By Leo Brine
State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center) has proposed a bill that would make it easier for homeless service providers to build homeless shelters across the state, including in Seattle.
The city of Seattle consulted with Nguyen on the legislation, which would allow cities to permit homeless shelters without subjecting such projects to a time-consuming environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act. The bill would apply to jurisdictions, including Seattle, that have declared a homelessness state of emergency, and to shelters permitted for three years or less that serve 200 people or fewer and do not require the construction of any new permanent buildings.
According to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) code development manager Mike Podowski, SEPA review can delay the siting and permit process an additional six to eight months “without really adding value, in terms of environmental protection, life safety, or neighborhood fit.”
Once a SEPA review is complete, anyone can appeal its result to the city’s hearing examiner, Podowski added, leading to additional delays.
In July 2018, for example, a group called Safe and Affordable Seattle filed an appeal to stop the expansion of a tiny house village in Interbay, arguing that the city failed to meet SEPA requirements. The appeal, which the hearing examiner denied, delayed the project, which was finally able to open 12 months after it was first proposed.
Nguyen said that tiny home villages and temporary shelters aren’t the answer to the homelessness crisis, “but in lieu of having enough supportive, affordable housing, you need this option.”
This is Nguyen’s fourth year sponsoring the bill. In 2019 and again in 2020, the Senate passed his bill, but the majority house Democrats never brought it to the floor for a vote. Without a vote, the opponents remained anonymous; Nguyen suspects “people who are worried about tiny villages in their district” killed the bill each time.
This time, though, Nguyen is facing a new fight with Republicans who previously supported the bill. Republicans have proposed a slew of amendments that would impose additional requirements on shelter providers seeking exemption from SEPA review. Many of the amendments would impose new requirements (and costs) such as weekly stormwater monitoring, solid-waste management plans, on-site drug treatment, CDC-approved infectious disease management plans, and the adoption of a special city ordinance allowing the SEPA exemption.
One proposed amendment, by Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31, Auburn), would prohibit all non-prescribed drugs and alcohol at SEPA-exempted shelters; another, also from Fortunato, would bar the bill from taking effect until a city had enough shelter beds for every single person living unsheltered in the area—a poison pill, since no city with a significant homeless population has come close to this goal.
Nguyen says the amendments, many of which came from senators who voted for the bill last year, use disdain for unhoused people “as a political tool” to spread anti-homeless talking points.
“Do [Republicans] hate SEPA more or do they hate homeless people more?” Nguyen asked hypothetically. “Well, they hate both a lot, so it’s interesting.”