Tag: neighborhoods

How Seattle’s Well-Intentioned Planning Experiment Went Wrong

This post originally appeared on Next City; learn more about Next City and its mission here.

When the city of Seattle began drafting a proposal to increase density and improve housing affordability across the city, known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, city officials knew the plan would be controversial.

They also knew that if they didn’t have buy-in from residents, it would be difficult to pass the many interlocking pieces of legislation needed to implement the plan — legislation that includes citywide density and height increases, affordability requirements for new apartment buildings, and the expansion of areas where multifamily housing is allowed in this predominantly single-family city.

Finally, they knew current community involvement efforts weren’t working — meetings and public comment periods were dominated by homeowners from the city’s more affluent areas. Often, they came to the meetings because they opposed the HALA changes — and the city was well aware of their opposition. Now decision makers wanted to hear from everyone else — renters, immigrants and refugees, and people who live in lower-income neighborhoods.

So they decided to do something different. Instead of sending out meeting notices by email and postcard and hoping a diverse group of people show up, the city’s Department of Neighborhoods proposed a series of focus groups to help shape and provide feedback on the HALA proposal over a period of months, rather than in two-minute bursts at public comment periods. After meeting for nine months, the focus groups would come back to the city with recommendations to improve the HALA proposals, and those recommendations would be incorporated, in some form, into the final legislation.

From the beginning, the process was bumpy. After an initial call for applicants produced a pile of applications from the same activists from wealthier parts of the city who already dominate neighborhood meetings, DON broadened its outreach, enlisting community groups that work in marginalized and underrepresented communities and offering translation services, child care and financial incentives for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate.

They even recruited a local social justice organization, Puget Sound Sage, to recruit focus group members and provide support like education and transportation throughout the process. “It’s a core principle of Sage that the communities most impacted [by development shifts] need to be part of decision making, so it was clear that we need to have more people representing communities of color” involved in the process, says Giulia Pascuito, a research and policy analyst with Sage.

Of the initial group of more than 600 applicants, the city selected 181 — many of them renters, people of color and immigrants — to serve on the focus groups. Eight were recruited by Sage; the rest responded to the city’s expanded outreach efforts.

What happened next shows that it isn’t enough to just recruit marginalized people to participate in a process that has traditionally excluded them; you have to keep them engaged, and that requires sustained, ongoing effort. Since the focus groups began meeting in April 2016, attendance has fallen off a cliff — from 76 percent at the initial meeting to 41 percent in September, the last month for which attendance records were available.

And although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, monthly attendance sheets, along with anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants and residents of the city’s less-affluent, more racially diverse South End — the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the process.

Jesseca Brand, the DON staffer who headed the city’s outreach and recruitment for the focus groups, says that although she expected some drop off in attendance during the months-long focus group process, she had hoped that by the end of the process, “we would have close to the same demographic split that we started with and we wouldn’t be losing any one set of people … but the numbers tell me that I was not totally correct in that [hope].”

The one clear exception to the pattern is the eight focus group members who were recruited by Sage. Pascuito says that sustaining those long-term commitments required long-term investment from her organization. Sage didn’t just make sure their members could afford to attend the focus groups; they also held a “meeting after the meeting” each month, for members to ask questions and get up to speed on the technical details of the zoning and affordable housing proposals.

“This is really complicated, and this is why people go to planning school. You can spend years learning about the intricacies of land use decisions, and it’s hard to mash it all into a six-meeting process where you’re meeting once a month,” Pascuito says.

That sort of intervention may have proven useful for Laura Bernstein, a community activist from Seattle’s University District who resigned from her focus group in September. She says she got frustrated when she saw her group being dominated by longtime neighborhood activists who were far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of local land-use law and asserted their authority as “experts” over newcomers who struggled to just get up to speed. “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?],” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded. “This is what fake equity looks like.”

In a survey of 46 focus group members conducted in August, 34.9 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the process. About 20 percent said it was too soon to say. In written comments, many participants said they were “confused” by the process and the content of the presentations (“so much is above my head,” one complained) or didn’t get enough help getting up to speed (“Does not feel like we are getting the true knowledge base we need to understand the choices we are being asked to comment on,” another said.)

DON director Kathy Nyland says the focus groups have been a learning experience for the city, one that she vows to learn from. “We did all this work up front, and I think the lesson was, we need to continue that work until the end [of the process] and beyond. We knew [participating in] the focus groups was a big ask, and a long ask. The work doesn’t end when the recruitment process is over.”

And she says DON will do much more in the future to get people who are new to the city’s sometimes byzantine processes up to speed before throwing them into dense debates about land use and zoning. “We have to acknowledge that everyone has different starting points, and everyone has a different knowledge base, and craft our plans [in the future] so everyone feels comfortable participating,” Nyland says.It’s probably too late to apply those lessons to HALA — the final focus group meetings were held in December — but Nyland says that next time DON manages a major outreach and engagement process like the focus groups, she hopes to make it easier for people to participate in planning processes on their own terms and time, whether that means making sure translators are always available, holding meetings in neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle, or holding virtual meetings online. (After all, when Nyland first got involved in her own neighborhood council years ago, she did most of her work “at 1 in the morning, in my pajamas,” she says.)

Neighborhoods Director Kathy Nyland, Accidental Activist

This story was published in the January issue of Seattle Magazine; I highly recommend picking up the hard copy, which has a very cool two-page spread of the photo at the top of this post, at your local grocery or bookstore. (I also recommend Knute Berger’s column from the same issue on the coming Trump era in Seattle, which takes a long view of the arc of progress.)

One hot August night in 2015 at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard, Kathy Nyland, the city’s new Department of Neighborhoods (DON) director, struggled to be heard above the shouts from people who showed up to oppose a new, sanctioned homeless encampment in the neighborhood. Over boos, catcalls and cries of “How about we put it in the mayor’s neighborhood?” Nyland struggled to explain that, like those in the room, she had been through her own battles with the city as a neighborhood activist in Georgetown. “We want this to be a successful operation,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “We’re trying to make it work.” Then she hustled off to the sidelines of the hall.

A year and a half later, Nyland isn’t on the sidelines anymore. But as the person on Mayor Ed Murray’s leadership team charged with upending the traditional balance of power in neighborhood planning, she’s still in the hot seat.

Last July, Murray had Nyland at his side when he cut formal and financial ties with 13 neighborhood district councils, which had served as informal advisory bodies since the 1990s. The homeowner-dominated councils typically argue against allowing more density (for example, townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.

Murray has charged Nyland with bringing underrepresented communities into the inner circle of neighborhood planning, including people of color, immigrants, newcomers and renters (with tenants making up about half the city).

District council leaders feel blindsided by the move, and see downgrading the councils as an effort to cut them out of neighborhood planning. Many blame Nyland.

“It was a surprise attack,” says Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area Neighborhood District Council. “Nobody knew about the mayor’s decision until [less than] 24 hours before his press conference.” Sanchez also criticizes Nyland for canceling her appearance at a City Neighborhood Council meeting. “How could she say, ‘No, I can’t answer your questions about this dramatic thing that’s going to affect your lives?’”

Nyland has come a long way since the night she stood nervously in front of angry Ballard residents, afraid to speak. A diminutive woman who is partial to simple, crisp collars, black-and-white patterns and Toms flats, she is gregarious and prone to sudden laughter. And although she’s no fan of confrontation, she’s getting used to it. “My voice doesn’t quiver as much. I haven’t passed out. I just have to remind myself that I know this stuff. I’ve been part of it. I’ve got some credibility,” she says.

Nyland started finding her voice as a neighborhood activist after she and her partner, Holly Krejci (now the mayor’s operations manager), moved into their new house in 2003. A neighbor showed up at their door and asked, “Hey, did your Realtor tell you there’s 20 level-3 sex offenders who live down the street?”

The county had just put neighboring SoDo on the list of potential locations for transitional sex offender housing—and just like that, Nyland and Krejci were sucked into the world of neighborhood activism.

