Tag: Real Change

What Is Social Housing?

Photo depicting the exterior top half of renovated and renewed complex of block of flats with a colorful facade.

By Erica C. Barnett

Later this year, Seattle voters could take a first step toward building a new kind of permanently affordable, mixed-income public housing known as “social housing.” The House Our Neighbors! Coalition — a project of the housing advocacy organization Real Change — is collecting signatures for Initiative 135 (I-135), which would create a new public development authority (PDA) to build and operate new housing; funding for the PDA would come later, through future State or local legislation.

What Is Social Housing? 

In the U.S., most affordable housing is either public housing (built and maintained by government authorities) or housing built or purchased, and operated, by private nonprofits that receive government funding. (Housing subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers, are aimed at helping renters afford market-rate housing.) In other parts of the world, including Europe and South America, “social housing” refers broadly to a type of housing that’s permanently affordable, with rents capped at a percentage of renters’ income.

The umbrella term “social housing” can refer to many different models, including some that incorporate private and nonprofit developers into a public funding scheme, and the term does not refer exclusively to low-income housing. The Vancouver, British Columbia, definition of “social housing” has been a source of recent controversy, because it serves people making up to six figures, as would Seattle’s.

How Would It Work in Seattle? 

Initiative 135 would achieve a social housing model by creating a public developer to build, acquire, and operate housing that would be funded by State or local revenues, including bonds. This publicly owned housing would have to be permanently affordable (costing less than 30% of monthly income) to a mix of people earning between 0% and 120% of Seattle’s area median income — as of last April, $81,000 for one person living alone, or $115,700 for a family of four. Under the authority’s charter, renters could not be kicked out if their income rises; their rent would simply rise accordingly.

After an initial startup period, the PDA’s 13-member governing board, which would manage the authority, would include a seven-member renter majority elected by residents. Each building would also have its own elected governing board, a kind of public HOA that would advocate to the board on behalf of residents and make building-level decisions, like how to spend the annual budget for common areas.

How Would It Be Funded?

Supporters of I-135 say they deliberately did not include a funding source in the initiative in order to avoid violating the State “single-subject rule,” which limits ballot initiatives (and State laws) to a single issue.

The initiative would simply set up the development authority and get it going, creating a temporary board and requiring the City to provide “in-kind” support to get the authority ready to build new housing or buy existing buildings once funding is in place. Other public development authorities in Seattle, such as the Pike Place Market PDA, also started without a funding source and pay for the market’s operating budget and capital improvements through rents, investments, and a 2008 ballot measure that increased property taxes to pay for $73 million in improvements.

Supporters have been vague about where future funding might come from, saying all potential sources are on the table, including State- and City-backed bonds, the State capital budget, and private philanthropy. “We are working on identifying progressive revenue sources,” Real Change Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy said, “but we wanted to put together the structure and the vision and build up that startup support” first.

Seattle is currently facing a budget shortfall brought on by the end of COVID-era federal support but could be in better financial shape by the time the PDA comes to the City Council seeking funding through the City budget or Council-issued bonds. Continue reading “What Is Social Housing?”

Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case

By Paul Kiefer

More than three years have passed since a driver hit a Real Change vendor who was riding his bicycle near the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet in the SoDo neighborhood. At the time of the crash, the vendor, whom PubliCola is calling John to protect his privacy, was living in a RV in the neighborhood.

Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) finished its investigation into misconduct allegations against Evan Pitzner and Dane Hagan, the two Seattle police officers who arrived on the scene and, according to John’s account, targeted and mocked him for being homeless.

John didn’t file a complaint with the OPA himself, but several members of the public did after watching a viral video—edited and released by Real Change in 2020—that showed Pitzner and Hagan chuckling as John sat injured on the pavement nearby. Neither officer will face discipline for the incident. The OPA didn’t sustain any of the allegations against Hagan, and while investigators concluded that Pitzner behaved unprofessionally, he resigned from SPD before investigators could interview him about the incident.

