Tuesday, 16 July, 2019

Braid

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Picture 14

I think her name was Katherine, on her way to a haircut. She was up front, just boarded, watching bright-eyed as I greeted the masses on the 10. We were talking about positive energy. I was telling her what I often say, about how when you put a lot of yourself out there, you get a lot back (this is one of my reasons for picking the routes I do; why is the heavy work so much more conducive?).

“Yeah,” she said, listening. “It gets magnified by the universe and then it comes back to you.”
“Yeah, and– wow,” I said abruptly, more carefully registering her thought. “That’s a great way of putting it, magnified by the universe. I’d never thought of it in those words.”

I repeated it, to make sure I’d gotten it right. The notion that the energy we put out there didn’t just simply come back, but that it underwent a process by simple virtue of existing in our world. Of course, I thought. Our efforts and perception return to us colored and seasoned by the pulsing universe, coming back around as something fresh, de novo, unexpected… and yet also, yes, vaguely familiar, that distant echo of ourselves we’d feel lost without. We are the world we see.

She shrugged a natural smile, youthful and easy, tossing her braid back like it wasn’t any big thing.

Baugruppen: To Form a More Affordable Urbanism

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Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a series on Baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read Part 1 or check out the series.

The collective economic might of baugruppen offers owner-builders an opportunity for significant savings over traditional developer-driven models, as well as single family houses. As mentioned in part 2 of this series, Tuebingen BGs have resulted in ~15% savings, Berlin BGs roughly 15-25%, with similar savings for Vauban and Hamburg BGs. As a comparison, average cost/sf price in Seattle is roughly $340/sf. Savings of 15% on an 800 sf unit would reduce the cost to ownership by $40k. These savings could allow for the working or creative classes to afford homeownership in urban centers, instead of being driven out by rising costs. For less cost than typical development, owners get a higher-quality product designed to meet their needs; and in Germany, this product is usually more energy efficient, thus ensuring operational cost savings as well. Winning!

There are a couple of ways a BG reduces costs over traditional models. First and foremost, bypassing a developer pulls out the profit they would take on a project, which is not insubstantial. Second, there is little to no marketing of the project – which means no staging/pursuit. Realtors are also generally not in the equation. In Germany, land transfer taxes are also assessed lower than through traditional developments. As previously posted, there are many sources that advertise existing BGs looking for owners, but a lot of groups form amongst existing networks. There are a few Berliner baugruppen in planning, run by the same project management firm, that utilize a web template, mostly just to get the relevant info out there in case they are seeking additional members.

Financing BGs in Germany is, of course, considerably easier. These types of projects have been on the map for nearly two decades now, and there are banks willing to finance them. Cities also assist with legal/financial aspects, and there are additional perks such as eligibility for affordable, city-owned lots. BG owners also have access to low-interest energy efficiency loans and mortgage rates commercial developers don’t.

However, baugruppen are not generally an upper class phenomenon. Homeownership rates in Germany are a third lower than the US, and BGs are seen more as a way for the middle class to afford a residence in the city. The cost to ownership in Germany has generally been much harder than here in the US, requiring down payments of 20% or more. The down payment for a BG can be in the realm of 30%, so upfront costs are higher. In the long run, the total costs are lower, and the monthly payment ends up being pretty affordable as well. The savings rates in Germany, France and Switzerland are roughly triple what they are in the US, so this also changes the equation.

For me, the big point on cost-effectiveness is that, generally, a member gets a unit tailored to their specific needs as well as desired communal spaces if space and budget allows. Developers don’t normally fine-tune projects like this, as it would add cost and time. Additionally, development projects tend to be directed towards the least common denominator user. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this, especially here in Seattle.

Before a BG even brings on an architect (assuming there isn’t one already in the group), they’ll have discussed the type of lifestyle they would like to live, the type of building they would like to dwell in, the type of community they want to be a part of. A bunch of musically-oriented families founding a BG? They might plan a rehearsal space as part of the common area. Older couples might want a co-owned guest unit they could let their friends or children stay in, thus keeping their unit smaller and more affordable. Want a say in what color your facade is? How about typical finishes in common areas? BGs can offer that level of communal authorship.