After that first effort—when she learned, among other things, to put all neighborhood representatives in matching T-shirts for maximum visual effect—Nyland went on to organize the opposition to a “red light district” for strip clubs, a new trash transfer station and a proposed expansion of Boeing Field. “I’ve worked with this department for 10-plus years, so it’s dear to me,” Nyland says.

An overachieving middle child raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by a single mom, Nyland graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and quickly became disenchanted with her onetime dream of becoming a designer at a high-powered New York City ad firm. Adrift after a year of travel to Europe, Nyland illustrated a few greeting cards for a friend who owned a San Francisco card shop. Within a day, all her cards had sold. Soon, she had national clients, including Nordstrom and Papyrus. “I truly was self-employed—I would work three months at a time. In September, October, I’d be painting hearts for Valentine’s Day, and then take six weeks off.”

Eventually, San Francisco got too expensive, and she relocated to Seattle, ending up in a two-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, doing marketing and communications for Pacific Science Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In 2003, she and Krejci opened a gift shop and gallery called George, where they sold work by local artists, jewelry and T-shirts that read, “Georgetown: It’s not just for hookers anymore.” George closed in 2009 when Nyland took a job as a legislative aide to Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw. Murray snapped her up to work in his Office of Policy and Innovation in 2014.

Nyland doesn’t draw much anymore—“I don’t even recognize that part of my life,” she says, laughing—but she does channel her creative spirit. She recently suggested doing a Shark Tank–style challenge for the neighborhood matching fund—small grants for neighborhood projects such as park benches. But on tough days, she says, she still seeks out nice paper. “That’s one of my coping mechanisms—I go into Paper Source.”

Nyland’s focus these days is on rebuilding the Department of Neighborhoods. Her signature line is “New Day, New DON!” That means figuring out ways to connect with residents who can’t be reached through the channels developed 30 years ago.

“My mantra is, people would like to participate on their own timeline and from their own location,” she says. So instead of relying on community council mailing lists, postcards and leisurely neighborhood meetings, she looks into town hall meetings via phone and Skype, and sending DON staffers with interpreters to meetings of immigrants and refugees. “It’s broadening those access points,” she says.

Traditional neighborhood meetings, which tend to take place in the early evening and are not widely advertised, exclude people who aren’t on neighborhood mailing lists: renters, night-shift workers or people who don’t speak English fluently. Those people, Nyland says, “are not making a choice not to come—they can’t come! I want to turn those obstacles into opportunities.”

Some have resisted Nyland’s changes at DON, which hasn’t had a major shakeup since founding director Jim Diers retired in 2002.

“There are so many programs at DON that were kind of parked there over the years,” says Tom Van Bronkhorst, a strategic adviser helping to revamp the department’s community outreach process. Besides neighborhood planning, Nyland’s 50-plus employees administer grants for neighborhood improvement projects, P-Patch and historic preservation programs, outreach and engagement services for other city departments, and the popular “Find It, Fix It” program. “They’ve been successful individually, but I think what Kathy wants to do, and what the department needs, is a bigger sense of what the overall mission is. Maybe DON has had more issues with change because it’s so program-focused,” says Van Bronkhorst.

“I remember the first meeting after I was selected, saying, ‘I don’t know if you guys are ready for me,’” Nyland says. “DON has been in existence for almost 30 years, and it has a lot of really important programs, but I think the mission and its purpose has gotten lost. We haven’t kept up with change.”

Van Bronkhorst first met Nyland during the battle over the proposed Georgetown transfer station back in 2005, when he was a staffer for then City Council member Jean Godden. He says Nyland immediately “struck me differently because she was very, very strategic and politically savvy from the beginning. That came up again later when [then council member] Peter Steinbrueck was talking about strip clubs,” and whether they should be dispersed or concentrated in one area, in 2007.

“I think one of the reasons we bonded so quickly is because we both tend to think that way—she’s constantly three or four steps ahead,” Van Bronkhorst says. Plus, “She knows more about politics, about legislation, more about just getting things done than most anyone else that I’ve ever met.”

Another thing that sets Nyland apart from a stereotypical activist: She isn’t reflexively opposed to development—or, for that matter, to strip clubs. “I had no problem with strip clubs. I live in a city. That’s part of urban life,” she says. “I just thought it was bad policy to have them all concentrated in one area.” Ultimately, in no small part due to Nyland’s willingness to lead her neighborhood toward a compromise, the “red light district” proposal fizzled, and the city dispersed the clubs throughout the city.

Van Bronkhorst and council member Bagshaw describe Nyland as a borderline workaholic who puts in longer hours than anyone—the consummate straight-A student. “She would have been your nightmare in school, because you’d be thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll go out tonight,’ but you’d know that Kathy would be home on Friday night getting her homework done,” Bagshaw says. “I don’t think the girl ever sleeps. She’s the kind of person who loves to give people credit—she never wants to be out front.” Bagshaw adds, “From the time when I first saw her speaking [as DON director] to today, I have seen her become more settled and more confident.”

Nyland says there’s only one thing she absolutely cannot abide: People speaking ill of her dogs. Earlier this year, after she single-handedly overturned the decision of a city preservation board and approved the construction of an 11-story building in Pioneer Square, someone called her to say he was glad her dog had died.

“That crushed me,” says Nyland, whose office features a large black-and-white photo of her late border collie/Lab/terrier mix, Fannie Mae. “You can say whatever you want about me, but don’t wish death on my dogs, because those are untouchable.”

Nyland, like all department directors, serves at the pleasure of the mayor—in this case, a mayor given to firing and reassigning staff with little notice, and one who seems unusually sensitive to criticism. Ask Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, who reportedly got the silent treatment from Murray for a few weeks, then suddenly was reassigned to a lesser role. By all accounts, though, Murray is fond of Nyland, and trusts her political instincts and efforts to shake up DON.

“Since his first day in office, he’s been very clear that the status quo was not an option,” Nyland says. “DON has great programs, but the department has not evolved with the changing demographics of the city.” Nyland claims she has never seen Murray lose his temper or lash out unreasonably at high-level staffers. “I think the mayor’s really passionate and he wants to get things done, and my job is to help that agenda,” she says. So, does she think she’s above the fray? “I don’t even know if there is a fray,” Nyland says. “I think I’m in the mix.”

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Meet the YIMBYs

This piece originally ran in Seattle Magazine; read the full version here.

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.

Image By: Maria Billorou
Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

As Task Force Proposes “Guiding Principles,” Council Considers Amended Sweeps Protocols


Mayor Ed Murray’s 18-member Task Force on Unsanctioned Encampment Cleanup Protocols held its final meeting on Tuesday morning, a day after Mayor Ed Murray released a budget that included $2.8 million to “implement [their] recommendations” and a day before the council committee in charge of updating and improving the city’s current policy on homeless sweeps held one of its final meetings on a set of new sweeps protocols that the mayor opposes.  The legislation in front of the council, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of  Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments, except those in “unsuitable,” “unsafe,” or “hazardous” locations, without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing.”

Originally, the mayor’s encampment task force was charged with crafting new encampment cleanup protocols, which would be integrated into legislation that the mayor would transmit to the council by the end of September. Instead—after the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services circumvented the mayor by proposing legislation of their own, which District 6 council member Mike O’Brien sponsored—the task force ended up producing a general, innocuous list of “guiding principles” that are now supposed to guide the council as it amends the ACLU legislation.

Former city council member Sally Clark, who chaired the task force, said its mission got muddied “the moment that the task force was announced, because pretty much in the same moment, the legislation was proposed at council to change the basis of the protocols that the city uses for intervening in situations where people are living outside.” The charge of the task force, Clark says, “made lot of sense in the weeks before, but then we were like, ‘Which protocols are we supposed to be looking at? The ones in this legislation, or existing protocols?'”

Once the charge of the task force changed, Clark says, the question became, “do you want to spend five meetings looking at protocols that the council may change five days after you’ve stopped meeting, or do you want to spend your time arriving at these principles that you hope the council will use when looking at these protocols?” They went with the principles.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, who sat on the task force, says the group “definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.

