Jan 30, 2021
This week on the show Crystal is joined by co-host Erica Barnett, editor of Publicola. They get in to Mayor Durkan’s floundering attempts to address homelessness, developments of the convention center bailout, and grocery store workers being granted a $4.00 and hour hazard pay increase.
A full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Mayor’s Office Defends Hotel Shelter Plan as Council Pushes for Tiny Houses by Erica C. Barnett, Publicola https://publicola.com/2021/01/28/mayors-office-defends-low-budget-for-hotel-shelters-as-council-pushes-for-tiny-houses/
Seattle, state look to join King County in multimillion dollar Washington State Convention Center bailout by David Gutman, The Seattle Times https://publicola.com/2021/01/28/mayors-office-defends-low-budget-for-hotel-shelters-as-council-pushes-for-tiny-houses/
The convention business is cratering, and cities are getting stuck with the bill by Mike McGinn and Joe Cortright, The City Observatory https://cityobservatory.org/the-convention-business-is-cratering-and-cities-are-getting-stuck-with-the-bill/
Seattle City Council approves $4 per hour mandatory pay boost for grocery workers during COVID-19 pandemic by David Gutman, The Seattle Times https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/seattle-city-council-approves-4-per-hour-mandatory-pay-boost-for-grocery-workers-during-covid-19-pandemic/
Seattle ‘hazard pay’ bonus for grocery workers likely to begin next week by Ben Adlin, South Seattle Emerald https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/01/29/seattle-hazard-pay-bonus-for-grocery-workers-likely-to-begin-next-week/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk with Policy Wonks and Political Hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work with 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.
Today, we're continuing our Friday almost-live shows where we review the news of the week. Welcome back to the program, friend of the show and today's co-host, Seattle political reporter, editor of PubliCola and author of Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse and Recovery, Erica Barnett.
Erica Barnett: [00:00:49] Hi, Crystal. Great to be here.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:51] Great to have you on again. Well there's a lot going on this week and I think we want to start out talking about Mayor Jenny Durkan's shelter surge plan that seems to be in trouble. What is the plan and what is happening with it?
Erica Barnett: [00:01:08] Well, the original plan was announced last year in October-ish. And it's to add a bunch of new shelters, mostly in hotels. The idea being that people will be taken off the street by outreach workers, put into hotels, and just sort of stabilize there - and move quickly to either permanent supportive housing which is a very kind of service-intensive, expensive kind of housing for people who can't live independently , or rapid rehousing using vouchers, essentially, that they can spend on the private market for a short period of time. And the idea is that they would then be able to pay market rate rent within a year or so. What's happening with it this week and as we reported exclusively at publiCola is that the plan is sort of or at least a large component of the plan - one of the big hotels - has fallen apart. And , and the city is scrambling to find somebody to provide those rooms. The issue is that the mayor's office and the city budget office have capped the amount that can be spent on these rooms at a rate that providers are saying is way too low for them to provide the kind of services that would actually make people ready to move into this market rate housing. And the difference, the money difference, is pretty significant. And so that - that larger of two hotels that they're planning, which is a 155-room hotel , has fallen through. And now they're scrambling to find a new provider. It was going to be the Public Defender Association, but - but no more.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:35] So they're at the point where they're saying they are getting ready to roll this out, and now they're down a provider. And the feedback that they've gotten from the providers that they're looking at moving forward with is that the money may be too low to actually provide the services and, and provide the outcomes that the program was supposed to provide?
Erica Barnett: [00:02:59] Yeah, so the Public Defender Association does a program called JustCare, which got a lot of positive press. It's down in Pioneer Square in the Chinatown International District. And basically they - they cleared out a bunch of encampments there and moved people into hotels. And it's - it's an expensive program because you're talking about people who have really high needs, so they're providing behavioral health care, mental health care, addiction services. And and so the idea was to basically expand - at least the PDA's idea - was to basically expand that program. They're going to move it into the Executive Pacific hotel downtown. And this is all according to our reporting - the city has not actually said any of this publicly, but we've talked to the PDA. And they're saying we can't do this for $17,000 a bed, which is what the city is essentially willing to provide. You know, it costs - it costs about $28,000 - we need more money. And, and that's kind of where the impasse is - are we going to do this service-rich program that gets people ready to move into housing or are we going to do a low-budget program that, you know, we're just going to put people in hotels and move them on and hope for the best. I mean, I'm not saying that the whatever lower budget program they end up with, assuming this moves forward, is going to be a bad program, but it's going to not have all of the services that they were originally intending to provide when they started talking about this.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:21] One, and originally intending to provide - and that seemed to be necessary to successfully transition people out of homelessness into stable housing. You know, the, the goal of this, certainly, we want to get everyone off of, off of the streets , out of unsafe and unsheltered situations, and to have shelter first and foremost critically, but, but it is also important to provide people with the assistance that they need to transition into stable housing. And I guess the question is, as you referenced, there are different populations within the unhoused population. There are people who are recently homeless, who oftentimes just need some financial assistance to get back into a stable situation. Then there are people who have more , you know, intricate needs and more service needs, whether it's mental health issues, substance abuse issues, that, that really need those programs and support. So is there information on who our existing population is and, and does this solution work for them?
