This is a story about a new park for people, a proposed park for dogs, and how confusion among at least four city departments has left more than a dozen people living in RVs and trailers in a state of limbo, living on disputed territory amid neighbors—including a permitted tiny house village—who want them gone.
It’s also, inevitably, a story about homelessness: A reminder, in a city where people without permanent places to live are routinely swept from place to place, that even the urgency of a global pandemic has not produced lasting solutions to a problem that is currently more visible than it has ever been. Because while the city’s policy of removing people from public spaces based largely on neighborhood complaints has subsided in the past year, that short-term reprieve hasn’t been coupled with enough new shelter or housing to get more than a few hundred of Seattle’s growing homeless population indoors on even a temporary basis.”
“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land.” Greg Ramirez, board chair, Georgetown Community Council
The story begins, as a lot of stories about homelessness seem to, in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the Seattle Parks Department is just starting construction on a new park facing the Duwamish River across from Boeing Field. The Gateway Park North project will improve and provide better access to a tiny piece of riverfront land that’s partly occupied by the out-of-commission Georgetown Pumping Station.
Since March, the city tacitly allowed people living in RVs, cars, and trailers to occupy the site, which is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. In early December, however, the department put up signs announcing it was about to start work on the new park and warning RV residents that they needed to be gone by the following week. REACH, the nonprofit that had been doing outreach to the vehicle residents for the last eight months, worked quickly to figure out where the residents wanted to go and how to get them there; since many of the RVs had been sitting in place for longer than usual, 11 of them no longer ran.
“We talked about who needed to move and asked them, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’,” said Dawn Whitson, a REACH case manager who works in Georgetown. “They had already identified the site—the Georgetown Flume.”
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The Georgetown Flume—so named because it was the site of a flume that transported water from the Duwamish to the Georgetown Steam Plant, which closed in 1975—is another disused property a few blocks north of the pumping station site. Seattle City Light owns the land, but plans to give it to the Parks Department in exchange for a street vacation (the permanent closure of a public street) on property it owns in SoDo. Street vacations require some kind of public benefit; hence the trade to Parks. The plan is for the property to become a dog park for the surrounding neighborhood.
“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land,” Greg Ramirez, the board chair for the Georgetown Community Council, said. “We want to assist these individuals to find a better location, but this is not it. The flume is not that spot. Gateway Park North is not that spot.”
“If the city is going to pay for [RVs] to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go?”—Dawn Whitson, REACH
Georgetown is already the site of one longstanding tiny house village run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which the community council and other local groups initially opposed but which, according to Georgetown Tiny House Village Community Advisory Council chair Barbara Grace Hill, has since become “a big part of the neighborhood.” (According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, “we are on record supporting the dog park.”)
The issue, Georgetown residents say is that nobody at the city asked them what they thought of the idea. This, they say, is part of a pattern that has included not just the tiny house village but the proposed relocation of an overnight sobering center into a historic building in the neighborhood core—a proposal that would have put the sobering center far away from other city services. “It’s been a pattern with the city,” Hill said. After a neighborhood lawsuit helped sink the sobering center proposal, “it was like, again, ‘Would you please communicate with us? Would you please let us know what’s going on?'” Continue reading “Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces”→
This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared at Sightline.org, where you can read the entire story.
It’s the first of May. As another rent day arrives, tenants aren’t the only ones seeking relief from the financial fallout of COVID-19, which has led to widespread job loss in nearly every economic sector, and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.
Cascadian affordable housing providers that receive funding through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which helps to fund about 90 percent of all new affordable housing in the US, have also been hit hard by the crisis. Nonprofit providers of subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income wage earners report unpaid rent rates of 20 percent or more, a shortfall that has left many struggling to balance their books.
“Our delinquency rate shot way up, and we are now accepting partial payment for rent and doing some payment plans,” said Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which serves communities throughout the Seattle metro area and in Olympia, Washington. “We’re working with tenants and doing partial payment plans for people who’ve recently become unemployed.”
In Oregon, about half the tenants in buildings owned by REACH Community Development earn income from wages. Anthony Petchel, REACH’s philanthropy and public relations director, says about 10 percent of their tenants had asked for rent forbearance as of late April, but he expected that number to go up as people continue to weather the economic collapse. “[The issue] is having the cash to manage the cash flow disruption” from missed rents, and “how long can all the organizations manage that,” Petchel says.
Daniel Delfino, the program and planning development director for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said that once the 60-day rent and mortgage freeze ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy ends, there are few protections for struggling tenants or for nonprofit housing owners with mortgages to pay.
Currently, nonprofit landlords are working out arrangements with tenants on a “case by case basis,” he said, but with more than 40,000 Alaskans unemployed, it’s unclear when or whether rent payments will get back to normal. “There are usually reserves that are put in place to handle four to six months of operating expenses and debt payments. Those aren’t set up to handle something like COVID-19, when the economic occupancy”—the percentage of people who pay their rent—”goes down from 93 percent to 40 percent.”
Enterprise Community Partners, a national low-income housing advocacy and funding group, estimates that a 10 percent income loss among renters could add up to $238 million per month in losses to groups like these that run LIHTC-funded buildings across the US. That’s based on an average loss of $792 in monthly rent from the three million tenants in LIHTC buildings that Enterprise estimates could miss rent payments if they don’t get assistance.
Susan Boyd, the executive director of Seattle nonprofit provider Bellwether Housing, said wage earners had a delinquency rate of about 21 percent as of mid-April, up from 2 to 3 percent in a typical month, as “about 30 percent of the people who were wage earners have lost all or a part of their income.” Likewise, Chris Persons, the director of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Housing, said April rents are falling about 22 percent short.
It’s easy to see why. With a patchy social safety net, hourly wage earners were already on the precipice of financial disaster before a nationwide economic shutdown led to mass unemployment.
A full-time worker making minimum wage in Oregon earns just over $23,000 a year; in Washington, that number is just over $28,000. According to the Urban Institute, the median income for US renters in low-income tax credit buildings was $17,470 before COVID, and about four in ten of these renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
In King County, which includes Seattle, about 77,000 people making less than $40,000 a year had lost their jobs as of April 16; in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, about 38,000 low-income jobs had vanished. The pandemic puts the US housing crisis on steroids. Low-income renters often live paycheck to paycheck, and if they lose their jobs they simply can’t pay rent. The eviction moratoriums enacted in many jurisdictions throughout the US only grant a reprieve.
