Week in Review: August 20, 2021 - with Erica Barnett

Week in Review: August 20, 2021 - with Erica Barnett

This week Erica C. Barnett of Publicola joins Crystal to dive in to the breaking news about Mayor Durkan intentionally causing her texts from last summer to disappear, why folks experiencing homelessness face more harm from congregate shelters than from encampments, the deep deficiencies of "Compassion Seattle" Charter Amendment 29, and the map of González versus Harrell voters breaking down clearly along income lines.

About the Guest

Erica Barnett

Erica Barnett is a Seattle political reporter and editor of PubliCola.

Find Erica Barnett on Twitter/X at @ericacbarnett and on PubliCola.com.


Mayor’s office knew for months Durkan’s phone setting caused texts to vanish, emails show” by Lewis Kamb, Daniel Beekman, and Jim Brunner of The Seattle Times

When a homeless encampment was cleared, no one went to a shelter. The reasons are complicated” by Daniel Wu from The Seattle Times

The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle” by Erica C. Barnett from PubliCola

The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check” by Erica C. Barnett from PubliCola

Beware of the feel-good news story” by Samantha Grosso from Vox

2021 Primary Precinct Results Show Familiar Rich vs Rent-burdened Battle Lines” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist

"In King County, pollution makes ZIP codes predictors of your health" from University of Washington

National Environmental Public Health Tracking: Community Design” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Fine particulate air pollution associated with higher risk of dementia” by Jake Ellison from University of Washington

King County rent relief still slow to reach tenants” by David Kroman from Crosscut

The Severe Health Consequences of Housing Instability” by Frances Gill from The People’s Policy Project

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight in the local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind the scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening and what you can do about it. 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 Twitter, a Memoir Of Drinking Relapse And Recovery, Erica Barnett. I was just having a conversation with a friend who was in the middle of reading your book and they were loving it.

[00:00:51] Erica Barnett: So awesome. That's so good to hear.

[00:00:53] Crystal Fincher: Yes. And it's now available in paperback. So pick it up wherever you pick up your books. Well, I wanted to start off by talking about news that broke... Well, kind of news. More news about Mayor Durkan's missing texts and missing texts from the mayor's office. The mayor knew for months, the office knew for months what was causing those texts to vanish. They were acting like it was a mystery, not sure what happened, but a review of messages and the fruit of public disclosure requests reveal that they've known the whole time because they did it. What did you think about this story?

[00:01:27] Erica Barnett: Well, I mean, as you said, it's breaking news that's not really breaking. I mean, anybody reading these stories that have been coming out in The Seattle Times over the last few months is probably scratching their head going, "How could you just accidentally on purpose delete months of texts?" And of course it was done intentionally. I mean, it reminds me a little bit of like, when celebrities say something really inappropriate on social media and then claim that their Instagram was hacked or their Twitter was hacked. I mean, it was never a particularly believable excuse that somehow there had been a technical glitch that had conveniently deleted months of texts relating to the protests last summer. And as we're finding out more details, of course, it's coming out, that they were not believable because they were not true.

So it's a real bummer for the city that they're going to have to be dealing with this and the city attorney's office is going to have to be dealing with this for months, if not years after Jenny Durkan leaves office, because there are more important things in the city to be handling. And the lack of disclosure and the decision to deny information to reporters, including myself, is going to have ramifications long after this particular mayor leaves office. I mean, I hope it ultimately leads to some stricter public disclosure requirements at the city. State has pretty good public disclosure laws, in my opinion and the problem is always in the implementation and in people taking them seriously or not.

[00:02:56] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. It is. And whether people take them seriously and I'm still frustrated at the different levels of accountability that we hold our powerful privileged and some public officials to, this is a potential felony. Jenny Durkan, on purpose, changed a setting to cause those texts to automatically be deleted after a set period of time, which was not legal, which is a potential felony. This is a former federal prosecutor who is intimately familiar with disclosure requirements and rules. And I mean, there's a reason why a former federal prosecutor might be concerned about what things may look like if they got out and with an understanding of how to prevent the facts from getting out. This is a mayor who had to go through remedial disclosure training while during her tenure in the city.

This is not an accident. This was completely on purpose. This has been a whole charade about, "Well, we're not sure. Who knows. We can probably find and recover this information," and it's so disappointing. It's already cost taxpayers over $200,000, and we're just at the beginning of this process and just... It is so infuriating, it's infuriating. It's frustrating.

