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‘Inhumane’ encampments, development as greenhouse polluter, reset on transit: Here’s what Mayor Durkan talked about during weekend Capitol Hill business tour and town hall

Durkan on 15th Ave E doing a little Saturday afternoon shopping (Images: CHS)

Following a low-profile tour of are businesses along the quieter side of Capitol Hill, Mayor Jenny Durkan met a small gathering of the public at the Miller Community Center on Saturday for a community conversation. Introduced as the city’s first female mayor in nearly 100 years, Seattle native Durkan gave a short address and fielded questions from the audience around homelessness, mental health, zoning laws, and the future of public transportation during the hour long event.

Though the Mayor announced millions in investments to reduce homelessness this year with affordable housing and addiction mitigation and City Hall under her watch is pursuing a $75 million-plus plan to create a new employee tax for big businesses, she said Saturday the city is only a cog in a wheel when it comes to its ability to fortify behavioral health services and facilities in within city limits.

“We are trying to get to a point where we can offer services on demand because we have had defunding of mental health services,” she said. “Right now most of the mental health and treatment dollars go from the state to the county, so if we don’t have a regional solution including both, we’ll never get to the point where we’ll have more mental health facilities, short term and long term in the community or state wide. “

For now, she says the focus is on strengthening our existing mental health services network. In a record breaking commitment to remove the major contributors to homelessness, Durkan announced over $100 million in investments toward affordable homes last year, along with a nearly investments for Safe Consumption Sites outlined in the City’s 2018 budget.

During the town hall, a request to halt encampment sweeps and admonishment of the practice from one member of the audience was initially met with Durkan’s tempering of reports that the sweeps are callous and harmful. “Don’t believe everything you hear in the newspapers and blogs,” she said. “It’s inhumane to let people live in mud and squalor with needles and violence and human trafficking. I think our city is better than that.”

Durkan said that while city officials will continue to move people out of illegal encampments and offer them shelter, the sweeps are not meant to be a lasting solution to the homeless crisis. More than temporary shelter, Durkan asserted that a regional tack on affordable housing, addiction recovery services, and long term mental health care will reduce illegal encampments, estimating that 20% of the homeless population receiving services in Seattle are transplants from neighboring regions looking for help.

“If we don’t do more to address the behavioral health issues in our homeless population, and that means the substance abuse and addiction problems and mental health problems, we won’t see a marked change in our city,” she said.

Earlier in the day, the Mayor’s visit to Capitol Hill included a tour of neighborhood businesses. Coinciding with National Independent Bookstore Day, her tour began with a visit to Elliott Bay Book Company on 10th Ave, followed by a visit to a few of 15th Ave E’s shops: Rainbow Remedy, The Red Balloon Company, and Ada’s Technical Bookstore.

According to John Gallant, owner of Red Balloon Company, Mike McGinn was the last to pay an official mayoral visit. Gallant chatted with Durkan about the street’s economic prosperity, commenting that recently he has been able to hire an additional employee. “I’m really impressed with the job she’s done so far. I appreciate the communications. It’s critical. You’ve really got to get down to the sidewalk level because if we’re gonna move forward we need someone who is able to listen and tell it like it is,” he said.

In a feel good tour of the street, Durkan briskly patronized all three shops, laughed and networked with business owners and purchased a few morale boosting toys for her office along with a collection of books. With her was leadership from the office of Economic Development Rebecca Lovell and Michael Wells, chair of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce board and 15th Ave E business owner Jeff Pelletier of Board and Vellum, mayor’s office staff members Small Business Liaison Kyla Blair and Digital Communications Officer Anthony Derrick and Durkan’s usual security detail.

Durkan formed a small business advisory task force when she took office. She says the city must support small business, which employ almost five times the number of employees that Amazon does, according to Durkan.

Later at the town hall, public transportation was also a popular topic. Durkan swayed between the audience’s interest in bike lanes, carbon emissions and public safety as connected to the broader vision of municipal mobility and Seattle of the future. Durkan agreed on the city’s need for rapid bus lines on Madison, major additions to the bike lane network downtown and on the Hill, and electric transportation but admitted these developments will need to be metered as funding allows.

Earlier this year, the One Center City proposed installation of a 4th Avenue bike lane was delayed. Durkan says it’s not over but because it’s estimated to cost $14 million per mile of bike lane downtown and $850,000 a mile elsewhere, the city can’t deliver on the full menu of resources that were promised. Signal improvements are planned to be completed this year but until the city finds more affordable means of connecting bike lanes around the city, “we can’t do all the bike miles that were promised,” said Durkan. The same goes for Rapid Transit -– for now the amount budgeted will not be enough support pavement improvements needed for more rapid transit, Durkan said Saturday.

While the city seems to be struggling to make real changes to its streets to address the concerns, Durkan also said Saturday her city needs to move away from dependency on cars. Speaking to Seattle’s future, Durkan addressed an audience member’s concern over climate change and Seattle’s struggle to reduce greenhouse gasses as the city continues to grow. “We gotta get rid of the single occupancy vehicles and move to electricity, electric busses, cabs, Ubers and Lyfts,” she said. “But we don’t want electric vehicles to become another demarcation of inequity.”

