Tag: transparency

Harrell Vetoes Bill That Would Have Provided Data, Transparency on Seattle Rents

According to one city council member, this is all the data renters need to know whether they’re getting a good deal in a specific neighborhood.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell has vetoed legislation that would have required landlords to report basic information about the units they own, including how much they charge for apartments of various sizes, to a research university. The bill, which the city council passed 5-4 last week, had support from council members across the ideological spectrum, including Alex Pedersen (who proposed the bill as a step toward preserving “mom and pop”-owned rentals) and Kshama Sawant (who argued that rent transparency would support more renter-friendly policies.)

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information about their rental units. Citing a constituent letter from the head of the University of Washington’s Washington Center for Real Estate Research, Harrell said any data the research university collected would be “unreliable” because landlords would choose to (illegally) opt out or provide inaccurate data on purpose, since providing accurate data might put their business interests at risk.

For years, the city (and public) did have access to accurate, frequently updated rent data through reports produced by a private company called Dupre+Scott. Since 2017, the city has had to rely on high-level Census information to keep tabs on rents and residential displacement rates. Harrell’s veto letter asks “private industry” to step up and voluntarily produce the kind of data Dupre+Scott provided—something that private industry has declined to do in the five years since Dupre+Scott shut down.

The legislation Harrell vetoed would not have enabled the public to see what rents specific landlords were charging. Instead, it would have improved transparency and access to general information that could have helped renters make informed housing decisions, leveling the information playing field between renters and house buyers, who have instant access to listing and sale prices through data collected by the Northwest multiple Listing Service.

Harrell also said in his veto letter that the legislation would have cost the city too much money—between $2 million and $5 million—at a time when the city is asking every department to come up with potential cuts. “I cannot support moving forward with an expensive new program that is unlikely to achieve its stated aims and has no clear source of funding to pay for it,” Harrell wrote.

“Rejecting this law seems to be a victory for landlords unwilling to share data and a loss for those seeking data to make informed decisions on preserving and expanding affordable housing in our city.” —City Councilmember Alex Pedersen

Contradicting that claim, Harrell also said it would be irresponsible to spend millions collecting data on rents when that money “could otherwise directly serve people suffering in the ongoing homelessness crisis.”

In a statement this afternoon, the bill’s primary sponsor Pedersen said he is “deeply disappointed our solution to collect housing data helpful for preventing displacement of economically vulnerable people was not signed into law. Similar laws to collect rental housing data are already in place throughout the nation, so the veto means Seattle is still behind the times.” Continue reading “Harrell Vetoes Bill That Would Have Provided Data, Transparency on Seattle Rents”

The Durkan Administration Deleted the City Directory. We’re Restoring It.

By Erica C. Barnett

Former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was one of the least transparent in recent memory. The problems included both high-profile events—the deletion of months of text messages requested by reporters seeking insight into the mayor’s decision-making process during protests against police brutality—and systemic issues, like chronic micromanagement that disempowered city department staff.

Many of those changes can be easily undone. Subsequent mayors can adopt better text-retention policies, allow department spokespeople and staff to do their jobs instead of micromanaging them, and create an atmosphere of openness rather than fear and suspicion at City Hall.

One underreported story of the Durkan years that will have lasting consequences for transparency, however, is the administration’s decision to permanently delete the city directory, a vital resource that enabled members of the public to access contact information for city employees directly, and provided information about city departments’ Byzantine bureaucracy.

The directory was the only place ordinary citizens (and members of the press) could access contact information for the approximately 12,000 people who work at the city.

Last summer, it vanished. At the time, the excuse the city provided was that there was an unavoidable IT glitch that somehow rendered the whole directory unstable. The city’s IT department told PubliCola they were working on the problem, and that the directory would be back online by the end of the year.

That never happened. Instead, the city replaced replaced the directory with a list of links to city departments’ websites and media contacts, along with the city’s general-purpose 684-CITY phone number. (Somewhat perversely, the url for this unhelpful list remains seattle.gov/directory, and the headline on the page is “City Employee Directory”).

Back in January, I wrote that PubliCola had made a public records request for a copy of the city directory and would post it when we got it. Today, we are publishing it.

According to an update posted on the city’s website in mid-December, the city’s Department of Human Resources made a “decision” at some point in 2021 that “the directory would no longer be maintained.” The city also posted an outdated spreadsheet of the directory as it existed in July 2021. “The data in these files is made available “as is” with no guarantee of accuracy,” the update said.

For members of the media, including those outside the mainstream press, a quick call to the right city staffer can eliminate the need to go through gatekeepers who may not have the time or inclination to go dig up the same information. During the Durkan administration, it was not uncommon for departmental spokespeople to respond to a question about, for example, the status of a particular construction project by referring PubliCola to the mayor’s office, who would issue a general statement that did not answer our question. Having access to the person in charge of permitting that project isn’t an academic matter; it’s often the difference between getting information and getting the runaround.

The directory was also useful to members of the general public. Anyone who has called the city’s general phone line, or attempted to contact a city department to get basic information about the status of a permit, for example, knows how difficult and time-consuming it can be to reach a person who can answer your question.

Back in January, I wrote that PubliCola had made a public records request for a copy of the city directory and would post it when we got it.

Here it is, in two parts—obtained through two separate records requests that, together, provide a more detailed list of contacts than the public directory the Durkan Administration trashed. The first part includes phone numbers and emails, but no department listings, for most city employees (excluding police officers, Seattle Public Library employees, and many employees of the fire department.) The second includes email addresses all city employees, along with their departments, but does not include phone numbers.

I will be updating these databases regularly so that they represent at least as accurate a list of city employees as the deleted city directory, which the city appeared to update every few months.

Although these two databases duplicate the former city directory, representing an accurate contact list for city employees as of January 2022, they do not provide a substitute for true transparency from the city itself, which is ultimately responsible for providing this kind of basic information to residents, as other cities do across the country. Nonetheless, I hope they’ll be useful in restoring some transparency to a city that, under the most recent mayor, steadily chipped away at Seattle residents’ access to their government.