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Community Councilmembers threaten to resign over LIHI, Nickelsville split

A line of tiny houses stand with their backs to the adjacent street at a homeless encampment in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Members of Community Advisory Councils for City-sponsored tiny home villages threatened Monday to resign if the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) doesn’t return to the table to renegotiate with Nickelsville, following a split between the two parties announced by LIHI last week.

RELATED: LIHI, Nickelsville split up over homeless camp management
RELATED: Seattle sweeps Nickelsville encampment

“The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI)’s unilateral decision to terminate their cooperation with Nickelsville is premature and irresponsible,” a letter from members of two CACs addressed to Seattle City Council and Mayor Durkan reads, going on to accuse LIHI of “not act(ing) in good faith.”

The split was announced in early-April, with LIHI citing differences between the two organizations that were “not reconcilable,” and claiming that Nickelsville failed to prioritize transitioning its homeless residents out of villages, and into permanent housing.

The main issue, according to LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee, emerged as the two parties attempted to work out a memorandum of understanding this month. LIHI wanted more case management, and Nickelsville wanted more self-management.

Nickelsville voted to reject LIHI’s MOU. LIHI didn’t like Nickelsville’s version. Lee wrote that it undermined “key aspects of the program and our working relationship.”

The letter from Community Advisory Councilmembers in turn levies a litany of allegations against LIHI regarding its own management of tiny home villages.

LIHI has repeatedly failed to provide the case management services it was contracted for, failed to deliver on basic health and safety responsibilities such as providing bedbug control services, and drawn complaints from residents against its staff for sexual harassment and misconduct.

It goes on to petition the City of Seattle to compel LIHI to “return to the negotiation table with Nickelsville,” and draft a new “mutually agreeable MOU.”

The falling out between the two parties had activist allies of Nickelsville padlocking tiny home villages in Northlake, Othello, and Georgetown, in an effort to keep police, city employees, and LIHI staff (excepting case managers) out.

“This crisis is the direct and completely avoidable result of the actions of LIHI,” the letter alleges.

The letter was signed by seven members of Community Advisory Councils for both Northlake and Othello. If LIHI doesn’t meet their terms, the signatories noted that “individual or mass resignation may be appropriate” for members of the city-mandated advisory councils.

The full letter reads:

As members of the City-mandated Community Advisory Councils (CAC) for two of the City-sponsored Tiny House Village homeless encampments, we are disturbed by the escalating crisis at the Northlake, Othello and Georgetown villages.

The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI)’s unilateral decision to terminate their cooperation with Nickelsville is premature and irresponsible. Nickelsville is the organization originally mandated via the City of Seattle Human Services Division (HSD) formal Request for Qualification process to manage these three villages and their removal from this role was never discussed, let alone agreed upon, in a transparent process. Residents of the villages are afraid for their homes and safety; protest of this urgent situation has residents and Nickelsville staff padlocking themselves inside the villages and holding police, LIHI and City staff at bay.

This crisis is the direct and completely avoidable result of the actions of LIHI, an agency the City has contracted to act as “fiscal sponsor” and, more recently, “operator” of the villages. Having sat with and listened to all parties involved in the situation for the past years, we are forced to conclude that LIHI has not acted in good faith.

The stated reason for LIHI’s sudden decision to terminate Nickelsville as operator of the villages was that Nickelsville did not agree to certain terms in LIHI’s proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) before the City-imposed deadline of March 8th. However, the difficulty in meeting the City’s deadline was caused, not by Nickelsville’s unwillingness to compromise with LIHI, but by LIHI’s unaccountable failure to negotiate the MOU during 2018.

Nickelsville submitted a draft MOU in early Fall 2018 to LIHI. LIHI submitted no revision or counter-draft during 2018, and they have given no reason for the delay.  LIHI’s first counter-draft MOU was not submitted until February 12, 2019, in a version that took little account of the previous Nickelsville draft, and they provided no ability for Nickelsville to review the proposal prior to the meeting. This left slightly over three weeks for negotiation and revision.

Notwithstanding this long delay, sudden deadline, and disrespectful process, Nickelsville responded nine days later on February 21 with a revised draft which LIHI staff described as “95% the same” as LIHI’s draft. Those of us at that February 21 meeting witnessed disagreements but also deep concessions by both sides and were hopeful that further negotiation and compromise could resolve the issues.

Subsequent meetings showed continued disagreement but also further compromises on both sides. Had it not been for LIHI’s months-long delay and then the sudden introduction of a deadline by the City, it appears to us that this process would have resulted in a mutually acceptable agreement. LIHI’s termination of Nickelsville appears to be an attempt to shift responsibility for the failure from LIHI to Nickelsville.

We are aware that there are questions about the fitness of both Nickelsville and LIHI to serve as operators of the camp. LIHI has repeatedly failed to provide the case management services it was contracted for, failed to deliver on basic health and safety responsibilities such as providing bedbug control services, and drawn complaints from residents against its staff for sexual harassment and misconduct. Nickelsville has in turn been accused by LIHI of failing to provide transparency into its “bar” procedure and presenting obstacles to the case managers in performing their duties.

However, LIHI’s termination of Nickelsville was specifically ascribed to a breakdown in the MOU process, and that is why we feel it necessary to report that we have seen Nickelsville responding in a timely manner and making good-faith efforts to compromise and reach agreement, while LIHI has not.

At the October 23, 2018 meeting of the Northlake Nickelsville CAC, both LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee and Nickelsville staff representative Scott Morrow “agreed to the necessity of mediation to repair the relationship” (as captured in the minutes). LIHI’s long delay cut short negotiation and cut off the possibility of mediation.

Nickelsville is asking for a cooling-off period of some weeks and then resumption of negotiations with a mutually-agreed-upon mediator.  We think this is a reasonable request, and those of us who witnessed the previous negotiations still think agreement is possible.

Therefore, we ask that the City, as the co-signers of the contract investing LIHI with responsibility for the camps and Nickelsville with the day-to-day operations of the camps, immediately direct LIHI to return to the negotiation table with Nickelsville and seek, in good faith, a mutually agreeable MOU that would allow them to continue to act in partnership to operate the Northlake, Othello and Georgetown Tiny House Villages, setting whatever deadline is deemed appropriate. We further ask that trained third-party mediation services be provided to the parties to allow them maximum opportunity for success. 

Absent such re-engagement, we, the members of the CACs, who were selected as representatives of our respective local communities, feel that our time invested in continuing participation in the councils will be ill-spent, and individual or mass resignation may be appropriate.

We are aware our departure would leave LIHI in breach of contract with the City, as participation of the CACs is a mandatory element in those contracts. It would be unfortunate to leave LIHI without its required community support just as it has concluded negotiations with the City for continuation of their multimillion-dollar contract for services in 2019.

We hope that LIHI’s simple agreement to re-engage in negotiations, without pre-supposing the outcome of those negotiations, will be enough to avert this collapse. We urge you to direct LIHI to reconsider its sudden and precipitous decision and consider the good of the residents of the villages and the City at large in deciding to re-open the MOU conversations.

Moving forward, we hope the City will re-examine the legal and contractual structures that have been set up to manage the Tiny House Villages. Clearer structures will include more defined responsibilities and accountability processes for all parties, and will help avert crises like this in the future.

Thank you,

Wendy Barrington, Northlake CAC
Jami Fecher, Northlake CAC
Sarah Jones, Northlake CAC
Edward Mast, Northlake CAC
Jordan Schwartz, Northlake CAC
Eliana Scott-Thoennes, Othello CAC
Jesiah Wurtz, Othello CAC

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