Week in Review: January 29, 2021 - with Erica Barnett

Week in Review: January 29, 2021 - with Erica Barnett

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.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s co-host, Erica Barnett, at @ericacbarnett. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.

Articles Referenced:

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.