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Seattle City Council Insight: Sawant looks to expand sanctioned encampments and tiny house villages, but faces SEPA appeal

A summer “Tent City” at St. Joseph’s in 2016

From SCC Insight

While her call for rent control is featured on her campaign posters, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant is pursuing another, smaller solution for housing and affordability for Seattle’s most vulnerable — a bill that would expand the city’s ability to establish additional “tiny house” villages and issue permits for more sanctioned homeless encampments.

Her bill has already been tied up in land-use bureaucracy.

Sawant’s bill adjusts the regulations for permitting encampments, of both the tent- and “tiny home” based varieties. It relaxes the rules for where in the city they could be set up, and increases the maximum permitted number of encampments to 40. But since it is a land-use ordinance, it is subject to State Environmental Policy Act review, meaning that the city needs to fill out the SEPA checklist and either make a Determination of Non-significance (DNS), or write a full-blown SEPA Environmental Impact Statement if there are significant expected impacts.

The appeals have become a popular tool for opposing new development and zoning changes in Seattle and cost filers less than a hundred dollars to begin the process.

At the beginning of August, the Council’s Central Staff issued a DNS for the proposed legislation. And Elizabeth Campbell, who is well-known for her legal challenges to the Council’s land-use actions, once again filed an appeal of the DNS with the Hearing Examiner — according to Sawant, thirteen minutes before the filing deadline. That prevents the Council from moving forward with Sawant’s bill until the Hearing Examiner rules on Campbell’s appeal.

Here’s what Sawant’s proposed bill does:

  • It exempts religious organizations from permitting requirements for encampments on property owned or controlled by them, though they are still subject to a set of safety and public health provisions.
  • It allows encampments to be set up in any zone in the city, though it maintains the current prohibitions for environmentally sensitive areas. Encampments would be allowed in residential areas, and the current required 25-foot setbacks from any adjacent residential lot are removed.
  • It removes the one-mile separation requirement between permitted encampments.
  • It allows the city to set up an encampment on property it leases, not just property it owns. Also on property owned, leased or otherwise controlled by another public entity, such as King County or the State of Washington.
  • It requires six-foot screening on all sides of the encampment, including street-side.
  • It removes the two-year limit on permitting an encampment in a particular location. The city may now issue one-year permit renewals an indefinite number of times.
  • It increases the allowed number of permitted encampments from three to 40 — excluding encampments on property owned or controlled by religious organizations.
  • The original ordinance authorizing permitted encampments is due to “sunset” on March 31, 2020. This bill would remove the sunset provision entirely.

A Central District Tiny House Village

The big question: This is the threshold question for SEPA analysis: is this legislation likely to have significant impacts on the “environment?” At first glance, it would seem that the answer is yes: it dramatically expands the number of permitted encampments, and the places they can be in the city.

But the city’s DNS argues to the contrary.

First, it says that allowing encampments in any zone, rather than just in a short list of non-residential zones, diffuses them over a much larger part of the city and reduces the likelihood that there will be several in close proximity (amplifying their impact). It also notes that encampments must still be at least 5,000 square feet, can’t be in environmentally critical areas, and have a minimum of 100 square feet per occupant; because of that, the number of parcels of land in the city that meet the qualifications is only 1,112 (under the current rules, there are 389). And with the maximum occupancy of 100 for an encampment, the impact any one could have on transportation and public services in the vicinity is small. Also, the permitting requirements don’t allow for any permanent structures, require an operations plan and a Citizens’ Advisory Committee for each encampment, and place several other restrictions to limit the impacts to the surrounding area.

The city’s determination of non significance argues the legislation will have “minimal impacts on both the natural and the built environment” because “the amendments would not authorize any permanent development” and “most encampment residents are expected to utilize public transportation, and impacts on traffic and parking are not expected to be significant.”

“Similarly, demands for public services on a site may increase,” the DNS reads, “but due to limits on numbers of encampment occupants, the one-year term of use (two-year maximum with renewal option) on any particular site, lack of permanent development, and requirements for hosting agreements with rules for behavior, these increases are not likely to be significant. For these reasons, the proposed code amendments are expected to have minimal impacts on both the natural and the built environment.”

