Category: housing

Responding to Feedback, Skepticism, Homelessness Agency Proposes Modest Changes to Ambitious Five-Year Plan


The KCRHA has an ambitious plan to fund and reform the homelessness system over the next five years.

By Erica C. Barnett

After an initial draft of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Five-Year Plan prompted skeptical responses from local leaders—who questioned the proposal’s multibillion-dollar price tag and ambitious timeline for addressing issues the region has been struggling with for decades—the agency is considering a slate of revisions that aim to address some, but not all, of those concerns. The Five-Year Plan is the document that will guide KCRHA’s budgeting and policy decisions for the next five years.

The staff report, which recommends a total of 78 technical changes, substantive policy updates, and new strategies, will be the basis for the final, revised Five-Year Plan that the KCRHA’s implementation board is set to adopt in April. A subcommittee of that board has agreed to let the agency move forward with all the “technical” changes (including some that are arguably substantive, such as folding in tiny house villages with other types of congregate shelter instead of singling them out for zero funding—more on that in a moment) and plans to focus on the 24 substantive policy changes during its weekly meetings over the coming month.

The draft plan proposes that the region spend $10 billion or more over five years to create more than 18,000 new temporary spaces for people to live, including 7,100 new shelter beds, 3,800 medical respite beds for people with acute health-care needs, 4,700 new safe parking spaces for people living in RVs or their cars, and 2,600 beds for people who need support with addiction recovery. The plan estimates that RV and vehicle parking lots alone will cost almost $200 million over five years.

“The costs associated with this Plan, particularly those identified for increasing housing supply, clearly far exceed any currently available funding in the region,” Bellevue City Manager Brad Miyake wrote in a letter responding to the initial plan. “Further, housing development is beyond the scope of KCRHA’s mission and relies on other housing providers.”

Others objected to what they called an unrealistic timeline. Each strategy in the five-year plan includes a 24-month “action plan,” and many of these action plans call for quick resolution of problems that have persisted for years—establishing a system where anyone can see real-time shelter availability across the region, convincing suburban cities in every part of the county to sign on as funders of the regional homelessness system, and requiring all service providers to pay “liveable wages,” to name a few examples.

One recurring piece of feedback KCRHA staff didn’t include in their is skepticism about the number of “safe parking” spaces the plan would fund—more than 3,100 spaces for passenger vehicles and 1,600 for RVs. Siting even a handful of spaces for RVs has been a nearly insurmountable challenge, and most existing “safe parking” lots for cars are hosted by churches and other private organizations on a temporary basis, each hosting no more than a handful of cars at a time.

Some suburban leaders objected to the plan’s emphasis on non-congregate shelter—an umbrella term for shelter where people sleep semi-privately, instead of sleeping in large rooms—over traditional congregate shelter, which is the most common form of shelter on the Eastside and in South King County. The current plan calls for phasing out all congregate shelters; meanwhile, Bellevue’s long-planned (and much delayed) Eastgate men’s shelter will have its grand opening later this year.

“The Eastside is not seeing a decrease in demand for congregate shelter,” Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett wrote in his letter responding to the plan. “Additional temporary housing models would need to come online to address existing need as congregate shelter is phased out. The Plan needs specific strategies for how this shift happens.”

Congregations for the Homeless, which runs Bellevue’s existing men’s shelter, also objected to the plan’s emphasis on non-congregate shelter, noting that the methodology KCRHA used to come up with the plan relies heavily on 180 interviews with people experiencing homelessness that did not directly ask people what kind of shelter they preferred. Instead, the interviews relied on questions like “During this time, what things or people have been helpful to you?” and “What has your experience been like accessing [various types of] services?”

Alexis Mercedes Rinck, KCRHA’s sub-regional planning and equitable engagement director, said the authority has heard cities’ feedback about the need to “maintain the existing spaces that we have,” including congregate shelter, and will be “taking that into account, looking at the local context of very recent local investment into some newer facilities that have been built and are coming online,” like the Bellevue men’s shelter, while focusing on “non-congregate options” in the future.

Those non-congregate options will now include tiny house villages, after persistent lobbying from the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs most of the tiny house villages in the region. LIHI and other proponents of tiny houses—small, individual shelters clustered in “villages” of several dozen—have objected vociferously to the fact that the Five-Year Plan calls for no new funding for tiny houses, using the same set of 180 interviews to determine that people experiencing homelessness prefer other options.

“Anecdotally, we repeatedly hear from outreach workers that nine out of ten of unsheltered people tell them their first choice is a tiny house,” Lee wrote. “This raises a big question about the plan’s methodology. We understand that to determine the relative needs for different temporary housing models, KCRHA used a sample of 180 individuals, selected from 1000 interviews they conducted during the 2022 point in time count. That means KCRHA based the entire 5-Year Plan for the 53,754 individuals they estimate may become homeless in each of the next five years on one sample of 180 individuals.”

The inclusion of tiny houses with all other types of congregate shelter doesn’t mean KCRHA will actually pay for more of them, though. This year, the agency is re-bidding all of its homeless service provider contracts; according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, “we will be doing [requests for proposals] for non-congregate shelter, of which some of those may be tiny houses.”

One recurring piece of feedback KCRHA staff didn’t directly integrate into their revisions is fairly widespread skepticism about the number of “safe parking” spaces the plan would fund on an ongoing basis—a total of more than 3,100 parking spaces for passenger vehicles and 1,600 spaces for RVs. Siting even a handful of spaces for RVs has been a nearly insurmountable challenge, and most existing “safe parking” lots for cars are hosted by churches and other private organizations on a temporary basis, each hosting no more than a handful of cars at a time.

Although the Five-Year Plan categorizes car and RV residency as a type of “temporary housing,” the US Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies it as a type of unsheltered homelessness. In any case, Congregations for the Homeless interim director Steve McGraw wrote, “it is rarely the therapeutic or healthy option—either for the individual or the community. Safe Parking has a place in our tool box of temporary ‘housing’ options, but it should be the last choice to serve people … especially in a time of finite resources, even more so when there are better temporary housing options worthy of funding.”

The inclusion of tiny houses with all other types of congregate shelter doesn’t mean KCRHA will actually pay for more of them, though. This year, the agency is re-bidding all of its homeless service provider contracts; according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, “we will be doing [requests for proposals] for non-congregate shelter, of which some of those may be tiny houses.”

One area where there appears to be some general agreement among critics, board members, and the agency itself is that the region’s current approach to winter (and other severe-weather) shelter—a panicked annual rush to open ad hoc shelters in locations that change from season to season—isn’t working. “We know that this on-and-off-again system is really just not working for anybody,” Rinck said. The question is what to do about it.

Some advocates suggested opening winter-only shelters every year, as the city of Seattle did until 2021, instead of “activating” emergency shelters when the weather hits a certain threshold. KCRHA’s proposed changes call for incorporating funds for severe weather shelter into existing contracts and moving toward a “seasonal” rather than ad hoc system; it also includes a new “technical” (but actually substantive) change that would require the agency to ensure adequate staffing at severe weather shelters even when the agency itself shuts down, like the two-week holiday closure that coincided with a major winter storm last December.

