Sunday, September 30, 2007

An Argument for Cheap Housing

Lately, I've been wondering whether there really is, within this political universe, anything meaningful to be done about the widespread decline in housing affordability. Here in Seattle, as I've written before, the condo market is white hot, with tall skinny towers going up throughout the downtown and around 4,500 units of housing lost to condo conversions from 2005 to date.

Great gushing rivers of capital have flowed to Seattle because our market — with its projected job growth and a pricing equilibrium that favors condo buying over housing rental — is just about the sweetest spot an investor could possibly hope for.

That's capitalism, and much as we shake our tiny fists in its direction, it pretty much does what it's gonna do.

My recent read of Robert Reich's Supercapitalism has reminded me of the rules. I even find myself slightly regretting my jabs at luxury housing developer J. Ronald Terwilliger a few weeks ago. The system is geared to deliver the best prices to consumers and the most return to investors, and is unforgiving in its consistency. This makes his advocacy for workforce housing, his multi-million dollar housing philanthropy, and his leadership in Habitat for Humanity something extraordinary. The only way he could go further is to choose to not be a capitalist, in which case someone more ruthless would quickly take his place.

Last year, Councilmember Tom Rassmussen took the lead on a Statehouse bill that would have slightly slowed condo conversions and offered more assistance to those displaced. While the legislation was widely considered timid, even this failed to make it out of committee. House Speaker Frank Chopp, who is probably as strong an ally of human services as could survive in that position, says the bill died because it just wasn't sufficiently on his radar. I'm sure it didn't escape the attention of the developers, but perhaps they forgot to mention anything to Frank.

Whatever. This year, Frank says he'll do better, and advocates will rally around a second attempt.

While there is value in getting this on the books, the problem is that this year is too late. The horse is well out of the barn and across the pasture, and with rental vacancies at an historic low and rents at an all time high and climbing, capital has unerringly sniffed out demand and shifted toward rental housing construction. My big time developer friend tells me the condo thing is basically done. Aside from a few minor projects here and there, Seattle condo construction stops with what's in the pipeline now. Those rentals, however, won't be built for the lower end of the market. There's no money there. Or at least not as much.

Sadly, the odds of any real federal intervention in the housing problem are exceedingly low. Capitol Hill is dominated by financial interests who don't exactly favor the idea of government subsidizing the lower end of the market with public housing and Section 8 vouchers. This has led to three decades of starving the beast and continued cuts to HUD funding, even as the feds pretend to end homelessness. It has also led to the remarkable situation of more than three federal housing dollars to subsidize middle-class homeownership for every dollar spent on housing for the poor.

Add to that the fact that the capacity of government to mitigate poverty has been severely eroded by the war, tax breaks to the wealthy, and corporate welfare, and the prospects for relief become dim indeed. With local and state resources we have been able to make a dent in the housing crisis, but gains in affordable housing stock are more than trumped by continuous market losses.

So what's left? As I'm fond of saying, in a system where housing is produced for profit, those who can provide no profit get no housing. Unless, of course, conditions somehow change to make investment and construction in the lower end of the market more attractive. Urban renewal wiped out hundreds of thousands of units of "substandard" housing stock because people "shouldn't have to live that way." But no real alternatives were developed in its place, and we've grown accustomed to people living in conditions that are, in fact, far worse.

So what would be this look like? If we were able to build K-Mart housing to add another option to the generally Nordstrom quality stock being built, would this be stigmatizing? More so than homelessness? Would neighborhoods allow such housing to be created. Would the reduction in quality actually translate into lowered consumer cost, or would it simply mean more developer profit? Could the trade-off be legally enforced?

If government were able to find the mean between meeting necessary building code concerns for health and safety and lowering standards to make increased private investment pencil out, would more housing get built and more people be housed less vulnerably than they are now? If so, why aren't we doing it?

Obviously, there are arguments to be made against this from both the right and the left, so hardly anybody ever goes there. But what if we did? Click on the photo up top to see a thought-provoking 80s project in Taiwan.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Is It My Body?

What the hell good is rock & roll if it doesn't freak your parents out at least a little? When I was eleven or twelve, no one did it for me quite like Alice.

I remember Christmas of 1972 for one thing only. I'd convinced my mom to put the School's Out album under the tree for me. The sleeve was designed to open up like a school desk, and when I lifted the top, there was a pair of girls' panties stretched around the record. The room went silent. "Give those to your sister," my mother said calmly. I did, and we went on about our holiday morning as if nothing odd had just happened.

This 1971 clip of Is It My Body, from the truly extraordinary Love It To Death album, captures the band precisely midway between garage and glam rock, and there is so much to love about it I don't even know where to begin. Alice's flamboyant androgyny, for starters, and his ridiculous little strip tease down to black hose and a pink body stocking. The little thing he does with the shoe and the mike stand. I love that the whole band is wearing these silver lamé space suit thingies, and the way Alice tries his best to look sexy while he's trying to peel the thing off and over his big feet. And the hair. This band was definitely about the hair. Then there's the big finish, and the way he eyes the camera at the end, keeping in character, but just barely. Brilliant.

The clip below of an MTV-style treatment of Elected from the later Billion Dollar Babies isn't as funny, although it tries harder. It does, however, with its prescient chimpanzee and cash-filled wheelbarrow imagery, remind me of a certain President to come later.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Beginnings

I was born on September 30, 1960, in Fargo, ND. A mother was involved. At some point, so was a father. Or so I surmise. That's as much as I know.

The transfer was swift. Healthy white American babies rarely linger in orphanages. My sister Terry arrived first. For three months of the year we were the same age. We learned of our adoptions while rummaging through a forbidden desk. We were twelve.

Our parents said it had never been a secret. We must have forgotten.

My first memory is of the Jolly Green Giant. I'm in a small cluttered living room, sitting in a high chair. Dinner is in front of me, and the family is in front of a black and white TV. The Green Giant has a nice smile and a square jaw. Peas are everywhere. Not just any peas. Green Giant peas. His voice is deep but friendly. I don't know how I know that he's green, but I just do. Ho, ho, ho. Green Giant.

My second memory, I've always thought, was later that night, although it may not have been. I'm face down with my pajamas around my knees. My mother has inserted a suppository with a pencil. She's delighted with herself because she's hit upon the right tool for the job. The eraser has a soft tip. My sister is in the crib across the room, and a lamp is on the white bureau between us. It has red felt ship's wheels glued to a white shade. The base is a night light that, with its copper and red glass, looks like a lantern.

She describes how it went in to my father, who has somehow wandered into the room. "Ploop!" Later, when I learn the word onomatopoeia, I think of this moment.

My only other memory of our time in Fargo has to do with leaving. Just as I turned two, we moved to Sioux Falls, SD. There is a two car caravan, and my mother has the lead with my sister and I sleeping in the back and our father behind us pulling the trailer. It is night. I remember a roadside conference with his headlights shining into our car.

We moved to a small two bedroom rental house with a yard and a red wooden fence. When we dug in the backyard sand pit we'd find charcoal. I drew big Xs on each of the boards. There was a girl next door named Tammy. Her older brother died in a gun accident in their living room, but we were too young to understand. The adults were sad.

A big family lived across the street with a boy around our age, but our parents didn't approve of them, so we rarely saw him.

My dad sold insurance for Universal Underwriters, and was often gone for long stretches. He was pretty good at it. One day a truck arrived with prizes he'd received as premiums. There was a multi-band radio, a Weber grill, and a three speed english racer. He had a Master's degree in romance languages and could read Don Quixote in the original classical Spanish, but opted against an academic life for a bread and butter career in sales.

He would later say this was his life's biggest mistake.

My mother was of that generation of women who, when asked to describe their occupation, would write "housewife." She ran a pathologically orderly home. Our toys, some wood blocks, a plastic bowling pin set, and some crayons and paper, were stored in a closet at the end of the hall, and would come out when she said so. She was what was then described as "strict."