For the most part, the argument is sound. There are, however, two big issues. First, allowing for unlimited renewals of an encampment’s permit opens the door to an argument that they aren’t so temporary after all. The legislation doesn’t say under what conditions the city may decide not to issue or renew a permit, outside of violations of the permitting requirements. And the exemption for religious organizations is a massive loophole. According to the DNS, there are 493 sites in Seattle that are currently used by religious institutions — and if a church buys or leases a plot of land, that would immediately qualify as well. The new legislation removes the requirement that the land be an “accessory” to property currently being used for religious purposes, so any vacant lot owned by a church, anywhere in the city, will do.

The appeal: Campbell’s appeal of the DNS, meanwhile, is poorly written and consistent with her previous appeals attempts to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the DNS in the hope that something will stick. But it does touch on both of the two issues above, and either of them could justify a finding by the Hearing Examiner that either the DNS finding is inaccurate, or the city needs to do a full-blown EIS study.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that Campbell will make fatal procedural mistakes and her appeal will be dismissed before the Hearing Examiner needs to make a decision.

Meanwhile, the Council hasn’t held a hearing on Sawant’s proposed bill yet, so we have no idea how many of her colleagues support it — either in principle, or in the details as she has defined them. It may be that the bill will be DOA, or that there will be significant changes before it ever sees the light of day.

For now, Sawant’s bill is on hold while the appeal runs its course. It is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the month when the Council sets aside other work to focus on the 2020 budget. There is a decent chance that the Hearing Examiner may rule before the budget is done, and if that ruling goes in Sawant’s favor then she can try to push the bill through in the first three weeks of December before the Council recesses for the holidays. But if the SEPA appeal drags out into 2020, then the fate of the bill may depend on an entirely different question: whether Sawant gets reelected in November.

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32 thoughts on “Seattle City Council Insight: Sawant looks to expand sanctioned encampments and tiny house villages, but faces SEPA appeal

  1. I think Sawant’s idea is inkeeping with the basic tenants of what a progressive inclusive city should be striving for. We all need to pitch in to help those without homes feel safe and secure here … without that basic promise all other steps to helping them/their helping themselves seem somewhat impossible

  2. Kshama Sawant is roundly criticized by two types of Seattleites: Rightists and False Liberals. The first group’s criticisms are understandable and predictable- after all, that is the nature of Rightism. The sadder of the two is that self-professed Liberals, are through this criticism, exposed for exactly what they blame Sawant for (falsely)- these “Liberals” like to proclaim their humanity at cocktail parties but eschew all progressivism when it comes to their own pocket books or private property.

    • Thanks for summing that up for me. Of course you are wrong, but it’s so easy to generalize and tidy things up to fit into your buckets. It would be harder to acknowledge that there is a range of gray in all of these issues, and that we citizens are spread across this spectrum. So instead of communicating a compelling message to attempt to move people to your way of thinking, you simply get out your big brush and paint away.

  3. The root cause of homelessness is drug addiction. Without addressing the root cause, we will never eliminate (or even reduce) homelessness. If we continue to create the habitat for drug addicts, they will continue to come. The problem will only grow.

      • And if you believe that figure I have a bridge for sale, cheap…. seriously… more than homeless people than that *self report* drug, alcohol or mental health problems, and I’m quite sure that it’s an undercount.

        If you look at more scientific studies (like at the CDC) you’ll find around 1/3rd to of homeless adults suffer from a serious and untreated mental illness… around the same to 1/2 suffer from some sort of substance abuse. There’s going to be some overlap there, but that’s a lot of people. Much more than 20%.

        Take away the couch surfers and the short term homeless and look at the chronically homeless I’m sure you’d find those percentages rise.

        I’m also only in favor of support for programs that attack root causes. Tent camps are just the 21st century version of tenements….. we’ve been here before and we have health and safety rules codes for good reasons.