“That said,” Malone continues, “I think the task force achieved something that may have some utility for the city, which is that it got pretty clear agreement across a spectrum of people as to these principles that I do believe go beyond what the city would consider to be its curet principles on these matters.” In Malone’s view, getting a group that included both members of the Magnolia-based Neighborhood Safety Alliance and the King County Coalition on Homelessness to agree on shared assumptions was a feat in itself. (Clark and other task force members I spoke with agreed with this assessment.)

Another reason the task force never got around to drafting its own protocols for encampment sweeps is that they spent so much time during their three-hour meetings getting members up to speed on the basics (“there was a lack of common understanding,” Clark says) and letting members reiterate their personal views on the impacts and causes of homelessness. (The NSA representative, Gretchen Taylor, was particularly fond of asking rhetorical questions about why the task force had been convened at all, given that camping is illegal.)

“[The task force] definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.” -DESC director Daniel Malone

The result was that the task force meetings felt at times like group therapy, and the “guiding principles” reflect it: They include broad statements such as “action must be taken to enhance and reform the effectiveness of our human services system,” and “do no more harm,” as well as almost meaninglessly inclusive statements such as “We recognize that the city’s current approach to managing and removing encampments has negatively impacted homeless individuals and neighborhoods and that new approaches are needed to make sure that our actions match our community values.”

The outcome is far from a win for the mayor, who certainly saw the ACLU legislation coming but may have not anticipated that the council would so eagerly embrace it; instead of undercutting the council with his own, more restrictive encampment bill, Murray is left, at best, with the option of claiming collaboration with the council after they “integrate” the principles of his task force into the ACLU legislation. Even Murray’s promise of $2.8 million to implement the task force’s recommendations falls somewhat flat; since no one knows exactly how the other $12 million Murray’s budget dedicates to programs addressing homelessness will be allocated, the committee couldn’t reach agreement on how to allocate the $2.8 million, particularly in the 20 minutes they had to discuss the matter at the very end of their final meeting Tuesday.


The council’s human services committee, meanwhile, has continued to move forward with the ACLU legislation, introducing several amendments Wednesday in response to neighborhood concerns. Specifically, commenters at last week’s meeting, along with residents who have flooded council members’ inboxes with mass emails opposing the legislation, have argued that bill as originally written would allow encampments in schools, playfields, sidewalks, and recreational areas in parks around the city. Although the bill’s sponsors and supporters said such locations would obviously be considered “unsuitable” for encampments, an amended version introduced today tightens up those restrictions, declaring schools, “improved areas” of public parks, and sidewalks in front of residences or commercial areas, as “per se unsuitable” for encampments. “A common question that I’m getting is, ‘Are we going to allow people to camp in parks or play fields where my kids are playing?'” District 4 council member Rob Johnson said. “The answer to those questions is very clearly, ‘no’.”

The new version of the bill also clarifies that the legislation only applies to city-owned property (public schools, Port of Seattle property, and other public property not owned by the city would not have to comply with the rules), removes RV and car campers from the legislation, and sets a two-year sunset date.

Although most of the council seemed pleased with the changes, at-large council member Tim Burgess, whose comments opposing the original bill sparked applause in council chambers a week ago, continued to argue that it was a waste of “energy, time, and resources,” and suggested that the council should instead work on implementing the “creatively disrupting” recommendations in a recent report that said the city could provide shelter for every homeless person within a year by simply allocating resources more efficiently. (Burgess and conspiracy-minded neighborhood activists alike are fond of the report’s somewhat simplistic, and poorly understood, conclusions.)

Burgess, along with District 2 council member Bruce Harrell, raised the specter of neighborhood micromanagement by demanding to know whether specific parts of specific parks—the grassy areas around Green Lake and the woods adjacent to proposed mountain bike trails in Cheasty Greenspace, respectively—would be considered “suitable” for camping. O’Brien countered that if the city opens up the definition of a “suitable” location to every individual neighborhood,  “I think most folks will say, ‘I don’t think right next to me is OK,’ and pretty soon we get to a place where every single place in the city is unsuitable.”

Bagshaw said she expects to spend the next week in “continued negotiations” with Murray’s office over the details of the legislation, but added that time is running short. “We want to get the decision we make here into the budget for 2017 [and] make sure there’s enough money to focus on outreach and services,” Bagshaw said. “If we miss this window, it could [be] a long time before we’re able to collectively talk about it [again.] The full council could vote on the legislation as soon as October 10.

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Under Neighborhood Pressure, Apartment Building Heads for Fourth Design Review


In a highly unusual move for such a small project, the Northwest Design Review Board voted Monday to delay a 57-unit, 44-foot-tall, four-story apartment building planned on Greenwood Ave. (on the site of what is now Ed’s Kort Haus and the Stumbling Goat Bistro, which would reopen in the new space) for a third time for additional design revisions. The board came to the split decision after pressure from a large group of Phinney Ridge property owners who argue that the building is—you guessed it—ugly and out of scale. They also argued that the building of small efficiency apartments should have parking for cars (it has none) and that people shouldn’t have to live the way the layout will “force” them to live, which is to say: in compact studios with two washer/dryer units for every 17 apartments and no air conditioning.

The “lack” of washer/dryers (extremely generous by the standards of every apartment building where I’ve ever lived in Seattle, but definitely less so than the one-per-house ratio most of those objecting are used to) and air conditioning (I’ve never lived in a place with A/C, so I’m not sure why this is a deficiency in a city that never gets hot) came up again and again on Monday. Such complaints, in substance if not in exact details, are familiar to anyone who pays attention to the hand-wringing that seems necessary for any north-end development. They are also, with the exception of charges that the building is ugly, totally irrelevant to the work of the Design Review Board. The board is charged with looking at the exterior design of the building, and absolutely everything else—massing, scale, parking, and the size of the apartments–is the business of other city departments (including the city council, which already imposed onerous new restrictions that effectively legislated micro-units, commonly known as “apodments,” out of existence.)

Tuesday’s meeting was a repeat of the gatherings that preceded the previous two delays, according to advocates for the development who have been trying to get the thing approved since last October. Architect Jay Janette of Skidmore/Janette Architects presented the proposal and showed what had changed since the last design review meeting in January. (The major changes involved improvements to facades, larger step-backs on upper floors so the building would feel smaller and cast fewer shadows, and taller ground-floor commercial spaces.) Then the crowd made comments for an hour (the board had allotted 20 minutes). The comments were universally negative, and more than half involved issues board member Dale Kutzera explicitly asked audience members not to bring up, including parking, scale, and the size of the apartments.


One woman was concerned that the building’s two live-work spaces  would create traffic and crowd nearby sidewalks. “If you’re maybe somebody who has clients coming and going [from the] live-work units, going in and out, and if you’re on Greenwood, they’re going to be crossing the sidewalk. I’m concerned about blocking the sidewalk so frequently and so often,” she said.

Another woman said she “would like the developers and the builders to spend three weeks, 24 hours a day, in those units with no A/C and see how they like it in 80-degree weather. That’s inhumane and unacceptable. How many people go in their houses and it’s hot and they just sit in the heat?” (Another woman chimed in later: “The people whose houses back up to [the apartments] are going to have 30 fans blowing right at them all summer.”)

Others expressed dismay that the newer apartment buildings surrounding the development are now being regarded as part of the “neighborhood character,” said the apartments were “very Soviet Union-like,” and suggested that the tenants would probably want to “party” in the 700-square-foot landscaped open space on the building’s roof. Objections that were ostensibly about design mostly had to do with aesthetic preferences: “This does not have ambiance; this is not what you want to take the tour by,” one man said. “Give us a building that gives us joy to walk by. It’s like that saying, ‘I don’t know what art is but I know it when I see it.’ Well, I don’t know what good architecture is, but I know it when I see it.”

This, by the way, is what the location looks like now:

Does this give you joy?