At the heart of the complaints against Pitzner and Hagan, were allegations of anti-homeless bias—allegations that the OPA dismissed as unprovable. For John and the Real Change staffers who first took issue with the officer’s comments, the OPA’s ruling raises questions about how Seattle’s police oversight system defines and punishes bias—especially bias against people experiencing homelessness.

“In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo, I once had an officer walk away from a [traffic stop] to stop me for not wearing a helmet. They just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

Although he never spoke with the OPA, John says he has no doubt that Pitzner and Hagan treated him differently because he was homeless. “It was obvious,” he said.

Pitzner and Hagan were among the last responders to arrive at the scene. A team of field officers from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) witnessed the crash and had stopped the driver nearly a block away, and paramedics from the Seattle Fire Department were assessing John’s injuries when the officers showed up. When paramedics told Hagan that John described feeling pain “everywhere,” he repeated “everywhere” out loud while pretending to write on his notepad. His pen never touched the page.

The DOC officers told Pitzner and Hagan that both the driver and John were at fault for the crash. The driver left without a citation, though the state later revoked his driver’s license; Pitzner reasoned that the driver’s advanced age, not “malintent,” was to blame. He cited John for not wearing a helmet.

Then, as a sheriff’s deputy dragged John’s bicycle—a Lime Bike—out of the street, Pitzner wondered aloud whether the bike was stolen. “Do you really want to know?” the deputy asked. “Yes, because it’s a felony,” Pitzner replied. (Stealing an item worth more than $750 is a Class B felony in Washington state.) John claims that he borrowed the bike from a friend who used the Lime app to rent it.

Hagan and Pitzner set off to a nearby store to find security camera footage of the crash. Inside, the officers struck up a conversation with a customer and a cashier about rising crime in SoDo. “We keep this area pretty thick with officers anyways because there’s a lot of crime that happens down here, associated with people—we don’t like to draw correlations,” Hagan commented. “There’s also not a drug and housing status correlation either, apparently… as I’m told,” he added, apparently referring to the concentration of homeless people in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, John was sent to Harborview Medical Center, where he says he underwent surgery on his knee. He left the hospital a few days later with a walker, three fractured ribs, and an unrelenting pain in his neck. “I couldn’t raise my head—I had to look at the ground for two years,” he said.

“I don’t like that [Pitzner] brought up the bicycle, because it seems immaterial. But maybe Pitzner has seen a lot of bicycle theft cases. Given the limitations of the complaint, it’s really hard to subjectively identify whether he asks if the bike is stolen out of bias or if he just has good investigative instincts.”—OPA Director Andrew Myerberg

From John’s perspective, Pitzner and Hagan didn’t conceal their bias against him. “Why did they automatically categorize me as suspicious?” he asked. “Why would they automatically assume I stole that bike?” The officers didn’t ask John directly whether he had stolen the bicycle, and they didn’t pursue the issue further.

John added that police officers had stopped him more than a dozen times in SoDo, including nearly a half-dozen times for not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. “It was hard to avoid in that neighborhood,” he said. “In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo… they just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

OPA investigators disagreed. “The fact is that he wasn’t wearing a helmet while crossing an intersection and got into a collision,” said OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. “Given that fact, I can’t see how we could ever prove that the citation was biased.”

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change, pushed back on this interpretation. “We had a person injured on the pavement in a crash, and the driver didn’t stop. A hit-and-run is a felony, but the officers took a more respectful tone with the driver and let him go without a citation—he just lost his license. Instead of worrying about [John’s] injuries, they focused on whether he was wearing a helmet. Why is that the priority? Why did they show him so little respect and care?” Continue reading “Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case”

Homeless Advocates Challenge Compassion Seattle Ballot Measure

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness challenged the ballot title for the “Compassion Seattle” initiative in King County Superior Court on Thursday, arguing that the short description of the proposal—which is what Seattle voters would see on their ballots in November—is inaccurate and “prejudicial” because it implies that the measure would guarantee new funding for housing and homeless services when it does not, among other reasons.

