Category: homelessness

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.”

Chamber Poll Asks Leading Questions, Gets Predictable Answers

By Erica C. Barnett

The head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Rachel Smith, expressed optimism during a press briefing to roll out the Chamber’s latest poll, which concludes that a supermajority of Seattle residents “actively” considered moving last year and that only one in four people would feel safe going downtown after dark. “This data shows us that the voters know what’s going on in our community, they understand it, they have complex reactions to it, and fundamentally, they want action… and I think that’s good news for the kind of leadership that they need,” Smith said.

The editorial board of the Seattle Times didn’t take long to read between the lines, publishing an editorial that called the poll a “cold-water shock” that should prompt the City Council to take a hardline approach to crime and homelessness. The Times piece paid particular attention to a poll question about encampment sweeps, gloating that “[e]ven 55% of the dozens of self-identified Socialists in the poll said the ‘stop all sweeps’ idea is wrong.”

As with all polls, though, how you ask the question matters. The Chamber’s question about encampments was particularly misleading, creating a false choice between an option that does not currently exist in the city of Seattle—offering appropriate housing or shelter, along with health care, treatment, and other services that meet the needs of people living outdoors, and only then asking them to move—and the most extreme “no sweeps under any circumstances” option. Would you rather “provide outreach and offer shelter and services to individuals before closing encampments,” or do you agree that “no individual should be moved unless they agree to alternative shelter or housing”? Given that false choice between two options that no one in city government has proposed, it’s little wonder that both socialists and self-identified Democrats overwhelmingly picked the former.

The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.

Similarly, the poll set up a question about police spending in terms that pitted an option most voters would consider reasonable—hiring better-trained police while implementing “alternative policing and sentencing programs”—with one many people would consider an extreme approach: Decriminalizing all nonviolent misdemeanors and eliminating police. Not surprisingly, just 23 percent of respondents said the city should legalize misdemeanors and get rid of the cops.

So what can such a poll tell us? Questions about whether the city is on the right track or the wrong track, whether people have considered moving somewhere else, and whether people trust the city council perennially receive responses suggesting that everything is worse than ever, and that the city council, which has far less power in Seattle’s political system than people generally assume, is to blame. (Having covered such polls for the better part of 20 years, I can’t recall a single example of a business group releasing a poll showing that voters think things are going great and that they trust the council more than they would a random guy on the street).

In a sense, surveys like this one serve as early indicators of how people will feel about (or whether they will vote for) policies that business groups support, like increased police funding, crackdowns on homelessness, and tax breaks. They are less useful, however, at predicting things like how many people actually will leave Seattle (Republicans perennially say they plan to leave, and yet here they still are) and whether people are, individually, happier living here than they would be somewhere else. The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.

And because many questions are designed in a way that produces maximal results for certain outcomes, it can be hard to tease out what voters are actually “saying.” When 61 percent of voters identify homelessness as the issue that they are “most concerned or frustrated about,” that response almost certainly includes people who actively work against encampment sweeps as well as those who are annoyed at the sight of tents on the freeway.

Questions about “crime and public safety,” similarly, look different from the perspective of someone living in a neighborhood deeply impacted by gun violence and the owner of a $2 million house in Laurelhurst who hears about what’s happening in the “inner city” from their local TV fearmonger.

And, as always, there are internal contradictions: Most people agree that the city to spend more money on all sorts of things, including behavioral health care and homelessness solutions, but also overwhelmingly oppose more taxes to pay for all that new spending uamid a $150 million deficit.

The poll did include one somewhat surprising result: Most people, including homeowners, say they support “more housing” not just along commercial streets but in their own neighborhoods. There’s a caveat for that one, though, too: The Chamber only asked about duplexes and triplexes, not apartments; had they asked homeowners whether they would welcome a three-story apartment building next door, they might have gotten a much different response.

Proposal to Trade Away Troubled Pioneer Square Park Questions About Park Access, Land Value

City Hall Park, fenced and closed
City Hall Park, a rare piece of green space in downtown Seattle, has been closed and fenced off since last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

King County and the city of Seattle are moving forward with a plan, negotiated under former mayor Jenny Durkan, for the city to trade City Hall Park in Pioneer Square for 12 smaller pieces of county-owned property around the city.

The park, which has been closed and fenced off since last year, was the site of a large encampment through much of 2021, prompting calls to remove the park from city control by King County officials and some superior court justices who work in the adjacent King County Courthouse. Although the park was neglected during the pandemic, pre-COVID efforts to “activate” the space had been largely successful, and the city had planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars expanding those programs before the pandemic began.

On Wednesday, the city council’s public assets and homelessness committee had its first discussion about the proposed land swap, which will also require the city to vacate (give or sell to the county) a short stretch of road that passes through the park.

