Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Quick! Hide the Poor. The Rich Are Coming.

Ask most people if public begging is a problem in Seattle and they'll say no. Compared to most cities, they'll say, the panhandlers are low key, polite, and not especially numerous. I admit to drawing from a sample of less than ten here, so this isn't exactly science, but for normal people, the panhandling "problem" isn't really a big issue.

And yet the Downtown Seattle Association can't stop talking about it. Why? While press flak Anita Woo talks about how panhandling drives away convention center business, this can't be the whole story. Business downtown is booming. Ask anyone.

So what's really going on here?

The DSA being a forward looking group of folks, I'd say the answer lies in the future. We need to look at what's being built.

As downtown Seattle becomes an enclave of urban affluence, with new developments sprouting up like forty story mushrooms beneath the biggest wettest cow pie you've ever seen, price tags range from expensive to stratospheric. And as the well-to-do discover urban living, they bring their suburban comfort zones along for the ride.

One barrier to downtown living is the perception that it might not be safe. With big money betting on the idea that the super rich — along with the merely affluent — will make the downtown their home, the DSA's preoccupation with squelching visible poverty makes a bit more sense.

A quick look at the new downtown reveals what's at stake.

There’s the Escala at 4th and Virginia, slated to open in 2009. "Anticipate perfection. Embrace elegance. Experience grandeur," says their website. This 30 story glass tower at 4th and Virginia has 275 condos for sale, going for a million dollars or more each. Amenities include a 24,000 foot members-only club, with a private theater, fitness area, restaurants, and wine caves where residents might store their private collections in convenient locked cases. The website's virtual tour seems to indicate that each unit comes with its own trophy wife at no extra charge.

The Cristalla, just a half a block down the street from our office, has units that go for over $3.5 million. In these, a column of water drops from the ceiling to fill the generously sized bath tub. When Real Change moved in back in '94, Belltown was pleasantly seedy. Now, the seedy have been priced out by the greedy, and we're hanging on by our fingernails, possessed of the sure knowledge that our very excellent deal will one day come to an end.

The Four Seasons, going in at 1st and Union, bills itself as "Seattle's Signature Address," and will feature 36 private residences above a luxury hotel. Condos are priced from $2.5 million to more than $10 million. Ironically, the proximity of the Pike Place Market, the preservation of which was considered a victory for the little guy, is listed along with the Seattle Art Museum as a key amenity for the uber-rich urban dweller.

Nearby, at the Fifteen Twenty One Second Avenue Building ("designed exclusively for the confident few"), units are selling for an average of $1.8 million each. Obscenely enough, this 143-unit development is sited where the Green Tortoise Youth Hostel once was, where bunks without amenities could be had for a few dollars a night. The "confident few" are slated to begin moving in sometime around December 2008. While most high end downtown living is mixed in with condos for the merely affluent, this project distinguishes itself as an island of extreme wealth unto itself, where only the rich need apply.

You get the idea. With all this wealth comes a vision for the sort of downtown where no one ever has to feel uncomfortable. No one who’s rich, that is.

It'll be sort of like New York. But without the diversity or the people.

While prognostication is always a tricky business, some things we know. The DSA will drive toward the criminalization of panhandling, the elimination of outdoor feeding, and the removal of public toilets. While the political will for such steps does not yet exist, they're working on it.

Meanwhile, the priority for "ending homelessness" will focus on that ten percent or so of homeless people who constitute the visible urban poor, otherwise known as the "chronic homeless." This, being the federal policy priority, is where the money is, and the "advocates" have lined up to cooperate.

No matter what the issue — homelessness, education, the environment, whatever — federal funding levels are a precise calibration of maximal cooptation at minimal price. Homelessness goes for around $1.6 billion right now. Cheap.

Sadly, the philanthropic and religious communities don't seem to have discerned that the Bush administration, with their Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness, may not simply have the best interests of poor folk in mind.

If federal policy on homelessness didn't align with the interests of wealthy real estate developers, it would be a bit surprising, wouldn't it?

But that's not a comfortable thought. Better to bask in our own righteousness than to ask who benefits. Questions like that don't sit well with the folks who hand out the money.

When the DSA inevitably makes their move to criminalize panhandling in Seattle with time, place, and manner restrictions similar to those passed in Tacoma, it'll be revealing to see which side some people are on.

Silence is complicity, and having nothing to say while poor people are being further criminalized will not be a comfortable option. Not if I can help it.


huh? said...

