In late September, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan released her 2019/2020 budget proposal. Her priorities are heavily weighted towards expanding law enforcement—not a surprise, given her prior job as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington State.
In October, the Seattle City Council worked on amendments to Durkan’s budget, to make it reflect more of the council’s priorities. Unlike the mayor, who is serving her first term and who views the budget as a way to remake the city according to her own vision, the council has longer term goals in mind: supporting programs that the council established in prior years, addressing long-term issues like homelessness and racial equity, and making sure that city departments operate in a transparent way.
Here’s a look at just a few of the amendments that city councilmembers proposed in October, focusing on issues of homelessness, tenant’s rights, housing affordability and displacement, racial equity, and the disposition of two new taxes that the council put in place in 2017.
Mayor Durkan’s budget contains a couple of big surprises regarding homelessness spending. In a time of rising numbers of homeless people on the streets of Seattle, Durkan had decided to cut funding drastically for basic emergency shelters, while increasing support for The Navigation Team by 38%. The Navigation Team is Durkan’s pet project for clearing encampments of homeless people—only a handful of whom are referred to shelters, while the rest are displaced and their belongings seized or thrown in the trash.
Earlier this summer, the Seattle City Auditor released a report on The Navigation Team, which found that the team fell far short of transparency. (That report can be found here: https://www.seattle.gov/cityauditor.)
The team’s operations were unclear, its guiding philosophy was undefined, its members were untrained in how to deal with mental health issues and racial equity problems, and it didn’t even collect meaningful statistics on how many people were referred to shelter versus how many were simply shoved down the street.
So Councilmember Lisa Herbold has proposed an amendment to the budget that would, at the end of each quarter, require The Navigation Team to list how it’s meeting transparency goals, as outlined in the City Auditor’s report, before the City Council votes to release money to fund the next quarter’s operations. Herbold, it turns out, has authored quite a few provisos (or holds on funding), through which the council can exercise its main tool for ensuring that city departments follow the council’s priorities.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant sought to address the other surprise in Durkan’s budget. Sawant proposed adding back money to fund the SHARE/WHEEL emergency basic shelters, which the mayor’s budget would only fund through June of next year. Durkan’s budget plan boasts that she’s created over 500 new shelter beds this year, but she’s counting shelter beds created by nonprofit organizations, not just the city. Of that total, only 146 beds are available for The Navigation Team to use when referring people off the street. Meanwhile, by cutting funding to SHARE/WHEEL for the second half of 2019, Durkan would permanently remove 217 shelter beds.
Durkan claims that it’s better to add enhanced shelter beds—shelters that provide case management and other services—than to continue funding basic shelters that provide only a place to sleep at night. But the difference in costs between the 2 options is dramatic: existing basic shelter beds cost the city about $4,900 per year, while new enhanced shelter beds can cost as high as $37,000 per year.
While mental health, case management, and addiction services are necessary for some folks, many other homeless folks are living out of their cars, or are just in need of a warm place to sleep at night, which is why Durkan doesn’t completely defund all basic shelter beds in her budget: the Downtown Emergency Service Center will continue to receive funding for the basic shelter beds that they provide. And Durkan’s budget provides funding for nighttime parking spaces for people sleeping in cars and RV’s.
So, the cut to SHARE/WHEEL funding is clearly a political move, based on Durkan’s (and by extension, her supporters’) hostility to the self-management model of those shelters. SHARE/WHEEL has long believed that most homeless people know perfectly well what they need—resources and material support, and not paternalistic guidance—and are therefore capable of managing their own shelter environment. Sometimes this creates problems, as when a shelter elects a person to run an encampment who turns out to have dictatorial tendencies, but then Democracy is never perfect, as we all know.
Durkan and her supporters within the business community prefer their own model: assuming that all homeless people are childlike and in need of success training, they prefer to view homeless people as “clients.” In their view, the Capitalist system is a game, and some people just need better training in how to play it. Anyone who lacks material goods is merely incompetent or poorly indoctrinated; they’re never a victim of bad luck, bad health, discrimination, unscrupulous corporations, or an uneven playing field. Hence, Durkan’s policy would process all homeless people through enhanced shelters with required case management, treating homeless people like children instead of adults who already know what their basic needs are.