We mostly played outside. We had red trikes and a wagon. I was terrified of dragonflies, but loved fireworks and the Fourth of July. My dad would sit in a lawn chair, drink beer, and smoke while he ignited snakes and sparklers for our benefit.

The world was an animated place, full of things I didn't understand. I remember squinting my eyes at streetlights in the backseat of the car at night, and asking my mother whether the sharp spikes of light that would grow long and short as I moved my eyelids were real. She didn't understand the question.

My mother slammed on her car brakes once to avoid going through a red right and I pitched into the seat in front of me. From that moment on I thought red lights threw up some sort of an invisible wall that made cars stop. I also thought ear aches were caused by tiny rakes embedded in one's ear.

The days started and ended with TV. My sister and I would get up before our parents and look at the test pattern, which had a drawing of an indian in a war bonnet. Davey and Goliath was always the first thing on. There was also Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. Early evenings, the local weatherman did double duty as Captain 11, and showed cartoons while managing a live audience of kids. During commercial breaks he yelled at us. It was common knowledge that he was an alcoholic.

He was the original Krusty the Clown, but Nordic, and in a pilot's outfit.

Dinner was usually in the living room. We'd watch the Honeymooners, Gunsmoke, Ed Sullivan, Gomer Pyle, and Petticoat Junction. On hot summer nights we'd get into our pajamas and go for a drive in the family's 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

Christ the King Church was a few blocks down the street. When my mother drove past she would always gently strike her heart three times with the inside of her closed fist. A Saint Christopher statue with a magnetic base perched on the metal dashboard.

My most momentous memories from that time were all from television. On Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In our Catholic home, the TV was on constantly. On Sunday, February 9, 1964, we had fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and canned string beans for dinner and watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show along with 76 million other Americans. "Mopheads" my parents called them.

Life was uneventful, and we were mostly happy. My sister went to kindergarten and I was jealous. I was on the cusp of being old enough, but everyone thought it best that I wait so Terry and I wouldn't be in the same grade.

That summer, my parents bought a modest three bedroom one bathroom stucco house about ten blocks from Saint Mary's School, and my sister and I got our own rooms. There was a big crab apple tree in the back yard next to a cement and rock fireplace that had stone benches attached on each side. I went into kindergarten at a nearby public school while my sister started first grade at Saint Mary's.

Shortly after we moved, my dad was fired from his job. The way we heard it was that daddy stood up for something he thought was right, and he lost his job because the people in charge had no ethics. Our lives changed. We kept the house, but things got very tight for a long time.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Supercapitalism and the Poor

This week I've been reading Robert Reich's Supercapitalism, which argues that capitalism and democracy have basically come unhinged. Democracy may need capitalism, he says, but the evidence that capitalism needs democracy is less and less convincing all the time. While the market has become remarkably responsive to consumers and investors, the mechanisms that promote a sense of the common good have been fatally weakened. Legislative battles, he says, are almost always fights between huge corporate interests that dress themselves up as upholding the public interest for rhetorical effect. But whatever real public interest that exists and attempts to make itself felt is generally radically outgunned by superior resources and clout, and is a mere sideshow to this self-interested clash of corporate titans.

It's a sobering view of the world, and one that begs a number of uncomfortable questions about how the market responds or does not respond to poverty. There is the prison-industrial-complex, of course, which is increasingly privatized and predatory all the time. There is also the payday loan industry, which has proven notoriously difficult to regulate. When one looks at these issues through the lens of not only who benefits, but also who weighs in and how much do they pay and to whom, then things start getting more clear. Depressing, but clear.

The market responses to the housing issue are interesting to look at as well. How did we get to the point, for example, that more than three federal housing dollars go to subsidizing homeownership through tax breaks for every dollar that houses the poor? When the feds decided to get out of the housing business and began to disinvest in public housing in the late-70s, who were the corporate interests that stood to benefit from that and what role did they play? Its more than interesting that federal disinvestment coincided with the shift to approaching housing as a speculative commodity.

It's been said that in a system where housing is produced for profit, those who can provide no profit get no housing. At least they don't get it consistently. And when they do, they generally pay way too much for it.

But they provide profits in so many other ways. As objects of predatory lending. As consumers of overpriced and substandard housing. As widgets that get processed through our prisons and jails, our substandard schools, and our poverty industries on a per body basis. You could add to the list.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Straw Man Gets a Workout

I remember a great story I heard a number of years ago from an activist with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Apparently, there was a very pro-environment candidate for office who wasn't so hot on the whole human needs thing. He was dogged during his campaign by Tree Man.

A guy in a tree suit showed up everywhere the candidate did holding his sign. "Would you care for me if I was a tree?"

City Council voted to finalize the Capehart Housing acquisition in Discovery Park on Monday, which was a surprise to approximately nobody. It was good to see political leadership from Sally Clark and Peter Steinbrueck that upgraded the one-to-one housing replacement language and made it non-contingent on the Fort Lawton deal going through.

I was surprised to see Tom Rassmussen quoted in the Post-Intelligencer describing the inappropriateness of the park for "people in transition."

An editorial in the PI makes the same point.
We did have some concerns, however, about access to shops and transportation.

For example, the nearest bus stop we could find was close to a mile away and basic drugstore supplies required a trip of more than two miles. It appears that the Seattle City Council agreed, and voted to knock down the homes.

Have these people ever been to a ghetto? But even this is beside the point. Perhaps some people have argued for use of the housing for homeless people, but most folks I know feel that the housing should be maintained as workforce housing until its useful life is exhausted. Tom is arguing against a position nobody supports.

Most people who know about housing — and I count Rassmussen in this category — know that there is a relationship between availability of workforce housing and housing for the very poor. As available options become scarce, those on the bottom rungs of the market start getting knocked off. We all get this.

This is why the Capehart housing should be preserved for however long this is possible.

We've seen portrayals, most notably by Tim Ceis, of this housing as some sort of rotting from within, asbestos-laden, lead paint hazard that any sane person would pretty much tear down on sight, but this is belied by the fact that the families who will live there into 2009 find it perfectly habitable. In fact, everyone who sees it tends to describe it with the same word. "Nice."

There has been a false dichotomization of this issue along the lines of park and green space supporters versus homeless advocates. I don't see it that way. No one I know is making the argument that housing, once built, should never come down. And certainly no one is arguing that housing should be rebuilt on the Capehart site.

Contrary to the Post-Intelligencer's editorial yesterday, there isn't anything in Monday's decision to move ahead with purchase that necessarily commits the City to immediate demolition of the Capehart housing.

The question is whether this housing gets bulldozed in 2009, when the last family moves out, or whether another decade or so of use can be squeezed from this resource at a time when housing affordability in Seattle is at a crisis point.

In the end, no matter what, nature wins. The housing comes down and the park space expands. What needs to be considered is whether this can be a win for people as well as the trees.

From what I understand, there are some potential issues here having to do with the City's authority to provide housing that is above the low-income level, but one would think that this could somehow be worked out. Times like these call for creative solutions. It seems that some sort of compromise can still be achieved, if the will is there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Videovets Project

The Videovets Project of is a good dose of reality, in case you're into that sort of thing. This video of Lance Corporal Brian Van Riper is about as real as it gets. There's more like this at the website. The power of on-line video as an activist tool, I think, has barely begun to be tapped.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Urban Condo Tour 2007

When I heard about Urban Condo Tour 2007, I decided to treat it like a seminar on downtown Seattle development. Saturday offerings included a presentation called Seattle 2011, "an in-depth look at the supply and demand trends affecting the downtown housing market with an exclusive look at the future skyline," offered by Dean Jones, a marketing strategist and one of the guiding lights behind Seattle's current condo boom. Jones was one of Seattle Magazine's 'Most Influential People" in 2004.