Even organizations whose revenues don’t rely primarily on renter incomes—groups like Plymouth Housing and the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, whose tenants pay their rents using federal vouchers and stable income sources like Social Security Insurance (SSI)—are struggling.
“We rely a lot on local dollars, most of which come from specific local taxes and fees like the [state] document recording fee for housing and homelessness, and of course those could go down if real estate transactions slow down, which seems likely,” DESC director Daniel Malone said. “And as local government taxation goes down, there certainly could be some squeeze on what they choose to fund and what they choose to cut.”
On April 21, Seattle’s City Budget Office released a worst-case revenue forecast that predicts a 2020 funding shortfall of up to $300 million, with some of the biggest revenue losses coming from the construction, retail, and food service sectors. In Portland, a smaller city, the shortfall could be as much as $100 million.
1. Reagan Dunn, a Republican King County Council member who has been vocal in his opposition to a proposal to merge Seattle and King County’s homelessness agencies, told me last week that one of his concerns about the plan was that it would be responsible for implementing the same policies he believes have failed at reducing homelessness, including lenient “Seattle-centric” policies like the (basically moribund) plan to open a safe drug consumption site in King County and county prosecutor Dan Satterburg’s decision not to prosecute people for simple drug possession. On Tuesday, he proposed a few policies he thinks will work better.
The first proposal would allocate at least a million dollars a year for bus tickets to send homeless people to “reunite” with family members out of town—as long as those family members don’t live in King or any adjacent county. These “Homeward Bound” programs have had mixed success, both at getting homeless people to go somewhere else and actually reuniting people with their families; according to a 2017 Guardian investigation, there’s often little tracking of what happens to homeless people once they’re sent away, and little way of knowing if they’ve been reunited with loved ones or simply become some other city’s problem. “Seattle has nothing like [Homeward Bound] and we’ve become a dead-end street,” Dunn says. “Sometimes you have to have a tough-love solution.”
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Surveys of people experiencing homelessness in King County consistently show that the overwhelming majority—84 percent of those surveyed as part of the 2019 point-in-time count—lived (in housing) in King County before becoming homeless.
Dunn’s other two proposals would set up a county team to do outreach to homeless people in Metro bus shelters and on buses (two of the principle places people without homes go to get dry and warm), and a plan to notify opiate prescribers when a patient dies of an opiate-related overdose.
Dunn says he thinks the proposed new regional body, which would be governed by a board of “experts” that would not include any elected officials, would be “unaccountable to the public” and could siphon funding away from King County’s other cities to Seattle. He may not be alone. County Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski, both Democrats, are reportedly on the fence, and Bellevue Democrat Claudie Balducci expressed some misgivings last week. The county’s regional policy committee, which includes members from many of the cities that were not included in the plan, meets to discuss the proposal this afternoon.
2. A lawsuit by the group Safe Seattle that sought to shut down a “tiny house village” in South Lake Union was rejected just as the city announced plans to extend the permits for the three officially temporary villages—in Othello, Georgetown, and West Seattle—for six more months. But the future of these “tiny house” encampments is still in question.
1. Every week, the city provides reports showing which encampments the Navigation Team—a group of police and outreach workers that removes unauthorized encampments—plans to clear out in the next five days, including the number of encampments on the list that constitute “obstructions,” a designation that exempts their removal from the usual notice and outreach requirements. (As I reported last week, the team now spends the overwhelming majority of its time in the field removing such “obstruction” encampments.)
In those reports, one phrase appears again and again as a justification for encampment removals: “Large amounts of garbage present on site.”
The problem of garbage pileups at encampments is undeniable—anyone who walks, rides, or drives by one of the city’s highly visible tent cities has seen them—but is it fair to pin the garbage problem entirely on the homeless population? More to the point, if the city is using garbage as one of the justifications for clearing encampments without providing even 72 hours’ notice, does the city know how much of the problem is caused by homeless people dumping trash, and how much is caused by housed people dumping their unwanted stuff in places where they know they’re unlikely to be caught?
Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?
These questions came up for me recently when I was reading the Navigation Team’s most recent quarterly report, which noted that SPU had picked up 335 tons of trash at the 71 encampments it removed in the first quarter of 2019. Those 71 encampments, according to the report, included a total of 731 unduplicated individuals. Doing the math, the report implies that each of those homeless individuals produced about 0.46 tons of trash in the 3-month period accounted for by the report. (Those 335 tons do not include trash picked up by a contractor through SPU’s pilot “purple bag” trash pickup program, which disposes of trash collected at a small number of unauthorized encampment sites.)
By comparison, Seattle Public Utilities’ 652,000 residential customers generated a total of 60,934 tons of garbage in that same period, or about 0.09 tons per person. How can that be? Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?
Local right-wing media would have you believe that the answer is yes; a homeless person, who may literally be digging clothes and food out of other people’s trash, somehow produces more waste than you or me, with our Amazon orders and boxes of discarded takeout and boxes of books Kondo’d to the recycling bin.
But the answer is much more straightforward: Housed people (and construction contractors) use homeless encampments as their dumping grounds. “During encampment cleans, larger items including wood (used as shelter), appliances, generators, propane tanks, car parts and bikes are frequently removed in addition to the trash,” says Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. SPU refers to this practice as “opportunistic illegal dumping,” and Register says it often includes items like “couches, rugs and mattresses” from the homes of people who choose to dump those items at encampments rather than pay SPU to pick them up. SPU doesn’t distinguish between these two figurative piles of trash; rather, the couches and countertops and mattresses and toilets all go into the same pile that the city uses to justify removing encampments with no warning, and that conservative commentators use to justify calls for ramping up crackdowns on homeless people in general.
Given how misleading the city’s “tons of garbage” measure turns out to be, perhaps it’s time for the Navigation Team to retire those numbers from its quarterly reports—or for SPU to start differentiating between old bathtubs dumped by remodeling homeowners and sleeping bags left behind by homeless people when they’re told to move along.
