A Fortunate Setback for Compassion Seattle?

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All about housing (Image by Sammy-Williams from Pixabay)

Update: On Tuesday morning Compassion Seattle changed course and filed an appeal of the Superior Court ruling, which had voided the charter amendment. Depending on the decision to stay the ruling, Charter Amendment 29 (the Compassion Seattle proposal) may still be voted on in November.


The Compassion Seattle charter amendment, which was torpedoed by King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer, has encountered many setbacks in its effort to find a middle ground on homelessness. Oddly, many of these setbacks helped improve the proposal and widen its support. Possibly this court ruling will prove another step in that direction.

On one hand, the legal setback could cause the business groups (downtown and neighborhood) that fashioned the amendment to give up on finding a solution and return to a criminalization approach or seek blunt intervention by the Legislature. The Compassion Seattle leadership group met twice in the past weekend to assess the surprise legal ruling, and shifted its focus away from recriminations and to the coming election. But if the 2021 general election entrenches more of the progressive alignment of Seattle’s city council, the impatience could intensify.

On the other hand is the half-full glass. Since the Compassion Seattle proposal (more housing, more mental health services, more ability to clear sidewalks and parks, a little more money for human services) has, at least before the attacks on it registered, 60-70 percent public support (according the advocates’ polling), many of those voters will seek a way to register their frustration. If Bruce Harrell were to make the Compassion Seattle approach the key to his campaign — he favors the amendment while his opponent, Lorena Gonzalez, does not — that could be the popular and differentiating issue that wins him the mayoralty. Harrell just did so. At least one city council race (Sara Nelson vs. Nikkita Oliver), and the city attorney contest, could also pivot on this issue.

A second component of the “blessing in disguise” analysis is the question of whether the charter amendment would actually pass. Raising money for it was getting pushback, given the rival fundraising efforts for city attorney, the mayor’s race, and the Nelson seat, so the removal of the Compassion Seattle fundraising could help flow money to those other races. Moreover, enacting the key provisions of the proposal might be easier if it hasn’t been bruised by campaign attacks. The main attack point by the Left is the need for more money to implement it, and the issue of taxing the rich in the process.

The third potentially positive ingredient is finessing the governance issues and the subsequent legal battles that the ungainly charter amendment approach was bound to raise. Also, having a mayor and council implement these reforms takes away the good-government opposition to doing it by way of a locked-in charter amendment.

Still, finding a common-ground approach that mixes regaining public spaces from encampments and humane treatment of homeless folk has eluded the Seattle political leadership for years. Does the failure of a years-long effort outside of City Hall to find these sweet spots bode well or ill for implementing it at City Hall? Is there any “pragmatic middle” left in our politics? Are we hopelessly polarized between the Left (“tax the Bezos-wealthy”) and the fed-up (“Seattle is dying”)?

The Compassion Seattle effort to find a middle ground was a difficult birth. It began when one effort — changing the makeup of the city council — fizzled badly in the 2019 election. What started out as a referendum on Kshama Sawant turned into a referendum on Amazon, which ham-handedly chunked in $1 million in the final weeks of the election. Polling also indicated that the business community’s flirtation with tougher criminal laws was not popular with businesses or the voters. So the advocates turned to a new approach, “taking it to the people,” by an initiative or a charter amendment meant to please both the clearance advocates and the providers of homeless services.

Many of these peace talks between the service providers and the business community originated in the Mayor Mike McGinn era (2010-14), hibernated under Mayor Ed Murray (2014-18), and could not get traction under Mayor Jenny Durkan, embattled as she was by a hostile city council. This time, three key players got the peace talks process going again: former city councilman Tim Burgess; Chamber of Commerce CEO Rachel Smith, and Downtown Seattle president and CEO Jon Scholes — all skilled political craftspersons.

Smith, with her long experience on the issue as deputy county executive, was a key to gaining trust by the providers, and her decision to get the Chamber out of the candidate-supporting business also cleared the air of suspicion. Smith smartly focused the effort on treating the chronic homeless, narrowing the maddening complexities of the issue.

Another key recruit was Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association and a leading advocate of diverting petty criminals from jail and diverting them to community-based care and services. United Way, SEIU, Chief Seattle Club, Plymouth Housing, the Parks Foundation, and Downtown Emergency Services Center were also key players, as were some neighborhood business associations, notably Ballard and SODO. A leading strategist along with Tim Burgess was Tim Ceis, now a public-affairs consultant and formerly deputy mayor under Greg Nickels. Ceis, who advised numerous business groups, says he donated all his services in the Compassion Seattle effort.

