1. A proposed amendment to the Seattle City Charter that would (in theory) force the city to fund thousands of shelter beds or housing units and reinstate encampment removals is unusual in more ways than one.
First, the obvious: Instead of declaring a state of emergency or using some other rhetorical mechanism to sound the alarm on homelessness, the charter amendment—which will be on the ballot in November if supporters gather 33,000 valid signatures to put it before voters—establishes a specific goal: 1,000 new “units” of “emergency or permanent housing with services” in 2022. (Emergency housing is shelter, which is obviously much cheaper and easier to stand up quickly than permanent housing units.)
Second, and perhaps more impactful in the long term: The amendment attempts to use the city’s charter—Seattle’s constitution—to dictate specific budget and policy priorities, which are usually the subject of legislation, in perpetuity. In addition to the 2,000-bed mandate, the amendment would require that, in all future years, the city will spend at least 12 percent of its general fund revenues on human services, and that the city pay for “full restoration of general fund support for the Department of Parks and Recreation to facilitate repair and restoration of parks.”
Supporters of the amendment have argued that these permanent mandates establish ongoing priorities for the city: Homelessness, human services generally, and parks “repair and restoration” are important priorities that need to be enshrined in city law. But a look at past charter amendments illustrates just how unusual, if not unprecedented, this proposal is.
The majority of charter amendments over the years have been put on the ballot by the city council itself; most of them involve governance changes or tweaks to the language of the charter itself. For example, in 1977, a successful amendment changed the name of the city’s “Governance Counsel” to “City Attorney”; in 2006, voters approved an amendment that eliminated 1946 language requiring the city to physically “post” ballot proposals (in addition to publishing them in the newspaper.)
A look at past charter amendments illustrates just how unusual, if not unprecedented, this proposal is.
Other city-generated charter amendments have been more substantive, but still limited to the realm of governance, not policy: In 2007, the city council was so annoyed by then-mayor Greg Nickels’ decision to hold his State of the City address at a Rotary Club luncheon, they put an amendment on the ballot requiring the mayor to “deliver” the address at City Hall. (Subsequent mayors got around this requirement by holding the speech elsewhere, then physically or virtually “delivering” the text of the address to the council at its regular meeting the same day.)
Amendments that originate with citizens have followed a similar pattern: Even those that have proposed substantive changes, such as three different proposals to institute district elections, have dealt with the way the city is governed, not legislative priorities. In addition to districts (which finally passed in 2013), Seattle residents have proposed amendments that would institute ranked-choice voting and elections through proportional representation. There appears to be no precedent for the council or citizens imposing preemptive budget requirements or mandating legislative policy through the city charter.\
2. Earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office rejected a proposal by the Public Defender Association to operate a hotel-based shelter at the Executive Pacific Hotel on the grounds that it was far too expensive. The program, which would have cost about $28,000 per room, would have been modeled on the successful JustCare program, which moved more than 100 people from encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels around Seattle. At the time, the mayor’s office set a hard spending cap of $17,175 a room.
Fast forward to last Monday, when the city held a press tour at the new, Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn shelter in Belltown. The total price for room? Around $23,000, according to CSC staff. The $5,000 difference per room between the King’s Inn shelter and the one the PDA proposed would have amounted to about $750,000 total at the Executive Pacific—a fraction of the overall $8.3 million contract for that hotel, which eventually went to the Low-Income Housing Institute.
The two hotels will be funded largely from federal Emergency Services Grant funding. As PubliCola has reported, Durkan’s office has consistently declined to use federal FEMA dollars to pay for hotel-based shelters, as other cities have done.
3. The senate Ways and Means Committee passed HB 1220—a bill that updates the Growth Management Act (GMA) to require cities to plan for and accommodate low-income housing and shelter as part of their comprehensive plans.
As amended by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Lynnwood), the bill also prohibits cities from using zoning rules to block transitional and permanent supportive housing in residential areas or areas where hotels are allowed, while simultaneously limiting the areas where cities are required to allow emergency shelter to “zones”—a term that is not clearly defined—within one mile of transit stops.
“This [amendment] says every city has to make space available if folks want to come develop emergency housing,” Liias said, while also finding “a middle ground where we insure there’s more emergency housing capability, more emergency housing capacity in every city, but putting some parameters around that.”
The bill will effectively bar cities like Renton from banning shelters and low-income housing. But state representatives who worked on the bill are worried Liias’ amendment sets a dangerous precedent, allowing cities to limit emergency shelter to certain areas.
Representative Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), a staunch defender of the bill, said she believes the Ways and Means committee would not have passed the bill without the amendment. But, she added, she worries that the bill is on a slippery slope.
“I would be concerned about a bill going to final passage with this amendment because once you codify this redlining of people who are experiencing housing instability,” Rep. Macri told PubliCola. “I just don’t see that we’re coming back any time soon to unwind that.”
Liias said the intent of the proximity to transit language is to help those without transportation of their own have easy access to public transit. “The desire is to make sure folks who are in emergency have connectivity to services and supports to get back on their feet.”
“There are folks who need emergency housing in every community in our state, from the richest communities to those that are the least well off,” Liias said.