Durkan may have surprised a few urbanists in the audience when she pivoted the discussion about the environment toward a focus on development. The mayor shifted her focus to public safety and pending results of the environmental impact on neighborhoods greenlit for upzoning. Durkan said new development accounts for the highest rate of greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle with vehicle emissions following second.


UPDATE 5/8/2018: The mayor’s office has taken issue with our characterization of Durkan’s comments and clarified its statement that the mayor “misspoke” at the town hall. “The Mayor did not say that new development accounts for greenhouse gas emissions; rather, she said that the two largest contributors are buildings and cars, which is how she has repeatedly noted in context of climate action,” a representative tells CHS.

Here are the words CHS recorded at the event: “There’s two things that contribute most to our greenhouse gases: Number one is building efficiency, number two is cars.”

Durkan’s office maintains that the mayor isn’t blaming development but is focused, instead, on the types of buildings being created.

Original report: Apparently, new development can also be blamed for traffic and pedestrian safety issues in the city. Durkan offered a promise to keep an eye on safe pedestrian crossings and gathering spaces as developments reach the newly rezoned areas.

Even with all the projects and careful management of municipal growth, Durkan insisted “every part of the city is going to get more density, it’s just how it’s gonna be,” she said.

Durkan also addressed concern for housing for seniors in the LGBTQ+ community and closing job and education opportunity gaps. Durkan said a senior housing facility to serve the LGBTQ community is on the way and that Seattle is putting much of its energy into high quality preschools and high schools to begin closing the gap. She estimated “in the next five years 700,000 new jobs will come Seattle but of those new jobs will require post high school education and training. “Just 30% of children currently get that in Seattle to qualify them for those future jobs,” she said.

Durkan’s Capitol Hill visit ended with a declaration that Seattle’s commitment to inclusion, equity and sustainable growth will allow us to “show the President of the United States – Look how it is done.”

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24 thoughts on “‘Inhumane’ encampments, development as greenhouse polluter, reset on transit: Here’s what Mayor Durkan talked about during weekend Capitol Hill business tour and town hall

  1. Mayor Durkan played it safe with this visit. She didn’t come to Broadway, where half the storefronts are empty except for the folks sleeping in the doorways. We don’t need “feel good” tours. She went shopping and had coffee with mostly white people. Wow. That’s helpful.

  2. I keep hearing people saying that half the storefronts on Broadway are empty and though I walk that street every day I just don’t see it. Move to the midwest, and you’ll REALLY see some ghost towns.

    When folks exaggerate like this, it weakens their other arguments and shows how sheltered and limited their worldview really is.

  3. that’s because with all the new construction we have seen, there are MORE storefronts than there have ever been, in all the 20+ years I’ve been here. Single-story, 1-business buildings have been replaced with larger buildings and multiple storefronts.

  4. “estimating that 20% of the homeless population receiving services in Seattle are transplants from neighboring regions looking for help.”

    I would estimate at least another 60% are coming here from out of state to seek the same free goods and services supplied by Seattle’s “generous” taxpayers.

  5. They still touting that 20% figure? The one from not only a dubious measurement, but from also self-reporting by people who are pros at gaming the system, reported by an agency whose people’s livelihoods are financed by homeless spending largesse? That one right? Hell, half the overall population is from elsewhere. Why would 80% of the addicts all be native?

  6. I get what you’re saying but I’m not sure this is really true. I think things have just been reshuffled so there are storefronts in different places. For example, there’s a bunch of storefronts where the Taco Bell and QFC parking lots used to be, but the Broadway Market stuff is all gone and several blocks were demolished for light rail and not yet rebuilt.

    Broadway always had street kids, but it used to have a lively (and pleasant) street scene that is totally decimated. I loved to sit in sidewalk seating at the restaurants and watch everyone go by.

    Pat, I think what you’re not getting is that Broadway was NOT a midwestern ghost town, so why would we ever compare it to that? It was more like a gayer, hipper 15th. Sure, things could be worse but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t declined or couldn’t be improved.

  7. Do you all seriously think if you looked at the homeless population in any other major city, that 20% of them (or more) wouldn’t be from somewhere else besides that city too? You all seem to think every other city’s homeless population stays put, and Seattle is the only city that has a substantial homeless population that comes from somewhere else. Absurd.

  8. I agree, Pat. Exaggeration is not at all unusual in comments on this site and others. It’s a sure sign that the person’s arguments are weak.

  9. Jim, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone argue that. Murray is the one who tried to tell everyone most of the addicts were local. Most everyone else knew that was absurd. They are called transients for a reason.

  10. Andrew, you don’t have to look far to see what I’m talking about (see above comment):
    “I would estimate at least another 60% are coming here from out of state to seek the same free goods and services supplied by Seattle’s “generous” taxpayers.”

