By Erica C. Barnett
With less than three weeks remaining before their contracts expire, the organizations that run two hotel-based shelters the city funded last year are scrambling to find housing for more than 100 homeless clients. One, the Chief Seattle Club, needs to relocate about 60 people from the King’s Inn shelter in Belltown; the other, the Low Income Housing Institute, must find shelter or housing for about 90 people still staying at the Executive Pacific hotel downtown.
Under their current contracts, which the King County Regional Homelessness Authority took over and declined to extend late last year, both hotels must empty out on January 31. (The actual contracts last another month, to give the agencies time to clean and repair any damage to the properties.) Both agencies stopped accepting new clients last year, and LIHI started moving hotel guests into other properties it operates, including tiny house villages, shelters, and permanent housing. Chief Seattle Club, meanwhile, made plans to move people from King’s Inn into two housing projects it had under development, including one, ?al?al, that was supposed to open in October.
Since then, however, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question. Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for Chief Seattle Club, described a cascade of delays that have pushed back the opening date for ?al?al again and again: Rescheduled fire inspections, the discovery of an underground conduit that upended the schedule to pour a sidewalk outside the building, interminable waits for utility hookups. “Every construction project in the city is facing delays,” Clark said.
Not every person at King’s Inn will move into Chief Seattle Club’s own housing; some will use federal emergency housing vouchers, and some will use short-term rapid rehousing subsidies; the same is true for those currently staying at the Executive Pacific, and those have stayed at both hotels in the past and moved into other shelter or housing.
Since last year, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question.
LIHI is facing similar challenges, its director, Sharon Lee, said; if several new projects where LIHI had hoped to move hotel guests aren’t finished by the end of January, “we may have to put some people in another temporary [shelter],” such as a hotel. “We don’t think that’s the best solution either—to move them from one hotel to another hotel.”
The problems LIHI and Chief Seattle Club are facing as they wind down their hotel-based shelters are only partly the result of housing construction delays. In fact, the biggest challenges were baked into the contracts from the very beginning. Former mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially resisted accepting federal COVID relief dollars to move people from the streets to hotels, agreed to a very limited hotel-based shelter program last year on the condition that the hotels would serve as way stations for people moving swiftly into housing, rather than long-term shelter. The idea was to move people from encampments to hotels to market-rate apartments, using “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between unsheltered, often chronic, homelessness to self-sufficiency.
Rapid rehousing is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds.
As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is most effective for people with minimal barriers to housing and employment—those who can get jobs quickly and earn enough to afford an apartment in Seattle. It is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds. As a result, people did not tend to move from hotel rooms to apartments; instead, they ended up back on the streets, moved into other forms of shelter like tiny house villages, or stayed put.
Only four households at King’s Inn, which opened about 60 rooms, have actually moved into housing with rapid rehousing vouchers, out of 42 that began the process of enrolling for rapid rehousing subsidies.
At the Executive Pacific, which has about 140 guest rooms, just 33 people received and were able to use rapid rehousing subsidies. That program was administered by Catholic Community Services, which began the process of enrolling about 60 people. CCS, which was initially supposed to staff offices on one floor of the hotel, was not on site for most of the time the hotel was in operation, according to Lee.
“The population at King’s Inn is better suited for permanent supportive housing, not [rapid rehousing],” Clark said. “Many of the folks we are moving out we will likely transfer to [permanent supportive housing] in the future,” including 63 senior-housing units scheduled to open in April and another 120 units that will open next year. Forty-six percent of King’s Inn residents are disabled, 54 percent are chronically homeless, and 70 percent have mental health issues, including substance use disorders, according to Clark.
Lee, at LIHI, says she’s holding out hope that several buildings that are currently awaiting various permits and inspections, including three Capitol Hill properties that LIHI purchased last year, will be open soon. “One thing we’re trying to figure out is what people [from the hotel] might do well in tiny houses,” small structures organized into “villages” that are among the most desirable forms of shelter in Seattle. “If we’re able to move some [current] tiny house villagers into the apartment buildings. we’re hoping that we can then move the people form the hotel into the tiny houses by the end of January.”
Chief Seattle Club, meanwhile, has received a tentative contract extension for King’s Inn through the end of February, “in in the event the Temporary Certificate of Occupancy gets delayed for ?al?al,” according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens. Because the building, which is funded through federal housing tax credits, couldn’t open last year, the group will have to recertify the eligibility of dozens of clients who have already been approved for housing, Clark said—”a huge nightmare” of paperwork and logistics.