It was the word "exclusive" that really drew me in. I'm a total whore for that sort of thing.

I arrived at Fischer Plaza just in time for his presentation. He stood with a laser-pointer in front of an animated birds-eye rendering of Seattle's future skyline. It was like riding a weather copter on acid through the tall and skinniness that will soon radiate from the Denny Triangle outward. Around 50 people in jeans, khakies, sweaters, and comfortable shoes fought motion sickness as they quietly listened to his pitch.

People are snapping up new condos 2-3 years before they're ready for occupancy because that's how you get the best deals, he said. If you wait, you'll either get stuck buying in the more expensive secondary market of owner-sold units, or getting in line again later for the next round. The boom is on, and the units are selling now.

The inventory now coming on-line will increase what's presently available by a factor of five. We're looking at 1,500 new units a year for the next five years, he said. The trend is toward buildings with 500-600 units each. This is smart "amenity infused" housing, and draws upon third party vendors to add value without increasing cost. The median price is $750,000.

While over 2005 and 2006, just three new developments came on line, this year alone we have twelve. There will be nine more in 2008. And so forth.

Jones offered many reassurances that the Seattle housing market will continue to appreciate, and that buying ahead won't mean getting locked into a declining and overbuilt market. Given that there's a crane on every third block or so, this particular bit of salesmanship was inevitable. While the days of double digit annual appreciation are probably over, said Jones, we can still look forward to a good 5-8% a year for many years to come.

Why? Well, there's the famous jobs projection. 10,000 new jobs downtown in the next four years. Many of those people will want housing near their work, and be attracted by the urban living boom. Also, while it may look like we're overbuilding, we're not. The current boom will create less inventory than was delivered in Portland over the last 4-5 years, and they're doing just fine.

While some markets, like Miami and San Diego, are undergoing "corrections" with sitting inventories of 20,000 unsold units, that won't happen here because we've controlled the sort of speculation that distorts the demand picture and leads to overbuilding. Buyers agree that profits from condos sold in the first year will revert to the developer, and this, apparently, is enough to keep the flippers at bay. Besides, he said, "many of us feel that we're just in the first half of our growth period, while other markets are in their second."

And finally, he said that whole credit crunch slowing the market thing shouldn't get us too concerned. That's mostly a problem for the entry level of the market, and not the "well-heeled and very qualified buyers for most of these condos."

I didn't find all of this especially convincing, but apparently others do. "We have demand arriving well before pre-sales," he said. "People want to be the first person on the preview list."

Here's how it works. A development is announced, and even before the details such as final pricing and architecture are worked out, private presentations are held by the architects and developer representatives. A vision and a price range is offered. If one finds this presentation suitably intriguing, a $10,000 refundable deposit is placed that says, "I want to be the first to buy that house in that price range." These exclusive preview events precede the public offering by 2-3 months, and can help shape the outcome of the project.

At the launch of the Fifteen Twenty-One for example — the Second Avenue luxury development a few blocks from Pike Place Market that was one of the first to launch once height restrictions were lifted — the vision was to build 200 units at that site. But the preview sessions revealed that everyone wanted the larger penthouse designs. So they "took that design all the way down to the ground" and reduced the plan to 143 units. Ninety-five percent of these, he said, are pre-sold.

The Fifteen Twenty-One (a downtown home for the confident few), he said, is part of what developers refer to as Seattle's "Gold Coast." This also includes 1 Hotel at 2nd and Pike (unsurpassed luxury with a conscience), The Four Seasons at 1st and Union (Seattle's signature address), and the Escala at 4th and Virginia (Anticipate perfection, Embrace elegance, Experience grandeur). Between these four addresses, 505 new luxury condos will arrive near the Market and the Seattle Art Museum over the next two to three years, at an average price of over $2 million. More than half of these are already sold.

Some of these, said Jones, and forty percent of all condo sales nationwide, were bought by what he called "portfolio buyers." These are people who will outfit their home and have it as one of the options for where they might live. A portfolio buyer might have a home in London, New York, Seattle, and, oh, I don't know, maybe Rome. And they'll actually live in these homes some of the time. But they're also an investment. We're talking housing as wealth management strategy.

Thus informed, I was ready to embark on Urban Condo Tour 2007. Armed with my map of twenty represented properties (only some of the condos now under development), I set out toward the Gold Coast. For the first time, I noticed all the little sidewalk sandwich boards on every corner, directing the urban condo hunter to the various marketing offices that have sprung up around town. The first development I saw was Gallery, pictured at the top of this post. The crane at 2nd and Broad was visible from near the Space Needle. The sales office was, cleverly enough, located in a former art gallery at 1st and Wall. I signed in as Jack Mehoff, I'm just a big kid.

Various kitchens, baths, living rooms, and bedrooms had been constructed in the space to allow the prospective buyer the illusion of actually experiencing the thing in itself. This struck me as extremely modern. A scale model of the finished building dominated the sales floor. Scheduled to open in 2008, the Gallery will be one of the first of the new buildings up and running, and offers units that range from a 600 sq. ft. box for $300,000, to penthouses that go for more that $2 million.

The impression I got was that of a fully dimensional IKEA catalogue. A tiny balcony with a frighteningly flimsy aluminum railing set against a faux sunset painted on the wall made me thirsty for a virtual margarita, but I instead pressed onward. My idea was to check out the Gold Coast developments and then hit a few others in the Denny Triangle on the way back to my car at Seattle Center.

At First and Blanchard was Plymouth Housing Group's three story high Building Hope One Building at a Time sign, advertising their good work and promoting their capital campaign. I wondered how much hope it would take to counter what I was seeing.

I saw Real Change vendor Michael Wiggins at 1st and Lenora. "What's going on," he asked? "Until noon it was dead, and now there's all of these people. And you're all dressed up and you have a camera." I was dressed in my best approximation of moderately affluent weekend casual. I wasn't even wearing a baseball cap. My wife advised me that it ruined the effect.

I told Michael what I was up to, and who all these people were with their little urban condo guides. "Cool," said Michael. "Got any more maps? I'll sell them to them!" I think that, as the condo owners fill the downtown, Michael will do just fine.

1 Hotel and the Fifteen Twenty-One are little more than very expensive holes in the ground at this point. There wasn't much to see. My digital camera battery went dead, thus ending my aspirations as a photojournalist for the afternoon.

As I walked past 2nd and Pine, there was a pair of used shoes balanced on the rim of a garbage can. Someone had bought a new pair at Nordstrom's Rack, and instead of throwing the old ones away, paused to consider the less fortunate. To someone, these comfortable looking castoffs would be an upgrade. It was a thoughtful act of human kindness, but it was also a metaphor. If only housing, I thought, were this simple.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More Creepy Christian Retail

Apparently having nothing better to do, I was paging through the online Christian Dollar Store site when I found this Lion of Judah T-shirt. What struck me immediately, other than the shields and the choice of scripture (Revelation 5:5, Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.") was the brilliant blue of the lion's eyes, which spurred me to waste even more time researching the very important matter of lion eye color. In case you wondered, it's typically a deep yellow or orange, although sometimes it looks like a sort of hazel. Cubs have blue eyes, which tend to turn at around six months. So, why the blue eyes here? Hmmm. What sort of person walks around in a T-shirt that says "My blue-eyed lion-God is going to kick your heathen ass, if he hasn't already?"

Bargain Christian War Toys

My new Oriental Trading Company catalogue came today and the Soldier of God line of Vacation Bible Studies products is gone. I checked the website and it's not there either. This was the result of what was perhaps the world's easiest internet-based pressure campaign, sparked by this blog in just its second month. I imagine that this was a tiny piece of their inventory and they quickly decided it wasn't worth the controversy. So, where did all the camouflaged helmets with crosses and Jesus dog tags go? I looked, and it's not easy to find. But at least some of it wound up at the Christian Dollar Store, where it has been deeply discounted.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

From the Department of Dead Horses

The City Council Hearing to finalize the Discovery Park Deal is this Monday, September 24, at 2 pm in Council Chambers. Having heard a good deal of testimony, read the past four years of press clips, and talked it around a good deal with others, I'm still a long way from being satisfied that the City Council, with their insulting show of offering a "one-to-one replacement" amendment this week, gets why this is such an issue for people. Let me try to explain in a few different ways to see if I can be more clear.

