Mar 18, 2021
Crystal is joined by Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis from District 7 (from Pioneer Square to Magnolia). They get in to Mayor Durkan’s passed up FEMA funding, the removal of the Denny Park encampment, how the city council is trying to address our homelessness crisis, Seattle Police Officers Guild contract negotiations, and whether or not the city of Seattle should help bail out the convention center.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
I wanted to welcome to the show, Andrew Lewis, the councilmember from District 7. Thanks so much for joining us today, Andrew.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:01:02] Yeah. Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:04] Well, there've been a few things that have happened at the Seattle City Council lately. Certainly in the past year you have been busy dealing with the pandemic, the economic challenges covered by that, and then all the issues that we're dealing with in the City that have in many ways been exacerbated by both the health and economic crisis. And I guess I want to start out just talking about homelessness and trying to get people housed, which you've certainly done a lot of work on. So I just wanted to get overall - what have you been doing? Where does the City stand on helping get people who don't have homes into stable housing?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:01:50] Yeah. Well, that has certainly been the most defining thing that we've been dealing with at the Seattle City Council. It's something that predated my service on the Council and I'm hoping it will be a crisis that we've been able to resolve by the time that I leave. And I think it's best to talk about it in short-term and long-term things that we need to do. And like so many other things, COVID came along and made an already intolerable crisis of having so many of our neighbors live on the streets even worse. By some estimates we've lost as much as a third of our shelter capacity, as they've had to deintensify and kick more people out into the street who were in shelter before. We've had inpatient behavioral mental health programs shrink and deintensify. All of these things have added up to even more unsheltered homelessness in the City of Seattle at a time when we really didn't need it to be going in that direction.
So in the short-term, we need to provide a lot more shelter. And I think we need to follow the lead of a lot of other West Coast cities and really lean into using emergency relief from the federal government and from other sources to stand up more emergency shelter. And that can come in the form of hotels, it can come in the form of tiny house villages. Just whatever it is - something that is desirable, something that has privacy, something that has everything that people need to be successful, to be warm, and to be safe. And we need to do that in the short-term, and we need to do that soon.
In the long-term, we really need to have a regional strategy around scaling permanent supportive housing. And the City Council passed last week a big bill that I put forward on permanent supportive housing to make sure that we are waiving every piece of red tape we possibly can in the City of Seattle to build more permanent supportive housing and build it faster. So that includes things like exempting it from design review. It includes removing certain development mandates that exist for commercial housing, like onsite bike storage, for example, or onsite parking, or things that are less relevant for supportive housing and that add extra expense and waiving those. And saving $45,000 per unit, not per building, but per unit in cost. So, for the long-term, we need to be building that permanent supportive housing. And in the short-term, we got to be standing up these shelter assets. We have stood up some shelter over the course of the last year and that's great, but as we can see visibly, the demand and the need is far greater and we need to keep working on that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:47] And that's absolutely true. You brought up a point that's certainly been in the news lately - talked about following the lead of other cities and getting federal relief. Certainly has been a lot of conversation about FEMA dollars that were made available to reimburse, at least partially, housing and getting people at least into hotels - space where they do have shelter. But the mayor has been resistant to doing that, which has just seemed really confusing and strange to a lot of people. One of the biggest barriers that we're facing is the cost of providing this housing, and if there's the opportunity to get at least part of it reimbursed, why would we not move forward and do that?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:05:38] Yeah. I think that where the disagreement has been - and it's certainly true that it's complicated. It is not an easy process to apply, for example, for FEMA funding, which I think specifically is what you're referring to. And there's been some reporting by Erica C. Barnett about this and about the FEMA funding. And I think what we've heard from the mayor's office is that there are certain formalities that need to be followed. And my response to that, and I think the response of a lot of my Council colleagues is, "Sure, let's really dig in and let's do those formalities that are required. And let's take full advantage of it." We know that other cities on the West Coast are doing it. Los Angeles probably is doing it most prominently, although San Francisco of course, has been doing it as well. We also know that the scope is a little bit limited in who can benefit. It has to be limited to people who have a unique vulnerability to COVID.
