Four months after the abrupt repeal of the Employee Hours Tax, subsequent developments are underscoring just how hard it will be for local governments to find money to seriously address our region’s affordable housing and homelessness crises.
by Geov Parrish
It’s been four months since Seattle City Council, in apparent violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, abruptly decided behind closed doors to repeal the compromise Employee Hours Tax (EHT) it had unanimously passed only a month before. Since then, a lot has happened on the homelessness front locally — almost none of it positive, from the standpoints of saving lives or getting people off Seattle’s streets.
Instead, a succession of developments have underscored the disingenuousness of EHT opponents, and the lack, even in a booming local economy, of any real political prospects for meaningful solutions. Partly, this is a matter of political will. Nobody likes being screamed at on the job, and every elected official, no matter where they stood on the EHT debate, seems traumatized by the rancor that the EHT debate stirred up. Yet the coming debate over Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2019-20 budget — aspects of which seem deeply regressive on the city’s approach to homelessness — is all but certain to whip up similar rancor. Trust is in short supply on all sides of the issue.
Two lawsuits filed against the city for allegedly violating the Open Public Meetings Act have turned up texts between Durkan, her office, key political allies, and every city council member except Kshama Sawant on the weekend before the council’s hastily called special meeting on Tuesday, June 12, to repeal the EHT.
Aside from showing a return to the Bad Old Days of Seattle politics, when allies had easy access to the mayor and important decisions were often made behind closed doors and then presented to the public as a fait accompli, the catalyst for the repeal appears to have been private polling done on a repeal initiative which was then being qualified for the November ballot. The polling — which has still never been released publicly — reportedly showed not only overwhelming public opposition to the EHT, but that the opposition was unlikely to change over time.
The texts show Durkan’s and council members’ frustration and fatigue with the issue, which was first proposed as part of the 2017 budget proposals. They found themselves caught between a noisy public demand that the city start acting with appropriate urgency for what has now been an official state of emergency and major local business leaders who simply don’t want to be taxed. The EHT debate marked the first time in the city’s decades-long, deeply paternalistic approach to homelessness — long predicated on the assumption that homeless people are on the street because of bad personal choices rather than systemic problems — that the city has acknowledged that the dramatic shortage of affordable housing is directly linked to increasing homelessness.
“There is no Plan B”
The problem that city leaders face is that building housing is expensive. A Chamber of Commerce-commissioned study earlier this year concluded that “without dramatically increasing the region’s supply of affordable housing options, solving the region’s homelessness crisis is all but impossible,” and estimated that it would cost more than $400 million a year for the next several years, just to create the affordable housing capacity that could house our county’s current homeless population. Meanwhile, the city has few politically feasible alternatives for finding such money.
The lessons of city council’s abrupt EHT capitulation are many and sobering, and extended far beyond homelessness. Seattle has had a 20-year commitment to ambitious population growth targets (density!) that have more than been met; but related investments in essentials such as utilities, schools, transportation, affordable housing, and social services haven’t come close to keeping pace. City leaders pushed a downtown tunnel plan that was billions of dollars more expensive than other Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement alternatives. They also chose to spend billions more each on waterfront development, Mercer Mess beautification and other South Lake Union amenities; another $1.7 billion (and counting) on convention center expansion, and still more on a streetcar system nobody asked for and few are using.
While those and other pricey real estate schemes got funded, utilities are aging, traffic remains frequently gridlocked, road and bridge repairs are backlogged by up to two decades, schools and buses are overflowing, and on, and on. Homelessness isn’t a sympathetic issue for much of the public. Many rail against prioritizing spending on homelessness, and Seattle business leaders (and their Seattle Times stenographers) were happy to oblige. As a consequence, one of the unfortunate side effects of the EHT repeal, and the campaign of public disinformation that helped fuel it, is the apparent legitimization, complete with local hate radio cheerleaders, of anti-homeless hate groups.
Cities routinely use economic boom times to invest in those kinds of basic, big-ticket projects — made even bigger, in Seattle’s case, by its past planning failures. Instead, city leaders have now effectively given Amazon and other big businesses effective veto power over paying for any of them, and allowed a vocal anti-tax contingent to further delegitimize attempts to raise new revenue. The feds and state aren’t helping any time soon. With a state ban on personal or corporate income taxes, the city is forced to rely on regressive sales, property, and B&O taxes for much of its revenue, and has already raised those as much as it’s politically feasible to do.
Lost in the EHT debate is that the hours tax or something similar was about the only tool Seattle had left that could pay for a major new initiative. Now that option appears dead, too. As Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda presciently noted in her “no” vote on the EHT repeal, “There Is No Plan B.”