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2. The city of Seattle’s Human Services Department has finally released a set of mostly unredacted documents about the scuttled plan to locate a secure parking lot for people living in their cars near Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. I requested the documents as part of my reporting on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to abandon plans for the parking lot, whose opening date was moved back repeatedly, most recently to sometime in March. The city initially released a set of heavily redacted documents, claiming that they were exempt from disclosure under a “deliberative process” exemption to the state Public Records Act; after I filed multiple challenges, including a request for review by the state attorney general’s office, HSD released less-redacted versions of the documents.
The city initially provided a set of highly redacted documents in response to a records request I filed back in April seeking information about how the mayor made the decision to reject plans for the Genesee location. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract to operate and provide security for the lot, which was initially supposed to open on February 28, but Mayor Durkan scuttled that plan after neighbors, led by Mount Baker neighborhood activist and District 3 city council candidate Pat Murakami, raised objections to the plan, which they called another example of dumping undesirable projects on Southeast Seattle.
As I noted in my story earlier this month, Durkan’s decision came after months of groundwork by HSD, which had been working on plans for a safe parking lot since at least last October, and had narrowed down potential sites to a short list that included the Genesee Park location by early January at the latest. Nonetheless, Durkan’s office said she had been briefed on the options for the very first time at the end of February, one day before the lot was initially scheduled to open—and a couple of days after the first critical news reports hit local TV airwaves.
The unredacted documents (communications plan; neighborhood flyer; outreach timeline) provide additional details about the scuttled pilot, including how long it was supposed to last (through December 2019); how the city narrowed down the list of sites (“The site identification focused on areas of the city where gentrification and housing displacement has been an issue”); and how the city will prevent “the behavioral problems” associated with RV residents (no RVs would be allowed). The materials place a great deal of emphasis on the idea that people living in their cars (as opposed to RVs) are regular, upstanding citizens who’ve simply fallen on hard times. “This program is designed for adults and students that drive to work or go to school but need a safe parking space to sleep while trying to find permanent housing,” a community flyer stressed. Similarly, the communications plan for the proposal highlights the fact that the lot would have been for people living in cars, not RVs:
According to the most recent Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in King County, about 3,372 people were living in their vehicles, an increase of percent over the 2017 count. People living in vehicles represented more than half of the county’s unsheltered homeless population. Of those 3,372 people, about a third were living in cars; more than half were in RVs.
1. Unified Seattle, a group that has created a series of slick videos opposing “tiny house villages” (authorized encampments where residents sleep in small eight-by-12-foot buildings with locks on the doors, electric light, and heat) has spent between $10,000 and t $50,000 putting those ads on Facebook and targeting them at Seattle residents. However, since the aim of these ads isn’t explicitly related to an upcoming election—the latest ad vaguely blames the “mayor and city council” for “forests of needle caps,” “drug shacks,” and “rampant prostitution” to—the people funding them don’t have to report their activities to the state and local election authorities. The Freedom Foundation, the libertarian-leaning think tank that funded a lawsuit to stop a temporary tiny house encampment on a piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union, has declined to comment on whether they’re funding the ads, but the rhetoric is certainly consistent with the argument the Freedom Foundation makes in their lawsuit against the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute, which claims that allowing the encampment will “encourag[e] loitering and substandard living conditions” in the area.
2. Speaking of the Freedom Foundation lawsuit: Since the group filed their lawsuit back in June, the original four-week permit for the tiny house village has expired. That, the city of Seattle argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed earlier this month, renders the original lawsuit moot, and they filed a motion to dismiss it earlier this month. LIHI still plans to open the encampment, on Eighth and Aloha, in late October.
3. In other news about unofficial campaigns: Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s Burgers founder Dick Spady and one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat the head tax, doesn’t have to file election-year paperwork with the city and state elections commissions, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Spady, who runs an ad agency called Cre8tive Empowerment, has been soliciting money for a campaign to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy and take on several city council incumbents; has has also reportedly been meeting with council candidates and taking them around to potential donors. Ordinarily, that kind of electioneering would be considered campaigning. However, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Spady hasn’t managed to raise a single dime since September 11, when he sent out an email seeking to raise “$100,000+ in the next month” to defeat the education levy and “shift the Seattle City council in much needed moderate direction in 2019.” If he does start raising money to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures this year or next, Spady will be required to register his campaign at the state and local levels.
4. One campaign that isn’t having any trouble raising money (besides the pro-Families and Education Levy campaign, which has raised almost $425,000) is Neighbors for Safe Streets, the group that formed in opposition to a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between the Wedgwood and Ravenna neighborhoods. The PAC, led by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association government affairs director Jordan Royer, has raised more than $15,000 so far for its effort to, as the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter put it last month, “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda has argued that people of color don’t need bike lanes, which only “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.”
(Meanwhile, far away from the North Seattle enclaves that make up Save 35th Avenue NE, neighborhood-based bike groups in the Rainier Valley have spent years begging the city to provide safe bike routes for people who live and work in the area—even holding protests to demand modest traffic-calming measures on Rainier Ave. S., the deadliest street in the city). Neighborhoods for Smart Streets has not identified which council candidates it will support next year, when seven seats will be up; so far, only a handful of contenders—including, as of last Friday, former (2013) mayoral candidate Kate Martin, who also headed up a 2016 effort to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct intact and turn it into a park. Martin joins Discovery Institute researcher Christopher Rufo in the competition for the District 6 council seat currently held by Mike O’Brien.
5. As I reported on Twitter, George Scarola—the city’s key outreach person on homelessness, even after an effective demotion from homelessness director to an obscure position in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services—resigned on October 9. In an email to city staff, Scarola praised the city’s Navigation Teams, groups like LIHI that are working on tiny house villages, and “the outreach teams, shelter operators, meal providers and the folks who develop and manage permanent supportive housing.” He concluded the email by noting that the one area where everyone, including opponents of what the city is doing to ameliorate homelessness, agree is that “we will not solve the crisis of chronic homelessness without more mental health and drug treatment services, coupled with safe housing. Housing First, indeed.”