Now that conceded, I would venture to guess - quite a few of our neighbors experiencing homelessness under those criteria would qualify. So there certainly is a way we can design a strategy here and expand the scope of how many people we're getting inside.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:59] Have also been concerned - and I saw a Twitter thread you had about the Denny Park encampment removal from about a week ago. Do you think that should have happened? Do you think that's how we should be handling things? And how do you think we should be dealing with encampments throughout the city?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:07:25] I think that's best answered by looking at a tale of two parks. And I think a lot of people who've been watching Danny Westneat's coverage of tiny house villages in particular, has noticed that there was this common theme in the late fall, where he did a series of three columns chronicling what was going on at John C. Miller park in South Seattle, where the Low Income Housing Institute went down there, coordinating with Councilmember Morales' office. There were about 10 people that were camping there, and they were able to get everyone into a tiny house village - no sweep required. There's no tents in that park at all anymore. And all the people that were there are now in shelter.
I think contrasted with Denny Park, the thing that was frustrating to me - sweeps can actually, we've noticed, have an inverse effect where it can actually lead to more people hearing about the sweep and coming and congregating at the park because they think if they go there, they'll be able to get an offer of shelter. So Denny Park, there were maybe about 12 people that were still camping there when the notice of sweep was posted. On the day of the actual sweep, that number had gone up considerably. There were more people that were there because word had gotten out about it. And I think that that contrasts in a less favorable way with what happened at John C. Miller Park, where we were able to more lead with a matched offer of, "This is the amount of space that we have. Let's go out to John C. Miller Park, give everyone a tiny house." And people will accept it, people will accept something that's better, as Chloe Gale with REACH always says. And it worked - there's no tents in that park, there are still no tents in that park, but we know that people were turned away at Denny Park without shelter.
And I'll say this - we know where those 10 people at John C. Miller Park were - we know where they are now, they're in a tiny house village. There's a lot of people who are at Denny Park that are now camping in another unsanctioned place, somewhere in the Downtown core, somewhere in South Lake Union. I think what we increasingly need to do is make sure we're scaling up, be it tiny houses, be it hotel rooms, but a space for people to go, because we've seen that that's what makes these things more effective. And it's been the case with a lot of these sweeps where we're just moving folks from one location to another.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:55] Right. And the CDC has recommended against doing sweeps, certainly in a pandemic. Do you ever see a justification for doing a sweep of an encampment?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:10:06] I think that there can be, in circumstances where someone has camped in a place where they're at an incredible hazard to life or health. And by that, I mean, we've had a lot of cases in the news over the last few years of people that are camping next to an off-ramp who get hit by cars and killed, for example. So I think that there's places there, where if there's an exigent risk, that it's a hazard, people could die from something like that, that I think it makes sense. I think it can also make sense in limited circumstances where, and there's been a couple of these recently too, where there's been encampments that aren't being used for shelter, they're being used for highly concerning criminal activity, be it human trafficking or whatever else, and they're not being used for shelter. And if you can establish that through careful investigation, then a removal can be warranted.
But in cases where people are using a tent for shelter, which is the overwhelming majority of tents, we need to be really intentional and leading with engagement and leading with outreach, because if we're constantly just churning people around in the community, we're not resolving the underlying issue. And indeed what we've been seeing, I think increasingly is, like if a business district or something complains about a particular encampment, I think that people are starting to understand that just moving that encampment to someone else's business district doesn't equitably resolve the issue from that standpoint. And it certainly doesn't do anything for the people living in the camp. And that is something that we need to continue to work on.
