Why Is a Statewide Anti-Union Group Suing to Stop Tiny House Villages in Seattle?

by Erica C. Barnett

When the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation—a conservative group that has spent the bulk of its energy over the past decade fighting against health care workers’ right to organize—filed a lawsuit to stop a Low Income Housing Institute-run “tiny house village” for homeless people from opening in South Lake Union, it raised some eyebrows.

The encampment, like other tiny house villages, would consist of a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that would occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street. Why, union members and homeless advocates wondered, was a statewide think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government” get involved in a local land use dispute about a homeless encampment on a single block in Seattle?

“When we saw [the lawsuit], we thought, ‘That’s weird,’” says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775 spokesman Adam Glickman. “Back in the mid-2000s, the Freedom Foundation was involved in the statewide initiative to get rid of the Growth Management Act (GMA), but recently they’ve been pretty laser-focused on attacking unions and, to a lesser degree, taxes.”

The SEIU represents home health care workers and has spent many years embroiled in legal and political battles with the Freedom Foundation over the union’s right to organize home health care employees and other quasi-public workers.

Glickman says that other than the anti-GMA campaign, he can’t remember the Freedom Foundation ever getting involved in a land use dispute, and certainly not one at such a hyperlocal level.

Neither, for that matter, can the Freedom Foundation’s own attorney, Richard Stephens, to whom a spokesman for the group referred all questions about the lawsuit.

“I’m going back a while, and I can’t remember any other cases like this,” Stephen says. “Most of what [the Freedom Foundation is] doing now is labor law, free speech, freedom of association kinds of things, but historically, they’ve had kind of a broad scope.”

In fact, the lawsuit itself asserts that the reason the Freedom Foundation has standing to sue over a proposed encampment in Seattle in the first place is on the grounds that it claims to generally represent the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.”

The lawsuit claims that the city failed to do an environmental review of the encampment, which the group claims will lead to “loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area”; that the city didn’t sufficiently inform the community about its plans to authorize the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) encampment; and that the encampment is illegal, anyway, because the legislation allowing the city to authorize sanctioned encampments only allows three such encampments at any one time.

Of those three arguments, Stephens says the third, involving the law that limits the number of authorized encampments to three, is “the cleanest,” because the law is explicit: “No more than three transitional encampment interim use encampments shall be permitted and operating at any one time,” not counting those located next to religious facilities.

“When the city council adopts an ordinance that says … we’re only going to allow three of them to operate at any one time, then it seems clear that the city staff is just ignoring what the city council did,” Stephens says. “That is sort of the clearest violation. But the other problem is the city council also said when you approve these, you’ve got to ensure there’s the right community outreach and public participation, and it seems like the city and the applicant [LIHI] are scrambling around to do it after the fact.”

Currently, the city has six permitted encampments. Lily Rehrman, a strategic advisor at the city’s Human Services Department, says the new encampments have been authorized under Type 1 Master Use Permits, which are four-week permits that must be periodically renewed. This distinguishes them from the permits used for the first three authorized encampments, in Ballard, Othello, and Interbay.

“Under this type of permit, temporary land uses, like permitted villages, are allowable,” Rehrman says, a claim the Freedom Foundation disputes. LIHI has applied for a four-week Type 1 permit, and LIHI director Sharon Lee says that if the tiny house village is approved, she will apply for periodic renewals.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a state of emergency,” Lee says, referring to the state of emergency on homelessness that former mayor Ed Murray declared in November 2015.

According to the most recent count of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle. All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is, in reality, higher.

Lee calls the Freedom Foundation’s claim that there wasn’t enough public outreach before the city approved the encampment specious.

“The whole point of having the two community meetings—one in May, the other earlier this month—was to get people to volunteer for the community advisory committee that is required in the legislation allowing encampments,” Lee says. “And not only were there two community meetings, there were also presentations to the chamber of commerce and other organizations.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan formally announced plans to fund the tiny house village in South Lake Union through the “Bridge Housing” program in May, but the idea of sheltering hundreds of homeless people in tiny house villages across the city has been around since at least last February, when Durkan first announced the plan.

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, beyond a brief statement from spokesman Dan Nolte: “We fully intend to defend the City in this suit, and we’re currently assessing the claims.”

