A group calling itself “Compassion Seattle” is pushing for a change to the City’s charter to address our homelessness crisis. It is backed by an unusual coalition: from centrist business groups like the Seattle Metro Chamber and the Downtown Seattle Association, to more progressive human services organizations like Plymouth Housing, DESC, Fare Start, the Public Defender Association, and Evergreen Treatment Services. This unusual consensus over a human services issue speaks volumes on our elected officials’ incompetence in addressing the crisis.
The amendment seeks to accelerate the construction of affordable housing, add data transparency, increase funding for mental health, and set guidelines around campsite removal. In this author’s opinion, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. But it has some serious flaws, and since its drafters appear open to amendment, I’ll suggest a few fixes that would make it much better.
More Housing for the Homeless
First, the best part. The Charter Amendment requires the city to build 1,000 units in six months, and another 1,000 the following six months. These will be “emergency or permanent housing with…behavioral health service and necessary staffing to serve people with the highest barriers.” These must be “in addition to those already funded” to prevent politicians from using fuzzy math to take credit for things that were already going to happen.
Two thousand homes will provide stable housing within one year to our most desperate citizens. When coupled with King County’s plan to build units for up to 2,000 people, it will reach almost the entire chronically homeless population. It also avoids the thorny issue of funding, which might be required for a more ambitious target.
But it needs to be bigger. It ignores our other rough-sleeping neighbors, who need another 3,600 units countywide. Given our share of the homeless population, Seattle should shoulder 2,500 more transitional units. This will probably require a modest tax increase, but with state and federal matching dollars, and spreading it over a few years of revenue, the tax bill will be small enough that the coalition could stay cobbled together.
None of this includes the remaining 4,000 people living in emergency shelters, or the many who cycle in and out of homelessness every year. That suggests that the Seattle share should include another 2,500 transitional units for the shelter folks and possibly several more thousand for the temporarily homeless. But the higher taxes needed for this would torpedo the coalition. So this charter amendment is not the best vehicle for getting that done.
Expanding Behavioral Health Support
Another welcome provision requires the city to fund “low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services . . . [for the] chronically homeless.” They must include a “behavioral health rapid-response field capacity” that works with “non-law enforcement crisis response systems,” using “culturally distinct approaches.” This has to be available to everyone living in housing for the (otherwise) homeless, and it requires an increase of funding from 11% to 12% of the budget, which is about $15 million. The Compassion Seattle folks believe this will cover even the high end cost estimates for the additional behavioral health services.
They could improve the amendment by guaranteeing these services for folks in and out of homelessness or even those at high risk for homelessness, and by furnishing the funds to support this.
The amendment also mandates that the City publish quarterly information regarding the “effectiveness of strategies and services designed to transition homeless individuals to housing,” and inform the public “which city services, activities, and practices may contribute to people entering or experiencing homelessness.” Perhaps this will help us hold our electeds’ feet to the fire. I doubt it. The city already measures the impact of the providers who serve the homeless. When providers flunk the test, some just go straight to the city council and get written directly into the budget instead. Data dashboards don’t necessarily prevent cronyism or incompetence. Making them public might help.
But tying funds to performance will work much better. The vague language about “practices and strategies…that effectively engage, shelter and house” needs tightening. Funding should depend on the ratio of dollars of funding to months housed, with a minimum magnitude of average months housed. This should be measured separately by risk-tier, since chronically unsheltered folks are much more expensive to house. Racial groups and other marginalized groups should also be measured separately. Efficiency should be maximized for interventions within the groups, not across the groups, to prevent performance data from driving biased funding away from marginalized citizens.
Reducing the Cost and Time to Build Housing for the Homeless
The amendment lowers barriers for construction of housing for the unsheltered. It requires the City to waive land use codes, regulation and permitting fees, move projects serving the homeless to the front of the permitting line, and refund various city-related costs, fees, and sales taxes. This is excellent, but could be better on five fronts. It should:
- Be permanent, rather than tied to periods of declared homelessness emergencies. This will help prevent future emergencies.
- Include all subsidized housing, but prioritize permits for housing the homeless first.
- Waive the design review process for affordable housing.
- Waive parking, lot coverage, and rear and side setback requirements.
- Increase heights for affordable housing to 85 feet in multifamily and mixed used neighborhoods, and 45 feet in lower density neighborhoods, with increased floor to area ratios to match. At minimum this should apply in all high opportunity and high frequency transit neighborhoods, and to community land trusts in remaining neighborhoods.
The Amendment hives off a separate fund for human services and homeless programs, with a 12%-of-revenue funding floor. This is in some sense an unfunded mandate. But a great deal of federal money is headed our way. And it will force the City to prioritize housing the homeless instead of waiting for more tax money, as booster John Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association said to the Seattle Times. The bill might be better if it includes a funding mechanism, but I suspect that is too heavy a lift for this likely fragile coalition.