Story Problem.

Assume Seattle loses 4,500 low-income housing units over 2005-2007 to demolition, condo conversion, and speculative sales, but adds 1,500 newly constructed subsidized units. Assuming no more housing is lost, how many new units must be built to reach the point of one-to-one replacement? Bonus question: Explain how tearing down functional housing helps the city reach that goal.

"I'd rather drive two miles for groceries than twenty-five miles to work."

Short Story in 281 Words
It was March 3rd, 2009, and Evelyn locked the front door for the last time. The sturdy triplex that had been built in 1963 as military housing had reached the end of its useful life. She stopped for a moment and listened. Birds. Rustling branches. A scolding squirrel. The whoosh-whoosh of a lycra-clad roller-blader from Magnolia out for his exercise. Months before, Evelyn would have heard kids, and maybe a few cars as her neighbors returned from work, but not today. Hers was the last family to leave Capehart. The UHaul was packed and ready to go. It was time. She turned the key, and the stiff deadbolt worked its way into place. Suddenly, the rain gutter came loose from above and fell at an angle, narrowly missing her shoulder. "Evelyn! Get in the truck," shouted her husband Rick. They had been warned about this. There was an explosion from inside the house. She looked through the window and could see water pouring across the floor from the bathroom. "Damn," thought Evelyn. "The plumbing finally went." A great creaking groan drew her attention to the house across the street as it collapsed like a row of dominoes. The Millers had just gotten out last week. Not a moment too soon. The Capehart homes had been built on slab concrete. Everyone knew it would one day end like this. The sounds of drywall violently breaking in half echoed across the water toward the Cascades as the Capehart homes collectively reached the end of their useful lives. Rick leaned on the tinny UHaul horn. "Evelyn! Run!" That's when the slow gas leak in the kitchen ignited. Rick and Evelyn had waited too long.

Sample Amendment

Council will explore the feasibility of amending funding agreements to allow for the gradual demolition of Capehart Housing over the next 15 years as the cost of repair is no longer justified by the use value of the housing.

Favorite Letter
Dear Council members,

I have been, and continue to be an advocate of ultimately returning the Capehart Housing units in Discovery Park to a use of much needed open space.

However, given our failure in the last decade to stop the demolition and otherwise removal of work force and low income housing within the city of Seattle and it surrounding communities, I believe it is a mistake to destroy the 66 units of housing at Fort Lawton. We should wait until we have a better plan on the creation of needed housing.

We have been doing such a poor job of saving our existing affordable housing.

We have lost over a thousand units of dedicated low income housing in the Seattle Housing Authority's Hope VI projects at Holly Park, Rainier Vista, High Point and Roxbury Village.

We were promised downtown work force housing at the Alaska Building,…. but someone forgot to get it in writing?

We have lost many units of housing in South Lake Union. Yesler Terrace is being threatened.

Would it not be a fair proposition to secure an agreement for the development of affordable housing in the Magnolia neighborhood before we tear down the housing we have there and give Magnolia the benefits of the needed open space?

Again, I have been an advocate of the Discovery Park aquisition plan from the start. Please reconsider tearing down the housing that is there before a replacement plan can be developed.

Please slow down on the decisions to tear down needed housing.

Thank you

Brian Ramey

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thoughts on the City Council Race

This seems like as good a time as any to reiterate that Apesma's Lament is my personal writer's blog, and that I reserve the right to maintain an identity of my own, independent of the guy that works at Real Change. More importantly, this blog is maintained with my own funds on my own time, so I can say whatever the fuck I want. So there.

Which brings us to this morning's City Council Candidates Forum, sponsored by the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, featuring Jean Godden, Venus Velasquez, Bruce Harrell, Tom Rasmussen, Dave Della, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, and Judy Fenton. The SKCCH website will soon have full questionnaire results from these and other candidates, including those running for office in King County outside of Seattle.

First, who is running against who? Godden, sadly, may now be running unopposed. Joe Szwaja was expected but didn't show and didn't phone in. (This turns out to be untrue. Joe is still in the race, and the no show was due to a communications error with campaign staff). The rumor is that a recent meeting with community supporters to parse the ramifications of Susan Paynter's "When Did Joe Stop Beating His Wife" column didn't go so well. That's too bad. Szwaja is someone who progressives recruited to run based on a long track record of proven values and service. Apparently, some have changed their minds. It's an old saying, but it's true. When the left holds a firing squad, they stand in a circle.

Venus and Bruce are squaring off over human services champion Peter Steinbrueck's seat. Human Services Chair Tom Rasmussen is running unopposed. Burgess is taking on Della, and the sadly clueless Fenton says she's running because Clark needs an opponent. Whatever.

So, what was new and surprising or at least entertaining about this morning? Let's start with Godden. She's charming and somewhat beloved. You hate to beat up on her because it never feels like a fair fight. She graciously recognized me as I stood in the back as Real Change, which caused our real reporter, Cydney Gillis, who was covering the event from the second row on Jean's side, to turn in my direction and snarl.

Godden's best line was that we should "reuse, recycle, and refit available buildings" to create affordable housing. But, seeing as how she doesn't really do anything, those words don't mean all that much. She'll likely coast to victory, and will continue to be a mostly reliable ally of the downtown interests while trying to also do right by the poor and homeless. Things could be worse.

The Harrell/Velasquez showdown was much more interesting. Ironically, Harrell, as an attorney, is a much stronger communicator than Velasquez is as a communications consultant. My sense is that she has the better politics, while he is probably the stronger candidate. He was Obamaesque. In comparison, she seemed almost sullen. Maybe she's just not a morning person.

But, you know? I don't give a crap. She says that she'll continue Peter's legacy of being a human services champion and I believe her. She said when the B&O tax revenue downturn hits and things get tight, she's in our corner, and that she favors dedicated funding for human services so we're not dependent upon the vagaries of the general fund. And she referred to Seattle's "class war" four times in her closing statement, which kind of cinched it for me. Harrell makes a better impression, and uses lines like, "I believe power has to be kept in check," but there's nothing in his background to make me believe that, once in office, he'll be a reliable ally of the poor. And we've seen plenty of that.

Speaking of unreliable allies, David Della seemed kind of dazed and kept talking about how very, very complicated homelessness is. It must be hard to come before a room of human service advocates knowing that you're widely resented for having turned your back on the people who got you elected. That must suck. Della talked incessantly about the multi-family tax credit, as if this idea were somehow adequate to the tidal wave of inequality that now engulfs our city. He did, however, say he'd vote to protect core services, whatever that means. Burgess didn't seem so bad, but all of his statements were careful and hedged, as were Della's. I don't get the sense that either of them deserve our support, but these are the choices we have.

I have to say that both Rassmussen and Clark are growing on me. When Fenton said she'd prioritize mentally ill homeless people over alcoholics, Tom drew himself up to deliver an indignant little speech about the difficulties of people's lives. While going after Fenton was a little like kicking a retarded puppy, it was still very endearing. He also acknowledged the dark side of the ten year pan to end homelessness with a pledge to sustain emergency service levels until it is clear that the need has decreased as well. This, to me, was unexpected and welcome news. When Tom first became the Human Services chair, lots of people found the rigidity of his instant expertise more than a little annoying, but he seems to have grown into it and to have real passion for the issues. He seems more solid, and it's nice to see.

