1. Update: DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund says workers were able to adjust the flush limits in the double-bunked unit and people in that unit “remained in place. The toilets can now be flushed several times per minute.”
Earlier this month, as PubliCola exclusively reported, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention relocated 50 people from the downtown Seattle jail to the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent, part of a larger effort to reduce the downtown jail population. The minimum-security inmates are being “double-bunked” in cells that were previously occupied by one person each, with one guard overseeing just over 100 jail residents.
But an unanticipated problem has already swirled to the surface at the MRJC: The toilets, which sit out in the open, are programmed to only flush twice an hour, meaning anything that’s in the toilet after those two flushes has to stay in the toilet until the timer resets. The newly doubled-up jail residents are already complaining about the unsanitary situation in their tight living quarters, according to representatives for the unions that represent jail guards and public defenders.
“Imagine two people being in there—you’ve used your two flushes, and now you have to go to the bathroom, and whatever you do, it has to sit there for an hour. It’s not too pleasant for the two people who have to sit there in that small cell,” said Dennis Folk, head of the King County Corrections Guild. The regulated toilets also eliminate the option of a “courtesy flush,” which can reduce the nastiness of living and sleeping in the same room as your toilet.
DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund said the toilets in some MRJC cells have “flush meter limitations” because of a history of people flooding the cells or deliberately clogging the toilets. “Since the unit in question has not been double-bunked since prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not initially flagged as a concern when the area was repopulated for double-bunked status,” Haglund said Friday, adding that the department would move people to another unit if they couldn’t figure out how to “reconfigure the toilets.”
The commotion over commodes isn’t the only issue with double-bunking people at the MRJC, however. The DAJD has struggled to hire and retain jail guards throughout the system, and the ACLU recently sued the county over conditions at the downtown jail, arguing that the department has violated an agreement from the 1990s known as the Hammer settlement.
Folk says the jail guards’ union has filed a demand to bargain over the decision to move 50 people to the RJC, noting that the 1:104 ratio of guards to inmates is far below the usual “direct supervision” standard of one guard for every residents. Haglund told PubliCola previously that although 1:104 isn’t ideal, the unit will be safe with just one guard because no more than 64 people will be out in the unit’s common area at one time. Folk disagrees, telling PubliCola, “The staffing ratio for this is just not safe.”
2. On Wednesday, City Councilmember Sara Nelson invited a panel of “housing providers”—landlords—to give a presentation in her economic development committee about the hardships they’ve faced as the result of Seattle’s tenant protection laws, including eviction moratoriums, notice requirements for rent increases, and the “fair chance housing” law, which bars landlords from denying people housing based on their criminal history.
The discussion was like a bizarro-world version of Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s frequent panels on renters’ rights, where, instead of tenants describing unfair evictions, landlords complained about nightmare tenants who were almost impossible to get rid of. Nelson is more aligned with landlords than tenants, so it’s not surprising she would push a counternarrative and highlight landlords’ concerns.
But the leader of the panel, MariLyn Yim, was still an unusual choice to lead a city-sponsored panel, because she has sued the city repeatedly, including one lawsuit that is still ongoing, in an effort to roll back tenant protections.
In their first lawsuit, which was unsuccessful, Yim and her husband, Chong Yim, challenged the city’s “first in time” rule, which attempts to reduce discrimination against tenants by requiring landlords to rent to the first tenant who meets basic qualifications.
In the second, they argue that the city’s law barring landlords from asking about prospective tenants’ criminal history (and deciding whether to rent to someone based on that history) violates their constitutional due-process and free-speech rights. “The Yim family could not afford to live in Seattle without the rental income from these properties,” the lawsuit says.
Yim said during her presentation that an “explosion” of new tenant protections has been driving small, “mom and pop” landlords out of the rental market. “I think families are really going to have a tough time as we lose the smaller rentals and there’s also a shift in ownership profile.
Just this week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled partly in favor of the Yims and their co-defendants, agreeing that the city has no authority to prohibit landlords from asking about a prospective tenant’s criminal history.
Yim said during her presentation that an “explosion” of new tenant protections has been driving small, “mom and pop” landlords out of the rental market, pointing to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) data showing a “loss” of 11,000 housing units at buildings with fewer than 20 apartments. “I think families are really going to have a tough time as we lose the smaller rentals and there’s also a shift in ownership profile. There’s a lot of those larger properties that are less likely to be owned by local investors or members of the community,” Yim said.
However, that data actually refers to the number of units landlords have registered at the city; according to the report that was the source for Yim’s numbers, registrations with the city could have declined for a number of reasons, including relaxed enforcement by SDCI or the fact that “some landlords neglected or declined to renew their registrations during the pandemic.”
In addition to being a landlord and plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the city, Yim is also a city of Seattle employee, earning $140,000 a year as a civil engineer for the Seattle Department of Transportation.