It’s unclear at what point the design review will decide the building is acceptable enough, aesthetically and from the standpoint of neighborhood support, to move forward. But it speaks to the broken nature of our planning processes in Seattle that a few dozen who currently live adjacent to a building that will house 60 people can drag the design review process out (without substantially changing the building or preventing its construction) for more than a year, adding to the already substantial cost of building housing and keeping new units off the market at a time when the housing market is tighter than it has ever been.

I got the sense that among those who weren’t simply opposed to any development, the only design that might have worked would be a wedding-cake-shaped building set back 15 feet from the street in every direction so that it was barely noticeable. But of course, such a building is impossible—no developer would build it without doubling rents, and no renters would pay twice the current market rate to live in it. Emotions and individual aesthetic preferences will always play a role in development decisions, but there comes a point when it’s up to the city itself to say enough is enough, and this little building in Phinney Ridge is an excellent example of a time when the city should have put its foot down but didn’t.

Safe Space, Part 4: Safe Consumption in Seattle

This is the fourth and final installment in a series about safe injection and safe consumption spaces, Safe Space, which started in Vancouver, B.C. and concludes back at home in Seattle. Read Parts One, Two, and Three. If you like my coverage of harm reduction in cities, urbanism, transportation, drug policy, homelessness, and many other issues, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter by signing up at Patreon; your contributions are what enables me to keep The C Is for Crank cranking and to occasionally travel to places like Vancouver and Boulder to report on what’s happening in other cities and the lessons they have for Seattle.


Safe injection sites have a distinct advantage over many other harm-reduction proposals: They directly address a crisis that is in the forefront of the middle-class American consciousness, the heroin epidemic. Although safe-injection sites like Insite in Vancouver allow clients to use other drugs—in fact, Insite manager Darwin Fisher estimates that heroin makes up only about 40 percent of the drugs injected at the facility—most people think of them as heroin-injection sites, and therefore an answer to an opioid epidemic that claimed nearly 30,000 lives in the US in 2014 alone.

Safe consumption sites are different. At safe-consumption facilities, which are fairly common in Western Europe but nonexistent in North America, drug users (and, sometimes, alcoholics) are allowed to consume drugs by whatever method they prefer, including shooting, snorting, or smoking. This raises all kinds of logistical questions, which I’ll get to in a minute, but the basic premise is that people who shoot drugs aren’t the only ones at risk of overdose or in need of access to treatment and other forms of assistance; moreover, in general, every other method of consuming drugs is safer than shooting up, so moving users from shooting to, say, smoking is an improvement on the harm-reduction continuum.

Another distinction between Insite and what some harm-reduction advocates would like to see in Seattle is that Insite, as its name suggests, consists of a single site—located in a run-down, hardscrabble part of Vancouver that has no Seattle equivalent. Whereas drug use and sales are concentrated heavily in one area of Vancouver, Seattle’s drug use is decentralized and highly distributed, making a single injection site—a central destination for drug users from all corners of the city—less than ideal. (The neighborhoods around methadone clinics tend to be hotbeds of “disorder” and minor nuisance crimes isn’t because drug users concentrate there, but because a huge proportion of the city’s drug users concentrate there; currently, there are only two methadone programs in the city of Seattle, serving an estimated 2,200 clients, according to Evergreen Treatment Services director Molly Carney, with more clinics outside city limits.)

What may work best for Seattle and its drug-using population, in other words, is a network of small facilities spread throughout the city, where clients can consume drugs not only by injecting but by smoking, snorting, or any other method of ingestion. These sites would be indemnified by the government, blessed with the approval of SPD and the city attorney’s office, and staffed with people who can help drug users access services including treatment, housing, and medical care. Radical–yes. Doable–very possibly.

Patricia Sully, a staff attorney at the Public Defender Association and the coordinator for the harm-reduction group VOCAL-WA, says most drug users probably won’t travel across the city to access a safe-consumption site; they need services where they already are, which means small (or, potentially, mobile) sites in Seattle neighborhoods where drug users already congregate. Unlike Vancouver, “We don’t have one centralized area where all the drug use is concentrated; we have very diffuse drug use. And I think to mitigate the impact on neighborhoods, it’s important that there not be just one [safe-consumption facility so that] people are able to access  this kind of service where they already are.” Paradoxically, the diffuse nature of Seattle’s unsafe drug consumption could allay fears that neighborhoods will become drug-use destinations, Sully says: “There’s a lot of fear that if you had this kind of facility, it’s going to draw all these people, but I think it’s actually fairly unlikely that people are going to bus miles and miles and miles to access the service.”

Darwin Fisher, the manager of Insite, told me on a recent visit to Vancouver that whether a city builds a single, stand-alone facility, as Vancouver has, or many smaller sites, it should make sure drug users don’t have to travel far, because they won’t. “If I’m in withdrawal, I’m not going to travel 20 blocks to where the site is. That’s just not going to happen,” Fisher says. Montreal is proposing a distributed safe-injection system, and “if you were to take a tour of Europe and go to the 90 sites, I think the only consistent thing would be implied in the title (safe consumption). Everything else is negotiable, depending on what the community wants,” he says.

Sally Bagshaw is one city council member who says she would consider multiple safe-injection sites, but is currently inclined to propose placing them in existing public health clinics, which already have a health-care infrastructure in place. “I don’t think a safe injection site, in and of itself, is the model that I want to pursue. I would like to pursue the public health model where you can come in and have a safe injection site, or safe consumption site, [as well as] other options available when you come in the door,” Bagshaw says—a setup where “if you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, there are other options that are available to you there, whether it’s a prescription for [buprenorphone, a maintenance drug for opiate addiction] or treatment,  and that we also know that there are beds for people that really want to go into detox.” As I’ve reported, there are only a few dozen detox beds available for people withdrawing from alcohol or other substances in King County, a number that is pathetically smaller than the need. People detoxing from alcohol can die, making medical detox an absolute must for serious alcoholics, but supervised detox can help heroin addicts through the process too, and may be less expensive than building full medical facilities; Insite, for example, has 12 private detox rooms for opiate addicts that are medically supervised but are not full medical detox.

Liz Evans, the founder of Insite, said on a recent visit that she does not support the Bagshaw-approved co-location approach, because “if you embed it into an existing health service, the culture of the health service is the dominant culture at that location, and may not necessarily be as welcoming” as a site run by an independent nonprofit like Insite. (Insite, while its own entity, partners with and gets its funding from Health Canada, the Canadian federal health care service.)

Another hurdle North American advocates for safe consumption spaces face is the very notion of safe consumption, rather than injection; particularly, the idea of crack- and meth-smoking rooms attached to safe-injection sites. But Sully says safe consumption is really “not any more radical than safe injection,” and only raises eyebrows because it’s unfamiliar. “When you’ve got people who are outdoors using drugs, it’s going to be preferable for them to be indoors using drugs both for their own health reasons and for public health and safety of the neighborhoods,” Sully says. “I think that for a lot of people in the neighborhoods who are struggling with people using drugs outdoors, whether those people are injecting drugs or smoking drugs is largely irrelevant.”  

Matt Curtis, the program manager at VOCAL-NY, a New York-based harm-reduction group, adds that “unless you’ve done the world’s worst job of explaining a supervised injection facility, and you’ve explained it so narrowly that people are monofocused on that one little thing, I don’t think it’s that much more of a lift to walk people through why other kinds of safe consumption spaces are a good thing.” And both Sully and Curtis point to the issue of racial justice—limiting safe spaces to heroin users, who tend to be white and have middle-class backgrounds, excludes the crack users who were the victims of the harsh, racially biased drug laws of the ’80s and ’90s, which punished crack users much more harshly than those who used powder cocaine. 

“There’s certainly much more openness to this idea because of the response to the heroin epidemic, and you can’t really separate that from race,” Sully says. “The fact that this is affecting white people and middle America and ‘our sons and daughters’ and all these things —we certainly did not see this response to the crack epidemic.” For that reaosn, if the city chooses to focus exclusively on heroin to the exclusion of drugs used primarily by black people, “we have the potential to really exacerbate our racial disparity,” Sully says.