And the only way we can get out of it is by scaling shelter to meet the scale of the crisis, which is what I've been proposing with my It Takes a Village initiative and a couple of other projects my office is working on, in collaboration I'll say, with a broad coalition at this point. It's no longer the case, I think, where there's this division where social justice advocates and service providers are advocating a shelter first approach, and business is advocating sweep first, ask questions later. I think increasingly what we're seeing now is an alliance of groups like the Downtown Seattle Association, which I would say in a lot of ways, it may still have an overtly pro-sweep policy, but have realized that outreach is a lot more effective if you have more shelter options. I think that the notion that used to prevail as recently as two or three years ago, that people living in encampments don't want help, has been completely discredited.
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:04] So how many shelter spaces do we need? How can we get there in a... Is it possible to get there in the next couple of years? And what needs to be done to move people from, "Okay, we've got them in shelter and they aren't outdoors," to stable, permanent housing?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:13:27] Yeah. So, we can scale quite a bit of shelter pretty quickly by using a couple of different strategies. One is hoteling, like JustCARE has been doing. The JustCARE initiative, which is a county-funded program active in Pioneer Square and Chinatown ID, has been using hotels, which are really fast, right? We have this huge hotel vacancy rate because of COVID. No one's traveling for work, no one's going on vacation, so hotels are just sitting empty. You don't have to go through a whole process of building the hotel, you don't have to go and site a place to put a FEMA style tent or something. I mean, the hotel rooms are there, it's literally a turnkey operation to get some people in there and use them for shelter. So, I think that's part of it, is the hotels, that's just a matter of, doing a contract and then having a staffing plan and getting folks in there. And that can happen pretty quickly.
I think that some things like tiny house villages - tiny houses can be built pretty quickly. There's some designs out there like Pallet up in Everett, where those modular tiny houses can be assembled. Each unit takes about 30 minutes to assemble, so if you had a bunch of volunteers, you could scale them up pretty quickly. So, I think that we could actually move pretty quickly to scale a lot of these things up to meet the demand. The demand is approximately, based on the 2020 One Night Count, a little over 3,700 people. We have every reason to believe that it's probably higher than that in Seattle. And that's 3,700 people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness. So that doesn't include our neighbors who are in shelters - they're still considered homeless because they're not in permanent housing yet, but not unsheltered. So the unsheltered homelessness number is around 3,700 or so, probably a little higher because of the challenges we're facing due to COVID.
Crystal Fincher: [00:15:36] You're listening to Hacks & Wonks with your host, Crystal Fincher, on KVRU 105.7 FM.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:15:46] There's some cause for celebration in the permanent supportive housing world in the last two weeks where LIHI recently acquired another permanent supportive building that was just built, The Clay up on Capitol Hill, which is great. It was reported in the Seattle Times. So that will have a pass-through impact, but I think the real key here is we got to be working on moving our bottleneck in that chain of how people get into permanent supportive housing, from these unsanctioned encampments into shelter.
Crystal Fincher: [00:16:21] Well, there are certainly a number of competing priorities. There are also a number of candidates - we're going to have a new mayor and a number of people have announced for mayor. We're going to have a new City councilmember, and the other seat is certainly contested with an incumbent running. Have you endorsed anyone? Are you planning to endorse anyone?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:16:48] Well, I've definitely endorsed - my friend and labor sister, Teresa Mosqueda, is running for reelection. I think that she's an outstanding colleague - very excited to work with her and hope that she is resoundingly returned to the Council in the fall, and will be very strongly campaigning for her. My colleague, Councilmember González, who has been the Council President, definitely a good friend of mine - I haven't made an endorsement in the mayor's race yet.
