Childcare and refreshments provided. Interpreters will be available in the following languages: Oromifa, Amharic, Vietnamese,
Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tigrinya, Somali, Tagalog and Khmer. These venues are accessible, please contact us as soon as
possible for special accommodations. More details are available here.
NPAC meets the third Tuesday of every month and meetings are open to the public. Click here for more information. I thank them for their hard work. They have a lot of update process questions to wrestle and continue to develop ways to reach into underrepresented communities so neighborhood plans will represent the values and vision of all who live in the neighborhood.
Rental Housing Conditions
When I was a renter I had pretty good experiences with property owners and managers in Seattle. I may not have been a dream renter from time to time (belated apologies to the neighbors when we had the Stanford Band in the front yard).
There are some renters in Seattle, however, who live in severe conditions. I’ve heard cases of untreated toxic mold, leaking plumbing, fire hazards, and all around non-livable conditions. The cases we know about are few and far between, but they can be life-threatening and we don’t know how many problems go unreported. Concerns about the breadth and depth of sub-standard rental housing prompted Council to commission a study on the current state of Seattle's rental housing and possible solutions the City could implement to improve conditions.
Currently city inspectors can check for problems inside a rental only on a complaint basis. A landlord or a renter must report a problem to Seattle's Department of Planning and Development and invite inspection. For any number of reasons, a renter might fear reporting a problem. Moving is expensive and legal rights aren’t always well understood (especially renters who don’t speak English well).
Most landlords abhor the practices of the few who prey on renter complacency and fear. Several professional associations and advocates work to make the industry as high quality as possible.
The report on rental housing conditions details a number of ways we could approach assessing and improving Seattle’s stock of rental housing, including increased penalties, developing streamlined enforcement methods, asking the legislature to give inspectors civil warrant authority, a licensing an inspection program or other possible ideas. The report was a great start, but we need to go further and bring in more voices. Too often renter advocates lock horns with rental business advocates and we stay at stalemate. Both sides have information and wisdom we need if we are going to ensure people can live in safe conditions. We also need public health advocates and legal minds around the table.
There's a balance we have to reach by protecting renters while not penalizing the overwhelmingly large percentage of landlords who are conscientious and responsive to resident concerns. Of particular note, the report finds that about a quarter of complaints stem the same problem landlords again and again.
Whatever the next steps are, education about renters' rights will be a priority. If you are a renter living in sub-standard conditions, click here to report your conditions so a city inspector can come out and take a look. Know your rights. Click here to learn more.
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Neighbors packed the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center to attend Trains, Density & Change, PLUNC's February 18th community workshop on House Bill 1490. The Olympia legislation would require certain levels of density and affordability around light rail stations.
PLANNING & LAND USE
Finally, the Multifamily Code Update
Our multifamily code -- the rules that apply to building anything from a townhouse up to a 40-story condo high-rise -- was last comprehensively reviewed in the 1980's before Seattleites created neighborhood plans, before the state created the Growth Management Act, and before we adopted Seattle's Comprehensive Plan.
The Mayor recently sent a 277-page MFC update proposal to the City Council with what looks at first glance to be some smart ideas. Click here for a more digestible summary of the Mayor’s proposed changes. It took a couple of years for Department of Planning and Development staff to build this proposal and it will take PLUNC more than a few months to dig through it and consider the proposed changes. A 277-page piece of legislation is a lot to tackle. My plan is to divide the effort into digestible pieces, updating the code through different lenses, such as affordability, sustainability, a "smart" code, and design standards that sustain neighborhood character. In each chapter I'll be asking if
the proposed changes go far enough to cure the ills of the past few years (think cookie-cutter townhomes); whether the proposed changes go far enough to ensure great development.
The multifamily code update will be a large part of PLUNC’s work this year. The initial briefing on the proposal will come from DPD staff at the 9:30 a.m., March 11 PLUNC meeting. If you miss that presentation, you’ll be able to catch it via Seattle Channel’s website anytime you want. Feel free to contact my office for more information about PLUNC’s consideration of the MFC update.
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Sally with Lifelong AIDS Alliance Exec. Dir. David Richart, State Rep. Jamie Pederson, Councilmember Tim Burgess, State Sen. Ed Murray and State Rep. Marko Liias at AIDS Awareness Day, Februarey 18, in Olympia.
Fire Hydrants - a costly debate
This year started off with the terrible task of figuring out how to pay a court-imposed judgment against the city. The city ends up on the losing end of things from time to time. This one had to do with fire hydrants and which color of your money can pay for the ongoing costs associated with fire hydrants.
Since after the Great Fire in 1889, our municipal water service has paid for the hydrant system. For decades, a small portion of our water bills has gone toward making sure the hydrant system functions when we need it.
Five to six years ago your city government got dinged for trying to argue that street lights could be paid for from City Light revenues. In essence the court said, "No way. That’s a basic city service and street lights must come from general tax revenues, not ratepayers." After that case, the same attorneys looked around and noted that fire hydrants might also look to a court like a basic city service and worth a lawsuit. They were right. In late 2008 the final judgment came down that fire hydrants can’t be paid for with your water rates, but must be paid for with your general tax revenues.
City decision makers saw the writing on the wall in 2005 and immediately transferred the cost of the hydrants to the General Fund. Despite this change, the court ruled that Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) must refund fire hydrant costs, plus 12% interest, to customers for the period March 2002 - December 2004, when hydrants were still funded by water rates. With the refunds, other costs related to the court order, and fees owed to the attorneys for the other side, City costs will be almost $22 million.
So, how to pay back water ratepayers and pay off the attorneys in a year when our projected budget deficit will be roughly $25 million?
We could cut the General Fund expenditures by $22 million. That’s unpopular with human service, public safety and parks advocates because cuts would undoubtedly mean cuts in service.
We could take it from the "Rainy Day" Fund, except I’m worried we’ll need every penny of the approximately $30 million in that fund to preserve human services, public safety and other basic services in light of the projected budget deficit due to the economy. The Rainy Day Fund will be needed to stretch us through the next couple of tough years.
We could require Seattle Public Utilities’ Water Fund to "eat" part of the judgment costs. If we deplete the Water Fund too much, though, we endanger the perceived health of the utility. That can prove very expensive to all of us if the bond ratings are downgraded requiring higher interest payments when we borrow to repair and build water pipes.
The Mayor proposed offsetting the court-mandated payback to ratepayers with a temporary increase in water rates called a surcharge. The Mayor proposed an all-at-once surcharge on your water bill that would be partially offset by the amount of the payback (depending on how long you’ve been a ratepayer and how much water you use now compared to 2002-2004 refund period.) The Water Fund would use the surcharge money for SPU’s costs related to the court ruling and to pay for a temporary hike in the water utility tax. The added utility tax money would allow the General Fund to repay the Water Fund for hydrant services from March 2002-December 2004. Got it?
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce did a great job of lighting a fire under councilmembers to come up with an answer that minimized new charges to water consumers. This is not the right time to increase utility costs to any business, individual or family. Too many people are on the financial edge. However, it was hard for me to figure out an alternative that didn’t dig the city into a deeper deficit hole either by compounding the projected 2009 shortfall or depleting the Rainy Day money we have saved to deal with it.
In the end I voted with a majority of councilmembers to take up a small portion of the hit ($1.5 million) from the SPU Water Fund and the rest through the surcharge on water bills over the next 21 months. Under the Mayor’s original scenario, you could find a 143 percent increase in your next water bill. It would be offset somewhat by the payback amount ($45 for an average single-family home or $128 for an average small business) and it would be for just that one billing cycle, but it seemed like too big a hit. The Council’s adopted alternative means that over the next 21 months an average single-family payer will pay $2.83 more each month while an average small business will pay about $7.72 more. Refunds will be issued up-front and should appear on your next bill or the one after that.
This was a classic no-win problem. If it’s a harbinger of all our budget discussions this year, we’re in for a quite a rough ride.
Seattle Fire Marshall Kenneth Tipler chats with Sally at Fire Station 28 in Hillman City. February 4 marked the official launch of the fire station construction program for 2009, after voters generously approved a fire station upgrade levy in 2003.
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