Although the trade currently feels like a fait accompli—a spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said Harrell supports the trade as long as it includes a covenant that ensures the park remains a park “in perpetuity”—parks and Pioneer Square neighborhood advocates questioned whether trading the land to the county would actually accomplish the dual goal of improved public safety and open space for the neighborhood.

Rebecca Bear, president of the Seattle Parks Foundation, called City Hall Park a “complex” location with “a lot of issues,” but told council members that “closing off the park and even transferring the park to another jurisdiction is not going to solve that problem.” For hundreds of low-income people living in the area, the park serves as an important green space in a highly urban area—or did, before it was fenced off last year. “The park does need love now while this process is going on, and so I’d encourage you all to you know, work with the [county] to see if there’s a way we can get the park open and activated before any land transfers happen,” Bear said.

Parcels King County has proposed transferring to the city in exchange for City Hall Park include a 2,300-foot wedge of the Cheasty Greenspace overlooking Columbian Way S; a 251-square-foot fragment of the Duwamish Greenspace overlooking I-5 ; and a 291-square-foot triangle near the Admiral District in West Seattle.

Legislation adopted by the King County Council last year says the deed for the land swap will include a covenant guaranteeing that the land “shall continue to be used for public open space, a park, a recreation and community facility, the expansion of existing County facilities, or other public benefit purpose, provided that any such purpose shall be for use by the general public and primarily noncommercial in nature.”

King County external relations director Calli Knight told the council that placing covenant on the land would “make it clear that it is going to be substantially used in perpetuity for open space, with the nuance that we really would like to look at opening the historic south entrance of the park”—the historic front entrance of the courthouse, which was reoriented to face Third Avenue in the 1960s.

Representatives from the county noted that the city and county previously agreed to a land swap based on acreage, rather than land value, since the fair-market value of City Hall Park would be in the tens of millions if it could be developed as high-rise housing or office space. “We settled upon a an area negotiation because … the location of the park, if it was unrestricted property, would render that completely outside the scale, which is one of the reasons we also have about three times as much property being conveyed in terms of area,” King County Facilities Management Division Tony Wright told the council.

Initiative 42, passed in 1997, says that if the city wants to trade away park land, it must “receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.”

Collectively, the 12 parcels represent more square footage (1.33 acres) than City Hall Park, which is just over half an acre, but many are tiny triangles or squares contiguous to or across the street from city-owned property. But some council members wondered if the city is getting a fair deal out of the proposed land swap. “Many of these [parcels] are really small—you know, there’s a couple that are less than 300 square feet,” Councilmember Tammy Morales noted Wednesday. “I’m not sure what the city’s gain would be in terms of being able to use these parcels.”

In addition to the park, the county is asking the city to vacate a public street, allowing the county to use that space for another purpose, for free—a departure from previous policy. For example, when the city vacated streets on First Hill to allow expansion of the Harborview Medical Center, the county paid for the land, Lewis said.

The land transfer can’t move forward without city council approval and analysis under the State Environmental Policy Act, from which the Durkan administration argued the land swap was exempt. Committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he and other council members have a number of outstanding questions about the land swap, including the street vacation, which amounts to as much city-owned property as the park itself.

“I don’t think any of us particularly feel bound by whatever secretive process the Durkan administration engaged in” with the county, Lewis said, “because it was not one the council was privy to. The council started our process yesterday, and I don’t, frankly, feel bound by any concession the Durkan Administration made. We’re going to look at this from top to bottom.”

Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate

1. Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation (HB 2075) that would have required the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to meet minimum service requirements by keeping their physical offices open, come up with a plan to achieve phone wait times of 30 minutes or less, and generally ensure “that clients may apply for and receive services in a reasonable and accessible manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, including but not limited to, technology, language, and ability,” according to a staff summary of the legislation. The bill passed both houses with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, adding to its sponsor, Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21) surprise at Inslee’s veto.

“I had zero idea that this [veto] was even being considered, so getting over the initial shock and confusion took at least half a day,” Peterson said.

The legislation was aimed at addressing a persistent problem at DSHS, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps: Because DSHS, unlike most other government agencies, had never reopened its physical offices, clients—many of them homeless—could only access the agency by phone, and wait times were often several hours.

DSHS secretary Jilma Meneses agreed to reopen most of the agency’s 181 physical offices in March, which eliminated much of the cost associated with the legislation; eliminating a 30-minute wait time mandate and replacing it with language saying DSHS should “strive for” 30-minute wait times made that issue a debate for a later time and reduced the bill’s short-term cost to nothing. 

“We all know a significant investment needs to be made into upgrading the systems that they use—the phone system, the ability for people to access [DSHS] online, and the in-person service, which was the crux of the bill,” Peterson said. He said he trusts that Menenses will keep her word and keep the offices open, but added that the legislation provided a guarantee that would have lasted beyond the tenure of a single DSHS secretary.