Erica Barnett: [00:05:33] Well, I mean, what the - what the Public Defender Association has told me is that the JustCare clients that they've worked with have had very high needs. And, and I think you're - you hit on exactly the point. I mean, there is no one population of people who are unsheltered. But a lot of times when you're going into encampments and people who have been chronically homeless for a very long time and you know, are, are not going into the traditional shelters that are on offer, you're talking about people who do have high needs. And, and I think with anybody in the current housing market - I mean, yes, rents have gone down a little bit in Seattle, but anyone going into the current housing market with a rapid rehousing subsidy is going to need that subsidy for a really long time. And ordinarily, those are capped at three to six months. Now the city is saying they're willing to pay for more like a year, but - but then what happens when that year runs out? I mean, at that point as I've also reported, you know, you are expected to pay the full market rent for whatever apartment you've found and it's considered successful if you're paying 60% of your income on rent, which is very, very rent burdened. So there's just - there's just a lot of problems with the current sort of two tracks that we have, which are permanent supportive housing - very high needs, you're always going to have a subsidy for the rest of your life, or rapid rehousing - you know, 12 months and you better be on your feet and earning a high enough income to pay for that apartment. And there's not a whole lot for people who fall in between those two tracks.
Crystal Fincher: [00:07:03] But, you know, this seems to me - Jenny Durkan has certainly experienced criticism for not following through on the details or paying close attention to the implementation of her plans, and them not panning out as they were originally sold. This seems like it's heading in that same direction. What are the options that are available moving forward? Are they just trying to force it through as-is?
Erica Barnett: [00:07:30] Well, I think what they're doing is scrambling right now, as we're speaking, to find - to find another provider for that second hotel. And , and to - to maybe find a - there's actually supposed to be a third hotel. And so to maybe find a provider for that third hotel that'll, you know, altogether make up the 300 rooms that the mayor promised. But I want to pivot, if I can, to the tiny house village proposal that's on the table now, because you talked about Durkan making promises. She said in her campaign and, and during her first year, that in her first year, she would build a thousand new, tiny houses in villages around the city. So far, the city has less than 300 total and most of those aren't new. So Andrew Lewis on the council has proposed sort of on a totally separate track to build a 480 new tiny houses in 12 new villages around the city over a couple of years. And so that is another shelter option that's moving forward kind of without, without the, I mean, you know, with the mayor's cooperation, certainly, but the deputy mayor was talking at the council meeting the other day. And you know, he seemed to - just he was describing this as happening on a completely different track and, you know, and speculating about how it would work with the mayor's plans, which, you know, just really haven't gone anywhere as far as tiny house villages are concerned.
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:53] Well, and, and Councilmember Lewis' plan is interesting and it looks like it is relying on a mix of city money, taxpayer money, and privately funded money - is that correct?
Erica Barnett: [00:09:05] Yeah, it would be city money for operations and private money for actually just the physical construction, you know - here's the land, money to build these these tiny house huts that people live in, and then, yeah - and then the city would pay for ongoing operations.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:21] Okay. Well, I mean, it seems, at least it's - kind of the, the general conversation that has needed to move forward into more effective housing solutions. Even with the mayor's plan and where she originally started - it seems like that - and with the tiny houses, we are acknowledging that people need private spaces with shelter. That the big, huge congregate shelter settings are certainly not ideal and that hinder progress and the ability to get in a position where you can transition into more stable housing. Has that been an intentional focus? And are they looking at moving away from group shelters even more in the future?
