The Hellhole – week of 1/15

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About the image: What’s the use of a bridge (to housing) if it doesn’t go anywhere?

Happy Friday, everyone! Well, not everyone; everyone with a few notable exceptions. Some of those people are the subjects of our stories below: the mayor planning to sell our city block-by-block until there’s no Seattle left to govern, and by extension politicians who think vouchers are a replacement for homes; corporations using ancient, racist laws to avoid responsibility (and school administrators using ancient, racist thinking to avoid doing their job). Plus, ICE is back on their bullshit. Another beautiful week in the Pacific Northwest. Welcome to the Hellhole.

Minor Considerations

In her first major policy proposal since taking office in November, Mayor Jenny Durkan outlined a plan to sell off prime, publicly-owned property at 1933 Minor, using the resultant millions to make a “one-time” investment into addressing Seattle’s housing crisis. That’s right, a one-time investment from a piece of property the city won’t be getting back; a piece of property whereupon public housing might have been built, an investment that could’ve reaped benefits for a number of the region’s unhoused for decades to come.

Instead, a portion of millions from the sale will be sunk into a new Seattle Fire Department facility, replacing an office that the sale is rendering obsolete and on the administration of a “Bridge Housing” strategy—that is, investment in exploring the idea of discussing the concept of collaborating on the notion of “tiny homes,” tents (which Durkan was opposed to on the campaign trail), “hard-sided tents” and other “cost-effective” stopgap measures that are not permanent housing, let alone public housing.

MIllions are to be gained upfront from the lucky developer in Mandatory Housing Affordability funds that are promised for affordable housing projects…sometime. Shaun Scott wrote this week in City Arts that “[p]oliticians who value process over people have allowed these spaces to pass out of the public trust and into the hands of for-profit developers. Seattle could cultivate such spaces into public housing, or else enter the market as a broker who could skim off prohibitive land prices for non-profit housing consortiums, then distribute the land to civic-minded developers to turn these spaces into desperately needed affordable housing. The city, as its officials like to say, is in the midst of a housing crisis, which it should do everything it can to alleviate.” Durkan’s proposal seems an incredibly roundabout way to do something that doesn’t even halfway address Seattleites’ suffering, while enriching the sort of downtown development interests that paid for her candidacy. Instead of housing the unhoused by…housing them, Durkan ties politically meek emergency aid to the very ventures that help inflame the crisis in the first place. Commodifying housing is bound to produce more wealth for developers and shameful humanitarian outcomes for the rest of us.

The Numbers are In… Again

The Seattle Times did some fun math this week to demonstrate two things: one, it’s easy to manipulate data and statistics to make Seattle’s houselessness problem seem less dire, and two, Seattle’s houselessness crisis is almost definitely worse than we think.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the way you report or frame data can vastly change its meaning, but the Times demonstrated that when you frame houselessness data as comparative, you can get away with a lot. For example, if you count everyone without shelter and compare it against the total population of the Seattle metro area, and then compare that to other large metro areas, Seattle is #6 in the nation in terms of the most houseless people, with Washington, D.C. as #1. If instead, you count it as “the percentage of houseless who sleep outside,” Seattle jumps to #5, and Washington, D.C. drops out of the top ten entirely, because they actually provide adequate shelter for those who are houseless, whereas Seattle, of course, does not.

One last fun fact: Seattle bases its houselessness numbers on what they call a Point In Time (PIT) Count, with a nauseatingly-cutesy tagline: “Count Us In”. The PIT Count is volunteers, working in teams of two or three, each group with “(p)aid ‘guides’ with lived experience of homelessness”, who will “aid teams in identifying and accessing areas in

which we are likely to find people sleeping outside”. Just like a scavenger hunt, or a safari! An article by Heidi Groover at the Stranger recently pointed this out, however: “The counts do not include people staying with family or friends or… in jail or the hospital. According to the report, when Houston did an ‘expanded’ count and included people in county jails who were homeless before arrest, their total homeless count increased by 57 percent.”

The Times agrees that this count is “messy”, and of course it is— everything about houselessness in Seattle is. All that aside, exactly how many shouldn’t really matter that much. We don’t have a counting problem in Seattle; we have a housing problem, and that’s obvious to anyone with eyes. That problem doesn’t get better until we start to build city-owned affordable housing and push back against developers who don’t give a shit if you have a warm place to sleep.

A Section 8 nightmare

If the situation above is any indicator, we can count on the city’s approach to the housing crisis to be extremely short-sighted and mind-numbingly stupid until the end of time (…or at least the next few years). So if that isn’t bad enough, Crosscut’s David Kroman details one Seattle couple’s struggle with Section 8 housing, the federal government’s infamous housing voucher program. It’s almost made sweeter because the program is now technically known as the “Housing Choice Voucher program,” but as you’ll see, there aren’t many “choices” to be had here. The story by the numbers:

  • 2½ years: Average wait time nationwide for a Section 8 voucher once you’re on the list
  • 3 years: Wait time for Seattle residents who want to get their name on the list just to be considered for a voucher
  • 56 percent: Percentage of people in Seattle who had vouchers but could not find housing by the end of 2017
  • At least 5 landlords rejected Brian Graap and Kari Forbes’ rental applications. Forbes says the number is probably much higher and she believes landlords discriminated against the couple after running background checks on them, which is illegal.
  • 180 days: The time within which Section 8 recipients must find housing, according to the Seattle Housing Authority (because after you’ve waited years for a voucher, of course it expires within six months). The King County Housing Authority is slightly more generous with 240 days.
  • 30 percent: Percentage of Section 8 clients who are still rent burdened once they find a one-bedroom apartment.
  • $1,900: Amount Graap and Forbes pay for an apartment near downtown Bellevue even with the Section 8 voucher. Section 8 recipients usually pay no more than 30 percent of their income while the voucher covers the rest (but, it caps out at what is considered a “fair market rent” for the area, so it’s possible that Section 8 vouchers could become less effective in areas with inflated rent prices, like, say, Seattle).
  • $6 billion: Amount of proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program
  • 0: Number of fucks Hellhole has to give about the feelings, desires and overall general existence of private housing developers, who are ultimately profiting off this partnership.

Chide the Ducks

Senator Bob Hasegawa and other members of the Washington State Senate hoped to have the floor this week to discuss the merits of SB 5979, a bill they’ve introduced to remedy century-old xenophobic disparities in companies’ liabilities for monetary damages resulting from wrongful deaths. The legislation, still on the books, requires that families living abroad can only sue and receive compensation from their kin’s wrongful death if the deceased 1) resided in the US and 2) was the family’s sole source of income. With its anti-Asian roots in the 1909 wrongful death of an International Contract Company dockworker, one might think this law archaic, buried and inconsequential in our post-racial, liberal coastal enclave.

Well, cherished American metropolitan institution Ride the Ducks cited this law in 2016 when fighting a lawsuit brought by a Korean family of one of four students killed in a horrific 2015 Aurora Bridge accident caused by one of their vehicles (specifically via cost-cutting negligence); the case was successfully dismissed. There’s nothing new under the sun; no matter how much lip service corporations deliver toward racial and ethnic diversity that is the fabric of our communities, given the chance, an institution compelled by a profit motive would still cite 109 year-old, xenophobic law before a judge to fight for its bottom line. It’s the same capitalism then as the same capitalism now.

Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of…

The racial achievement gap in Seattle schools has been a problem for decades, and the district’s solution to those problems seems to be continuing to do the exact same things they’ve always done.

A report from The Seattle Times’ Education Lab takes a look at the rhetorical games district leaders have played for decades as the achievement gap between black and white students grows. Much of the district’s plan sounds like vaguery and hot air to begin with, but it’s interesting to see the hot air translated again and again through the years—the article notes that recommendations made in a 1986 report, for example, have been recycled through the years ever since with no real change or progress.

The students are suffering because of it. In one study, Stanford researchers found that black students tested 3.7 grade levels behind their white peers in 2017. That’s actually worse than in 2016, when they tested 3½ grades behind.

Much of the blame for the current situation is leveled at Superintendent Larry Nyland, who is white. Critics say Nyland is guilty of repeating the same tired strategies, and seems to believe more in paying lip service to improving the gap versus actually putting significant resources behind the efforts (in the words of the article, he believes “commitment is more important than money,” which sounds an awful lot like “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” to us). One educator quit partly out of frustration in June for that reason. “How can you say you want this work to be happening … if you don’t actually put money behind it?” she said.

We wish we could live in a world where every child could get a quality education without the involvement of capital, but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in. Equity in schools needs to be taken seriously, which means not putting racial equity efforts the chopping block first when the district feels strapped for cash. It also means investing in the “big-ticket items” that can make the most difference. Talk is cheap, and in this case, it’s actively harmful.

Class enemy of the week: ICE

ICE is trying to intimidate noted anti-deportation and detainment advocate Maru Mora Villapondo by sending her an order to appear in immigration court. Villapondo has lived in the US since 1996, and hasn’t had any contact with immigration authorities until she started organizing as part of NWDC Resistance.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Northwest Detention Center is a for-profit prison specifically used to imprison those who are suspected of violating immigration law, and it’s as bad as any for-profit prison in the US: those imprisoned are held under terrible conditions and forced to work for no or low pay. The order for Villapondo to appear in court came without a date, which seems suspicious: if they want her in court so badly, why not make it official? Instead, it’s a clear message to those who organize on behalf of the immigrants among us: “stop pushing back, or there will be consequences.”

We briefly considered changing “class enemy” to “class hero” to highlight and support the amazing work that Maru Mora Villapondo is doing on behalf of the most vulnerable among us, and we’d still like to do that. We stand in solidarity with those that stand against the fascists at ICE, whose jackboot tactics are documented nearly everywhere else you could look, usually with a note of pride. We stand with Maru and with NWDC Resistance, and as always: fuck ICE.

One final thought: An SDSA member began cataloging examples of hostile architecture around Seattle in this tweet thread posted Wednesday night. The project just started and its creator says it will become part of a larger effort to document examples of unfriendly urban design around the city. It got some recognition Thursday morning after being featured in The Stranger’s morning news roundup, but it was quickly taken out of the article entirely for reasons that will become clear once you see this screenshot. Nothing disappears entirely from the internet.

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Hellhole is written by members of the Seattle DSA communications team. Unless expressly stated, Dispatches do not necessarily reflect the views of Seattle DSA as an organization or its leadership.

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