In a statement, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said, “We wish we had not had to advocate so forcefully to get the CSOs to reopen, and that the governor had not vetoed this commonsense bill. Together with our service and advocacy partners across Washington, we look forward to working with the governor, DSHS Secretary Meneses, and the legislature in 2023 to guarantee that never again will the state lock its doors on people in need of services, especially in an emergency.”

Inslee’s veto message shed little light on the reasons for his veto. “The executive branch always strives to manage state programs in the best manner possible, within the authorization and resources provided by the legislative branch,” Inslee wrote. “Identifying specific performance metrics, in particular without the necessary resources, is an overreach in our respective roles.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said the “performance metrics” Inslee referred to in his veto letter include “not only having offices open but also tracking call wait times and dropped calls with the aspirational goal of keeping that response time to 30 minutes or less. Costing that out is very difficult. … Secretary Meneses has her team working on outreach to advocates and those who access our systems to determine what the buildout should look like.”

2. Back in February, as state legislators were working on a capital budget that would include hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) proposed—and Rep. Noel Frame’s (D-36) office set up—a meeting between King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones and the 45 members of King County’s legislative delegation (not all of whom were expected to attend). Until that point, legislators had not met formally with Dones, and the KCRHA had not provided a list of legislative priorities for the 60-day session.

The meeting was set for 12:30 on February 17. At 9:40 that morning, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig sent an email to the 45-member delegation to cancel.

“As you may have read in the Seattle Times this morning, the KCRHA will be making an announcement about our plans to address unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle,” Herbig wrote. As we reported, the announcement was about private donations totaling $10 million to fund, among other things, 30 “peer navigators” in downtown Seattle.

“Because of this announcement, and how busy you all are right now with session, we are canceling today’s 12:30 meeting,” Herbig continued. “We appreciate your understanding, and look forward to opportunities to introduce ourselves and answer any questions you have about us or our work after Sine Die,” the end of the legislative session.

“I am inferring from your cancellation [that] KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”—State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in an email to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Macri, who works for the Downtown Emergency Service Coalition when the legislature isn’t in session, called the cancelation “a slap in the face” in an email response to Herbig. “Tell me why I should not read it as this—’Sorry, elected officials, we have no time for you because some billionaires are giving us a small shiny thing, which they can only do it on the one day we have a meeting with the group who collectively represents the interests of 2.3 million people from our region,'” Macri wrote.

“I am inferring from your cancellation,” Macri continued, that “KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”

In a followup email, State Sen. David Frockt (D-46) added, “Our proposed Senate capital budget has over 470m for housing and stabilization investments, so I concur with Rep. Macri it would be good to connect since I presume KCRHA and key agency partners will be seeking some of this money at some point. … [P]artnership with the key budget writers and the former speaker,” Frank Chopp (D-43), “would be helpful and will help me relate to all of my more conservative colleagues in the Senate why these investments toward King County are worthwhile.” Continue reading “Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate”

Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee at an event promoting a proposed tiny-house village in South Lake Union last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle Times published a story about state Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43) decision to allocate $2 million in state funding to the Low-Income Housing Institute to build tiny house villages. Both Chopp and LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, took issue with the piece, which suggested that Chopp (who co-founded LIHI 31 years ago, but has no financial interest in the nonprofit) had improperly used his power to take the money away from three other projects that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority had chosen through a competitive bidding process.

The story of the $2 million is both more complicated and simpler than the Times’ coverage suggested. More complicated, because the state allocated the funds for tiny house villages almost a year ago; the money was never spent because of decisions made by Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose administration gave a series of excuses for not releasing the funds before her term ended last year. And simpler, because the money is ultimately controlled by the state, which can do what they want with it—including funding LIHI directly without going through any bidding process.

Chopp says he first agreed to find $2 million to fund tiny house villages after City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, asked Chopp to help fund his “It Takes A Village” strategy—a plan to build 12 tiny house villages across the city. The 2021 state capital budget, adopted last April, dedicated the $2 million explicitly to “tiny homes (Seattle).” Last June, the council adopted—and Durkan signed—the Seattle Rescue Plan, which, among other things, allocated another $400,000 in operations funds to supplement the $2 million from the state (on top of $2.8 million from the 2021 budget that had gone unspent) to build new tiny house villages. The Durkan Administration, however, never spent the money.

“They never had the money. It was not theirs to begin with.”—State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43)

At the time, Durkan’s staff gave several reasons for declining to take action on the funding, including the fact that the city hadn’t allocated long-term funding to keep the villages for years in the future (as council members pointed out at the time, the city only budgets in one-year increments); a lack of staffing as the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division emptied out in the runup to the KCRHA taking over; and a desire to let the KCRHA’s new director, Marc Dones, implement their own shelter strategy.

Dones has made no secret of their desire to overhaul the region’s shelter system. On several occasions, Dones expressed skepticism about the tiny-house village model, suggesting that group houses or a more direct route from the street to permanent housing might be a better option. This created a sense of urgency for tiny-house proponents to get the new villages up and running by the end of 2021, before the authority took over, as well as a mistrust between LIHI and the new authority that persists to this day.

