Last year, when she delivered her first State of the City speech after just three months in office, Mayor Jenny Durkan called herself “the Impatient Mayor,” and laid out a laundry list of goals for her first year. On the list: Free college for all high school graduates; “bust[ing] through gridlock” by improving access to transit and making roads and sidewalks safer for cyclists and pedestrians; increasing infrastructure for electric cars and promoting green buildings; and doubling the number of people the city moves from homelessness into permanent housing.
This year, Durkan hit on similar themes—climate; affordability; transit access; affordable housing—and made her best case that the city has made progress on all those fronts during her first year in office. In the past year, Durkan said, the city has passed the Seattle Promise program to give high school graduates two free years at a Seattle community college; offered free ORCA transit passes to thousands of high school students; “invested over $710 million together with our partners in affordable housing”; made “the largest shelter increase in our city’s history,” and passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which guarantees new minimum wages and rest breaks to Seattle domestic workers. Durkan also said the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” during her first year in office.
The housing numbers are debatable. The $710 million figure comes mostly from non-city funding, such as the state housing trust fund, and private dollars (see chart above). And, although Durkan can say that she achieved her goal of 500 new shelter spaces, the majority of these are basic shelter (mats on floors or bunk beds in open dorms in places like Harborview Hall, a new nighttime-only King County shelter, run by the Salvation Army) or spots in authorized encampments and “tiny house villages” where people live in small garden-shed-like structures with heating and doors that lock. Enhanced, low-barrier shelter—shelters that provide services, give people a place to be during the day, and allow residents to stay with their partners and pets—have a much higher success rate than other models at getting people into permanent housing. Last year, for example, the city’s Human Services Department reported that 21 percent of people entering enhanced shelter exited shelter into permanent housing; for basic shelter, that number was 4 percent.
Durkan’s claim to have moved “more than 7,400 households… out of homelessness” also demands scrutiny. The mayor’s office confirms that that number includes not only people who went from homelessness into housing (the city created 360 new affordable housing units last year, Durkan said in her speech) but those who were at risk of homelessness and managed to stay housed. Durkan’s office has not yet responded to a request for a more detailed breakdown of the 7,400 figure.
State of the City speeches are rarely the vehicle for mayors to announce major new initiatives, and Durkan kept her list of new proposals modest: Requiring all new buildings that have off-street parking, including new duplexes and single-family houses, to include charging infrastructure for electric vehicles; a new $1,000 scholarship to help income-eligible participants in the Seattle Promise program pay for non-tuition college expenses; providing free transit passes to about 1,500 low income Seattle Housing Authority tenants; expanding Ride2, King County Metro’s on-demand van program in West Seattle, to serve commuters in South Seattle. And she said she would issue an “executive order to refocus our work on strategies to prevent displacement and displacement” on Wednesday.