The Amendment also includes a six-year sunset clause. This pays homage to the fact that we shouldn’t lard up our charter with policy initiatives in perpetuity. Policy needs come and go, and charters are like constitutions. But the sunsetting seems overbroad and premature. We need to have a basic framework for addressing any unhoused humans within our borders for the long haul. Nevertheless, it might sense to sunset certain specific provisions, like the 12% requirement, in a decade or so.
Finally, the most difficult and contentious item requires the City to make housing available so that public spaces can remain free of “unauthorized encampments.” We cannot be certain of exactly how this will affect removals, as exemplified by the fact that even our mayoral candidates disagree on whether it empowers or limits camp removal.
From a pure statutory standpoint, the amendment narrows the scope for removals in two ways: It puts refreshing limits on how people are removed, by requiring individualized interventions, which pay attention to culture, family structure, and disability. It also acknowledges the possibility of harm from encampment closures. These will guide the city to more appropriate action and give the aggrieved grounds to challenge the manner in which removals take place.
On its surface, the amendment also limits whether camps may be removed. One clause says the City’s policy is to “make available…housing to those living unsheltered so that the City may take actions to ensure that [public spaces] remain open and clear of unauthorized encampments.” The plain language implies housing options are required before for removal. But as a matter of formal logic, the drafting does not pull this off. A later clause is clearer. It says that “it is City policy to avoid, as much as possible, dispersing people, except to safe and secure housing. This suggests that housing is required, unless one of the exceptions in the next part of the text apply.
The problem is that exceptions could be read so broadly that they completely swallow the requirement for housing availability. There are public health and safety exceptions, which is reasonable. But “interference with the use of public spaces by others” blows open a yawning gap in the rule. What qualifies as interference? Do subjective feelings of unsafety qualify? Whose subjective feelings? Does someone have to physically block access? If a camper is on public land, isn’t she technically “interfering” with at least her tent’s worth of access to that public space? A court will probably require something like a “reasonable” sense of interference, but given the sharp divergence in how various sets of mainstream Seattle citizens react to the camps, isn’t this just asking the court to treat “reasonable” like a Rorschach test?
There are other serious drafting issues. The definition of “public spaces” in the first clause currently includes “parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets.” “Public spaces” is defined to include “public spaces.” (Try doing something like that with a formula in Microsoft Excel and see what happens!) Worse, if this language sticks around, a literal interpretation of it allows for removal from ANY space, even if there is no housing available. This is because trespassing law protects private land, and a literal definition of “public space” would include all space owned by the public. That’s all the space! True, a court might note that this reading of the exception swallows the meaning of the statute, and narrow it using some statutory interpretation tools, but narrow it to what? The language is so unclear that it is best understood as punting the question of removal to the courts.
Fixing This Section
If the amendment is supposed to actually shape when removals occur, it should be clearer and more prescriptive. Getting this past the many hands of the coalition is hard work, but right now, the added ambiguity may make matters worse on multiple fronts. Three changes are needed:
- The requirement for housing availability prior to camp clearance should be as explicit in the opening sentence as it is in the sentence that says it is “City policy, to avoid, as much as possible, disbursing people, except to safe and secure housing.”
- “Public spaces” should be removed from the definition of “public spaces.” If the coalition cannot agree on narrowing the list to only the current specified examples, it can add “and similar spaces,” which a court will interpret in light of the existing list.
- “Interference” should be defined as physically blocking access or creating an objectively threatening atmosphere when using public spaces. That way the drafters don’t have to anticipate every future situation, but the text can still serve as a real guide to officials and courts.
These changes should go a long way to allay concerns of some progressives that the statute is a trojan horse for rampant removal.
The Charter Amendment is a coat of many colors, some beautiful, some neutral, some ugly. The requirements for more housing, mental health and funding are outstanding. But if we are going to house our homeless neighbors and end the problem of encampments, we need to build for the intermittently homeless too. We can’t expect our electeds to step in and do this. The fact that they cannot get this sort of thing done is implicit in the very existence of the amendment. Regulatory burdens should also be removed for all affordable units, and not just for periods of emergency. The coalition should consider expanding mental health support to those who have recently exited the system, or are at high risk of homelessness. The performance metric requirements and data transparency are good, but funding for agencies and programs should tie to performance. The sunset clause should be lengthened in time and narrowed in scope. Finally, the purported goals of the camp removal sections are a big step forward, but the drafting completely kneecaps their effectiveness when it comes to the question of when removals are allowed. Clearer wording on this front would make this a much better proposal.
As it is currently written, I support the measure. The benefits are enormous, and the risk of it being used as a club to bludgeon our unhoused neighbors with arbitrary removals looks fairly low, but that is subject to change as political winds tend to. My vote for the bill will be much more solid if the Coalition clarifies the requirements and exceptions for removal. And I’d be screaming support from the rooftops if they also required performance metrics for spending and chose to expand the housing construction mandate.
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