[00:04:14] Erica Barnett: Well, it's interesting too, the mayor's office. I mean, this information came to The Seattle Times through public disclosure requests. And my understanding at least, in my own personal experience is that the mayor's office is having to go back with a new person, doing these public disclosure requests and essentially redoing them to... And this is not just with regard to text messages, but also emails. I, last week, received some emails from the mayor's office that included her personal city email address, which I have never received a single email that I'm aware of, or that I can recall. It jumped out at me that, oh, all of a sudden, there's this huge batch of emails that has the mayor's actual direct email address on them that came to and from the mayor.

I've never received those. Is that because this was just a coincidence that finally, when they were being done by someone working under duress and pressure that they actually turned them over, or is it just while she just never uses this address? I mean, I have no real way of knowing, except that now my public disclosure request responses look very different than they have for the previous three and a half years of this administration.

[00:05:20] Crystal Fincher: I, again, just so frustrated. And part of my frustration is that some of this looked apparent. I mean, you certainly called attention to general obfuscation of facts, hiding information, unwillingness to speak to people who they didn't view as friendly to them or willing to carry their talking points. And I think now people... There've been so many mistakes and so many missteps that Durkan has few allies left anywhere, but we could have avoided some of this if the scrutiny that was applied to different officials certainly applied to the city council was applied to the mayor's office from the beginning. So I hope this is a lesson that people from all across the board from all sectors, from all areas pay attention to. Even if you feel like someone is an ally, you still have to hold them accountable. And wow. That just did not happen with Jenny Durkan and I'm thankful it is beginning to happen now.

[00:06:22] Erica Barnett: Well, then the election is in just a few months. So we're going to have a new administration, and hopefully this will not continue into the next one.

[00:06:33] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. This week there was a great story in The Seattle Times that reminded me of several stories that you've done on PubliCola, going deeper than just talking about yes, the homeless... We have more unsheltered people. The issue of homelessness is more apparent and present than it's been in our lifetimes. And the reason why people are on the street and not in shelter, sometimes even when shelter space is available is not a simple one. But there are legitimate reasons why people don't want to go to congregate shelter and it's because many of them feel and have experienced more danger in some of those congregate shelters than they have in encampments outside. You've reported on that. There were also shelter acceptance numbers released this week. What have you seen on that?

[00:07:22] Erica Barnett: Well, I mean, I think that it should be self-evident to anyone just thinking about themselves and their own life. Just thinking about the way human beings are that, first of all, people don't like to... It is not desirable to sleep in a big room with no privacy, with no safety, with no guarantee that you're going to have a bed in the morning. So that's basic congregate shelter. The city of Seattle has largely moved away from that to enhanced shelter but what that is is slightly less congregate, generally dorm style rooms. You have a little bit of privacy, but I mean, that is still really less than ideal, particularly if you've experienced trauma or violence or had your stuff stolen, or even if you just can't be in a room full of people. For whatever reason, sleeping in a room full of strangers is not appealing to me. And frankly, I've thought about this a lot, if I became homeless myself, I would much rather have some privacy, some sense of safety in a group of people that I know, which is often the case with encampments. People get to know each other, they protect each other. They look out for each other. And so when the option then the city comes through and sweeps and encampment of, say, 30 people who all know each other, who all trust each other, and maybe don't trust anybody else because life has taught them not to trust people, and tells them, "You all have to go to different shelters across the city and you can't take your pets or you can't take your partner," because a lot of these shelters are sex segregated, "You got to get rid of all your stuff." It's not an appealing prospect.

So the numbers that came out recently show that the shelter acceptance rate, which is an unfortunate term, because it implies you're accepting or rejecting an option that is great, which is really simplistic, but the shelter acceptance rate went up in this last quarter because people are going to the hotels the city has provided, and that's great. Hotels are a much better option than enhanced shelter. But I think that the city is touting it as this incredible achievement, but I think it really speaks more to the fact that the city failed for months and months and months to accept money and to open up shelters in hotels for people. And now, we have just 200 or shelter rooms in hotels for the thousands and thousands of unsheltered people in our city. So the fact that those hotels filled up is not something to be celebrated in an unadulterated way. It's great that some small, tiny percentage of people were able to move into them, but it is still a small, tiny percentage, and the city should've done more and could have done more, much, much, much earlier. And under the Durkan Administration, they chose not to.

