Tag: seattle city light

Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces

L-R: The Gateway Park North site, the Georgetown Tiny House Village, and the future dog park site at the Georgetown Flume

by Erica C. Barnett

This is a story about a new park for people, a proposed park for dogs, and how confusion among at least four city departments has left more than a dozen people living in RVs and trailers in a state of limbo, living on disputed territory amid neighbors—including a permitted tiny house village—who want them gone.

It’s also, inevitably, a story about homelessness: A reminder, in a city where people without permanent places to live are routinely swept from place to place, that even the urgency of a global pandemic has not produced lasting solutions to a problem that is currently more visible than it has ever been. Because while the city’s policy of removing people from public spaces based largely on neighborhood complaints has subsided in the past year, that short-term reprieve hasn’t been coupled with enough new shelter or housing to get more than a few hundred of Seattle’s growing homeless population indoors on even a temporary basis.”

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land.” Greg Ramirez, board chair, Georgetown Community Council

The story begins, as a lot of stories about homelessness seem to, in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the Seattle Parks Department is just starting construction on a new park facing the Duwamish River across from Boeing Field. The Gateway Park North project will improve and provide better access to a tiny piece of riverfront land that’s partly occupied by the out-of-commission Georgetown Pumping Station.

Since March, the city tacitly allowed people living in RVs, cars, and trailers to occupy the site, which is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. In early December, however, the department put  up signs announcing it was about to start work on the new park and warning RV residents that they needed to be gone by the following week. REACH, the nonprofit that had been doing outreach to the vehicle residents for the last eight months, worked quickly to figure out where the residents wanted to go and how to get them there; since many of the RVs had been sitting in place for longer than usual, 11 of them no longer ran.

“We talked about who needed to move and asked them, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’,” said Dawn Whitson, a REACH case manager who works in Georgetown. “They had already identified the site—the Georgetown Flume.”

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The Georgetown Flume—so named because it was the site of a flume that transported water from the Duwamish to the Georgetown Steam Plant, which closed in 1975—is another disused property a few blocks north of the pumping station site. Seattle City Light owns the land, but plans to give it to the Parks Department in exchange for a street vacation (the permanent closure of a public street) on property it owns in SoDo. Street vacations require some kind of public benefit; hence the trade to Parks. The plan is for the property to become a dog park for the surrounding neighborhood.

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land,” Greg Ramirez, the board chair for the Georgetown Community Council, said. “We want to assist these individuals to find a better location, but this is not it. The flume is not that spot. Gateway Park North is not that spot.”

“If the city is going to pay for [RVs] to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go?”—Dawn Whitson, REACH

Georgetown is already the site of one longstanding tiny house village run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which the community council and other local groups initially opposed but which, according to Georgetown Tiny House Village Community Advisory Council chair Barbara Grace Hill, has since become “a big part of the neighborhood.” (According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, “we are on record supporting the dog park.”)

The issue, Georgetown residents say is that nobody at the city asked them what they thought of the idea. This, they say, is part of a pattern that has included not just the tiny house village but the proposed relocation of an overnight sobering center into a historic building in the neighborhood core—a proposal that would have put the sobering center far away from other city services. “It’s been a pattern with the city,” Hill said. After a neighborhood lawsuit helped sink the sobering center proposal, “it was like, again, ‘Would you please communicate with us? Would you please let us know what’s going on?'” Continue reading “Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces”

Utility Changes Still Don’t Answer Key Question: What If You Just Can’t Pay?

This story originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

spu-shutoffs

Earlier this year, the West Seattle Helpline, which provides financial assistance to people who need help paying their utility bills, learned about a troubling change the city’s two utilities, Seattle City Light (City Light) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), were making as part of their transition to a new joint billing and customer contact system.

The change, which past shutoff patterns indicate would disproportionately impact customers in the 98118 ZIP code (South Seattle), would have made it harder for many families with overdue bills to get up to date, and would have given them less time to do so. “These across-the-board shutoffs are doing more harm than good,” West Seattle Helpline Chris Langeler says. “It’s getting colder and we can’t have folks without water or heat as the weather gets rough.”

The new customer information system, memorably named the New Customer Information System (NCIS), consolidated the utilities’ previously separate billing systems and, among other changes, created a uniform policy for dealing with people who fail to pay their bills. If you’ve heard of the system at all, it’s probably because it was in the news earlier this year for launching months behind schedule and at least $34 million over budget.

Before the city consolidated their billing systems, SPU and City Light had slightly different policies for working with people who failed to pay their bills within a 51-day billing cycle, and, if necessary, shutting off their electricity or water. City Light gave customers just 30 days to pay their bills in full, but only required payment of 50 percent right away; SPU gave customers 60 days to pay, but required 75 percent up front to avoid shutoff. When the two agencies were consolidating their billing systems as part of the switch to NCIS, they essentially decided to adopt the worst parts of both policies, which would have required delinquent customers to repay 75 percent of their bills within 30 days, or risk shutoff and an additional shutoff fee of $164.

