pay for permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in all parts of the county. Renton and Tukwila will consider their local taxes on Monday; the other cities are reportedly deciding whether and when to propose local taxes of their own.

Constantine’s office has said his proposal would provide up to $400 million in bond revenue to purchase motels, nursing homes, and other disused or derelict facilities and convert them into permanent supportive housing with services for chronically homeless people. The more cities opt out of the county tax, the less revenue there will be for Constantine’s proposal.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, is worried. “My hope would be that the suburban cities that are eager, apparently, to use this revenue source to address the genuine homelessness and health crises that are hitting South King County hard, would be committed to the truly regional response to homelessness” that the county has adopted, she said. The county is in the process of standing up a new regional homelessness authority that includes substantial input from, but no direct financial contribution by, suburban cities.

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

The authority itself is banned by law from raising money. However, under legislation adopted during this year’s state legislative session, city and county councils can pass a sales tax increase of up to 0.1 percent. The catch, from the county’s perspective, is that the legislation allows cities to essentially override county taxing authority by passing their own taxes first.

The legislation also does not require the proceeds of such a tax to go toward housing for very low-income or homeless people; instead, they can use it to fund housing for people making as much as 60 percent of area median income, which for the Seattle metropolitan area is more than $94,000. This is a very different type of housing, serving a much less service-reliant population, than Constantine’s proposal.

Eisinger said that by using the sales tax authority to fund higher-income housing, suburban cities ran the risk of ignoring the needs of homeless people in their own cities. “I hope this isn’t an effort by elected officials in suburban cities to pretend that they don’t need … housing that meets the needs of the people who are chronically homeless in their community by instead trying to address other housing needs with these resources,” she said.

Renton and Kent have clashed with Constantine and the county government as a whole over the relocation of hundreds of formerly homeless people into hotels in their cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Renton, officials have taken regulatory and legal action to try to force the closure of a shelter the Downtown Emergency Service Center opened at a downtown Red Lion earlier this year. In Kent, elected leaders protested the county’s purchase of a motel for use as an isolation and quarantine site for people unable to isolate at home, warning that the presence of so many homeless people in one place would lead to a surge in crime.

“If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world.”—King County Council member Dave Upthegrove

If enough cities pass their own local taxes, they could collectively reduce potential revenues from Constantine’s regional proposal by millions. According to a presentation posted on the Renton City Council’s website, a local, Renton-only tax would raise about $2.8 million a year for projects in the city; according to Tukwila’s briefing materials, that city could see an additional $2.2 million a year for housing.

Elected officials from Renton, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents parts of Tukwila, Renton, Kent, and other cities in South King County, said he supports Constantine’s proposal because it provides housing for people with the greatest needs—those with low or no income who need supportive services.

At the same time, he said, “I’m trying not to panic” about the idea that some South County cities might decide to go their own way. “If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Maybe we don’t bond for 400 million—maybe we end up doing $320 million and a few of the cities go out on their own. It doesn’t have to mean that this proposal doesn’t work.”

“”Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”—Deputy King County Executive Rachel Smith

Upthegrove notes that cities already control zoning and permitting rules, which gives them multiple avenues to ban housing for formerly homeless people. “Part of me says that if this really isn’t want the local government wants, and that local government controls zoning and permitting, then what’s the likelihood of getting them zone and permit this housing in their city?”

County council member Claudia Balducci, who represents the Eastside, says the real headline may be that local suburban governments are willing to increase taxes to build more affordable housing, even if it isn’t for chronically homeless people. “I think we could really build not just good projects through this, but also create better relationships and more confidence in working together regionally,” Balducci said. “If we play our cards right, having cities put skin in the game could be a really good long-term positive thing.”

King County deputy executive Rachel Smith, responding to PubliCola by email, was significantly less sanguine than either county council member about the prospects for unity-through-localism. “The Executive’s plan includes concrete, data-informed, evidence-based, clear outcomes, including reducing racial-ethnic disproportionality,” Smith said.

“Regional officials, business leaders, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience have repeatedly stated that homelessness is a regional problem that demands regional solutions,” Smith continued. “Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”

King County Executive Highlights Criminal Justice Reform in Budget Preview

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed a number of new programs he will propose as part of his 2021-2022 county budget plan next week, including alternatives to jail, community-based public safety alternatives, and divestments from the current criminal legal system. “We took up a simple refrain to guide our budget: divest, invest, and reimagine,” Constantine said. “As we support community members in co-creating our shared future, we make an important down payment on building a strong, equitable, and racially just county.”

Toward that end, Constantine proposed spending $6.2 million over the next two years on a new program called Restorative Community Pathways. According to Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal, the program would refer 800 juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system per year and instead provide “community-based support, mentorship, and targeted interventions.”

Those services would be provided largely by the three nonprofits involved in the program’s development: Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Choose 180, which also all contract with the City of Seattle for violence prevention or youth diversion programs. The initial $6.2 million investment would also fund support for victims of crimes and a new “restitution fund,” which would cover court-mandated fines and financial obligations for juvenile offenders who can’t afford them.

According to a press release from Constantine’s office, the county hopes to get the program off the ground by 2022, and “eventually” fund it entirely through cost savings from the King County Superior Court, the Department of Public Defense, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

Constantine’s budget proposal also includes $2.7 million for restorative justice services for adults facing their first criminal charges for nonviolent crimes. According to King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthey, the program would primarily serve those charged with property or low-level drug crimes, but could also include other nonviolent offenders. The adult program would rely on the same three nonprofit partners responsible for Restorative Community Pathways.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

After the press conference, Community Passageways CEO Dominique Davis told PubliCola that his group would assume responsibility for felony diversion, while Creative Justice would manage other elements of both restorative justice programs. Community Passageways doesn’t take referrals for anyone older than 27, but if the county decided to expand the program to serve people over 27, Davis is hopeful that other nonprofits could pitch in. “If in the first year we actually save the city and the county a lot of money [in court and incarceration costs], then we could tap groups like LEAD that already work with older adults,” Davis said. “We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The proposed restorative justice programs would work in tandem with Constantine’s vision of a $1.9 million decrease spending on the the county jail. “With fewer people in jail,” Constantine said, “we will be able, in this biennium, to close one of the [12] floors of the downtown jail.” Since the beginning of the year, the county has already reduced the jail’s daily population from 1,900 to 1,300, and Constantine said he intends to continue that downward trend and increase the county’s savings in future years.

Constantine also proposed transferring $4.6 million of the county’s marijuana tax revenues from the sheriff’s office to three new programs: one helping those with past marijuana convictions clear their records and settle unpaid court fines and restitution; a “youth marijuana prevention” and employment program run by the county’s Department of Local Services in unincorporated King County; and a “community-centered advisory body” that would determine how the county spends marijuana tax revenue in the future.

The county also plans to suspend fare enforcement on King County Metro buses, even as they reinstate fares in October, and reassess the county’s $4.7 million fare enforcement contract with the private company Securitas. Interim Metro general manager Terry White added that when fare enforcement resumes in 2021, Metro will “use non-fine alternative approaches” for those who can’t afford to pay fare, ranging from community service to providing connections to social service agencies.

Constantine will present his budget to the King County Council, which has final say over most aspects of the proposal, on September 22.