Why not have our cake and eat it too? We could a) solve the problem of street homelessness with lots of permanent housing with services downtown and b) let the rich build their condos to enjoy the energy and diversity of the urban core. I don't think it has to be either/or Tim.

Tim Harris said...

Hmm. How very Seattle. Everybody wins! The street homeless get housed. The wealthy get their downtown fantasy-land. It's all very conveniently symbiotic. Is the criminalization of the poor an acceptable price to pay? And who gets to decide that? My take is that any "ally" of the poor who sits on their hands while this occurs is a poor ally indeed. Thr sort of ally who, perhaps, might prefer to remain anonymous.

Donna Pierce said...

"If one is lucky, there's a time in life when simplicity takes on new meaning. It becomes less about style and more about the ability to appreciate that which is rare and true."--from the Fifteen Twenty One website.

At $2 million a pop--yes, that does bring new meaning to "simplicity." And the amenities page lists a shredder available in the mail room--I'm guessing that's because the tenants will indeed have embraced simplicity and will want to share, in true co-op fashion, what would otherwise be redundant office equipment.

Sign me up for the campaign

Tim Harris said...

It's striking how snobbish the branding is on all of the websites. These are people who clearly see themselves as very special and deserving. This, again from the 1521: "Making the decision to live only with that which brings pleasure, ease, and joy is one of life’s greatest moments."

How nice for them!

Revel said...

Yep, that's where things are headed. The Pike Public Market in downtown Seattle was designed to be a community hub, as well as the annual draw for millions of tourists now (thanks to mega cruise ships). Yet it's been losing money consistently for 30 years. It also sits next door to the Four Seasons. Yes, it's seedy, and the ocean view is good.

Per city charter, the Pike Market must also maintain 12 low-income apartment buildings (self-reliant, mostly physically disabled and elderly). By City law, they can't mess with the buildings. Don't bet on it.

PDA is being audited by HUD, yet they announced they are asking HUD for more money to operate. They lose rent checks in bulk, and they very recently had residents sign a new blank lease when they "lost" these too. There is only management available 15 hours a week, and tenants watch broken internal video camera to cull-out potential criminals (3 blocks from recent shootings). The managers live as "residents only" in buildings they don't work in. Untouchable. The list goes on . . .

Perfect recipe for a corporate bail-out for the market and city. Just redesign mega$housing, make it mall-like, "compassionately" redistribute the residents elsewhere. I give it 2 years before the market is given the gentry helping-hand-up, too.

Rev. Sandy Brown said...

Tim, don't I remember that you supported DSA's brochure campaign? I was told it was reviewed by you, UWKC, and a few others, and approved. I was a little surprised and raised some strong objections to Kate Joncas but thought I was a voice in the wilderness. I'll support your efforts to get them to reconsider this if that's where you're headed. . . .

Tim Harris said...

I wrote about my decision to remain neutral on the panhandling brochure in some detail in a July 14 post. The basic story was that I told them that if their campaign avoided negative stereotyping I would not organize against it, and I was involved throughout the process in reviewing their materials and steering them toward a direction I found acceptable.

They wanted Real Change as endorsers, but neutrality was what I was offering and was what they got. I also counseled other key agencies against endorsing.

The Have a Heart Give Smart materials are fine by me, although I'd prefer that Anita Woo. when she does press interviews not portray all panhandlers as drug-addicted scam artists who deserve our indignant anger and scorn. This was exactly why I couldn't endorse. I can influence how the materials look, but I can't control what they actually say.

I consider recent rhetoric, and their obvious movement toward pushing for Tacoma-style legislation, to be an escalation of the campaign. This is where my neutrality ends. It looks to me as though the DSA has a campaign strategy that they're working regarding the visible poor downtown. We should have one as well. I'm happy to help get the ball rolling there

Donna Pierce said...

From a "quote of the day" source:

There are those whose teeth are swords, whose teeth are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mortals.
- Proverbs 30:14-14

Troy said...

Don't confuse helping end homelessness with support for panhandling. Many of us who have lived downtown for years (rented, even) are tired of getting prodded for booze money.

Tim Harris said...

I've worked n Belltown for thirteen years and get panhandled at least ten times a day. For all the obvious reasons, I don't generally give any money out although I do make exceptions. To me at least, they're still people. Their suffering is real, and I've seen way too much of what some people are up against to feel secure in making a lot of personal judgments

Non-support of panhandling is not the same as support for criminalizing the activity. The first is a legitimate personal choice. The second is kicking someone when they're down.

I trust that you can see the difference.

If you think getting asked for money sucks, try sleeping on the street with bugs in your hair. Now THAT's annoying.