Building safe smoking rooms would be a minor engineering challenge (the rooms would need to be ventilated properly and segregated from the injection areas), but that seems surmountable. Likewise, the fact that people would be using very different types of drugs—including drugs like meth and crack that can make users aggressive and hyper, along with downers like heroin and fentanyl—hasn’t been a problem at Insite, where more than a dozen drugs are included on the login screen at the front desk, with more being added all the time. When I visited, the room was fairly quiet and mellow, even though there were people in the room shooting heroin, meth, cocaine, and other drugs, often in combination. “You still get people who say, ‘God damn it, it’s the coke users who are taking up so much time because they’re tweaking,’ but that’s just griping that happens. There’s nothing special about that,” Fisher says. 

Will Seattle–famous for processing everything to death, largely ruled at the dictates of neighborhood activists who blame homeless drug addicts for everything from property crime to the presence of discarded couches in neighborhoods–manage to transcend its sometimes-wary attitude toward counterintuitive solutions and embrace safe-consumption sites? Advocates insist there are signs that it may. 

For one thing, we already have Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)–a program that partners SPD and human and social services agencies to divert low-level offenders from jail and into community-based interventions, without expecting them to change everything overnight. Since the program began in Belltown, it has expanded through SPD’s West Precinct and will soon include Capitol Hill.

At a Council District 6 public safety meeting Wednesday night, Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard said one thing groups like the PDA, which advocates for harm reduction and criminal justice reform, learned doing LEAD is that advocates can’t merely impose their preferred solutions on neighborhoods; they have to engage communities and show them that they take their concerns seriously. Only then can advocates like Daugaard show communities how programs like LEAD (and, by extension, safe consumption sites) can actually help address the problems they perceive, like property crime, drug addiction, and visible homelessness.

“Even if it was ineffective, wrong, unconstitutional, and stupid” to lock people up over and over for minor crimes like drug possession, “we weren’t engaging the central dynamic, which is that it was actually problematic for people to engage in those behaviors,” like aggressive panhandling, public urination, and minor property crimes, Daugaard said. “So, some years back, some folks on both sides of these conversations decided to talk about the issue in a different way … and reframe the conversation in terms of what actually works. And it turns out that if that’s the lodestar of your conversation, it leads to completely different policy choices.”

At a city council-sponsored public forum on safe consumption sites earlier this year, one unlikely advocate, Magnolia neighborhood activist Gretchen Taylor, expressed her tentative support for the idea of safe consumption facilities–if they are closely monitored and accompanied by strategies that reduce crime in the neighborhoods. Cindy Pierce, another Magnolia neighborhood activist who, with Taylor and several others, formed a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance last year, has also expressed a willingness to discuss safe-consumption sites if they will reduce crime and other visible signs of homelessness and addiction. Both women traveled to San Francisco with Bagshaw earlier this year to visit that city’s Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that does not require clients to come in sober.
Taylor, whose son is a heroin addict, told the panel, “I do understand the wisdom behind Insite and I congratulate you for your victories. Vancouver has identified that years of failed policies have failed people and perpetuated … continued suffering. I totally get that.”
Taylor continued: “The frustration [in Seattle] has not only reduced people who are addicted to ‘junkies’ and ‘addicts,’ but they’re also not considered a viable part of our community whatsoever, and the frustration is leading to serious ramifications. When you say ‘harm reduction,’ I get it, but I think the citizens and the neighbors are going to want to hear about harm reduction for the neighborhoods as well–that most notably being safety and crime reduction for all of us.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But, perhaps, a start.

Talking Around the Problem: How Two Views of Homelessness Get It Right and Wrong

All day today, Seattle writers, media outlets, and advocacy groups will be talking online, using the hashtag #SEAHomeless, about the crisis of homelessness in our city in an effort to draw attention to a problem that can easily become background noise if we let it. As readers know, I’ve shifted my attention here at The C Is for Crank to cover homelessness, and especially the intersection of homelessness and addiction, more frequently, because I believe it is the central crisis at this time and in this city and that all conversations about affordable housing and urbanism and city-building are missing a key component when they don’t center the issues that make it next to impossible for thousands of our neighbors to secure safe, affordable housing.

Because the truth is, virtually none of the homeless and formerly homeless people I’ve met, nor the outreach workers who go out to offer help and make sure they’re OK, say that homeless people prefer to be homeless. I hear from housed people who resent the homeless for committing petty crimes or just being visible on our streets that “they just choose to live that way,” as if becoming housed is as simple as really wanting to get your shit together. They talk about forcing people into treatment or jail, or ordering them to just “go to a shelter,” as if beating addiction was just a matter of willpower, or as if living on a dirty mat on the floor without loved ones, pets, or possessions was a better option than camping in the woods, or as if life skills were things people acquired by just wanting them enough, or as if trauma didn’t exist. This leads, inevitably, to calls for city leaders to divide people experiencing homelessness into two separate and unequal groups: The “truly homeless” and those other ones. The former deserve dignity and assistance, the argument goes; the latter, scorn and jail cells. As someone who believes in the dignity of all people, including those whose addictions drive them to commit crimes, I reject this distinction; while people who commit crimes should be punished appropriately, homelessness itself is not a crime, and punishment that ignores root causes won’t solve the problems that lead to crime. Fundamentally: All homeless people are “truly homeless.”

With that in mind, I’m reposting a piece I wrote a few months back called “Talking Around the Problem: How Two Views of Homelessness Get It Right and Wrong,” which looks at ways to bridge the gap between people who believe homeless people just need more compassion, and those who think they need a swift kick in the teeth.


In conversations about how best to “help the homeless,” we housed people steer down all kinds of mental cul-de-sacs to convince ourselves that nothing can be done. We blame policymakers for “just throwing money at the problem.” We tell ourselves that handing a buck to a shaking addict on a street corner will only enable him. We decide the problem is too big to manage but at least smiling and waving as we drive by a Real Change vendor is better than nothing, and absolve ourselves because we’ve acknowledged that person’s humanity. We mentally divide the homeless population into worthy and unworthy groups—the “deserving” who are just down on their luck and the “undeserving” who made bad choices—and tell ourselves we’d love to help the former, if only we could, but the latter should be left to fend for themselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways people on both sides of the compassion gap can fail to apprehend the problem of homelessness (and, especially, ugly homelessness, the homelessness of people with problems), after attending two events this past week that both centered on this question: What can we (housed people) do about the homeless?

Partly because each side defines the problem differently (are homeless people who lie, cheat, and steal victims who need our help, or nuisances to be “cleaned up”?) arrived at very different solutions–one focused on data collection and criminal justice crackdowns, the other focused on compassion and humanization. Having listened closely to both frustrated homeowners and well-meaning do-gooders, I’m convinced that both have essentially arrived at half the solution: The homeowners want someone else to provide housing and help (and force people on the streets to take it); the do-gooders think individual kindness will produce the necessary empathy to start talking about more substantive changes.

The first group is one I’ve written about quite a bit before: Organized, angry homeowners. Last Wednesday,  a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, made up mostly of homeowners from Ballard, Magnolia and Queen Anne, met at the Seattle Children’s Theater to rehash their grievances and demand that the city crack down on the homeless addicts they blame for a recent upsurge in property crime in their neighborhoods. (For the first time, they also invited a resident of South Seattle, a realtor named Damon Benefield who moved to Rainier Beach from Las Vegas two years ago, but he spoke for just two minutes, about violent crime, and neither he nor the issue of violent crime was addressed again. That’s him on the left in the photo below).


Homeowners from about 10 neighborhoods stood on stage and enumerated their complaints, which ranged from concerns about “the drug epidemic that has made our way into our beautiful city” (tell that to the south end, or downtown Seattle circa 1985), to a mom who said her son moved to Oregon to escape from the dangers of Ballard High School, to the literally incredible claim from a Magnolia resident that  “in the last three months of this year, we’ve seen more crime than we’ve actually seen in the last five years.”