This affordability does come at a cost: time. It can take several years to form a group, make decisions, find land and then finalize construction. Though developer-driven models can be delayed, that process has little effect on future tenants/owners. This also means there is substantially more personal risk in a BG, as the owners are responsible for delays, cost overruns that they wouldn’t have to deal with in more traditional models. Additionally, if an owner leaves the group or dies mid-construction, the group would have to take up the balance, or as normally happens, find a new member. There have been some failures in the BG community (no system is perfect/risk-free) but with solid project management and a budget-conscience design, this is very rare.

Photo: Andea Kroth

Considering spatial quality, finishes and shared accoutrement, one of the most cost-effective projects I’m aware of is roedig.schop architekten’s 10-unit beauty dubbed A52, initiated in 2003. The project was built for around $200/sf, and here’s the kicker: this pricepoint isn’t for low-end finishes or fixtures. Along with a communal garden, the project incorporates a communal roof terrace, with a small guest apartment shared by all residents, rotated in weekly installments. In order to get buy-in from their other neighbors, the architects offered to accept the last unit (which ended up being the ground floor). This stunning building was featured in the New York Times back in 2011, and features some great quotes from the owners. The 2008:9 konzept: gemeinsam wohnen issue of detail also has a good deal of background, and drawings worth checking out. I’ll be highlighting a few more of their really incredible, urban constructs soon.

Another budget-friendly project that really enthralled me was baugruppe baufreunde in Koeln by office03 // waldmann & jungblut. The project features two ‘bars’ set at either end of a through lot. Between these bars is a common green space. Each of the 18 units has access to ample garden space (ground floor maisonettes) or semi-private roof terrace (upper units). Project costs came in around $155/sf (EUR 4M/3200m2). The site is near shops and cafes, and has access to a multitude of transit options. Check out plans/renderings/model, and fotos.

I could definitely see either of these models working in a place like Seattle, where land or existing units aren’t exactly affordable–and where traditional developer models leave a lot to be desired in terms of cost and how they work with the way one might desire to live. Or at least, how my family would like to live, and at a price point we could afford. Pretty… Pretty… Pretty… Awesome.

 

Mike Eliason is a certified passivhaus designer, energy geek, and design nerd with an almost fetishistic interest in prefab wood buildings, low-energy architecture, social housing, and all things German. He has lived in Fremont for nearly a decade, and wants Seattle to become a greater version of Freiburg so his wife doesn’t force him to return to live in Vauban. He’s also begun the process of forming a baugruppe.

More Evidence To Build More Housing

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If you are concerned about housing costs, you should know that building a lot more housing will be critical to control or reduce costs. We previously discussed a graphic that showed how the cost of homes seemed to correlate with the number of permits for new housing. You can see the article here and the graph here:

TruliaPriceMonitor_Scatterplot_Jan20141
Compliments of Trulia

This graph is by no means unassailable proof that housing costs are causally related to the number of permits issued. To really prove a causal relationship, we need a lot more research. We are lucky because Trulia recently produced another, even better graph, regarding housing costs. Specifically, the research shows that cities with a lot of growth and very little new housing have higher housing costs. On the flip side, cities with a lot of growth that build more housing have lower costs.

Trulia_MiddleClassReport_Scatterplot2
Trulia discusses middle class access to homeownership.

Cities that are closer to the top of the graph are more expensive while those on the bottom are less expensive. Cities on the right built a lot more housing relative to their size, while those on the left built a lot less. There are three immediate observations to note from this group:

  • All the cities that built the most housing have the lowest cost of housing.
  • All the cities with the highest cost built very little housing over the 13-year period.
  • There are no cities that built a lot of housing and have high costs.

What the graph does best

The scatter plot is really remarkable for its empty space. While it is common to get push back that building more housing doesn’t reduce housing costs, people often imply or state explicitly that more housing actually drives up costs. The Trulia graph shows in stark constrast that there aren’t any places that build a lot of housing and have high cost. There is a giant white space above $150 per square feet and to the right of 20 units built annually.

What’s lacking

This graph isn’t proof that building more housing is a cure-all for housing costs. There are a lot of intricacies to note, including:

  • Only the cost of homes for sale are shown, not rental prices.
  • No single graph can prove causality. For example, the areas that built a lot more housing (Raleigh and Las Vegas) have other commonalities that may be the underlying cause of their low housing costs (i.e. they are sprawling cities).
  • There are a lot of cities on the graph that built more housing than other cities but have higher costs. This is because the graph doesn’t illustrate the connection between population growth and housing cost.