Advocates for tiny house villages were still asking the city to spend the $2 million as late as September, but gained no traction. “We were all frustrated that that money sat there for a whole year, and we kept asking the mayor’s’ office and [the Human Services Department, why aren’t you putting out a [request for proposals?]” LIHI director Sharon Lee recalled.

According to Chopp, as 2021 wound down, he called Lewis and the interim director of the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, Robin Koskey, and said “‘Time’s up. A year ago, you promised it was all ready to go, and you promised the money would be spent by the first quarter of this year,'” which ended on March 31. At that point, Chopp said, he decided to take action by writing a local community project request—a way of earmarking capital funds for specific projects—to fund the three LIHI villages. Chopp said he told Nigel Herbig, the KCRHA’s intergovernmental relations director, “Nigel, you don’t have the money” in the third week of January.

The Times reported that Chopp withdrew money that the KCRHA had in hand, a contention Chopp called “ridiculous. They never had the money,” he said. “It was not theirs to begin with.”

A KCRHA spokeswoman, Anne Martens, did not respond to detailed questions about Chopp’s conversation with Herbig, subsequent conversations between Chopp and the KCRHA, or why the authority moved forward to seek bids for the $2 million even after being told the money was going to LIHI. “[A]s you know, the RFP as awarded does fund tiny house villages,” Martens said in an email—a reference to a 25-unit project the Chief Seattle Club proposed in partnership with LIHI and a separate expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet Shelter on 15th Ave. W.

Despite Chopp’s action to earmark the $2 million for LIHI, the agency still applied for funding through the KCRHA’s process; as we reported, the authority rejected both of their applications to build and operate their own tiny house villages, saying that their proposal to build a village on City Light-owned property in South Lake Union, which Lewis supported, would require people to live in “inhumane living conditions.”

Martens said she would have to look into our question about what specific conditions were “inhumane” when we asked about this last Tuesday, and had not followed up by press time. In a previous conversation, Martens said the awards prioritized “equity” and “lived experience.” The authority, Martens said, used “competitive bidding in order to be more equitable… and that is reflective of our commitment to centering lived experience.”

Asked why she applied for KCRHA funding if she knew Chopp had already earmarked the $2 million for LIHI, Lee said she “assumed that KCRHA had chosen to backfill (add) the $2 million from other sources,” such as leftover rapid rehousing funds from the Durkan Administration’s unsuccessful effort to cycle unsheltered quickly through hotels into permanent, often market-rate, apartments.  “Why would the RHA take this information and then proceed to award the funds if they were told that the funds were not available?” Lee said. “Why wouldn’t they make another plan or find additional funding?”

“We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

KCRHA has not said how they plan to pay for the projects that won funding through its bidding process. One possibility, Martens said, is to go to the city of Seattle, which provides about 70 percent of the authority’s funding, for the money. “We are talking to the City about this whole snafu to figure out what the next steps are,” she said.

Barring a dramatic turnaround in its budget forecast, the city seems unlikely to provide the authority with additional money this year. “We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for,” city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said. “Marc and the RHA are receiving 68 percent of their funding from the city of Seattle. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”

Mosqueda called Chopp’s action to allocate the $2 million to LIHI “appropriate,” adding, “We have to be good partners with the state legislature when they trying to help with the most pressing issue in our city. You either use funding or you lose funding, and I’m glad that the  funding is being deployed so that people can continue to get access to tiny house villages, regardless of whether through RHA or directly from the state legislature.” Continue reading “Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System”

New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences

By Erica C. Barnett

In October 2020, a little more than six months into the pandemic, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority quietly changed the criteria it uses to place people in the so-called “priority pool” for housing—sometimes known as the “top 40 list.”

Instead of relying on an interviewing tool that has been widely criticized for producing racially biased outcomes, the KCRHA will use a simpler list of criteria developed in response to COVID-19 that prioritizes older people, people of color, and people with specific physical conditions, such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, that make them susceptible to COVID. The new system relies on data from local medical providers and information people self-report through the Homeless Management Information System used by most homeless service providers. Unlike other tools, it does not include factors such as mental illness or substance use disorders, which are common barriers to housing and part of the standard definition of “chronic homelessness.”

The need for a quasi-objective tool to decide who gets housing is a product of scarcity: For decades, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has far outpaced the amount of available housing for people with little or no income or who need extra support to stay housed. Today, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority estimates there are as many as 45,000 homeless people in the region. Because there isn’t enough affordable housing for all those people, the homeless system has to triage—picking and choosing who gets access to housing based on their level of “vulnerability,” a term with a shifting definition. The calculus is brutal: Without enough housing, most people will always be left out in the cold; the only question is who makes the cut.