Where the Durkan model really fails is in providing no exit from enhanced shelters, and no understanding of the forces that create homelessness in the first place. While Durkan boasted a 3% increase in funding for affordable housing, that 3% will be eaten up by inflation, which has increased by over 3% since last year. Without additional investments in affordable housing, there will simply be nowhere to permanently house people trying to get off the street.
And rising rents and housing costs are a main contributor to the growing number of homeless on our streets. Which is why Mayor Durkan’s cuts to homelessness prevention services are so shocking, and make no sense whatsoever. This may be why City Councilmember Deborah Juarez, who usually exerts herself only for her constituents in North Seattle, proposed adding back $400,000 for homelessness prevention funding for groups like the Ballard Food Bank and Seattle Helplines. To see Juarez make such an unusual move really highlights how extreme Mayor Durkan’s budget is. With this cut alone, Durkan proves herself to be a Republican in Democrat’s clothing.
City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has proposed, three years after Mayor Ed Murray announced a state of emergency over homelessness, that the city finally treat it like a real emergency. She has proposed spending $3 million to erect a mass tent shelter similar to the ones in Tacoma and Los Angeles. The big tent would be an enhanced shelter with showers, storage lockers, restrooms, laundry, and case management and mental health services available to its tenants (but they would not be required to use all of those services). The idea would be to provide the resources people need to get back on their feet, similar to a response after a natural disaster.
Mosqueda also proposed adding $388,716 into the budget to tackle the spread of communicable diseases among the homeless. This comes after a recent outbreak of HIV among homeless drug users in North Seattle, and an outbreak of Hepatitis A among several homeless populations in California.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien has also proposed setting aside $300,000 that community-based organizations can use to create new emergency housing, which would turn the provision of shelter space into something that communities can choose to do on their own, in spaces they select themselves. This presumably would take some pressure off the City Council from neighborhood NIMBY’s.
In a further push to prevent homelessness, the council took a closer look at tenant protections within the Department of Construction and Inspections. DCI doesn’t just issue permits to developers, it inspects buildings, monitors vacant buildings, and manages a program to address landlord/tenant issues.
Councilmembers Herbold and O’Brien have proposed that the city work to speed up its response to tenant safety and health complaints—one of the main routes through which tenants are displaced. Herbold also proposed adding back money that Mayor Durkan had cut for the Vacant Building Monitoring Program. Herbold’s proposal would establish a fee to cover the cost of the program, and charge penalties to property owners who don’t keep their buildings in good shape. This would create an incentive for property owners to either keep their properties occupied and up to code, or else sell properties that they lack the resources to manage. The idea is to discourage investors from buying older buildings, neglecting them so that all the tenants leave, then tearing them down and redeveloping or selling them to the highest bidder for redevelopment.
In addition, Councilmember Sawant proposed adding $700,000 to fund legal services for tenants facing eviction, and to fund outreach to vulnerable populations about their rights as tenants, including people of color and the LGBTQ community.
Two New Taxes
Last year, the City Council voted to establish two new taxes in Seattle, the Short-Term Rental Tax, and the Sweetened Beverage Tax.
The Short-Term Rental Tax was meant to discourage landlords from turning apartments into lucrative, short-term, vacation rentals on Airbnb and other online platforms. Tenants’ rights groups and the hotel/motel lobby pushed hard for this tax. When the council voted for it, they included a list of what they wanted the money collected from the tax to be spent on: 1) the first $5 million on investments in community-initiated equitable development projects, 2) the next $2 million on affordable housing, and 3) the remainder on community-initiated equitable development projects, including any affordable housing component.
Now, a quick word on “community-initiated equitable development” projects: these are supposed to be projects that benefit communities of color and that are initiated by those communities. The city has an interesting document which describes it goals in relation to equitable development, which can be found here: https://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/p2555173.pdf. In the past, the city lacked a dedicated source of funds for equitable development initiated by communities of color, and the City Council saw the Short-Term Rental Tax (STR) as a way to address this shortfall.
