Mayor’s Office Defends Hotel Shelter Plan as Council Pushes for Tiny Houses: UPDATED

Yep, this hotel again.

By Erica C. Barnett

UPDATE Thursday, Jan. 28, 6:30pm: The city has reportedly rejected the Public Defender Association’s plan to operate hotel rooms using the model established through its county-funded JustCare program after yesterday suggesting that the model was too expensive. The PDA’s application for the hotel-based shelter contract, which we first reported on last November, requested around $28,000 per room to pay for food, case management, and behavioral health services. That number was similar to the amount requested by another applicant for the same program, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

According to providers, the city is seeking to cap expenditures on services at $17,000 per room, or about $5 million—a little over half what the city plans to spend on rapid rehousing subsidies for hotel-based shelter clients, many of whom will likely be people with disabling physical or behavioral health conditions. This is a developing story.

On Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller assured city council members that the mayor’s office was moving forward on schedule with plans to open 300 new hotel rooms, 125 enhanced shelter beds, and new tiny house village spaces as part of a “shelter surge” proposal announced last fall.

But the details he provided, in response to council questions about issues with the program that PubliCola reported exclusively yesterday, largely confirmed that the city is at an impasse with the providers it has chosen to run its two hotel-based shelters. The issues are financial—as we reported, at least one of the two providers has informed the city that they can’t serve high-needs homeless clients for the amount the city is willing to pay—and logistical: The hotels, the Executive Pacific downtown and King’s Inn near South Lake Union, have small rooms that lack kitchenettes, microwaves, and other amenities that would make them better suited to serve as long-term living spaces.

Asked why the city budget office (which reports to the mayor) capped the total cost of services for each hotel unit so low—at $17,000 a year, although Sixkiller erroneously cited a slightly higher number—Sixkiller said that the service providers knew what they were getting into when they responded to the request for qualifications with proposals. Besides, he added, the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been running a hotel in Renton (a hotel, he hastened to add, that the city has supported financially) for less than $19,000 per bed, and that hotel serves some of the highest-need clients in the region.

“I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than [$17,000 per room], but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” — Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

“When we just look at the services column, we have been able to really zero in on what works,” Sixkiller said. “I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than that, but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” Getting more specific, he cited costs of “$100,000 a room” for another, unnamed hotel shelter provider.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda countered that one reason DESC’s costs are lower is that they aren’t able to pay staffers a living wage, resulting in high turnover. “I don’t want to use as a benchmark something that is too low due to the city outsourcing and under resourcing these services for far too long,” Mosqueda said. Mosqueda also noted that the city rejected DESC’s proposal because it was “nonresponsive,” in that it would have moved people already in shelter at Exhibition Hall to a hotel, freeing up more shelter space at Exhibition Hall.

Sixkiller’s reference was clearly to the Public Defender Association, which since last year has run a King County-funded program called JustCare that moves people from encampments to rooms in hotels around the region. The PDA’s proposal for the shelter surge program, which is one of two the city accepted (the other was from Chief Seattle Club), is for an expansion of JustCare, which includes behavioral health care and 24/7 wraparound services for its high-needs clients.

And the high figure Sixkiller cited was apparently extrapolated from just the second month of the program, when it was ramping up, hiring new staff, and moving people indoors on an emergency basis; the program includes intensive wraparound services similar to what clients would receive in permanent supportive housing, which is beyond the scope of the city’s proposed hotel program.

The PDA’s actual proposal requested around $28,000 per bed—not the “$100,000 a room” Sixkiller cited.

As it turns out, DESC submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year.

As for DESC’s purported ability to provide hotel services on a much tighter budget of around $18,000 a year (still higher than the city’s $17,000 cap? As it turns out, DESC actually submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year, right in line with what other providers such as the PDA said they needed to operate hotel-based shelters in the city.

“The thing about the Renton situation is that there are a number of costs involved with that operation that the county has picked up directly” that DESC doesn’t have to factor into its contract, such as meals and utilities, Malone said. “I’m guessing that the city is relying on… a cost profile for what we’re doing at the Red Lion that is not reflective of all the costs involved” in running the Renton shelter.

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates eight tiny-house villages around the city, also applied for the hotel contract. LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, said she never heard back from the city on that application or LIHI’s application to provide the 125 enhanced shelter beds.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, the city’s plan is to invest about twice as much—$9 million—in short-term rapid rehousing subsidies as they are on services at the hotels.

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Council members asked for a progress update on tiny house villages. Sixkiller said the city added 95 tiny house units last year, and hopes to add another 120 this year, although only one site, on Sound Transit-owned land in the University District, has been identified. (Sixkiller said the mayor’s office was “doing a deep analysis” of two additional sites “that I’m not prepared to talk about right now.”) When Durkan’s became mayor, she vowed to build 1,000 new tiny houses in her first year. More than three years later, there are fewer than 300.

Andrew Lewis, the chair of the homelessness committee, rolled out a plan this week, which he’s calling “It Takes A Village,” to create up to 12 new tiny house villages citywide, using a combination of funding the council allocated for tiny houses last year (about $4 million) and another $7.2 million in private funding, some of which the city has already secured. The private dollars would pay for one-time capital costs to set up the new villages; the rest of the money, and additional ongoing funds from the city budget, would pay for operations.

Image via LIHI.

Tiny house villages provide temporary, non-congregate shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and are one of the most sought-after forms of shelter, in large part because they provide more privacy than dormitory-style shelters.

Lewis told PubliCola he hopes to use the villages to fill a gap or serve a “niche” that isn’t captured by the hotel-based shelters or enhanced shelters the city hopes to add this year. “I don’t know if I’d be leaning into them quite this hard if the situation wasn’t as bad as it is,” Lewis said. “What it really comes down to for me is, it is going to be years—it is going to be years!— until we have the types of housing options at the scale required to have a measurable impact on what we’re seeing on the street, and in the meantime we need to do something” about encampments.

Right now, just two of LIHI’s tiny house villages operate on a “harm reduction” model that allows residents who are in active addiction, but “we know that HSD wants the next few villages to be for adults and couples (no minors) operated with a harm reduction model,” Lee, from LIHI, said said. The median length of time a client stays at a LIHI village is seven and a half months, according to Lee, which is more than twice as long as the 90-day “performance minimum” the city sets for authorized encampments.