I’ll do my best to address the latter two points.

Proving causality

How could someone prove that building more housing helps reduce costs?

First, it makes sense to see if this assertion fits a general understanding of how prices are set. In this case, we would point towards Econ 101, showing that prices are connected to supply and demand. When there is more demand than supply, prices go up. As an example, the most recent lime shortage. The price of limes increased tremendously because there weren’t enough for all our margaritas and now we are stuck with lousy lemons.

A general understanding of Econ 101 isn’t good enough though. There are many quirks in economics that are easily missed if we ideologically adhere to the most elementary talking points. Proof requires evidence. That’s why the two graphs above are so important. Both graphs indicate that building more housing is correlated with lower costs. When a correlation is found over and over again, it is very likely a causal relationship. Especially if there is no evidence indicating there isn’t a correlation (and good luck finding evidence that refutes this argument).

The evidence presented here isn’t comprehensive (and isn’t meant to be). We only mean to show two graphs that illustrate the correlation between the amount of housing and the cost of housing. If you are sincerely interested but skeptical of this argument, there is a lot more research out there for you to read*.

Population growth and the dots on the bottom left

The graph clearly doesn’t show a singular and direct connection between building housing and increased costs. In fact, the graph shows San Francisco at the very top and Detroit at the very bottom, even though it appears that San Francisco built more housing than Detroit. This would suggest there is another factor and that factor is almost definitely population growth.

To better understand the last point, I want to show how different areas have grown. I was able to find the population in 1990 and 2012** for most of the incorporated areas of the cities with labeled points*** (Honolulu is different****). I then took my best guess at the number of new units per 1,000 and square foot costs that the points on the graph represent. Here’s a view of what I found:

Trulia Data with Population Growth   Google Sheets

Looking at this data it seems pretty clear that cities can avoid higher prices even when growing rapidly by adding a lot more housing. The two cities with the most growth also added the most housing and kept their home prices low. This also helps explain why housing is so much more expensive in San Francisco than Detroit. While San Francisco grew, Detroit saw an incredible decline in population.

Looking at this closer also provides a less obvious but important insight. The growth of a city and the amount of housing the city adds doesn’t appear to entirely explain the costs of housing. These factors clearly account for a lot of the explanation, but it seems there are other factors at work as well. To demonstrate this point:

  • Orange County and San Jose had very similar rates of growth and added nearly the same amount of housing. In fact, Orange County grew 3% more than San Jose. Even those factors are so similar, housing prices are 20% lower per square foot in Orange County.
  • New York and San Francisco grew the same percent and added nearly the same amount of housing, but New York’s housing prices are significantly lower.

The most obvious objections to these last points is that my numbers are estimates. It would be necessary to get the precise area that Trulia is measuring to know the precise population changes. Still, this information can lead us to ask an important question, what other factors might affect the cost of housing.

Admitting we don’t have enough housing

Even if we admit supply and demand might not explain costs entirely, it is still clear that we must build more housing. The correlation between the amount of housing built and the cost is extremely strong. If housing prices increase we’ll cause a great deal of pain and suffering. Not enough housing increases everyone’s costs, causes massive displacement, creates sprawl, furthers environmental degradation, and increases segregation.

From the understanding that we will need a lot more housing, we can begin discussing the more complicated question of how to  build that housing. It is typical for conversations to conflate these two points. Many people (including myself sometimes) confuse the question of whether or not to build more with how to build more. Some common arguments used to fight more housing include; complaints about design, vigorous pointing to vacant lots as proof there isn’t demand for housing, exclamations about the immense ‘capacity’ of our current zoning, examples of gentrification ruining our city, and stories about displacement. None of these arguments suggest we shouldn’t build more housing. Instead they are complaints about how we build more housing. Once we explicitly acknowledge we need development, we can begin figuring how to build enough.

*I don’t want to imply I’ve read all these research papers. I just know they are out there and would enjoy feedback from someone that has had the time to look at them closely.

**2012 was chosen because that’s the most recent updated data provided by the Census Bureau. This doesn’t match the time frame perfectly for the Trulia data, but it matches pretty closely.

