The Seattle City Council will finalize its legislation March 23, allowing tent cities to operate easily on city-owned and private land — but not before councilmembers settle a debate on whether the tent cities can move into residential-zoned land.
Mayor Ed Murray proposed the legislation in January, and it creates a fast permitting process for tent encampments to operate on city and privately owned land, but not in residential areas. Residents of tent cities around the region have questioned the decision to only allow this type of permit in non-residential areas. Many have called it “redlining,” referring to laws that bar certain people from living in specific neighborhoods.
Seattle had covenants in the past that prevented people of color living in many of its neighborhoods.
Tent cities can still operate in residential areas when hosted by a religious organization, such as a church, or with a temporary-use permit, which is more difficult to acquire.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant is behind an amendment to the mayor’s ordinance that would direct the city’s Department of Planning and Development to conduct an environmental review to determine the potential impacts if tent cities were allowed in single- or multi-family residential neighborhoods.
Sawant’s amendment does not give a free pass to tent cities to move into residential neighborhoods, but directs city staff to provide enough information for the council to pass legislation later if it decides to expand where tent cities can operate.
In a statement to Real Change, Sawant said, “We need to address the housing crisis in general, and as long as there are people without shelter, neighborhood residents and homeless people need the opportunity to work together and agree on the best and most appropriate locations.”
A note of controversy
Sawant attempted to pass the amendment at a March 3 meeting of the city council’s Planning, Land-Use and Sustainability Committee, which is chaired by Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
The councilmembers present were split, and the amendment failed in what has become a controversial vote. Councilmembers O’Brien, Sawant and Nick Licata voted in favor, while Tim Burgess, Jean Godden and Sally Clark opposed. Amendments must get a majority to pass.
Some questioned the actions of Burgess and Godden, which brought the amendment down.
Earlier in the meeting, Burgess received a hand-written note from one of Godden’s staff members. When Sawant’s amendment came up, Burgess asked to delay the vote until later because he said it was related to his own amendment, which would be discussed at the end.
O’Brien, as chair, agreed to delay the vote. Later, Godden joined the meeting and voted against Sawant’s amendment.
A public records request revealed later that the handwritten note said, “Can you request a delay on vote? Jean coming.”
Murray spokesman Viet Shelton said prior to the vote, the mayor’s office had called some councilmembers, specifically those concerned about the amendment.
Shelton said the mayor opposes having tent cities in residential areas because he wants to make sure the camps are dispersed throughout the city. “If you take a look at the last few rounds of religious encampments, they tend to be in residential zones already,” Shelton said.
Mountains, molehills and widgets
The political move was rebuked by some online, with criticism from The Stranger and the online blog Seattlish, the latter writing that the councilmembers who voted against Sawant’s amendment “seem not to believe that homeless people should live in the same neighborhoods as regular people.”
Godden said the discussion was making a “mountain out of a molehill,” arguing over a few parliamentary procedures. She said the real important decision was voting the legislation out of committee and into full council. “I think it’s more important that we get underway with these temporary shelters as soon as possible, because there’s been such a rise in homeless people,” she said. “We need to get with it rather than debating the fine points.”
Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute, said Godden’s and Burgess’ actions were surprising, particularly since Lee saw Sawant’s amendment as a good compromise.
It doesn’t force the city council to expand tent encampments to residential areas, but only to study the possibility.
If the council does decide to allow tent encampments in residential zones, the mayor would still have final say when tent cities apply to move onto residential property.
“We’re talking about places for people to live, we’re not talking about manufacturing widgets,” Lee said. “When we think about tent encampments, we think about a community of people including families with children.”
Lee worried that Murray’s legislation excludes large areas of the city that would be appropriate for tent cities.
The legislation will come before the full council March 23, and Sawant’s staff members have said she will propose the amendment again.
O’Brien said that he will support the amendment, but that he is most committed to seeing the legislation through with or without the residential study.
“The legislation that passed out of committee certainly isn’t going to solve all our problems,” O’Brien said, “but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”