    As if Seattle has a % of non-local homeless that’s severely of whack with anywhere else? Quibbling about whether it’s 20% or 60% or whatever is pointless. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, you don’t let the “you’re not from here?” types starve, and it’s probably not much different from other big cities anyway. The implication is that we’re “attracting” the homeless. I don’t buy it.

  11. I dunno – I think Seattle does attract homeless people, though I don’t think it’s due entirely city policies. Some of the draw to the west coast cities – Seattle, LA, San Francisco, I do think, is the weather. Where I grew up, in Pittsburgh, there were very few homeless people living on the streets and from what I understand it remains that way – due in large part to the fact that the weather is not conducive to even surviving, much less living unsheltered for much of the year.

    Even 20 some years ago when I moved out here I was astonished at the sheer numbers of people sleeping in doorways and panhandling – it was truly something I never experienced before. As a teen I could ramble wherever I pleased in the many city green spaces without fear of walking into someones encampment. That is not possible here – even the official city parks have become chancy…

  12. I agree….we may be attracting people but it’s the non-lethal climate that’s doing it. (you want to see massive homeless numbers, San Diego has way more than we do). Like you said, it’s that homeless people probably won’t freeze to death that brings them here, not because our policies are attracting them. OTOH, you also don’t see cities on the Eastside dealing with numbers of homeless like Seattle has, because they’re more than happy to let Seattle deal with it while they don’t bother to fund services. That does focus the homeless on Seattle, Tacoma, etc.

  13. I’m not sure how it’s going to get up to 1000, but there are small enclaves of these tiny houses being built – right now there is one in progress at Whittier Heights that will have 16-17 houses when it’s done in a couple of weeks. LIHI is responsible for most of the enclaves that I’ve heard about:

  14. Seattle Veggie–thanks for the links! With so many anecdotal comments it’s refreshing. Homelessness has reached a scary level in the area and the sheer numbers seem to be blinding some to the fact that these are individual humans. I’m not throwing stones–Just on my 10 minute commute to work I walked by 4 people that could have been asleep, or could have been deceased…and I did nothing. My kids don’t even look twice when they step over bodies on the sidewalk. This shouldn’t feel normal and reflects on us as a society at least as much as on those in dire straits. My honest hope is that we (Seattle, King County) can have a productive dialogue about how to best support those in need of support without over-taxing those living in comfort. An educated public is key.

  15. “Durkan said new development accounts for the highest rate of greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle with vehicle emissions following second.”

    Vehicle emissions account for 66% of Seattle’s emissions, and buildings in total account for about 27%. (Industry is the remaining 7%) New housing development in the city also *reduces* emissions vs development in the suburbs by about half. This has to be a mistake in transcription by the reporter. I can’t believe the Mayor thinks this. She has super-knowledgble staff who know these things.

  16. @Seattle Veggie…. and you think that the polled homeless people tell the truth… LOLOLOLOLOL….. yeah right… Sorry – I don’t believe that number is any more true than the only 20 some percent who admit they have a substance abuse problem.

  17. @CD Cyclist The surveys were anonymous and largely conducted by peers and social workers through random encounters. The exact question they were asked is “Where were you living at the time you
    most recently became homeless?” not a general query about where they were from. That is a less personal question and seems unlikely to lead to widespread fabrication of answers. Also, of the people who did come from out of the county (27% of respondents), they were asked why they came to King County, and a quarter of them answered that they did come for the homeless services (so, about 7% of the total homeless population). This survey has some good methodology behind it (and I wasn’t involved, I’m just an interested citizen) and to dismiss it because you don’t agree with the results is silly.

    Also, the infographic does not say that only 20% have a substance abuse problem, it says that 20% cited that as the reason they are homeless (vs. losing a job, divorce, etc.).

  18. I find it interesting that 30% are homeless due to job loss. I’d be more interested in why they lost their job and couldn’t find a new one in a city that has incredibly low unemployment rates. Like, were they unable to regain employment? Are they now employed but cannot afford housing? There as to be a lot more beneath these numbers. And like CD Cyclist, I don’t have confidence in this data – especially that drug addicts are truthful in their responses.

  19. @Seattle Veggie – I don’t think substance abusers need to have a reason to be untruthful… it’s a way of life for them and even the concept that they may be ineligible for services if they have not been living here, I’m sure is enough to influence their answers.

    That same poll also says that 90% of those surveyed say they would accept housing if offered – Come on now…. that is *totally* counter to the reality that the teams that go into camps find – almost none – like 1or 2% actually accept housing.

    Why should I blindly believe a poll, when what is actually happening in the city runs entirely counter to it?

  20. @CD Cyclist, I think that answer is rather aspirational. In the survey, people were asked simply “If safe, affordable housing were available, would you move inside?” vs when workers are actually visiting encampments and trying to get people into shelters, they decline because the shelters are perceived as bug-infested, unsafe places to go. So it is not an apples-to-apples comparison.