After the litany, representatives from city departments and SPD, including Chief Kathleen O’Toole, took the stage to reassure residents that their concerns about property crimes were real and that the city is taking them seriously. Assistant Chief Steve Wilske rattled off the number of RVs identified in Ballard, Magnolia, and Interbay, and assured Magnolia residents that they once they finished “chasing one RV around Magnolia” their neighborhood would be RV-free. He also noted that since the department had redirected officers from other areas to focus on North End property crimes, car prowls and other petty crimes were “down significantly” in that precinct—”much more so than citywide.” And he said SPD was trying to free up more officers to answer residents’ 911 calls more quickly—”When you call 911, I understand how important it is that you get an officer there very, very quickly,” he told the crowd.  (This weekend, Ballard residents who called 911 in response to an assailant at La Isla restaurant on Market St. waited more than 15 minutes for cops to arrive on the scene).

Next, the group brought out a couple of formerly homeless addicts who affirmed the reassuring belief that addiction is a choice, that tough love is the only thing that works, that addicted people should be forced into treatment or thrown in jail, and that any help for the struggling addict merely enables them in continuing to make poor life choices instead of mustering up the willpower to beat addiction.

(Why do people who dismiss addicts in general as worthless “bums” who shouldn’t be given “handouts” embrace this odd, small subset of addicted people who advocate tough love? I think it’s because it validates their belief that if you work hard enough and do things the “right” way, bad things won’t happen to you—that addiction and homelessness are for the weak and selfish, not for  people who go to work every day and earned that roof over their heads. They’re wrong, which is self-evident to almost anyone who has worked with addicts or gotten an eviction notice on their door after depleting the last $1,000 in their savings, but for those who haven’t had either experience it’s easy to believe that you’re exempt.)

Finally, the keynote speaker, state Sen. Mark Miloscia, delivered a lengthy encomium praising the policing strategy of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, and arguing that “strengthening marriages and families” would end homelessness and addiction. Miloscia concluded by calling for tracking of all homeless people who seek services like food and shelter. “How can we accept people taking services and remaining anonymous?” the Federal Way Republican asked.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 8.28.07 PM

Needless to say, all of this drives me—a bleeding-heart liberal, privacy advocate, and a person in recovery myself—bananas. I react viscerally to the notion of making food and shelter contingent on treatment, and the comments I see on places like Nextdoor suggesting that we let homeless people die in the streets if they “refuse to help themselves” make my eyes well with tears and my fists clinch in rage. I don’t care if a homeless person uses my $1 to buy drugs or a sandwich, and I believe fervently that you can’t reach someone if they’re dead, so the best thing to do is help and hope the suffering addict stays alive long enough to find his or her moment of clarity (and that help is available when they do). I don’t judge people for being addicted, and I don’t think there’s any point in “applying all the laws equally” when what that means is confiscating people’s only asset when they can’t move their RVs as often as a homeowner moves her Mercedes.

So it may come as some surprise that I recoil with almost equal force from suggestions that the only thing we have to do to solve the “homeless problem” is have more compassion—that if we just stopped demonizing our homeless neighbors and celebrated our shared humanity, the solutions would take care of themselves. Much as I believe that compassion and empathy are muscles too many people allow to atrophy, I’m also convinced that embracing the abstract principle of “compassion” too tightly can be just another way of talking past the problem.


On Sunday, I spent some time discussing these individual solutions, at a $30-a-person “fireside chat” and “solutions dinner” at the Cloud Room, an exclusive, sleekly appointed event and coworking space at the Chophouse Row development on Capitol Hill. About 30 people, including Chophouse Row developer Liz Dunn, lounged on low-slung couches and divans, or sprawled on lush, cream-colored shag carpeting and watched a presentation by Rex Hohlbein, an architect who left his day job to document the lives of homeless people, a project called Facing Homelessness.

Hohlbein said he got the idea for Facing Homelessness when he met a former logger named Dinkus McGank, who was living on a bench outside Hohlbein’s office. Hohlbein began taking photos of McGank and other homeless people, and posting them on his Facebook page, a sort of Humans of New York for Seattle’s homeless.

Hohlbein’s thesis* was that the main thing people need to do for the homeless is see them as human. “When I see a Real Change vendor as I’m riding by on my bike, even if I don’t buy the paper, I always shout out, ‘I LOVE REAL CHANGE NEWSPAPER!'” Hohlbein said. He also suggested telling homeless people by the side of the road, “You have a beautiful smile.” His final suggestion–illustrated by a photo of a homeless mother and child, both beautiful and blond–was that the attendees ask themselves whether they’d allow this mother and child to live in a tiny house (conveniently, Hohlbein has designed a prototype) in their backyard. What if they could pay $450 in rent? What if the mom had been vetted to make sure she didn’t have a drug problem? Wouldn’t it help neighborhood kids to see homeless people as neighbors (albeit neighbors living in enclosures in people’s yards), and wouldn’t it help skeptics who think all homeless people are drug-addled derelicts to see that some of them are just be good people down on their luck?

Perhaps it’s obvious why this shit makes me cringe. If not, here’s my counterthesis, in brief: Homeless people aren’t zoo animals to be put on display to enhance housed people’s empathy and sense that they’re “doing something.” People with substance abuse problems and mental health issues are just as worthy as sober single moms who are down on their luck. And individual solutions not only absolve those individuals of advocating for collective, and specifically governmental, action, they do so at the expense of the vast majority of people in need. I could write an entire, separate post about how a project that relies on the individual largesse of people living detached single-family houses with yards can’t coexist with the immediate need to change our zoning laws and invest in dense, affordable housing in all parts of the city.

I’m not saying individual solutions can’t be inspiring. After brainstorming over a “participatory feast” of raw asparagus salad with pink lady apples, roasted vegetables with spring ramps, and lentils with cheese from Kurtwood Farms, the group offered plenty of ideas: Business cards for the homeless, so housed people would see them as more than faceless piles of laundry. An app to let Amazon know what items to deliver free to local shelters each wee. “Meet your homeless neighbors” dinners where housed and homeless could break bread together and celebrate their shared humanity. Campaigns centered on the plight of homeless children.

These are all fine ideas. (I especially appreciate the idea of having a dinner with, rather than serving dinner to, homeless community members). The problem is, then what? Do people who feel overwhelmed at the size of the problem buy absolution for the price of a tiny shed in their backyard? Does listening to your homeless neighbor’s problems over dinner in the park solve any of them? Does feeling sorry for a homeless child do anything for her addicted mother? At one point in the evening, because I’ve talked to homeless people as well as the outreach workers who work with them every day, I was asked what homeless people want. My answer was simple: “A home.”

This may seem obvious, but it isn’t: Not to the well-meaning technophiles who want to create an app for shelters to ask for diapers, nor to the tough-love homeowners who insist no one deserves any help with housing until they get their act together on their own. My sympathies lie with those who are at least compassionate, if a little clueless, because they’re more likely to see how close we all are to the edge, but neither they nor the I’ve-got-mine crowd are much more likely than the other to fix the problem.

More than once at the Cloud Room, I heard somebody lament that we keep “throwing money at the problem.” My response to that was: We’re going to have to throw a hell of a lot more money at the problem if we actually want to fix it—money for housing, first, then for treatment, job training, and mental health care for those who need it. Housing first doesn’t mean housing only, but it does acknowledge that when people have a roof over their head, they’re more likely to find it in themselves to take the next step, whether that’s taking a shower, getting in a job program, or checking in to detox and getting clean. Individual solutions won’t make any of this happen any more than individual complaining.

In other words, both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. The NIMBYs are right that we need systemic solutions; they’re wrong when they say the best response is for individuals to do nothing. The do-gooders are right that we all need more empathy; they’re wrong when they say the best response is individual action.  Solutions take money, time, and political will–not endless community gripefests or solutions-oriented brainstorming sessions.  I applaud anyone who at least wants to help, but I’d suggest their time would be better spent lobbying their representatives for more funding for housing and detox beds than on figuring out how each individual can do “their part” to solve a collective problem that must be solved collectively.