“Only a very small slice of people who are homeless are getting help,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Not many people qualify and there’s not a lot of funding in the system for people experiencing homelessness.”

“When we do have enough housing, prioritization as we’ve known it is something that that will no longer be necessary,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said.
“But as long as there’s that scarcity, then we have to be able to identify a group of folks” to prioritize.

King County has used a number of different tools over the years to assess people’s vulnerability and prioritize them for housing—most recently (between 2016 and 2019) an interview-based assessment called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT for (sort of) short. For years, critics argued that the VI-SPDAT led to racially biased outcomes—Black people, in particular, were underrepresented compared to white people—and King County adopted new criteria that de-prioritized the VI-SPDAT, but didn’t discard it, in early 2019.

Later that same year, a study from a group called C4 Innovations confirmed that the VI-SPDAT gave white people a better shot at housing and services than Black people and other people of color, and suggested some possible reasons why: The tool asks a number of extremely personal questions about things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex work, that white people may feel more comfortable answering in the affirmative, especially if the interviewer is also white. The study also found that the VI-SPDAT asked questions about vulnerabilities that white people were more likely to have than people of color.

The new criteria do away with that by only looking at race, age, and physical health (including pregnancy)—and by foregoing in-person interviews altogether. “What is fundamentally different [with the COVID-19 criteria] is that instead of asking folks a lot of invasive, retraumatizing questions,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said, is that “the tool is based on data… so that litany of really invasive, not trauma-informed questions doesn’t have to happen.” The KCRHA gets its information from both “administrative data” taken from the Health Care for the Homeless Network and Medicaid, and from the Homeless Management Information System, a giant database used by most homeless providers that is based on self-reporting.

In the year and a half the new system has been in place, the percentage of Black heads of household prioritized for housing increased from 27 percent to 49 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 32 to 11 percent. (The percentage of Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native households that were prioritized for housing also increased slightly, while the number of Asian and multiracial households declined). The change was also striking among families with children, where the percentage of Black households increased from 33 percent to 52 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 27 to 6 percent.

But the biggest change since the KCRHA started prioritizing people for housing based on COVID vulnerability has been in the age of single adults who receive priority for housing placement. Because the COVID criteria put a premium on age—seven of eight “tiers” count age as one of a small handful of potential qualifiers, with a lower cutoff of 65—the average age of single adults who were prioritized for housing skyrocketed, from 41 to 61 years old. For a typical middle-aged person without any physical ailments that make them specifically vulnerable to COVID, the odds of getting bumped up the queue for housing are slimmer than ever.

Looked at one way, this makes perfect sense: By the time a homeless adult is 60, they are usually much “older,” biologically, because living outdoors is terrible for a person’s health. “The population of older adults who are homeless is expected to double by 2025 and triple by 2030,” Roman said, and “few are going to make it past 60. [By the time] they’re 55, they present as older and they have the problems of older people, but they’re not eligible for federal assistance to older people because they’re not old enough.”

Still, the exclusion of behavioral health conditions from the criteria is a significant shift—one that could mean some people with substance use disorders or disabling mental health conditions have to wait longer for housing. Ebrahimi, from KCRHA, says the authority may take behavioral health into consideration in the future, but notes that this information isn’t readily available through data; people have to disclose it voluntarily through the kind of interview process that the VI-SPDAT, with its biased outcomes, was based on. Continue reading “New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences”

Initiative Would Pave the Way for Social Housing in Seattle

Wohnpark Alterlaa, a social housing project in Vienna
Social housing in Vienna; photo by Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The House Our Neighbors coalition, a project of the homeless advocacy group Real Change, will file a ballot initiative on Monday to create a new public development authority (PDA) to build publicly owned, permanently affordable housing—also known as social housing—in Seattle. Funding for the PDA would come later, through future state or local legislation.

Social housing, according to Real Change advocacy director Tiffani McCoy, differs from other types of affordable housing because it’s permanently affordable, including to people whose income changes; because it gives renters a say in policies that impact them; and because it’s publicly owned, rather than subsidized or operated by a private nonprofit, like much of the affordable housing in Seattle.

“Developments MUST be permanently protected from being sold or transferred to a private entity or public-private partnership,” the proposed ordinance says.

McCoy says the coalition backing the initiative “didn’t want to just advocate for more money for the [Seattle] Office of Housing or affordable housing in general, because while those are obviously very, very important programs, they can be very restrictive in terms of what [income levels] you can serve. The proposed new authority would build housing for people earning between 0 and 120 percent of Seattle’s Area Median Income, currently $81,000 for a single person or $115,700 for a family of four.

The initiative would set up a PDA—a type of public developer—and require the city of Seattle to provide “in-kind” startup support to run it for the first 18 months; funding to actually build new housing would come later and could require the state legislature to approve a new funding mechanism, as it has for other large local projects like Sound Transit. State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43), a longtime advocate for affordable housing, is supporting the initiative and could be instrumental in creating a funding source for the authority, if the measure passes; he did not immediately return a call for comment last week.