Erica Barnett: [00:10:03] Well, I think that that's a Council-Mayor difference in some ways. I mean, and there's - there's good and bad things about both approaches, right? I mean, on the one hand, everybody would prefer, I mean, pretty much universally - if you offer people tiny houses or hotels, they say yes, whereas if you offer people a bed in a shelter - and we are mostly doing enhanced 24/7 shelters now, so it's not so much the mat on the floor model and get out at 7 in the morning anymore - but people don't like those as much, for what I think are very obvious reasons. Which is that, you know, you have privacy, you have some dignity, you have a door that closes . On the flip side, I will say, that when you have - when you invest really heavily in these programs, you're investing in a program where people don't move out into housing very quickly. They tend to stay in tiny house villages for a really, really, really long time. And so there's not a lot of what they call throughput. And so, so the question is, you know, in my mind, is are we building, essentially, a, you know, an inferior form of semi-permanent housing by putting tiny house villages all over the city and sort of avoiding the larger issue, which is that people actually need permanent housing.
I mean this isn't to demonize tiny house villages in any way, because I think they are obviously really desirable to people. But I think that one of the reasons they're desirable is they're kind of a quasi-form of housing. And you know, I don't know - I don't know that we want to be a city and you know, I'm gonna get in trouble for saying this, but where it's just Hoovervilles everywhere and no housing. Like there needs to be housing to move people into.
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:35] Well, there does and I guess that - that brings up the question you talked about - the city money being used for services. Are those services the types that have shown to be effective for transitioning people into permanent housing?
Erica Barnett: [00:11:47] Are you talking about the hotel - the services in the hotels?
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:50] The services for the, the tiny house villages. Are there going to be services provided there or is it just, Hey, here's a tiny house and, and we will leave.
Erica Barnett: [00:11:59] Oh, absolutely. No - there's case management and they, and they certainly provide services. I mean, this is also the case with JustCares, which is hotel rooms. That's another option that people stay in for, for a long time. And I think it's not - the problem is not so much that the services aren't there and that - because people do stabilize in these situations where they have some privacy and they have some dignity. People get better in, you know, in their lives. But the main - the, you know, the overriding condition of homelessness, I mean, you're just never gonna address that unless you create permanent housing solutions. And I don't mean permanent supportive housing for everybody. I mean, things like long-term subsidies. I mean, there's a lot of people in this city, as we've seen with, you know, the eviction moratorium. There's a lot of people who just can't pay that last $500 a month. You know, or $200 a month or whatever it is, that's keeping them from, from, you know, from staying in their places and that's making them subject to eviction. You know, I don't know why this is something that the city has been so reluctant to do. I think it's 'cause rapid rehousing is just in vogue right now because it feels like a market-based solution. But when you're throwing people under the market, there's no safety net really if , if they fail.
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:06] That's definitely true. Well, I think that - well, I think your coverage on this, on publicola.com has been excellent. And I encourage people to continue to follow along with where this process is going and provide feedback to the council and to the mayor about how you feel about how this plan is proceeding. Are there any conversations about increasing the amount that's available per room, or is the mayor just saying, That's it, - you gotta make it work.
Erica Barnett: [00:13:36] Well, this is all - this is all happening, I should say, sort of internally right now at the city. The mayor's office will probably be willing to give a little bit. But the other day - there's this really interesting moment in the council meeting where Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller was saying that the - the DESC in Renton, Downtown Emergency Service Center - which has a hotel in Renton that they have - that they're using as a shelter is able to do it for super cheap so that's the baseline for what should happen in Seattle. And there's just - there's so many things wrong with that, with that line of thinking. I mean, one is that he's not comparing apples to apples in terms of what that money is paying for in Renton. The other is that Seattle is more expensive. And the other is that DESC actually put forward its own plan - and its own plan for this hotel in Seattle was much, much more expensive and very much in line with all the other plans that everybody else submitted for , for these hotels. So I think the providers are saying, Look, this actually does cost more money than you are saying that we can spend. And the mayor's office, the city budget office is saying, You know, sorry, but we need that money for rapid rehousing because the rapid rehousing component of the hotel shelter plan is about twice as much as , as the services component. So they're, they're spending pretty lavishly on rapid rehousing to kind of get people into apartments fast, but the sort of step zero of, you know, helping people with their behavioral health issues, helping people with , you know, all kinds of barriers to housing that people have , is just, is, is being kind of not invested in
Crystal Fincher: [00:15:12] Just a reminder that you're listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher, and today we have a guest co-host, Seattle political reporter, Erica Barnett.