In a statement, Durkan said Scarola’s knowledge on homelessness was “key to the continuity of the City’s efforts and helped ensure strong connections throughout the community. Altogether, George participated in hundreds of discussions around homelessness – from public meetings to living room chats – and took countless phone calls and emails, always willing to engage with anyone who had a concern, a complaint or a suggested solution.”
Away from the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, which he usually was, Scarola could be surprisingly candid—once asking me, apparently rhetorically, whether people protesting the removal of a specific encampment were “protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions.” On another occasion, Scarola pushed back on the idea, very prevalent at the time, that money spent on emergency shelter and short-term interventions was money wasted, because—according to homeless consultant Barb Poppe—every available resource should go toward permanent housing. “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—meaning solutions like tiny house villages, authorized tent encampments, and services that address the problems that are keeping people from being able to hang on to housing in the first place.
When the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation—a conservative group that has spent the bulk of its energy over the past decade fighting against health care workers’ right to organize—filed a lawsuit to stop a Low Income Housing Institute-run “tiny house village” for homeless people from opening in South Lake Union, it raised some eyebrows.
The encampment, like other tiny house villages, would consist of a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that would occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street. Why, union members and homeless advocates wondered, was a statewide think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government” get involved in a local land use dispute about a homeless encampment on a single block in Seattle?
“When we saw [the lawsuit], we thought, ‘That’s weird,’” says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775 spokesman Adam Glickman. “Back in the mid-2000s, the Freedom Foundation was involved in the statewide initiative to get rid of the Growth Management Act (GMA), but recently they’ve been pretty laser-focused on attacking unions and, to a lesser degree, taxes.”
The SEIU represents home health care workers and has spent many years embroiled in legal and political battles with the Freedom Foundation over the union’s right to organize home health care employees and other quasi-public workers.
Glickman says that other than the anti-GMA campaign, he can’t remember the Freedom Foundation ever getting involved in a land use dispute, and certainly not one at such a hyperlocal level.
Neither, for that matter, can the Freedom Foundation’s own attorney, Richard Stephens, to whom a spokesman for the group referred all questions about the lawsuit.
“I’m going back a while, and I can’t remember any other cases like this,” Stephen says. “Most of what [the Freedom Foundation is] doing now is labor law, free speech, freedom of association kinds of things, but historically, they’ve had kind of a broad scope.”
In fact, the lawsuit itself asserts that the reason the Freedom Foundation has standing to sue over a proposed encampment in Seattle in the first place is on the grounds that it claims to generally represent the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.”
The lawsuit claims that the city failed to do an environmental review of the encampment, which the group claims will lead to “loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area”; that the city didn’t sufficiently inform the community about its plans to authorize the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) encampment; and that the encampment is illegal, anyway, because the legislation allowing the city to authorize sanctioned encampments only allows three such encampments at any one time.
Of those three arguments, Stephens says the third, involving the law that limits the number of authorized encampments to three, is “the cleanest,” because the law is explicit: “No more than three transitional encampment interim use encampments shall be permitted and operating at any one time,” not counting those located next to religious facilities.
“When the city council adopts an ordinance that says … we’re only going to allow three of them to operate at any one time, then it seems clear that the city staff is just ignoring what the city council did,” Stephens says. “That is sort of the clearest violation. But the other problem is the city council also said when you approve these, you’ve got to ensure there’s the right community outreach and public participation, and it seems like the city and the applicant [LIHI] are scrambling around to do it after the fact.”
Currently, the city has six permitted encampments. Lily Rehrman, a strategic advisor at the city’s Human Services Department, says the new encampments have been authorized under Type 1 Master Use Permits, which are four-week permits that must be periodically renewed. This distinguishes them from the permits used for the first three authorized encampments, in Ballard, Othello, and Interbay.
“Under this type of permit, temporary land uses, like permitted villages, are allowable,” Rehrman says, a claim the Freedom Foundation disputes. LIHI has applied for a four-week Type 1 permit, and LIHI director Sharon Lee says that if the tiny house village is approved, she will apply for periodic renewals.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a state of emergency,” Lee says, referring to the state of emergency on homelessness that former mayor Ed Murray declared in November 2015.
According to the most recent count of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle. All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is, in reality, higher.
Lee calls the Freedom Foundation’s claim that there wasn’t enough public outreach before the city approved the encampment specious.
“The whole point of having the two community meetings—one in May, the other earlier this month—was to get people to volunteer for the community advisory committee that is required in the legislation allowing encampments,” Lee says. “And not only were there two community meetings, there were also presentations to the chamber of commerce and other organizations.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan formally announced plans to fund the tiny house village in South Lake Union through the “Bridge Housing” program in May, but the idea of sheltering hundreds of homeless people in tiny house villages across the city has been around since at least last February, when Durkan first announced the plan.
The city attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, beyond a brief statement from spokesman Dan Nolte: “We fully intend to defend the City in this suit, and we’re currently assessing the claims.”
Data analysis “does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”
Before the Freedom Foundation got involved, the debate over the encampment centered largely on whether the camp would impose a danger to neighboring residents and harm property values in the surrounding area. The proposed site is three blocks north of Mercer Avenue and sits in the epicenter of South Lake Union gentrification. Earlier this month, at a standing-room-only meeting in South Lake Union, opponents focused on the fact that the encampment will not be explicitly clean-and-sober, although drugs and alcohol will be banned in common areas.
The comments from opponents drew guffaws and shouts from tiny house village supporters in the crowd. One neighbor, condo owner Betty Wright, said South Lake Union was “too crowded to handle 100 additional people—I don’t want to say ‘poor people’—people with issues. I was hoping to move to a safe place where I don’t have to worry about crime. I used to run down to the garage in my jammies. I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore.”
Wright’s neighbor and fellow condo owner Greg Williams suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment.
“They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us,” Williams said.
“That’s called slavery!” someone shouted from the back.
Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort.
Hodes asked the people in the room who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.”
According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home, 20 percent of King County’s residents living outdoors have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they lost access to shelter; and 45 percent were actively looking for work. Moreover, there is little evidence that authorized encampments actually increase crime in neighborhoods.