The petition, filed by Real Change, the Transit Riders Union, Nickelsville, and Be:Seattle, makes several key points. First, the groups argue that the ballot language—which says the measure would require the city to “dedicate minimum 12% of the annual general fund revenue to homelessness and human services”—inaccurately implies an increase in funding for homelessness, when in fact the 12 percent would go to human services in general, which currently make up about 11 percent of the city’s general-fund budget.

“Requiring twelve percent of the general fund to be placed in [a new] ‘Human Services Fund may not add any funding to homelessness services,” the petition says.

“To put [encampment removals] in the statement of subject, which is those first ten words [of the ballot title], is inflammatory, which is prejudicial,” said Knoll Lowney, the attorney for the advocates.

Second, they argue that language saying the charter amendment “concerns actions to address homelessness and keep areas clear of encampments” is misleading because it implies that the initiative will keep the city clear of encampments, when the measure actually says the city will balance homeless residents’ interests against the city’s interest in having encampment-free parks and public spaces.

“To put [encampment removals] in the statement of subject, which is those first ten words [of the ballot title], is inflammatory, which is prejudicial,” said Knoll Lowney, the attorney for the advocates.

Compassion Seattle has consistently argued that the initiative, which began as a sweeps-focused measure that evolved to include aspirational language about ensuring that people have access to shelter or housing, does not require sweeps. By taking proponents at their word—that is, by conceding their point that the proposal is actually designed to house people so no one will need to live in public—advocates are essentially arguing that the proponents of the initiative are relying on prejudice against homeless people to sell the measure.

The advocates also argue that the ballot title is misleading in another way: Rather than requiring “action,” as the short description implies, its primary impact would be imposing new policies and performance standards on programs, which could end up having a bigger impact than aspirational language about encampments or vague funding promises. For example, the proposed amendment says would make it official city “policy to make available emergency and permanent housing to those living unsheltered.” Continue reading “Homeless Advocates Challenge Compassion Seattle Ballot Measure”

“Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division

1. Last year, the city council set aside $100,000 in the 2021 budget to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective.” The idea was to rapidly install dozens of sinks in public places around the city where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands, a simple way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis and COVID-19.

As PubliCola reported back in February, the sink program has since stalled, as several city departments that answer to Mayor Jenny Durkan have raised concerns about runoff from the sinks going into planters rather than storm drains (will children eat the soil?), whether the pipes will function in cold weather, and ADA compliance—a concern that apparently does not extend to many of the city’s existing public restrooms.

Now, after the Clean Hands Collective has gone through another round of design in collaboration with the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities, the city has decided to open the whole process up for bids by any group that wants to apply. The rebranded “Seattle Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program” now includes an additional $50,000 for “waste prevention solutions focused on food and other materials.” According to the city’s handout on the two “innovation areas,” food waste prevention proposals could include things like “sharing, reusing, repairing, and repurposing.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources.” —SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register

We think it is important to provide a fair and equitable process for distributing funds and ensure the public receives the greatest benefit for its funding,” said Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. The city is holding an informational webinar for groups interested in applying on (UPDATED) April 22; Register said eight groups have signed up so far and “We are excited to see what community groups propose!”

The additional process means it will be even longer before sinks are available for people to access running water, something that has been necessary since pandemic-related shutdowns began more than a year ago. Street sink proponents—whose initial demonstration sink, outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District, opened almost a year ago—are starting to wonder if the mayor’s office is actually interested in helping homeless people wash their hands.

“Some of these arguments are arguments against hygiene services” in general, said Real Change policy director Tiffani McCoy. “One of them was, ‘We’re worried about vandalism and feces being spread around.’ That’s an argument against any hygiene model.”

SPU spokeswoman Register said the city is “eager to partner with community to provide hygiene options for the public that meet health, safety, and accessibility requirements, and that the new application process “helps guide applicants through these public health requirements to ensure their designs are meeting community needs.”

McCoy and others familiar with the meetings between the Clean Hands Collective and the city said one suggestion from the city was something proponents referred to as “Purell on a pole”—which is exactly what it sounds like. If the problem is disposing of the water, the argument went, why not just get rid of the water?

