At a news conference in the common room of a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run permanent supportive housing facility this afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray released details of his five-year, $275-million proposal to address homelessness, which includes short- and long-term housing vouchers, new funding for 24-hour shelters, expanded medication treatment for opioid addiction, and permanent housing for people who need intensive services. What the proposal doesn’t include is funding for transitional housing, traditional overnight shelters, or a broad expansion of inpatient treatment for people whose addictions can’t be treated by medication.
Acknowledging that the $55 million annual commercial and residential property tax levy would represent an additional burden for Seattle taxpayers, Murray said he had hoped the federal government would pick up some of the tab for addressing what is also a national emergency. “When I announced the [homelessness] state of emergency, when we announced [the homelessness response plan] Pathways Home, I emphasized … that we could not do it alone; we needed the federal government,” Murray said. “In my State of the City address, I basically conceded a point that many of you in the media have challenged me on: that federal help is not coming.” In fact, Murray said, “we will probably see less money than we see today.”
The briefing came just one day after the city removed the few remaining stragglers from the SoDo homeless encampment known as the Field, to which the city itself directed people five months ago when it cleared the vast encampment under I-5 called the Jungle. Earlier this week, residents of the camp and their supporters showed up to the 2pm city council meeting to ask the council to delay the sweep, arguing that the city had failed to respond to repeated requests for things like sawdust, additional port-a-potties, fire extinguishers, and trash pickup, making the squalor at the camp inevitable. The city argued that the camp was not just unsanitary but unsafe, citing the arrest last week of a camp resident for rape and sex trafficking of teenage girls.
Murray’s proposal emphasizes getting people indoors through “rapid rehousing” in the form of temporary rental subsidies for housing on the private market; the mayor’s proposal would divide those subsidies into “short-term, medium-term, and long-term vouchers,” Murray said today. (The proposals are based on a set of recommendations called Pathways Home, which in turn is based on a report by Columbus, Ohio consultant Barb Poppe, and another firm called Focus Strategies). Short-term vouchers could provide rental assistance for as little as three months, while medium-term vouchers could last 18 months or longer, and long-term vouchers would effectively be permanent.
A slightly more detailed breakdown of the measure provided by the city reveals that the vast majority of the housing vouchers it would pay for would be either short- or medium-term, meaning that when they run out, formerly homeless renters will need to make enough money to pay for a market-rate apartment. (Currently, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is just under $2000). About 4,250 of the 5,100 “housing exits” the proposal aims to accomplish over five years take the form of short- or medium-term housing vouchers; another 475 people would receive long-term vouchers, and 373 would be moved into permanent supportive housing. The proposal also aims to prevent 1,750 people from becoming homeless through diversion programs, and to provide subsidies for 1,500 people to move into clean-and-sober Oxford Houses over the next five years.
Other than the subsidies for Oxford housing, the mayor’s proposal includes no new funding for transitional housing, temporary housing that’s somewhere between a shelter and a private apartment. It does include 200 new beds at 24-hour, low-barrier shelters, which would replace some funding for traditional overnight-only shelters in the city’s 2018 budget, according to details provided by the city.
Although rapid rehousing hasn’t been implemented on the scale Murray is proposing in a city with a comparably unaffordable rental market (in the cities most commonly cited as rapid-rehousing success stories, Salt Lake City and Houston, a one-bedroom apartment costs about half what a comparable unit rents for in Seattle), council human services committee chair Sally Bagshaw said it was time to stop asking questions and start taking action. “We can debate, we can continue to study, or we can do what our experts have recommended to us,” Bagshaw said. “Do we just keep studying it, or do we invest big in what we know works?”
The proposal also includes a $10 million “housing innovation fund”—unallocated dollars that will go toward finding new housing models and building types that might be cheaper and faster to bring online than conventional low-income housing. Murray’s housing policy advisor Leslie Brinson Price said today that the fund is meant to “spur new thinking and provide a way to pilot projects” that the city might not try otherwise, like modular construction and cohousing.
Substance abuse treatment makes up a relatively small portion of the proposed levy, about $20 million of the $275 million total. That treatment consists primarily of programs that expand access to buprenorphine, brand name Suboxone, a replacement opiate that reduces cravings in people who are addicted to heroin and other opioids, and “housing with intensive outpatient substance use disorder treatment,” which Price said would also focus on buprenorphine distribution.
The measure would add 16 new inpatient treatment beds as part of a pilot project based on Philadelphia’s Journey of Hope project, which offers long-term residential treatment for chronically homeless individuals. The proposal does not appear to explicitly include treatment for alcohol addiction, which is also extremely pre homeless people as as addiction to heroin and other opiates, or other drugs with more complicated courses of treatment than taking a daily dose of Suboxone.
Asked about the relatively small emphasis on treatment—a subject that comes up often in discussions about homelessness—Murray said, “Remember, addiction treatment is not a city function, it is a county function. … We are getting into new lines of business that I hoped we wouldn’t get into, but again, if you look at the restricted nature of the county’s funding and the fact that they constantly find themselves cutting budgets, that’s why we’re getting into buying some services from them.”
As I noted earlier this week, by gathering enough signatures to take his measure directly the ballot, Murray is effectively bypassing the city council, which tends to tinker with (and often reduce) mayoral spending proposals. Asked why he chose this tactic over the more traditional course of sending the ballot measure to the council for approval, Murray said, “I thought it was important for this to come from the community, for signatures to be gathered through a grassroots effort, rather than the usual model of doing things where the council puts it on the ballot. .. It gives people the chance to think about whether they want to sign that measure and whether they want to vote for that measure.” Then, smiling slightly, Murray added, “I mean, I’m a former legislator. [Legislators] always change the executive’s budget.”
Assuming supporters gather the requisite 20,000 valid signatures, the measure will be on the August 1 ballot—alongside Ed Murray, who is running for reelection.
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