The initiative would also require the city to do a feasibility study before selling off public land to determine whether it could be developed as social housing and transferred to the PDA. In 2019, the city sold a three-acre piece of land in South Lake Union known as the “Mercer Megablock” to a real estate equity firm for $143 million; the sale required the buyer, Alexandria Real Estate, to build 175 units of affordable housing and a make a one-time $5 million contribution to help the city address homelessness. Affordable housing advocates criticized the sale as a missed opportunity to build a much larger number of permanently affordable units on the site.

By adding the requirement that the city study the feasibility of affordable housing before selling off public land, “we just wanted to set up some accountability mechanism,” McCoy said: “A record of [the city] saying why they want this land to go to a private developer, as opposed to being for for public use.”

Initiative backers will have to collect around 26,500 valid signatures to get the measure on the November ballot; since some signatures are always ruled invalid, that means collecting around 35,000 signatures total.

City to Sweep Sites of Recent Shootings; Unclear When In-Person Council Meetings Will Resume; Homelessness Authority Frustrated by Chopp Money Grab

1. The city plans to remove two encampments on Friday, including one in a vacant hillside lot along 10th Ave. S between S. Weller St. and Dearborn Ave. S where a 43-year-old homeless man, Arkan Al-Aboudy, was shot to death on March 17. Currently, there are about 50 tents at the 10th Ave. site, which spills out into 10th Avenue itself and down the hill to Dearborn. The area has been the site of encampments for many years, and marks the northern boundary of an infamous encampment known as the Jungle that the city removed in 2016.

The vacant land where the encampment is located has been owned since the late 1990s by Christopher Koh, a developer and landlord whose company, Coho Real Estate, also owns and operates a number of apartment buildings in the University District and the International District. A small city park called Beacon Place is located in the middle of the property.

According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the city can’t require fencing around private property, and the property owner has no plans “in the short term” to fence in or otherwise secure the site.

Contacted by phone, Koh said he supports the encampment removal and has no plans “in the short term” to fence in or otherwise secure the site, which is adjacent to a Seattle Housing Authority apartment building and the Seattle Indian Health Board clinic.

“At one time, there was a discussion with the city about placing a fence” around the property, Koh said, but the city decided not to do so because it could impede emergency response to the area. “I recall [the Seattle Police Department] saying it can be dangerous for the police to go into an area where it’s completely fenced off like that—where there isn’t visibility,” Koh said. SPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city often prevents new encampments from cropping up on land it owns by erecting fences around the area; you can see them all over the city, from underneath the Ballard Bridge to City Hall Park in downtown Seattle. According to a spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the city can’t require fencing around private property, and the city’s Vacant Building Monitoring program only applies to properties with buildings, not vacant lots.

The city will also remove a small encampment at I-5 and 45th Ave. NE where Santo Zepeda-Campos, 38, was fatally shot on Sunday, March 20.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said both encampments “are being removed to address immediate public safety issues” in response to the shootings. REACH, the city’s outreach contractor, has been doing outreach at the site, and “will decide based on [the] situation whether they come in Friday,” according to REACH director Chloe Gale.

The encampment is located a block away from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Navigation Center shelter, which is one of the receiving sites for HOPE team referrals.

UPDATE Friday, March 25: Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Friday that about 20 people living at the 10th Avenue encampment received referrals to shelter from the city’s HOPE team before parks department workers removed the encampment Friday morning.

Housen said encampment residents received referrals to Jan and Peter’s Place (a women’s shelter), Otto’s Place (a men’s shelter run by the same organization, Compass Housing Alliance), the Navigation Center, the Roy Street men’s shelter, and the True Hope tiny house village in the Central District. All four shelters are are congregate emergency shelters, meaning that people sleep in common sleeping areas; only the Navigation Center allows all genders, although people sleep in gender-segregated areas.

As we’ve reported, most of the city’s shelter “referrals” do not result in a person actually checking in at a shelter and sleeping there. People decide not to enter emergency shelter after receiving a referral for a variety of reasons, including the desire to stay with a partner or pet, not wanting to relinquish bulky possessions, or other barriers imposed by a shelter, such as strict rules against using drugs or alcohol.

2. Although employees in most city departments began returning to their physical offices on March 16, the mayor’s return-to-work directive doesn’t apply to the legislative branch, which is returning to the office more slowly and won’t resume in-person council meetings any time soon.

In an email sent Friday, March 18, City Council President Debora Juarez told city council staffers that they would need to return to the office or work out alternative work schedules by April 27, six weeks after the rest of the city. (Bargaining with unions representing two sets of legislative staffers was one of the reasons for the slower timeline.) Juarez has reportedly been reluctant to return to in-person council meetings, and her email suggests that future council meetings might happen either “onsite in Council Chambers or in a hybrid remote meeting style.”