Part of the other issue with the DESC benchmarking it off of that was, was also - we want to pay people living wages. Seems like the focus is on just, Well, we just need to get people in - I'm sure the promise that she made is weighing heavily on her and the ability to say, All right, fine - there's more - we did it. I'm delivering what I said I would - is a motivating factor.
Well, we will continue to keep our eye on that and we'll transition to talking about the bailout of the convention center. Dow Constantine - I feel like it was about six weeks ago - you know, somewhere around then, announced that he, from the County perspective, had put together a plan for a massive bailout of the convention center that is ailing and struggling. Obviously in this pandemic, there are not companies coming from across the country and internationally - to fly all their people in and have big conventions together. So they are struggling and the question is - looking forward, are they going to bounce back and be able to make good on these on, on basically this, this loan? And furthermore, does it even make sense to continue to invest in the convention center? Are we going to see a long-term shift in the way that, that these types of conventions have been? What's going on with that right now?
Erica Barnett: [00:16:51] Well, the the city, I mean, you've, you've basically laid out what the situation is. I mean, the city and state have both said that they are open to providing loans to , to bail out the convention center even further. The boosters of convention centers say that they are critical for the region's economy and they're where, you know, tourism comes from, and people could, you know, they can cite however many, you know, people come in here. I mean, it feels a lot like , like the way that boosters sell arenas - that they make their money back in the overall benefit to the economy from people coming into the city, et cetera, et cetera. I am not aware of a lot of research that backs that up. Admittedly, I'm not an expert on convention centers, but I think that by and large, the reason that people come to a city like Seattle is not to - what - to sit in, you know, a windowless meeting room. And that a lot of that stuff is being done online now and I think will continue to be done online. I mean, if you're talking about a large meeting of a you know, of the business affiliation group, for example, or a large meeting of a company - I think there are a lot of lessons that we've learned during the pandemic that are going to continue and persist after the pandemic. And one is that we don't need these large, you know, giant gatherings. And I think the city really should be promoting tourism in a way that is about what is good about Seattle, not, you know, this is a great place to have your convention because of this and such tax breaks or hotel breaks or whatever it may be. But this is a great city because of the outdoors, because of Pike Place Market, you know, et cetera, et cetera. There's lots of, there's lots of reasons to come visit Seattle. I don't think that giant conventions are by and large gonna continue to be among those in the future.
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:37] Beyond that, we are in a recession, which you know, doesn't have prospects of getting better anytime soon without any stimulus activity . Started at the federal level, which is looking bleak beyond the little $2,000 amount that they are talking about as a one-time thing. And so even, even companies' ability, even if they wanted to continue to do that, has been hampered.
The convention center is in need of - they're saying a $315 million loan in order to be bailed out. The County started and said, Hey, we'll, we'll be in for a $100 million from its investment pool. And they're hoping to be paid back through hotel tax revenues from another industry that is definitely struggling.
Erica Barnett: [00:19:26] I think that , you know, even if you look beyond - I mean, because I do think that it's important to look beyond, you know, current recessions and look at , you know, just kind of the, the ongoing, you know, up and down of the economy and, and assume that we will come back at some point. But even then, I mean, I would really like to know and I, and I haven't seen this, this analysis done - what would be the impact if we stopped? If we just - if we stopped building it . The argument for - from labor, for the convention center, you know, has been that it will create a lot of jobs in the short-term. And okay. So let's, let's count up what the impact of that is and then what will be the ongoing long-term impact? You can even make it the worst case scenario, you know, take it from the point of view of the convention center itself and, and, and just figure out what, what if we stop ? Because I think there is this tendency with huge projects to just keep going with the forward momentum. Because you know, we've already invested so much money, so we have to keep going, we have to keep going no matter what. Just pour, pour, pour more money into it. And and I, and I do think that the stop option is not one that we even consider because it just feels impossible. And, and I think that, you know, I, I think that the region should just take a breath and consider whether we need to keep pouring sort of infinite buckets of money into this one project in downtown Seattle that that so many people have staked so much so much on sort of mentally, emotionally , financially . You know, and maybe the answer would be, No, we absolutely have to keep going because we're almost there and it just needs this little push, but, but let's, let's find that out and let's just take a pause instead of sort of all these panicked infusions of money, which is what it feels like.