Although the Seattle Police Department (SPD) says it’s difficult to attribute the rise and fall in crime statistics in and around authorized encampments to any single factor, SPD Sergeant Eric Zerr, who heads up the Navigation Team that removes unauthorized encampments and offers services to their inhabitants, says there’s no comparison between the “criminality” around unsanctioned encampments and camps like those run by LIHI, which include case management, 24/7 security, and basic necessities such as food, restrooms, and showers.
“If you’re living in a tent [in an unsanctioned encampment] and you don’t have any source of income, there’s criminality that goes along with that,” particularly if the people living in encampments are addicted to drugs, Zerr says. “When you have [drug] usage, there’s prostitution, there’s the property crimes, there are domestic violence issues, trafficking issues, serious assaults, rapes, gunplay, that type of thing.”
A review of recent police reports from unsanctioned encampments in greenbelts along I-5 confirms that violent crime is still a regular occurrence in these encampments, although SPD provided no specific evidence connecting unauthorized encampments to crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“If you’re living in a community, and you have the life-sustaining things that we consider to be a normal part of life, [plus] case managers and a defined space, you move into a different kind of mindset,” even if, as with the proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union, drugs and alcohol aren’t strictly prohibited, Zerr says of life in a sanctioned, monitored encampment with case management and other basic services.
SPD said it was unable to provide crime statistics demonstrating crime rates in the areas immediately around every sanctioned encampment in the city before and after those encampments opened. Detailed information about specific incidents in and around encampments used to be available online, but is no longer. That data was unreliable when it was available, however, because it included many duplicate incidents, and excluded some incident reports for privacy reasons.
SPD’s Crime Dashboard breaks down crime statistics into 58 neighborhoods, like “Lakewood/Seward Park” and “Rainier View,” but because these are large geographic areas, it’s difficult to attribute changing crime rates specifically to the presence of sanctioned or unsanctioned encampments. However, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says it just stands to reason that “if you’ve got organization and structure, it’s going to be safer, and if you don’t have organization and structure, and it’s just random, then it’s going to be less safe.”
SPD did create a document summarizing the rate of crime in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the authorized encampment in Licton Springs, which—unlike LIHI’s proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union—is explicitly low-barrier, meaning that people in active addiction can live, and use drugs and alcohol, on the premises. LIHI owns the Licton Springs property, but the encampment is operated by a separate group, SHARE/WHEEL, which is not involved in the proposed South Lake Union encampment.
According to the SPD document, “the block containing Licton Springs Village (N 85 to N 88 and Aurora to Nesbitt) remains one of the busiest areas in the North Precinct, both in police proactivity and calls for service.”
The document shows that crime has increased by some metrics and decreased in others, but cautions that the “data analysis … does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”
Zerr, the Navigation Team leader, says he would personally “feel fine” if a tiny house village opened in his neighborhood, but adds that he supports “energized and maybe even contentious debate” like the one that’s currently taking place in South Lake Union.
“I’d be going down asking those same questions, to make sure the city has thought everything through and that the residents have a voice. Those are things that a responsive government should offer its citizens when they’re going to change the living conditions of their neighborhood,” Zerr says.
Lee, the LIHI director, says she remains optimistic that the South Lake Union tiny house village will be able to open on August 15, as scheduled. “We’re optimistic,” Lee says. “We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter.”
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As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…
So: Isn’t It Weird That…
The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?
The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.
In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”
When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites, he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.
But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.
Speaking of LIHI, Isn’t It Weird That…
Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee? What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.
“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”
Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):
• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation
• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation
•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation
• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.
And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”
Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?
Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-dailyupdates on an unsightlyencampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:
1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco, one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that “our city is out of control.”
2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.
3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.
It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.
* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.
President-elect Donald Trump has made his agenda quite clear on many issues. He has promised to crack down on immigration and ban “sanctuary cities,” end the Affordable Care Act, roll back civil rights law, renounce the Paris Agreement on climate change, and suspend immigration from Syria, to name just a few of the policies he has outlined in his plan for the first 100 days of his presidency.
One issue on which Trump has said little to nothing is homelessness. Perhaps because the homeless aren’t exactly a coveted constituency, perhaps because the issue lacks the headline-grabbing force of proposals like the border wall or a ban on Muslim immigration, homeless advocates, service providers, and housing agencies have been left largely in the dark about how Trump’s policies will impact them. They know, of course, that a President bent on dismantling the social safety net and “devolving” much federal spending to the states won’t be good for the nation’s most vulnerable, and least powerful, residents, but for now they can only speculate about just how damaging a Trump presidency will be. To get a sense of how local homeless providers and advocates are anticipating Trump’s policies will impact them, I talked to four representatives of agencies that provide housing and services, and one advocate for the homeless, in the Seattle area. Here’s what they had to say.
Daniel Malone, executive director, Downtown Emergency Service Center
We have no idea, is the bottom line. I think there’s a lot of pants-shitting and dejection overall. Our organization relies heavily on federal funding. We get a lot of Medicaid money through a whole complicated stew [of funding sources]. The whole Obamacare repeal, if it’s true repeal and does kick off the 20 million people who got on Medicaid through the expansion, that does impact some of our clients who were eligible for Medicaid through disability. A lot of times [before the Affordable Care Act expanded access to Medicaid], they wouldn’t participate in the process, because they had to go through evaluations and they didn’t want to do that. We’ve been able to get mental health care services through the expansion.
We build a lot of affordable housing with the federal low-income tax credit. That’s the one I’d be most confident about saving, because it’s politically popular, it involves the private market, and it involves rich people making investments and making money off the deal.
We get a lot of [Department of Housing and Urban Development] money. It almost all flows through the city of Seattle or King County. We have to raise a lot of private money, but it’s a small portion of our budget–a little over a million dollars out of about $40 million is private money. If we had millions of dollars in cuts from HUD or other sources, the prospect of raising that from private funding is totally grim, even if we were to become a cause celebre.
Sharon Lee, executive director, Low-Income Housing Institute
We are worried about the tax reforms that might be put in place. If there is serious tax reform, where they’re going to cut the corporate tax, that will impact the low-income housing tax credit program, because Fortune 500 companies will have less interest in investing in low-income housing if the rate gets cut. Just about every new building we’re building has relied on the housing tax credit program, so that would be a significant. But then again, there’s the other version, which is: [Trump]’s a developer. He knows about real estate, and he knows that a lot of corporations have gained a lot from the tax credit program. Maybe it’s one program that he would want to support. We just don’t know.