Clark seemed smart, well-informed, and very genuine, and offered a variety of thoughtful strategies for moving things forward. She was honest about her support for workforce housing as well as low-income housing, and put her concerns with the potential for a divisive fight right out on the table. She even showed flashes of humility and humor. Clark definitely seems like someone we should work more with.

Conventional wisdom is that this election is unlikely to shake up the balance of power in the Council, and that there aren't any big changes on the horizon. That seems about right to me, although I found myself feeling more hopeful after the forum than before. When a cynical guy like me sees reason to hope, that's probably a good sign.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Joe Martin's Speech, with Bibliography

As we begin our day of deliberations and discussion, let us all be aware this morning that the Lora Lake 8 – those mostly homeless individuals who were arrested in the course of occupying the Lora Lake Apartments in Burien – have a court hearing, which was scheduled for 8:45 am. Hopefully they will be joining us here soon. Let us give them a warm welcome and demonstration of our appreciation when they arrive.

Allow me to preface my speech by stating that what I have to say may be somewhat unsettling. I plan to be here for the entire day and I will be happy to discuss any portion of my talk with anyone.

Once, the great Irish writer James Joyce was asked why he wrote so often about Dublin, Ireland, the city of his birth. In his early adulthood, Joyce had left Dublin and Ireland and would never return. To the question, Joyce responded that in the particular he saw the universal. I will begin my talk starting with more universal issues and end with some immediate particulars pertinent to our locality.

“The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room” is the title of an essay by the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton (The essay appears in the book “Raids On the Unspeakable”, 1966). Therein he assesses our apocalyptic time, one “haunted by the demon of emptiness” out of which come “the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs, the concentration camps, the race riots, the racist murders, and all the other crimes of mass society.” If Merton were alive today, he would add to the sordid list the teeming masses of dispossessed homeless and impoverished within our misguided and opulent society.

Merton asks: “Is this pessimism? Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody feels? Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer? Or should one simply go on pretending that everything is getting better everyday, because the time of the end is also – for some at any rate – the time of great prosperity? (“The Kings of the earth have joined in her idolatry and the traders of the earth have grown rich from her excessive luxury.” Revelations 18:3)”

The author Marc Ellis in his powerful biography of Peter Maurin (“Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century”, 1981), the French Catholic Anarchist, the teacher of Dorothy Day, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement writes: “Progress…is haunted by the cries of the dead and by those hundreds of millions who are separated from the structures that provide legitimation and affluence for the international elite but alienation and affliction for the majority of humankind.” Some of those so alienated and afflicted live here in greater Seattle.

Ellis states that the Hebrew prophets “were profoundly critical of contemporary values and social constructs that denied God’s covenant with his people. It was the general treatment of the poor and the oppressed that provided insight into the neglect of the covenant. Thus the prophets spoke and indeed came for those who were suffering. Their message was reflected broadly throughout the society, for the afflicted were signposts of the corruption of the affluent in the profanation of profit-centered business, the refusal to infuse values into commercial and social institutions, and resistance to serving the common good. However, it would be a mistake to see the prophets as social reformers. In the midst of judging human affairs, their task was to bring the world into divine focus and to unfold a divine plan. The rearrangement of social conditions was seen as a return to the correct ordering of the covenant and fidelity to God. Thus in the act of proclaiming judgment the prophet made known the beginnings of a religious movement toward salvation.”

More recently, the sociologist and soup kitchen volunteer William DiFazio has written: “The poor cause discomfort because they are indicators of the failure of capitalism” and that “the poor are continuously punished because in a global world where American capitalism is dominant, the poor are the indicators of the limits of the free market.”

Bringing about truly just and structural economic change in the Untied States is a risky and dangerous endeavor. In 1968, exactly one year after he came out against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. At that time Martin was exhausted, frustrated, but still deeply committed to the Gospel call to fairness, freedom, racial parity, and economic justice in a land that he believed still held promise for the poor and outcast here, and that could still be beacon of hope to the wretched of the earth. Martin saw clearly the alarming contradiction contained in policies that pursued the lunacy of war yet purported a concern for domestic needs. In prophetic fashion, Martin saw through the madness, and in the course of his nonviolent efforts, he paid with his life.

At the time, Martin was steeped in the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, a visionary effort to bring fundamental economic change by organizing a massive movement of America’s dispossessed. He hoped to bring this economic justice movement into conjunction with the then formidable anti-war movement. Martin’s assassination ensured that this confluence did not happen. Indeed, in 1999, a civil trial held in Memphis resulted in a jury’s consensus that Martin had been killed with the collusion of forces of our own government. Yes, anyone who brings real concrete economic justice to the surface of our polity threatens the powers and principalities, and walks a most precarious and truly prophetic line.

After he had won the Noble Peace Prize, Martin had become a global human rights leader. In that capacity, Martin talked about homelessness – specifically homelessness in Asia. Martin was profoundly aware of economic disparities in America, but the notion of widespread systemic homelessness was still a phenomenon associated with the Third World. Yes, a few decades ago, the notion that widespread systemic homelessness could affect the lives of millions of American citizens would have seemed preposterous. Martin said: “More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no homes to go into. They have no beds to sleep in. As I beheld their conditions, something within me cried out: ‘Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?’ And the answer came: ‘Oh no!’”

Today tens of millions of Americans suffer economic ostracism and fill the homeless shelters and jails. Many others live on the streets of cities large and small. Martin’s worst fears for this nation are being realized. Indeed the sermon he would have given the Sunday following his assassination was entitled “Why America May Go to Hell”.

A famous study of poverty in the United States is that of the late Michael Harrington’s great work “The Other America”. Published at the end of the 1950’s, the book detailed the topography of indigence at a time when many citizens mistakenly assumed that hard core poverty was no longer an issue in this materially rich nation. The book helped to launch the Kennedy/Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, which sadly floundered on the shores of Vietnam. However, it is instructive to realize that nowhere in Harrington’s study does he mention homelessness. This was due to the fact that only a few decades ago the problem of large scale systemic homelessness was not a part of the American landscape.

Twenty five years later, in “The New American Poverty” (1985), Harrington made explicit note of the significant numbers of homeless persons who had become a pervasive part of New York City’s urban terrain. Harrington recalled how in the early 1950s, when he was working side by side with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, a few profoundly troubled people might become homeless and be taken in by the Catholic Worker or some similar operation. Most of the Bowery denizens back then found affordable shelter in the neighborhood’s numerous flop houses and cheap hotels. By the eighties, shifting economic policies at the national and municipal level precipitated rampant homelessness in New York. The dwindling traditional supply of modest Bowery housing finally gave out completely a few years ago when the last of the old-time “cage” SRO’s closed its doors. We are all well aware that a similar pattern unfolded in Seattle.

In his last book, “Socialism, Past and Future” (1992), Harrington wrote: “The great scandal of the late twentieth century – which has the terrible promise of persisting into the twenty-first – is still the structured inequality of planet earth.” It is in this regard that our city of Seattle gets mentioned in Mike Davis’s new and disturbing work entitled “Planet of Slums” (2006). He states: “If UN data are accurate, the household per-capita income differential between a rich city like Seattle and a very poor city like Ibadan [in Nigeria] is as great as 739 to 1 – an incredible inequality.” Of course, this planetary disparity has its own local manifestation within the midst of our region.

If we are to honestly appraise the disaster of homelessness and impoverishment in our midst we must confront a challenging reality: namely it is our very economic and political system epitomized by the increasingly unrestricted operation of market forces – the same system that has historically caused so much pain, penury, and dislocation in the Third World – that is now largely responsible for the desperate plight of growing numbers of citizens.

In his moving work entitled “Tell Them Who I Am, The Lives of Homeless Women” (1993), the late sociologist Elliot Liebow wrote: “Unemployment, underemployment, and substandard wages are system failures only when viewed from the bottom. Looking from the top down, they are seen as ‘natural’ processes essential to the healthy functioning of a self-correcting market system. From that perspective, it is as if the market system requires human sacrifice for its good health.”

