A ballot initiative aimed at changing the way Seattle responds to homeless encampments will not appear on the city’s November ballot, Washington state’s Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The Compassion Seattle campaign spent more than a million dollars on the proposed charter amendment, which if passed would have required the city to build 2,000 shelter units within a year and keep parks and sidewalks clear of encampments.
King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer struck the amendment from the ballot last week, ruling that it would change the city charter in ways that would supersede the legal powers of the state, regional leaders and the Seattle City Council. After initially saying they wouldn’t appeal, Compassion Seattle leaders this week asked the Washington Court of Appeals to allow Seattle residents to vote on the initiative while its legality was decided.
The Court of Appeals didn’t explain its decision, but Shaffer last week was adamant that the initiative was legally “problematic.” She agreed with the plaintiffs that the measure didn’t fit within the state’s legal guidelines for setting homelessness policy and took away legal powers given to the Seattle City Council.
The proposed amendment has been divisive. Boosters said it would have forced city government to take action on a problem that has become visibly worse since COVID-19 hit and emptied out packed homeless shelters. Last summer, one study found tents increased by 50% downtown and in highly populated areas in the city.
Opponents have called it an unfunded mandate pushed by business associations and real estate titans who secretly want to put homeless people out of sight.
The city’s homeless nonprofit community has been split over the measure, with some supporting it and others — like the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which represents scores of nonprofits across the region — joining the lawsuit to take it off the ballot, along with the ACLU of Washington and progressive advocacy group the Transit Riders’ Union.
In the August primary, major candidates for mayor were almost evenly split on the measure. Of the two advancing to the November general election, City Council President M. Lorena González opposes the measure while former City Council President Bruce Harrell supports it.
This week, Harrell called on the City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan to adopt the major tenets of the measure even if it were not to appear on the November ballot. If they fail to do so, he said he will if elected mayor.
In a statement Friday, Compassion Seattle confirmed it would not take the case further this fall, and said the campaign is “deeply disappointed” in the ruling and that decisive action on homelessness can only be obtained by changing leadership at City Hall.
“Our work has elevated this issue — undoubtedly the most consequential one facing Seattleites — to the forefront of this election for both candidates and voters,” the statement said. “We cannot afford further inaction and the City’s continued failed approach to this emergency. Seattle voters, you have the power to make a difference this November in who you elect as Mayor, as City Attorney, and to the City Council.”
Knoll Lowney, lawyer for the coalition that sued to get the measure off the ballot, said Compassion Seattle could appeal further in the future, but Lowney — who has litigated several similar cases successfully — thinks they likely won’t because they know it’s “illegal.”
“They could try, but it’s really throwing good money after bad, at some point. Because they’re not going to succeed in an appeal,” Lowney said. “They would be better off actually devoting their million dollars towards housing the homeless.”