However, Rinck noted that even with those changes, the region’s severe weather system will face challenges. “It tends to be in severe weather instances that folks who traditionally don’t come inside, [those with] really complex behavioral health needs and high-acuity folks, will come inside,” Rinck said, and many winter shelters are run by volunteers who “just aren’t trained to be able to meet [their] needs.” This year, Seattle’s main winter shelter, Compass Housing Alliance, decided not to seek a renewal of its contract with KCRHA, a major gap in service that needs attention this year, before the KCRHA can start working on loftier goals like a coordinated regional winter shelter system. 

During recent meetings about the draft five-year plan, KCRHA implementation board members have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the scale and ambition of the plan, worrying that it proposes too many unfunded plans, too fast, and with too little prioritization to represent a real plan that can be implemented in the next five years. Ben Maritz, an affordable housing developer and Bruce Harrell appointee, summarized this perspective at a recent committee meeting. “I  think that the focus needs to shift to what can we do to move people inside as quickly as possible and given that the major barrier to doing that is the availability of emergency housing or shelter, the focus of the plan really should be on trying to stand that up.”

The next virtual-only meeting of the system planning committee will be Tuesday, March 23, from 3 to 5pm; information about how to watch the meeting will be available at some point this week on the KCRHA’s website, where you can also view some (but not, at the time of this publication, the most recent) previous committee meetings.


Eight-Month-Old Program to Mitigate Rent Hikes Shows Promise, Areas for Improvement

By Katie Wilson

In September 2021, the Seattle City Council passed two laws, both sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, to help renters cope with rent hikes. One required landlords to give 180 days’ notice of rent increases. The other tackled “economic evictions,” requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to three months’ rent to lower-income tenants who move after an increase of ten percent or more. In a state that bans local rent regulation, these laws were designed to mitigate the harm caused by rapidly rising rents.

Since then, other cities around King County have passed new landlord-tenant laws, including longer notice requirements for rent increases, and even some protections—like caps on late fees—that Seattle doesn’t have. But so far, no other city has required landlords to pay relocation assistance when they impose large rent hikes.

The organization I work for, the Transit Riders Union (TRU), along with allies in the Stay Housed Stay Healthy coalition, hopes to support passage of renter protections in several more King County cities this year—including Tukwila, where last year we ran a successful ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. Renter Arc Di wants the Tukwila City Council to pass a relocation assistance law.

“With two months’ notice of price hikes, it’s incredibly difficult to pull together the money to move and pay moving and storage fees,” Di said. “With my current apartment, if I don’t have a place to go when the lease is up, my rent jumps up 75 percent month to month, from $2,050 to $3,500.” Moving expenses would quickly wipe out Di’s savings.

“These large landlords don’t care if you have somewhere to go and will happily take advantage of our precarious situation as renters,” Di said.

Seattle’s Economic Displacement Relocation Assistance (EDRA) program went into effect last July, so it’s been in effect for over eight months now. So how’s it going?

According to a high-level summary from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, which oversees the program, 83 tenants applied for relocation assistance between July 2022 and the end of last year, an average of about 14 a month. But the pace appears to be picking up. By February 21, there had already been 61 applicants in 2023, an average of 36 a month so far.

Of these 144 applications, SDCI has determined that 33 are eligible for relocation assistance; 28 were disqualified, generally because the increase was less than ten percent or the landlord gave notice before the ordinance was in effect. SDCI only disqualified one application because the household earned more than 80 percent of Seattle’s median income, the threshold for eligibility. The remaining applications are still in the pipeline—a time-consuming process that sometimes means tenants must move before they get relocation assistance.

“These large landlords don’t care if you have somewhere to go and will happily take advantage of our precarious situation as renters.”—Tukwila renter Arc Di

When Seattle landlords give notice of a rent hike of 10 percent or more, they’re supposed to include a notice about the EDRA program, which explains that the tenant may qualify for financial assistance. To find out if landlords are actually doing this, TRU ran a survey asking tenants about recent rent increases. Of 105 respondents, 13 were Seattle tenants who received notice of a 10-percent-plus rent increase after June 30, 2022. Of these, only three reported getting an EDRA notice from their landlord.

The survey results suggest several other interesting conclusions. First, a disproportionate number of Seattle rent increases hover just under ten percent, suggesting that EDRA may be changing landlord behavior to impose lower rent increases than they otherwise would. As annoying (and costly) as these increases can be, it’s a heck of a lot better than a much larger rent hike. This shifting of incentives would be a positive side effect of the law.

Second, some landlords appear to be misinterpreting the law. The key number isn’t base rent, but “housing costs,” which includes other monthly charges such as pet rent, parking, and storage, and may include utilities, internet, and cable if these are paid to the landlord in a fixed monthly amount. One person reported receiving notice of a 9.8 percent rent hike and wrote that the landlord also steeply raised parking and other fees, effective immediately. That brought the total increase to well over 10 percent, but the respondent didn’t receive an EDRA notice.

Tenants face an additional timing bind, since Seattle’s law requires them to give their landlord notice that they plan to move in order to complete their EDRA application. That means they have to commit to leaving without knowing for sure whether or when they’re going to get relocation assistance.

Third, many landlords, both inside and outside Seattle, appear to be giving shorter notice of rent increases than required by law. (The immediate fee increase reported by the person who got a 9.8 percent rent hike was also illegal, since Seattle law requires 180 days’ notice for any increase in housing costs, including fees.) A surprising number of respondents reported receiving only a single month’s notice, when even Washington state law requires 60 days.

All of this suggests a need to better inform both renters and landlords about EDRA and notice requirements.

Seattle has encountered some additional challenges implementing the new relocation assistance law.

First, the process of determining income eligibility has proved time-consuming, requiring a lot of back-and-forth between city staff and tenants. “Applications are often missing required income information, which adds time to the process of filing a complete application before SDCI can determine eligibility,” SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens said. So far, it’s taken an average of 37 days from the time a tenant files an application until SDCI determines it’s complete, which leads some tenants to leave and find new housing before SDCI deems them eligible for assistance.

Tenants face an additional timing bind, since Seattle’s law requires them to give their landlord notice that they plan to move in order to complete their EDRA application. That means they have to commit to leaving without knowing for sure whether or when they’re going to get relocation assistance.

After the city pays relocation assistance to a tenant, it tries to recover those funds from the landlord—and that’s been a challenge, too.

“My little family is quite privileged in terms of income, and even that’s not enough to be able to stay here,” one survey respondent wrote. “I’m exhausted of moving every two years (if I’m really lucky).”

“By law, it’s necessary to communicate with the owner of the property, and it’s often very difficult to determine the real owner,” given that many property owners structure their businesses as quasi-anonymous LLCs or have outdated contact information, Stevens said. And many landlords are appealing the charges, which causes delays. As of February 21, the city had billed $126,738 to landlords, but recovered only $52,578.

These challenges suggest some straightforward ways to revise and improve the ERDA program. City staff should be able to communicate with someone other than the owner, like a manager. Tenants should be allowed to apply for the program before committing to moving out. And the income qualification should be jettisoned altogether—a great example of how the U.S. obsession with means testing creates costly bureaucracy and hurts the very people that programs like this are supposed to help.

It’s also not true that renter households above 80 percent of area median income are doing just fine. “My little family is quite privileged in terms of income, and even that’s not enough to be able to stay here,” one survey respondent wrote. “I’m exhausted of moving every two years (if I’m really lucky). I don’t know how much longer we will be able to live with reasonable access to public transit, which is essential to me as a disabled person.” The survey respondent’s income is too high to qualify for relocation assistance,  “so we have to wait and pay the new fees until we either get desperate enough to take on some (more) debt or the lease runs out,” they wrote.

