Seattle Suburb Says It's Not NIMBY By Using Its Zoning Code to Force Homeless Individuals Out

And Biden's School Reopening Goal

Good morning!

I have two new stories to share this week:

The first, in The Appeal, was pretty disheartening to report. It’s a really classic example of how NIMBYism works in practice — where individuals insist they’re not being NIMBYs, that in fact they’re actually very inclusive and welcoming, but they’re just using their zoning code to make it harder for vulnerable people to live there. 🤷‍♀️

In states across the country — as part of a way to contain the spread of Covid-19 — counties moved homeless individuals out of congregate shelters (i.e. places where they slept in the same room) into vacant hotels, to reduce the likelihood of spread. Moving individuals into their own rooms ended up having a lot of other benefits beyond reducing transmission, researchers found, like improving their feelings of stability, health, and well-being, and increased rates of transition to permanent housing. 

Nonetheless, not all communities have been happy to host their homeless neighbors during a global public health emergency, and I looked at how the city of Renton, a suburb of Seattle, has been trying to get the 235 homeless people staying at a vacant Renton hotel out since April. First Renton leaders filed a formal code violation against the hotel and King County — saying they had exceeded the lawful uses of a “hotel” according to Renton’s zoning code. They spent the summer in legal proceedings.

By the fall Renton leaders moved to pass an “emergency ordinance” to “clarify” exactly under what terms a homeless services organization could operate in their city. While Renton says this is to ensure there can be homeless services safely operating in the future — that they’re not running away from the challenges of homelessness — homeless service providers say the new requirements in the zoning code will make it all but impossible for nonprofits to feasibly operate. And, the measure, which the City Council approved in December, would require more than half of those currently living at the hotel to leave by June 1. King County’s health commissioner begged Renton to not pass this amid the pandemic, but they did anyway.

You can read this story here. I think it’s important, and while it’s the most egregious form of legal resistance I’ve encountered to housing the homeless so far during the pandemic, it’s not the only example, and I’m sure it’s far from the last we’ll see if, as many experts hope, we are able to move more homeless people into non-congregate settings in the future.

The second story was published in Bloomberg Businessweek, and looks at Biden’s plan to reopen a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days. The short of it is that the goal itself is actually not too hard to meet, and may have already been met.

There’s no comprehensive federal list yet, but a private company called Burbio, which aggregates school and community calendars, has been keeping track of school re-openings and estimates 64 percent of elementary and middle school students are already seeing some in-person instruction, or have the option to.

The main point, I think, is that Biden meeting this goal, is unlikely to feel very “mission accomplished” for most families. “Reopened schools” can be ones where the majority of families are still learning virtually, or where students come into classrooms just one or two days per week to ensure social distancing. Reopened schools can, and often do, close again if a certain number of cases are detected in a school building, or if community rates rise to a certain point. What metrics should trigger closures is a big point of debate nationwide. And how the B.1.1.7 variant is going to affect transmission in late March/April is a big question mark everyone is rightfully thinking about. You can read that story here.

Thanks as always for reading, and supporting this work.