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Although street sink proponents pointed out that people experiencing homelessness have expressly expressed a need to wash their hands under running water, not squirt them with sanitizer (nor is sanitizing a best practice when water is available), the idea refused to die and is, according to Register, “not off the table.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources,” Register said.

Ironically, “theft of hand sanitizer” was one of the reasons the city was initially reluctant to provide portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness when the pandemic began.

2. The city’s Parks Department removed a small encampment in the dugout at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle Friday morning, after identifying the site as a “high priority location for engagement,” according to a joint statement from Parks and the Human Services Department provided to PubliCola Thursday. (The statement was identical to the response sent to at least one city council member who also asked about the sweep).

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said six people at the site received referrals into the Executive Pacific Hotel, about five miles from the site, from REACH, and “one individual voluntarily left the area.” The five men, all of them Spanish speakers, “were provided Uber rides to the hotel,” Mundt said.

It’s unclear why the city decided to prioritize Rainier Playfield specifically. On Thursday evening, the park was full of people playing tennis and football, walking dogs and strollers, and using every corner of the park. The dugout is tucked away at the edge of the park and no tents or trash were visible.

The city is also reportedly planning three more encampment removals in the coming weeks—a sign that sweeps, which had largely paused during the pandemic, are ramping up again in response to neighborhood complaints. The upcoming locations for encampment removals are: Miller Park on Capitol Hill (on or around April 13), Gilman Playground in Ballard, and the University Playground near the University District.

The city also recently removed tents at Fourth and Yesler, where, according to HSD, they were blocking access to the sidewalk. People living unsheltered downtown are reportedly being channeled into City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse, which is so crowded now that it resembles a densely packed shantytown, with dozens of tents instead of permanent structures. The city provides three portable toilets to serve all the people living in the park.

Efforts to provide places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands—a basic need that has been largely unmet throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to stall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and executive departments have raised objection after objection to proposals to create a street sink program that would help prevent the spread of disease.

3. Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s longtime advisor on homelessness, will take over as interim deputy director of the Human Services Department overseeing homelessness after the current deputy, Audrey Buehring, departs for a job in Washington, D.C. next week. Continue reading ““Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division”

Street Newspapers Are Struggling To Survive Societal Shutdown

Real Change vendor Shelly Cohen.

The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post.

One week ago, before Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued a “stay at home” order shutting down all but the most “essential” businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the office of Real Change, a street newspaper sold by homeless and low-income people in Seattle, was still bustling.

As one vendor collected papers from a staffer at the walk-up counter, another slipped a copy of the latest edition ― cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down” ― into its clear plastic display case, upside down. “Because the world is upside down!” said vendor Shelly Cohen.

Nearby, a staffer handed a bowl of chili to a vendor who had just stopped by to take a load off.

But once the stay-at-home order came on March 23, the vendors were left with nothing to do ― and, for many of them, no way to make money.

The weekly paper’s founder, Tim Harris, said the staff had already decided to stop publishing a print edition earlier this month, but had still been letting vendors buy papers to sell on the streets up until the stay-at-home order.

Harris founded the Boston street paper Spare Change News before moving to Seattle and starting Real Change in 1994. This is the first time in the paper’s 26-year history that it’s skipped a scheduled publication date.

A similar story is playing out in cities across the country, where street papers ― newspapers that report on poverty and homelessness, and are sold on the street by low-income or homeless vendors ― are disappearing, as vendors fold their chairs, abandon their perches outside grocery stores and downtown businesses, and vanish.

“Currently, I believe that 100% [of street papers] have either stopped publication or are transitioning into halting their physical” press runs, said Israel Bayer, director of the International Network of Street Papers North America, a bureau of the International Network of Street Papers.

Some, like Real Change, have shifted to online-only publication, but about three-quarters of street newspapers have never had an online edition, and are facing a choice between ceasing publication or adapting quickly. “We usually feature a few of the stories online, but we don’t have a PDF version of our paper, so [publishing online] will be a little bit different,” said Jennifer Seybold, executive director of the monthly Denver Voice.