Leaders like Durkan are under enormous pressure to “do something” about homelessness, without the resources or the political support to do the one thing that would clearly help: build affordable housing. The past four months has been a firehose of supposed developments, noisily touted as somehow making a difference in the battle against homelessness.
One of the most common mantras of EHT opponents last spring — most notably by King County Executive Dow Constantine — was that we needed a “regional approach” that was somehow being undermined by Seattle’s EHT proposal. The regional initiative on homelessness is called One Table. It met once this summer and appears to not be doing anything of note.
Shortly after the repeal, Durkan also unveiled an “Innovation Advisory Council,” which included many of the tech companies that mobilized against the tax. This group is supposed to offer suggestions for improving the city’s real-time data coordination on availability of shelter, or something. The IAC recently met for the first time; the corporate representatives attending clearly had no background at all in homelessness, and little awareness of the daily struggles of life on the streets. The prospects that this group of people is somehow magically going to come up with solutions that have thus far escaped service providers, experts, and the homeless themselves seems… fanciful. But it’s another initiative that Durkan can now point to as “doing something.”
And then there’s the mayor’s proposed $55.9 billion biennial budget for 2019-2020, which city council is now considering. The mayor’s office touted the budget as pouring $3 million in new resources into the battle against homelessness. But a closer look suggests that some of Durkan’s priorities are seriously counter-productive.
Chief among these: For the second year in a row, the mayor’s proposal cuts out completely funding for SHARE/WHEEL, the organization that contracts with the city to provide most of its emergency shelter. Last year, city council had to step in to restore funding for the year. This year, SHARE/WHEEL and its allies will need to fight that battle all over again — a drain on critical time and resources.
The heart of the conflict is a clash of missions. For the second year, the HSD, the city department that oversees homelessness policy, is prioritizing shelters with a proven track record of placing its clients in permanent affordable housing. Of course, since our city doesn’t have any affordable housing, this requires games with definitions to demonstrate “progress.” For example, a homeless person given a three- to nine-month voucher for market rate housing is considered “permanently housed” by the city. There is no follow-up to find out whether, after the vouchers expire and our now-permanently-housed person must come up with $2,000 or more in rent each month, they are actually able to do so, with or without the help of a case manager.
By contrast, “emergency shelter” has a simpler, less ambitious mission: to get people off the streets and into shelter each night. In winter, this can be a matter of literal life and death. Already this year, the King County Medical Examiners’ Office has tallied more than 150 deaths of people with no permanent housing. We’re only a few weeks away from the first freezing nights of winter.
A Public Health Disaster
Last month, the King County Board of Health unanimously approved a resolution calling homelessness a “public health disaster” and urging local governments to do “whatever is necessary” to get people indoors during the coming cold months. That, presumably, would not include planning to dismantle much of Seattle’s existing emergency shelter network. An outbreak of HIV infections among homeless people in North seattle has also recently been discovered, underscoring the public health concerns of homelessness. Meanwhile, a stalled plan to set up safe injection sites as a response to the opioid abuse epidemic received another blow last month, as the Trump administration indicated it would aggressively try to prosecute backers of a similar facility proposed in Philadelphia.
Durkan’s budget is also proposing funding another expansion of the city’s “Navigation Teams,” the workers who try to place homeless people (especially those about to be swept) in shelter. The proposal would increase the full time staff of the Teams from 22 to about 30. A recent City Auditor’s report could draw no clear conclusions on the efficacy of the teams, owing to the city’s poorly organized data collection. It did recommend several changes in how team members are trained, including adding trauma training — a seemingly obvious step for anyone who has spent significant time among people experiencing homeless. The lack of data on the Navigation Teams’ efficacy — even as the program continues to expand — underscores how seemingly random the city’s “data-driven” approach to homelessness has been. Emergency shelters are being defunded for not meeting arbitrary goals they’re not designed to meet. Yet the Navigation Teams don’t have to meet such a standard. And, inexplicably, Durkan’s budget proposal dramatically cuts funding for prevention of homelessness (e.g. emergency rent assistance), from $43 million to only $19 million. Why?
Durkan’s budget proposal does have a bit of good news: a long-overdue, $250,000 line item to help accommodate the roughly one-third of local homeless people living in their vehicles. After a disastrous attempt to set up a safe lot in Ballard two years ago, the city has had literally no policy, other than ticketing and towing, a vehicular version of the record numbers of sweeps of unsanctioned homeless encampments the Durkan administration continues to pursue.
Feature Photo Courtesy Seattle City Council