The group made real progress earlier this year, meeting weekly as a (leaderless) Leadership Group. The first legal setback came over the wording of the proposed charter amendment, but that gave the Leadership Group a helpful chance to modify the package further, notably by making it sunset after six years and by refining the still-vague language about removal of encampments. 

Two critics weighed in. One was former city attorney Mark Sidran, who feared the many hurdles in moving on sidewalk squatters would impede clearance and inveighed against the dangerous precedent of locking in budget amounts by charter. The six-year sunset clause was meant to fend off this line of attack. 

Another critic was Knoll Lowney, the attorney for the successful legal challenge that Judge Shaffer adopted. Lowney warned that the initial language on removals amounted to permitting “sweeps.” One member of the Leadership Group says “all” of Lowney’s suggestions were adopted, as the language for clearing encampments got more vague and political.

Those who brought the suit (the Coalition on Homelessness, the local ACLU, the Transit Riders Union) were obviously not mollified. The key objection from the Left was the absence of funding or a new tax. The other main objection was to past track records of the advocates, particularly Burgess, the DSA, and the Chamber’s lawsuit against the city council’s new payroll tax.

Politically, does Compassion Seattle have legs after the court shot it down for the November election? Leaders such as Burgess think so, noting future city council races (seven of nine seats up in 2023), and lobbying the council to adopt the Compassion Seattle blueprint (fast-track for housing, more mental-health funding). Burgess is fond of a national organization, Community Solutions, now advising 80 American cities and counties (including Spokane and Portland’s counties). The national organization encourages a data-rich systems approach for tracking each homeless person individually. It taps private funds for social-impact investing in building affordable housing.

Burgess says that Community Solutions provided valuable input into the Compassion Seattle approach, and he’d like to see Seattle sign on. How this would be greeted by the current defenders of the fragmented status quo that has created the Seattle system (lots more money, not much progress) is the big question — and probably the real reason for so much resistance to Compassion Seattle, which takes away the initiative from the city council.

One of the problems Compassion Seattle ran into was fashioning an outsiders’ approach sidestepping homeless providers and electeds. The Left has had years, but internal debates make it unlikely that it will fashion a lasting proposal. Nor has City Hall been able to find such an approach or emulate cities that are making progress. Change, with its inevitable losers, will be a similar problem in imposing accountability on the myriad of agencies funded by a generous city council.

So what are impatient citizens, park-users, and small businesses supposed to do? Wait patiently for a system that can’t resolve the main disputes? Gradually change the elected officials? Trust a self-appointed group of business leaders and former politicians? Keep bringing lawsuits against imperfect compromises? Move away? Wait for some horrendous episode to galvanize the timid leaders? 

It’s a political test for modern Seattle whether the win-win solution of Compassion Seattle can make it over the finish line, hold the coalition for change together, and overcome the skepticism of the Left to something that is partly crafted by the business community. A more hierarchical and trusting city used to be able to solve such complex problems (Sound Transit, minimum wage, Waterfront Park). That was before polarization and demonization took hold, here as in other cities.

At least enactment of parts of the Compassion Seattle formula could come from those elected to do such things and be subject to correction and amendment over time. In all, Judge Shaffer may have strained for her legal reasoning but paradoxically helped enact the very measures she as a private citizen said she would have voted for.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

11 COMMENTS

  1. There is NO solution.
    With the ACLU and other groups ready to pounce on most proposed solutions, the move to redistribute wealth, and the unfortunate district city council voting method in a strong council/weak Mayor form of governance, nothing will change……..
    UNLESS more than 65% of our citizens vote.

  2. “A more hierarchical and trusting city used to be able to solve such complex problems (Sound Transit, minimum wage, Waterfront Park).”

    The latter two “solutions” were easy — the city used its regulatory authority to require certain employers to pay a minimum wage, and it created a LID to finance infrastructure on the waterfront.

    Sound Transit is different. The city didn’t create it (the state did). The “complex problem” it was intended to solve was how to ensure large tenants of downtown skyscrapers would get massive levels of daily commuters from all over the region to and from the office quickly, while ensuring the cost of this new commute-facilitation infrastructure and service would be shouldered disproportionately by the poorest households. Sound Transit is a government, and it has performed exceedingly poorly in all material respects compared to its peers’ performances. Moreover, as with all rail commuter-transport systems, its prognosis is terrible. Former daily commuters now work remotely, and that will not change for the most part. The tax costs are mushrooming, the buildout plans are delayed decades, the management is floundering, and the public is not informed of critical information the ballot measures requires be disclosed. Sound Transit now is doing far more harm than good to everyone except the entities who are its direct financial beneficiaries.