The other thing that’s very concerning is if the president puts forward a budget that doesn’t have a cap on military spending, but then he wants a corresponding decrease in other spending, that’s going to be where housing, human services, and education will all get cut. If there continue to be cuts to the HUD budget, the concern for people relying on rental subsidies like housing vouchers is that not only would the program not grow, but that existing people would be cut off Section 8 [a program that provides rent vouchers for low-income people and pays for some housing construction], and that would be most problematic. There’s for-profit and nonprofit organizations that build housing, and only way it’s affordable is that they all have Section 8 subsidies, so that the seniors or families or homeless people can pay 30 percent of their income. We have people paying $100 or $200 for rent because that’s a third of their income. Without Section 8, they would have to pay the full cost, which they can’t afford.
“The reality is, we’re dealing with folks with dementia or severe trauma or huge medical issues who can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps without a little help.”
The other thing that’s a major new initiative that we’re concerned about is the housing trust fund, and that is being funded through the profits of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac [the agencies that . My concern is that if they decide Fannie and Freddie should be privatized, that would take away a funding source for housing. Trust fund housing is terrific because it is the only program that is funding new housing for low-income families. Every other funding program has been devastated.
Paul Lambros, executive director, Plymouth Housing Group
We’re waiting to see who the HUD secretary is going to be. It’s not only about the amount of funding for Section 8, but all the rules that we’ve tried to forward for fair housing. Section 8 has been vital to us. Then there’s the question of what’s going to happen with McKinney funding and all the service money we get through McKinney. [McKinney-Vento homeless assistance grants are the primary source of federal funding for people experiencing homelessness.] A lot of the dollars that we all rely on are pass-through federal dollars [federal funds distributed by state and local governments], so we have to wait and see
Mayor Murray and [King County Executive] Dow Constantine were very clear that part of declaring the state of emergency [on homelessness] was to try to get national attention, [to say] “We can’t do it on our own, we’re really suffering, and we need your help.” Seattle has the resources to address that. Just as we’re hearing that folks are starting to step up to give to refugee organizations or Planned Parenthood or other organizations, I hope people will start giving to homelessness organizations. We need to start thinking about trying to address the problem on our own.
I think in the area of homelessness, folks are frustrated now. There’s much more of an activism and a sense of, “This can’t happen in our community.” How can we expand that sense of wanting to do more and be involved, and not being just stuck in our daily grind.
[I’m worried about] the elimination of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is something that was talked about during the campaign that would change the landscape completely. There’s a general bias [in the new administration] that people can just pull people themselves up by their bootstraps. I think that was reflected a lot in this administration too, and the reality is, we’re dealing with folks with dementia or severe trauma or huge medical issues who can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps without a little help. For the businessmen and folks who have been successful, it’s very hard to walk in the shoes of these people.
Then there’s just the safety of our staff and our clients, who are very diverse. We do serve some undocumented folks. Seattle has one of the largest populations of Somali refugees and a lot of people with language barriers. Everybody’s scared about what’s going to happen to our people—to our staff and to our clients.
Alison Eisinger, executive director, Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness
I think, in general, what we’re looking at with this administration really does go beyond any kind of Democrat or Republican labels. It goes to the heart of the question, what is government’s function? And I think that what we are concerned about—those of us who know that the federal government is the most important source of significant investments [in housing]—what we are concerned about is two things. One is that the people who will be making decisions, and I mean mot only administration appointees in key department roles, but the people who are controlling both houses of Congress are people who believe that there is not an appropriate role for government to play in ensuring that we don’t leave a million people homeless every day.
Let’s start with the idea of block-granting Medicaid. That is not only a godawful idea, but every one knows that block-granting is essentially a way to ultimately reduce the amount of money that goes to the states to do their work.
The unpredictability [of Trump] is part of the concern, because in fact we do not know. But based on statements that Trump the candidate has made, and based on the kinds of people who seems likely to be advising him for the long haul, I think what we can expect to see is a less fair tax system, which means fewer resources, and from the point of view of homelessness and health care, the federal government is the biggest player. The allocations in the federal budget simply dwarf anything that the city, county, or state governments are able to invest, so that’s why when Mayor Murray says we the the state and federal governments to do their part, we agree, and that’s why it’s very, very worrying when there’s a possibility that Health and Human Services and HUD will be not just run by people who don’t necessarily see the government as having an important role to play but will, as agencies, have greatly reduced budgets. Because of [federal budget] sequestration, we lost hundreds of section 8 vouchers in Washington State, so we are still behind. We’re at a point where we need increased federal resources to support people who are working to pay a reasonable proportion of their income in rent, and instead what we are anticipating is drastic reductions in those resources.
And of course, I have had countless conversations just over the last 10 days with people who are concerned about their staff and the people they serve, who are immigrants and people of color, and it is a reality that there is cause to be worried about the safety, wellbeing and status of people regardless of whether or not they are in the country legally. My privilege is to say, “Let’s inform ourselves, let’s prepare, and let’s get ready to fight.” But I understand that there are people who are panicked, and I have deep sympathy for those concerns. Think about children who are homeless and in our public schools. There are tons of reasons why those parents or guardians might be reluctant to go to the school counselor and say, “I’m homeless. I need help.” Those concerns are likely to be magnified, because this is the reality we live in. We may have elected officials who hang tough, but let’s not kid ourselves—we also have people in the community who have demonstrated their willingness to engage in threatening and harassing and bigoted behavior. That’s really where the whole country is.
As I reported last week, Mayor Ed Murray has vowed to maintain Seattle’s status as a “sanctuary city,” where city employees aren’t allowed to question people about their immigration status. This puts federal funding for city programs in jeopardy, since president-elect Donald Trump has said he will cut all federal funding to sanctuary cities. Pathways Home—Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to shift spending on homelessness away from service-heavy “transitional housing” (which includes housing for domestic violence victims and sober recovery housing) toward “rapid rehousing” programs that consist mostly of short-term subsidies for housing in the private market—relies heavily on federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
For now, Mayor Ed Murray has proposed an HSD budget that assumes Pathways Home will move forward, and that funding for transitional housing programs serving immigrants, domestic violence victims, and veterans will be cut. However, council member Lisa Herbold reportedly has the votes and has come up with money in next year’s budget to maintain funding for those programs, at least temporarily, at a cost of $219,000. Herbold initially had the support of just two council members, regular allies Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien, but now council members Rob Johnson and Debora Juarez are on board.