In light of Liebow’s notion of the poor as sacrificial victims, consider this comment by the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “Idolatry in the Bible is a risk for every believer. Idolatry means trusting in something or in someone who is not God…Very often we offer victims to [this] idol, and for that reason the prophets make a close connection between idolatry and murder.”

Christianity itself can assume idolatrous dimensions and has done so in contemporary America. Consider this comment by the Republican Louisiana congressman Richard Baker on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did it.” This outrageous comment inspired Lewis Lapham - at the time the editor of Harper’s Magazine - to remark that Katrina was, according to Baker, “a divinely inspired slum-clearance project.” Writing in the Nation, Naomi Klein stated that some have referred to the rebuilding of New Orleans as an exercise in ethnic cleansing. If Representative Baker had lost loved ones, property, or a lot of money, I doubt that he would interpret such personal misfortune in such a cruel, crude, and superficial religious fashion.

Theologians of liberation Jon Sobrino and Felix Wilfred state: “Suppressing truth with injustice is a primordial sin of humanity which leads to dehumanization.” They invoke the words of Isaiah (5.20) “Oh, you who call evil good and good evil, who call light darkness and darkness light.” Thus there are people in our midst today who celebrate the condo conversion craze that reaps impressive financial rewards for a select group while displacing increasing numbers of citizens of modest means.

In the gospel of Luke, the kingdom of God is a reality promised to the poor. “Hence,” write Sobrino and Wilfred, “the utopia of the human family as a united whole should place the poor at its center.”

The rich and the powerful of today - perhaps of all time - have no intention of placing the poor at the center of anything except a program that will, if not eradicate them, contain and palliate them. Historically in America, displaced people have been met with suspicion, xenophobia, and violence. During the world’s first truly international depression – from 1873 until 1878 – many U.S. authorities called for “mass arrests, workhouses, and chain gangs” as a means of dealing with homeless wanderers (“CitizenHobo” by Todd Depstino, 2003). In 1877, the Chicago Tribune advocated “putting strychnine or arsenic in the meat or other supplies furnished to tramps” as a warning to others. The dean of Yale’s law school, Francis Wayland said that the homeless and jobless man of that day was a “spectacle of a lazy, shiftless, sauntering or swaggering, ill-conditioned, irreclaimable, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage.”

In our own time, consider this haughty comment from Walter Wriston (“Twilight of Sovereignty”, 1992), former president of City Bank pertaining to the marginalized poor: They “will have little at stake in the global [economy] and may come to hate it and those who participate in it as they realize that in all this talk they are rarely mentioned and then only as a social problem. All technological progress has created social problems, and the information revolution moving over the global network is no exception. New skills and new insights will be required to survive and prosper, and those who do not or cannot adapt will be left behind with all the social trauma that entails.”

A more Darwinian scenario was limned by Jacques Attali, an associate of the late French president Francois Mitterand (“Millennium, Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order”, 1992): “The big losers of the next millennium will be the inhabitants of the periphery [namely the poor who comprise well over one half of all humanity, some of whom are citizens of the First World] and the biosphere itself.”

Given current trends, states Attali, the poor will find little relief except for the escape that alcohol and drugs can provide: “Drugs are the nomadic substances of the millennial losers, of the excluded and the discarded. They provide a means of internal migration, a kind of perverse escape from a world that offers none.” Indeed, in the comprehensive history of narcotics (“The Pursuit of Oblivion, A Global History of Narcotics” 2002), author Richard Davenport-Hines writes: “The illicit drug business generates $400 billion in trade annually, according to recent United Nations estimates. That represents 8 per cent of all international trade. It is about the same percentage as tourism and the oil industry.” Just last week, the Millenium Project of the World Federation of the United Nations reported that last year world-wide organized crime generated revenues in excess of $2 trillion – twice all the military budgets in the world combined. Much of this gargantuan haul is due to the vast profits emanating from the narcotics trade.

Attali is, however, revolted by the prospect of a dehumanized and biologically degraded future. Interestingly enough for people of a religious persuasion, he states that in addition to pluralism and political tolerance, humanity will have to embrace a “profound sense of the sacred.” And contrary to the Olympian indifference of Wriston, Attali urges the need for both global economic standards rooted in democracy and the retention of healthy localized forms of government.

As people of faith we are called to a radical witness and to break the bounds of bureaucratic habituation and political vapidity which too often pass for realism and practicality. At the very least we are called to inconvenience ourselves in the cause of justice. I say ‘inconvenience’ because for many of us it is a conscious choice we make freely and within circumstances that are not coercive. Many of us here today - not all - but many of us have the luxury of giving time to charitable efforts, of freely contributing time and energy to vital social causes but only as we choose and on our own terms. We can choose exactly how much time we wish to give, and when we wish to give it. It is important to recognize that though all this is well-meaning, it is ultimately a piecemeal practice and will never bring about the in depth changes that must be manifested - in our city, region, state, nation and world – if we are to achieve any modicum of fairness, of social decency, of economic democracy and justice.

Once Daniel Berrigan – the great Jesuit poet and peace activist - was asked why the forces of social change and peace were so seemingly ineffectual in the United States? Berrigan responded that the answer was painfully simple, that the forces of greed and war were at work twenty four hours a day while the forces of peace and justice were, at best, at work only on a part time basis. The creation of a Theology of Liberation for the United States is sorely needed – a trenchant theology of hope that embodies the praxis of action and reflection with the poor and homeless always at the center of deliberations. A Theology of Liberation for greater Seattle and for America will require a sacrifice of our time and energy – a sacrifice that will demand more of our time and energy than many of us have been yet willing or perhaps able to make.

“Poverty is not just the problem of those who are poor. Understanding the sources and nature of poverty is in fact the basis for addressing some of the larger social problems of our day.” That is a quote from John Iceland which can be found in his book entitled “Poverty In America, A Handbook” (2006). He also states: “Changes in public investment depend on the amount of public support they muster.” Despite growing inequities, widespread and sustained activism for social change and economic restructuring is nowhere commensurate with those structural and political forces which are formidable obstacles to the manifestation of economic justice.

Indeed this is a repeated observation articulated by sociologist William DiFazio, a professor at St. John’s University in New York. In addition to his teaching and writing, DiFazio has been a mainstay at a soup kitchen run out of a Catholic Church in the middle of the impoverished and crime-ridden Bedford-Styvesant neighborhood. If you do nothing different with your time and politics as a result of this talk and the rest of this day’s proceedings, do pick up a copy of DiFazio’s important new book “Ordinary Poverty” (2006).

As for shelters, soup kitchens, and related programs which mitigate social misery, DiFazio says: “I would never argue that these services aren’t necessary, but the price of advocacy and organization building is that activism and movement building become a very low priority.” Good people who operate shelters, counsel the poor, and who provide shelters, health care and other critical services can get so wrapped up in the day-to-day operation and maintenance of their respective programs, a broader social and political perspective is easily submerged in myriad quotidian demands. Concrete political activism – informed and sustained action that might alter and transform unjust economic structures which are often at the root of much stress and turmoil for the poor and working class – is rarely, if ever, pursued. Thus, year after year, we grow resigned to the expanding immiseration of the poor and homeless in our midst – and consciously or unconsciously we adapt to it. DiFazio writes: “The hopelessness of the poor has become ordinary.”

Many decades ago, Dorothy Day’s teacher Peter Maurin said it was imperative that social workers become social revolutionaries. Likewise DiFazio states that advocates must become activists: “They must learn a new language of possibility, and they must make the simple struggles needed to build the base for a social movement that exists in the multiplicity of race, class, and gender.” We are nowhere near building such a broad and sustainable movement to end poverty and homelessness. Thus he discusses the smaller more contained sporadic efforts that are made in various localities which he calls “simple struggles”: “These struggles must be seen as forms of life, ongoing processes that continue over a lifetime and always have the intention of building powerful social movements. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ demands the end of poverty. This is the movement for the new millennium.”