Mayor Durkan, lacking a vision for equitable development, saw the STR as a new revenue stream that she could us to fund staff salaries and consulting fees, as well as already existing housing programs. So the council swung into action.
Councilmember O’Brien has proposed that the STR be set aside in its own fund, so that the council can keep better track of the revenue collected and what it’s being spent on. He also proposed moving the $1 million of STR revenue that Durkan would use to fund staff salaries and consulting fees to pay for direct grants for community equitable development, just as the Council envisioned. And Councilmembers Mosqueda and Herbold proposed that the city explore whether STR revenue can be used to pay interest on bonds for affordable housing projects (instead of existing housing programs).
When the council passed the Sweetened Beverage Tax (SBT) last year, they specified that the money collected from the tax would be used for new programs to expand access to healthy and affordable food, and programs to benefits children and families. Mayor Durkan, on the other hand, proposed shifting money from the SBT to fund existing food programs.
Councilmember O’Brien, naturally, proposed setting aside the SBT collections into a separate pool of money, and that the money be used according to the council’s original vision of the program (just as he had done for the Short-Term Rental Tax).
And Councilmember Mosqueda proposed that the city explore whether SBT money could be used to pay interest on bonds for building and renovating community health facilities, like P-Patches, health clinics, and early learning centers.
You can see a pattern here: the council passes taxes for new services, which Mayor Durkan then tries to appropriate to pay for existing program that were previously paid for out of the General Fund. Then Durkan turns around and uses that freed-up General Fund money to pay for the new stuff she wants, like police salary increases, hiring 40 more cops, new computers in the city’s police cars, and a 38% funding boost for The Navigation Team.
This closer look at just a few items in the mayor’s budget exposes Durkan as a conservative, law-and-order Democrat, willing to cut social services when necessary to fund her pet “public safety” projects. She’s far from the progressive Democrat that she claimed to be when she ran for office last year.
As for the individual councilmembers, I’m favorably surprised by Mike O’Brien’s efforts to maintain council control over the direction of city government. Councilmember Herbold works in the same vein, and together they constitute the institutional memory of a progressive caucus on the council, with its efforts to address lingering problems like homelessness, hunger, and racial equity.
In addition, Teresa Mosqueda is making the most of her first year in her first term on the council to push hard for racial justice and affordable housing.
Meanwhile, I’m left wondering about the other councilmembers. Many of the above issues impact Bruce Harrell’s constituency the most. As representative for District 2 in South Seattle, he should be looking for ways to increase affordable housing, address the causes of homelessness, and ensure racial equity within city operations. But in a year in which he’s serving as Council President, he is mostly absent on these vital issues.
Meanwhile, Sally Bagshaw, as the representative for District 7 (downtown, Belltown, Queen Anne & Magnolia), clearly supports everything Durkan does without question. Bagshaw is representative of the wealthy folks who live and work in her District, including the downtown business community and big developers.
Speaking of developers, Rob Johnson, who represents District 4 in Northeast Seattle, seems eager to cash in on the build-out of the University District and destroy much of what’s left of affordable housing north of the Ship Canal. His disinterest in homelessness and human services appears to be a symptom of that pandering.
And finally, Lorena Gonzalez, who sits in one of only two at-large seats on the council (Teresa Mosqueda holds the other one), has long promoted her bona fides as a woman of color. Yet, where is she on two issues that matter deeply to people of color in Seattle: affordable housing and displacement? We can only hope that she adds a fifth vote to pass many of the above proposals. But, unfortunately, we can’t be confident that she will.
The council is expected to begin voting on amendments to a budget reconciliation bill starting on November 7th. The process is expected to take a week or so, and usually ends before the Thanksgiving holiday. There’s still time to contact your councilmembers to express your opinion on the budget:
District 1 – West Seattle and South Park
District 2 – South Seattle
District 3 – Central Seattle
District 4 – Northeast Seattle
District 5 – North Seattle
District 6 – Northwest Seattle
District 7 – Pioneer Square to Magnolia
Position 8 – Citywide
Position 9 – Citywide