***Census data is for incorporated areas only (Orange County being the only exception). Data is for the city of New York City exclusively rather than the entire New York metropolitan area, although the graph is likely representing more than just the incorporated city. To give the best data, it would be important to know the area Trulia is measuring and match that to population growth; unfortunately, that’s not possible.

****Honolulu doesn’t have updated 2012 statistics from the Census Bureau’s website.

Sunday Video: Google’s Self-Driving Car

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Google has put out a fascinating video of its self-driving car. It’s amazing how well behaved the vehicle is around pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles. If we can perfect self-driving cars, like we have trains, there’s no reason we couldn’t do buses, too!

What We’re Reading: Make It So

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Hipsta Bike

 

Now calling at Union Station: It looks like Denver has a Union Station, too, and it’s pretty darn cool. The new multi-modal facility marries the old station with new platforms, concourse, and local bus service. Sounds like something we could use…

Breaking ground: 23rd and Union will finally get the ball rolling with new digs on the way, while a few others are still working on land use permission. Of course, other parts of Capitol Hill are already experiencing a lot of development, and in response, the City Council is considering how to preserve some old building facades. Meanwhile, it would take 100,000 new units to stop or reduce rising prices in San Francisco, this is why restricting housing is a big problem.

Ride the bikes: Washington, D.C. made a trial run of zebra bollards along Pennsylvania Avenue to discourage U-turns into the center-running cycletrack, and it appears to have worked. Now the District’s Department of Transportation is looking at how to improve the pilot project effort. New work on the Burke-Gilman Trail is about to begin with detours in place. Meanwhile, the University of Washington has submitted their TIGER grant application to the Feds for funding the trail’s improvements. You can help support the application online! And, walking and biking took a big jump year-over-year in Seattle (2011-2012), 18% just for walking! Transit usage is up 40% since 2004. No surprise here since we’re still breaking records!

Two proposals from Mayor Murray: It was a busy week in the Office of the Mayor with Ed putting out his plan to save Metro service in the city and make pre-kindergarten education universal.

Going Euro and buses for nothing: If double-decker buses and bike share wasn’t enough for you, Seattle is now due to get some of those swanky red bus lanes that you see all over Europe. SDOT will be making a trial run soon by painting key bus lanes in the city. Meanwhile, our friends down in Houston have linked up with Jarrett Walker of Human Transit to devise a better bus system for the city. The reimagined network will more than double the city’s all-day bus network while costing absolutely nothing more.

Cool architecture this week: We’re not necessarily fans of skybridges, but this Berlin project kinda rocks. NYC is soon to open its thoughtful 9/11 museum. And then there’s this weird ship-like tower in Hong Kong.

Transit and housing costs: The Atlantic Cities asks the question “does transit inflate housing costs?” It seems like it probably does, but it’s far more nuanced than that, and it may not be all bad. And, the good news is, transit makes us happier. It probably comes as little surprise, but social interaction improves the overall well-being of people, and transit is just one way that gets us engaged and happier about our day. Over in Arlington, the long awaited Columbia Pike streetcar will be a huge success, more than doubling ridership in the same corridor and boasting more ridership than many other services in DC, Virginia, and Maryland. This is why fixed rail matters.

Reopening and expanding: The Seattle International Film Festival is slated to reopen the Egyptian Theatre toward the fall! Meanwhile, the Capitol Hill business improvement district may soon be expanding to incorporate a few more blocks.

Expediting it: The President said this week that he would speed up transportation investment, but Streetsblog had a harsh take on it. And on a related note, ST has released some of their corridor studies for High Capacity Transit, the Seattle Transit Blog has covered 3 of them so far: Eastside, North, and South.

Infographic: Google brags about their Google Maps by showing off the expansion of their transit mapping technologies.

When Thinking Globally and Acting Locally Is No Longer Optional: Why Seattle Needs Buses

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Seattle1

The scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change is now irrefutable.* Climate change is not some far off disaster that can be passed on to our descendants in the distant future, scientists are not conspiring against drivers or the oil companies, and environmentalists are not making it all up to bring about government tyranny. Climate change is a real threat at our door, and its effects can already be felt here and everywhere else.