This respondent wished they could leave before the end of their lease. That’s another idea to consider. House Bill 1124 would have (among other things) given tenants the right to terminate their lease without penalty with 45 days’ notice, if they received notice of a rent increase greater than 5 percent. Since that bill died, Seattle could take action to allow tenants facing significant rent increases to leave early.

Understanding the inner workings of this program does raise questions about the ability of smaller cities, like Tukwila, to implement something similar. Setting up a program that requires significant staff time is a lot harder in cities with populations in the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands.

There is another model out there for cities to consider. In 2018, Portland, Oregon passed a relocation assistance law that can be triggered by several events, including a rent increase of 10 percent or more over a 12-month period. The assistance is a fixed amount based on unit size—for example, $3,300 for a one-bedroom apartment—and all tenants are eligible, with no income-based restrictions. But the biggest difference in the program design is that the city doesn’t mediate the transaction; the landlord is supposed to pay the tenant directly, then report the payment to the city.

A community-labor coalition in Tacoma is taking a similar approach a just-launched citizen’s initiative campaign that’s aiming to win an ambitious “Landlord Fairness Code.” Among other pro-renter policies, it would require landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to two months’ rent for rent increases over 5 percent; two and a half months’ rent for increases over 7.5 percent; and three months’ rent for increases over 10 percent. As in Portland, the landlord is supposed to pay the tenant directly and report the payment to the city.

It may be possible to give more power to tenants, too. For example, instead of relying on the landlord to write a check, what if tenants faced with large rent increases had the right to simply not pay rent in the final months of their tenancy, up to the amount of relocation assistance?

There is an obvious downside to this approach. If Seattle, with all the authority of the city government, is struggling to recover funds from landlords, how many will do the right thing by their tenants on their own?

You might think that four full years of Portland’s program would answer that question. But about a year after the law went into effect, Oregon enacted a statewide rent stabilization law that limited rent increases to seven percent plus the rate of inflation. Between 2019 and 2022, the maximum allowed rent increase ranged from 9.2 to 10.3 percent. As a result, according to the Portland Housing Bureau, only 33 tenants received payments as the result of rent hikes through the end of 2021, most of them in 2018. (For comparison, the total number of relocation payments reported for all reasons throughout the life of the program, as of March 7, was 1,478.)

But thanks to roaring inflation, the maximum rent increase for 2023 climbed to 14.6 percent, so starting sometime last year landlords once again began giving notice of rent increases that trigger the law. Landlords reported making 13 payments for raising rents more than 10 percent in the last five months of 2022 and one in January 2023. A few months of data isn’t much to go on, but, in a city with more than 130,000 renter households, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that these represent only a fraction of the payments Portland tenants are legally entitled to.

Nevertheless, an approach like Portland’s is probably more feasible for smaller cities, and they could take steps to improve compliance. An obvious one is to work harder to ensure that tenants and landlords are aware of the law. But it may be possible to give more power to tenants, too. For example, instead of relying on the landlord to write a check, what if tenants faced with large rent increases had the right to simply not pay rent in the final months of their tenancy, up to the amount of relocation assistance?

Adequate enforcement of renter protections is a problem that goes way beyond EDRA—even in Seattle, which unlike most King County cities has a large department overseeing its landlord-tenant laws. Often the only effective recourse a tenant has when a landlord breaks the law is to sue, and not many renters have the money and time for that. One solution was floated in last year’s legislative session: House Bill 2023 aimed to create a streamlined process for tenants to address violations and obtain relief in superior court, without having to lawyer up. Seattle, at least, could explore establishing a similar “summary proceedings” process in municipal court.

But cities should not let the challenges of enforcement deter them from passing good policies. If, extrapolating from the results of TRU’s survey, about 25 percent of Seattle landlords aren’t following the 180-day notice requirement, 75 percent are. As a Seattle renter who did get six months’ notice of a $130-a-month rent increase last year, I’m grateful for the law, and I know that many thousands of my fellow renters are benefitting too.

Katie Wilson is the general secretary of the Transit Riders Union and helps to coordinate the Stay Housed Stay Healthy Coalition, an alliance of over fifty organizations fighting for stronger renter protections in Seattle and King County.

Legislative Cutoff Fizz: Police Pursuit Bill Moves Forward While Tenant Protections Die

Wednesday was the legislature’s deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin—meaning if a bill didn’t receive a floor vote yet in either the House or Senate, it’s dead for the year. 

In a session that was supposed to be all about affordable housing, a slate of tenant protection bills—including one capping rent increases at 7 percent per year, and one requiring six months notice of rent hikes of more than 5 percent—both failed to get a floor vote. However, a bill that would reform a state disability benefit by no longer requiring recipients to pay back the funds passed the House and moved on to the Senate. 

One of the most contentious votes of the session happened last Friday, when a coalition of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the Senate defied progressives and passed a new drug possession bill that increases criminal penalties for drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine and pushes those convicted into coercive treatment. The senate also passed a bill that makes fentanyl test strips legal.

Most of the legislature’s proposed criminal justice reforms—including a bill that would have granted victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages and one raising the age of juvenile sentencing from 8 years to 13—never made it to a floor vote. One bill that did survive reforms the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.

The bills that survived now move to the opposite house, and in the next month and a half, the legislature will tackle Gov. Inslee’s proposed $70 billion biennial budget before adjourning on April 23. 

The new bill lowers the threshold for police to pursue a person in their car from “probable cause”—which requires more evidence—to “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed.

Also on Wednesday, the senate passed a bill giving police officers additional authority to pursue drivers, using an unusual maneuver to move the legislation forward. A bill on the issue had been moving through the state house, but did not appear likely to make it to the floor by the 5pm deadline for bills to pass out of their original chamber. Senate Bill 5352, sponsored by Sen. John Lovick (D-44, Lake Stevens), had not even been heard in any committee since its introduction, but majority floor leader Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) made a motion to suspend the rules and put the bill in front of the full body, which then adopted a new version of the bill by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond).

The new bill lowers the threshold for police to pursue a person in their car from “probable cause”—which requires more evidence—to “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed. The bill would allow police to chase people they suspect have committed violent offenses as well as DUI—currently one of the only instances where reasonable suspicion is the standard. It also allows officers to merely notify a supervising officer that they are initiating a pursuit, rather than receive authorization. Changing the law would roll back reforms the legislature approved in 2021.

Democrats voted down a number of amendments to the new version of the bill, including proposals that would have allowed pursuits for reckless driving and motor vehicle thefts. With many Republicans voting against the bill because they felt it didn’t go far enough, and many Democrats unwilling to change the current pursuit law, the bill passed on a narrow 26 to 23 margin.

“This bill may not be as adequate as I would like, Senator Ann Rivers (R-18, Vancouver), said before voting yes, “[but] I think it’s as good as we’re going to get for now.” Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) also voted yes. “I voted for this bill [increasing the standard for pursuits] back in 2021,” Mullet said, “but I think the unintended consequence” was that “it became widely known” that police were not going to pursue for most offenses. 

The bill will now go back to the house, where it could go through normal committee review or—because the senate broke with its usual procedure—go directly to the house floor.

