Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The Renton City Council will take final action next week on legislation that would require the Downtown Emergency Service Center to kick out about half the population of its shelter in the Renton Red Lion at the end of May, and evict the remaining shelter residents by the end of 2021. PubliCola covered the council’s initial discussion of the proposal last month.

The legislation also creates a restrictive new land use designation for “homeless services,” limits the number of clients any homeless service location can serve to 100 people, and imposes a number of requirements on service providers and people experiencing homelessness in Renton, including a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service provider. Homeless service providers say the restrictions—modeled on legislation in other cities that continue to lack permanent shelters, like Bellevue and Puyallup—effectively bans non-emergency shelters from Renton.

A hearing on the legislation Monday night brought out a mix of supporters (who pointed to the incredible improvements people living at the hotel have experienced and pointed out that without shelter, people die) and opponents (who expressed “empathy” for homeless people right before suggesting that these homeless people ought to be arrested, or shipped “back” to Seattle, or taught the value of hard work). Although the vote was a foregone conclusion, some council members did suggest extending the date of the shelter’s eviction notice and increasing the number of people the shelter can accommodate from 125 (100 in the initial version of the bill) to 175. Those proposals failed.

In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density.

For months, Renton has maintained that the use of the Red Lion as a shelter violates its zoning laws, which don’t include a specific designation for shelter. Renton has interpreted this lack of special shelter zoning to mean that shelters are currently banned every in Renton, but this is an interpretation that assumes that unless a special designation exists for a land use, it isn’t allowed. In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density. Renton is acting like it’s doing homeless service providers a favor by adding a zoning designation that might, theoretically, allow a very small shelter to operate somewhere in a non-residential part of the city, but in reality it’s creating new restrictions that didn’t previously exist.

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There were a number of changes between the version of the legislation released in November and the version the council considered this week. The wordiest of these was the addition of more than 20 “whereas” clauses, most of them arguing that the shelter’s residents, by virtue of their “violent” nature and the fact that so many are living in proximity to each other, are dangerous to the surrounding community and to each other. The legislation now argues even more explicitly that DESC and the county have been breaking the city’s zoning laws by operating the shelter, a claim that is currently being litigated.

The legislation removes some provisions that were probably unenforceable, like a requirement that homeless service providers manage the behavior of all homeless people in “magnet areas” like parks, public transit, and public libraries and direct them to use specific routes when traveling through Renton. But it add a number of new provisions, including the requirement that all homeless service providers come up with a plan to prevent “loitering, creating a nuisance, and unpermitted camping associated with the homeless services use”; a stipulation that if two homeless service uses (such as a soup kitchen and a night shelter) are co-located in a single development, they cannot collectively help more than 100 people; and a requirement that homeless services create a plan to deal with all “reported concerns” and share that plan (along with the resolution of any concerns) with nearby residents.

Renton’s decision to adopt what could amount to a ban on homeless shelters does not bode well for a “regional” approach to homelessness. Nor does the city’s preemptive adoption of a local sales tax to pay for moderate- to low-income housing, which the city passed so that it would not have to pay into a larger countywide fund to support housing for formerly homeless people specifically. Other suburban cities also opted out, reducing the size of the regional fund by millions of dollars.

A spokeswoman forSeattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who sits on the governing committee of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), responded to a question about the mayor’s response to the legislation with the following statement. “Crisis response services, especially shelters and behavioral health resources, need to exist across the County, so individuals aren’t dealing with the trauma of homelessness compounded with being forced to uproot themselves to seek stabilizing resources. The Mayor remains as committed now to a regional response as she did when she and [King County] Executive [Dow] Constantine created the Regional Homelessness Authority.”

Renton council member Ed Prince, who also sits on the KCRHA’s governing board, said at this week’s meeting that King County should prioritize “sub-regional planning” for cities like Renton as part of the overall regional homelessness plan. However, the authority itself was explicitly created to do away with siloed, city-by-city responses to homelessness, on the grounds that homelessness does not stop at city borders and demands a coordinated, truly region-wide approach. Last week, the governing committee tentatively decided to write a letter to the Renton council raising objections to the legislation, which the council is expected to pass at its meeting on Monday, December 14.

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