In March, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report outlining the most dire consequences of climate change, including the acidification of the oceans by carbon dioxide (CO2), mass migrations of people as coastline disappears and water dries up, violent conflict over dwindling resources, and the possible collapse of the world’s food supply. The effects are already being felt in the United States, where a minute change in temperature (less than two degrees so far) has led to longer, hotter summers, and has contributed to droughts, floods, severe storms and the collapse of migratory systems. In our own backyard, pine forests are dying because longer summers have led to a rapid increase in mountain pine beetle populations.

Currently there are no viable miracles of science or geoengineering that can reverse the warming of the planet without creating new, potentially graver risks. The only responsible course of action we can take is to sharply reduce the amount of CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere. And this means weaning ourselves off fossil fuel.

One relatively easy way of starting this process is reducing the number of gasoline-burning cars on our roads, and the best way to do this is to make public transit and alternative forms of transportation a priority. Encouraging walkability and bicycle commuting are part of this, but it’s impractical to ask Seattleites to hoof or pedal it to work every morning in the rain. Only a robust transit system–buses, light rail and trolleys–can move the volume of people necessary for keeping our regional economic engine, Seattle, moving. Transit is not only good for our overall quality of life (who wants to spend two hours a day stuck in traffic and the resulting cloud of smog?), it helps reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

When it comes to forward-thinking policies and legislation, Seattle and Washington State have led the country. We were one of the only two states, along with Colorado, to throw out moribund drug laws and legalize marijuana. We have consistently supported LGBTQ rights, finally approving gay marriage in 2012. Seattle is now in the process of instituting the nation’s highest minimum wage, making it one of the most labor-friendly cities in the world. We have been on the right side of many issues, and there is no issue more serious or pressing than climate change.

Recently, King County voters rejected Proposition 1. This would have provided funding to Metro to maintain its current bus routes, a level of service that should actually be increasing to meet the ever-growing number of riders but instead now faces severe cuts. Even though it was packaged with a series of driver-friendly road improvements, many shortsighted county voters saw it as a regressive tax subsidizing Seattle bus riders at their expense and voted No, even while Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved it. When it comes to transit, King County does not have our back.

This setback should not be a cause of despair, but a wakeup call. If we want to get serious about addressing climate change and live up to our much-touted green image, if we want to be a leader on this issue, we have to go it alone for now. Until recently, Initiative 118 offered us the only path. It would have  increased the city’s property tax and raised $155 million in total revenue over a six-year period to purchase Metro service. However, Mayor Ed Murray has recently announced his own plan, one that would draw on a $60 car tab fee and a .1% sales tax increase to raise $45 million a year, essentially resurrecting Proposition 1 for a Seattle-only vote in November.

Like all political solutions, the new proposal is not perfect. It doesn’t address the immediate cuts in service, and it still depends on the county to carry out its end of the deal. But Keep Seattle Moving is already working to ensure that the needs of our community are addressed in the final proposal before it goes out to voters. Whatever plan we end up with, it will be a first step towards Seattle having more control over its own transit system.

This is not about patting ourselves on the back–it’s about the survival of our city, of our region, of global civilization. Certainly our current economic vitality and quality of life are not going to survive if the burning of fossil fuels is allowed to go unchecked. Seattle talks a lot about social justice, and this is a perhaps the most important social justice issue there is. Poor, working people are the most adversely affected by transit cuts, and they will be the most vulnerable to the disruptions, conflicts and displacements if the darkest predictions of climate scientists come to pass.

Seattle must lead on this issue by creating a viable transit system, one that efficiently moves people while reducing the city’s carbon impact. Not for bragging rights, but so that others can follow our example and do their part in taking on the greatest environmental challenge of our age. Help us do this by continuing the fight to increase transit options in Seattle, and voting to restore bus service in November.

*The mechanism of anthropogenic climate change is simple and well understood. When the sun’s energy hits the surface of the Earth as visible light it is reflected back into space as heat-producing infrared radiation. When we burn fossil fuels they release CO2 into our atmosphere. As it turns out, CO2 is very good at absorbing infrared radiation, and prevents it from escaping back into space. That surplus of solar radiation is trapped on Earth and gradually begins to warm the atmosphere and oceans. This is not theory; it is lab-tested scientific fact with a large body of evidence.

You Need it Too

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Picture 7

 

“How you doin’?” I ask her at Campus Parkway inbound. It’s nearing midday, sunny, on a half-full 70.
“Swell,” she says happily, sounding surprised to see me. I won’t see her smile again.
“Thats excellent!”

