By Erica C. Barnett
Facing a November 27 deadline to take action on a longstanding offer of $1 million and 35 Pallet shelters from King County, the Burien City Council decided last night to do nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing: After rejecting two potential locations for a tiny shelter village—a city-owned lot in downtown Burien that currently serves as storage for a Toyota dealership and a property owned by Seattle City Light—the council voted to ask the county for an extension on the deadline to use the money, which has been available to Burien for the last six months.
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, Deputy King County Executive Shannon Braddock formally declined Burien City Manager Adolfo Bailon’s request for a deadline extension. In an email, Braddock noted that the county originally started working with Burien to site a shelter in the city in March, after the city evicted an encampment from its original location outside City Hall, and formalized its $1 million offer in June.
“Since our conversations began, the only requirement to utilize this offer has been for the city to identify a location and willing property owner to site the Pallet shelters,” Braddock wrote. “We have identified funding, shelter resources, and off-set parking capacity. To the best of our understanding as of today, the city has not yet identified any location or property owner, including city-owned property, to utilize what we have secured in response to the original request for assistance.” The council will hold a special meeting next Monday, the day the deadline expires, for a final discussion, but the months-long deadlock is unlikely to change.
ORIGINAL POST CONTINUES: The votes on both locations deadlocked 3-3-1, with Councilmember Jimmy Matta—ordinarily part of the four-member anti-shelter majority—abstaining. “I’m not going to make a call for any of the sites until we as a community come together and have a real conversation,” Matta said.
A third proposal to build a temporary Pallet shelter or tiny house village on a vacant lot in Boulevard Park—a low-income food desert with minimal services—failed, after Mayor Sofia Aragon could not get anyone to second it. As Councilmember Cydney Moore noted Monday, the Boulevard Park location is directly in a flight path, with noise levels frequently exceeding 80 decibels.
Aragon also proposed a code of conduct for any future temporary shelter that would prohibit people living in the tiny structures from drinking or using drugs, including marijuana, and would bar anyone convicted of a sex offense, but because her motion to consider the code of conduct violated parliamentary procedure, it didn’t get a hearing, either.
“I don’t believe that it should be the government that has a say or even touches homelessness. I think that should be [done by the] private sector. It should be the organizations that are funded on their own that are able to come up with funding on their own to do this, which is why I don’t support accepting the King County money.”—Burien City Councilmember Stephanie Mora
Although the Boulevard Park location didn’t get a formal vote, it would have likely failed by a similar margin as the other two locations, since conservative council member Stephanie Mora indicated she would not vote for any proposal to accept the money from King County, including the Boulevard Park location supported by her council allies.
“I don’t believe that it should be the government that has a say or even touches homelessness. I think that should be [done by the] private sector,” Mora said. “It should be the organizations that are funded on their own that are able to come up with funding on their own to do this, which is why I don’t support accepting the King County money.”
Moore attempted to bring the council back at some point before next Monday—the county’s deadline for Burien to use the money—but Aragon, Matta, and Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling all said they would be too busy with Thanksgiving obligations. (Mora said she would not attend any meeting to discuss the matter further, period.) If the county does not grant an extension, the council will meet next Monday night.
Instead, they asked the county for another week to discuss options, though it’s not clear what could possibly break the six-month-long logjam. If Burien decides it doesn’t want the million dollars, the county will offer it to other South King County cities through a competitive bidding process.
Prior to last night’s meeting, the city appeared to be teeing up the Boulevard Park location as the preferred alternative.
In a memo purporting to weigh the pros and cons of each option, City Manager Adolfo Bailon used cherry-picked and inaccurate information to make the decision seem obvious, relying on assumptions and unsourced claims about how much a shelter at each location would cost, the ease of obtaining each location, and the kind of access each site would provide to transit, food, and services.
For example, the memo suggested that if the city accepted the money, it would be forced to eliminate specific public safety and human services programs from its budget in the future, including programs aimed at preventing youth violence, feeding people, improving downtown safety, and providing mental health services. Cities can’t actually constrain future budgets in this way, and every item on the list seemed purposefully to suggest that helping unsheltered people would mean abandoning other, more worthy Burien residents.
The city manager’s memo did not include the cost of leasing the other two sites, which are not city-owned, or include this additional expense in the sections describing the pros and cons of these locations. On Monday, Bailon said he had no idea how much renting either the privately owned Boulevard Park lot or the City Light lot would cost.
The memo also included incomplete or inaccurate descriptions of each of the three potential shelter locations. It claims, for instance, that the Boulevard Park site has a “Walk Score” of 68, based partly on its exceptional access to “food sources.” However, the actual Walk Score for the site is 56—”somewhat walkable”—and the only source of nearby food or beverages is a Dollar Tree, which does not offer any fresh or healthy food, and a liquor store.
Dismissing concerns about the lack of healthy food at this location on Monday night, Aragon said, “There’s food there. It may not be a full blown grocery store, which the neighborhood definitely needs. But there is food available there [from] either mini marts or the Dollar Tree.”
The nearest full-service grocery store, a Red Apple, is two miles and a 40-minute walk away. In contrast, the city-owned lot in downtown Burien is five minutes from three full-service grocery stores and 500 feet from the Burien Transit Center.
Bailon’s memo also made a number of unsourced assumptions about the financial impact of each location, including a claim that ending the lease with the Toyota dealership would cost “tens of thousands of dollars” in lost taxes and “potential loss of jobs”—which appears to assume the dealership would close if it had to move its cars 500 feet away to a secure covered parking lot at the transit center.
In fact, while Burien would lose $24,000 a year in lease revenue if the Toyota dealer no longer rented the lot, the dealer would save the same amount, because King County would provide its lot for free. That amount, notably, is less than half the size of a contract Bailon signed with a controversial nonprofit that provides private sweeps and distributed homeless people’s private information to police and sympathetic councilmembers less than a month ago.
Nor did the memo mention the cost of leasing the other two sites, which are not city-owned, or include this additional expense in the sections describing the pros and cons of these locations. On Monday, Bailon said he had no idea how much renting either the privately owned Boulevard Park lot or the City Light lot would cost, claiming he could not even inquire about cost until the council chose a location and “authorized me to negotiate on behalf of the city.” Bailon also suggested Seattle might “say [that] 50 percent of whatever housing units are built at the location will be for the city of Seattle, but did not provide any reason for this estimate.
A spokeswoman for the city of Burien declined to respond to a detailed list of questions on Monday.
A spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine could not immediately say how the county planned to respond to the Burien City Council’s request for an extension on the county’s six-month-old offer.