    As to how the city should “deal with” hordes of the unhoused living in its parks and under its roadway overpasses here are my 2-cents: look at successes peers employ and emulate those. Seattle’s political consultants and interest groups advocates fancy themselves a municipal law idea factory, but their grandiose experiments are failures.

  3. So many issues here….. (so just three)
    First, Compassion Seattle was not a win-win, for the reasons its many critics have enumerated — vague language likely making the desired solution of restoring public access to parks/sidewalks, etc. and actually improving outreach and services for the homeless more difficult.
    2 -the continuing polarization of our local politics, making difficult the old-fashioned way of identifying a problem, agreeing via compromise and discussion on a workable fix, then actually implementing the thing. Voters should look in the mirror a bit more — do they want performance or governance? In short, are you after slogans while ignoring basics, or after an actually functional city government? We live with the choice of majorities, workable or not.
    3. I know there’s a movement afoot to at least limit the number of district council elections. It would be hard to argue that having 7 of 9 council positions represent different enclaves of the city has improved our politics, made compromise easier, or led to better government. Quite the opposite.
    Best change would be 5 citywide, four district quadrants, i.e. a majority focused on the whole. We’ll see, but meantime, the slog endures. As David points out here, and others as well, a functioning city council would have enacted much of Compassion Seattle without a charter; the latter’s very existence, despite its flaws, is itself an indictment of our current order.

    • Mike, don’t buy into the opposition arguments which are nothing more than advocacy for the status quo. We need a different direction and the Amendment offers that opportunity.

  4. Things are moving fast, and Compassion Seattle has just decided (Tuesday middday) to file an emergency motion of appeal with the Washington Court of Appeals seeking a stay of last week’s decision to remove Charter Amendment 29 from the November ballot. If granted, voters will have their say on a measure to address the number one issue facing Seattle. The organization explains that they had such an outpouring of anger at the judge’s decision, and so many voices demanding a challenge to the decision, that they decided to file the appeal. The appeals court will have to move very fast, staying the judge’s ruling so that the charter amendment can still be on the Nov. 3 ballot for Seattle voters.

  5. I certainly understand the frustration with the current state of affairs related to homelessness in our city. Those frustrations spring from years of the status quo by the city government; including my own culpability as a Council member for not pushing harder for better solutions.

    The Charter Amendment is, in fact, based on what has worked in other cities and counties. Take a look at the website https://community.solutions/, we followed their protocols and practices when homeless service providers, neighborhood and business leaders, and unions crafted the Amendment. If adopted by Seattle voters, the Amendment will compel the city government to change course. Is the Amendment perfect, of course not. But, it does lay out a plan of action that will bring unsheltered people inside and then allow for our parks and other public spaces to be kept free of encampments.

    If the Amendment is kept off the ballot, then Compassion Seattle will shift its work to highlight the stark differences on this measure between the candidates for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney. And, of course, the City Council could adopt the many elements of the Amendment right now if they wanted to but, if they try, we will see the exact same reaction from the Amendment’s opposition activists who will fiercely defend the status quo and the flow of taxpayer money.

    • What elements of the amendment would the council likely object to? The way I read it, the main obligation is to fund services and build more housing, and it in no way hampers the council’s insidious contracting practices. I’d think they’d be fine with that. Short-circuiting land use code? They’d be fine with that. They’re going to be reluctant to let the mayor remove people living in public places, but the amendment wouldn’t have forced that issue at all anyway.

      To me those are the challenges for the next city hall administration: effective, accountable provision of services, and taking the “sweeps” bull by the horns and doing it right this time. The amendment’s principle virtue was as a signal to city hall that we want that to happen and are willing to pay for it. I’m glad it won’t be on the ballot, because the public distrust on this issue seems to have reached a point where people would vote against the amendment more out of despair than conviction, really sending the wrong signal, because they don’t have as much faith as you do, that we really can do this right.

      • As for contracting for homeless services, that shifts over to the new Regional Homelessness Authority in 2022. I understand current contracts will be maintained in 2022 but changes in 2023 and beyond. The new director of the RHA, Marc Dones, is keenly aware of the need to increased accountability, transparency, and effectiveness.

        We will never know whether the Charter Amendment would have passed or not, but polling has consistently shown overwhelming public support for the measure and its key elements, especially an increase in behavioral health services and more emergency housing.

  6. Can anyone tell me whatever happened to the proposed housing on excess federal land near Discovery Park – called Ft. Lawton. I haven’t heard a word about it in 8 months. Is it going forward – like maybe yesterday – since it is critical to getting people off the streets?

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