In response to the concerns raised by Langeler, council member Lisa Herbold brought the issue to both utilities’ attention, and after Herbold submitted a budget proposal that would have required both utilities to adopt the lower, 50 percent, threshold, the two utilities changed their joint policy to require customers to pay back half their bill within 60 days.

Last year, SPU shut off water to 3,044 customers; City Light cut off power to 4,624. Most of those customers were concentrated, officials from both utilities say, in Southeast Seattle, Delridge, and parts of far North Seattle. As a map illustrating shutoff patterns provided by SPU demonstrates, the greatest concentration of utility disconnections between 2013 and 2016 was in the 98118 ZIP code—an area that includes Columbia and Hillman Cities and parts of Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill.

“It’s not surprising where economic hardship exists,” Chris Courtney, head of credit and collections for SPU, acknowledges. Neither agency could provide specific demographic data for the households where utilities they disconnect, but Langeler notes that “people of color disproportionately bear the risk of having their water or electricity shut-off under the current policies.  That’s what we see in West Seattle and White Center, and if we had data city-wide, I’d bet we’d see the same thing: low-income families of color being hit hardest.”

Langeler says the impacts to individuals and families who lose access to power and water can be immediate and long lasting. “In addition to the very real effects for the folks who have been shut off—[difficulty] bathing, having to find water in other places, asking neighbors to fill up buckets so they can take water back home—[SPU is] not helping them get on stable footing” by shutting off their water, Langeler says. “The fear and stress that that adds can have its own detrimental health impacts. It adds in another layer of panic and it makes it harder to focus as these families are trying to get their stability back.”

The bottom line, Langeler says, is that “The folks we see who have their utilities shut off are the folks who don’t have the funds to pay.”

SPU spokesman Andy Ryan says one reason the utility cuts off people’s water—instead of, say, giving them additional time to pay their debts—is that SPU is asking questions like, “are we just going to get more people getting deeper in debt? … Our biggest concern all along has been that we not entice people to put things off. That is going to make it harder for them later.”

Danielle Purnell, a strategic advisor for SPU, says the policy change “really only impacts people who are having short-term financial hardships. [It’s meant] to help people make it through to the next bill and keep on service. It doesn’t necessarily help people who live on the ragged edge or who are having a hard time making ends meet over the long term. If you’re having a hard time paying your bills, you’re going to need to be connected to other social services; you’re going to need to look at conservation.”

One of the programs that is meant to help people on the “ragged edge” of poverty (as well as those well above that state) is the city’s utility discount program, which provides a 60 percent discount on utility bills for people making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty rate—about $30,000 for an individual or $61,000 for a family of four. (You can see the areas of high discount program enrollment, which in some cases correspond with lower disconnection rates, on the map SPU provided.)

In 2014, Mayor Ed Murray pledged to double enrollment in the program, and the utilities actually met that goal ahead of schedule, largely by auto-enrolling low-income people when they apply for other benefits.  However, many eligible ratepayers remain unenrolled (Real Change estimates that about 75,000 Seattle residents are eligible for the program), a gap City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen attributes in part to the stigma associated with accepting government benefits.

“For some of them, there’s a pride issue—they want to pay their bill just like everyone else,” Thomsen says. “For some of them, there are trust issues with the government.” And then, for some of them, “the process itself was challenging.”

Ah, yes. The process. During our meeting and phone conversations, representatives of both utilities pointed out repeatedly that the form to apply for the discount program is “now only one page.” It would be nitpicking to point out that that isn’t true, because the real issue is that applying for the program requires gathering extensive, time-consuming documentation of a customer’s income sources—from paychecks to federal welfare (TANF) benefits to social security to child support.

This process sounds basic, but it can be arduous and time-consuming to pull together, print, and submit proof of every source of income they’ve had in the past 30 days. (Previously, the city required proof of hardship for the past two months, but they’ve recently reduced that to one.). Utility officials say the process is somewhat challenging by design.

“We offer the largest discount of any utility in the country, and we also have one of the highest eligibility levels,” City Light’s Scott Thomsen says. “This is a very generous program, and with that comes the desire to make sure that the people who are getting the assistance qualify for that assistance.” Thomsen contrasts Seattle’s program to those in other cities, “where the application process is fairly simple and easy” but the dollar benefit is much lower. With better benefits, in other words, come more stringent requirements, “because you’re involving more money,” Thomsen says.

One of the things that might disqualify a person for the discount program is having too much income because of government benefits—things like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Social Security income (SSI). Even health care premium payments for Medicare and Medicaid, which are taken out of a person’s Social Security check before it ever hits their mailbox or bank account, count as gross income against the total amount that person can earn to qualify for the discount program.