      • @CD Neighbor: so, just to be clear: in your world, the huge upswing in homelessness in this city that perfectly coincidences with a major upswing in population growth and resulting housing shortage, is actually due to a big increase in the underlying levels of alcohol and drug addiction? And has absolutely nothing to do with the housing shortage?

      • Just to be clear I don’t think it’s as simplistic as you are trying to make it at all.

        There are roots in this problem that go way further back than any economic swings we are experiencing at this moment. The mass closure of a large percentage of the country’s inpatient mental health facilities in the 80’s and 90’s, the opioid crisis and the massive influx of people – at least some percentage of whom will have had preexisting problems have all contributed.

        Indeed there may and probably are some proportion of the people on the streets right now, who in previous years may have been able to get by and stay housed even with issues because it was in general less expensive and there so much redevelopment displacing cheap housing, but I don’t think for a single moment that most of the folks out there are just regular working men and women who have chosen to live on the streets…. Rising prices definitely do force some people further out – but in the main most people will actually choose to remain housed, even if it makes their commute onerous or they end up in a less desirable area. That only 20% of homeless surveyed here in Seattle self reported working at all – and that includes ‘sporadic’ or ‘seasonal’ work, in the last year at all kind of bears that out…

        There’s always a few who simply buck societal norms – they don’t care to live traditionally, even if they have the money to do so, but no…. I don’t think they are the majority.

        We need to focus on treatment first. Take care of those who are unable to care for themselves. How about we do that first and then see how things look?

      • Great comment! I agree completely. Many people are unaware of the mass closing of inpatient mental health facilities in the 1980s (thanks, Ronald Reagan!)…..the idea was to provide local, “community” care for those individuals, but for the most part that did not happen…so, many mentally ill people were left untreated to fend for themselves on our streets.

        Treatment first (in transitional or semi-permanent housing) should be the focus going forward. Expanding our “system” of encampments and tiny house villages, as Sawant wants to do, will do nothing but make the homeless problem a permanent reality.

      • @cd neighbor and Bob Knudson: I don’t think homelessness is at all simple; I think it’s highly multi-facted, and the homeless population are a diverse lot. The few I know personally are in that situation for very different reasons.

        In contrast, your statement that we should try treatment first, and only after we’ve seen how that’s worked that should we consider additional options, implies that you see a single driving force.

        I’m also well aware of the closing of mental health facilities in the 1980s, and its impact on chronic homelessness.

        But I ask you once again, and please answer this directly. Seattle has experienced a *massive* increase in the last few years in terms of the number of people here who are homeless. Give your belief that the root cause for the vast majority of folks is addition and mental health issues – what do you believe changed to make that huge increase happen all of a sudden? And does that explanation also explain the geographic pattern of increased homelessness by city across this country?

      • Why do I think that this is not simply a housing problem?

        45% of the homeless people here have been in Seattle for 5 years or less.

        West coast cities with mild climates have the highest numbers of homeless people who are also ‘unsheltered’….. not a coincidence.

        The very high rates at which the chronically homeless here refuse shelter even when it is offered.

  4. Actually, the bill as proposed does more for affordable housing in Seattle than any tax/fee deal with developers.
    Western Washington as a region is grappling with unaffordable housing, period.
    Tiers of housing like tiny homes and tent spaces really do need to be scattered around the city.
    If we tried to jam 5000 tents, RV’s and tiny homes all under the power lines or in Cheasty green space it will become a ghetto.
    Dispersal amongst the elite and bourgeoisie and working class might help de stigmify and promote acceptance to what is really workforce and retirement housing for the new Millennium.
    And how can we change the code to allow for permanent bathrooms and kitchen blocks with a changeable mix of RV’s, tiny homes and tents?
    I love the whole 40 site limit.
    And how do get some trees in there.
    The people need trees and shrubs.
    They need to be required.

  5. This legislation codifies sub-standard permanent housing. Lots of 100 square foot shacks with perpetually-renewable land leases should become a lucrative slumlord racket. Hate to be cynical, but the unintended consequence of this proposal is too obvious to ignore.