To that end, I will say that there’s one element of Sunday’s event I endorse

wholeheartedly: The dinner was a fundraiser for Mary’s Place, the city’s only shelter and day center for women and children. It raised $300.

*In fairness to Hohlbein, I’ve seen him shouted down at neighborhood meetings where residents were actively hostile to his idea of humanizing the homeless, so he’s more than willing to venture outside friendly spaces. The anger I’ve seen directed at Rex tells me that what he’s proposing–the idea homeless people are part of our communities–is still a radical idea.

Editor’s followup, April 11, 2018: Recovery specialist and intervention expert Rachel Angerman, who spoke at the Neighborhood Safety Alliance meeting I described in this story, called me to let me know that she strongly disagrees with the NSA’s ideas for addressing homelessness, which include “tough love,” forcing people into treatment against their will, towing away vehicles in which people are living, and prosecuting homeless people for minor property crimes.

When I reported this story, I misunderstood Angerman’s views on intervention and treatment and represented Angerman as agreeing with the NSA’s approach. She told me that although she agreed to speak at the meeting, she left feeling appalled by the group’s lack of understanding about the causes and most effective treatments for addiction (as was I). I offered to remove her quote from the story and add a note giving more information and context. Angerman’s company, Recovery Allies, does outreach (including street outreach), mentoring, and family-focused interventions for people struggling with addiction and certain kinds of mental illness. Find out more about Angerman’s work at Recovery Allies’ website.


Bringing “New” People Into the Planning Process

A Seattle backyard cottage–the kind of development some neighbors say will bring unacceptable density to single-family neighborhoods. via seattle.gov

At an early-morning Downtown Seattle Association breakfast at BlueAcre Seafood last month, the subject was neighborhood involvement in city planning and the speaker (along with Capitol Hill Community Council president Zach Pullin and me) was Kathy Nyland, the Georgetown activist-turned-Department-of-Neighborhoods-Director who’s in charge of getting neighborhood residents involved in implementing the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.

The question Nyland and Pullin were attempting to answer was this: How can the city get renters, tech workers, and other Seattle residents who don’t participate in the traditional system of neighborhood councils or go to traditional “neighborhood” meetings involved in shaping the future of the city? The problem Nyland and Pullin described is that neighborhood councils tend to be ossified and, as a result, exclusionary, dominated by 50-and-older white homeowners with little incentive to invite newcomers into their midst. Nyland said she hears from those folks all the time; what she wants to do is add new voices to the chorus of retired single-family homeowners. As part of that effort, DON recently took over the HALA outreach process, and actively encouraged people of color, recent immigrants, and renters–who make up half the city–to apply for seats on the four HALA community focus groups.

But integrating new residents and renters into the HALA process remains a challenge, and the loudest voices–the people that occupy most of the city’s field of vision–are the longtime neighborhood activists who have plenty of time to spend at long neighborhood meetings where the overwhelming sentiment is anti-renter, anti-development, and anti-change. At the same time, people who feel alienated from city planning, or who feel (sometimes correctly) that their voices aren’t welcome or being heard, are left on the sidelines and often have no idea how to make their voices heard.

(If you want an example of how NOT to participate in traditional neighborhood organizations, look no further than this guy, a self-described Fremont resident who apparently showed up at the Wallingford Community Council and demanded a seat on their governing board. In a see-I-told-you-they-all-hate-renters gotcha post on the Urbanist blog, he complained that he had been “sidelined” from “my seat” in an elaborate process designed to ensure that no renters would be represented on the board. He does not appear to have participated in the Wallingford Community Council at any previous point, which probably explains the main reason he wasn’t elected: As Nyland and other urbanists who are actually working to organize renters and other disenfranchised folks repeatedly emphasize, you can’t just show up and demand to be taken seriously, you have to organize, and that means getting people to show up in numbers. Tales of woe like this one do nothing but reinforce the common misconception that renters and urbanists have no interest in context or history and don’t care about the concerns of longtime residents. Pullin, in contrast, is working actively on Capitol Hill to organize renters, who represent more than half the city, as my old PubliCola colleague Josh Feit reports today).

So as pro-HALA groups like Seattle for Everyone try to gather steam in neighborhoods across the city for the still-controversial “Grand Bargain”–developer fees for affordable housing as a tradeoff for greater density–I strongly suggest that they attend meetings like the one I went to late last month, where city planning and neighborhood staffers faced off against an angry crowd of more than 100 neighbors who showed up to voice their near-universal disapproval of the proposal at a meeting of the Queen Anne Community Council on top of Queen Anne Hill.

“Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, ‘If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,’ and that’s not what’s being done.”

To kick the meeting off, Marty Kaplan, a community council member, homeowner, and former city planning commissioner, offered a lengthy introduction to the two city officials who presented the details of the proposal, Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Geoff Wendlandt and planning commission staffer Jesseca Brand, which set the (accusatory) tone for the rest of the discussion.

“One of the problems that I have is that those of us in the neighborhoods were left out of the conversation” about HALA, Kaplan said. “Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, “If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,” and that’s not what’s being done.”

Kaplan continued: “There’s a lot of things that will eventually take away a lot of the physical things that you enjoy in your house, or even if you’re in an apartment. … There’s a lot of impacts in here [and] we’ve been used to being able to talk about this with planners and city hall and come up with some pretty good and respectful partnerships.” In contrast, Kaplan said, the city is now trying to shove a “one-size-fits-all” approach down longtime neighborhood residents’ throats.

Wendlandt and Brand fielded Kaplan’s comments and complaints from neighbors for about two hours. Most of those complaints fell into one of three categories: 1) Concerns that the city has failed to involve neighbors in the HALA process; 2) Complaints that HALA will upzone the entire city; and 3) Objections related to “concurrency,”  the idea that the city needs  to add roads, transit service, and sewers before adding housing. (The urbanist response to those complaints, in turn: Neighborhoods are well-represented on the four HALA focus groups and the city continues to hold meetings like the very one at which this comment was made; HALA will not upzone the whole city, though it will expand some urban villages and make it slightly easier to build backyard corrages; and Seattle is expected to add about 120,000 people in the next 20 years, and those people need places to live).

Another popular objection, one I’ve heard many times over the years in Seattle, was that the city “already has enough capacity to accommodate all the growth we’re going to get,” a claim based on the absurd premise that many thousands of small apartments and single-family homes will be demolished across Seattle so that all the city’s land can be redeveloped to its maximum zoning capacity. The “existing zoning capacity” objection also ignores the fact that HALA, unlike roughshod redevelopment, will actually build affordable housing, which is what everyone says they want.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? For urbanists, anyway, it’s that if you don’t like the way neighborhood groups are framing development or the shape they want to take the neighborhoods we all live in, it’s important to be meaningfully engaged–not just showing up alone to a meeting or two to shake your fist at the way things are, but turning out in numbers to learn, listen, and participate, both in traditional homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups and new organizations that challenge the status quo. For city officials, it’s that engaging people outside traditional neighborhood groups is critical, and that those groups don’t represent any consensus except a consensus among themselves. Renters, low-income people, disabled and elderly residents, and others who aren’t usually at the table need to be invited in and listened to, whether that means outreach specifically aimed at renters (guess what? When you “inform” a neighborhood by placing flyers on people’s doors or porches, you miss most of the people who live in apartments) or broader outreach at events and in groups that include a more representative sample of Seattle residents than, say, a community council or a private Nextdoor group.  Ultimately, as Nyland noted at the DSA meeting at Blueacre, inviting more people into the planning process may also mean deemphasizing the voices that have traditionally held sway at city hall; the city is well aware of what single-family homeowners tend to think, but they may not be as familiar with what low-income renters or homeless residents think. For those voices to be heard, some people, however reluctantly, are going to have to sit and listen.

Nextdoor Emails Show City’s Vision for Partnership

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Emails between city of Seattle decision-makers and officials at the private social-networking site Nextdoor reveal that the city planned to use Nextdoor as a key portal for delivering information about neighborhood events; distributing surveys to help determine what neighborhoods’ priorities are; and as “a smart, efficient way to educate/inform residents about SeaStat and our soon to be (officially) announced Community Policing Micro Plans,” according to an email from SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb to Jeff Reading, his then-counterpart in Murray’s office, back in October 2014.