She’s telling me the details of her morning, which don’t sound swell at all. Sitting at the front now, putting that chat seat to use, she might be in her late teens, African-American, with short hair and flair to spare in her denim outfit.

She carries the weight of someone who knew how to be happy in an earler time, but whose circumstances have pulled her in another direction. A sonorous melancholy pervades her monologue, in my mind entirely inappropriate for the young girl she is. She’s experiencing dizziness, she tells me, perhaps from low blood circulation, headaches, and sciatica-
“A lot of bus drivers get that. My sciatic nerve hurts someimes.”
“Yeah, I bet it’s from all the sitting.”
“Exactly.”
“I don’t know if I have kids, man. I dont know if they’re dead or not dead, sometimes I just feel them out there, and I don’t know. And it’s so hard to find out ’cause I don’t know how old I am, or for sure who my parents are. See I used to think I was adopted, but….”I forget the rest. It sprang unbidden from her, shaking in her voice. I remember only the glassy look in her eyes, a face I see in the mirror when I’m very ill, those hollow liquid irises yearning for respite. I remember the downbeat inflection, a timbre that wouldn’t exist if loving friends and parents dwelled in the sidelines of her existence. Who on earth am I, to be complaining about my sciatic nerve?

“My mom lives in Federal Way,” she’s saying.
I wonder after her family situation, and consider the decorum in asking. After a pause I say, “can you go see her, or is that not an-”
“Well, she in Federal Way but I don’t know where.”
“Okay.” I continue, hoping that she finds her kids, encouraging her toward the echoing suggestion telling her they’re alive, the validity of that instinct, the fact that intuition springs from somewhere real. A mother knows. For myself, intuition, conscience, instinct- whatever name we give to that small voice inside us- knows more than our reasoning minds can ever comprehend in a given moment. At the very least it represents the sum total of knowledge gained in all our life experiences, and shouldn’t be ignored. Your gut has a simple wisdom that would take years to parse out.

“I have faith in what I believe,” she says, listening.
“It’s hard not to.”
Thoughtfully: “yeah.”
“Are you goin’ downtown right now?”
“Yeah, I’m goin’ the Orion Center.”
“Oh, that’s a good spot.”
“Yeah, they’re great there.”
“They almost had to shut down.”
“What?”
“Yeah, money problems, they almost had to go.”
“Oh, that’s fuckin’ bullshit and terrible.”
“But they ended up getting stuff, somehow they got money and they’re still there.”* Always something to be thankful for.
“I’m tryin’ ta get some food. There’s supposed to be a lunch there, free lunch starting at twelve.”
“When does it go ’til?”
“I think one.” It’s 12:48. I’m at Fairview and Denny. “Okay, we might make the end of it.”
“Wait no, I think it ends at 12:30, 12 to 12:30, yeah.”
“Shoot, well it’s 12:48 right now.”
“Oh, that’s shitty,” she breathes. No lunch today. She sighs a sigh whose burden carries the heartache of the ages.
“Do you like peanut butter and jelly?” I ask.
“Yeah, thats what’s up.”
“I have two peaut butter and jelly sandwiches on me, thats all the food on me. You can have ’em if you like.”
She thinks a brief moment and says, “I’ll take a peanut butter and jelly!”
“Okay, lemme pull over at this stop, I’ll grab ’em for ya.”
At Boren I reach behind my seat and hand her both sandwiches.
“Oh, you should keep one,” she says, concerned.
“What? No, it’s okay. You should have both of ’em. I can always… I’ll deal.”
“No no, you should have one too.” She hands it back.
I can see she isn’t going to take both sandwiches, and reluctantly concede.
“Thanks!” she says. Her eyes have a spark in them now, embers coming back to life.
“Thank you! You be safe today!”
“You too, have a good day!”I couldn’t believe it. She still had room in her headspace to think not just about her own troubles, significant as they were, but also to consider my needs as well. A friend who canvassed door-to-door for parenthood resources once told me that the people who donated the most were poor and working class immigrant families- those least equipped to do so, in other words. I felt utterly ridiculous, taking back the second sandwich, knowing how much more she needed it than I; but I could see how much she cared, how deeply she knew of the value of food and kindness. She had to behave as she did. The things you learn at ground level.

