New ‘Nickelsville’ locale puts port mission in the spotlight

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By Eliza Ridgeway and Isaac Benham
Northwest Hub
When homeless residents of the “Nickelsville” tent community moved into Port of Seattle’s Terminal 107 (T107) Park in West Seattle late last month, the port responded with sympathetic, but unswerving, rejection. Now, the port is bringing an eviction action against the encampment in the Superior Court of King County. The proceedings will begin at 10 a.m. before Judge Paris Kallas at the Court’s 516 3rd St. location in downtown Seattle. The port’s claim is that temporary occupation of the park on West Marginal Way is not a legally sustainable action.

T107 Park is a 7.2-acre property located on Elliot Bay that the port converted from industrial use to open space. The park has since been improved with a series of pedestrian trails and park amenities. In an interview last week, Port of Seattle Public Affairs Officer Peter McGraw said, “To have them on our property is illegal for us to do. And it’s illegal for them to be there … that’s a city statute, they can’t be in any park,”

The port anticipates it will secure an unlawful detainer – effectively, an eviction ruling from a trial court judge – by Aug. 21. Camp residents hope that a compelling argument can be made to prevent that from happening.

“Basically, Nickelsville needs an attorney,” Nickelsville resident Gregory Lewis said. “I’m assuming we’re going to need one for the unlawful detainer, but also we know the port says it’s against the law, as far as their laws go… to house the homeless.” Lewis, who was housed until about three months ago, described his stay at the park as compatible with other park users, and idyllic compared with other options for local homeless men and women.

“It’s really beautiful – we’re on the water. With the sun being the way it is and the shade, during different parts of the day, it’s a really nice park,” Lewis said. “Even granted the traffic on West Marginal Way, it’s a world away from where we were.”

The port’s public affairs officer is quick to note the encampment is in a sensitive shoreline area. “We’re approaching this whole thing with a degree of compassion – we know these folks aren’t in a good situation, personally and organizationally.”

Nickelsville residents and supporters hope they can persuade the port to use that compassion to interpret its use provisions in the encampment’s favor. Failing that, they hope to rouse a groundswell of support from taxpayers who want the camp to stay where it is. This is a tactic the group has employed in past disputes over the camp’s inhabitance of public land: a history of wrangling with local authorities.

Nickelsville coalesced as a community last year, selecting a name that invokes criticism of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and the city’s response to homelessness and homeless encampments, some of which have been razed by officials.

“Nickelsville’s primary goal is to find a permanent site, anything over a year,” Lewis said. “The problem with tent cities, when you move every 90 days it kind of puts a damper on stability.”

Despite its transient nature, Nickelsville maintains portable toilets, grey water disposal and a dumpster to minimize the camp’s impact. Port of Seattle officials have recognized the community’s good intentions and policy of self-management, but insist that the issue boils down to legal necessity.

A 2005 state audit clearly indicates that ports cannot make financial contributions to community organizations for housing the poor. Although Article VIII, Section 7 of the state constitution allows for the contribution of government resources “for the necessary support of the poor and infirm,” the audit found that “other local governments have the authority to provide services such as education, health and housing. However such services are outside of those authorized by the Legislature for Washington State Ports.”

The auditor’s report asserted that giving public funds to a charitable organization that housed the poor exceeded the port’s authority, but the port interpreted it to prohibit the use of port lands to host homeless groups as well.

The port’s reading is not altogether implausible, as an analogy could reasonably be drawn between the gifting of public funds to house the poor and the leasing of public lands for the same purpose without charging a reasonable rent. Furthermore, the report summarized the port’s own policy toward “promotional hosting” on port property as a practice that is “generally undertaken to develop business or foster good will between a supplier, customer or trade partner (whether current or potential) and the port.” This portion of the report could be cited to establish that the port has limited the scope of its own hosting activities to those that relate to the marketing of port services.

However, others have argued on behalf of Nickelsville that the auditor’s report is not necessarily inconsistent with the legality of using port lands to host the encampment. It’s possible the analogy between the gifting of public funds and allowing use of public lands without compensation might not be accepted by a court. It’s also possible the Port’s own policy on promotional hosting acts to define an activity explicitly allowed by a 1960s amendment; neither the decades-old amendment nor the Port’s own policies expressly prohibit other kinds of hosting activities. That there appears to be no legal precedent espousing the Port’s interpretation of the 2005 audit might lead some to speculate that the matter is not so cut and dry from a legal standpoint as the Port has represented.

Nonetheless, the Port has maintained throughout that the use of Port property to host Nicklesville would be outside the bounds of the law. “The audit really defined a lot of the scope in terms of what the Port as a government can and cannot do. One thing we cannot do is gift public lands,” McGraw said. “We’re a port, we have a very specific role as a port government—unlike a city government, we don’t provide food, we don’t provide homes.” The Port of Seattle is charged with promoting tourism and economic growth in the region.

Port officials are calling for another organization to proffer land or resources for the group. But as Nickelsville residents have found over the last 10 months, offers are hard to come by.

Nickelsville proponents argue that helping the public in the form of emergency housing is no more antithetical to the Port’s mission than maintaining public parkland. “We challenge [the Port] to look seriously at [its] claim that the state auditor won’t allow emergency shelter when thousands are homeless and hundreds over the last five years have died outside and by violence in King County,” Nickelsville residents and supporters wrote on the encampment’s website. “It is time to stop thinking of the public only as those well-off enough to ride the cruise ships docking in the harbor, or passengers getting off the planes at SeaTac. We have equal value as citizens, but will settle for much less of a subsidy than the cruise ship and airline industries get from the Port.”

Nickelsville residents plan to hold an open house at the T107 Park so that members of the community can familiarize themselves with the location, the encampment and its participants’ stories.

“Just know that from my perspective, we’re just people out here trying to do the right thing in spite of our situation,” Lewis said. “We’re not looking for a handout, we’re looking for a hand-up… It’s better than the alternative, than what we already have in place (as a city)… I don’t want to live in a tent forever. But I’m blessed to be able to have it.”

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