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Judge strikes Seattle homelessness measure from ballot

Aug. 27, 2021 Updated Fri., Aug. 27, 2021 at 8:04 p.m.

Apartment buildings in the background, pedestrians walk past tents used by people lacking housing on March 3 at Denny Park near the Space Needle in Seattle.  (Ted S. Warren)
Apartment buildings in the background, pedestrians walk past tents used by people lacking housing on March 3 at Denny Park near the Space Needle in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren)
By Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE – A Washington state judge struck a Seattle measure on homelessness from the November ballot even as the city remains mired in a long-term humanitarian crisis.

The so-called “Compassion Seattle” proposal would direct the city to provide 2,000 units of emergency or permanent housing within a year and require the city to ensure parks, playgrounds and sidewalks remain clear of encampments.

King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer said Friday that it would conflict with state law and usurp the City Council’s power.

Shaffer said she and other voters might like what the measure’s proponents are trying to do, but it exceeds what can be accomplished through a local charter amendment.

“You can’t amend a city charter to conflict with state law,” Shaffer said. “I like this charter amendment as a voter. But as a judge, it cannot stand.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Transit Riders Union sued to block the measure, officially known as Charter Amendment 29. They argued that it is beyond the scope of local initiative power and violates state law on how local governments can address homelessness.

The pro-amendment campaign called the lawsuit “another blatant tactic to preserve and protect the status quo.”

“We are deeply disappointed with today’s ruling by the King County Superior Court denying Seattle voters the opportunity to have their voices heard on the number one issue facing our city,” Compassion Seattle said in a statement Friday. “This ruling maintains the status quo, which is obviously not working as evident by the increase in people experiencing homelessness and the encampments taking over our parks and public spaces. While we explore our options, we urge the public not to give up the fight.”

According to the lawsuit, state law gives local legislative bodies – city and county councils – the exclusive authority to develop plans targeting homelessness. Further, it says, the amendment would undermine the city’s binding agreement with King County creating a regional homelessness authority and would unlawfully waive land-use regulations to speed the development of emergency and permanent housing.

Proposed Charter Amendment 29 has received mixed feedback. Seattle’s mayoral candidates were almost evenly split on it in this month’s primary; of the top-two vote-getters who advanced to the general election, former City Council member Bruce Harrel supports it, saying the city must act with more urgency on the issue, while City Council President Lorena González opposes it, calling it an unfunded mandate that could lead to cuts in vital services.

Some homeless nonprofit leaders and advocates have spoken in favor of it, but others have started a campaign called House Our Neighbors to encourage voters to oppose it.

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