After taking much of the afternoon to debate this bill, the Senate was unable to advance some of the other bills on its calendar, including SB 5002, a bill that would have lowered Washington’s blood-alcohol content threshold for a DUI from 0.08% to 0.05%. That bill was next in the list when the Senate adjourned after the 5pm deadline Wednesday.

—Andrew Engelson, Ryan Packer

State House Says Yes to Density, Senate May Be Tougher Audience

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

By Ryan Packer

Late Monday night, House Bill 1110 passed the Washington House of Representatives on a bipartisan 75 to 21 vote. The bill, which has taken center stage this session as legislators focus on ways to increase the state’s housing supply, would require most cities in the state’s urban and suburban areas to allow a slightly higher level of density in residential neighborhoods.

“We need homes now, and we need action now, because we’ve seen so much inaction in local communities for so long,” Representative Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle), said on the floor before the vote. Alvarado, in her first term in the legislature, previously served as the director of Seattle’s Office of Housing. 

The City of Seattle has been supportive of the policy change statewide even as its own Office of Community Development has shied away from studying the most impactful changes to city zoning ahead of a required update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan next year. ”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in,” Alvarado said.

The bill now heading to the state senate had several amendments, with the biggest changes proposed by Rep. Tana Senn (D-41, Bellevue). Cities in her district, including Mercer Island, have loudly opposed the bill. “The upzoning of all single-family zones will force the City into an expensive and protracted planning process to study and right size infrastructure densities far beyond anything contemplated,” a letter addressed to the 41st district’s legislators and unanimously approved by the Mercer Island City Council in early February said.

”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in.” —State Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle)

Senn’s amendments mean cities with fewer than 75,000 residents, like Mercer Island, would only be required to permit triplexes on residential lots that aren’t close to frequent transit lines, no matter how close they are to a large city like Seattle. The previous version of the bill set the floor at four units. Larger cities, like Bellevue, would still have to allow four units per lot, and cities of all sizes would have to allow six units per lot near light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit stops. 

“All cities are different sizes, and have unique aspects,” Senn said as she introduced her amendment.

Senn also succeeded in passing an amendment that removed a requirement for cities of any size to allow six units per lot around large parks and public schools, treating these valuable “community amenities” the same as a frequent transit line.

Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), who was chair of the house’s local government committee when a similar bill failed to make it to the house floor last year, also amended the bill. Pollet’s amendment would allow cities to hold off on any zoning changes for up to two years in areas where it considers residents at “high risk of displacement.” Pollet said those changes allowed him to support the bill, even with outstanding concerns over affordability.

“I’m disappointed that this bill still fails to bring housing to the people of Washington who need it the most,” Pollet said on the house floor. “Those are the people who do not earn $100,000 or $150,000 or $200,000 a year.”

In fact, the bill had already been amended to explicitly allow any city to add additional affordability requirements.

Now the bill heads to the senate, where it has fewer full-throated supporters. “I’m searching for other solutions better suited for Mercer Island than HB 1110,” Senator Lisa Wellman, who represents the 41st District in the senate, said in early February. “There may be more useful legislation in the senate right now.”

Wellman appeared to be referring to Senate Bill 5546, which would allow denser housing immediately around transit stations while leaving most single-family areas around the state untouched.

The night after the house approved HB 1110, the Mercer Island City Council voted to support SB 5466, in the explicit hope that HB 1110 would not move forward. That bill has already passed the senate and is now in the house.

Landlords Target Renters With Predatory Junk Fees

Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr; CC by 2.0 license

By Katie Wilson

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Progressive, and is reprinted here with permission.

Last summer, Seattle renter Jake Thoennes received a written notice from his landlord demanding that he remove the potted plants from his balcony within ten days. That might sound absurd, especially given that Thoennes’ lease permitted planting flowers on balconies. But here’s the kicker: The notice came with a $75 “Notice Fee.” This hefty fee was charged “for preparing and giving the notice” that the plants had to go.

When President Joe Biden announced an offensive against “junk fees” in his State of the Union address, many renters around the United States must have been nodding their heads knowingly. The nation’s 44 million renter households, especially tenants of corporate landlords, are facing an explosion of bogus fees.

Like the hidden charges that appear when you buy a ticket to a sporting event, these fees are not correlated with any tangible service being provided, or with any special effort or cost incurred by businesses. They are predatory fees that landlords charge simply because they can, and today’s rental market appears to be amplifying rather than correcting them.

Rental “junk fees” are arguably more noxious than those attached to consumer purchases. They can cause families to lose their housing and become homeless. They can tank people’s credit scores and imperil their ability to successfully apply for rental housing in the future.

Notice delivery fees like the one imposed by Thoennes’ landlord are becoming more common, according to Devin Glaser, an attorney who represents tenants in legal disputes with their landlords. “More often than not the landlords just surprise people with a fee after delivering a notice,” he said.

But sometimes a new policy is officially announced. “Hello Residents,” the property manager at Sorento Flats Apartments in Seattle began in an email to tenants in December 2022. “Sorento will now be implementing notice fees. This means that any notices given in regards to lease violations and or past due payments will accrue a notice fee. The notice fee is: $50.00 and will be issued per violation.”

In addition to imposing notice delivery fees, landlords are increasingly adding on nonrefundable charges when a tenant signs a lease. Renter Corina Pfeil paid a $300 “administrative fee” and a $162.75 “application fee” when she signed her second-year lease renewal last fall. 

This new fee, the email emphasized, is not the same as a late fee. Rather, “the notice fee will be in addition to the late fee and you will be responsible to pay both fees along with the past due balance. Thank you for your tenancy.”

In addition to imposing notice delivery fees, landlords are increasingly adding on nonrefundable charges when a tenant signs a lease. Renter Corina Pfeil paid a $300 “administrative fee” and a $162.75 “application fee” when she signed her second-year lease renewal last fall.

“They told me the administrative fee was for employee time and whatever it took to process the lease,” said Pfeil, who serves as a city council member in Kenmore. How about the $162.75? “They were never really clear about that.”

Washington Democratic State Representative Nicole Macri, a longtime advocate for stronger renter protections, explains that fees like these can be used in a discriminatory manner: “People looking for rental housing have reported to me that a landlord said something like, ‘Normally I don’t rent to people like you, but if you pay this fee, we can work it out,'” Macri said.

That means the most vulnerable renters—people with imperfect credit scores or criminal histories, as well as low-income and Black and brown families—may be the most likely to get stuck with additional fees.

Lease-signing fees like these are not a universal practice, as my own experience as a Seattle renter highlights. I’ve lived in one building since 2018 and signed five leases in that time. The property is managed by a company that oversees over 6,000 units in the Seattle area and is known neither as an especially good nor an especially bad actor; it gets a measly two stars on Yelp. But never once have I been asked to pay any kind of administrative fee for the privilege of signing a lease. Why should I? I pay a lot of rent to my landlord every single month.

“The property management did not tell me, ‘Oh, by the way, you will have to go month-to-month, you can’t sign a new lease,’” Kirkland renter Lynda Hardwick said. And that meant paying an extra monthly fee of almost $600—on top of rent and the repayment plan.

So does Pfeil. On top of the lease renewal fees, her landlord raised her rent from $1,793 a month to $2,043 a month—an increase of 14 percent. She did have the option not to sign a new fixed-term lease. Instead, she could have let her tenancy convert automatically to a month-to-month lease. But, she said, “if I went month-to-month it would be $817 a month more.” Her rent would have jumped to $2,860, or a total increase of nearly 60 percent.

