This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan will roll out more details about her plan—announced earlier this year—to spend the proceeds from the sale of a parcel of city-owned land in South Lake Union on new shelter beds, temporary housing vouchers, and other programs to help people who are homeless or at risk of falling into homelessness. The plan, originally rolled out under the name “Building a Bridge to Housing for All,” includes the renewal of several contracts with the Downtown Emergency Service Center to provide basic shelter to 163 men and women. (I broke the story that the city had decided to continue funding the three shelters, which all lost funding under strict new city funding requirements that de-emphasized spending on basic shelter, earlier this month.) The plan would also expand the overnight shelter inside City Hall by 120 beds, fund 280 new “enhanced shelter” beds, which come with on-site services, and fund several new “tiny house village” encampments that are already underway. In all, the $8.75 million shelter component of the proposal includes 100 new tiny houses, 283 new or renewed basic shelter beds, and 280 beds in enhanced shelters. One question you may be asking is: Wait—wasn’t the city supposed to be moving away from shelter and toward permanent housing? Another: If this is all going to be funded using one-time money from the sale of city property, how is it sustainable? And a third: If DESC is getting its funding renewed despite failing to meet the city’s performance metrics, does this mean the city is acknowledging that requiring service providers to move most clients into permanent housing quickly may be an unattainable goal in a city with virtually no affordable housing for people to move into?
Durkan and city staffers responded to (but didn’t always answer) those questions, and many others, during a sometimes tense press briefing about the proposal yesterday. Let’s take them in turn.
What’s up with all the emphasis on shelter?
At a press briefing outlining the details of her plan on Tuesday, Durkan touted the fact that her proposal represents “the single largest increase in shelter capacity” since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015, and argued that “It would be the wrong thing for the city of Seattle to close shelters and then put people back on the streets.” (The proposal also includes rent vouchers for a small number of high-risk households who are on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list and a payment of several million dollars into an affordable housing fund.) That kind of statement is impossible to challenge—who would want to “close shelters and put people back on the streets”?—and yet it’s kind of what the city itself argued when it decided to emphasize “quality over quantity” in funding shelter beds last year, when the city explicitly cut funding to shelter providers who were unable to convince the city that they could meet its new mandate to move at least 40 percent of their clients into permanent housing within 90 days. At the time, then-mayor Tim Burgess declared sternly, “Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.”
Similarly, Durkan’s alternative head tax proposal would have heavily emphasized getting people off sidewalks and out from under bridges (and out of sight of the homeowners who’ve been inundating city officials with angry emails) over building permanent housing. Durkan’s proposal, which the council rejected for a slightly larger one that emphasized housing over shelter, would have built just 250 affordable rental housing units over five years.
Asked whether she and her Human Services Department were easing up on the strict exits-to-permanent-housing requirement, Durkan responded, “We are still making sure that there’s accountability within the system, and when I say accountability, I mean effective. … But in the short term, we are going to make sure that as we work with [our] partners to increase the ability to get housing for people, we are going to work with them to people off the streets. It is not an option to leave people in place. It is not.”
How does Durkan plan to pay for this in the long term?
It appears that long-term funding for Durkan’s plan would come primarily from the head tax—a $275-per-employee tax on companies with gross receipts above $20 million that passed earlier this month. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, the adopted head tax plan includes between $15 million and $16 million a year to continue programs, like the shelter beds that are being funded with one-time proceeds from the sale of land in South Lake Union, “which had one-time funding in the 2018 budget, or insufficient funding,” plus unspecified “new emergency, temporary, and enhanced shelters, navigation centers… and/or service and safe parking for vehicular living.”
If Amazon (and the army of anti-tax homeowners currently gathering signatures to overturn a tax on the city’s largest businesses on their) has their way, the city will need to come up with another way to pay for all those new (and newly re-funded) shelter beds. Asked what she would do if the head tax is overturned, Durkan joked, “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”
What about those performance metrics?
Homeless service providers were recently told that they were getting a three-month grace period before the city starts penalizing them for failing to meet its strict performance metrics. Durkan said the city will penalize providers who fail to meet those metrics once the grace period is over, and said that numerous programs are already meeting the new standards. However, she was somewhat defensive when several reporters pointed out that the point of the new performance standards was ostensibly to move away from funding short-term shelters—and that a major expansion of short-term shelters seemed like a move in the opposite direction.
“We cannot be so pure at this point that we just say, ‘Put people out on the street,'” Durkan said. “Moving a whole system to a performance-based system doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice human beings and throw them in the street. You can move a system to be better and more performance-based and still have the reality that some shelter is better than [no] shelter. … It doesn’t happen overnight. There is no silver bullet. It is a very complicated system, and we are going to work with the reality on the ground, and one of those realities is going to be that we are not going to just turn people out onto the street.” It’s a message that both homeless advocates (who made very similar arguments back when the new performance metrics were being adopted) or anti-homeless activists (whose primary goal seems to be reducing the visible signs of homelessness, particularly in their neighborhoods or on their routes to work) could theoretically get behind. The problem it, it’s not the city’s adopted policy—which is what makes it a confusing message as well.
* In particular, Durkan highlighted the city’s rapid rehousing programs, which provide short-term rent vouchers that formerly homeless people can use to rent on the private market, as a success story, saying that just 3 percent of all voucher recipients have returned to homelessness in the first quarter of 2018. However, the success or failure of a program that purports to provide “permanent” housing should probably be graded on a longer period of time than three or even six months—HSD’s official standard—given that people may still be receiving subsidies after that short a time. Also, a King County audit recently found that in general, rapid rehousing programs across the county are failing to meet most performance metrics, including not just returns to homelessness but the amount of time it takes for people to move from shelter to permanent housing.
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