On this note I urge everyone who took the time today to join in the proceedings of this important conference to enhance the efficacy of our own “simple struggles” which are now unfolding within the greater Seattle region. These local simple struggles need your time, energy, and support. Involvement in them moves one from the standpoint of advocacy to the invigorated and necessary stance of activism which learns the necessity of challenging and confronting local bastions of economic power and political indifference. Too often it is charity rather than economic justice which defines the lineaments of approaches to our own deepening social problems. The persistence of this insufficient ethic will only obfuscate the problems and ensure a band aid strategy of appeasement while essentially guaranteeing the perpetuation of poverty and homelessness.

The recent occupation of the Lora Lake Apartments in Burien is an especially pivotal event. Though the occupation and arrests that followed did not bring about any immediate results, the action was undertaken by mostly homeless persons from the two Tent Cities. The support that came from the broader community and the religious community in particular was a critical ingredient in their nonviolent direct action. We must continue to support poor and homeless activists who in the future undertake nonviolent direct action to preserve sorely needed housing and in the process assert their own agency and thereby generate an atmosphere conducive to real progress and genuine economic justice. As for the Lora Lake Apartments, the complex should at the very least be reopened for occupancy this upcoming winter.

Currently the unprecedented wave of condo conversions and spiraling rents is generating a deepening crisis, not only for the very poor and those already burdened by displacement and homelessness, but increasingly for working people whose incomes are not enough to compete in such a tumultuous market. Those who are supposedly involved in the King County Ten Year Plan to end homelessness – including persons affiliated with United Way, the Gates Foundation, the Downtown Seattle Association and other similarly monied and influential corporate entities and individuals – must examine to what degree they are directly complicit in the current whirlwind of displacement while publicly pronouncing a concern for ending homelessness. Given current trends in our region, the vaunted Ten Year Plan will turn out to be nothing more than a blueprint for managing, not curing, the human-made disaster that is homelessness. In this regard, I urge citizens here from Seattle to support City Councilman Tom Rasmussen’s amendments to the condo conversion law.

Those gathered here today should express their full support for the immediate adoption of a “Right of First Notice” (or First Refusal) Ordinance that will allow tenants the first opportunity to purchase an apartment building that is up for sale.

Another heated battle currently underway involves the 191 low income and affordable units which comprise Lock Vista in Ballard. The tenants of this facility have demonstrated their willingness to stand up and fight displacement. The City of Seattle and the Seattle Housing Authority must hear from you. Urge them to take action. Condo conversions make a mockery of the Ten Year Plan. We should not allow Lock Vista to be lost to market forces.

And it has lately been noted that 66 units of perfectly habitable housing in Discovery Park may be purchased by the City of Seattle for $11 million only to be torn down for open space. A recent editorial in the Seattle P-I has urged that the city reconsider this situation given the housing crunch that has so deleteriously affected thousands of working class citizens. If you don’t weigh in on this, and the other critical issues noted in this presentations, little will change. Your presence here today is a clear indicator that you do not tolerate any perpetuation of current trends which exacerbate homelessness. Informed action and a deepening involvement are demanded of all of us.

Rev. Rich Lang has for a number of years talked about the need for a Northwest version of the Highlander Center. Perhaps there are persons here today with the time, energy and desire to assist Lang in making such an ambitious and noble project a reality.

More broadly as an interfaith church community, we are urged – in the words of Ernesto Cortes, Jr. of the Industrial Areas Foundation – to manifest a radical imagination in which “the church has a far more prophetic and transformative role to play in the larger social order…” Furthermore Cortes avers: “It is imperative to challenge the established concentrations of power and wealth so that we can all have shared prosperity, and shalom, and justice at the gates of the city.”

In doing so we must listen to the poor themselves, and ultimately a deepened sense of common cause must be created and sustained. Impoverished citizens themselves must be encouraged and supported in their efforts to rise from the condition of being merely recipients of charity to becoming empowered agents of progressive social change. As William DiFazio has stated “…the poor have not [yet] created a social movement to end poverty, nor have advocates helped to create one. As long as this is true, their poverty is permanent.”

Let me conclude this presentation with the words of the late Michael Harrington: “When we join, in solidarity and not in noblesse oblige, with the poor, we will discover our own best selves…we will regain the vision of America.”

— delivered September 18, 2007, at the Seventh Annual Building the Political Will to End Homelessness Conference

Attali, Jacques, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming Order, 1992
Davenport-Hines, Richard,
The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, Norton, 2002
Davis, Mike, Planet of Slums, Verso, 2006
Depastino, Todd, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, University of Chicago, 2003
DiFazio, William, Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage, Temple University Press, 2006
Ellis, Mark H, Peter Maurin: Prophet of the Twenty-first Century, Paulist Press, 1981
Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis, 1973
Harrington, Michael, The Other America, Penguin Books, 1963
Harrington, Michael, The New American Poverty, Henry Holt & Co., 1984
Harrington, Michael, Socialism: Past and Future, Little Brown, 1989
Iceland, John, Poverty in America: A Handbook, University of California, Berkeley, 2003
Liebow, Elliot, Tell Them Who I Am, The Lives of Homeless Women, Free Press, 1993
Merton, Thomas, Raids on the Unspeakable, New Directions, 1966
Sobrino, Jon & Felix Wilfred, eds., Globalization and Its Victims, London: SCM Press, 2001. (out of print).
Wriston, Walter, Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution is Transforming Our World, Scribner, 1992

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

We Bring You This Class War, Already in Progress ...

John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition is losing it these days. When he gets to talking about condo conversions and housing demolition in Seattle, his face darkens by several shades, the veins in his forehead and throat stick out, and his voice jumps a full octave. Seattle is losing low-income housing about twice as fast as it’s being built, and it really pisses him off. In the 30 years he’s been fighting for housing, things have never been worse.

Meanwhile, we’re supposed to be “ending homelessness.” It’s a bitter irony.

We’re losing, and it’s all about political will.

Today, I attended the Seventh Annual Interfaith Task Force conference on Building the Political Will to End Homelessness. I’ve been to several of these things, and while I want to be supportive of my allies, it looked like the smallest one yet.

On the way there, I stopped for breakfast at the Westin Hotel. There, roughly three times as many developers, bankers, non-profit housing providers, city officials and others paid $65 each to hear J. Ronald Terwilliger — the CEO of Trammell Crow Residential and the chairperson-elect of Habitat for Humanity — make the business case for providing workforce housing in Seattle.

There were dozens of corporate sponsors. It’s amazing how the rich will line up to fork over money to the rich when it’s in their interest to do so. I showed up dressed as I always do. My long-sleeved green thermal T-shirt stood out in the room of about 250 suits.

Terwilliger is a man who, a few years ago, was tragically edged out by Time Warner in his bid to buy the Atlanta Braves. Terwilliger is Donald Trump lite, but with better hair, and has what, in his circles, passes for a full-blown social conscience.

An affluent society such as ours, he said, needs to provide housing for those who attend to our needs. Otherwise, various problems such as traffic congestion and pollution, low workforce morale, and a tougher hiring environment for corporations undermine the region’s ability to compete.

While Trammell Crow is very active in Seattle, and Terwilliger’s heart is with affordable housing, his pocketbook has other opinions. All of their projects involve luxury condos and apartments. There is no market incentive, he said, for them to build workforce housing in this city. In Seattle, Terwilliger would define that as housing for those who make up to 150 percent of median income. That’s somewhere above $90,000 annually.

Let me repeat that. There’s no incentive in Seattle, he said, for developers to build housing for people who make less that $90,000 annually.

To do that, Terwilliger would need code relaxations, tax breaks, and zoning incentives. Do this, he said, and people like him will be able to make the sort of profit they expect building the sort of housing we need. The economy will then hum like a new Lexus.

