Given the anger borne of frustration, it wouldn’t take long to get needed signatures for an initiative that could lead to a ban on Seattle’s head tax.
Since 2010, homelessness in many Washington state counties has gone down. But not here in Seattle and King County.
In Seattle, starting way back in 2005, an unprecedented coalition of the city, county social service and homeless advocacy groups pledged more money, housing, services, counseling and outreach to “end homelessness” within 10 years. Not reduce it. End It.
Today, homelessness in King County has risen 40 percent since 2005 — from about 8,300 at the end of 2004 to more than 11,600 in 2017. More than $195 million is spent by government at all levels on housing and countywide homeless programs. The city itself spends nearly twice as much on the homeless, about $63 million, as it did five years ago. But if you had left this city in 2005 and came back today, you would think they spent the money trying to attract the homeless to move here.
No one on the City Council or in the mayor’s office seems to be able to answer this question: How do you help the homeless who won’t seek drug, alcohol or mental health treatment, or who refuse to stop camping illegally?
Many refuse help, whether it comes from the city’s overworked navigation teams or private charities, including the Salvation Army (disclosure: I’m a board member), whose Adult Recovery Center near the stadiums offers free room, board, services and 12-step counseling yet has empty beds.
All this while tents are pockmarking downtown streets, freeway underpasses and neighborhood green spaces throughout the city.
Why is this happening?
Perhaps because it is city policy to allow the homeless to break laws against camping on public land, to use sidewalks as bathrooms, to litter at will, to be drunk or high in public, or to park dilapidated RVs or cars on neighborhood streets for days.
This has produced a drug-friendly culture that has metastasized throughout the city, producing the sixth-highest property crime rate among America’s 50 largest cities and the third highest number of homeless by county.
I support innovative building programs for homeless families and those struggling to pay rising rents. But policies that allow the worst kinds of street behavior have to stop. It’s not fair to law-abiding residents or ultimately to the homeless people enslaved by addiction.
And yet we’re told that homeless camping is somehow the fault of companies like Amazon, and hence the need to pass a radical $275 tax for every person they employ in the city.
This was Mayor Jenny Durkan’s moment to show that she was different from her raise-more-taxes predecessors, that in her administration reforms would come first, and that funding would follow programs that showed accountability, not failure.
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But no. Instead, Durkan caved to the council on the central premise that inadequate funding, not intolerable social policy, explained the explosion of homeless tents.
Then she caved to council members’ demand for a punitive tax on jobs (only not quite so high). With a victory in hand, the council will continue lurching leftward. And while Mayor Durkan relishes public battles with the Trump administration, she lacks the will to fight left-wing extremism on the council.
What are we left with? A city with a deep divide — between City Hall and the increasingly angry majority of Seattle residents.
What can the people do? Fight back. Repeal the Deal. A recent poll showed that even a lower head tax than the one passed by the council this week was opposed by 58 percent of Seattle voters.
Seattle has an initiative and referendum process that exists for moments like this. A referendum to strike down an ordinance passed by the council requires less than 17,700 signatures of registered voters.
An initiative, which is the creation of a new law (perhaps a ban on head taxes, period) requires more signatures, almost 22,000 but six months to collect them. Once validated, the measure goes to the City Council, which can pass the measure into law (it won’t), reject it (likely), do nothing (a possibility), or offer an alternative (highly doubtful). If the council does one of the last three, the measure goes on the ballot “at the next regularly scheduled election.” At that point voters have the final word.
Given the anger borne of frustration, it wouldn’t take long to get the needed signatures. The council may try and delay its appearance on the November ballot, but that would be a Pyrrhic victory, because it would push the measure into 2019 and would nicely frame the City Council contests that November (seven of the nine council members are up, including Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien).
The city’s problems cannot be solved by the current council. Sawant often talks about “Power to the People.” It’s time to show her what that really looks like.