Month-to-month fees are not a new phenomenon, but Glaser and other attorneys I spoke with said they appear to be increasing in prevalence and magnitude. In part, this may be a response to regulation. In 2021, the Washington State legislature passed a Just Cause Eviction law, requiring landlords to cite a good reason when evicting a tenant. This law, however, exempts many fixed-term leases, allowing landlords to force a tenant out at the end of a lease for no stated reason. The exemption creates an extra incentive for landlords to keep tenants on fixed-term leases, and charging prohibitive month-to-month fees is one way to do that.

But some landlords seem to be pushing tenants into month-to-month leases with outrageous fees. A landlord will simply let a tenant’s lease expire without offering a new one, and months later the tenant will be informed that thousands of dollars in month-to-month fees have been accumulating on the ledger. This is also illegal, since Washington state law requires sixty days’ written notice of any rent increase, and a number of local jurisdictions have established even higher notice standards.

Lynda Hardwick, a renter in Kirkland, found herself trapped in a different way. After losing a major source of income during the COVID-19 pandemic and falling behind on rent, she worked out a repayment plan with her landlord. When her lease expired last fall, with $1,800 left to pay off, she got a nasty surprise: She couldn’t renew her lease.

“The property management did not tell me [upfront]… ‘Oh, by the way, you will have to go month-to-month, you can’t sign a new lease,’” she said. And that meant paying an extra monthly fee of almost $600—on top of rent and the repayment plan. Continue reading “Landlords Target Renters With Predatory Junk Fees”

As Density Bills Move Forward, It’s Statewide Housing Goals vs. “Local Control”

1908 apartment building in Seattle. Source: Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0 license.

By Ryan Packer

At the halfway mark of the 2023 legislative session, the state house and senate are both moving ahead with a number of bills that would change land use in cities across the state, with the goal of increasing the supply of new housing over the coming decades. But the two chambers have gone in starkly different directions when it comes to the specifics, with the house leaning harder into pro-density proposals.

When House Bill 1110, one of the highest-profile bills dealing with local zoning this year, passed its final house committee last Friday on a bipartisan vote, the core idea of the bill was still intact despite a few major amendments: Cities must allow more density in areas that are currently zoned for single-family use. 

Specifically, the bill would require many smaller cities to allow duplexes in residential areas, and cities with more than 75,000 people, or suburbs of large cities like Seattle and Spokane, would have to allow fourplexes everywhere and six-unit buildings within a quarter mile of frequent transit stops, major parks, and public schools. The amended bill is a downgrade from the original version, which would have allowed more density in even more cities across the state, but would still represent a significant increase in the amount of density allowed in cities across Washington. 

The bill has come under intense criticism from local elected officials who don’t want to lose their ability to restrict development in some of their cities’ lowest-density neighborhoods.

“I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January.

“This bill completely disregards critical local context and will surely lead to untold and unintended consequences,” Woodinville City Manager Brandon Buchanan told the house appropriations committee last week. Woodinville, Edmonds, and Mercer Island have all adopted formal resolutions or written letters to lawmakers opposing the legislation, while individual officials in other cities have also criticized the bill. “I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January. Despite this pushback, the bill is moving toward a vote on the house floor.

The bill’s supporters contend that it doesn’t interfere with local control. Instead, they argue, it allows property owners to do more with their land, with a goal of increasing the “missing middle”buildings that are larger than a single-family home but smaller than an apartment complex. Older examples of these buildings  exist in many neighborhoods but can no longer be built under modern zoning rules.

“We have to make it easier to build housing,” Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), the prime sponsor of HB 1110, said at the bill’s first hearing in January. “As a former city councilmember and planning commissioner, I can tell you that the majority of cities make it either illegal outright to build middle housing throughout the majority of their residential land use areas, or they make it infeasible by creating things like minimum lot size or minimum set back requirements.”

The senate companion bill to HB 1110, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), did not move forward. Instead, the senate Ways and Means Committee advanced Senate Bill 5466, Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) bill that would require cities to allow higher-density apartment buildings, condos, and office buildings near transit. That bill has seen fewer tweaks so far, and currently would require cities to allow buildings of around five stories in height for three-quarters of a mile around any transit stop with service every twenty minutes during peak hours, and larger buildings, around eight or nine stories, closer to the most frequent transit like light rail. 

With the Washington Department of Commerce now projecting that the state will need an additional million new housing units to keep up with population growth over the next two decades, no single approach to increasing supply will be enough to meet the demand. An analysis of HB 1110 by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that the changes in the bill could produce just over 200,000 new housing units in the central Puget Sound region, where most new housing will be concentrated, in the next 20 years—a fraction of the need, but a start.

The house and senate are approaching density differently in other zoning legislation as well, including a pair of bills intended to remove barriers to building backyard or basement apartments, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). House Bill 1337, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Burien), would require cities to comply with at least three of four guidelines for new ADUs: no off-street parking requirements, no on-site residency requirements for people who build an ADU on their property, a limit on impact fees, which can discourage homeowners to build ADUs, and allowing two ADUs per property.

In contrast, Senate Bill 5235, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), would allow cities to limit the number of ADUs on small lots, and allow cities to require parking for all ADUs except for a quarter-mile from major transit stops. The bill would ban owner occupancy requirements, but not when a homeowner wants to use their ADU for a short-term rental.  Shewmake, a former state representative in her first year as a senator, sponsored a similar bill last year in the house that didn’t make it to the senate floor, but this week the senate resoundingly approved this year’s version of the bill, by a vote of 42-6.

“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass.”—Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham)

The house let its companion bill to SB 5235, HB 1276, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46), die ahead of a committee deadline in February, focusing instead on HB 1337. “This is the strong one… the one that will get things done quickly,” Rep. Andy Barkis, (R-2, Olympia), one of 1337’s sponsors, said at a hearing on both bills. HB 1337 is facing opposition because it’s much more prescriptive about what cities have to allow.

“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass,” Shewmake told PubliCola. “Maybe Mia’s will be the one that passes, because she has that bipartisan support, or this will be the one that passes, and they can be folded one into the.”

Shewmake said she saw the two competing ADU bills as a bellwether. “Figuring out what we can get off the floor with this ADU bill is going to be important for figuring out what we can do generally on housing,” she said. In other words, if the senate doesn’t pass HB 1337, it’s probably not going to consider even more substantive changes like HB 1110.

Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle), who has signed onto HB 1110 and also sponsored the house version of Liias’s bill, HB 1517, told PubliCola, “You kind of have to have both…because of the way our cities are quite spread out, in Washington State, and because of the types of homes that people are looking for. …Not everybody wants to live in a multi-unit apartment building. Some people are really looking for that fourplex, that townhouse, [or] the duplex model just fits their family and their lifestyle better.” 

House Speaker Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle) conceded that local control can be in tension with statewide housing goals. “Cities have a tough job, and we recognize that, and we want to make that job easier by making a floor for jurisdictions, small, medium and large… knowing that Seattle is not the same as Moses Lake, but the housing shortage impacts every part of our state,” he said during a press briefing in late February. 

