By Erica C. Barnett
Next week, the governing board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will vote on a proposed budget that would nearly double the amount of money the authority is requesting from Seattle and King County, which fund the authority.
Overall, the proposed $209 “base budget,” not counting $12 million in one-time COVID relief funds, would require the county and city, collectively, to contribute an additional $90 million to the regional authority, on top of this year’s total contribution of $119 million. The majority of the KCRHA’s existing funding—about $70 million—comes from the city through its annual budget process; the rest comes from the county.
Nearly 40 suburban cities, organized as the Sound Cities Association, receive services funded through the KCRHA and have seats on its governing board, but do not contribute any funding to the authority.
The KCRHA has not presented a detailed breakdown of its budget requests to each of its two funders yet, but if the money was divided up along similar lines as this year’s contributions, it would amount to about $54 million in additional funding from the city, for a total of more than $122 million.
At a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board, agency CEO Marc Dones said, “I agree that this is a hefty ask,” but added that even doubling the authority’s budget won’t fundamentally transform the homelessness system, given the scale of the need in King County. “We went into this saying, and maintain, this is not the transformational budget for us,” Dones said.
PubliCola asked the spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, county council budget chair Joe McDermott, and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, how realistic they considered the KCRHA’s request, given the likelihood of significant budget gaps this year. The city, for example, currently estimates next year’s budget shortfall at around $34 million, and has asked departments to come up with potential cuts of 3 to 6 percent.
The budget proposal includes tens of millions for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve a total of 130 vehicles at a time.
Harrell’s spokesman said the mayor’s office “is still in the early stages of evaluating this preliminary budget proposal. We look forward to working with the KCRHA and CEO Dones, as well as our partners at King County, to help develop a budget through a collaborative and iterative process. We will at the same time be considering our own budget needs, addressing a significant financial gap, and working to determine what investments will most effectively address the homelessness crisis.”
A spokesman for Constantine said the county executive’s office is “reviewing the draft budget and are in communication with KCRHA and our partners at the City of Seattle to discuss needs and realistic budget expectations, as well as potential opportunities for funding.”
Mosqueda said she had not seen the budget proposal yet, “but with Seattle currently funding 68 percent of the budget, it underscores that regional funders are necessary.”
McDermott did not respond to our request for comment.
Lewis, the council’s homelessness committee chair, said the size of the request demonstrates the scope of the need. “I don’t think, in and of itself, that the total number is an unreasonable amount of money to be asking for some of the stuff that they want to do,” he said. “But we’re already paying 70 percent of [the agency’s budget], and Seattle taxpayers are actually paying more, because we pay into the county’s contribution too.”
On Thursday, Dones told PubliCola that even if the authority factored in all the money suburban cities are spending on homelessness, there would still be a “substantial” need for more funding. Under its charter, the authority has no ability to raise taxes or require suburban cities to help fund it: “The limit of what we can do is, this is what is necessary. This is the price tag,” Dones said. The governing board, made up largely of elected officials, could, however, advocate for a new local or county tax to fund homelessness. “They can’t effectuate it, but they are the ones politically situated to call that question and to be the appropriate envoys of the discussion.”
The budget proposal includes tens of millions of dollars for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing for 345 people; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve up to 130 vehicles at a time.
Last year, the city council declined to fund the KCRHA’s request for the high-acuity shelter, citing a revenue shortfall and concerns that the authority had not coordinated their request with the city. Subsequently, King County expanded its shelter complex in the SoDo neighborhood, built with federal COVID relief funds, to include shelter for people with physical and behavioral health care needs. A spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the $20 million would be for “new capacity, locations [to be determined].”
The 400 proposed new shelter and emergency housing beds represent just 20 percent of the 2,000 new shelter or housing beds Harrell vowed to add this year in the city of Seattle alone. Harrell’s office did not respond directly to a question about this discrepancy between the KCRHA’s proposal and his campaign promise.
Dones has advocated for emergency or “bridge” housing, which they recently described as “non-time limited housing-style options for people” moving from homelessness into permanent housing. The city began moving away from traditional transitional housing in the last decade, after a 2016 report by consultant Barb Poppe called the model “extraordinarily expensive” and the average time people stayed in transitional housing units “shockingly long.”
The agency’s analysis, in contrast, concluded that transitional housing had the lowest “cost per exit” of any shelter or emergency housing type KCRHA funds, and that tiny house villages—a type of shelter Dones has frequently criticized in the past—are the most expensive and have the longest average stay of any shelter type, with a 45 percent rate of exits to permanent housing.
The proposed budget increase would fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).
It’s unclear how the authority derived the “cost per exit” metric, which differs from more frequently uses measures such as average cost per client per year. (Asked for more details about the math the agency used and for the data underlying the numbers, the KCRHA spokeswoman said the number came from “Performance data from HMIS, funding data from our contracts database” and did not provide the data itself.)
The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates tiny house villages throughout King County, disputes the authority’s metrics, saying their own analysis shows about 50 percent of tiny house residents exit to permanent housing, and that the cost of sheltering one person in a tiny house for one year comes out to just over $9,000.
“While this is a different method than the ‘cost per exit’ RHA recently introduced, it is a much more accurate reflection of true costs from year to year that the $64,893 they arrived at which we find misleading,” LIHI chief strategy officer Jon Grant said. LIHI also disputed the KCRHA’s use of an average, rather than median, length of stay (the median stay in tiny houses, Grant said, is 114 days), and pointed to the fact that tiny houses, unlike enhanced shelters such as Seattle’s Navigation Center, have a high “utilization” rate—meaning that they’re mostly full—a metric the KCRHA did not include in their report.
The proposed budget increase would also fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).
“About five agencies receive 47 percent of [KCRHA] funding currently, which I find a little unnerving,” Dones said at a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board. “Across those five agencies, there are 300 vacant positions—that’s slow-motion collapse stuff and we should treat it as such. It is really, really bad.”
The KCRHA spokeswoman could not immediately identify which agencies Dones was referring to, but said, “It’s always concerning when there’s a concentration of resources in any field, because if anything happens to any one of those agencies then it could destabilize the whole field. Diversification creates more stability across the sector, and opens up opportunities for smaller organizations and BIPOC-led organizations to step into serving their communities.”
Once the authority’s governing board approves the budget proposal, it will go to the city and county, whose budget processes take place in the fall.