[00:10:03] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. and this has been a longstanding problem. It's one of those things that they announced a celebration. I'm sure Durkan is thinking about her legacy and trying to put a good spin on things before she makes her final exit from the mayor's office. But it reminds me of those stories that are presented as feel good stories, like this kid sells lemonade and raises $2,000 for his mom's cancer treatment. And it's just like that is not a happy story. That's a story of failure and burden and deep inequity. And this is what that reminds me of. Compared to the need, we were talking earlier, you mentioned the latest one night count number for unsheltered people in Seattle was around 5,500, and that's usually a dramatic undercount.

So using that as a starting point, a very conservative figure, looking at the numbers that the mayor's office is touting is just so woefully insignificant when we do have information on what helps. And it does not escape my notice that what helped make a big dent in that was providing the hotel rooms, which the mayor's office dragged their feet on and didn't get a fee reimbursement for it. It just seems like it's been like pulling teeth to make any progress on the things that have data behind them that we know work. And it's like, "Oh, finally, I did the things that I've been resisting that you have been begging me to do that we know work. And whew, success." And it's just like, "We could be so much further along if you would've just done it sooner."

[00:11:34] Erica Barnett: and I will say too, this really speaks to the oversimplification that Compassion Seattle, the homelessness initiative, is doing, because they're saying, basically, "We'll clear the streets." And by that, they primarily mean Downtown Seattle, which is where all their money is coming from. "And to do that, we're going to provide 2,000 shelter beds." It shows how little the backers of that understand about why people accept shelter and why people reject shelter. Again, I don't love those terms, but if you are going to do shelter on the cheap, which is what Compassion Seattle is essentially proposing, you're going to get shelter that people don't want. You're not going to be able to pay for 2,000 permanent or semi-permanent hotel rooms using that money, that Compassion Seattle is proposing to require the city to spend.

It's not going to be enough money, and it can't be done that quickly. As we're seeing with the county, it takes time to buy hotels, et cetera. It's just, we have a very oversimplified idea in the city and probably in this country as well of what people actually need, because we think of people too much as just widgets we can stuff into boxes. As we've seen over and over again, they're not, and they have preferences and freewill and choices to make in their lives, just like everybody else.

[00:12:58] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And make them just like we make decisions. As you pointed out, would any one of us be excited to spend the night in a room with no walls, with no doors, with a ton of people who we don't know, when we've heard others have had bad experiences in that situation? Absolutely not. That would wear on us after a short period of time. And we're asking people who already are dealing with challenges that are only intensified by being unsheltered to enter into a dangerous and destabilizing environment, and it just makes no sense. I do appreciate that Seattle Times article this week, we'll link it in the episode notes, for making that plain and for really talking about the reasons why what is offered does not fit the need and is actually not a fit or a solution for the problem there. And thank you for pointing out that Charter Amendment 29, known as the Compassion Seattle Charter Amendment, it doesn't provide enough time, it doesn't provide enough money, it doesn't enough shelter to begin to meaningfully address the challenges out there.

The amount of shelter they say they're going to provide accounts for less than half of the very most conservative estimate of the need out there. So really, the only change that is definite and codified into the city charter is the ability to sweep people, which is what the financial backers of this initiative have been advocating for, and it's not a surprise that that is really the only thing with teeth and specificity in this initiative. And so I hope we have a more robust and full conversation about that generally throughout this general election time period. There is a lawsuit that the ACLU of Washington, How's Our Neighbors, they've sued that initiative, basically saying that it operates outside of the authority of a charter amendment and is getting into policy details that it is not authorized to do. We'll see how that pans out, but certainly I'm concerned that we're not paying attention to people saying, "This is actually what would help," the people who are most in the position to know what would actually help, and why things that are being offered aren't helping, and it's up to us to listen and respond.

I also want to talk this week about a story that I think The Urbanist did a great job in breaking down, which was the 2021 primary precinct results. Now that we finalized where we are at in this election, we have the precinct by precinct results. They've mapped those results, and then also did a really smart analysis on just what that means. And what we see is something that's been familiar to us throughout several elections, where areas of Seattle that are more single-family exclusive, basically people who are well-to-do and wealthy, voted one way, people who are rent burdened voted a different way. And so this is a familiar looking map, but it also discusses also not just the population growth in Seattle, which I've talked about before as being a unique factor in elections here that we don't see in a lot of other areas, because there's been so much growth, even things that happen 5 and 10 years ago are unfamiliar to a significant portion of the population here, like Pete Holmes, his history, and what happened before Ed Murray, and all of that stuff may not be familiar to the tens of thousands of people who weren't here before then. And so, not just that Seattle has grown, but where that growth has occurred and what that suggests about potential voting patterns was discussed in this Urbanist article by Doug Trumm. What do those results look like to you?