One of his counterparts on the senate side, Deputy Majority Leader Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), pushed back on the idea that the senate was being more conservative and timid about changing local zoning. “I’m not sure I would say that the senate is more deferential to local control versus the house,” she said. “But I think that is a struggle that is always front and center.”

Violence Against Unsheltered People Spikes, Social Housing Moves Into Startup Mode

1. People living unsheltered are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from people targeting them specifically because they’re homeless. The Seattle Police Department’s 2022 crime report, released earlier this month, showed a 229 percent increase in hate crimes targeting homeless people (an increase of 16 individual crimes), and an increase of 11 homicides in which the victim was homeless over last year.

During a recent meeting of the council’s public safety committee, City Councilmember Sara Nelson used these numbers to imply that expanding the city’s gun-violence prevention efforts to include older adults may be unnecessary, because an uptick in shootings among people older than 24 “could be because of the increased association with gun violence in encampments” rather than a citywide trend.

According to SPD, about a third of gun homicides with victims older than 24 had a “homelessness nexus,” meaning they most likely involved people experiencing homelessness. However, since the interventions that could help people living unsheltered (housing, behavioral health treatment, and job assistance) are similar to the ones that could help older shooting victims who are housed, it’s unclear why this distinction matters, beyond its usefulness as a pro-sweeps talking point.

“It’s a good thing that more [homeless] people are coming forward” to report hate crimes, Police Chief Adrian Diaz said. It also highlights the urgency of efforts to get people inside where they’re safer from both the elements and people who want to target them.

Overall, the number of shots-fired and shooting incidents that involved people experiencing homelessness increased only slightly from 2021—about 4 percent—but that requires context: In 2021, the number of shootings with a homelessness “nexus” increased by 122 percent, meaning both of the last two years have been especially dangerous for people experiencing homelessness. 

Despite this alarming increase in violence against people living unsheltered, Nelson focused on the danger encampments supposedly pose to children who may attend school or live nearby. “We need to address the safety of the children first,” she said. In reality, however, living outdoors is most dangerous for unsheltered people themselves, who are increasingly targeted by people who “take things into their own hands,” as Seattle Police Chief Diaz put it, lashing out at people living in encampments for being unhoused.

“It’s a good thing that more [homeless] people are coming forward” to report hate crimes, Diaz told PubliCola earlier this month. It also highlights the urgency of efforts to get people inside where they’re safer from both the elements and people who want to target them.

2. Now that Initiative 135, which establishes a public developer to build permanently affordable “social housing” in Seattle, has passed, supporters have switched gears and are working to get the new agency up and running. They’re up against a deadline: Once the election is certified on February 24, they have 18 months of city support, including staffing and office space, to establish a public development authority and come up with an initial funding source that will allow the PDA to start building housing.

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director of Real Change and a leader of the group’s House Our Neighbors! (HON) social-housing campaign, said the group has already discussed initial steps with Councilmember Tammy Morales, including the creation of the agency’s initial board of directors. This board will include seven members appointed by the Seattle Renters’ Commission and six members appointed by the city council, the mayor, and labor and housing representatives. Although HON doesn’t have any official role in the appointments and “we don’t want to overstep,” McCoy said, “it would be cool to have a [Real Change] vendor or someone from the Housing Justice Project,” which advocates for tenants’ rights and provides legal assistance in eviction cases.

Next, the new agency will have to come up with an ongoing funding source to keep itself going, along with a plan to actually pay for social housing, which was not funded by the initiative. State Rep. and former Solid Ground director Frank Chopp (D-43, Seattle), who supported the initiative, has proposed a budget proviso that would pay for the agency’s startup costs.

Chopp says the state is considering new funding sources that could pay for social housing in Seattle, including an expansion of the real-estate excise tax to include a new taxing “tier” for property sales above $5 million; that proposal includes a local option that the city could use to fund social housing.

Pointing to a number of mixed-income projects that are already underway thanks to the state’s Home and Hope program, which acquires public properties and develops them into affordable housing and early-learning centers, Chopp said he doesn’t see the new social housing PDA as a competitor to traditional nonprofit housing providers. “The point is, we need more capacity—the speculative real estate market is not solving the problem, and there are plenty of nonprofits who see the value of this,” Chopp said.

McCoy said initiative backers are considering a few potential progressive local taxes to pay for social housing, including one novel option that she says would not conflict with the city’s efforts to create new progressive revenue to fund the city budget amid ongoing annual shortfalls. A new progressive revenue task force is meeting privately once a month to hash out a set of proposals to supplement Jumpstart payroll tax revenues, which the city has used for several years to backfill general-fund shortfalls.

Although McCoy said she couldn’t discuss specifics on the record, any new revenue source (as opposed to expansion of an existing source, like JumpStart) would likely require a separate ballot measure. In theory, the city council could just put a proposed new tax on the ballot—the same way it put a levy to fund improvements at Pike Place Market, which is run by a PDA, on the ballot in 2008—but a more likely scenario is that I-135 backers would have to run another initiative campaign for funding sometime next year.

The State of the City is Vibes

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the shadow of the Space Needle at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion on Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell used his second State of the City address to lay out an “optimistic” vision for Seattle—a city where there are no tents on the streets because everyone has housing, where drug users all get into “effective treatment solutions,” where a new arts district links a revitalized downtown to surrounding neighborhoods, including 24/7 streets where “you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”

But while the vibes in the room were electric—when Harrell concluded his 45-minute speech with his trademark “One Seattle!” sign-off, a guy behind me kept saying “STRONG finish!” to the person seated next to him—the speech itself was light on concrete proposals. If you let the vibes wash over you, it wasn’t hard to believe in a better future just over the horizon, once we figure out how to solve all the pressing problems that we know we can solve if we work together.

“The Space Needle is proof positive that when Seattleites put their minds to something and act with urgency and creativity, we can do big things,” Harrell said, in one of several digressions about the city’s creativity and resilience. “Framed by images of Pike Place Market and Mt. Rainier, the Space Needle stands as a symbol of our city to the nation—a pinnacle of a forward-looking vision and trailblazing leadership rooted in our DNA, of a city where innovation is inherent and progress is paramount.”

Harrell touted work the city has done to reduce the number of encampments in parks, improve police recruitment, fill potholes, and get people back downtown. But despite strong #OneSeattle vibes, he offered only a few concrete steps toward “the city of the future we’re building today” (the official title of his speech). In the coming year, Harrell said, he will:

  • Unveil a “downtown activation plan” that will emphasize better use of public space and public safety as “employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing”;
  • Issue an executive order to “that takes steps to address the public health crisis on our streets caused by the epidemic of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs”;
  • Launch a “design competition around converting office buildings to housing” downtown;
  • Propose a “suite of legislation” on police officer hiring and “a vision for the future of public safety”
  •  Release a white paper (originally scheduled for last year) outlining a plan for a new non-police public safety department, which now has a name: the Civilian Assisted Response and Engagement Department, or CARE;
  • Issue an executive order and propose new legislation to “preserve and plant tens of thousands of trees.”

One of Harrell’s strengths—especially on display during speeches like he State of the City, which he delivered with a loose, ad-libbing style that works well in front of a friendly audience—is his ability to connect with and inspire people in a way that feels genuine and unrehearsed. But as his term enters its second quarter, it will become increasingly important to deliver on some of those lofty, aspirational goals—or come up with lesser aspirations that are actually achievable within the span of a mayoral administration. Describing people who’ve been waiting for year to see tangible improvements downtown as “cynics [who] demand the exact blueprint for our entire new downtown immediately” is dismissive, and Harrell has been in office for more than a year; no one is demanding anything “immediately” at this point.

