An epic Charter Divide: Public Battle over Seattle Homelessness Proposal

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“Nickelsville” homeless encampment (named after Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels) towards the end of its 3-month stay in the parking lot of the University Congregational United Church of Christ in the University District, Seattle, Washington. 2009 (Image: Wikimedia)

I recently joined forces with four other former Seattle City Councilmembers who, between us,  represent a total of more than 60 years at City Hall. Two weeks ago, we met and worked out wording for an op-ed opposing Charter Amendment 29 (CA 29). That’s the controversial proposal from Compassion Seattle that has heavy backing from downtown forces, contractors and developers, as well as some human service groups.

We proposed and then submitted our op-ed to the Seattle Times and it appeared in the opinion section Sunday, May 16, headlined “A Charter Amendment is not the way out of Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis.”

In our joint essay, , signed by Sue Donaldson, Margeret Pageler, and me (with help from Jane Noland and Jan Drago), we opposed the idea of adding a charter amendment to the City Charter, Seattle’s governing constitutional document. Seattle’s charter has been altered only once in recent years — changing the way we elect our nine councilmembers from at-large to seven councilmembers by district and two at large. Amendments should deal with governmental structure not the minutiae of legislation and budgeting, and they should be rare. A city charter is not flexible, so it’s hardly the place for legislation that can only be altered by a new vote of the people.

After six years, CA 29 sunsets, but until then it would be the unyielding law of the city. The amendment’s stated mission is to build 2,000 new housing units within a year, to offer “culturally competent services” to those living outside, and then clear away encampments that occupy public spaces such as parklands, sidewalks and streets. 

We expressed doubt whether CA 29 would result in fewer tents. Katie Wilson at Crosscut consulted attorneys from different points of view (the ACLU’s Breanne Schuster, former City Attorney Mark Sidran, and Knoll Lowney who represents several human service groups). On the question of encampment clearing, the three said, “Nobody knows.” Then they agreed: CA 29 is “a bad idea.”

The ability to produce 2,000 new housing units within a year and with modest new funding is questionable. Further, the devil is in CA 29’s details — 1,500 words, many of them inexact, ill-defined, and open to interpretation. Words like the call for “balancing the city’s strong interest in keeping public spaces clear of encampments and the possible harm to individuals caused by closing encampments.” Who does this “balancing,” and what if the balancee (or his/her advocates) disagrees?  See you in court?                       

Each section sets off alarms. For example, there are provisions to waive the city land use code for housing units, waive permitting fees and regulations, refund to the projects all city-imposed costs, fees, and the city’s provision of the sales tax.” Finally, there’s the worrisome provision that, when article IX takes effect, it will “supersede all preexisting ordinances and rules in conflict herewith.” ALL?

Limited to 600 words, our op-ed focused on the most glaring problems, such as the charter provision to earmark “not less than 12 percent of city general fund budget” for homeless programs. True, that is not a lot more than the 11 percent currently budgeted, but enshrining such a specific percentage — not done elsewhere in the charter — is problematic. What about services other than homelessness, such as services for addiction, mental health, and juvenile justice?  That 12 percent provision, added to the expense of creating 2,000 new housing units, will likely slash city services and/or increase taxes.

After our op-ed appeared in the Times, there were several dozen responses, in the comments section of the Times and on social media. Most comments were favorable. Not so former councilmember Tim Burgess, CA 29’s principle backer and spokesman, who reacted by sending an inflammatory letter to supporters. The letter disparaged the councilmembers’ analysis as filled with “misinformation and outright falsehoods.” 

Burgess accused the authors of implying (which we did not) “that the best solution is to arrest everyone living outdoors by enforcing existing city ordinance against camping in public spaces.” He then argued against what he took to be a call for “mass arrest” (not mentioned or implied). Burgess also took issue with our charge that CA 29 makes diversion options for misdemeanors open not just to the homeless, but to anyone. 

Burgess’ letter also disparaged the councilmembers’ call for better ways to resolve the homeless crisis by ordinance, initiative and bond issue, as opposed to the unprecedented amendment route. Finally Burgess disdained the five former councilmembers for not backing CA 29’s plan. He went on to accuse the op-ed authors of “parroting attacks we have seen from former city attorney Mark Sidran.”

In the spirit of Burgess’ response then, I cry sexism! He is accusing five women — three with law degrees and distinguished legal careers — of having to rely on a man to do their analysis. 

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

3 COMMENTS

  1. You are right !
    The CA 29 main objective is to force the City to change its method of assisting the homeless by mandating certain development changes.
    Maybe it will work better than the present methods.
    But if not this way, what would you suggest that is not a continuation of the nonworking methods currently ?

  2. Let’s get back to the numbers:

    – In 2019, the number of people experiencing homelessness in King County actually fell, for the first time in years, to 11,199; 5,228 of those were unhoused (those in tents and doorways). (https://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/How-the-state-of-homelessness-in-Seattle-has-14953962.php)

    – The population of Seattle is 762,767
    (https://uspopulation2020.com/population-of-seattle-2020-largest-city-of-washington.html)

    – The unsheltered represent just 0.69% of Seattle’s population.

    – We are already spending a whopping 11% of the City’s General Fund budget on 0.69% of the population.

    WTF, Seattle?? Burgess’s “solution” would throw even more money at the problem, but, as ill-defined as it is, would likely make things worse if only because legal fees and court costs would skyrocket.

    • Saying there are 5000-odd unhoused people in Seattle makes it seem so simple. Find housing for those 5000 people and problem solved!

      But it’s not nearly that simple. There are 5000-odd unhoused people in Seattle AT ANY GIVEN TIME. It’s not a static number. More people cycle into homeless every day; others cycle out. The question really is: do we have sufficient resources available so that we can move more people out of homelessness than are becoming unhoused? Are we at net zero — really, net negative — when we subtract the number of people exiting homelessness from the number entering?

      A recent national study found that in urban areas like Seattle every $100 increase in average rents led to a 15 percent increase in homelessness. This is why, somewhat counter-intuitively, the number of homeless people in Seattle fell during the Great Recession years (when housing prices and rents dropped). Given rapidly rising housing costs in Seattle over the last decade (though rents have fallen since the onset of the pandemic) the number of already economically marginal people falling into homelessness has grown over that time. A lot. Add on top of that the surges in opioid and methamphetamine use and the numbers have spiked even more.

      There are certainly some inefficiencies in the homeless services delivery system, but the real problem is not that huge amounts of money are being misspent. It is that in recent years the scale of the homelessness problem has grown even faster than the significantly increased resources that have flowed into the homelessness services system.

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