PubliCola

Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, PubliCola reported on a memo from Seattle’s budget director Ben Noble, who reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, outlining the reasons Seattle has not sought reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration for the cost of hotel-based shelters. The memo raised seven objections to requests that the city go after FEMA funding.

Since last year, advocates for people experiencing homelessness have implored the city to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of leasing hotel rooms and turning them into shelters for the thousands of vulnerable people living outdoors in Seattle during the COVID pandemic. The city, unlike King County, has not done so, arguing that FEMA’s standards are too stringent and the process too “onerous,” as the memo puts it.

Under the Trump administration, cities across the country, as well as King County, were guaranteed 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of hotel-based shelters, but the Biden administration increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to the beginning of 2020. The requirements for FEMA reimbursement are stringent—for example, hotel-based shelters must serve people with underlying conditions such as age, health issues such as addiction that make them vulnerable to infection, or compromised immune systems—but they are not insurmountable, and many cities (as well as the state of California) have chosen to jump through significant hoops to get the money.

Later on the same day the PubliCola story was published, two city council members, Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales, issued statements imploring the mayor to use FEMA funding to pay for hotel-based shelters.

The memo begins, “With many questions regarding FEMA reimbursements, [Office of Emergency Management director] Curry [Mayer] and I wanted to share the guidance we have received to clarify the significant challenges the City faces towards receiving any reimbursements for non-congregate shelter.”

Noting that advocates for people experiencing homelessness have been asking the city to use FEMA to fund hotel shelters for many months, Morales said, “Right now, we urgently need to expand non-congregate shelter for people who are outdoors and are especially vulnerable to COVID, and we have an opportunity to get Federal money to allow us to do it. Even if there are logistical challenges, it is incumbent upon this City to try to overcome those issues to save people who are stuck living outside and scared of dying from COVID.”

Among those logistical and administrative challenges, according to Noble’s memo: “Failure to comply with federal contracting and procurement requirements puts local jurisdictions at risk of not receiving reimbursement or not being able to use FEMA grant funds for otherwise eligible costs”; “FEMA Reimbursement Must Be Approved and Is Not Guaranteed”; and “FEMA Assistance Currently Ends in September 2021.”

Noble’s memo also claims flatly that “FEMA is not paying for any services” involved with providing shelter in hotels, a claim mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower reiterated in an email after PubliCola’s story ran. “I think you’re aware that FEMA is in fact not paying for services within hotels, which are a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” she wrote.

Homeless service and shelter providers have strongly disputed this claim, saying that the federal government has not said that it won’t pay for any services whatsoever, just “support services” above and beyond the cost of leasing and operating 24/7 shelters for COVID-vulnerable people in hotels. (In any case, the cost of services in hotels is actually a fraction of the cost to rent the hotels themselves, as agencies’ prospective contracts for providing hotel-based shelter and PubliCola’s reporting on comparative costs make clear).

Is it possible that, more than a year into the pandemic, the mayor’s office could have a change of heart and decide that they do want to stand up new hotels using FEMA funds after laying out all the reasons doing so is infeasible in a detailed seven-point memo? Sure, in the same way that it is possible the mayor could decide to defund the police after spending most of the last year raising similarly couched objections to that idea.

Homeless advocates also point out that FEMA’s guidelines detailing what the federal agency does and does not cover are brief and ambiguous, saying only that “[e]ligible costs related to sheltering should be necessary based on the type of shelter, the specific needs of those sheltered, and determined necessary to protect public health and safety and in accordance with guidance provided by appropriate health officials.” Anything that goes beyond what’s needed to meet the “specific needs” of people living in hotel shelters—services such “case management, mental health counseling, and others”—will not be covered. Which services are covered and which services aren’t, advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue, is not clearly defined nor a foregone conclusion.

Whether FEMA decides to cover the cost of some services, all services, or no services at all, the combined cost of all services related to hotel-based shelters is a small fraction of the overall price tag; the monthly rent on the hotels alone, which is unambiguously reimbursable, is significantly more costly than the price tag for live-in staff, assistance with things like IDs and housing, and other services to help stabilize people so they will stay in the hotels. (In an email, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower told PubliCola that services make up “a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” but the opposite is true.)

After PubliCola’s story ran, Mayor Durkan’s office got in touch to tell us that they felt the story was inaccurate and to demand several corrections.

First, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas said, the city is seeking FEMA funding—for tiny house villages and “eligible activities” at hotel-based shelters—and is using federal funds to pay for the two hotel shelters it plans to open late next month. “[I]t is unfortunate for reporters, advocates, service providers, or ‘people’ to takeaway that the City is not ‘asking for FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter.’ We are,” Formas wrote. “In fact, City Council approved a budget that deliberately spent federal funds on hotels through [Emergency Solutions Grant, a separate COVID-related federal program] and asked for reimbursements for tiny home villages and every other possible homeless service.”

“[W]e have only sought FEMA reimbursement on tiny home villages and meals because the hotels are already federally funded (and not eligible) but your story and my concerns are that you are stating as a fact the future of these funds without talking to CBO or the Mayor’s Office,” Formas continued.