*YouthCare’s Orion Center was planning to close its doors last February due to expiring grants and federal funding, but continues to remain a valuable resource due to a pool of funds coming from a holiday concert charity challenge, pledges from local foundations, and a very successful luncheonLearn about the Center and the success story of Calvin, who today seems “a typical, if overachieving, college-bound freshman;” ’twas not always so.

The Double-Edged Sword of Public Records – Housing and Jobs vs. the Public Right to Know

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My Trusty Gavel by Brian Turner on Flickr.

The Problem

In the present information age, with access to details about virtually anyone’s life available to all, we often tend to look upon such information as either useful or interesting–or at its worst, embarrassing. However, such easily discoverable online information–some of which may be erroneous–can often have real life consequences involving basic needs like housing and employment.

There is no better example of damage caused by lack of privacy than the easy availability of records of both criminal convictions and arrests in the State of Washington. Once a person is arrested, even if no conviction ever occurs, the record of arrest remains a matter of public record indefinitely. The same is true when charges are filed but later dismissed. Employers screening applicants for work and landlords screening applicants for housing have ready access to this arrest and non-conviction data through literally hundreds of companies offering “background checks.” Most rejected applicants will never know for certain that they were turned down because of an arrest that never led to a conviction.

Current options for cleaning up your record

In Washington, a person who is aware that such information exists has very limited options for “erasing” it from public records. By following a step-by-step process, which usually requires the assistance of an attorney, and meeting many different criteria, one can remove some or all of this information and be legally entitled to then tell a prospective employer or landlord that they “have never been convicted of a crime.” However, the mere fact that the arrest or non-conviction data remains on the record could lead the prospective employer or landlord to conclude the applicant had lied on his or her application. Further, even if the employer or landlord is savvy enough to understand the difference between an arrest and a conviction, there is nothing to prevent them from taking a “better safe than sorry” approach and rejecting the application.

The difficulty sealing your record

In Washington, it is very difficult to seal a record and prevent it from becoming part of your “criminal history.” Our Supreme Court has decreed that the public’s interest in full disclosure trumps the privacy interests of the individual. So in order to seal–or prevent disclosure of–such a record, a person must prove that they have been actually harmed by the record being in the public domain. Simply asserting that the record could make it difficult to find housing or a job is not sufficient. This becomes an almost impossible task because it is not likely that a prospective employer or landlord will tell the applicant the true reason they are being rejected.

Of further concern is the fact that companies offering background checks may be using old databases which still show the information thought to be sealed. Chasing after literally hundreds of these companies is simply not practical.

There are also serious “access to justice” issues with the existing process because many low income individuals simply cannot afford a lawyer to present and argue these difficult motions to seal in court.

Proposed changes in the law

The City of Seattle sought to address this problem in 2013 by enacting an ordinance prohibiting an employer from inquiring about criminal history until after all applicants have first been screened for qualifications. Employers must then take the further step of proving how the arrest or conviction would affect job performance. While a nice first step, this prohibition does not include housing applications, and enforcement of the ordinance will prove to be a daunting task.

Other groups are seeking wider reform–statewide legislation that would allow sealing a record if the mere threat  that this information could cause a denial of suitable housing or employment is established. However, such legislation is not popular with many powerful interest groups including landlords, the press (which always has an interest in full disclosure), and large businesses. Such a legislative debate would also provoke a separation of powers conflict between the courts and the legislature.

Solutions to the problem are therefore hard to come by. What is needed is a holistic look at the pervasiveness of information technology in the 21st century and an examination of how that technology interacts with criminal justice, the public’s right to know, and the often unforeseen and far-reaching consequences to people’s lives. The disproportionate impact of ready availability of arrest and non-conviction data on minorities is also an unfortunate reality, and should fairly be considered in fashioning a solution. Suggested compromises have included time limitations on the availability of arrest and non-conviction data as well as a simplified process that would allow those without the ability to pay for a lawyer to have such information permanently removed from their record. However, nothing that involves balancing individual rights with the public’s right to know is ever easy.

 

Damon Shadid is a Seattle attorney who practices both criminal defense and immigration law. He has been active in many issues involving race and social justice for many years and is a member of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Roundtable. Damon is currently a candidate for Seattle Municipal Court Judge.

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