Utility officials argue that anyone living on TANF or SSI checks is almost certainly poor enough to qualify for a discount—“I can’t imagine that someone who was subsisting on [assistance] would ever get close to the [cutoff] limit,” SPU’s Ryan says— but Herbold’s office and the spokesmen for both utilities say they’re exploring ways to address the issue anyway.

Why should assistance people get because they’re poor count against their ability to get other assistance they need because they’re poor? For that matter, what’s the point in cutting off utilities to a few thousand people a year, anyway? Real Change director Tim Harris argues that “if you are on TANF, you are desperately poor—if anybody needs the utility rate discount, it’s somebody on fucking TANF.” Harris believes that “what’s behind [the policy] is the understanding of utilities as a commodity like any other commodity, as opposed to being a human necessity.”

I brought this up in my meeting with officials for both utilities—if only a few thousand people fail to pay their bills every year, why not just forgive those folks’ debts and save the time and effort spent sending people out to their homes to manually disconnect their utilities? The money lost must be minuscule, so is it just … the principle of the thing?

The answer seems to be: Kind of. “Our biggest concern all along has been that we not entice people to put things off. That is going to make it harder for them,” Ryan says. “Our hesistancy has been, are we going to get more people even deeper in debt?” And, he adds: “How do you pay for it?”

Right now, that isn’t SPU’s or City Light’s problem. Instead, the burden of paying for people to keep the lights on, or the water running, falls largely on organizations like Langeler’s, which bridge the gaps when a customer can’t pay and the City of Seattle refuses to budge. Langeler praises SPU and City Light for being flexible enough to change their late-payment policies, but the city still acts harshly toward those who can’t scrape enough together to pay for basic services. That means thousands of people each year, including a huge concentration in South Seattle, will continue to find themselves in the dark.

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The Space Blanket Brigade Has Spoken

150301-news-better-call-saul

While some concerns about city council actions are based on genuine concerns about privacy, I feel confident saying that “the city council is trying to murder us all with their radioactive surveillance death rays” is not among them. Like anti-vaxxers or people who believe that evolution stopped 10,000 years ago therefore we should eat nothing but meat, the anti-smart meter crowd is just ridiculous enough to be amusing, and not quite loud enough to be dangerous.

If you haven’t been following this rather one-sided “debate,” there is a vocal but ultimately ineffectual group of people who oppose the “smart” meters Seattle City Light plans to install this year, which will allow the city to track and charge for electricity use remotely. Several of them turned out to make their voices heard (again) at this morning’s City Council energy committee meeting, chaired by a patient but unamused council member Kshama Sawant.

Supporters say the new meters will give the city real-time information that can help customers and the city cut costs, and provide timely information during power outages. Opponents say the meters are a gateway into our homes that will make us sick and give the city unfettered access into our homes.

Citing such sources as “Project Censored: The News That Didn’t Make the News” (then how did you know about it, Project Censored? HOW DID YOU KNOW?) and the U.S. constitution, opponents argued this morning that smart meters will enable the city to illegally spy on Seattle residents; use data from the meters to target citizens suspected of crimes; track when you sleep, eat, and leave the house; or figure out when you’re taking a bath. They also suspect the new meters will catch on fire and cause health problems like headaches and depression, and provide opportunities for hackers to wreak havoc on smart meter customers.

People who don’t want smart meters can opt out of the program and keep their old electrical meters, but that isn’t enough for opponents, who say the ill effects of smart meters are so insidious, they’ll impact everyone who lives in the city.

“Opt out is a copout!” one speaker, after reading the Fourth Amendment aloud, yelled. “Even with the opt-out, there are going to be people who aren’t aware of the EMF (electromagnetic field) and other dangers posed by these meters.”

Another speaker likened the city to the Mafia, saying officials were running a “protection racket” to extort money (in the form of opt-out fees) from people who just want to keep their homes “electropeaceful.” She then suggested that the city should pay for electromagnetic shields—basically, walls made of space blankets—to protect people from their neighbors’ meters, whose emissions could leak through walls.

“More folks are starting to recognize, at last, the harm from smart meters to household security and health,” she said.

Another speaker, who proudly claimed to have “four—no, three” public-access TV shows, said smart meters would usher in an “Orwellian” surveillance society.

And still another (the Project Censored citer) flashed angry air quotes every time she said the word “smart” (the visual equivalent of yelling “NOT!”) and spoke ominously of “dangerous electromagnetic rays” and “hidden agendas, including [smart meters’] potential for social control through energy rationing and monitoring” of civilians.

As entertaining as it is, in a Parks & Rec kind of way, to listen to these alarmists yell at the council, in reality-land, smart meters are going to happen, and critics are going to have to find another miasmatic “toxin” to freak out about.

Or, if they actually want to effect change, they could aim their efforts lower, focusing their anger on something that poses an actual, proven threat to their health and well-being. May I suggest greenhouse gas emissions?