Brian Carome, CEO of the Street Sense newspaper in Washington, D.C., said he was “adamantly against” the idea of shutting down publication when it came up earlier this month, “because for most of the 130 men and women who sell our newspaper, it’s their only source of income.” Gradually, he said, “we came to the conclusion that, given what’s happening in other cities, that the person-to-person selling of the newspaper was a public health concern ― both for our vendors, many of whom have underlying conditions, and for the public.” This will be the first time in 17 years that the twice-monthly paper has not been published on schedule.

Read the whole story at Huffington Post.

Selling Newspapers In a Ghost Town

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It’s the middle of the morning on Friday, March 20, and First Avenue in Pioneer Square is, unsurprisingly, a ghost town. The only people out on the streets are people who have to be there, or with nowhere else to be—a few construction guys in vests, a restaurant staffer, and several people wrapped in blankets, sitting on the sidewalk in front of shuttered storefronts.

But around the corner on South Main St., at the offices of street newspaper and homeless advocacy group Real Change, the scene is still bustling, as vendors file in to collect papers at the walkup counter, use the restroom (one of the few that’s still open downtown), and grab paper bowls of chili from a staffer.

Shelly Cohen, a vendor and Real Change board member who can often be found testifying at city hall against homeless encampment sweeps and human-service budget cuts, is preparing to head out with a new stack of the most recent edition. The cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down.”

Cohen, who sells papers at a PCC store in Bothell Canyon, says his sales are down, but contributions are up, so “my numbers per hour are pretty consistent” so far. “I’m very fortunate that way,” he says. Lately, he’s been displaying the paper upside down—“because the world is upside down right now”—and letting people grab their own papers, and make their own change, from a box underneath his chair.

Real Change director Tim Harris says the paper will keep printing, and the office will stay partially open, until or unless Gov. Jay Inslee issues an order to “shelter in place,” which would close down most nonessential businesses and make one-on-one sales impossible.  In the meantime, Real Change has set up a vendor relief fund, is allowing customers to donate to specific vendors via Venmo, and is preparing to move to online-only publication. The paper is also waiving the usual requirement that vendors buy a certain number of papers to retain the right to sell in a specific spot.

Lisa Sawyer, a vendor who usually sells papers at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street downtown, recently moved to a spot in Greenwood, but sales are way down there, too. She says she’d prefer to be indoors, “taking care of my health and everything, but this is the only way that I could get by. Especially my most of my income is going towards my room that I’m renting right now.” Sawyer has lived outdoors, off and on, for the last seven years; in February, she celebrated one year in her new home.

Like Cohen, Sawyers says some customers are giving more generously, sometimes without asking for a paper in return. “I had a customer that put money in a grocery cart and pushed it [toward me] and said, ‘I don’t need a paper, I’m giving you this to support you. I’ll put it in the cart because I’m practicing my social distance.’ I totally respect that.” Sawyers says she’s been wearing gloves and sanitizing her hands after every sale. “I’m being more cautious, too.”

David, a vendor who preferred to give his first name only, had only sold a handful of papers at his spot on the Ave in the University District on Thursday, and about a dozen the day before that—a huge drop from the 40 or 50 papers per day he usually sells. He says the U District has emptied out—“there’s nothing but homeless people and business owners looking across the street at other business owners.”

The biggest problem David sees right now is that with all the stores and libraries shut down, people have no place to use the restroom. “The University Bookstore is shut down. The library is shut down. Starbucks won’t let you use the restroom.” Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week that the Human Services Department and Seattle Public Utilities would soon deploy four mobile hygiene trailers that were funded last year and place portable toilets “at locations across Seattle.” As of Friday, according to mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, SPU was still “working on a detailed plan for locations across the city for each type of facility, budget, and staffing.”

Cohen says the city’s slow rollout of portable toilets (and shelters—so far, the city has promised just 50 new shelter spaces, plus 50 new spots in tiny house villages) shows that, as usual, people experiencing homelessness are simply not a priority for the city. “Where are our port-a-potties? Where are the trailers we fought for and won [in last year’s budget]? That’s what needs to be done, like, now. And it creates work for people [staffing the trailers]. What a concept.”