Homelessness Authority Plans to Use COVID Relief Dollars to Make Up $2 Million Earmarked for Tiny Houses

Image via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

Officials at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority say the agency will pay for three contracts at the center of a recent funding controversy using $2 million in unspent Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG-CV) COVID relief dollars from the city of Seattle. The city’s Human Services Department, which oversaw the money until the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system this year, has not yet responded to questions sent Friday morning about the specific source of the funding.

One potential source is leftover funding former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration planned to spend on rapid rehousing at the two shelter-based hotels the city opened (and closed) last year. The mayor’s office claimed the hotels would serve as short-term stops for people to move rapidly from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate apartments using short-term rent subsidies; in reality, most people stayed at the hotels long-term, leaving most of the rapid rehousing dollars unspent when the hotels closed earlier this year.

The city council passed legislation allocating the $2 million, which last year’s state budget earmarked for “tiny home villages,” to two LIHI tiny house villages last year. However, then-mayor Jenny Durkan never spent the money, transferring authority of the state funds to the KCRHA at the beginning of this year. The KCRHA, in turn, created a new, open bidding process for the money, ultimately rejecting both of LIHI’s proposals in favor of three different projects, including one from the Chief Seattle Club that involved (but was not led by) LIHI.

In response, State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43) said the state dollars were never the KCRHA’s to give, and earmarked the money for LIHI in this year’s state budget, leaving the agency with $2 million in unfunded commitments.

“Neither I, or the agency, has an ax to grind with tiny houses as a shelter type. If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on day 3. They’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. The question was, should we rapidly open 10 to 15 tiny house villages, and I said the data does not support expansion of that scale.”—KCRHA director Marc Dones

During a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board on Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones—a vocal critic of the city council’s plans to expand tiny house villages around the city—sounded frustrated as they addressed the controversy.

“Neither I, or the agency, has an ax to grind with tiny houses as a shelter type,” Dones said. “If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on day 3. They’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. What I have said repeatedly [is that] radical expansion, which was what was being put forward to me last year—the question was, should we rapidly open 10 to 15 tiny house villages, and I said the data does not support expansion of that scale.”

“There is, and I cannot stress this enough, zero credible or factual assertion in any statement made by anyone that this agency, or I specifically, am trying to unwind all of the tiny houses tomorrow, and, frankly, that we have not made new investments into tiny shelter types,” Dones said, pointing to existing contracts with LIHI that transferred to the authority from the city of Seattle and to two of the projects the RHA attempted to fund through the bidding process—the Chief Seattle Club/LIHI village and an expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet shelter project.

Dones noted that LIHI did not file a formal grievance over the authority’s decision not to fund its proposed tiny house villages in South Seattle and South Lake Union (which, thanks to Chopp, were both ultimately funded by the state). “We are done,” they said. Lee, from LIHI, said she chose not to file a grievance because she didn’t believe LIHI would get a fair shake from the same panel that rejected its applications, which included both Dones and his executive assistant.

Dr. Simha Reddy, a member of the implementation board, said he and other board members met with Dones last week to figure out what happened with the $2 million, and came to the conclusion that the agency legitimately believed it had the authority to distribute the $2 million in state funding through its own grant process. “Fundamentally, an error happened. I don’t think there’s a particular villain here,” Reddy said. “Stepping back, this looks like this is a situation where good people trying their hardest could have come to different conclusions.”

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