According to council staff, the department hasn’t figured out the logistics of conducting hybrid meetings, and it’s unclear whether “hybrid remote” refers to meetings that would continue to be entirely remote, or whether some council members would return to council chambers while others tapped in from home or their offices. Juarez did not respond to a request for clarification, and a staffer said any decision about whether to return to in-person meetings was not part of the overall return-to-work announcement.

In her email, Juarez encourages legislative staffers who do return to the office to wear a red, yellow, or green wristband “to communicate your level of comfort with respect to close contacts.” According to Juarez, the idea came from a staffer in Councilmember Alex Pedersen’s office. “I also feel the wrist bands are an excellent way to say ‘Welcome Back’ to the workplace,” Juarez wrote. “Having a sense of personal safety is important to all of us.” The mayor’s office has distributed similar wristbands, but the trend hasn’t trickled down yet to departmental employees, who make up the majority of city staff.

3. The Seattle Times reported today that State Rep. Frank Chopp, who co-founded the Low Income Housing Institute, intervened to apportion $2 million from the state budget to LIHI tiny house villages that did not make the cut for funding in a competitive bidding process conducted by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

As we reported earlier this week, the regional authority allocated about $4 million in federal and local dollars (including federal Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery dollars allocated through the state budget) to three non-congregate shelter projects. Chopp’s unusual intervention reversed funding for two of those projects—an expansion of Catholic Community Services’ Pallet shelter on 15th Ave. W and a new tiny house village operated by Chief Seattle Club in collaboration with LIHI—to fund LIHI projects elsewhere. Continue reading “City to Sweep Sites of Recent Shootings; Unclear When In-Person Council Meetings Will Resume; Homelessness Authority Frustrated by Chopp Money Grab”

Homeless Authority Funds Pallet Shelter, JustCARE, and Just One of Three Proposed Tiny House Villages

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority will fund 50 new tiny house and Pallet shelter units and partially extend the JustCARE hotel-based shelter program, using federal and city of Seattle funds. The awards, announced last week, will go to three projects: A new 25-unit tiny house village operated by Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute; a 25-unit expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet shelter village on Elliott Ave. W, and partial funding for Public Defender Association-led JustCARE hotel-based shelter program, which will receive ongoing operating funds for its 90-room Equity JustCARE program.

The authority rejected three applications, including two for new LIHI tiny house villages—one at a Seattle City Light-owned property in South Lake Union (where Therapeutic Health Services had committed to provide on-site behavioral health care), and one just north of Rainier Beach, where the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) planned to provide case management

Last year, advocates for tiny house villages pushed the mayor’s office to move quickly to use $2.4 million in existing city dollars to fund three new villages before the authority—whose director, Marc Dones, has been critical of the tiny-house model—took control of the regional homelessness system. When that didn’t happen, the money moved over to the authority, which issued an open request for proposals for the money, along with funds from the federal government totaling another $2.4 million.

“We wanted to be kind of the opposite of NIMBY. We said, ‘We’ll give you the money if you put the [village] next to us.'”—John Pehrson, Mirabella Civic Engagement Project

In a meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board last week, KCRHA chief programming officer Peter Lynn said the authority picked the three projects “in rank order,” adding that three proposals “did not receive funding based on running out of funds, as happens.” The RFP itself, which was extended and amended to allow Pallet (a for-profit company) to apply for funds, includes the criteria the authority used to evaluate the applications.

The three programs the KCRHA will fund, however, did not use up all the funding that was available; according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, the Public Defender Association “did not request development funding, so there is a total of $919,812 of unallocated funding ($696,515 of [Department of Commerce capital] funds, and $223,297 of HSD services & operations funds). The raters did not want to partially fund an organization and suggested allocating additional funds during contract negotiations.”

PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard said her organization expects to work with the KCRHA to come up with a site or sites to replace the downtown Seattle hotel where Equity JustCARE has been providing shelter and services to clients with high-acuity behavioral health needs since last year. “We don’t have a site, and understand RHA will be matching the team to a site that is appropriate for participants with complex behavioral health needs,” Daugaard said.

The PDA is still working with the city to come up with a plan for another 150 JustCARE clients currently living in five different hotels; without additional funding, the PDA will have to find other placements for those clients or discharge them back onto the street at the end of June.

Among the proposals the KCRHA’s raters rejected was a tiny house village in South Lake Union that had support, and funding, from the residents of the Mirabella apartments, a retirement community near the proposed village site. John Pehrson, a leader of the Mirabella Civic Engagement Project, said “it was very disappointing to us” that the KCRHA rejected the proposal, for which Mirabella residents and the Mirabella Seattle Foundation raised about $143,000. Continue reading “Homeless Authority Funds Pallet Shelter, JustCARE, and Just One of Three Proposed Tiny House Villages”

UW Can Keep Civilians Who Replaced Campus Cops, Choe Show Canceled, Dembowski Bows Out

1. The University of Washington prevailed earlier this month in a labor dispute with the union representing the officers of its campus police department, allowing it to move forward with a plan to the replace armed police officers in its residence halls with new, unarmed “campus safety responders” without going to the bargaining table. The decision by Washington’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) could set the stage for other employers to shift some duties from sworn officers to unarmed civilian responders—a change that some in Seattle’s government see as a possible fix for the city’s shortage of sworn police officers.