Last week, Herbold argued that until the city knows whether rapid rehousing works to house the most vulnerable populations, including veterans, immigrants and refugees, victims of domestic violence, and those suffering from mental illness, the city shouldn’t eliminate their funding.
“Transitional housing programs serve high-need families that would not do well under rapid rehousing,” Herbold said. “I am supportive of moving towards more rapid rehousing and away from transitional housing, but I think it’s really important that we look at reinventing those current systems after we are certain that the new systems that we are proposing to use—in this case, rapid rehousing—[are] really able to meet the varied needs of vulnerable communities.”
The eight programs slated for cuts are:
• Six apartments for veterans at Bennett House in Columbia City;
• The Low-Income Housing Institute’s Columbia Court, also in Columbia City, which provides housing for 13 refugee families;
• The YWCA’s Windermere House in the Central Area, which houses four families;
• Asian Counseling and Referral Services’ Beacon House, which includes six units for single adults;
• Dove House in the Rainier Valley, which houses vulnerable teenage girls in five units;
• Twenty-four units of transitional housing for young and single adults at four sites scattered across North Seattle;
• Six units at the Community Psychiatric Clinic’s El Rey center for people with mental illness;
• Six units for families at the YWCA’s Union Street apartments in the Central Area.
Herbold confirmed late Tuesday night that she had secured five votes to fund the transitional programs, and had patched together the funding from several different revenue sources. (A separate, $29 million housing bond proposal, which has the backing of six council members, would pay for capital projects like housing construction and seismic retrofits, not transitional housing projects that are already on the ground).
The council will meet to discuss the budget, including many other proposed changes, in council chambers at 9:30 tomorrow morning.
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As the city council indicates it will delay any decision about how to address the issue of homeless encampments until December (a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to officially bar camping in parks appears to be the template on which the council will work once they adopt a budget), another, more sweeping homelessness proposal moves to the front burner.
Pathways Home, Murray’s response to two consultants’ reports suggesting a move away from transitional housing (a fairly structured, and costly, form of housing that includes supportive services) to “rapid rehousing,” would mandate a major shift in the way the city funds housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition to shifting funds away from transitional housing, the proposal would change the city’s funding model from a provider-centered framework (in which housing providers create programs to serve the specific groups that are their clients, such as veterans) to a funder-centered model (in which funders, including the city and United Way, determine the best way to allocate funds and providers must adapt.)
On the ground, it means that less-“efficient” programs, like the Low-Income Housing Institute’s transitional apartments for veterans and Muslims, will be cut and replaced with “rapid rehousing” funds to provide homeless people from all backgrounds with temporary (three-to-nine-month) vouchers for housing in the private market. After the vouchers run out, most recipients will be on their own.
There’s a lot to unpack in this radical shift from the current model to the new voucher-based system, but let’s start at the top: With HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD determines federal housing policy, which filters down to states and municipalities, and right now, they’re all about rapid rehousing. That’s understandable: According to the Focus Strategies report on which (along with a set of recommendations known as the Poppe Report) Pathways Home is partly based, transitional housing “is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household.”
One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city, respectively, is $924, $967, and $949. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.)
So what does this purported cost savings mean for homeless people? That’s unclear, in part because rapid rehousing is such a new strategy—just five or six years old. According to Rachel Fyall, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who is studying rapid rehousing, the best study on rapid rehousing, called Family Options, only includes 18 months of data and only evaluated families with children; in Seattle, rapid rehousing is being touted as the best option specifically for single men, who tend to be the hardest to house. In other words, the study most commonly cited as evidence that rapid rehousing works to get people out of homelessness is short-term and didn’t study the very population for whom it’s supposed to work in Seattle.
“Rapid rehousing is very new,” Fyall says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this, and I’m sometimes frustrated by claims that this is evidence based and proven.”
Fyall (who stipulates bluntly that “transitional housing is not a good idea” for getting people into permanent housing either) is currently finishing up work on a study of a new rapid rehousing program run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle. Looking at the data so far, she says “the jury is out” on whether rapid rehousing actually gets people into “permanent housing” long-term, or whether people are forced back into homelessness once their subsidies run out. “We don’t know what happens to them, and that is the big unknown of rapid rehousing generally,” Fyall says.
Another big unknown is whether rapid rehousing actually houses people who wouldn’t have been able to exit homelessness on their own, or whether most of those who are quickly able to get by in the private rental market would have done so anyway.
DESC director Daniel Malone, like Fyall a skeptic of both approaches, says that DESC’s rapid rehousing program “by and large ends up being used for the higher-functioning folks who will move into an apartment, get an agreement with a landlord, and make it work for a few months.” What the studies haven’t done, he says, is compare people who receive temporary subsidies to those “who have not gotten rapid rehousing assistance and got out out of homelessness anyway. That’s the crux of the matter: Is rapid rehousing doing anything that wasn’t going to happen naturally?”
Malone also notes that the small amount of data that exists on rapid rehousing programs indicates that while people on vouchers don’t immediately fall back into homelessness once their rent subsidies run out, they also don’t tend to stay in their original, subsidized apartments. Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI and someone whose programs stand to lose a lot of funding under Pathways Home, says, “If they would just say rapid rehousing is a shelter—’rapid rehousing means we’ll get you off the street, and you can have three months of being off the street in market-rate housing’—that would be more honest.”
Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that manages homelessness policy across King County, says he understands Lee’s frustration but adds that right now, the county and city are under a HUD mandate to shift away from longer-term transitional housing and “just house people any way we can, wherever we can while we are fighting the advocacy battle to get our [housing] trust fund funded” by the state and federal governments. “It’s the reality of where we are right now. … We need more resources, but these are also reality-based recommendations. Can we house more people with [our current] resources? The answer is yes.”