This morning’s gathering at the Westin might well have been called, “Building the political will to help developers make maximum or near-maximum profit while servicing a corporate-friendly market niche.”

Maybe someone else can come up with more elegant title.

Making as much money as you possibly can isn’t just a job. It’s a way of life. And, make no mistake, the wealthy in this country have successfully pursued “structural change.” They can never get enough of it.

Down I-5 a ways, at Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, today’s other gathering to build political will was a much more relaxed affair. They had no corporate sponsorship. They were, however, much more comfortably dressed.

The activists and church members gathered in Des Moines do what they do with minimal resources. They’re good people who are working to make a difference. But most of their efforts are directed toward charity and good works. That whole structural change thing is a bit of an afterthought, and there’s no real funding for it anyway.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem. It’s why John Fox looks like he’s about to have an aneurysm, and it’s why we’re losing.

Downtown social worker Joe Martin challenged the attendees to “inconvenience themselves in the cause of justice.” He called us to embrace a sense of the sacred that rejects an increasingly dehumanized future and engages in a fight for justice as though something real were at stake. It was an amazing, moving, radical speech, and I hope we get to reprint it sometime.

The audience clapped politely, and then ran toward the barricades. No, they didn’t. They ate lunch. And life went on as before.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When Matter and Antimatter Collide ...

Today, I'll spend my early morning at an Urban Land Institute forum at the Westin, listening to a multi-millionaire named Ron Terwilliger talk about the need for workforce housing in Seattle. Terwilliger's message is that tax incentives and deregulation can offer incentives to developers to build housing for moderate income people. This will reduce the inefficiencies associated with commuting and make our local economy hum like a new Lexus. The place will be crawling with developers and bureaucrats. Fun.

Then, I'll mosey on over to Grace Lutheran in Des Moines where the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness is once again Building the Political Will to End Homelessness. Keynote speaker Joe Martin has promised a thundering Jeremiad to knock us out of our accommodating complacency, and John Fox will be there, as always, to point out that we are losing ground on housing and need to develop a sense of urgency to match the moment. I'll join the afternoon panel on gentrification, and sometime between now and then will figure out what I'm going to say. John will come armed with charts. I will not. I will, however, reproduce John's charts here.

Afterwards, I'll try and make some sense of this phenomenon of housing advocacy in parallel universes, and try to answer the question of what would happen were those universes were to collide. Hint: Click on the picture of Spock for the answer.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Slow Down and Reconsider on Capehart Housing

If you're still wondering how the city could decide to buy 66 units of housing for $11 million and tear them down for green space without housing or homeless activists knowing anything about it, you might look to the media. And the Mayor's office.

Prior to the Post-Intelligencer article that came out earlier this month on the day of the hearing, there has been exactly one article on the subject in the last two years. This was the two paragraphs in the Seattle Times' local news round up on July 13, 2007.

City seeks 24 acres in Discovery Park

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed buying 24 acres in Discovery Park from the Navy for $11 million. The Capehart property is in the middle of the 534-acre park, and the city wants to tear down the barracks and two buildings to create open space.

Military personnel would be moved closer to the naval base in Everett. Twenty-six officer homes would be preserved by the Navy with a development partner and eventually sold. The purchase, which requires City Council approval, would be paid for with state and county grants, as well as proceeds from selling surplus city property.

If you're anything like me, you might wonder how 66 units of family housing comes to be described as a "barracks." Here's how Merriam-Webster defines the word:
Main Entry: 1bar·rack
Pronunciation: 'ber-&k, -ik; 'ba-r&k, -rik
Function: noun
Etymology: French baraque hut, from Catalan barraca
1 : a building or set of buildings used especially for lodging soldiers in garrison
2 a : a structure resembling a shed or barn that provides temporary housing b : housing characterized by extreme plainness or dreary uniformity -- usually used in plural in all senses
This, then, is a strange word choice. One perhaps meant to deceive. As a guy who was once in the military, I know the difference between family housing and a barracks. A barracks is a big ugly building where fifty guys sleep in a big room on iron bed frames and keep all their stuff in lockers. Family housing is where everyone gets a tiny lawn and kids ride their bikes in the street. There's a big difference.

But the word choice didn't come from the Seattle Times. It came from the Mayor's press office. This from their their July 11th press release:
The Navy decided to sell the property and relocate its military personnel closer to their Everett base. Over the next several years, the barracks and two other buildings on the Capehart property will be removed and converted to park space, consistent with the 1986 Discovery Park Master Plan.
Perhaps if the Seattle Times had done more with the press release than simply edit it down to a few paragraphs and call it "news," they too would have discerned the difference.

So here's how it happened. The Mayors office works quietly for several years with Friends of Discovery Park and their allies in the Magnolia neighborhood, and, when the deal is about to be closed, it gets passed off to council for approval. A press release is issued describing this as "a great day for anyone who loves this park" and minimizing the loss of housing. There is a hearing in the dead doldrums of summer when no one is around, and the deal heads for swift completion in a few weeks before anyone has a chance to think it through, much less know what's going on.

If this is all so on the up and up, then what's the huge hurry?

Council members' replies to critics have been thin and evasive. These are:

It's been the plan since at least 1986.
Well, so what? We didn't have an affordable housing crisis in 1986. Plans can change.

The housing is past its useful life.
It's occupied. It's only 40 years old. People will continue to live there until 2009. Condemning this property as unfit for habitation seems premature.

You can't put homeless people in such an isolated area.
Well, people are living there now, and nobody is saying this housing should be for homeless people. Affordable housing is for people of moderate incomes who are finding it harder and harder to pay Seattle rents. These people have cars, or at least bikes. They'll be OK.

No one is being displaced.
Yes, the personnel there will be moved elsewhere before the houses are torn down. But affordable housing is lost in Seattle to market forces every day. To pretend that this has nothing to do with that is to be willfully ignorant.

Housing is inappropriate to the land. It should be a park.
I'd say its inappropriate to tear down usable housing when we have an affordability crisis and people literally on the streets. Solve that, and you can have your green space. Until then, the housing should be used so long as it's usable.

Happily, the Seattle Post Intelligencer editorial board agrees, and ran this on September 11, 2007.

Capehart Homes: Worth rethinking


While the details of the $11.1 million deal between Seattle and the Navy are being figured out, there's lots of talk about what should become of 66 homes now used as military housing.

The plan is to demolish them, adding more green space to Magnolia's Discovery Park, which thrills some while others want the housing to be used for veterans. Readers have also written in, wondering why, given King County's fight to save the affordable Lora Lake units in Burien, can't the homes in Magnolia be preserved and used as low-income housing? Great question.

While the Lora Lake units already were being used as low-income housing, the military housing in Magnolia was not. Replacement homes are currently being built in Marysville for those military families, so no one is being tragically displaced.

Also, there's the issue of access to the basics.

The units in Discovery Park are nice, although the nearest bus stop is maybe three-quarters of a mile away. True, Lora Lake is hardly centrally located, but it's far less isolated. The closest drug store we could find to the Capehart homes was about 2.5 miles away, in Magnolia Village. That said, the leasing office was still open for business, the homes themselves, while dated, appeared to be in nice shape. So why not consider keeping them, at least for a while, perhaps as housing for low-income seniors, for example, who are more likely to have goods delivered to them?

These homes seem like a resource we shouldn't squander.

It's a sad day for low-income people when it seems the Seattle P-I's editorial board is taking a tougher stand for affordable housing than are their own advocates. By the overwhelming silence on this, you'd think the housing was already gone.

It's not.

The Parks Committee will hear this again on Wednesday, September 19th, at 2 pm. Then, more than likely, it will head like a speeding freight train to the full council for approval on Monday, September 24, at 6 pm. We should be turning out at both meetings in force with one message: slow down, reconsider, use this resource while we can.