PubliCola did not report that the city was not spending Emergency Solutions Grant funds on hotels, or that the city did not seek reimbursements from FEMA for tiny house villages and other purposes. Rather, we reported that the city has not sought FEMA funding for hotel rooms and reimbursable costs related to those rooms, and has provided a detailed explanation of the reasons why. Pivoting to tiny house villages and “every other possible homeless service”—and referring to an entirely different federal program that the mayor’s office also resisted using to lease hotels— obfuscates the fact that the city has consistently chosen not to seek FEMA funding for hotels, a decision for which Noble’s memo provides retroactive and ongoing justification.

Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office.

As the memo makes clear, the city considers the cost of hotels to be either ineligible for FEMA reimbursement or too administratively challenging to pursue, so when the mayor’s office says they will seek funding for “FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter,” they are referring to items that they consider within the scope of FEMA reimbursement, such as tiny houses and meals. The federal funds it is using for the two shelters it announced last year are existing funds that the city has in hand from a different COVID-related federal program, the Emergency Solutions Grant.

As for the claim that PubliCola never talked to the budget office or the mayor’s office, in fact, we reached out to the budget office and mayor’s office for this story. The mayor’s office responded to both inquiries, stepping in on the budget office’s behalf. Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office.

One on-record source we didn’t quote in the story, but relied upon for background context, was Nan Roman at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, who outlined some of the challenges cities and states have had to consider when deciding whether to seek FEMA reimbursement for their non-congregate hotel shelters, and some of the reasons cities have decided to forego or seek FEMA funding for their hotel-based shelter programs, many of which have been around for nearly a year.

Another issue the mayor’s office raised is that they did not literally say they “rejected” all FEMA funding from the Biden administration, making it unfair and inaccurate for PubliCola to use that word. “[S]end me where you are quoting the Durkan administration for that we’ve rejected future funding or taken money off the table!” Formas wrote. “There [are] no quotes, sources, or any statements that we’ve made for future funding. The memo never once mentions that we will never seek FEMA reimbursement for hotels in the future.”

Here are the facts. Durkan will leave office in ten months. FEMA funding, according to the budget office memo, ends in September.  For almost a year, advocates have been begging the city to fund hotel-based shelters in Seattle, focusing on FEMA reimbursement specifically over the last several months. Durkan’s office has been reluctant to stand up shelters in hotels, as PubliCola has documented extensively over the past year, although her office agreed last year to use existing COVID Emergency Solutions Grant funding (not FEMA dollars) to stand up two hotels totaling just over 200 rooms, which are supposed to open late next month.

Here are more facts. Last week, in response to council members’ ongoing requests that the city seek FEMA funding for hotel-based shelters, the mayor’s budget office issued the memo at the center of PubliCola’s story explaining in painstaking detail the reasons it was infeasible for the city to do so. The memo begins, “With many questions regarding FEMA reimbursements, [Office of Emergency Management director] Curry [Mayer] and I wanted to share the guidance we have received to clarify the significant challenges the City faces towards receiving any reimbursements for non-congregate shelter.”

Is it possible that, in the 11th hour, the mayor’s office could reverse course and decide that she does want to stand up new hotels using FEMA funds, and do so in a far more expeditious fashion than the ESG-funded hotels the city will finally open in March, a year into the pandemic and six months after the mayor and council reached an agreement to do so? Sure, in the same way that it is possible the mayor could decide to defund the police after spending most of the last year raising similarly couched objections to that idea.

However, it’s important to look at both history and practice, and Durkan’s history and practice do not support the idea that the mayor will have a sudden change of heart and embrace both hotel-based shelters and FEMA funding in the face of her budget director’s advice against it. Rather than making unambiguous statements that would be unpopular with the public, Durkan’s practice throughout her administration has been to raise strong objections and throw up roadblocks that have the same effect as a formal refusal.

For example, when the city council expressed support for beginning the process of reducing the Seattle Police Department’s budget through targeted layoffs, Durkan reframed the debate, saying that the council’s idea would result in the elimination of the most diverse class of cadets in SPD’s history. (The alternative, figuring out a way to do out-of-order layoffs by focusing on officers with histories of misconduct, would have been challenging but, supporters argued, was worth trying.) The effect was the same—no layoffs—but the method made it possible for Durkan to say she didn’t reject the idea of reducing the size of the police department. She could even point to examples where she went along with this idea—painless changes such as moving 911 response into a different department.

Durkan appears to be doing the same thing with FEMA funding: Raising strong objections to a proposal that is popular with the council and much of the public without issuing a statement formally “rejecting” the funds, although the impact is the same. To stick with the SPD funding analogy, accepting FEMA funding for other purposes than hotel-based shelter, such as tiny house villages, and declaring that the city welcomes FEMA funding for “non-congregate shelter” is the equivalent of moving some police personnel to other departments, then saying that the city has cut the police department.

The fact remains that, more than one year into the pandemic, the mayor has declined to seek FEMA funds for hotel shelters as other cities have done. Last week, a memo released by her budget director laid out the case against changing course.