Everyone loves a rousing speech, especially after four years of leaden rhetoric, stiffly delivered by Harrell’s predecessor, Jenny Durkan. What turns the public against mayors is when they don’t pair lofty promises with tangible, visible results. People might love the idea of a 24-hour downtown seamlessly linking arts districts in Belltown, the Chinatown-International District, and Capitol Hill, but they’ll settle for fewer pedestrian deaths, a downtick in shootings, and a sense that the city is helping people living unsheltered rather than just moving them around.

Plan to Eliminate Visible Homelessness Downtown is “Clearly Behind Schedule,” but Backers Remain Optimistic

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Partnership for Zero, a $10 million public-private partnership aimed at ending visible unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle. During the official announcement on February 17, 2022, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said they considered it “feasible” to reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the downtown core to “30-ish people” within a year. “Straightforwardly based on the data, yes,” it is doable, Dones said, “and then secondly, straightforwardly based on what we have to do to help people—yes.”

Since that announcement, the partnership between the KCRHA and We Are In, the umbrella group for the KCRHA’s philanthropic donors, has hit a number of milestones—including a “by-name list” of almost 1,000 people living downtown and the establishment of a “housing command center” to coordinate housing placements—but has not come close to the goal of housing or sheltering a large majority of people living unsheltered downtown. According to an announcement from We Are In and the KCRHA last week, the downtown effort has housed 56 people so far in a combination of permanent supportive, rent-restricted, and private-market housing—about 5 percent of the people the agency’s outreach workers have identified downtown.

As of last week, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, another 96 people were in “interim options”—mostly hotel rooms paid for by vouchers distributed by the Lived Experience Coalition—waiting for housing placements. Hundreds more have either filled out questionnaires about their housing needs, gotten new IDs, or are “moving through the housing process at three prioritized sites (specific encampments or geographic areas),” according to last week’s announcement.”

Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.”

The KCRHA is under intense pressure to resolve several encampments in and around the Chinatown/International District, which is in the Partnership for Zero area, as well as another longstanding encampment in North Seattle that neighborhood residents have called a threat to public safety. During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board, agency CEO Marc Dones said the agency is working to “activate pathways inside” for people living in those encampments, “inclusive of the existing shelter resources, emergency housing, and permanent housing as available.” Mostly, these pathways appear to involve hotel vouchers, not housing.

Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.” Most of the people the KCRHA’s outreach workers, known as systems advocates, have identified downtown have been homeless for years and have significant behavioral health conditions, Scholes added. “This is a population that can be challenging to get into housing quickly, and then once you get them there, to keep them there,” he said.

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Still, Scholes said, he’s hopeful that “as they are able to free some resources up from the work in some of these encampments, they’re able to continue to move into the central neighborhoods of downtown.” Kylie Rolf, the DSA’s vice president for advocacy and economic development, added that “in the amount of time that the Unified Command Center has been operational and the system advocates have been on the ground, I think they have made remarkable progress.”

Martens said the agency learned several “key lessons and improvements” for the program in the first year. The first: “Setting up the infrastructure takes time.” Training the system advocates, setting up the housing command center, and creating a new outreach system has taken longer than expected, as has “gathering the documentation to obtain a photo ID” for people who have been living outside for years and, in many cases, don’t have an official address or other documents that could prove they are who they say they are.

The agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, instead of every advocate managing every step of the process,” according to a spokesperson.

Additionally, Martens said, the agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, she said, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, so instead of every advocate managing every step of the process, we now have teams of advocates focused on Outreach & Engagement, Housing Navigation, and Housing Stability.”

This appears to be a shift from the original concept of system advocates, who were supposed to be a single, “longitudinal” point of contact through every stage of the housing process, from identifying a person and getting them on a “by-name list” to connecting them to housing to ensuring that they have the resources they need to stay housed. We’ve reached out to the KCRHA for clarification about the currentrole of the system advocates.

Scholes said one complicating factor downtown is that many of the people causing a feeling of “disorder” downtown are fentanyl users who aren’t actually homeless. “They may be housed and they may have a fentanyl addiction, and that’s why they’re on the sidewalk. And we sort of shorthand it as homelessness… [but] they’re going to need a different set of interventions” than what the homelessness authority can provide.

Last week’s anniversary announcement included news that the Partnership for Zero has received another $1 million in funding, bringing the total to around $11 million. Although the KCRHA previously said it would use Medicaid funding to pay for the system navigators after last year (prompting skepticism from some Seattle councilmembers) the authority is paying for the outreach workers through its general budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County.

Ambitious New Plan Says King County Needs to Spend Billions a Year on Homelessness. But is that Realistic—or Even Necessary?

A downtown encampment mid-sweep

By Erica C. Barnett

When King County and the city of Seattle established the King County Regional Homelessness Authority in 2019, the two governments signed an agreement that required the new agency to adopt a five-year implementation plan that would include, at a minimum, “strategies to reduce homelessness in at least the following populations: youth and young adults, families, veterans, single adults, seniors, and those experiencing acute behavioral health challenges.” 

The draft plan the KCRHA released late last month later goes far beyond that mandate, proposing a series of actions that would—in combination with separate investments in permanent housing—effectively eliminate unsheltered homelessness in King County within five years, mostly by investing in shelter.

Overall, the plan proposes spending between $1.7 billion and $3.4 billion a year to add 18,000 new temporary spaces for people to live, including 7,100 new shelter or “emergency housing” beds, 3,800 medical respite beds for people with acute health-care needs, 4,600 new safe parking spaces for people living in RVs or their cars, and 2,600 beds for people who need addiction recovery support. Altogether, the proposal represents a more than fourfold increase in shelter beds and safe parking spots over just five years. Separately, the plan says the region will need to invest around $8.4 billion in one-time capital costs for permanent and “temporary housing,” a term that encompasses all kinds of shelter. 

The focus on shelter and other forms of “temporary housing,” like recovery housing for people struggling with addiction, represents a turnaround from the region’s previous strategy of de-emphasizing shelter in favor of programs like rapid rehousing, which aims to move people directly from the street into private apartments, where they receive short-term subsidies but are expected to pay full rent within a matter of months. Rapid rehousing programs still exist (and can be successful), but they are no longer touted as a panacea the way they were during the Ed Murray administration.

“The plan is really structured around ending unsheltered homelessness, not all forms of homelessness, and that is important,” KCRHA CEO Marc Dones told PubliCola earlier this month. “We built this draft plan in relationship to what would be necessary in order to significantly reduce or eliminate folks sleeping outside, acknowledging that that doesn’t address the other forms of homelessness, like couchsurfing [or people living] doubled up. Things that like are also a significant concern. But we decided that we needed to go towards one thing first, and it was ‘people shouldn’t sleep outside.'”

Implementing the new plan would cost an order of magnitude more than what the region currently spends on homelessness. One reason for that is that the KCRHA, using a model created by the state Department of Commerce, now estimates that there are far more unhoused people in King County than any previous study has concluded—around 56,000, or roughly one out of every 50 people. That number dwarfs the county’s own 2021 estimate; it’s also significantly larger than the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s estimate of 25,000 people experiencing homelessness across the entire state of Washington. 

