“All Good” or “Backroom Deal”? New Regional Homelessness Plan Goes Under the Microscope

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles

UPDATE: I’ve posted a brief update to this morning’s post on Twitter, including details of more changes that grant additional power to suburban cities.

A new regional homelessness plan that would give elected officials, including representatives of suburban cities, more direct control over the new authority has been moving forward rapidly over the past week—so fast, in fact, that several Seattle City Council members indicated they wouldn’t mind (gently) tapping the brakes. On Monday, as council member Sally Bagshaw laid out a two-week timeline for the council to approve a plan that many of them hadn’t even seen, several of her colleagues protested that they felt pressured to rush the proposal through without thoroughly considering what’s in it.

“While I appreciate the desire to try to avoid avoidable delay, I also don’t want us to … unnecessarily rush our decision-making process and our review of whatever it is the King County Council is considering this week,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said. Debora Juarez added that the plan “has changed at least four times in the last week, and so I’m a little bit concerned as well.”

While that discussion was going on, the union that represents staffers for the city’s Homelessness Investment and Strategy division, PROTEC17, was also getting up to speed. On Monday, PROTEC17 union rep Shaun van Eyk sent an email urging HSI staffers to flag concerns about the new proposal at upcoming meetings of the county’s Regional Policy Committee, the King County Council, and the Seattle City Council. “Each one of these hearings are opportunities to comment and/or attempt to delay this move,” van Eyk wrote.

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“There has been months and months and months of work—constituency-building, engaging with community, engaging with service providers, and all of that engagement was filtered into the proposal, and now, at the 11th hour, the city’s going to cut a backroom deal with the county to completely upend all that coalition building,” Van Eyk told me Monday. “And for what? It’s a political move.”

As I reported last week, the latest proposal to create a consolidated regional homelessness authority differs significantly from the plan King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Jenny Durkan rolled out in September. Under the original plan, all major budget, policy, and hiring decisions would have been made by an 11-member “governing board” of experts with no connections to elected officials or organizations that receive government funding. A 7-or-8-member “steering committee” would oversee the governing board, but their duties would be limited to appointing the initial members of the board (which would become self-perpetuating after five years) and approving or rejecting budgets and policy plans without amendment.

The new plan, which was still being amended as of late Monday afternoon, replaces the advisory steering committee with a powerful 12-member “governing board” consisting of three elected officials each from King County, Seattle, and the Sound Cities Association, plus three members with lived experience of homelessness. A revamped “implementation board” would still have the authority to write budgets and direct policy and hire an executive director, but the governing board would be able to amend and edit these documents by a two-thirds vote, and would be responsible for choosing the members of the implementation board in perpetuity.

The new plan, van Eyk says, doesn’t just put power back in the hands of elected officials. lt also gives more power to suburban cities that won’t be contributing financially to the new authority—and whose homelessness policies may differ sharply from King County’s or Seattle’s. By giving the SCA three votes on the board, “the city and county would be letting non-constituents have a say in where their dollars are being spent,” van Eyk says. He also worries that by allowing the governing board to rewrite budgets and policies by a two-thirds vote, the new structure “fully tokenizes” the three board members with lived experience, allowing them to be overruled by the nine elected officials on the board.

It’s unclear whether HSI staffers, who have seen major upheaval in their division and face an uncertain future at the new authority, will feel motivated to stick out their necks by testifying against the latest plan. Even if they do, the city and county council’s are highly motivated to approve (and get credit for passing) something this year. Under the current schedule, the RPC will adopt some version of the new plan on Thursday, and the county and city councils will approve the final plan next week, just in time for their last meetings of the year. Delaying the proposal would mean pushing adoption back significantly, possibly until February of next year.

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