  6. Do we really want to be a city of permanent homeless encampments and tiny house villages? Yes, these might be necessary temporarily as we work on problems like affordability, available and effective interventions for drug addiction/alcoholism, and other root causes of homelessness.

    But this bill would basically “normalize” and expand significantly what we see now on our streets. It would mean we have given up on finding real solutions to a situation which has serious negative effects on our city.

      • @Ryan Packer
        Yes, but I would much rather that the current Seattle City Council and Mayor Durkan undo some of the legislation that made micro-housing impractical (https://www.sightline.org/2016/09/06/how-seattle-killed-micro-housing/).

        Rather than set up a bunch of tents or tiny homes, why not ease regulations on micro-housing? Then the city can build just a few micro-housing buildings specifically for the homeless to accomplish the same thing.

        The pros of this idea being:
        1. More efficient use of land (a micro-housing building can have multiple floors whereas a tiny home village or tent village is pretty much one floor by default)
        2. Could make the first floor have a 24/7 medical staff, like Plymouth on First Hill does.
        3. To go along with point #2, consolidating many residents in one space makes it easier for them to get their needs met because staff lives or operates on-site.
        4. Less exposure to elements for residents. Micro-housing may not be perfect, but they seem preferable to a tent or even a tiny home (a tiny home is virtually the same square footage, anyways).
        5. Fewer obvious loopholes. Sawant has yet another well-intentioned, but misguided, idea. How “temporary” are these encampments going to be if there is no limit to how often they can be renewed? Why the huge exemption for religious organizations?

  7. Homelessness increased at the same time seattle home prices increased dramatically, therefore the home price increase must have caused the increase in homelessness, right?

    Well not really, the increase in homelessness also occurred when worldwide temperatures were increasing, so did climate change cause the increase in homelessness here?

    Also the increase in homelessness coincides with the success of the New England Patriots. Did the Boston football team cause the increase in homelessness?

    So you can see it is not so simple as extrapolating one set of data to something else.

    As for the real cause of the increase in homelessness, I think you need to look at the financial crisis of 2008. Jobs were lost across the country and many of the well paid jobs never can back. Also around this same time, opioids were being over-proscribed across the county. Many people moved on to heroin. So you have more unemployed people, more addicted people.

    Why so many homeless specifically in Seattle? If we want to face the truth, homeless are attracted to seattle from around the state and across the country. Moderate weather, welcoming politicians, good access to drugs and not much law enforcement.

    The simple answer to Seattle politicians is that homelessness is caused by increased real estate prices, which are caused by Amazon and other tech companies. it’s a simplistic narrative, but not accurate. Demagogues from Trump to Sawant know every story needs a villain. And in Sawant’s story Amazon is the villain. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

    • @Marc: I’m well aware that correlation does not itself imply causation; I teach a graduate-level statistics course. But correlation combined with theoretical plausability is certainly suggestive, which is where your climate change and Patriots examples are just silly.

      Yes, the opioid crisis is important here too. But it is far worse in other parts of the country, where homelessness did not explode. And this idea that everyone is just hopping on buses to Seattle because we’re so permissive is oft repeated, with scant actual evidence.

      Since you made a big deal of correlation and causation, Marc, let me ask you – why is it that you’re willing to believe the hypothesis that “permissive politicians” attract the homeless based on a presumed correlation across cities, but not the hypothesis that housing shortages exacerbate homelessness based on a correlation across cities? Is it because the former actually explains more evidence? If so, I’d love to hear about it in detail. Or is it simply that it conforms to your pre-held worldview?

      And BTW, I don’t think of Amazon as the villain here, and I don’t think most Seattle politicians (other than Sawant) do either. I think they’ve created an enormous number of local high-paying local jobs, which is overall a boon. Sure, I wish we had a more progressive tax system that actually reflected the values of the majority of Seattleites, but Amazon didn’t cause that; they just benefit from it. But one doesn’t need to think of them (or anyone) as a villain, or to see the issue as simplistic, to recognize that increasing the amount and types of affordable housing is one important prong in solving this crisis.

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