Crystal Fincher: [00:17:24] Well, and what do you think these candidates for, certainly the citywide council positions and for mayor, what do you think they need to demonstrate to the residents of Seattle to earn their vote?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:17:38] It's tough when you're in this COVID posture. And under ordinary circumstances, I'd be out at the Legislative District meetings and physical community councils. And I'm doing that kind of outreach right now, but it's all through Zoom meetings. And you know, Crystal, you don't get those opportunities to be in the back, and talk to people, and go talk to somebody after the meeting. So it's hard to know what the vibe on the ground is going to be in this election. I think certainly, there's going to be a lot of questions around public safety and the approach that we're going to take. I think there's definitely going to be a litigation over homelessness on - is homelessness, as I believe, a public health, public housing issue or is it a criminal justice issue? My hope is that it's a debate that will heighten what Seattle can be and not one that's going to be just limited, mired down in acrimony.
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:48] I certainly hope so. You mentioned public safety and the direction that you're going to be heading. How do you believe we should proceed and how do you think the SPOG contract should be approached?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:19:04] Yeah. I'm on the Labor Relations Coordinating Committee, so I can't really talk too much about the bargaining. I can say kind of a broad... And actually, I should also clarify in terms of roles, the way the process works, the Council does not bargain itself with any union, but contracts need five Council votes to get ratified. And so, they're negotiated by the mayor. And we have this thing called the Labor Relations Coordinating Committee, where five councilmembers sit on it and we approve parameters so that the mayor can go and bargain. And they'll know if they're within those parameters, they have their five votes for ratification. I can't go too much into that. I can only say that historically one of the big challenges we've seen, and this has been from the federal judge, and the consent decree too, is accountability.
The council has been very supportive this session, of a lot of bills that have been brought forward by Joe Nguyen and others down in the Legislature that would strengthen the city's hand in bargaining. We've all been on the record supporting those changes - I think all of us on the Council and the mayor. I think taking a step back and looking at the more broad area of public safety, we can see nationally and internationally, lots of really innovative best practices for how you can change what we have historically seen the role of police - by diversifying it and have a system that's very much informed by public health, where a lot more responders are not police, not armed - in some cases, not even official City employees. I think the good example of that is the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which has been in existence for about 30 years there, where crisis intervention workers and counselors and social workers and mental health clinicians go out and are the first responders on the scene, dispatched directly by 911.
The STAR program in Denver is another really good example of this, which is a variation of CAHOOTS that was developed by Denver Justice Project. We really need to be leaning into models like that. So, I think we're seeing nationally a revolution in public safety that really is going to be changing a lot of the underlying assumptions and making the community a lot safer, and making services that are a lot more responsive.
Crystal Fincher: [00:21:33] I did want to go back to just your conversation about the police union contract, which does impact so much of what's possible, specifically with discipline and oversight and accountability. And I know that you can't discuss the particulars of negotiation, but as far as your role as a councilmember and approving the contract and voting it up or down, there have been a couple of things that have been talked about for quite some time. One is the 2017 accountability ordinance. The other is whether or not the contract can supersede local Seattle ordinances. Will you be voting for a contract that doesn't include either one of those things, that doesn't include the 2017 accountability ordinance, or that supersedes local ordinances?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:22:26] Yeah, I can't answer that question given my position on the LRPC. What I could just say now is I think it has been clear from the feedback on that last contract from Judge Robart, who is overseeing the federal consent decree process, that there have to be significant changes to the accountability structure in order to comply and square our obligations with the federal consent decree. He's also said that it's possible, that if the city can innovate through our negotiations on other things that accomplish essentially the same goals in different ways, he's open to considering that too. I think that what we can all agree with is that the current accountability structures are not sufficient given what the federal court has said.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:19] That makes sense. And definitely going to be looking forward to seeing how that unfolds. One other issue I wanted to... I think has flown under the radar a little bit, but certainly is talked about in a number of circles, is the issue of the Convention Center bailout. Do you think the City should play a role in providing funds for a Convention Center bailout?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:23:44] I think in approaching that, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge at the front, I know there's been a lot of discussion about this, that the Convention Center is going to be a critical economic engine for our state and our region as we're coming out of COVID. And it is going to be a centerpiece of Downtown recovery, going forward at a time where Downtown, because congregate work, retail, all the things we - nightlife, entertainment, live music - all the things that have made Downtown hum, have been put on hold because of COVID. So, I think having a vibrant Convention Center is going to be a key part of our recovery.