One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city is $924, $967, and $949, respectively. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.) What that means in practice is that formerly homeless people will be cast out after a few months of subsidy into a private market that is unaffordable even for many middle-class people.
Pathways Home brushes aside concerns about the relative unaffordability of Seattle by suggesting that people may just have to make some tough choices—like paying much larger proportions of their income in rent (current HUD standards for “affordability” say you should spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and utilities), or by moving out of town. From the Focus Strategies report:
“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County. RRH is not an anti-poverty program, so households may pay a significant portion of their income for rent if it makes the difference between being unsheltered and being housed. Households should have the option of sharing units if that makes their rental budget stretch further. Clients should also have the option to move to areas where housing is cheaper. In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments.”
That may sound fine when you’re moving widgets around a map. But when you’re moving people around a region—particularly a region in which poor people, people of color, immigrant communities, and many other marginalized populations are being pushed out of an ever-wealthier Seattle—such a strategy raises huge questions about equity and economic inequality. Is it fair to say that poor people just have to live where we tell them to, even if that means they’re torn away from their jobs, friends, family, social structures, and community supports? Should immigrants who want to live among people who speak their language, or single moms who rely on family members for child care, or low-income workers who rely on public transit, be required to move to isolated areas away from those supports? And at a time when Seattle is setting up programs to help low-income residents, such as the pilot “universal preschool” initiative, does it make sense to tell many of those same residents that their only option may be moving to another county?
“[Rapid rehousing] programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” — Focus Strategies
Merril Cousin, director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, says while the city tries to save money and move people indoors, they should consider those people’s individual circumstances, rather than treating them as problems to be solved through increased efficiencies. For the domestic violence victims she works with, for example, “being able to maintain social support is really important to a survivor’s ability to get safe and heal from the the abuse,” and Cousin says that need for social support extends to lots of other communities.
“If we want to have a diverse and vibrant community, we can’t just say to people, ‘Just go somewhere else.’ Families are already fleeing Seattle because it’s not affordable here, and now we’re saying, ‘Veterans, you can’t afford to live here, go somewhere else. Poor people, go somewhere else,'” Cousin says. “To say, ‘Your only option is to move away from a community where you may have social support and services’—that doesn’t lead to self-sufficiency and wholeness. Social support is an incredibly important part of that.”
Putnam, with All Home, says he doesn’t disagree, but argues that without additional funding from the state and the feds, the city and county have to do whatever houses the most people, even if that means dislocating them from their communities.
“Moving them away—that’s a tough thing for the city to feel okay about,” Putnam says. “If everybody needs to leave Seattle or leave King County, that’s not the ideal, but my job is to get people into housing. To me, equity is about getting people housed.”
“One of the calls for us at the systems level is that we’re trying to house as many people as we can with the resources that we have,” Putnam adds, and “It seems like the choice right now between people living in tents in Seattle versus apartments somewhere else.”
Lee, whose organization runs transitional housing for teenagers, vets, immigrants, and other groups, says All Home assumes, unfairly, that the system for housing homeless people can be “fixed” simply by reshuffling money and people around, rather than by adding funds for all sorts of housing, including transitional programs. “I think the problem with Mark Putnam is that he thinks it’s a zero- sum game: We should ‘right-size’ [a term that appears several times in the Focus Strategies report] and therefore if we want to do more rapid rehousing, we have to take away from someplace else. He’s constructed his own problem. [He’s saying], ‘We shouldn’t be spending more; let’s just find creative ways of doing more with less,’ which can only take you so far.”
Lee notes that one of the longstanding criticisms of groups like hers is that they historically engaged in “creaming”—taking in the easiest-to-serve clients in order to demonstrate high success rates to funders like HUD. She predicts rapid rehousing will have the same effect: Providing apartments for those who were almost able to make it in the private market already, while leaving the most vulnerable, including those who are currently served by “inefficient” transitional housing, behind.
Funders, Lee says, “used to say, ‘You’re only taking people who are going to be successful.’ Well, we know that recent immigrants and refugees are not going to be able to exit transitional housing in three to six months and be successful so you’re setting them up to fail. If Mark Putnam overlays the same requirements [on rapid rehousing], then he’s incentivizing going back to the old way, which is, you’re only going to want to work with people who are going to be successful.
“That’s the problem of feeling like you have to cut services to fund rapid rehousing. If you’ve got 3,000 people on the street, and some of them are homeless young adults and homeless families with multiple [Child Protective Services] involvements around the care of their children, and people with issues around not just income but mental health, you’re going to need more services tied to the housing, and sticking them in market rate housing with just short term rent subsidy isn’t the answer.”
Putnam and Lee differ on the issue of whether HUD’s shift away from transitional housing is a mandate on Seattle or an unproven idea from which Seattle can deviate. Lee points to the Seattle Housing Authority’s Stepping Forward program—a Pathways Home-style initiative that would have increased some public housing residents’ rent up to 400 percent—as a time when Seattle decided to go its own way and abandon a market-based strategy that was pushed by the feds. Putnam says funding from HUD is contingent on adopting “performance-based contracting” and moving away from transitional housing, so Lee’s strategy is unrealistic.
Fyall, the UW researcher, suggest that the real solution may be long-term housing subsidies—especially in a market, like Seattle’s, where people who work multiple jobs find it hard to stay afloat.
“A key component of homelessness is the inability to afford housing, and for many people, affordability”—not mental health or addiction or any other personal issue—”is really the number one difference between people who are homeless and pole who are housed: They can’t afford a place to live,” Fyall says. She says some groups cite the 18-month Family Options study (which will be updated with 37 months of data in December) as “the success of rapid rehousing, which I find bogus, because my read on the study is that the only thing that works permanently is a permanent subsidy, and the rest of it is just spitting people back into homelessness.”
“When I think about the homelessness problem in our region, everything that’s happening at a intervention level is really just bailing out buckets of water from the ocean of rising rents,” Fyall says. “When you have people at all income levels struggling to find housing that is affordable to them, that is what I would consider the root cause of homelessness.”
And here’s what Focus Strategies has to say about affordability. “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in Seattle/King County is critical to the community making progress towards ending homelessness.”
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