After pressure mounted on the school’s administration in the summer of 2020 to reevaluate the role of armed police officers in campus security, UW president Ana Mari Cauce promised to expand the university’s existing civilian responder programs by adding a new team who could respond to non-criminal emergency calls, including welfare checks. Less than a year later, the university also opted to remove armed police patrols from its dorms, replacing them with a combination of in-house social workers and campus safety responders.

The rank-and-file police officers who previously patrolled the dorms objected to the new arrangement, filing an unfair labor practice complaint accusing the university of “skimming” some of their responsibilities to a new team of employees in violation of the university’s contract with their union.

PERC sided with the university, ruling that the decision to use civilians instead of sworn officers to patrol the dorms has a “limited impact” on the police officers themselves—an impact, they wrote, that is outweighed by UW’s “compelling interest” in rethinking how it approaches campus safety. According to the ruling, the change did not require UW to lay off or cut the pay of any police officers, nor did it reduce opportunities for the officers to work overtime. The PERC ruling also noted that UW has only hired four campus safety responders since January, resulting in hardly any change to who responds to emergency calls on campus. Between September of 2021 and the start of this month, sworn UW police officers received 205 dispatches to residence halls; the campus safety responders received only six.

The ruling could be significant in Seattle, where city council members and members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s staff have expressed interest in shifting some responsibilities from sworn police officers to civilian units like the Community Service Officers (CSOs) and parking enforcement officers. Although the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) has generally opposed reducing officers’ responsibilities, SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage has increased pressure on elected officials to find ways to allow SPD officers to focus on serious crimes by assigning more responsibilities to civilians.

2. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski quietly bowed out of the race to replace King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg less than two months after he filed for candidacy in early January. Dembowski told PubliCola that he filed to “take a look at the race,” but he did not elaborate about his decision to drop out. The remaining candidates include the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s current chief of staff, Leesa Manion, as well as former deputy prosecuting attorney Stephan Thomas and current Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

3.KOMO TV, which is owned by the national conservative broadcasting conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group, fired reporter Jonathan Choe today after Choe posted flattering coverage of a rally by the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, to protest the continued detention of those implicated in the January 6 attack on the US capitol.

Choe promoted the rally in a series of tweets that included a montage of protest footage set over a white nationalist anthem known as the “Männerbund,” which includes the lyrics, “In our own towns we’re foreigners now, our names are spat and cursed/ The headline smack of another attack, not the last and not the worst.” That tweet, which Choe later deleted, encouraged readers and KOMO viewers to come down and meet with the Proud Boys, who would stay on hand to “mingle and answer questions if anyone is interested in learning more about their cause and mission.”

In a second tweet, Choe praised the Proud Boys for being polite and allowing him to “record freely on public property without interference. No umbrellas or hands in my face.” The latter was a reference to Choe’s frequent claims that he is targeted by protesters or “antifa”. On his feed, Choe frequently tags Andy Ngo, a Twitter provocateur who has written sympathetically about the Proud Boys and has worked tirelessly to demonize “antifa” (which he characterizes, inaccurately, as an organized, violent group of militants) to his right-wing audience.

PubliCola independently confirmed Choe’s firing. David Neiwert, reporting for DailyKos, received a statement from KOMO saying the station “did not direct or approve Jonathan Choe’s decision to cover this weekend’s rally, nor did his work meet our editorial standards.”

Choe is best known in Seattle for his efforts to confront and elicit reactions from unsheltered people and their advocates, including mutual aid volunteers. His Twitter feed is an avalanche of footage showing people in crisis and commentary condemning homeless people for existing in public, including endless poverty porn-style videos of people living unsheltered.

Although KOMO has an official policy of “objectivity,” Choe’s feed overflows with over-the-top praise for city workers conducting sweeps of homeless encampments. (“GAME OVER,” he tweeted repeatedly during a recent sweep of tents across the street from City Hall). On many occasions, Choe has started on-camera confrontations with volunteers and activists working with unsheltered people, even identifying some to his readers (and tagging Ngo) as “antifa.” (Choe has blocked us on Twitter, along with many other local reporters following this story.)

Sinclair, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” series, expressed no public concerns that Choe’s coverage of homelessness was exploitative and misleading, nor that it put homeless people in danger and violated their right to privacy. For KOMO, advocating for white supremacy appears to have been a bridge too far; posting videos condemning homeless people for existing in public, apparently, was not.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett