THE GOOD FEELING of a political campaign dissipates quickly, says Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro. "Once you're in office, the expectation is very different."
Nicastro should know: She's had a ringside seat for colleague Peter Steinbrueck's ongoing feud with local homeless and housing activists.
Steinbrueck's critics are concerned that Safe Harbors, a program he has championed to coordinate public and private shelter services, will be used to invasively track the homeless. They also claim Steinbrueck has reneged on a campaign promise to push for a right-of-first-refusal law, which would allow renters to purchase their apartments if they are threatened by demolition or redevelopment.
Steinbrueck, who chairs the council's Housing Committee, says Safe Harbors is an attempt to make services more accessible and is based on successful examples in other cities, including Santa Monica. "The goal was never to track homeless people," he says. "I'm a little tired of hearing that." The right-of-first-refusal law has been delayed because of a pending Washington Supreme Court decision on a similar law, he adds.
Although he received the support of many activists during his two campaigns for council, Steinbrueck skipped a recent housing forum sponsored by several of the housing and homeless rowdies, including the Seattle Displacement Coalition, the Tenants' Union, and the homeless community newspaper Real Change. Although three council members (Nicastro, Richard Conlin, and Nick Licata) participated in the panel discussion, Steinbrueck and fellow Housing Committee members Richard McIver and Heidi Wills didn't attend, citing scheduling conflicts. The absentees might have saved themselves some grief: Conlin, who disagreed with the groups' stands on several issues, found himself lampooned on the cover of the most recent issue of Real Change.
Steinbrueck's troubles with the true believers aren't surprising to Nicastro, who chairs the council's Landlord/Tenant and Land Use Committee, but she cautions that heavy-handed criticisms of officeholders don't get things done in City Hall. "Politics is about relationships, and policy is created with relationships," she says.
Homeless advocates question whether the "walk softly" approach is always warranted, however. "Politics is always based on relationships," agrees Real Change director Tim Harris, "but here [in Seattle] it's very extreme. Everything is personal. Everyone seems really afraid of alienating somebody that you're going to need later on, and that means things don't get challenged that really need to be."
Harris argues that there "has always been a big chasm between where housing and homeless activists are at, and where a majority of the city council is at." This split has been thrown into sharp relief by the election of council members such as Nicastro and Licata, who support the activists on many issues. "The people who support our agenda are relatively powerless to move it forward," Harris says.
Since taking office, says Scott Winn of the Tenants' Union, Steinbrueck has become more cautious and less of a leader on housing issues. "He's almost become more of an obstacle than an ally," Winn says. "I think he needs to do something to put himself back into the effort for renters and affordable housing."
Steinbrueck replies that many of the issues in dispute are largely symbolic. Activists are angry that the city hasn't worked aggressively to repeal a state law banning rent control throughout Washington, but city officials say an aggressive campaign would be futile because they aren't even close to having the votes in Olympia. Steinbrueck also questions the relevance of activist proposals to house homeless people in temporary "tent cities." Steinbrueck wants proponents to line up a pledge from a neighborhood or private property owner willing to embrace a tent city before he'll pursue the matter further.
BY POSITIONING themselves as perennial critics rather than supporters of programs, Steinbrueck argues that activists cut themselves out of the process. He cites his own proposal to add $500,000 for homeless services to this year's budget. "There wasn't one person at the public hearing," he says, and the proposal failed. Yet, homeless activists packed the house to blast Safe Harbors as a plot to track the homeless. "That was pretty disappointing to me," Steinbrueck says.
Steinbrueck further argues that the city's housing needs are best addressed through city support of new apartments built by nonprofit housing developers. "I think the real heroes are the nonprofits that are producing housing at the low end," he says. He also touts the city's multifamily tax exemption program, which offers developers lower taxes for building in areas that the city says need more housing. (Affordability requirements are imposed in all neighborhoods.) Seattle is the only city in the region to meet its goals for new low-income housing, Steinbrueck points out, mainly due to the efforts of nonprofit developers. He also questions whether some housing advocates have become too focused on preserving existing housing, an effort for which city government currently has few legal tools.
Tenant activist Winn disagrees: "Preservation is key to affordability because developers who have money aren't going to build affordable housing." Subsidizing new housing mainly just hands out tax breaks to developers who were going to build anyway, says Winn. "It's that whole corporate welfare model of subsidizing landlords' profits—it isn't going to work."
Steinbrueck also doesn't like activists' unrelenting criticism of the Seattle Housing Authority, a major player in the local low-income housing market. SHA owns over 8,000 houses and apartments that provide homes for over 14,000 poor people. While Steinbrueck is sympathetic to activist concerns that SHA's redevelopment of the Holly Park housing project may lead to a decline in the number of homes for the very poor, he finds the tenor of the complaints unproductive. "I don't think the level of hostility is called for."
The Seattle Displacement Coalition has dogged SHA tirelessly for several years now. For example, the coalition has opposed three of the last four mayoral appointments to the SHA board. Steinbrueck blocked action on one of the four appointees until Mayor Paul Schell submitted a new candidate.
The most recent battle has been over the SHA board appointment of David Bley, a former aide to Mayor Norm Rice who now works at the Federal Home Loan Bank. The criticism has centered on a possible conflict of interest because SHA director Harry Thomas serves on the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank. Bley says he can take the heat. "I don't think this is aimed at me personally," he says. "I think as advocates working on the outside, banging on the walls, it's no surprise they want their own person [on the SHA board]." The Housing Committee voted in favor of Bley's appointment, with Steinbrueck abstaining until the city's ethics officers rule on the conflict-of-interest charges.
The Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox argues that Steinbrueck's committee should hold a public hearing to take testimony on the Bley appointment. Steinbrueck and other committee members say they've reviewed the written arguments of Bley's critics. "Believe me, we hear from people," says Wills. If the public disagrees with the council's decision, members can be removed via the ballot box, notes Steinbrueck. "I was elected by the citizens of Seattle, not by any special interest group."
Both Wills and Steinbrueck say their committee has a full range of issues to cover this year (its full name is the Housing, Human Services, Education, and Civil Rights Committee). In addition to housing policy, Steinbrueck wants to work on repairing the relationship between the city and the Seattle School District. Wills wants to focus some of her time on the issue of domestic violence. Both are interested in participating in the Nicastro-led Renters Summit on June 10.
Steinbrueck adds that activists don't always agree amongst themselves. For example, longtime housing activist Jon Gould has called council members to support Bley's appointment to the SHA board. An interesting historical note: Both Gould and Fox were part of a group of protesters arrested several years ago after they refused to leave Mayor Rice's office. The man who called the cops on them: David Bley. "I still very much disagree with the position [Bley] took then, but there aren't many people in the world I agree with on every issue," says Gould.
But that doesn't mean Gould wants to see homeless and housing activists ignored. "More often than not, time proves that things that the Displacement Coalition says are indeed right."