“For every unit of permanent, affordable housing that comes online, we don’t need as much temporary stuff. If there was a big push to site and develop permanently low-income housing, we could retool [the plan] literally over the course of a week.”—KCRHA CEO Marc Dones

Here’s another data point: As part of its effort to identify and permanently house everyone experiencing homelessness in downtown Seattle, Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA has spent part of the last year creating a “by-name list” of everyone experiencing homelessness in the area, which extends from Belltown to the Chinatown-International District. So far, they’ve identified around 800 people. Even assuming that number is an undercount, it suggests that almost all the homeless people in King County live outside downtown Seattle—an area originally chosen, in part, because it has one of the highest concentrations of homelessness in the county. 

KCRHA community impact officer Owen Kajfasz, who leads the agency’s data team, said 56,000 only represents the “floor” for homelessness in King County—in other words, it could be an undercount. However, he acknowledged that the new estimate includes everyone who identified as homeless at any point during the year—including those who were only homeless for a short period, such as a week or a day, and who found places to live on their own.

The KCRHA’s Five-Year Plan includes no new spending on tiny houses, and actually assumes a reduction in the number of tiny house villages over the next five years.

Numerous studies, spanning decades, have concluded that a large number of people “self-resolve” their homelessness within a few days or weeks, although at least one recent analysis has found that number is decreasing. If the number of people who need longer-term interventions, such as case management and temporary housing, is only a fraction of the total people who are homeless in King County every year, the cost to shelter and assist those who need more help could be lower than the KCRHA’s eye-popping estimates.

“To say we need to stand up 18,000 emergency shelter beds, in absolute terms, for 53,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County doesn’t make sense,” said Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization operates low-income apartments and “tiny house village” shelters around the county. “The costs of adding spaces just for RVs and car safe parking total $139 million! This is not the correct strategy nor is this in any way financially feasible.”

Local political leaders praised KCRHA for laying out a plan to address unsheltered homelessness, but also seemed unconvinced that the proposal is politically or financially realistic.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell, for example, said that while Harrell “supports KCHRA’s dedicated focus on ending unsheltered homelessness and prioritizing immediate and long-term solutions to help get people indoors with access to services and a path to recovery,” the city already funds the majority of the KCRHA’s budget and increased its contribution slightly last year “despite a significant budget deficit.” Last year, the KCRHA asked the city for an additional $54 million to fund 400 new shelter beds and 130 safe-parking spaces; they didn’t get it.

“For budget estimates included in the five-year proposal, we look forward to better understanding how existing investments will be applied and how we can unite support from local, state, and federal governments—along with private and philanthropic sources—to realistically meet budget expectations and advance solutions that drive tangible positive impact,” Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said.

Seattle City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis said he has “faith and confidence that that (cost) number does reflect probably what the investment would be to truly end homelessness and have a flexible system where homelessness is brief, people can get rapidly rehoused, and everything else. That said, the product I would like to see is a corollary tactical, substantive plan … that we can implement in one to two years with things like pallet shelters, RV safe lots, tiny houses—things that people can see and have confidence that we can get on top of this problem.”

His fear, Lewis said, is that if Seattle doesn’t make a visible dent in unsheltered homelessness, people will lose confidence in strategies that work, like low-barrier housing for people struggling with addiction. “We did, in this biennium, make a half-billion-dollar investment in housing [through the city’s capital budget], and for a city, that is a really big contribution to the regional solution. So I think it is possible for us to build on that and continue to be a partner within the reasonable constraints of our means. But,” he added, “I do think it requires us to demonstrate visible progress with a shorter-term, tactical plan” that will build “currency” for larger investments later.

Lewis has been a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, noting that people living in encampments will often “accept” a referral to a tiny house after saying no to traditional shelter. Dones, in contrast, has argued repeatedly that tiny houses cost too much and don’t get people into housing fast enough. Notably, the Five-Year Plan proposes spending no new money on tiny houses, and actually proposes decreasing the number of tiny-house units by 55—a stark contrast to the rest of the proposal, which proposes large new investments in every other type of shelter.

According to the plan, just 1 percent of people experiencing homelessness told KCRHA researchers that they preferred tiny house villages to other forms of shelter.

However, that conclusion is based on extrapolation from 180 interviews in which researchers asked people a list of open-ended questions, such as “what things or people have been helpful to you?” These interviews were also used to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness in last year’s “point-in-time count,” and to describe the living conditions of the county’s homeless population as a whole.

Researchers never asked respondents to identify which type of shelter they preferred. Instead, they asked then to describe, in an open-ended way, “an optimal condition that would support them to move on in their housing journey,” Dones said. The things they mentioned, Kajfasz added, “were very infrequently aligned with the tiny own village model.” For example, some people said they would prefer to have their own restrooms, or running water in their unit—in other words, a hotel room.

According to the plan, just 1 percent of people experiencing homelessness told KCRHA researchers that they preferred tiny house villages to other forms of shelter. However, that conclusion is based on extrapolation from 180 interviews in which researchers asked people a list of open-ended questions, such as “what things or people have been helpful to you?”

Lee called the KCRHA’s plan, which singled out tiny houses while lumping all other forms of shelter, including hotels, into a single category, “anti-tiny house,” adding, “we question the methodology and numbers.”

For example, “How come they don’t have breakout categories for congregate shelters, noncongregate shelters, hotels, and overnight shelters?” Lee said. “We actually need all of them.” During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s implementation board, several speakers urged the committee to support funding for tiny house villages. After listening to their comments, board member and former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak said, “I agree with the speakers today who say, ‘Don’t take options off the table,’ and this [plan] takes options off the table.”

Dones said the authority put tiny houses in their own micro-category because “the community has sort of held [tiny houses] apart from other forms of shelter investment,” adding, “I recognize this is a departure, but what I heard [from the interviews] is that folks do prefer hoteling or emergency housing. … There is a point at which ‘because they told me’ is enough.”

Even if the KCRHA were able to secure funding for a sizeable portion of its five-year plan, some of its elements—like the proposal to secure and open hundreds of parking lots across the county for people living in RVs and cars—seem obviously unworkable based on the region’s recent history trying and failing to open even one such lot.

Consider, for example, the fact that the city of Seattle has been trying unsuccessfully for well over a decade to create a single safe lot for people living in their cars or RVs. So far, every attempt has been a failure. Just last year, plans for a small RV safe lot in SoDo were scaled back, then shelved, due to opposition from people living in the adjacent Chinatown/International District neighborhood—long before neighborhood opposition doomed an adjacent shelter expansion.

LIHI, which was the only applicant for a contract from KCRHA to open an RV safe lot last year, told KOMO recently that they’ll need a 30,000-to-40,000-square-foot parking lot to hold just 35 RVs. After six months of looking, they have not found a suitable lot.

Dones said the plan could change based on feedback the KCRHA receives about the draft, including the public. (The three-week public comment period closed on February 8). The level of need the plan anticipates, they added, could change dramatically if state and regional invests in housing quickly. “For every unit of permanent, affordable housing that comes online, we don’t need as much temporary stuff,” Dones said. “If there was a big push to site and develop permanently low-income housing, we could retool it literally over the course of a week or so to say ‘Now we need this much.” The question, for many of the officials who’ve staked their hopes on the new authority, may not be “how much” but “how?”