[00:16:40] Erica Barnett: Well, it feels like every two years or every four years we look at these maps, and it shows that if you have a view of the water, if you live in an exclusionary single-family area, you tend to vote more conservative. I mean, I do think your point is well taken, Crystal. The number of people who are moving here from elsewhere and don't have the same history is going to, eventually, one hopes, reshape our voter map in a more progressive direction. To bring it down to like a very wonky level, and I think this is where Doug took it too, if the city chooses not to do anything about the zoning problem, which is fundamentally a problem of being able to rent in Seattle and the ability of people like me and people who don't make $200,000 a year to live here, that is going to largely determine the course of our future elections.

Bruce Harrell has said very, very clearly that he wants to preserve single-family zoning. And in fact, he of all the candidates in this primary election, he was the most clear on this one issue, which is that single-family zoning is extremely important to him and that he believes that we should only allow apartments along essentially car sewers, busy arterials, which is the current situation. And when you have that, what happens is there's not enough housing, people who make under $100,000 a year move out to Issaquah and vote Kathy Lambert out of office maybe, but they're not here to vote for progressive candidates or for more progressive candidates in Seattle elections.

I really think that this issue, I mean, it's a bit of a sleeper issue amid all the discussion about homelessness, but it's very related. Lorena González who wants to eliminate the exclusionary single-family zoning map that we've had for many decades now, and Bruce Harrell wants to preserve it as it is with maybe a little bit more density right along those big busy streets. And that is a huge, huge decision that's going to shape the future of our city and who can afford to live here and call it home.

[00:18:56] Crystal Fincher: It absolutely is huge and has been a big topic discussion throughout the mayoral race. Look like Bruce Harrell was initially a little bit more muddy on where he stood there, and certainly initially gave indications that he may be open to addressing exclusionary zoning. But as time moved on as we saw his donor list and the list to the PAC supporting him, you get filled with some of those more traditional, downtown conservative interests that talk crystallized on exactly what you said, "Hey, in areas that are already dense, we'll have them accept more density, but we're going to leave those exclusive previously red lined areas alone." And people keep remarking on maps of Seattle. Just like when there's a voting map and there's a map of health outcomes, when all these maps come out, they're really racial and income disparity maps.

That's really what we're looking at with every single map that comes out. And unless we change that dynamic, fundamentally, overall, as many cities are doing, I mean, shoot, Olympia is moving in that direction. Portland, so, they're moving in that direction. Unless Seattle does that, we are not going to change this underlying dynamic, which impacts everything. So it's absolutely critical to focus on that issue, to understand where the candidates are. And there is a clear choice in this campaign between Bruce Harrell and Lorena González. And in my opinion, only one of them is offering a solution that will begin to break this disparity that we see over and over again, throughout every election and through so many issues.

[00:20:37] Erica Barnett: Just to pinpoint another issue of racial justice, it's income, it's racial equity, but it's also I think more and more about environmental justice, the environmental justice impact of telling people they have to live on these busy streets. And not every arterial is like a zooming highway, but the fact is when you live on a busy roadway with cars on it all the time, your health outcomes are worse. And if you look at racial mapping of Seattle, if you look at income mapping of Seattle and you look at health mapping, it all correlates, and it's in those areas where people live on freeways, where they live along busy six-lane arterials that you see worse health impacts. And so, when we say that, "Oh, we should confine density to these specific areas," what we're also saying is we should confine disparate health impacts to certain areas. So I think for Bruce Harrell to be making that argument is really something people should be looking at and considering as they vote.

[00:21:36] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. We're really saying we accept illness in these areas. We accept that we are going to force asthma and heart disease and lung disease in these areas. There are up to 10 years difference in life expectancy within different zip codes in Seattle, primarily due to environmental impacts and racial disparities that we see with that. There's been great data that's come out of the University of Washington over the past several years about this, but it is not minor. And again, we're talking about years of someone's life. Just thinking about how impactful that is, it is unacceptable. And the reason why this doesn't happen in other neighborhoods is because they have the resources to fight for something and to really move the levers of power and get listened to when they find something unacceptable. It's not an accident that this is not happening in affluent areas. What we should be looking to do is say, we deserve every opportunity to be healthy and to thrive as the people who can afford to today. And things are going to have to change in order to make that happen.

[00:22:45] Erica Barnett: Absolutely.