And these are, these are loans, but you know, it is not unprecedented for loans not to be paid back. I mean, if, if the convention center fails you know, that is, that is a possibility. And so when the city, state, and county say, Well, these are all repayable loans and we'll, we'll make interest on them. You know, I think we need to consider that that is not a sure thing.
Crystal Fincher: [00:21:28] It's definitely not a sure thing. And, and part of the, the consideration of spending, especially, you know, providing public loans is - is what is the benefit and what is you know, will it, what activity does it stimulate? How much money can we generate from this loan? And you want that to be moving in a positive direction and to have multiplier effects. And that we'll wind up further ahead in the long-term if we provide this loan right now. And it just doesn't appear that that is a solid calculation with this. But we will see - again, encourage people to continue to stay engaged with this. As always, we'll be putting links to articles and information about these in our show notes that accompany the podcast. So you will be able to get more information there. But it's certainly a challenge.
But speaking of helping workers, there is a - in my view - was a very positive step taken this week. And that was by providing grocery workers with hazard pay. What ended up happening and what did the council approve?
Erica Barnett: [00:22:37] From what I understand - and I apologize, I did not cover this specific , this specific initiative because I was sort of deep in in homelessness land this week. But the upshot, as I understand it, is that grocery stores, which are defined as, you know, stores over a certain size that are, that sell groceries. Or stores over another certain size that sell, you know, 30% or something like that, of their , of what they sell, is groceries. So, so big grocery stores have to pay $4 more an hour to their workers because of evidence that, you know, well, first of all, they're essential workers. They are providing food that people, you know, obviously rely on - the grocery stores are necessary and these workers are putting themselves in harm's way. They get COVID at a higher rate. And so so this is, this, this is, you know, as, as the legislation says, it's hazard.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:24] Yeah, absolutely. And, and it is Seattle grocery businesses with 500 or more total employees that qualify for this. So most of the grocery stores - and as we continue to learn, as, as we get further in the pandemic, just being indoors is a risk factor. And as customers, we can, you know, go in and go out. But, but they're forced to be indoors for, you know, hours and hours at a time. And so this is a recognition that they are facing an increased risk and they do deserve increased pay because of that.
Erica Barnett: [00:24:00] I totally agree. And, and slash, but I would say, you know, it does , it does feel like when we see these kind of one-off pieces of legislation that pick one category of worker , one category of essential worker ,to receive hazard pay or to receive benefits that absolutely makes sense and that are absolutely rightful. I don't know where grocery workers come from specifically as opposed to hardware store workers or other retail or garden store workers. You know, other retail workers who are also, you know, inside all day, coming into contact with people all day in the same conditions as grocery workers. And so it's , it's a little frustrating to me watching legislation being made in this way, because if the, if the conditions are the issue, let's make it across the board for every large business over a certain amount of employees, say , and that has employees that are in X condition, you know, standing at a checkout counter all day or in the indoors all day, you know, with a certain number of customers coming through. It seems to me that it is, it is very strange that I can go down the street to my QFC and the grocery workers there are rightfully getting $4 an hour more, and then I can go to Lowe's across the street and those workers aren't because they don't sell groceries there. So I just, I think if the issue is the condition - let's address the condition. If the issue is , is that people are being exposed to COVID let's, let's let's address that. Otherwise it feels a little bit like you know, like legislation being made at the behest of a particular, a particularly effective lobbying effort. And, you know, and I, I just, I don't, I don't want to see legislation being made based on lobbying. I want to see it being made based on, on, on science and fairness.
Crystal Fincher: [00:25:54] Any person working in a retail or customer-facing environment that has to be indoors in that shared space should be receiving hazard pay. You know, the delivery drivers who are, who are interacting with us, bringing food and groceries and, and, you know, delivering packages and goods - in my view, deserve hazard pay. You know, this is a time when, when many people are fortunate enough to not have to have higher exposure to the virus. And we are counting on people to do that in our place in order to, you know, continue our quality of life, really. And so I think that's a very valid point. I do know that there has been data cited specifically for grocery workers. Now, whether that data is also a function of you know, industry supported research that others may not have access to is a very valid question.
Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM this Friday, January 29th, 2021. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones, Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. And our wonderful co-host today was Seattle political reporter and founder of PubliCola, Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on Twitter @ericabarnett and on publicola.com. And you can buy her book Quitter: a Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery at wherever your favorite bookstore sells books. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, and now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts, just type "Hacks and 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. And as always, full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time. .