I really want to look closely if it comes to that. No specific proposal's been brought forward about the equity of the deal. How much is King County putting in? How much is the State putting in? I want to make sure that we're looking at how we're going to get the money back, because I don't think that it should just be a blank check that's written to the folks that are putting the Convention Center together. I think that there should be some kind of deal to make sure that anything we put in does get paid back. And that that's a realistic plan, not one where the expectation of getting paid back is dubious. But I think that it's definitely something that we should be considering, but those are going to be some of the criteria. So if folks are listening to this that are putting the details together before transmitting it to Council, make sure you incorporate that feedback if you want to appeal to me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:25:26] Well, that is definitely getting useful feedback. And I guess in our closing time, I just wanted to ask you, as someone in your position who hears from so many constituents, has such a broad view of what goes into running the City - what should we be paying attention to that we're not, or what's flying under the radar that shouldn't be?
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:25:48] We do have a crisis of unsanctioned encampments that is not a crisis of some big moral failing. Homelessness is the aggregation of so many of the failures of American society and education and public health and criminal justice that all ends up getting visibly put in front of all of us in the form of chronic homelessness. It's something that we've been discussing, but I think we just need to be really clear with the narrative. It is not something that can be dealt with through a law-and-order strategy. And there's a lot of people out there that are using their platforms to either implicitly argue for that, or very explicitly leaving nothing to the imagination, doing that. And I think that it is what we see a lot - I think on the Council and also regional leaders on the County Council and the Legislature too - is people reaching out that have a very conclusory approach to this, which is, "Camping in public with a tent is illegal. And therefore this is very simple, and you're trying to make something complicated that is actually very simple. Enforce the law." I think that there's a lot more we could be doing to push back on that narrative, if only from a pragmatic area of saying like, "Well, look, King County Jail has been deintensified down to 1,400 jail cells. So if you want to go out and arrest 3,700 people for camping, that's not even something that you could do even if we wanted to." And to be clear, we don't, that's not going to solve the underlying issue.
But I think we need to be doing more as progressives, especially in Seattle, to push back on that narrative because I think it is having an impact and eroding our ability to build a regional strategy around homelessness. I think it is resulting in cities like Mercer Island passing these weird, legally dubious ordinances, cities like Renton evicting all homeless shelters out of their city limits. I think that that is the Seattle is Dying thing, it's not really effecting policy in Seattle, but I think we're starting to see it's affecting sentiment in other parts of the County. And it's eroding our ability, I think, to really build the kind of coalition that we need to, to solve this underlying problem. And I think we need to take that very seriously.
Crystal Fincher: [00:28:37] Yeah. I completely agree with you, especially the observation that the Seattle is Dying narrative - it's not impacting Seattle. And I actually don't think it's crafted for Seattle. It is very much crafted for suburbs.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:28:56] And one more point I'll add on that - I appreciate everything you just said - is it feels like every two years, and maybe there was a reset for this because of COVID, and we'll see how this year's election goes. But I feel like we relitigate the same conversation in our municipal elections every two years. I feel like in 2019, this was also the question. It was like, "Is homelessness primarily a law and order problem, or is it primarily a housing, public health problem?" And resoundingly, in that election in 2019, the candidates that were elected - myself and the other folks that won - generally speaking, held that view that it is a housing and public health problem and were successful. And I just get the sense now, going back to our earlier conversation, I think we're going to have a citywide election this year where some people are going to try to relitigate that conclusion. That's got to be the fight this year. And I hope that we can continue to fight for the better angels of the voters in our region on that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:30:09] Well, I absolutely agree. And I thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Look forward to having you back in the future and looking forward to just watching you work throughout the year. So thank you so much.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis: [00:30:22] Okay. Thanks for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:30:26] Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter, @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. And now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts, just type in "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.