Mayoral Candidates Offer Divergent Plans to Address Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Tuesday-night debate on housing and homelessness gave six mayoral candidates an opportunity to clarify their views at length, and brought some stark contrasts between the frontrunners into focus.

Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller is running on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s record, both de facto (because he’s been her second in command) and by choice (he repeatedly brought up what he described as the administration’s success getting people off the streets and into shelter and housing).

Calling himself the answer to “gridlock” and an alternative to “failed city council policies,” Sixkiller said that the city “made record investments in homelessness” last year, and had sheltered “more than 8,000 people last year and 11,000 people the year before that.”

He also categorically denied that Durkan’s office had ever passed up any potential federal funding for hotel-based shelters.  “We have gone after and leveraged every dollar available,” Sixkiller said, adding, “the false narrative that has gone around that we did not pursue FEMA funding is absolutely and categorically false.”

PubliCola reported extensively on the city’s decision not to pursue FEMA funding for services at the two hotel-based shelters it belatedly opened earlier this year. The city persistently claimed that “service costs are NOT eligible” for FEMA reimbursement, despite both FEMA guidance saying otherwise (and explicitly outlining which services it would cover) and the many other cities across the country that pursued and received FEMA funding for this purpose.

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Sixkiller said he would institute a “guaranteed basic income” plan, providing $500 a month to 16,000 families, build 3,000 new units of permanent supportive housing, and work on “returning [city] parks back to their intended uses” instead of allowing encampments that are “not safe for [people experiencing homelessness] and … not necessarily safe for others.”

He also said the city “sheltered more than 8,000 people last year and 11,000 people the year before that.” Because these numbers are higher than the estimated total number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Seattle, I reached out to the campaign for clarification. A spokesperson told me that “[a]ccording to the Human Services Department, city-funded shelters served roughly 3,000 less households in 2020 than the year before (8,000 down from 11,000 in 2019), and 40 percent of those served were not last housed in Seattle.” I’ve reached out to the Human Services Department for an explanation of the number, which I was unable to duplicate by looking at the department’s quarterly service reports.

Other candidates offered their own proposals to address the homelessness and affordability crisis. Andrew Grant Houston said that, for him, “it starts with rent control”—and a new 1 percent city income tax to pay for equitable development and a new public development authority “geared toward green and social housing and green apprenticeships.” (The state constitution bans graduated taxes, such as a progressive income tax, but income-tax advocates have argued that a flat income tax would pass constitutional muster).

Jessyn Farrell, who works for the lefty nonprofit Civic Ventures, suggested building low-income housing at the Talaris property near her home in Laurelhurst; urbanist housing advocates have been pushing the city to rezone the former conference center and its 18-acre grounds, which are currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses, and turn it into dense affordable housing.

Colleen Echohawk, until recently the director of the Chief Seattle Club, said the first thing she would do is extend the eviction moratorium, which expires at the end of June.

Echohawk also appeared to change her position on the Compassion Seattle charter amendment initiative, which would impose an unfunded mandate on the city to provide 2,000 new shelter beds while outlining conditions for future encampment sweeps. In a statement last month, Echohawk called the initiative a “good strategy” and a “positive step forward” that “represents a fundamental shift from where we’ve been.”

Last night, however, Echohawk said the proposal “has some significant problems—first, it mandates a bunch of things happening without including the funding to pay for them.” It also amends the city’s charter—the constitution of the city—which Echohawk called “a very bad way to set policy.” Finally, Echohawk said, the amendment took shape without enough consultation from people with lived experience; as we’ve reported, the Lived Experience Coalition says they were never asked for their input on the measure. Echohawk is hardly alone in equivocating on the charter amendment proposal, but she is the only candidate who has made such seemingly contradictory statements on the controversial measure. 

Hand it to Bruce Harrell, then: He was the only candidate last night to come out unequivocally in favor of the initiative, which he said “brings [the issue] to the level of a critical [service], like police and fire service. (Houston was “unequivocally opposed.”) His big-ticket proposal is a new “Seattle Jobs Center” at the city, which—according to his website—would be a “a centralized clearinghouse for workers and employers to match skills with available jobs” in order to “win the emerging jobs war.”

Finally, Southeast Effective Development (SEED) interim director Lance Randall suggested refocusing city attention and assistance on landlords—who, he said, would benefit from a “more balanced approach” to eviction prevention. In addition to direct subsidies to landlords whose tenants have trouble paying their rent, Randall said the city should create incentives for landlords and tenants to “work something out” privately when issues arise, rather than getting the city or courts involved. This is a common refrain from landlords and their advocates, who seem to imagine a world in which most landlords are kindhearted “mom and pop” types and most disputes result from simple misunderstandings that can be resolved by a conversation.

Randall also promoted his “Dignity Project” proposal, which (according to Randall’s website) would re-empower police to “enforce our local ordinances prohibiting camping” by relocating people to large, centralized tent cities where unsheltered individuals could live while they make “progress towards recovery” and housing.

Seattle city council president Lorena González, who appeared to be the target of Sixkiller’s barbs about “failed city council policies,” couldn’t make the forum due to issues related to a recent fire at her building that resulted in the death of her mother-in-law and displaced González and her husband.