Anyone without a Nextdoor account cannot access any of those public communications; the private site, based in San Francisco, is only accessible to members, and those members can only communicate with others in their immediate neighborhood.

In February, I reported that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole held a “public town hall” on Nextdoor that was only accessible to Nextdoor members, who make up a tiny percentage of the city. After Nextdoor canceled, then reinstated, my membership when I reported some of the questions neighbors asked O’Toole during the virtual public meeting, along with details about her responses, the city said it would consider ending the partnership.

Since then, both Mayor Ed Murray and chief technology officer Michael Mattmiller have told me that they are working to figure out how to make communications with Nextdoor, which are subject to public disclosure laws like any city communications, more transparent, and are considering ending the partnership altogether. However, the city continues to partner with the site and provide updates to neighborhood residents by posting privately to members, who make up a tiny fraction of the city, there. Mattmiller did not return calls for comment.

In October of 2014, SPD’s Whitcomb told mayoral spokesman Reading enthusiastically, “I think we are ready to go with Nextdoor! Our plan is to tie it in to SeaStat as a community engagement and feedback tool.” Nextdoor even offered to write press releases and social media communications for SPD for the launch, though it’s unclear whether SPD took them up on the offer.

SeaStat is a relatively new program in which SPD gathers data and meets twice a month to identify and target crime “hot spots.” Community micro policing  is an outgrowth of SeaStat, which involves using data to target police patrols. Both are directly informed by the priorities to which residents on Nextdoor choose to draw SPD’s attention, as well as issues SPD identifies in Nextdoor-specific surveys. As the SPD Blotter blog put it back in 2014, “Nextdoor users will have an active role helping inform SeaStat, since officer deployment will be based not only on crime data, but also on community feedback. Look for neighborhood specific surveys on how SPD can improve community safety and police services in the near future.”

The potential issue with using Nextdoor as a barometer and guide for police deployment is twofold. First, Nextdoor’s membership  represents just a fraction of city residents; in Columbia City, for example, just a fifth of households are signed up; in Ballard, 16 percent; in Pinehurst, 11 percent; in Magnolia, 19 percent. Although it’s impossible to tell how many of those members are homeowners and how many are renters, the residents who comment tend to self-identify as homeowners, at least on the dozen or so Nextdoor neighborhood boards I’ve seen.

Using Nextdoor as any kind of gauge for where the city should focus police resources, in other words, is to do outreach to a tiny, self-selected fraction of the city, in contrast to the much broader way government agencies typically communicate with neighborhood. It’s kind of like determining city policy based on an unscientific survey posted on a departmental website on seattle.gov.

Second, as I’ve pointed out previously, the closed-loop nature of the system can lead neighborhoods to whip themselves into a frenzy over relatively minor issues such as discarded needles, “suspicious” or unfamiliar people, people living in their cars who don’t obey parking laws, and litter, without the context of what’s going on in other neighborhoods.

For example, Nextdoor members in Ballard and Magnolia routinely post photos of people they describe as “suspicious,” in some cases accusing them of specific crimes, without their knowledge or consent; tacitly condone vigilantism against homeless people they feel are creating litter and committing property crimes; and have threatened to dump garbage and human waste on the lawns of Murray and council member Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard, one of the epicenters of Nextdoor-based overreaction. (Nextdoor members also frequently post tangents that violate the site’s ban on personal attacks, and have harassed and threatened me personally within the site itself and in off-site communications that refer to things I have written about Nextdoor.)

How much does any of this matter? In terms of city policy (as opposed to civil discourse), maybe not that much. Nextdoor is, after all, merely “another tool in the toolbox” for outreach by SPD and other city offices and departments—including, currently, the mayor’s office, the Department of Neighborhoods, Seattle Public Utilities, and the city as a whole.

And it’s not like the city doesn’t have a longstanding policy of basing policy on which group shouts the loudest—at a meeting on Monday evening, in fact, a city staffer admitted that Murray had promised to preserve most single-family zoning in perpetuity “after a big outcry from [homeowners in] the neighborhoods.”

But I do wonder: What message is the city, and Murray in particular, sending by continuing to partner with Nextdoor and using it as a tool to communicate with, and get feedback from, neighborhoods? Intentionally or not, I think they’re saying that they want to provide yet another way for a small, motivated cadre of agitated homeowners to direct and shape city policy.

Geographically, Demographically Diverse HALA Applications Defy Early Trend

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Since I first reported that the vast majority of applications for five community focus groups that will provide input on the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability agenda came from just three North End neighborhoods—Wallingford, Ballard, and Phinney Ridge—hundreds more applications have poured in, and the good news is that they’re far more representative of the city as a whole, demographically and geographically, than the original batch of applications.

The bad news? Some parts of the city, particularly far Southeast Seattle, remain underrepresented among the applications, with only a handful of applicants. North Rainier, Rainier Beach, and Othello each have half a dozen applicants or fewer, as do Roosevelt, Eastlake, and Bitter Lake.

Ballard, Wallingford, and Phinney Ridge remain vastly overrepresented in the applications—with 41, 55, and 26 applications, respectively. Other than Capitol Hill (with 51 applicants), those are the only three neighborhoods with more than 20 applications.

Overall, though, the number of applicants—more than 650, or several times the total number of people who participate in their neighborhood district councils citywide—and their diversity is encouraging to Nyland, who was initially concerned that most of the applications would be from plugged-in homeowners north of the Ship Canal with a vested interest in avoiding zoning changes that might increase density in their neighborhoods. However, she says, people who are opposed to HALA on principle still need to be part of the process. “I think they’ll be part of the conversation whether we put them [on the focus groups] or not, so it’s better that they’re on this list,” Nyland says.

In her office at City Hall last week, Nyland said the goal of the HALA groups is to bring together all perspectives and “push people outside their comfort zone. I think it would be a misstep to only include like-minded people.”

In a departure from the way the city usually arranges advisory groups, the HALA focus groups will be organized by type of neighborhood, rather than geographic area, bringing together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city,” Nyland says. For example, one group, focused on hub urban villages, will likely include not just central neighborhoods like Capitol Hill but also Ballard, Lake City, and the West Seattle junction; another group, focused on areas where urban villages will be expanded under HALA, will include Columbia City, Roosevelt, Rainier Beach, and Crown Hill. All the groups will meet at City Hall so that no one has to drive, bike, or bus all the way across town—say, from Crown Hill to Rainier Beach.

The 661 applications, obtained through a public records request, include:

A young renter and attorney focusing on Indian law who was priced out of Judkins Park and wants to make sure all Seattle residents can afford housing, “Whether that person is currently on the street, makes over $100,000 a year, or makes 60% of the AMI.”

A Beacon Hill resident whose home has been in her family for generations who wants to make sure people are able to keep their homes even as the city densifies around them

A retired resident of Madrona who writes, “I am not an advocate of protecting neighborhoods by creating fortress communities where sensible zoning adjustments cannot intrude.”

A 27-year-old Belltown renter and lifelong Seattleite who says she wants to “be a voice for renters and young people – Seattle’s fastest-growing demographic and that most in need of affordable housing.

A Wallingford homeowner who says it’s “important to me that Seattle protects existing owners from structures that are too tall and/or too close to their existing homes” but also says, “I see way too many people opposing change out of fear, and they don’t even understand what’s in the HALA proposal or have constructive suggestions for improving it.

A New Holly resident and immigrant mother who wants to be a voice for refugees and low-income Somali families.

A property owner and landlord in Green Lake who grew up poor, had “bouts of homelessness in my 20s,” and now says, “I deeply believe in the need to provide a safety net and system for the poor and middle class in order to allow for stories like mine to exist.”

Nyland says the focus groups will be geographically representative despite the fact that certain neighborhoods are overrepresented in the applications.