In voting this afternoon to merge its homelessness efforts with those of King County and its suburban cities this afternoon, the city of Seattle has signed off on a heavily and hastily amended plan that even its most ardent proponents acknowledge is not “transformational.” The new regional homelessness authority will have no additional spending authority, be run by elected officials rather than subject matter experts, and will give significant power to suburban cities who will receive funding from Seattle and King County but will not contribute financially to the authority. Council members who supported the compromise—some of them on the way out the door—extolled its virtues in this afternoon’s council meeting.
“Right now, getting 39 cities together and one county is our first step” toward fixing the problem of homelessness, retiring council member Sally Bagshaw said. “This is not a perfect [agreement]. Nobody thinks that we have gotten this 100 percent right. But we do have opportunities… to make the necessary modifications” in the future, through future discussions about the authority’s bylaws and a document called the “master agreement.”
Lorena Gonzalez, who cast the lone “no” vote, said she couldn’t support the legislation because it still had “significant flaws”—and because Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had been unable to get even one member of the King County Council to sign off on a letter committing to addressing the issues she has raised over the past two weeks. “Politics have already taken hold in this structure, and that is saddening to me,” Gonzalez said.
Seattle will contribute the most actual funding to the new authority—about $73 million, plus $2 million in startup costs. King County will put in contributions worth $55 million, including the use of currently vacant office space in the Yesler Building in Pioneer Square.
Despite efforts by some city council members (notably incoming council president Lorena Gonzalez) to slow down the process and take some time to assess the many last-minute amendments contributed by King County Council members (notably council president Rod Dembowski), the council ended up adopting the county council’s “compromise” proposal without any changes, alongside a companion ordinance that lays out the city’s “intent” for the authority. Those intentions include a desire that all programs funded by the authority be “evidence based,” that changes to budgets and policy plans require a minimum of eight votes of the 12-member governing board, and that the new “sub-regional plans” created by the regional legislation also be “evidence-based.” The
Although the ordinance suggests that the city’s “intent” is that the new authority will meet a number of “expectations,” the city council does not have the actual authority to require the regional agency to do anything—one reason the word “require” does not appear in the city council’s legislation. Although the council’s ordinance includes some strong language about practices that “shall be” adopted by the regional authority, Seattle’s only real hammer if the authority chooses to ignore the council’s nonbinding wishes is to withhold funding from the agency—a power Gonzalez described as “the nuclear option” last week, in part because exercising it would mean withholding funding from service providers and, by extension, their homeless clients.
Tess Colby—the chief homelessness advisor to Mayor Jenny Durkan, pointed out that the “guiding principles” in the regional legislation also say that the authority “shall adopt an evidence-based, housing first orientation.” This “orientation” language, Colby told me last week, “clearly establishes the approach to work that the authority must adhere to” in adopting policies through its five-year plan.
However, the legislation also says that it’s important to “value distinctions in local context, needs and priorities through effective Sub-Regional Planning Activity,” an explicit nod to the fact that suburban cities may want to use Seattle and King County’s money to fund shelters that mandate sobriety, or to pay for housing subject to restrictive local rules. Colby told me that the “evidence-based… orientation” requirement would also influence which programs get funded through a competitive process—but she also noted that shelters that require sobriety, for example, are supported by some evidence.
The upshot is that suburban cities that adopt more conservative policies that don’t align with the kind of housing-first principles Seattle generally supports could receive Seattle tax dollars for these programs—and that if Seattle objects, its only recourse is to use its budgeting power to pull funding from the authority.
The interlocal agreement also:
• Creates a new governing board (formerly called the “steering committee”), made up of nine elected officials (three from Seattle, three from King County, and three from suburban cities), plus three people “representing those with Lived Experience” of homelessness, one of whom must be from outside Seattle). The board will have the authority to hire and fire the CEO of the authority, amend its five-year policy plan, and amend its budget.
In the original version of the proposal—crafted largely by a firm called National Innovation Service, which has received almost $675,000 from King County—this board would have had just seven members, and would have been basically advisory. Major decisions would have been up to a board of subject-matter experts—a structure intentionally designed to insulate the new agency from political pressure.
• Creates a new “implementation board” (formerly called the “governing board) of 13 people, including four appointed by the city, four by the county, two by the Sound Cities Association, and three by a new advisory committee. This board will send a recommended five-year plan and budget to the governing board for amendment or adoption. In the original proposal, suburban cities did not get seats on this board, and the board would have had significantly more authority over the budget and policies of the authority.
• Bans the new authority from raising revenue or issuing debt to pay for homelessness programs. When the county and Seattle launched the regional planning process through a series of meetings called OneTable, one of the primary goals was to come up with a new revenue source to boost funding for homelessness. The original version of the plan announced in September did not include new revenue, but the agreement proposed at the time didn’t explicitly bar the agency from ever raising money, as this one does.
Bagshaw, echoing a line in the ordinance expressing the city’s intent that the governing board make no changes without at least an eight-vote majority, said she was confident that given the importance of the issues before the new authority, all 12 members of the governing board would show up to deliberate and vote. “It is our intention that we have 12 members that are on the governing committee that are dedicated to moving forward,” Bagshaw said. “We need to have people attend these meetings and vote.” A few minutes later, the council voted to create the new agency with no amendments to the county council’s proposal. Just six of nine members were present.