1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority informed the Low Income Housing Institute this week that it will not extend its lease on the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel past January, ending a program launched by Mayor Jenny Durkan that was supposed to swiftly move hundreds of people from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing using a combination of new permanent supportive housing and “rapid rehousing” rent subsidies for market-rate apartments. The city has used the hotel as a primary receiving site for people displaced from encampments because of sweeps, which are now performed by the Parks Department.
In a letter to the KCRHA’s implementation board, which includes elected officials from across the county, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones wrote, “Key factors [in the decision] include that each current guest has an exit plan, the lease costs requested by one of the hotels has significantly increased, and one of the service providers”—the Chief Seattle Club, which operates a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown—”stated a desire to close on schedule.”
As recently as a month ago, the authority said that it wanted to keep the hotels open after their current contracts with the city expire, potentially using $6 million in unspent rapid rehousing funds to cover the expense.
Now, the authority may use that same money to “prevent closures and loss of beds in several of our existing permanent shelter facilities,” according to the letter to the implementation board. The authority is currently running a survey of providers to find out how much money they need to make up their 2022 funding gaps and the number of shelter beds that are at risk if they don’t get additional funding.
LIHI executive director Sharon Lee said she was “shocked” to find out that the homelessness authority will not extend the hotel’s lease, adding that LIHI doesn’t know where the 126 people still living at the Executive Pacific will go.
“We have quite a number of people in the hotel who are very interested in moving into tiny houses” in LIHI’s tiny house villages, Lee said but many of those spots have already been claimed by the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter placements to people in encampments the city is about to sweep. LIHI recently opened two new tiny house villages—Rosie’s Place in the University District and Friendship Heights in North Seattle—and expanded an existing village in Interbay.
LIHI received 93 federal emergency housing vouchers through the federal American Rescue Plan. Allocating the vouchers could open some spaces in existing villages and shelter programs, but it’s unlikely that enough beds will open up to shelter all 126 current hotel residents.
The hotel-based shelter program was based on the assumption that it would be a fairly simple matter to move people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing in a matter of weeks or months. But as PubliCola noted when the city adopted this plan, rapid rehousing subsidies work best for people in good physical and mental health who just need some temporary financial assistance to get back on their feet. By using the hotels as receiving sites for sweeps, the city engineered failure right into its plan.
Currently, Lee said, just 11 of the people living at the hotel are “enrolled” in rapid rehousing, which simply means they have started the process to qualify for a subsidy.
Lee estimates that LIHI will have to move about 24 people out of the hotel every week between now and the end of January to have everyone out by the end of the lease. “The concern I have is that the end of January is the coldest part of winter and we have two major holidays between now and then,” Lee said.
2. King County Council member Reagan Dunn, who recently announced he is running against Democratic Congresswoman Kim Schrier (D-8), tried unsuccessfully to pass a motion (similar to a city council resolution) directing County Executive Dow Constantine to adopt a plan that would make it easier for the county to remove encampments in unincorporated parts of King County. (Dunn’s mother, the late Jennifer Dunn, represented the Eighth Congressional District until 2005; in 2019, Schrier became the first Democrat to represent the district.)
Because the committee where Dunn introduced his motion is made up of two Democrats (sure votes against the proposal) and two Republicans (Dunn and Kathy Lambert, who recently lost her reelection bid), the vote was a foregone conclusion. However, it did give Dunn and Lambert an opportunity to issue a scathing (and, for Dunn, politically beneficial) press release “slamming” their Democratic colleagues, Girmay Zahilay and Joe McDermott, for “refus[ing] to even engage in a conversation about how to provide housing and support services to people currently living in County parks or other County-owned property.”
In fact, the legislation was silent on the question of housing and support services. Instead, it would have represented a first step toward banning encampments on public land in unincorporated King County and empowering county officials to sweep encampments for a broad array of reasons, including the presence of human waste, lack of running water, and criminal activity.
Noting that King County plans to eventually house as many as 1,600 people through the Health Through Housing sales tax, Dunn said, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect now that there has been such an investment in these services that these open spaces begin to be cleared. … If there is help available, King County should have expectations that people utilize that help and they should be prepared to remove encampments that are a public nuisance and a danger.”
The last annual count of King County’s homeless population, in 2020, found about 5,600 people living unsheltered across the county. The point-in-time count, which King County will forgo for a second consecutive year in 2022, is widely considered an undercount.
—Erica C. Barnett