Data analysis “does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Before the Freedom Foundation got involved, the debate over the encampment centered largely on whether the camp would impose a danger to neighboring residents and harm property values in the surrounding area. The proposed site is three blocks north of Mercer Avenue and sits in the epicenter of South Lake Union gentrification. Earlier this month, at a standing-room-only meeting in South Lake Union, opponents focused on the fact that the encampment will not be explicitly clean-and-sober, although drugs and alcohol will be banned in common areas.

The comments from opponents drew guffaws and shouts from tiny house village supporters in the crowd. One neighbor, condo owner Betty Wright, said South Lake Union was “too crowded to handle 100 additional people—I don’t want to say ‘poor people’—people with issues. I was hoping to move to a safe place where I don’t have to worry about crime. I used to run down to the garage in my jammies. I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore.”

Wright’s neighbor and fellow condo owner Greg Williams suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment.

“They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us,” Williams said.

“That’s called slavery!” someone shouted from the back.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort.

Hodes asked the people in the room who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.”

According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home, 20 percent of King County’s residents living outdoors have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they lost access to shelter; and 45 percent were actively looking for work. Moreover, there is little evidence that authorized encampments actually increase crime in neighborhoods.

Although the Seattle Police Department (SPD) says it’s difficult to attribute the rise and fall in crime statistics in and around authorized encampments to any single factor, SPD Sergeant Eric Zerr, who heads up the Navigation Team that removes unauthorized encampments and offers services to their inhabitants, says there’s no comparison between the “criminality” around unsanctioned encampments and camps like those run by LIHI, which include case management, 24/7 security, and basic necessities such as food, restrooms, and showers.

“If you’re living in a tent [in an unsanctioned encampment] and you don’t have any source of income, there’s criminality that goes along with that,” particularly if the people living in encampments are addicted to drugs, Zerr says. “When you have [drug] usage, there’s prostitution, there’s the property crimes, there are domestic violence issues, trafficking issues, serious assaults, rapes, gunplay, that type of thing.”

A review of recent police reports from unsanctioned encampments in greenbelts along I-5 confirms that violent crime is still a regular occurrence in these encampments, although SPD provided no specific evidence connecting unauthorized encampments to crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If you’re living in a community, and you have the life-sustaining things that we consider to be a normal part of life, [plus] case managers and a defined space, you move into a different kind of mindset,” even if, as with the proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union, drugs and alcohol aren’t strictly prohibited, Zerr says of life in a sanctioned, monitored encampment with case management and other basic services.

SPD said it was unable to provide crime statistics demonstrating crime rates in the areas immediately around every sanctioned encampment in the city before and after those encampments opened. Detailed information about specific incidents in and around encampments used to be available online, but is no longer. That data was unreliable when it was available, however, because it included many duplicate incidents, and excluded some incident reports for privacy reasons.

SPD’s Crime Dashboard breaks down crime statistics into 58 neighborhoods, like “Lakewood/Seward Park” and “Rainier View,” but because these are large geographic areas, it’s difficult to attribute changing crime rates specifically to the presence of sanctioned or unsanctioned encampments. However, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says it just stands to reason that “if you’ve got organization and structure, it’s going to be safer, and if you don’t have organization and structure, and it’s just random, then it’s going to be less safe.”

SPD did create a document summarizing the rate of crime in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the authorized encampment in Licton Springs, which—unlike LIHI’s proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union—is explicitly low-barrier, meaning that people in active addiction can live, and use drugs and alcohol, on the premises. LIHI owns the Licton Springs property, but the encampment is operated by a separate group, SHARE/WHEEL, which is not involved in the proposed South Lake Union encampment.

According to the SPD document, “the block containing Licton Springs Village (N 85 to N 88 and Aurora to Nesbitt) remains one of the busiest areas in the North Precinct, both in police proactivity and calls for service.”

The document shows that crime has increased by some metrics and decreased in others, but cautions that the “data analysis … does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Zerr, the Navigation Team leader, says he would personally “feel fine” if a tiny house village opened in his neighborhood, but adds that he supports “energized and maybe even contentious debate” like the one that’s currently taking place in South Lake Union.

“I’d be going down asking those same questions, to make sure the city has thought everything through and that the residents have a voice. Those are things that a responsive government should offer its citizens when they’re going to change the living conditions of their neighborhood,” Zerr says.

Lee, the LIHI director, says she remains optimistic that the South Lake Union tiny house village will be able to open on August 15, as scheduled. “We’re optimistic,” Lee says. “We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter.”

Featured image courtesy of Low Income Housing Institute

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