By Erica C. Barnett
Several cities in South King County, including Renton, Tukwila, Auburn, and Kent, are poised to adopt a local 0.1-cent sales tax for affordable housing, using authority the state legislature granted to city and county councils earlier this year. If the taxes pass, they would effectively supplant those cities’ contribution to a countywide sales tax proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which would pay for permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in all parts of the county. Renton and Tukwila will consider their local taxes on Monday; the other cities are reportedly deciding whether and when to propose local taxes of their own.
Constantine’s office has said his proposal would provide up to $400 million in bond revenue to purchase motels, nursing homes, and other disused or derelict facilities and convert them into permanent supportive housing with services for chronically homeless people. The more cities opt out of the county tax, the less revenue there will be for Constantine’s proposal.
Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, is worried. “My hope would be that the suburban cities that are eager, apparently, to use this revenue source to address the genuine homelessness and health crises that are hitting South King County hard, would be committed to the truly regional response to homelessness” that the county has adopted, she said. The county is in the process of standing up a new regional homelessness authority that includes substantial input from, but no direct financial contribution by, suburban cities.
The authority itself is banned by law from raising money. However, under legislation adopted during this year’s state legislative session, city and county councils can pass a sales tax increase of up to 0.1 percent. The catch, from the county’s perspective, is that the legislation allows cities to essentially override county taxing authority by passing their own taxes first.
The legislation also does not require the proceeds of such a tax to go toward housing for very low-income or homeless people; instead, they can use it to fund housing for people making as much as 60 percent of area median income, which for the Seattle metropolitan area is more than $94,000. This is a very different type of housing, serving a much less service-reliant population, than Constantine’s proposal.
Eisinger said that by using the sales tax authority to fund higher-income housing, suburban cities ran the risk of ignoring the needs of homeless people in their own cities. “I hope this isn’t an effort by elected officials in suburban cities to pretend that they don’t need … housing that meets the needs of the people who are chronically homeless in their community by instead trying to address other housing needs with these resources,” she said.
Renton and Kent have clashed with Constantine and the county government as a whole over the relocation of hundreds of formerly homeless people into hotels in their cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Renton, officials have taken regulatory and legal action to try to force the closure of a shelter the Downtown Emergency Service Center opened at a downtown Red Lion earlier this year. In Kent, elected leaders protested the county’s purchase of a motel for use as an isolation and quarantine site for people unable to isolate at home, warning that the presence of so many homeless people in one place would lead to a surge in crime.
“If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world.”—King County Council member Dave Upthegrove
If enough cities pass their own local taxes, they could collectively reduce potential revenues from Constantine’s regional proposal by millions. According to a presentation posted on the Renton City Council’s website, a local, Renton-only tax would raise about $2.8 million a year for projects in the city; according to Tukwila’s briefing materials, that city could see an additional $2.2 million a year for housing.
Elected officials from Renton, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents parts of Tukwila, Renton, Kent, and other cities in South King County, said he supports Constantine’s proposal because it provides housing for people with the greatest needs—those with low or no income who need supportive services.
At the same time, he said, “I’m trying not to panic” about the idea that some South County cities might decide to go their own way. “If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Maybe we don’t bond for 400 million—maybe we end up doing $320 million and a few of the cities go out on their own. It doesn’t have to mean that this proposal doesn’t work.”
“”Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”—Deputy King County Executive Rachel Smith
Upthegrove notes that cities already control zoning and permitting rules, which gives them multiple avenues to ban housing for formerly homeless people. “Part of me says that if this really isn’t want the local government wants, and that local government controls zoning and permitting, then what’s the likelihood of getting them zone and permit this housing in their city?”
County council member Claudia Balducci, who represents the Eastside, says the real headline may be that local suburban governments are willing to increase taxes to build more affordable housing, even if it isn’t for chronically homeless people. “I think we could really build not just good projects through this, but also create better relationships and more confidence in working together regionally,” Balducci said. “If we play our cards right, having cities put skin in the game could be a really good long-term positive thing.”
King County deputy executive Rachel Smith, responding to PubliCola by email, was significantly less sanguine than either county council member about the prospects for unity-through-localism. “The Executive’s plan includes concrete, data-informed, evidence-based, clear outcomes, including reducing racial-ethnic disproportionality,” Smith said.
“Regional officials, business leaders, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience have repeatedly stated that homelessness is a regional problem that demands regional solutions,” Smith continued. “Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”