By Erica C. Barnett
On Monday night, the Renton City Council held a meeting to discuss “emergency” legislation that was apparently so urgent, not even the groups that advocate for the people most impacted by the legislation were aware it was happening until a few hours before the meeting got underway.
The legislation: A zoning bill that would effectively force 260 formerly homeless people who have been living at a Red Lion in the city south of Seattle onto the streets in the middle of a global pandemic.
The city of Renton has been fighting to evict the hotel’s current occupants—former clients of the overcrowded downtown Seattle shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center— since shortly after they moved in nine months ago. Arguing that DESC was not operating a hotel but a “deintensification shelter,” which is not a permitted use on the Red Lion site (or anywhere in Renton, for that matter), the council issued a code violation against the hotel in June and ordered DESC to move out. That battle has been winding its way through the courts ever since.
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The council’s latest legislation would explicitly require the Red Lion to close its doors to shelter clients six months after the new law goes into effect, most likely around June 7. It also makes it impossible for a similarly sized shelter to open in Renton, by limiting all future shelter uses to 100 beds beginning on that date and imposing new requirements on homeless services that advocates say would be nearly impossible to meet.
“When you talk about having to pass this ordinance on an emergency basis, I wonder what that emergency looks like compared to the emergency of COVID-19, the emergency of homelessness, and the emergency of racism in our communities,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger told the council, during a public comment session that lasted for nearly an hour. Noting that there are now at least 400 fewer shelter spaces in King County than there were before the pandemic, Eisinger added, “every single bed, every room, is helping keep the spread of COVID down and is helping [save] people’s lives.”
The legislation would ask homeless service providers to ensure that clients use specific routes when traveling through Renton; order them to monitor the behavior of homeless people in public spaces around the city, such as parks, libraries, and transit; and make them legally responsible for the behavior of former clients they exclude from their facilities for behavioral or other issues.
Proponents of the legislation, such as Renton Chamber of Commerce director Diane Dobson, accused DESC’s homeless clients of causing crime and disorder in the city, saying that the number of 911 calls in the general vicinity of the hotel had gone up since its 230 residents moved in nine months ago. Dobson went so far as to suggest that the real victims of the whole situation were shopkeepers who are “losing a part of their soul” when they have to remove homeless people from their stores and kick sleeping people out of their doorways.
But forcing people from the Red Lion onto the streets of Renton seems unlikely to reduce their impact on the city. And at least one study, as well as compelling evidence from DESC clients themselves, have demonstrated that giving unsheltered people a safe, private place to stay doesn’t just benefit their physical and mental health—it also reduces their impact on the surrounding community.
The Renton legislation purports to create opportunities for new homeless services to open in the city, while imposing new requirements so onerous that none are likely to try. Among other new mandates, the land use changes would ask homeless service providers to ensure that clients use specific routes when traveling through Renton; order them to monitor the behavior of homeless people in public spaces around the city, such as parks, libraries, and transit; and make them legally responsible for the behavior of former clients they exclude from their facilities for behavioral or other issues. The legislation also appears to make homeless service providers responsible for enforcing requirements imposed (and monitored) by police, not social service providers, such as parole and probation stipulations.
Lisa Chaiet Rahman, an attorney for DESC, told the council that if the ordinance passes, “homeless service providers will not be able to comply with the ordinance” as written, “and the result will be that no homeless services are available in Renton. … Unfortunately, none of us know when the pandemic will end, and this ordinance, as it’s drafted, will force either 230 or 130 people out of safe housing and onto the streets of Renton in June”—230 if the Red Lion is simply shut down, or 130 if it (or a new shelter on another site) is limited to 100 residents.
Chaiet Rahman told PubliCola that one of DESC’s main concerns, in addition to the fate of the Red Lion itself, is the 100-bed limitation, even if a service provider is reusing an existing building, such as a hotel. If a homeless service provider like DESC had the opportunity to buy or lease an unused hotel, but the hotel had 150 rooms, “The legislation requires two thirds of that building to just be empty and unused,” Chaiet Rahman said. The legislation also limits shelters to a handful of industrial and commercial areas and requires them to be at least half a mile away from any other homeless service provider, drastically limiting where they could even theoretically be located.
“Unfortunately, none of us know when the pandemic will end, and this ordinance, as it’s drafted, will force either 230 or 130 people out of safe housing and onto the streets of Renton in June”—Lisa Chaiet Rahman, attorney for the Downtown Emergency Service Center
Chaiet Rahman submitted a letter to the Renton council outlining DESC’s objections to the new restrictions. So did Sameer Singla, the attorney for the Red Lion’s owners, who predicted “protracted litigation” if the legislation passes. And so did Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the King County Public Health officer, whose name appears in the legislation several times.
Duchin’s letter “strongly” urged the council not to pass the legislation, which, he wrote, would “interfere with our efforts to control the spread of COVID-19” and “risk the health of the homeless persons now safely staying at the Red Lion, and the community.” And it corrected the record on one claim made in the text of the legislation—that, in his March order authorizing the county and city to use all legal means to de-intensify shelters, he meant that cities could use zoning to ban or exclude homeless shelters.
“When I wrote my order in March, I was concerned that a local government could see it as authorizing confiscation of private property,” Duchin wrote. To avoid such a misinterpretation, I authorized the use of ‘legally available resources to: de-intensify or reduce the density of existing homelessness shelters and encampments….’ With those words, I was not referring to zoning or land use codes, and only meant to ensure that nobody would read my order as allowing the seizure of private property.”
The Renton City Council will take up, and likely vote on, the land use changes at its meeting December 7. That could open the city up to a new round of litigation from DESC, the owners of the Red Lion, or both. Meanwhile, the lawsuit both parties filed against the city over the earlier land use case is still moving forward, although the case schedule was recently pushed forward 90 days. The new legislation claims it would render the land use issue at the heart of that lawsuit (and thus the lawsuit itself) “moot,” but, according to Chaiet Rahman, “that does not make it so.”
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