[00:22:47] Crystal Fincher: Now, another issue that is major, that there was a story about in Crosscut this week is about the rent relief being slow to reach tenants. We talked about this on the show with Rep. Debra Entenman, and she talked about the issue of some landlords being uncooperative through this process. Additionally, in this process, there are bureaucratic barriers that we're seeing. And we've had this long conversation over the past year-plus about the eviction moratorium and how critical that is to keep people in their homes. And, if you ask me, that was absolutely necessary. But that's always been a temporary solution.

The only thing that's going to help is getting money in the hands of people or canceling debt, to account for these big rent balances that have been accumulating throughout the pandemic. The only thing that is going to fix this are these programs in this relief, like King County and other counties are in charge of administering. There's a significant amount of money available that can help thousands and thousands of people at risk of being evicted, but that help has been extremely slow to get out to tenants. And this is something that I hope we collectively pay attention to, shine a light on, put pressure on people to do more, to work faster, because this is the difference between people staying in their homes and getting evicted, and that the ability for landlords to evict people is coming up again soon. So if we don't get this money out, we're going to see some of the negative outcomes that we've been working so hard to fight for this long. What were your takeaways from reading the article and looking at this issue?

[00:24:19] Erica Barnett: Well, I think you're right. I mean, the eviction moratorium does have to be, it is inherently temporary and I suppose it can just be extended again and again while they work out all these problems. But rent assistance, I mean, this is something we should learn from the pandemic, I think. It's better to find a way to pay people rent assistance than to let them get evicted and become part of the homeless population on our streets, which we have a lot more trouble dealing with than just paying people's rent. And so, if we can't set up these systems where the money gets to people through a less bureaucratic and a less time-consuming. So I mean, the problem seems to be, and I'm just reading the same article as you, but the problem seems to be a problem of bureaucracy, tracking people down, getting the money from the feds, to the county, to the agencies, to the people.

And if we can't set up a system where this works efficiently at the end of this process, then the next time there is a big crisis, or arguably in the ongoing crisis that is the lack of affordable housing and a lack of affordability of this region, we're going to be screwed. I mean, I have always said that, and it is not just me, it is data supported that the best thing to do for people who are rent burdened is to help them stay in their homes by giving them money. And so, I would like to see out of this pandemic a more permanent system of doing that so that we don't have the homelessness crisis just continue to get bigger and bigger.

Just the stress of dealing with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I've been in debt in the past, without my housing being at risk, and it is incredibly stressful. And my heart goes out to all the people that are struggling with just the stress of that. I mean, even if the outcome in the end is that they get the money that is coming to them, I mean, it's a human tragedy beyond the level of people getting evicted and becoming homeless. I mean, it's a human tragedy that people are having to deal with the amount of stress that is caused by the situation that they did not cause, which is a global pandemic and unemployment and everything that we've seen over the last year and a half.

[00:26:35] Crystal Fincher: Yeah absolutely, and I appreciate you mentioning that and bringing that up as someone who has also been both broke before, housing unstable, it is tremendously stressful. And there's also been a lot of research that's come out about that over the past few years, about just how much that toll, on top of everything else, takes on your health and wellbeing and ability to even function. That only gets worse if we allow people to then become unhoused. It becomes more expensive for us to publicly deal with it, the health and personal outcomes are certainly more pronounced and severe. And so we have to do everything in our power. And I hope, as Dow Constantine is working through this, these are primarily county issues, that he takes a laser focus on getting this money out to the people who need it.

And a lot of it looks like, hey, people have a checklist that they're working on. They've got to tick down the checklist and, oh, there's a problem here, and we can't continue. One organization was rejecting around 75% of applications because they couldn't track people down, they didn't get all the information. That, to me, seems like a signal to go back, to take a look at the checklist and look at how you can work through those barriers, to get the resources to people who need them, how appropriate it is to have those barriers in the first place, and do we need more feet on the street, resources allocated to getting beyond those without just saying, "Well, we can't help." This is a crisis. This is a crisis. And we have to treat it like one and rise to the occasion with the appropriate allocation of resources and attention and energy. So we will certainly be following along with that.

We thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks on this Friday, August 20th, 2021. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng and our wonderful cohost today was Seattle political reporter and founder of PubliCola, Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on Twitter @ericacbarnett, that's Erica with a C, and on publicola.com. And you can buy her book Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse and Recovery, wherever you like to buy books.

You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type 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. While you're there, leave a review, it really helps us out. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com, and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in, we'll talk to you next time.